4 Shots From 4 Albert Finney Films: Saturday Night Sunday Morning, Scrooge, Miller’s Crossing, Skyfall


4 Shots From 4 Films is just what it says it is, 4 shots from 4 of our favorite films. As opposed to the reviews and recaps that we usually post, 4 Shots From 4 Films lets the visuals do the talking.

Yesterday, we lost another great actor when Albert Finney passed away at the age of 82.

It seems strangely appropriate that Finney’s final film was the James Bond extravaganza, Skyfall.  While Finney himself never played the world’s greatest secret agent, he was still definitely a part of the same British invasion that made 007 a worldwide phenomena.

Albert Finney got his start appearing on the British stage and it was the stage that remained his self-confessed first love.  He started his film career by playing angry young men in gritty films like The Entertainer and Saturday Night, Sunday Morning.  However,it was his starring role as a debauched 18th century adventurer in Tom Jones that made him a star.  (Before being cast as Tom Jones, Finney came close to securing the lead role in Lawrence of Arabia.  That role, of course, was played by another young British stage actor, Peter O’Toole.)

Because his focus was mostly on the stage, Finney did not appear in as many films as some of his contemporaries.  When Finney did appear in the movies, it was often as a character actor as opposed to a traditional leading man.  He played larger-than-life characters but he did so in such a way that, regardless of how flamboyant they may have been, they still felt real.  He could play Scrooge and Hercule Poirot just as easily as he could play Tom Jones or a small town lawyer in Erin Brockovich.  Even in his old age, Finney’s acting instincts remained strong.  Just watch him in Big Fish or Before The Devil Knows Your Dead.  Just watch him in Skyfall, giving off a gruff “Welcome to Scotland” after gunning down the assassins that have come for Bond and M.

So, in honor of Albert Finney, it’s time for….

4 Shots From 4 Albert Finney Films

Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960,dir by Karel Reisz)

Scrooge (1970, dir by Ronald Neame)

Miller’s Crossing (1990, dir by the Coen Brothers)

Skyfall (2012, dir by Sam Mendes)

Albert Finney, RIP.

Lisa Reviews An Oscar Nominee: The Dresser (dir by Peter Yates)


(With the Oscars scheduled to be awarded on March 4th, I have decided to review at least one Oscar-nominated film a day.  These films could be nominees or they could be winners.  They could be from this year’s Oscars or they could be a previous year’s nominee!  We’ll see how things play out.  Today, I take a look at the 1983 best picture nominee, The Dresser!)

Taking place during World War II, The Dresser is a story of the theater.

Sir (played by Albert Finney) was once a great and famous Shakespearean actor but that was a long time ago.  Now, he is reduced to playing in regional theaters, traveling across Britain with a company made up of a motley collection of forgotten has-beens and never-weres.  He can still draw an audience, one made up of elderly theater goers who remember seeing him in London and people who are merely looking for a distraction from the war.  While bombs echo outside, Sir alternates between playing Othello and King Lear.  Backstage, Sir talks about the memoir he’s going to write and barks out orders to the members of his company.

Though Sir’s overly florid style of acting may seem old-fashioned, there’s no denying that his talent.  We don’t see much of his performance but, when we do see him, we never doubt his claim that he was once declared to the greatest King Lear to have ever appeared on the British stage.  Onstage, Sir is in complete control.  Offstage, he often struggles to remember where he is or what play he’s going to be performing.  At one point, when he’s meant to be getting ready to play Lear, he puts on his Othello makeup.

Fortunately, Sir has a dresser.  Norman (Tom Courtenay) doesn’t appear to have much of a life outside of taking care of Sir’s every whim.  Perpetually high-strung but blessed with a biting wit and an all-important bottle of Brandy that he takes a drink from whenever Sir gets too difficult to deal with, Norman is the one who holds the theatrical company together and who, most importantly, protects Sir.  When Sir can’t remember who he’s playing, Norman reminds him.  When Sir harasses a young actress, Norman is the one who hushes it up.  When Sir insults another actor (Edward Fox), Norman is the one who brokers a peace.  When it’s time for Sir to play King Lear, Norman is the one who helps Sir to transform into Shakespeare’s most tragic monarch.  Neither Sir nor the rest of the acting company seems to have much respect for Norman. The other actors consider Norman to be an ass-kisser and Sir … well, Sir doesn’t have much respect for anyone.  But for Norman, a gay man living at a time when homosexuality was illegal in Britain, Sir’s theatrical company provides him with the only safe place he’ll ever find.

