Gideon58's Reviews

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The Ox Bow Incident
A Hollywood classic that lives up to its reputation, 1942's The Ox Bow Incident is a sizzling indictment on the concept of justice and how mob mentality can mangle that concept beyond recognition. This film not only lived up to its reputation, but was a clear influence on future Hollywood classics as well.

Cowboys Gil Carter (Henry Fonda) and Art Croft (Harry Morgan) are passing through a small town when they learn that three cattle rustlers are the primary suspects in the murder of a local farmer. Carter and Croft find themselves caught up as the townspeople immediately organize a posse to capture the trio. However, the men in the posse as well as those who stay behind, are sharply divided as to whether to bring these guys back to town for a proper trial or to find them and lynch them on sight.

This 1942 Oscar nominee for Best Picture (the only nomination the film received) is anchored by Lamar Trotti's economic and sensitive screenplay, based on a novel by Walter Clark, that doesn't waste a lot of time with exposition and gets right to the matter at hand. It's squirm worthy as we watch Carter get caught up in the middle of this witch hunt, without any proof of what's going on, but still agreeing to be sworn in as a deputy and make the ride to capture the criminals. I was intrigued when the posse was asked to raise their hands to be deputized, the only man who didn't raise his hand was the local minister, but he takes the fateful ride anyway.

It's when the criminals are caught that the insanity of what is going on here begins to kick in. First of all, why would three men who have just committed murder be calmly sleeping outside in the open for everyone to see? Not to mention that there is nothing in their behavior when they realize what is happening that implies their guilt, though they seem to accept what's happening to them and plan to die with dignity, their heads held high. The story further aggravates because the evidence against these men is damning, but it is also circumstantial, but no one in the story seems to care about that. Even the men who want them brought back alive for trial don't seem interested in their guilt or innocence.

This movie reminded a lot of the 1957 classic Twelve Angry Men, which also starred Fonda, as a lone juror trying to convince the other eleven jurors that the defendant isn't guilty. There's a scene right before final action is taken where the men who want the criminals to be taken back alive for trial are asked to stand on one side of the area, away from the rest of the posse. Sadly, not even half of the posse step to the other side.

William A, William, who directed the original A Star is Born provides moody and atmospheric direction that makes this story riveting. He also gets first rate performances from Fonda and from Dana Andrews and Anthony Quinn as two of the accused killers. Anyway you slice it, required viewing for all classic film buffs.

Enemy of the State
Flashy, state of the art direction by Tony Scott anchors Enemy of the State, a crackerjack, edge-of-your-seat action thriller that provides frightening connotations to the well-worn phrase "Big Brother is watching you."

This riveting nail-biter stars Will Smith as Robert Dean, a hotshot DC labor lawyer in the middle of a high-powered case involving some very dangerous mobsters whose life is methodically destroyed and put in imminent danger when he inadvertently gets hold of incriminating evidence regarding a politically motivated murder. Just when he seems like he has nowhere to turn, he finds an ally in a disgraced former government agent (Gene Hackman).

Director Scott affords meticulous direction to David Marconi's richly complex screenplay which finds an ordinary man caught in the middle of two extremely dangerous criminal situations through an accidental association from his past and how his life completely unravels with absolutely no control over what is happening to him. The truly frightening aspect of the deconstruction of Robert Dean is that, technically, it all happens courtesy of the United States government, the government that is supposed to be protecting our civil liberties, not destroying them. Despite the overall suspense presented here, Marconi's story also provides just enough comic flourish to keep what happens routed in realism.

What's truly terrifying about this story is the alacrity with which these government people zero in on Robert and take over his life. It seems like a matter of hours that the incriminating evidence that Robert has is traced to its exact location, with the aid of almost space age technology operated by super genius technical support who know exactly what they are doing. Love the scene when they first break into Robert's house and make it appear like an amateur B&E by stealing his blender, leaving one suit in the closet and spray painting his dog. Loved the stripping of the surveillance items (including a bug in his shoe!) and the harrowing chase through that tunneled highway.

This film is so frightening because it opens our eyes to exactly how en pointe "Big Brother" is and how none of us are safe. This is made clear with the creation of this central character, who is principled and hard working, but hardly a super hero or anything special. We really fear for him when he initially thinks it's his mobster dealings that are the cause of what is happening to him, or even worse, what happens when the mob and the government begin to collide.

What really makes this film tick is the dazzling, almost futuristic storytelling style that director Scott brings to this terrific story, aided by superb production values, especially film editing, cinematography, music, and sound. Will Smith plays it relatively straight for a change and makes a convincing action hero thrust into the role, matched by Hackman's beautifully underplayed government ally. Jon Voight makes a superb villain and there are some offbeat casting choices in the supporting cast, including Jack Black, Jake Busey, Lisa Bonet, Loren Dean, Scott Caan, and Seth Green. Crackling entertainment from opening to closing credits.

Babes in Arms
Probably the most famous of the "backyard" musicals that Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland made together, 1939's Babes in Arms is hopelessly dated in a lot of ways, but is still essential viewing for fans of the stars.

The story centers around a group of vaudeville performers mourning the death of vaudeville with the advent of talkies, who decide to try and revive their careers by taking their acts on tour across the country. Their children, who have been raised in the theater and want careers in vaudeville as well, are distressed because their parents refuse to take them on tour with them. In order to prove to himself and the rest of the kids worthy of a show business career, young Mickey Moran (Mickey Rooney) decides to write a show that will also keep them from being shipped off to a farm.

