Category Archives: Drama Films

Shelter-2007

Shelter-2007

Director-Jonah Markowitz

Starring-Trevor Wright, Brad Rowe

Scott’s Review #758

Reviewed May 16, 2018

Grade: B+

By the mid 2000’s independent LGBT films were coming fast and furious as the genre was still relatively new and ripe for the picking with good ideas.  With Shelter (2007) we have a sweet film that focuses on new romance between two young men, one of whom is coming to terms with his own sexuality. The lead characters are not gay stereotypes and could easily pass for straight men, a characteristic impressive in LGBT film- and other mainstream films for that matter.

Rather than focusing on discrimination the characters may face or any obstacles from other characters (family and friends), the film wisely makes the story a character study and the demons one man wrestles with while “coming out”. The small film is written intelligently save for one supporting characters plot driven decision. Also, in the modern age we are beginning to see a bevy of similar themed films emerge from the LGBT community and Shelter offers nothing we have not seen before.

Set in sunny southern California, our main protagonist is Zach (Trevor Wright), an aspiring artist in his early twenties. The ultimate “good guy” he is popular with friends and girls and frequently babysits his five year old nephew Cody while his sister parties and has one night stands. When Zach meets his best friends older brother Shaun (Brad Rowe), the pair fall in love as Zach wrestles with his sexuality and conflict with his future plans. The sexual and family struggles of Zach are the main themes of the film.

Shelter (not sure I get the title’s meaning) is a solid slice of life story. Zach initially dates a pretty girl, Tori, who is blonde, wholesome, and a girl next door type. This is done intentionally to show that Tori is a girl any young straight man would have interest in. We never see Zach show interest in any other men besides Shaun so the film leans towards a solid romantic drama once the fellas get together. Still, we see Zach’s internal struggles and accepting himself for who he is played out. Actor Wright and director Jonah Markowitz, capture this successfully.

Shaun, arguably second fiddle to Zach, is a character that I feel is very well written. Avoiding negative stereotypes, Shaun is handsome, masculine, and charismatic. Completely confident and exuding great poise, he is a character that any gay male should look up to. He is openly gay yet “one of the guys” as he should be. He immediately connects with Cody becoming a father or cool surrogate uncle figure for the lad. A quick concern of Zach’s sister Jeanne’s of having the boy around a gay man is trivialized in quick form.

Another positive to the film are the multiple scenes showing Zach, Shaun, and Cody as a happy family and how normal this is. Examples of this are the frolicking around the beach playing football or horseplay. A quiet dinner of barbeque steaks and red wine  for the men and macaroni and cheese for Cody elicit images of a connected family unit despite some in society still poo pooing this idea. The film presents the connectivity as normal.

A tiny flaw in the character of Jeanne shows her willingness (almost eagerness) to leave Cody (and her ailing father) behind when she decides to take off to Oregon with her brand new boyfriend. This point seems rushed and out of character. While a party girl with a crappy job in a grocery store Jeanne did exhibit heart and written as sympathetic and caring all throughout the film. Surprising and unrealistic to me is that she would up and leave her life. A paltry excuse of “Oregon not allowing kids” was left unclear and unexplained.

Part coming of age story, part coming out story, Shelter (2007) is an example of the little film that could with an appreciation of independent cinema. The film tells a nice story of one man’s journey to self-discovery and the individuals he surrounds himself with.  With impressive California oceanfront and working class principles as a backdrop, the film has a calming texture and weaves a solid experience for viewers to enjoy.

The Social Network-2010

The Social Network-2010

Director-David Fincher

Starring-Jesse Eisenberg, Andrew Garfield, Armie Hammer

Scott’s Review #753

Reviewed May 3, 2018

Grade: A

When released in 2010 The Social Network was a timely and brazen look into the world of social media and the powers and dangers it encompassed. Any film of this nature that chooses to incorporate either a current event or a current fad runs the risk of either being forgotten soon after or becoming irrelevant as the years go by. So far, almost a decade later, The Social Network is even more of an interesting film in the age of embattled political turmoil involving the social media world- with Twitter and Facebook constantly in the headlines.