The Dresser is an adaptation of a stage play.  (A few years ago, another version was produced for the BBC with Ian McKellen as Norman and Anthony Hopkins as Sir.)  It’s a good film, though I imagine that it’ll be best appreciated by people who have actually worked in theater.  Finney and Courtenay are both great and I also liked the performance of Edward Fox.  That said, it’s definitely a filmed play the feels more appropriate for PBS than for a movie screen.  As a result, it seems to be a bit of an odd pick for a Best Picture nomination.  I imagine that, much like Birdman, it benefitted from being a movie about actors and performing.

The Dresser lost Best Picture to Terms of Endearment.  It’s still worth seeing, if just for Courtenay’s final monologue.

A Christmas Film Review: Scrooge (dir by Ronald Neame)


There have been many good film versions of the Charles Dickens novella, A Christmas Carol.  Several of them could even be called classics.  Everyone from Bill Murray to James Earl Jones to Tori Spelling to Fredric March has taken a turn at playing a version of the famous miser who, after being visited by three ghosts on Christmas Eve, changes his ways and becomes the most generous man in London.  This holiday season, I watched quite a few old TV shows and I was somewhat surprised to discover just how many sitcoms have featured an episode where one of the characters has A Christmas Carol-like experience.

Though actually, I shouldn’t have been surprised.  A Christmas Carol is a universal tale and it’s one that continues to be appealing 174 years after it was originally written.  You don’t have to be rich, British, greedy, or even a man to relate to what Ebenezer Scrooge goes through.  We’ve all be haunted by the past.  We’ve all wondered what we’re missing out on in the present.  And we all fear how we’ll be remembered in the future.  In fact, I would say that A Christmas Carol is probably as close to perfect you can get.  The only problem is that Bob Cratchit’s son is named Tiny Tim and any work of fiction that features a character named Tiny has to be docked a few points.

With all that said, my favorite film version of A Christmas Carol is the 1970 musical, Scrooge.

Scrooge sticks to the original details of the story.  Ebenezer Scrooge is played by Albert Finney.  (Finney was only 34 when he made Scrooge but was made up so that he looked closer to 120.)  The men, women, and spirits in Scrooge’s life are all played by a collection of distinguished British thespians.  Edith Evans is the stately Ghost of Christmas Past.  Kenneth More is the Ghost of Christmas Present, a decadent figure who drinks wine and travels around with two frightening-looking children.  Alec Guinness is a heavily chained Jacob Marley and he plays the role with just the right combination of sarcasm and concern.  (“No one else wanted to come,” Marley says when he greets Scrooge at the entrance of Hell.)  An actor named Paddy Stone is credited as playing the silent and shrouded Ghost of Christmas Future.  Let me just say that the Ghost of Christmas Future always scares me to death whenever I watch Scrooge.  I imagine little children in the 70s were traumatized by his skeletal visage.

What sets Scrooge apart is that it has singing and dancing!  That’s right, this is a musical version of A Christmas Carol, featuring songs composed by Leslie Bricusse.  Now, the overall quality of the songs is open to debate.  There’s 11 of them and really, only three of the songs are particularly memorable.  (Those songs are: I Like Life, I Hate People, and the Oscar-nominated Thank You Very Much.)  But, honestly, who cares?  The cast performs them with so much energy and enthusiasm that it’s impossible not to get swept up in it all.

(Admittedly, Albert Finney doesn’t really sing.  He just kinda growls the lyrics.  But that’s appropriate for the character of Scrooge.)

Scrooge is an outstanding production of a timeless tale.  It came on TV at least four different times this holiday season and I watched each time.  And I’ll do the same next year!

And as Tiny Tim, who did not die, said, “A Merry Christmas to all!  God Bless us, everyone!”