Mickey plans to write the show for himself and his girlfriend, Patsy Barton (Garland) to star in, but Mickey needs financial help with sets and costumes and finds an angel in a former child star named Rosalie Essex (June Preisser), who agrees to finance the show on the condition that she plays the lead in the show instead of Patsy.

This movie is actually based on a Broadway show that premiered in 1937, but major changes were made to the story and the score, most likely to make the story suited to the stars, who were probably the hottest properties of MGM at the time. Rooney had already began his series of films playing Andy Hardy and Judy Garland was in the process of filming The Wizard of Oz, which had delays in filming that gave Garland and Rooney time to squeeze this tidy little musical into their schedule.

There are elements of the story that come off as rather silly now, but this silliness was the foundation for a lot of the show business cliches that later musicals were based on. Carol Burnett even did an elaborate spoof of this movie on her classic variety show. Despite its silliness, this movie is still watchable thanks to the boundless energy of Rooney, the vocal magic of Garland, and the undeniable chemistry they created onscreen, originating with three previous film appearances together and six more after this one.

Mickey Rooney is an endless bundle of energy here, dominating the screen in a performance of such exuberance that it actually earned him an Oscar nomination for Outstanding Lead Actor 1939. He is especially fun in a scene directing the show that allows him to do impressions of Clark Gable and Lionel Barrymore, which he would be allowed to reprise in the 1943 musical Thousands Cheer.

The other noteworthy aspect of this musical is the tuneful score by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart, with the exception of Judy and Mickey's opening number, "Good Morning", written by Arthur Freed, a song most people associate with Singing in the Rain. Other highlights include Garland's "I Cried for You" and the memorable "Where or When". The staging of the title number is somewhat laughable, featuring kids carrying torches like they're going to a lynching and I won't even talk about the big finale, which features Rooney and Garland in black face. Like I said, it's definitely dated, but Garland and Rooney are always worth watching.

The Remains of the Day
The 1993 Merchant/Ivory production The Remains of the Day is, on the surface, a sweeping and sumptuous epic of passion, politics, duty, and romance, but is really a beautifully crafted character study of a man who has sacrificed his life, his feelings, his convictions, and opinions behind the glossy veneer of his work. A beautifully crafted story that received eight Oscar nominations, including Best Picture.

James Stevens is a butler at an expansive British estate known as Darlington Manor where he is now employed by a wealthy American diplomat named Lewis. Stevens is anticipating a reunion with Miss Kentonn (Emma Thompson), the housekeeper he worked with during his tenure at the manor under the former owner, Lord Darlington, a suspected Nazi sympathizer. The story then flashes back to Britain right before the outbreak of WWII when Stevens hires Miss Kenton to be the head housekeeper, leading into a proper working relationship and an unspoken romance.

Ruth Prawer Jhabvala's Oscar-nominated screenplay is an urbane and sophisticated look at British aristocracy that perfectly conveys the British obsession with appearance and how diplomacy is important than confrontation. Every word that comes out of the mouth of every character's mouth is chosen and hardly anyone in this story, with the possible exception of Miss Kenton, says exactly what they mean or what they really want to say because it wouldn't be proper. Therefore, feelings and emotions get buried and become the crux of the dual stories at the forefront of this drama.

At the core of this story is this character James Stevens, who has devoted his life to his work and, in order to do so, must bury everything he feels or believes, or at least this is how he feels. More than once, we see Stevens' opinion on certain matters broached and he refuses to offer any opinions. The irony of this is that no matter what Stevens is asked, we can his feelings and opinion written all over his face, which is to be credited to the Oscar-nominated direction of James Ivory and the richly complex, Oscar-nominated performance from Sir Anthony Hopkins as Stevens. The other story is the non-conventional romance between Stevens and Miss Kenton, that doesn't play as a romance...the word "love" never passes between them and they never share a kiss. There is a beautifully heartbreaking scene where Miss Kenton catches Stevens reading a book and we see all his guards drop as he looks at Miss Kenton for the first time without reservation. We don't even learn Miss Kenton's first name until the final third of the film.

This multi-layered tale is enhanced by incredible production values. Especially impressive were Tony Pierce-Roberts' cinematography, John Ralpn's art direction, and Richard Robbins' moody music. Anthony Hopkins' incredible performance in the starring role is easily the finest work of his that I've seen and I'm shocked that he didn't win a second Oscar for this delicately nuanced performance, matched scene for scene by the accustomed crisp and passionate work of Emma Thompson as Miss Kenton. The supporting cast is solid, especially James Fox as Lord Darlington, Christopher Reeve as Lewis (once again proving what an underrated actor he was), Peter Vaughan as Stevens' father, and a young Hugh Grant as Darlington's slightly smarmy grandson. A sad and haunting tale that will stay with you as the credits roll.

Twenty years after winning twin Oscars for writing and directing Terms of Endearment, James L. Brooks delivered another story of family dysfunction and the flawed human condition called Spanglish, which falters due to a long-winded screenplay with minor plotting issues, but this 2004 comedy-drama is worth watching thanks to Brooks' emotionally charged direction and some superb performances.