Director David Fincher (Zodiac-2007, Fight Club-1999) creates a stylistic piece masked behind the biography of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg (still relevant in 2018) and tells of his rise to fame from a Harvard student to an internet genius. Throughout all of his meteoric success, the driven young man let his personal relationships suffer as feuds and backstabbings encircled his life resulting in bitter legal entanglements. The film is flawless in every way- the screenplay, the score, the acting, the cinematography, and especially the editing all lend themselves to a memorable experience.

We first meet Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) as a teenager, recently dumped and bitter, he posts a scathing editorial on his personal blog and somehow hacks into the college site to allow all the student body to read. Along with his friend Eduardo (Andrew Garfield) and Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss  (Armie Hammer), they come up with the initial concept of Facebook. This leads to others becoming involved in the project including Napster co-founder Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake) as events spiral out of control due to deceit, jealousy, and conflicting accounts.

Fincher’s style is riveting and fast-paced with snappy edits and lightning fast scenes giving the film a crisp and sharp look. The story is told via the Harvard events interspersed with the numerous courtroom scenes as each of the principal characters are represented by legal council adding drama. In this way the point of the film is of a cynical nature and despite being a biography on Zuckerberg’s rise to fame, the overall theme is the effects that social media has had on the entire world- in this way the film elicits a message without being preachy.

Trent Reznor, from the industrial rock band Nine Inch Nails, creates an amazing musical score that adds a modern touch with both techno and electronic elements. This is not so overdone as to take away from the main theme of the film nor is it too distracting, but rather provides a moody yet intensive element that is highly effective to the overall film.

What riveting acting The Social Network provides! Young upstart Eisenberg is perfectly cast as Zuckenberg and the similarities between the two are uncanny. With his quick wit and neurotic mannerisms, intelligent yet insensitive to others, Eisenberg not only looks the part he seems to embody the character and deservedly received an Oscar nomination for the role. Garfield and Timberlake are nearly as compelling in supporting yet important roles. Finally, Hammer portrays indistinguishable twins with a smug, cutting edge perfect for the way the parts are written.

The Social Network (2010) is a tremendous film with modern technologies and a brilliant screenplay. Beyond the spectacular writing the film contains other top notch qualities that make for a memorable experience. The film holds up exceptionally well with current relevance and features a stellar cast of young actors (Eisenberg, Garfield, Hammer, and Timberlake) who all went on to become heavy hitters in the world of cinema years later.

Stand By Me-1986

Stand By Me-1986

Director-Rob Reiner

Starring-Will Wheaton, River Phoenix

Scott’s Review #752

Reviewed May 2, 2018

Grade: A

Stand By Me (1986), is a sweet, coming of age story that every male  (or female for that matter) who grew up in small town america will undoubtedly relate to. Set mostly outdoors in the remote pacific northwest, the film successfully shows the deep bonds of friendships over the course of a Labor day weekend as four youths set out on an adventure of discovery. In 1986 I was able to completely relate to the film and in present day Stand By Me holds up quite well.

Stephen King, a tremendous author known mostly for horror novels, created a short story named The Body in 1982- Stand By Me is based on this story. Instead of traditional horror however, the story is more of a straight up adventure, though in pure King style- a dead body is front and center (naturally). Stand By Me is directed by Rob Reiner, and its success led to other mainstream achievements for Reiner (1989’s When Harry Met Sally and 1990’s Misery- also a King novel). The legendary theme song by Ben E. King plays over the closing credits and became a smash hit again in 1986.

The film starts off in intriguing fashion as the main character, Gordie, as an adult, learns that his childhood friend Chris Chambers has tragically been stabbed to death. Gordie then narrates a flashback to the summer of 1959 when he and three other boys embarked on a childhood adventure one Labor day weekend. Along with Gordie (Will Wheaton), we meet Chris (River Phoenix) a rebellious boy with a troubled home life, Teddy (Corey Feldman), who is scarred as a result of being burned by his mentally ill father, and Vern (Jerry O’Connell)  an overweight kid insecure about his looks.

The wonderful aspect of Stand By Me is that each of the four central characters is flawed either physically or by some other insecurity-giving depth to each character. In this way, each character is highly empathetic to an audience member who may see him or herself in these characters. This point carries through for the entire length of the film. Through conversational scenes with one another each weakness is exposed and dissected- Teddy becomes vulnerable about his relationship with his father when a character refers to him as “loony”. Vern’s weight bothers him, and Chris aspires to be so much more than people anticipate he will ever become.