A Movie A Day #343: Looker (1981, directed by Michael Crichton)


Someone is murdering models and trying to frame Larry Roberts (Albert Finney), a plastic surgeon.  Larry suspects that the actual murderer is somehow involved with the Digital Matrix research firm, a shadowy organization that is headed by James Coburn and Leigh Taylor Young.  Digital Matrix has developed a new technique where they digitally scan a model’s body and then generate a 3-D duplicate that can be used in commercials and on film.  The real-life models stand to make a fortune from the royalties, assuming that they are physically perfect and they do not end up getting murdered immediately after being scanned.  Larry’s girlfriend, Cindy (Susan Dey), is just the latest model to have been scanned and now Larry suspects that she might be targeted for death as well.

When I was growing up, Looker was one of those movies that always seemed to be on HBO.  I don’t know why this box office bomb was so popular on cable but I do remember seeing it several times.  I guarantee you that anyone who has ever came across this movie on HBO in the 80s and 90s will remember it.  They might not remember the title but they will remember that the bad guys used light guns that would cause people to briefly go into a catatonic state.  Everyone who has ever seen this movie remembers the model standing frozen in the doorway of her apartment.

As for the movie itself, the guns are cool and so is the scene where Susan Dey gets scanned but otherwise, Looker is not very good.  Michael Crichton later said that he had conflicts with Warner Bros during the editing of Looker and, as a result, there were some important scenes that did not make it into the final cut.  For instance, it is never really explained why the models are being killed.  Albert Finney was in one of his periodic career slumps when he starred as Larry and he looks uncomfortable going through the motions of being an action star.  Two years after Looker came out, Finney’s career would be reinvigorated when he received an Oscar nomination for The Dresser and three years later, he would give his career best performance in Under the Volcano.

As it typical of Michael Crichton’s work, Looker was ahead of its time in predicting the use of CGI in media but otherwise, it’s nothing special.  If you want to see a good Crichton-directed film, stick with Westworld and The Great Train Robbery.

Guilty Pleasure No. 30: Wolfen (dir. by Michael Wadleigh)


Wolfen_1981A guilty pleasure is a film that we might enjoy, but isn’t as loved by others overall. It’s the kind of film that you can watch on any given day, but to speak of it may cause raised eyebrows among your peers. Everyone has at least one film or two that they treasure in this way.

My Guilty Pleasure pick is 1981’s Wolfen, directed by Michael Wadleigh. Loosely based off the novel by Whitley Strieber, the film focuses on two homicide investigators who learn that the case they’re working may actually be caused by animal attacks. Often mistaken as a werewolf film, I really wouldn’t group Wolfen into that category. It’s supernatural in some ways, yes, but you won’t find any serious werewolf activity in it. Surprisingly enough, Wolfen was released in the theatre just a few months after Joe Dante’s The Howling. This makes me wonder how audiences took to Wolfen after seeing all of the make-up effects in Dante’s work. From an effects standpoint, Wolfen’s big claim to fame is the negative photography used to showcase the animals’ point of view. I can’t imagine it was incredibly amazing when comparing the two, but on it’s own, it’s not bad. It’s one of the few movies I’d like to see get a remake, if only to have the story match Strieber’s book better.

When a millionaire land developer and his wife are found brutally murdered in Battery Park, Detective Dewey Wilson is brought on to investigate. Albert Finney (Miller’s Crossing, The Bourne Ultimatum, Skyfall) easily carries the film as Wilson, feeling a lot like the owner of your favorite corner deli. Wilson’s detective work is subtle in the film, and Finney plays to that with a relaxed alertness. He comes across as calm, questioning, but you get the sense that if it came to blows, he’d be ready to react. I suppose most detectives are that way. When the murder is believed to be a possible terrorist attack, a Security Agency brings in a psychological expert named Rebecca Neff, played by Diane Venora (Heat, William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet). Wolfen was Venora’s first film and she’s good in this, though the screenplay is written in a way where it’s more Dewey’s tale to tell. The book did Neff’s character more justice than the movie, overall. Rounding out the casting is Gregory Hines (Running Scared, The Cotton Club – also with Venora) as a forensics expert, Edward James Olmos (Miami Vice, Battlestar Galactica) as a Native American worker who may know more than he says and Tom Noonan (Manhunter, The Last Action Hero, F/X – once again, with Diane Venora) as a Zoo Worker who’s just a little to into wolves in general. That’s just my opinion, though Noonan’s been known to play creepy very well. The performances here are all pretty good. No one is really out of place here, as far as I could tell.