Flor is a young Mexican single mother, who doesn't speak English, who comes to America with her young teenage daughter, who does speak English and almost immediately gets herself as a job as housekeeper to an intelligent and charming gourmet chef (Adam Sandler), his flighty and insecure wife (Tea Leoni), their two children and an outspoken mother-in-law (Cloris Leachman). Things get complicated as these two families attempt to blend into one and get a little too involved with each other's lives.

Brooks' style as a writer and director is all over this one...these are deeply flawed characters whose behavior is devoid of filter, though rich with good intentions. These people hurt each other a lot during the course of this story, but it all comes out of a loving place. Brooks also takes a real storytelling risk centering the story around a character who doesn't speak English.

And this is where my primary issue with this story begins. It struck me as odd that this family would hire this woman after a five minute interview with a translator and then they make no effort to learn some basic Spanish nor does Flor attempt to learn any English. Around the halfway point of the film Flor does take it upon herself to start learning how to speak English and about five minutes later, her speaking and comprehension of the language make it seem like she has always spoken English.

On the other hand, one interesting aspect of the Flor character before she begins to learn English is that, even when being translated, there is a whole lot of stuff she's saying that the viewer doesn't understand, but we are always privy to exactly what Flor is feeling and at least partial credit for that has to go to director Brooks. There are especially squirm-worthy moments along the way, like when the mother takes Flor's daughter out for a makeover without asking or when the drunken Dad starts getting a little too close to Flor...though they never cross the line, there are scene between the two characters that are rife with sexual tension, which, again, I have to credit to director Brooks.

It's Brooks' edgy direction that fuels this story, along with some surprisingly solid performances from some unexpected sources. Paz Vega absolutely lights up the screen in her star-making turn as Flor and Adam Sandler turns in one of the strongest performances of his career as the well-intentioned husband/father. Cloris Leachman is a complete scene-stealer as the mother-in-law, but the real surprise here was Tea Leoni, wno dominates the proceedings with her hot mess of a mother. I have never enjoyed Leoni onscreen more than I did here. Brooks' direction and the terrific performances really make this one worth checking out.

Sullivan's Travels
Another Hollywood classic that turned out to be nothing like I imagined, the 1941 Preston Sturges comedy-drama Sullivan's Travels starts out as a cynical look at inside Hollywood, not exactly foreign territory for Sturges, but turns out to be so much more, ultimately giving us a multi-layered story that has an unexpected darkness and has possibly gotten more timely with age.

A movie director named John L. Sullivan has made a very comfortable living directing fluffy comedies and lavish musicals, but wants to do something different. He wants to make a film out of a book called "O Brother Where Art Thou" that is centered around the plight of poor people, or "tramps", as they are referred to here. As much with as Sullivan wants to make this film, he knows he has no frame of reference to work from, so he decides to hit the road in shabby clothes his belongings in a kerchief on a stick, and 10 cents to find out what it's like to be poor. As he begins his journey, he meets a beautiful aspiring actress who is not only attracted to him, but to what he's doing and begs him to let her accompany him.

Sturges, the Hollywood wunderkind who was the creative force behind films like The Lady Eve and The Miracle of Morgan's Creek has constructed a story that begins almost in the form of satire, but throws the viewer as it audaciously turns to a direction that Hollywood hadn't really moved before. This is probably Hollywood's first realistic look at the plight of the homeless, a topic that grabs the viewer because it takes a bare-faced look at something that is still going on in 2020. There are jaw-dropping scenes of hundreds of homeless people camping together and waiting for a train to steam by so that they can board it and travel to another place, like an actual homeless shelter. During the final third of the film, Sullivan makes a fateful decision to try and help the tramps that takes this film to a squirm-worthy place.

We are initially amused by Sullivan's journey and are tickled when he is followed by an entourage from the studio where he works and eventually takes a break to freshen up. But when he and the actress hit the road again and end up as part of what would today be known as a homeless shelter, the final third of this film takes a dark and edgy turn we don't see coming. The story wraps up a little too quickly and conveniently, but Sturges definitely gets his point across.

This film was my first exposure to Joel McCrea, whose square-jawed sincerity was a perfect match for the role of John Sullivan. This film also introduced me to the alluring Veronica Lake, a sex on legs cinematic dynamo who was known for her hair falling over one of her eyes. I loved when she was in her tramp clothes and the hat she was wearing was draped over one eye as well. The chemistry between McCrea and Lake and the storytelling skills of Preston Sturges are what makes this movie as timely and riveting as it remains.

The Cotton Club
Francis Ford Coppola tried something a little different with a handsomely mounted epic called The Cotton Club that attempts to combine the gangster and musical genres with limited success primarily because the movie just tries to cover too much territory.

The legendary Harlem nightclub is used as the backdrop for this sprawling story that attempts to provide an overview of the war between black and white mobsters, the evolution of the famous nightclub that provided incredible entertainment from the finest black singers and dancers despite the fact that blacks weren't allowed to enter the nightclub and a fictionalized love triangle involving a real life mobster.

The primary story here is about a jazz cornet player named Dixie Dwyer (Richard Gere) who finds himself the unwilling lackey of gangster Dutch Schultz (James Remar) while fighting his attraction to Dutch's girl, Vera (Diane Lane). We also meet a pair of tap dancing brothers (Gregory and Maurice Hines) who get hired at the Cotton Club but their act breaks up when one of them falls for a light-skinned singer (Lonette McKee) who plans to advance her career by passing for white. We also meet Dixie's little brother (Nicolas Cage), whose initial hero worship of Dutch turns into a competition for his business.