Not to be weighed down by too many dramatic elements, Stand By Me incorporates much needed humor into its story. My favorite sequence is the delightful story that Godie regales the other boys with one night as they camp outdoors.  Town legend has it that a rotund, picked on boy nicknamed “Lard-Ass” enacts the perfect revenge on the townspeople one summer as he enters a pie-eating contest resulting in a torrent of vomiting. This scene is very well shot by Reiner and brilliantly balances the differing tones of the film all the while nestled in a connecting package.

The film belongs to the young actors each of whom is cast extremely well. Of course, Corey Feldman and River Phoenix went on to major success in the 1980’s. Phoenix who tragically died in 1993, and Feldman, who suffered through numerous problems in his short career, are forever youthful with promise and poise in this film. In Phoenix’s case, he seemed most on course for leading man status with his dashing youthful looks and clean cut appearance. Watching in later years it is bittersweet to watch both actors and recollect the promise of each.

Mixing both drama and comedy but at its core a true adventure story best watched on a summer evening, Stand By Me is memorable and poignant. The setting of late summer, outdoorsy camping and green scenery is resilient and stands the test of time. Anyone who ever has embarked on a good journey as a kid or formulated everlasting memories of those from their youth (which should be all of us) can appreciate this timeless gem.

Lean on Pete-2018

Lean on Pete-2018

Director-Andrew Haigh

Starring-Charlie Plummer, Steve Buscemi

Scott’s Review #747

Reviewed April 24, 2018

Grade: B+

Lean on Pete (2018) is a heartbreaking and emotional slice of life film written and directed by British director, Andrew Haigh. The film centers on the relationship between a boy and a horse so the heart strings will receive a good tugging as the viewer is taken on a journey as the protagonist struggles through both pain and triumph. While slow moving and matter-of-fact, the film is a celebration of wonderful writing and good story chapters, perfectly nestled into the independent drama genre.

Based upon the novel of the same name- reportedly a much darker experience, actor Charlie Plummer portrays Charley Thompson, a fifteen year old boy living outside of Portland, Oregon, with his troubled father- his mother has taken off for parts unknown. As his already complicated life turns upside down after a violent attack, Charley finds himself increasingly attracted to the world of local horse racing as he becomes involved with a shady horse trainer, Del Montgomery (Steve Buscemi). There he befriends and falls in love with an aging horse named Lean on Pete, who sadly is destined for the slaughterhouse in Mexico.

The film is really about Charley’s journey and determination to survive while facing seemingly insurmountable odds and obstacles. The intriguing aspect of Lean on Pete is watching what Charley experiences and hoping against hope that he will come out unscathed and undamaged. The youngsters aspiration is to reach his estranged aunt, who he only knows to have been living in Wyoming as a waitress. How on earth will he be able to find her? If he does reach her will she welcome him with open arms as he hopes or will he suffer more defeat?

Several key aspects struck me as I watched this film- As Charley embarks on his travels to find his beloved aunt, with Lean on Pete in tow, he encounters many individuals who either aid or hinder his intentions. However, the common theme of waitresses continue to be portrayed- for starters, his aunt is referenced to be working as a waitress at a bar, when Del gives Charley some fatherly advice he implores to him that the best women have always worked as a waitress. On the road, he is treated kindly by two different waitresses- one of whom gives him free dessert, the other gives him a major break. I am not sure why Haigh chose to add this to the film, but it is a nice touch and effectively gives a warm, blue collar sensibility to the story.

Another intelligent decision Haigh makes is to keep the focus on Plummer and Charley’s facial expressions and reactions during pivotal scenes- for example, a scene where Charley is painting a house for extra money is important. As he hears a jovial father and son playing outside, Haigh shoots Charley’s reactions to this poignant scene rather than deciding to show the father and son. Hearing their pleasure is enough to elicit a look of pain on Charley’s face rather than a blatant scene of said father and son shoved down the viewers throat.