If Wolfen suffers from any major problem, it’s in the writing. In adapting the novel, they had the chance to really bring the terror from the novel on screen. In the book, we’re given an understanding of what the Wolfen are – creatures older, faster and more terrifying than your typical canine. They came complete with their own way of communicating with one another, and Strieber’s novel even referenced his other story about Vampires, The Hunger. The final standoff of the book was a fight similar to From Dusk Till Dawn, with the hope that our heroes could maybe hold off what was coming. The movie decided to go a different route. Not terrible in any way, but it could have been really good if they stayed on track.

I could be off here, but I believe the film elected to try to make the story more relevant for its time by circling the murder around terrorism and using the Security Agency. The Security Agency has so little to do with the film outside of bringing Neff on the case, it’s incredible. About every 20 minutes, the film cuts back to this crew of personnel at their computers, watching footage of attacks (that have little to do with the original victim) in an attempt to piece together why this death happened. Meanwhile, Wilson walks into bar and gets the whole solution handed to him in a short story over a beer. I wonder if Wadleigh (who co-wrote the script) was trying to say that with all the technology at their disposal, all it really took to solve a crime was just regular legwork. To quote Olmos’ character “It’s the 20th Century. We got it all figured out.” That’s just my speculation on that.

From a Cinematography viewpoint, Wolfen has some impressive scenes, particularly those of the Manhattan landscape. For a city that doesn’t sleep, the streets as they’re filmed here are barren, with lots of shadows. One scene in particular has Finney and Olmos’ characters talking on top of a bridge, and I have to wonder not only how they were able to get that shot, but how the actors maintained their composure. One wrong slip and either of them could have fell. I also love seeing New York City in the early 80’s, where most of the Bronx and Brooklyn looked like warzones. Both Wolfen and Nighthawks (also released in the same year) are great examples of how bad the city really was during that time.

Wolfen was also one of James Horner’s first scores. Listening to it, you can hear elements of what you’d find in Aliens, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and his other pieces.

Overall, Wolfen is a good film if you find yourself running into it late at night and there’s nothing else to catch. I watch it on purpose, but that’s just me. We all have our tastes. If at all possible, consider reading the novel as well.

Previous Guilty Pleasures

  1. Half-Baked
  2. Save The Last Dance
  3. Every Rose Has Its Thorns
  4. The Jeremy Kyle Show
  5. Invasion USA
  6. The Golden Child
  7. Final Destination 2
  8. Paparazzi
  9. The Principal
  10. The Substitute
  11. Terror In The Family
  12. Pandorum
  13. Lambada
  14. Fear
  15. Cocktail
  16. Keep Off The Grass
  17. Girls, Girls, Girls
  18. Class
  19. Tart
  20. King Kong vs. Godzilla
  21. Hawk the Slayer
  22. Battle Beyond the Stars
  23. Meridian
  24. Walk of Shame
  25. From Justin To Kelly
  26. Project Greenlight
  27. Sex Decoy: Love Stings
  28. Swimfan
  29. On the Line

Cleaning Out The DVR #20: Tom Jones (dir by Tony Richardson)


(For those following at home, Lisa is attempting to clean out her DVR by watching and reviewing 38 films by this Friday.  Will she make it?  Keep following the site to find out!)

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Oh, how I wanted to love Tom Jones!

No!  Not that Tom Jones.

I’m talking about Tom Jones, the British film from 1963.  Based on a novel by Henry Fielding, Tom Jones was a huge box office success and it was one of the few comedies to ever win the Oscar for best picture.  Whenever you watch a documentary about the British invasion of the early 60s, chances are that you’ll see at least a clip or two from Tom Jones.  The film (or perhaps I should say the film’s box office success) is a part of 60s pop history, right up there with The Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show and Sean Connery shooting that guy in cold blood in Dr. No.