Coppola really gets an "A" for effort here, but hding Lawrence Fishburnis long-winded screenplay with William Kennedy just attempts to tell too many stories at once, dividing audience focus and making it hard to stay completely invested in what's going on. If the truth be told, a story about the Cotton Club and its contributions to entertainment history would have made a great movie all by itself, but Coppola's desire to integrate his mob war story into what's going on here is what really slows this movie down. The cliched gangster dialogue that sounds like something out of old Edward G. Robinson movies isn't much help either.

The most entertaining aspect of this movie are the dazzling musical sequences, led by the late brothers Gregory and Maurice Hines, who deliver some of the most incredible tap dancing ever captured onscreen, not to mention a believable story about the act breaking up when one of the brothers decides he wants to go solo. This film would have been a lot more entertaining with a lot less Dutch Schultz and a lot more of Sandman and Clay Williams.

Gere and Lane do provide some spark as the romantic leads, but Remar's Dutch Schultz was a little overheated. The acting honors here actually go to Bob Hoskins as Cotton Club owner and part time mobster Owney Madden and Fred Gwynne as his buddy Frenchy. A lot of familiar faces pop up along the way including Laurence Fishburne, Gwen Verdon, Lisa Jane Persky, Jennifer Grey, Allen Garfield, and Coppola's young nephew, Nicolas Cage, actually impresses in his first significant film role. As expected, production values are superb with outstanding set design and costumes a definite asset. Sadly, this film never comes together as the complete film experience Coppola attempted.

The King's Speech
An eloquent melange of historical docudrama and a very special student teacher relationship, the 2010 drama The King's Speech is a lavish yet intimate look at an untold piece of history presented with such respect to history while putting such human faces on the people involved, that the film won four Academy Awards, including Best Picture.

It is 1925 England where it's revealed that King George VI aka The Duke of York, suffers from a speech impediment, a stammer that has plagued him as a child. Even though he is second in line to the throne, he has not been concerned about his problem until the first in line his brother, Edward begins his fateful romance with the very divorced Wallis Simpson, which eventually leads to him abdicating the throne. Feeling he must deal with this speech problem before the eventuality of Edward's abdication, the Duke, at the urging of his wife, Elizabeth, enlists the aid of a renowned speech therapist named Lionel Logue to help him with his stammer.

The story of Edward and Wallis Simpson is well known to historians, but this ramification of the abdication was news to this viewer. The Oscar winning screenplay by David Seidler is a sophisticated yet relatable rendering of a piece of history centered around a universal theme that filmgoers can relate too...the pain of a handicap or disability and how we shouldn't use this disability to keep us from living the life we could and deserve.

Though the film accurately establishes the history making events around it, the primary story here immediately becomes this very unusual student/teacher relationship where we are surprised to see the teacher not the least bit intimidated by who his new student is. The scene of their first meeting is absolutely brilliant as both the student and the teacher try to establish their own ground rules as to how these lessons will work. We're not surprised when the King initially refuses to let Logue be the boss, but we are surprised as to his cooperation upon his return, not to mention some of the unconventional exercises that Logue employs in helping the King, exercises we initially might not think have anything to do with speech.

An unexpected dose of humor also enters the story when Logue allows the King to discover circumstances in which he doesn't stammer, most notably when he curses and when he sings. Tom Hooper's Oscar winning direction really comes into play here as we watch the King methodically lower his guard, trust his new teacher, and begin to ponder the possibility that these classes might actually be working. I also loved that Logue is given a personal life too...the first glimpse of him we get auditioning for a production of Richard III actually turns out to be effective foreshadowing to a plot twist we don't see coming.

As the horrors of WWI begin to rear their ugly head, we symbolically puff our chests as we watch the King do what he has to do, including a heart wrenching speech to the people of England and we are thrilled when we realizes he can't do it without Logue at his side.

Hooper has spared no expense in bringing this historical and enigmatic story to the screen featuring stunning production values, headed by inventive and deliberate camerawork, effective framed by Alexandre Desplat's glorious music. Hooper has assembled a perfect cast to serve this story, headed by Colin Firth, who won the Oscar for Outstanding Lead Actor for his warmly human King George and a warm and gregarious turn from the immensely talented Geoffrey Rush as Lionel Logue. They are provided solid support from the fabulous Helena Bonham Carter as Elizabeth, Guy Pearce as Edward, Derek Jacobi as the Archbishop, and the always watchable Timothy Spall as Winston Churchill. It's respectfully British without being stuffy, anchored by lead characters we can't help but love.

Neptune's Daughter
MGM's Water Ballet Queen, Esther Williams actually stay dry for the most of the running time of 1949's Neptune's Daughter, a pleasant, if unremarkable, musical comedy of romance and mistaken identity that does provide the kind of entertainment that MGM musical fans expect.