Enough praise cannot be given to young talent, Plummer, as he gives a layered performance that will surely make him a star in years to come. The actor possesses an earnest, trustworthy, sensibility which makes him a likely hero in any film he appears in down the road. Furthermore, he quietly gives Charley depth with a range of emotions including disappointment, fear, and anger at his predicament.

The supporting cast members give well-acted performances that add to the overall meat of the story. As grizzled, yet responsible Del, Buscemi sinks his teeth into a role that allows his sarcastic humor and wit to take center stage and he is perfect in the role. Chloe Sevigny, as Bonnie, a female jockey who befriends Charley, yet also gives it to him straight with lessons on life’s hard knocks, gives a fine performance.

Lean on Pete is a quiet film that elicits an emotional response from its intended audience by giving firm texture to the story and wonderful cinematography of the western United States landscape. Viewing a likable young adult in constant turmoil seems to be a difficult subject, but instead is rather beautiful and inspiring as captured by Haigh’s piece, instead of a complete downer as it might have been. The film is a tale of journey and struggle that successfully accomplishes what it sets out to achieve.

Do the Right Thing-1989

Do the Right Thing-1989

Director-Spike Lee

Starring-Danny Aiello, Spike Lee

Scott’s Review #746

Reviewed April 21, 2018

Grade: A

Do the Right Thing is one of the few great films to come out of the year 1989, not remembered as a fantastic year in cinema, when most mainstream films were as glossy as tin foil- and barren on quality substance. Here we have a small, independent gem that made people have discussions about current race relations in the United States and also became a monumental, influential film. Film maker (and star) Spike Lee carves a controversial story of racial tensions in a Brooklyn neighborhood one hot summer day.

Beginning rather light and comedic, then turning violent and dark, the action is set in a largely black neighborhood, Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, where twenty-five year old, Mookie (Spike Lee) works delivering pizzas at an Italian pizzeria owned by Sal (Danny Aiello). With a toddler at home and a nagging girlfriend Tina (Rosie Perez) always in his face, Mookie is unmotivated yet still a decent guy and loyal friend.  Sal has two sons who work at the pizza place- Pino (John Turturro), who is angry and racist and nice guy Vito, who is a friend of Mookie’s. When conflicts erupt over whether Sal’s restaurant should celebrate black celebrities as well as white on a wall in the dining room, tensions reach their breaking point as the intense heat wave makes matters much worse.

What makes Do the Right Thing a marvel are both the overall tone of the film and the atmosphere relayed by Spike Lee, who does an incredible job of writing, producing, and starring in the film. The elements having little to do with the actual story immediately impress as big, bright colors, in comic book style scream at the big screen in bold fashion, eliciting both a warm, inviting feeling and an angry, contemptuous vibe. The loud rap and hip hop beats are exceptionally instrumental at portraying a certain feeling and emotion to the film. Made independently, with little budget, the film feels raw and intense from the get go.

Brooklyn, and New York City in particular, is the perfect setting as Sal and his family are white folks living in a predominantly black neighborhood, so in turn are the minorities in the story. Additionally, the viewer sees the friendly neighborhood and feels a sense of belonging regardless of race- the humorous drunk, the kindly, grandmotherly type people watching from her stoop, and the boombox music kid all form a sense of community and togetherness. This point is tremendously important to the overall plot of the film.

The relationship between Mookie and Sal and his sons is very important and the centerpiece to the entire film, which I found quite interesting as a character study. Clearly open minded, Sal is a decent man and fine with the diversity in his neighborhood- yet still true to his Italian roots. Aiello does a fantastic job of portraying this complex, conflicted character. His two sons could not be more different from each other- Vito, who is a close friend of Mookie’s, is sympathetic and sweet- with nary a racist bone in his body. Pino, on the other hand, is angry and resentful of the black community taking over what he feels is his territory. Finally, Mookie, while lazy, is also a sympathetic character as he is conflicted once tension reach their boiling point. These diverse characters make the film so dynamic.

Revered director Spike Lee carves out a story and brings it to the big screen telling of an important topic that is as vital in modern times as it was when Do the Right Thing was released in 1989. The film is intelligent and timely without being condescending to either black or white races, nor preachy- instead telling a poignant story that is angry and sometimes painful to watch, but more importantly is empathetic and real.

