Back to School #48: Scent of a Woman (dir by Martin Brest)


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Along with my current series of 80 Back to School reviews (48 down, 32 to go!), another one of my long time goals has been to watch and review every single film to ever be nominated for the best picture.  So, imagine how happy I was to discover that by watching the 1992 film Scent of a Woman, I could make progress towards completing two goals at once!  Not only was Scent of A Woman nominated for best picture of the year (losing to Unforgiven) but it also features a major subplot about life and discipline at an exclusive New England prep school!  Even better, it’s been showing up on Showtime fairly regularly for the past month or so.

“Wow,” I thought as my boyfriend and I sat down to watch this movie, “could life get any easier?  Or better?”

And then we watched the film.

You know how occasionally you watch a film just because you’ve heard that it was nominated (or perhaps even won) an Oscar or because it has an oddly high rating over at the imdb or maybe because someone said, “Roger Ebert loved this film so, if you don’t watch and love it, that means that, by that standard of the current online film community, you really don’t love movies?”  And then you watch the movie and you’re just like, “What the Hell?”

Well, that was kind of my reaction to Scent of a Woman.

Look, the film’s not all bad.  It has a few good performances.  It looks great.  It’s certainly better than Gigli, the film that director Martin Brest is perhaps best remembered for.  It features a great scene where Al Pacino (playing a blind man) dances the tango with a woman that he’s just met.  (Then again, I have a notorious weakness for dance scenes…)  It’s not so much that the film is bad as much as it’s just that the movie itself is not particularly good.

Charlie Simms (Chris O’Donnell) is a scholarship student at an exclusive prep school in Massachusetts.  Much like Brendan Fraser in School Ties, 1992’s other prep school melodrama, Charlie is a poor kid attending the school on a scholarship.  While his rich friends prepare to go home for the Thanksgiving weekend, Charlie knows that there’s no way that he can afford to fly back to Oregon.  In order to raise the money so that he can at least go back home for Christmas (how poor is this kid’s family!?), Charlie gets a temporary job for the weekend.  His job?  To look after Lt. Col. Frank Slade (Al Pacino), who is blind and yells a lot.

Anyway, as you can probably guess, Frank convinces Charlie to drive him to New York and they have all of the adventures that usually happen whenever a naive teenager spends the weekend with a suicidal blind man.  Frank bellows a lot and tells about how, through his sense of smell, he can always tell when there’s a beautiful woman nearby.  Frank also yells a lot.  Did I already mention that?  Because, seriously, he yells a lot.

Charlie has other problems than just Frank.  It seems that a rather mild prank was pulled on the headmaster (James Rebhorn) of Charlie’s school.  As a result, a bucket of paint was poured down on both the headmaster and his new car!  Now, the headmaster is looking for those responsible.  He just needs two witnesses.  He’s already gotten one student to confess.  And now, he’s blackmailing Charlie with a letter of recommendation to Harvard.  All Charlie has to do is name names and his future is set…

Will Charlie name names and sacrifice his honor just to get into a college that could assure him a great life?  Or will Frank convince Charlie that honor is the only thing that matters?  And finally, will the film end with a big hearing in front of the entire school in which the headmaster attempts to badger Charlie, just to be interrupted by a sudden appearance from bellowing Frank Slade?

Will it!?

You can probably already guess and, since we have a no spoiler policy here at the Lens, I’ll just assume that you guessed right.  (Or you could just look at the picture at the top of this review…)

The prep school subplot pretty much just adds to the film’s already excessive running time.  But it is interesting to watch because the other student — the one who names names — is played by a very young Philip Seymour Hoffman.  (Or as he’s credited here, Philip S. Hoffman.)  This was one of Hoffman’s first screen roles and he gives a memorable performance as an unlikable character.  If you were to have seen Scent of a Woman in 1992, you would not have guessed that Philip Seymour Hoffman would eventually be an Oscar winner but you would know that he was a very talented character actor.

Otherwise, Scent of a Woman is a fairly forgettable movie.  If I hadn’t known ahead of time that it was nominated for best picture, I never would have been able to guess.  I’m not enough of an expert to be able to name every good 1992 film that was not nominated to make room for Scent of a Woman but I imagine that when that year’s Oscar nominations were announced, there were quite a few people left scratching their heads.

Can you figure out which one grew up to be Philip Seymour Hoffman?

Can you figure out which one grew up to be Philip Seymour Hoffman?