Williams plays Eve Barrett, a swimsuit designer who travels to South America to supervise the opening of a new line there, accompanied by her man crazy kid sister, Betty (Betty Garrett) who has decided she wants to marry a South American polo player. Upon their arrival, Betty meets a geeky masseur named Jack Spratt (Red Skelton) whom she mistakes for a famous polo player named Jose O'Roarke (Ricardo Montalban). Spratt decides to go ahead and pretend to be O'Roarke and falls hard for Betty, while the real O'Roarke falls for Eve, who only agrees to date O'Roarke to keep him away from Betty. O'Roarke has no idea who Betty is and doesn't care because he's crazy about Eve.

Further complications are provided by Mike (Keenan Wynn), Eve's business partner who has been harboring a secret crush on her and by Lukie Luzette (Ted Corsia), a local gangster who has decided to rig a big upcoming polo match by kidnapping O'Roarke, but ends up with Jack Spratt instead.

Screenwriter Dorothy Kingsley has provided an entertaining story that doesn't pay too close to details and includes an unnecessary narration by Wynn's character. It's hard to believe that Garrett mistakes Skelton for a South American, particularly since he's the only South American character in the story that speaks with no accent. There's a scene where Skelton puts on a girl's bathing suit to escape being kidnapped and we're supposed to believe that no one who seems in the suit realizes it's a man. It was also a little far-fetched that when Skelton goes into the big polo match pretending to be O'Roarke, no one notices it's not O'Roarke just because he's wearing a shirt with Jose's number on it. And the most glaring oddity to me...a South American named O'Roarke?

But MGM musicals weren't known for being steeped in realism and this one is no exception. Skelton does provide laughs in a co-starring role, especially a scene where he is having trouble mounting a horse. I also can't deny the chemistry between Esther Williams and Ricardo Montalban, which almost makes the viewer forget a lot of the absurdity going on around them. Montalban is sex on legs in this movie. And though we have to wait for it, the final water ballet is spectacular.

The film features a handful of songs written by Frank Loesser, including the instant standard "Baby it's Cold Outside", which won the Oscar for Best Song of 1949. The song is cleverly performed by the four leads with Montalban chasing Williams and Garrett chasing Skelton.

The supporting cast serves the film appropriately, including an appearance by Mike Mazurki, playing another variation on the dumb thug he played in most of his films and a rare onscreen role for the man of a 1000 cartoon voices, Mel Blanc. The MGM gloss is there, including some lovely costumes by Irene for the leading ladies. There are worse ways to spend 90 minutes.

The Innocents (1961)
Atmospheric direction and brilliant performances are the primary ingredients of a 1961 thriller called The Innocents that takes its time getting to a conclusion that doesn't answer all the questions posed, but piques the viewer's curiosity early on with enough red herrings that we have to know what's going on.

Seven time Oscar nominee Deborah Kerr plays Miss Giddens, a young woman who accepts a position as a governess for two children who live on a country estate with the household staff. She was hired by the children's uncle who lives elsewhere and doesn't seem to be interested in raising his niece and nephew. Upon her arrival, Miss Giddens is witness to a series of events that, coupled with a lot of evasive answers to her questions, have her believing that these children might be possessed.

The film is based on a novel by Henry James called The Turn of the Screw that meticulously weaves a gothic tale that keeps the viewer engaged because of the way the story unfolds so slowly. Normally, a movie that takes so much time to reveal what's going on begins to lose the viewer, but it has the exact opposite effect on this story. I love the opening scene where Miss Giddens is being interviewed by the uncle ( a classy cameo by Michael Redgrave) and she's told that she will have complete autonomy in her job and that he doesn't want to hear from her at all. We already know that something's up with these children and it's going to be up to Miss Giddens to figure it out.

There are red herrings thrown in along the way that initially throw us off the scent but become important later. We learn that the boy, Miles, has been expelled from school but clams up when Miss Giddens questions him about it. Then when she suggests to the housekeeper that the uncle should be informed, she suggests that he not be bothered, we know something's going on, but we have no idea exactly what. I love when Miss Giddens sends everyone away to be alone with Miles at the beginning of the final act because ti's the first time she references the Uncle making her the final say in all decisions regarding the children.

Director Jack Clayton creates the perfect atmosphere for a horror film, even if it's not a traditional horror in the sens that we think of the genre, The film is beautifully photographed in black and white and the country estate is the perfect setting for a thriller...a large mansion with many rooms and massive grounds, plenty of places to hide secrets. Deborah Kerr is splendid, as always, as the put upon Miss Giddens and Pamela Franklin and Martin Stephens are remarkable as the children. A different kind of thriller that will rivet the viewer to the screen with little effort. Remade in 2020 with Mackenzie Davis as the governess.

The King of Staten Island
SNL's Pete Davidson makes a surprisingly edgy debut as the star and co-screenwriter of The King of Staten Island, a semi-autobiographical look at the young star that is absolutely nothing I expected from the young comic, other than a charismatic performance playing an unsympathetic character.

The 2020 film finds Davidson playing Scott Carlin, an angry 24-year old young man who lives in Staten Island with his mother and sister. Scott's father was a fireman who died in the line of duty when Scott was seven and Scott has never really dealt with his feelings about what happened, which has resulted in Scott being an unemployed bum who lays around the house smoking weed with his homies all day and dreams of being a professional tattoo artist while his mother works herself to the bone as an ER nurse. Scott's lazy and pointless existence is threatened when his mother begins a relationship with a fireman who actually used to work with Scott's father.