No Country for Old Men-2007

No Country for Old Men-2007

Director-Ethan Coen, Joel Coen

Starring-Tommy Lee Jones, Javier Bardem, Josh Brolin

Scott’s Review #745

Reviewed April 19, 2018

Grade: A

No Country for Old Men, made in 2007,  is arguably Joel and Ethan Coen’s greatest work save for the amazing Fargo (1996). Achieving the Best Picture Academy Award and appearing on numerous Top Ten lists for its year of release, the film is clearly one of their most celebrated. Containing dark humor, offbeat characters, and fantastic storytelling, adding in some of the most gorgeous cinematography in film history, No Country for Old Men is one of the decades great films.

The time is 1980 and the setting western Texas as we follow dangerous hitman, Anton Chigurh, played wonderfully by Javier Bardem. He escapes jail by strangling a deputy and is subsequently hired to find Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin), a hunter who has accidentally stumbled onto two million dollars in a suitcase that Mexican smugglers are desperate to find. In the mix is Sheriff Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones), who is pursuing both men. Moss’s wife, Carla Jean (Kelly Macdonald) in turn becomes an important character as she is instrumental in the web of deceit the chain of events creates. The film subsequently turns into an exciting cat and mouse chase with a dramatic climax.

The crux of the story and its plethora of possibilities is what make the events so exciting to watch. As characters are in constant pursuit of each other the viewer wonders who will catch up to whom and when.  One quality that makes the film unique with an identity all its own is that the three principal characters (Moss, Bell, and Chigurh) almost never appear in the same scene adding a layer of mystery and intrigue. The hero and most well liked of all the characters is, of course, Sheriff Bell- a proponent of honesty and truth while the other two characters are less than  savory types, especially the despicable Chigurh.

My personal favorite character in the story is Chigurh as he is the most interesting and Bardem plays him to the hilt with a calm malevolence- anger just bubbling under the surface. One wonders when he will strike next or if he will spare a life- as he intimidates his prey by offering to play a game of chance- the toss of a coin to determine life or death- he is one of cinema’s most vicious villains. With his bob cut hairstyle and his sunken brown eyes, he is a force to be reckoned with by looks alone.

True to many other Ethan and Joel Coen films the supporting or even the glorified extras are perfectly cast and filled with interesting quirkiness. Examples of this are the kindly gas station owner who successfully guesses a coin toss correctly and is spared his life. My favorite is the matter of fact woman at the hotel front desk, with her permed hair, she gives as good as she gets, and her monotone voice is great. It is these smaller intricacies that truly make No Country for Old Men shine and are a staple of Coen Brother films in general.

Many similarities abound between Fargo and No Country for Old Men, not the least of which is the main protagonist being an older and wiser police chief (Marge Gunderson and Tom Bell, respectively). Add to this a series of brutal murders and the protagonist being from elsewhere and stumbling upon a small, bleak town. Of course, the extreme violence depicted in both must be mentioned as a comparable.

Having shamefully only seen this epic thriller two times, No Country for Old Men is a dynamic film, reminiscent of the best of Sam Peckinpah classics such as The Getaway or The Wild Bunch. The Coen brothers cross film genres to include thriller, western, and suspense that would rival the greatest in Hitchcock films. I cannot wait to see it again.

Milk-2008

Milk-2008

Director-Gus Van Sant

Starring-Sean Penn, Josh Brolin

Scott’s Review #744

Reviewed April 18, 2018

Grade: A

Milk is a 2008 film that successfully teaches its viewers both a valuable history lesson about the introduction of gay rights into the United States culture, as well as to the prolific leader associated with this , Harvey Milk. The film really belongs to Sean Penn, who portrays Milk, but is also a fantastic biopic and learned experience  appreciating his wonderful journey through the 1970’s- mainly in San Francisco and New York City. Moreover, Milk portrays a gay character not played for laughs as many films do, but portrayed as a hero.

Harvey Milk was the first openly gay person ever to be elected to any political office, winning a seat on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1977. The film however, opens in 1978, after a stunning announcement of Harvey Milk’s assassination along with the Mayor of the city, which was met with much heartbreak. The film then returns to 1970 as we meet Penn as Milk and follow his decade long battles and prosperity of changing the gay culture.