Up until last night, I had heard about Tom Jones but I had never seen it.

And I really wanted to love it.

The film takes place in 18th century England and it tells the story of young Tom Jones (Albert Finney).  It starts with a lengthy sequence that plays out like a silent film, complete with title cards.  Upright Squire Allworthy (George Devine) comes home and discovers that a baby has been left in his bed.  He assumes that the child was born to two of his servants and declares that he will raise Tom Jones to be a good and worthy man.

Two decades later, Tom Jones has grown up and now he’s being played by Albert Finney (who, it must be said, was quite a handsome man when he was young).  Because Tom is good-looking and kind-hearted, every woman in England lusts after him.  But Tom is in love with innocent Sophie Western (Susannah York).  However, Sophie is a member of the upper class and Tom is a “bastard,” at a time when that actually means something.

Indeed, Sophie’s aunt and uncle (played by Edith Evans and Hugh Griffith) demand that Sophie have nothing to do with Tom Jones.  They decide that she will marry Blifil (David Warner, young but already typecast as a villain).  Through clever lies and manipulations, Blifil convinces Squire Allworthy that Tom has turned bad and must therefore be exiled from his home.  Does Blifil want to get rid of Tom just so he can marry Sophie or is it possible that there’s more to Blifil’s scheming?

Before we get the answer to that question, we spend a while following the exiled Tom as he wanders around England and attempts to prove himself worthy of Sophie.  Along the way, Tom serves briefly in the army, gets into numerous fights, and has several affairs.  One of those affairs is with Mrs. Walters (Joyce Redman), who he briefly thinks might be his mother.  Eventually, Tom ends up as the lover to the decadent Lady Bellaston (Joan Greenwood).  Through Blifil’s scheming, he also ends up framed for attempted murder and facing the gallows…

And, as melodramatic as that may all sound, Tom Jones is definitely a comedy.  It doesn’t take itself seriously and there’s hardly a single scene that isn’t played for laughs.  Director Tony Richardson goes out of his way to make sure that you never forget that you’re watching a movie.  There are freeze frames.  There’s plenty of characters around to supply sarcastic commentary.  There’s even a few cases of fourth wall breaking.

As I watched Tom Jones, it was hard for me not to compare it to Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon.  After all, both films take place during the same period of time and both deal with a young man making his way through European society.  I would even argue that, in its way, Barry Lyndon is far more satirical than Tom Jones.  The main difference between the two films is that Barry Lyndon is all about subtext whereas everything that happens in Tom Jones happens right on the surface.

As I said, I really wanted to like Tom Jones but, seen today, the entire film seems to be trying a little bit too hard.  Tony Richardson’s direction is so manic that it gets a bit exhausting after a while.  That said, I can understand why the film was such a success when it was first released.  I’m sure in 1963 — after having to deal with decades of pompous costume dramas — viewers probably found Tom Jones to be a breath of fresh air.  Not only was it a British film released at a time when all things British were in style but it was also a film that, by the standards of 1963, dealt frankly with sex.  In short, Tom Jones is definitely a film of its time.  If it doesn’t hold up as well today, that’s because it wasn’t made for 2016.  It was made for 1963.

And obviously, if the judgment of the Academy is to be trusted, Tom Jones was the perfect film for 1963.  That said, I would have given best picture to another British film, From Russia With Love.

Shattered Politics #69: Traffic (dir by Steven Soderbergh)


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I have mixed feelings about Steven Soderbergh.  On the one hand, his talent cannot be denied and you have to respect the fact that he’s willing to take chances and make films like The Girlfriend Experience and The Informant.  On the other hand, he’s also the director who has been responsible for overrated messes like Contagion and utter pretentious disasters like Haywire.  And it doesn’t help that Soderbergh’s fanbase seems to be largely made up of the type of hipsters who end up leaving comments under the articles at The A.V. Club.  Some people mourned Soderbergh’s retirement.  Personally, I think he made the right decision.  He retired before his misfires ended up outnumbering all of his masterpieces.