Director and co-screenwriter Judd Apatow have collaborated on this inside look at the Pete Davidson nobody really knows who is a lot angrier than the nutty characters Davidson has created on SNL. We know that at least part of Scott's backstory is borrowed from Davidson, whose father was a fireman who died during 9/11, but we're not sure whatever else happens in this film is based on fact. What we do know is that Apatow and Davidson have created an extremely unlikable lead character for which they offer little protection. Scott is a spoiled brat who lies at home sponging off his mother and making no effort to make a life for himself. Anyone who has seen the 2001 film Baby Boy will understand a lot of what's going on with this kid, Scott. The difference between Scott and the Jody character in Baby Boy is that Scott makes no attempt to hide or rationalize the life he's living like Jody does in Baby Boy.

The story is told in a series of vignettes, little chapters from Scott's life but we really don't know which are actually things that happened in Pete Davidson's life and which are not. What we do know for sure that this central character has some serious issues that he has not dealt with and is blaming everyone else in the world for the meaningless vacuum that he has been living in.

With proven comedic artists like Judd Apatow behind the camera and Davidson in front, I know I expected a lot more laughs going into this than I actually got, but I do know that I found myself riveted to the story and never found myself checking my watch, despite Apatow's accustomed self-indulgence that makes this film, like most his films, about 30 minutes longer than it needed to be.

Davidson's unapologetic and often explosive performance in the starring role is, at times, startling but effective, even though we never really sympathize with the character. Oscar winner Marisa Tomei is superb as is mother as is Bill Burr as the fireman she starts dating. Steve Buscemi and Dominick Lombardozzi also score as fellow firemen who knew Scott's dad. Apatow's daughter, Maude, also impresses as Scott's sister as does Bel Powley as Scott's brassy girlfriend. It ventures into real unpleasantness at times and goes on a little longer than it needs to, but Davidson proves to be a filmmaker to watch. Note: Scott is the first name of Davidson's real dad.

Swingers (1996)
Some clever writing and some charismatic performances make up for some of the dated elements of a 1996 comedy called Swingers that looks at the battle of the sexes and how sometimes friendship is more important.

Jon Favreau, who also wrote the screenplay, plays Mike, an aspiring comedian who has moved to LA after breaking up with his girlfriend, Michelle six months ago. As hard as he's tried, Mike is still smarting from the breakup, but is surrounded by a small circle of buddies who want to help him get through it. Trent is the friend who pretends to care on the surface, but is really just relishing the opportunity to have Mike be Trent's wing man; Rob is an aspiring actor who has just lost a job to play Goofy at DIsneyland who really knows where Mike's head is at, but is too obsessed with his own career; Sue (his father was a big Johnny Cash fan) understands what Mike is going through but is tired of his whining and Charles thinks the answer to Mike's problem is non-stop partying.

Favreau has put together a very clever screenplay that borrows from other stories but has equal amounts of originality to balance it out, We completely relate to his main character Mike and see that none of his friends really understand what he's going through but they all really mean well. Trent and Mike's trip to Vegas brought to mind Oscar and Felix's blind date with the Piegon sisters in The Odd Couple, but his golf game and his advice from Rob regarding Michelle felt original because we learn earlier in the film fro Trent how Mike acted at the beginning of the breakup but Rob is the only one who seemed to remember halfway through the movie.

The other thing I loved that Favreau did here was give this circle of friends their own brand of uniqueness by giving them their own language. They use certain words in certain ways that most people don't. Generally, in a story of this kind, women are usually referred to as babes or chicks, but in this movie they are referred to as "babies" and the word is used with a degree of reverence not usually associated with films like this. I also loved the very special meaning that Favreau gave to the word "money" in this movie, a meaning reserved fpr these very special friends and no one else. The film has several funny scenes, my favorite being Mike trying to leave a message on an answering machine to a girl he met in a bar.

Director Doug Liman gives the film a very voyeuristic quality with strong use of the tracking shot. There's even a scene where the principals are sitting around and discussing the classic tracking shot in Goodfellas. Favreau has rarely been so charming onscreen and receives solid support from Vince Vaughn as Trent and Ron Livingston as Rob. There is also a lovely cameo by Heather Graham near the end of the film that deserves mention. A pleasant surprise from the comic mind of Jon Favreau.

HBO presented a pretentious and overlong look at the life and career of, arguably, cinema's greatest storyteller, simply titled Spielberg. I wish the simplicity of the title had been employed in the mounting of this 2017 documentary.

The documentary opens promisingly as Spielberg talks about the film that was his greatest influence in becoming a filmmaker, Lawrence of Arabia and how it almost kept him from pursuing his dream because he felt the film set an impossibly high bar.

We get the standard overview of Spielberg's humble beginnings as a nerdy Jewish kid who was bullied at school and embarrassed about being Jewish and how this motivated his beginnings as a teenage filmmaker. It was nice to be reminded that, like a lot of great directors, Spielberg got his start in television and that his first official assignment was directing the legendary Joan Crawford in the premiere episode of an NBC anthology series called Night Gallery. I was impressed that the story did not gloss over the impact of Duel, the 90 minute movie of the week that put Spielberg on the map, which he said was inspired by the bullying he experienced in high school.

I really enjoyed the look at the rise of fellow directors coming up at the same time like Martin Scorsese, George Lucas, Francis Ford Coppola, and Brian DePalma, who become sort of a directors' boys club, keeping each other informed of what they were doing and soliciting opinions from each other about their work.