Review: Super 8 (dir. by J.J. Abrams)


The 1980’s was a special time in my life. It was another phase in my development in loving film. That decade saw many films starring kids and teens in coming-of-age tales both comedic, thrilling, dramatic and poignant. While there were many filmmakers who delved into this genre it was Steve Spielberg who mined it to great effect culminating in his classic boy-meets-alien film, E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial. It’s been almost 30 years since the release of that film and now comes a filmmaker who seem to have grown up idolizing and loving Spielberg films of that era. The year is now 2011 and J.J. Abrams is that filmmaker who dared to pay homage to those very same coming-of-age Spielberg films of the 80’s with his very own simply titled Super 8.

From the very moment the film begins there’s a sense of wonderment as we, the audience, meet young kids who become the central characters of Super 8. The film takes place in the early days of 1979 in the town of Lillian, Ohio as Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney) tries to cope with the death of his mother. His friends keep him busy and dwelling on this tragedy through the Super 8 film they’re making in their spare time after school. These early scenes we begin to see the dynamics of the group as Joe acts as the calming influence on the group’s filmmaker, Charles (Riley Griffiths), the neurotic actor in Martin (Gabriel Basso) and the group’s stuntman/special effects tech in Carey (Ryan Lee). They all meet up at an old train depot where they plan to shoot scenes for their Super 8 zombie film. Into this eclectic group of kids comes in Alice (Elle Fanning) to play the wife to Martin’s detective character in their film.

It’s the scenes between the kids which lifts Super 8 from just being a nostalgic film to one that’s charming and magical. These scenes captures the creativity and youthful energy kids have always had no matter the era and place. These kids don’t act like stereotypes of what Hollywood thinks kids in films should act. There’s still little of the cynical teen dialogue that films nowadays give kids to say to make them seem more mature and worldly. There’s a sense of innocence in how these kids interact with each other. Some have called these scenes as being too on-the-nose nostalgic of Spielberg films of the 80’s. What some might call nostalgic I prefer to call as timeless. I still remember myself behaving with my childhood friends the way these kids did in this film

If Super 8 had just been about these group of kids trying to finish their Super 8 zombie film I conjunction with the dysfunction in the two main leads in Joe and Alice’s home life then Abrams film would’ve been the instant classic some have dubbed it. There’s only one problem with this and that’s the last half hour of the film and the scenes leading up to that involving the train derailment and the arrival of the U.S. Air Force to clean things up. The film begins to take on a split personality as these new elements get introduce to what has been a great coming-of-age story.

It’s these new elements and the final half hour which shows Abrams trying to combine a sweet story of kids and their lives growing up in small-town with an otherworldy and conspiracy tale that seem to come out of left field. By the time the final act of Super 8 arrives it becomes a different film altogether and the transition doesn’t work as well as the filmmakers might have hoped it would. Sure, this final reel has the thrills, explosions and danger, but the tonal shift in the story became so jarring that I had wished that Abrams just made two films instead of one. One film being the coming-of-age story and the other a thrilling sci-fi film.

Despite this I still enjoyed the film and I definitely loved the first two-thirds. The performances by Joel Courtney and Elle Fanning as Joe and Alice became the focal point for the story’s emotional foundation. Elle Fanning’s performance as Alice was one of the best things about Super 8. She nails every scene where she has to show extreme ranges of emotions but at the same time not try to oversell them. There’s a scene in the middle of the film where she begins to recount a personal detail as Joe sits behind her listening. Emotions begin to overwhelm her, but as kids moving towards teenhood are wont to do she tries to hold back the tears just waiting to flow freely and the sobs wanting to escapes. I wouldn’t be surprised if this scene alone had more than a couple people in the audience remembering similar events in their lives and just sobbing along with Alice.

Super 8 has been advertised as this mysterious film that may or may not have aliens but does pay homage to Spielberg and kid films of the 80’s. Abrams’ film definitely delivers on the thrills in the end, but it could’ve been so much more if it just stayed on course with just being about the kids and their magical time together making an amateur Super 8 zombie film in 1979. That would’ve been a film that deserved labels of instant classic.

All in all, Super 8 comes across as one of the more entertaining and magical films of the summer of 2011 if not the entire year. Make sure to stick around as the end credits roll to see the fruits of the kids labor titled simply as “The Case”.

Super 8 (Super Bowl TV Spot)


I’ve always looked at all J.J. Abrams productions with some guarded optimism since so many people seem to hype his stuff. I liked his reboot of Star Trek, but was very so-so on his Mission Impossible 3. I will admit that he does have a good batting average when it comes to tv and now film. His latest film is Super 8.

This Super Bowl tv spot shows more than the teaser trailer with the train wreck and the steel door being pounded at. The film looks to be set sometime around the 1950’s if the set is to be believed. Some have reacted to info leaked about this film as Abrams’ homage on a certain family-friendly Spielberg alien film from the early 80’s.

Super 8 looks like the one film this summer that the less I know about it the better I’ll enjoy it when it finally comes out on June 10, 2011.