The thing about Soderbergh is that his good films are so good that it makes it all the more frustrating to watch his failures.  If Soderbergh was just your typical bad director than a film like Contagion wouldn’t be as annoying.  But this is the man who also gave us Traffic!

And Traffic is a very good film.

First released in 2000, Traffic attempted to deal with the American war on drugs, a war that the film suggests might not even be worth fighting.  (Full disclosure: I support the legalization of drugs and, for that matter, just about everything else.  And yes, I am biased towards films that agree with me.  So is every other film critic out there.  The difference is that I’m willing to admit it.)  Traffic won four Oscars, including Best Director and Best Supporting Actor for Benicio Del Toro.  It was also nominated for best picture but lost to Gladiator.

Traffic tells three, barely connected stories.  Each story is given its own distinct look, feel, and color scheme.  And while it takes a few minutes to get used to film’s visual scheme, it ultimately works quite well.  Though all of the film’s characters share the same general existence, they live in different worlds.  The only thing linking them together is drugs.

Judge Andrew Wakefield (Michael Douglas) is a judge on the Ohio Supreme Court who has recently been named as the new drug czar.  However, while Judge Wakefield is going around the country and talking to politicians (Harry Reid shows up playing himself and is just as creepy as always), his daughter Caroline (Erika Christensen) is dating Seth (Topher Grace) and getting addicted to cocaine and heroin.  When Caroline run away, Judge Wakefield recruits Seth and, using him as a guide, searches the ghetto for his daughter.

The Wakefield scenes are bathed in cold and somber blues.  They’re beautiful to look at but, in some ways, they’re also some of the weakest in the film.  The whole plotline of Caroline going from being an innocent honor’s student to being a prostitute who sells her body for heroin feels a lot like the notorious anti-drug film Go Ask Alice.  At the same time, it’s interesting and a little fun to see Topher Grace playing such a little jerk.  Grace gets some of the best lines in the film, especially when he attacks Wakefield’s feelings of smug superiority.

In the film’s second storyline, two DEA Agents (Don Cheadle and Luis Guzman) arrest drug trafficker Eddie Ruiz (Miguel Ferrer).  Eddie works for the Ayala syndicate and, once he’s arrested, he turns informant.  Drug lord Carlos Ayala (Steven Bauer) is arrested.  While Carlos sits on trial, his pregnant wife (Catherine Zeta-Jones) and his sleazy business associate (Dennis Quaid) struggle to hold together the business and find a way to kill Ruiz before he can testify.

This storyline is filmed in bright and vibrant colors and why not?  The Ayalas are rich and, unlike the Wakefields, they don’t feel the need to hide their material wealth.  This is actually probably my favorite storyline, largely because it’s the best acted and the most entertaining.  Miguel Ferrer, in particular, steals every scene that he’s in.  The scene where he explains the economics of being a drug trafficker is fascinating to watch.

The Ayala storyline may be my favorite but the film’s most thought-provoking storyline is the third one.  Taking place in Mexico, it stars Benicio Del Toro as Javier Rodriguez, a casually corrupt police officer who gets recruited to work for General Salazar (Tomas Milian), who is heading up Mexico’s war on the cartels.  Following the orders of Salazar, Javier captures assassin Frankie Flowers (Clifton Collins, Jr.) who is then savagely tortured by Salazar until he turns informer.  Javier comes to realize that Salazar is actually working for one of Mexico’s cartels.  When he decides to inform on Salazar, he puts his own life at risk.

The Mexico storyline is also the harshest and visually, it reflects that fact.  The heat literally seems to be rising up from the desert and the streets of Tijuana.  It takes a few minutes to adjust to the look of the Mexico scenes but, once you do, they become enthralling.

And Traffic, as a film, is undeniably enthralling as well.  Soderbergh deftly juggles the multiple storylines and brings them together to create a portrait of a society that’s being destroyed by the efforts to save it.  Hopefully, if Soderbergh ever does come out of retirement, he’ll give us more films like Traffic and less films like Contagion.