What this documentary does nail is how telling a pertinent story was at the genesis of all of Spielberg's work and where most of his stories came from. The breakup of his parents'marriage when he was a teenager was actually where the idea for films like ET: The Extra Terrestrial and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, films whose basis was a family self-destructing. His anger about his belief that his father destroyed his family had a lot to do with Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Catch Me if You Canand War of the Worlds. As expected, Schindler's List was his therapy regarding his religion, his most personal film where he used the least flashiest film techniques and winning his first Oscar for his efforts.

His stories are also an extension of his political conscience and his respect for the law. I do wish this documentary had a little less footage from Spielberg's finished work which we are all familiar with. One of my favorite scenes here was when Liam Neesom revealed how Spielberg's direction of one small scene in Schindler's List almost motivated him to walk off the film. I wish there had been more of that. I also wish we had a little more insight into Spielberg bombs like Hook and The Terminal, which were barely mentioned.

In addition to the above mentioned directors, commentary is also provided by long time Spielberg associates Frank Marshall, Kathleen Kennedy, David Geffen, Jeffrey Katzenberg, John Williams, writers like Tony Kirschner and film critic Janet Maslin. It's a wonderful overview of the director's incredible career, I just wish it had been a little more intimate and a little more economical.

Mixed Nuts
The creators of When Harry Met Sally and You've Got Mail really stepped out of their comfort zones with an off the wall slapstick comedy called Mixed Nuts that, on the surface, is silly and pointless, but I still found myself laughing for most of the running time, thanks to a unique and winning ensemble cast, many of them stepping out of their comfort zones as well.

It's Christmas Eve in a California coastal town when we meet Phillip (Steve Martin), who runs a crisis hot line with the assistance of the tightly wound Mrs. Munchnik (Madeline Kahn) and the devoted Catherine (Rita Wilson) who has been hiding a crush on the boss forever. Phillip has just learned from the landlord (Garry Shandling) that they're being evicted and while trying to keep the news from his staff, finds himself dealing with a neurotic pregnant woman (Juliette Lewis) and her ex-con artist boyfriend (Anthony LaPaglia); a ukelele-playing goofball (Adam Sandler) obsessed with Catherine; a pair of psychotic roller bladers (Jon Stewart, Parker Posey); a lonely transvestite named Chris (Liev Schreiber), and a grumpy downstairs neighbor (Robert Klein) whose dogs hate Mrs. Munchnik.

Director and co-screenwriter Nora Ephron, who received an Oscar nomination for her screenplay for When Harry Met Sally has concocted a breezy, loose form slapstick comedy centered on an unusual basic premise, aided by her sister, Delia, who wrote You've Got Mail. Even with all the nuttiness that goes on here, the Ephrons do manage to give some of the principal characters a little substance. We are reminded more than once that Phillip is great talking on the phone but not so great at dealing with people face to face but steps up when he meets Chris. The dance that Phillip and Chris end up sharing is actually one of the funniest scenes in the film.

It's not a Christmas movie in the traditional sense, but it never allows us to forget it's Christmas. There is a fruitcake that passes through about a dozen pair of hands throughout the running time and the soundtrack is populated with some terrific contemporary covers of classic Christmas songs.

The actors' complete investment in these bizarre goings-on is a big asset. Martin is relatively laid back as the moral center of the story and creates a nice chemistry with Wilson, who has rarely been so endearing onscreen. Kahn is her accustomed mistress of comic timing, but for me, the most winning performance in the film actually comes from Liev Schreiber as the emotional transvestite who keeps calling the crisis line but insists on the address so that he can be there in person. Sandler also has some funny moments that allow him to sing and I'm pretty sure all of his musical moments were unscripted. And if you don't blink, you'll also catch brief appearances by Joely Fisher, Steven Wright, and a very young Haley Joel Osment. It's no classic, but a lot funnier than I thought it was going to be.

The Art of Self Defense
The Karate Kid meets Fight Club in 2019's The Art of Self Defense, a dark and disturbing drama that is two thirds of a riveting and fascinating film that takes a truly bizarre detour during the final third, negating everything we have seen up to that point.

Jesse Eisenberg stars as Casey, a geeky accountant who is mugged and brutally beaten by three guys on motorcycles one night. Polarized to the point of being unable to leave his apartment, Casey's first instinct is to buy a gun but then opts for a karate class taught by a charismatic karate master who inspires change in Casey outside of learning how to do a karate chop; however said change and what led to it turn out to be no accident.

Director and writer Riley Stearns displays a real talent for cinematic storytelling that quietly rivets the viewer at first with a look at self-defense that is light years away from the hands on hands off methods of Mr. Miyagi in The Karate Kid. The art of karate is portrayed like a religion here, a way of life that requires unwavering dedication and can make unparalleled change in the life of the right student. We are drawn into the spell that the karate master weaves over Casey and enjoy the change that comes over Casey, even if it happens a little too quickly.

Sadly, the film begins to lose me during the final third when we learn that what happened to Casey at the beginning of the film was not a random mugging, therefore diluting the power of everything that we have seen up that point. The inspirational quality given to the karate master slowly begins to evaporate and we begin to doubt whether the changes we have seen in Casey will remain intact. They do, but not in the way we think.

Stearns does a show a little style in his storytelling. There are several red herrings near the beginning of the story that seem to go unaddressed at first, but most of them are and, surprisingly, this happens before the disappointing final third of the story. Stearns' cinematic eye is evidenced with some artsy camerawork, including a nicely selected use of slow motion and gets a solid assist from his film editor Sarah Beth Shapiro.

Jesse Eisenberg's beautifully internalized performance as Casey is in perfect tandem with the smoldering intensity of Alessandro Nivolo's mysterious sensei. Riley Stearns had a wonderful story idea that he lets get away from him, but it was never boring and I never checked my watch.

Nice movie well-written script.

Playing By Heart
Lovers of good old fashioned melodrama should be captivated by 1998's Playing By Heart a deliciously intricate rendering of multiple stories that eventually become one, that riveted this viewer to the screen due to a deft and intelligent screenplay and some superb performances by a one-of-a-kind all-star ensemble cast.

Paul (Sean Connery) is the producer of a cooking show starring his wife (Gena Rowlands) who must come clean about a long ago affair and the recent reveal that he has a brain tumor; A self-absorbed party girl (Angelina Jolie) finds herself drawn to a young guy (Ryan Phillippe) who is obviously attracted to her but keeps her at arm's length; A workaholic playwright/director (Gillian Anderson) has serious trust issues with men that have her pushing away a charming businessman (Jon Stewart); A man (Dennis Quaid) likes to go into bars and tell strange women sob stories about his life; A woman (Ellen Burstyn) must come to terms with the fact that her gay son (Jay Mohr) is dying of AIDS;and a married woman (Madeline Stowe) is having a no-strings affair with a man (Anthony Edwards), who is also married and wants more even though she doesn't.

What can I say? I LOVED this movie. Director and writer Willard Carroll, whose best known credit prior to this was an animated film called The Brave Little Toaster, has meticulously constructed a group of separate stories, any one of which could have made a movie by themselves, but we never feel like it's five separate stories and we just know that someway somehow there has to be a way these stories are going to connect. We are provided clues along the way, but they are so subtle that when the stories do begin to connect, it's such a delightful surprise that we look back at the stories separately and think "I should have seen that coming."

Carroll's screenplay is the glue that really holds this lovely story together. He has populated the story with intelligent people who say smart and clever things without ever sounding pompous or condescending. There is almost a Woody Allen quality to the writing here...this movie did not provide a lot of out loud laughs, but it did provide consistent grins and had this reviewer fighting the occasional tear.

Carroll assembled a perfect cast to pull off this tricky story, anchored by Sean Connery and Gena Rowlands, who were absolutely magical together, creating mad chemistry playing richly flawed human beings with charm and humor. Jolie is lot of fun in a performance that perfectly compliments Ryan Phillippe's sex on legs work as the tortured Keenan. Dennis Quaid's slightly unhinged performance produced some major grins as well. Carroll has mounted his story on an impressive canvas framed perfectly by John Barry's music. Fans of films like The Way We Were and The Notebook will definitely have a head start here.

Girls! Girls! Girls!
Even hardcore Elvis fans will have a hard time getting through the 1962 debacle Girls! Girls! Girls!, another lifeless musical outing that is basically an Elvis concert with just enough story wrapped around it so that it can be legitimately referred to as a movie.

Elvis plays Ross Carpenter, a tuna boat fisherman who loses his job when his longtime boss is forced to retire because of his health and sell his business to a rival tuna fisherman named Johnson (Jeremy Slate). Ross wants to buy one of the boats that Johnson now owns and wants $10,000 for it. Ross decides the only way to afford the boat is to go to work for Johnson during the day and sing at a nightclub where his old girlfriend, Robin (Stella Stevens) is the main attraction. While trying to quell Robin's insecurities, Ross also finds himself falling for a snooty little rich girl named Laurel (Laurel Goodwin) who is willing to do anything to have Ross to herself, including emptying her bank account.

First of all, don't let the title of this film you...the two female characters I just mentioned are pretty much the only female characters in the movie. We're accustomed to seeing Elvis surrounded by wall to wall girls so it's totally ironic that Elvis spends the majority of his screen time singing with a bunch of Asian fisherman. Yes, this is another one of those Elvis movies where the screenplay tries to present Elvis as something other than a singer and then has him singing a song every seven minutes.

Of course, Elvis sings a whole gaggle of songs that take up about two thirds of the running time. The title tune is a lot of fun as are "I Don't Wanna Be Tied", "We're Comin in Loaded", :A Boy Like Me A Girl Like You" and one of Elvis' biggest hits, "Return to Sender." Stevens is actually given a couple of opportunities to sing as well(though her singing is dubbed by Gilda Maiken).

Production values were definitely on the cheap here...even the scenes on the water look like they were shot on a soundstage and the dubbing of Elvis' audio onto the Elvis onscreen is just plain lazy. Elvis was clearly aware of what a mess this movie was because he appears to be phoning it in and his leading Laurel Goodwin was pretty, but no actress. She would make three more movies and wotrk in television until 1978 and has not been heard from since. The only life in this film comes from the fabulous Stella Stevens, whose role is totally thankless and Slate, becoming a worthy third of the tired romantic triangle. The most devoted Elvis fans in the world will really be put to the test with this one.