Having seen actual footage of Harvey Milk, Penn perfects the mannerisms and the speech patterns  of Milk giving him an immediate passionate and likable persona. The political figure had such a whimsical and innocent style all his own that Penn perfectly captures. His determination for honesty and fairness is admirable and inspiring and Milk seems like he was an innately good person.

Particularly heartbreaking is Penn’s facial reactions during his assassination scene-a scene that director Gus Van Sant brilliantly shoots as a follow-up to a joyous scene when Proposition 6 is defeated.  As troubled colleague, Dan White (Brolin), (rumored to be himself closeted and struggling with self identity), fires several shots into Harvey at City Hall, the scene is filmed in slow motion for additional dramatic effect and poignancy. The look of pain and sadness on Milk’s face will undoubtedly bring tears to even the most hard-hearted viewer.

The film shows the many close relationships which Milk formed throughout the 1970’s, including his steady lover Scott Smith, played by James Franco. The two actors share a solid chemistry together as they are both fun-loving and driven in what they hope to achieve. Sadly, Milk’s drive eventually outweighs Smith’s as they ultimately drift apart, but retain a special bond. Emile Hirsch is nearly unrecognizable as Cleve Jones, a young man who Harvey inspires and mentor throughout the pivotal decade.

A minute criticism noticed while watching Milk is that, with the exception of Penn, many of the supporting characters (Hirsch, Franco, and especially Alison Pill) seem to be “dressed up” in the 1970’s costumes, giving a forced rather than authentic feel. The costume designers seem intent on making them look so realistic that it backfires and looks more like actors made up to look like they are from the 1970’s. Penn, however, looks and acts spot on and stands out from the rest of the cast by miles.

An inspired biography of a legendary political figure, Harvey Milk, led by a fine lead actor (Penn), deserving of the Best Actor Oscar he was awarded, Milk is an astounding story of both triumph and tragedy. The film successfully portrays a time when a class of people were not treated fairly and equal rights were barely a possibility, and the uprising that occurred in large part due to one man and his followers. Milk is a wonderful testament to a time gone by and the accomplishments achieved since then- a truly inspiring and tragic message.

Carmen Jones-1954

Carmen Jones-1954

Director-Otto Preminger

Starring-Dorothy Dandridge, Harry Belafonte

Scott’s Review #736

Reviewed April 3, 2018

Grade: B+

Quite taboo at the time of release (1954) because it featured an all-black cast with not a single white cast member, Carmen Jones is to be celebrated for its contribution to film history for this groundbreaking feat alone. Directed by Otto Preminger (who  ironically is caucasian),  the film features legendary actress Dorothy Dandridge in a Marilyn Monroe style performance worthy of the stars talents. The film is a musical with inevitable tragedy at the conclusion.

The 1954 feature is based on a 1943 stage production  of the same name, which in turn is based on the music of the famous 1875 Georges Bizet production of Carmen. These facets add to the richness of the film as it is layered in good history, and the well-known tragic elements make the conclusion of unsurprising.

Brazen and beautiful, Carmen is a seductress who works in a parachute factory in North Carolina during World War II. After trading fists with a co-worker, Carmen is jailed and assigned handsome Corporal Joe (Harry Belafonte) to escort her to the authorities. While Carmen is not shy about setting her sights on the young man, his fiancee, virginal Cindy Lou, fumes with anger and schemes to keep her man. This results in a triangle, of sorts, as Carmen and Joe eventually fall madly in love, leaving poor Cindy Lou by the wayside, but their love faces hurdles.

The rather lighthearted first portion of the film, with coquettish humor mixed in, is offset by a much darker path the film then takes. As Carmen and Joe finally profess their love and share a night of passion, she leaves him in the middle of the night, unable to endure prison time. This results in Joe actually being imprisoned as the couple ultimately cannot stay away from one another despite repeated obstacles to their happiness. An additional character, a boxer named Husky, with designs on Carmen, is introduced, complicating matters.

In sad form, much like the opera Carmen, the final scene is both devastating and startling, as Joe treads down a dark and gloomy path of destruction. The character of Joe is nuanced- at first a “nice guy”, the character is an example in complexity, and what a man will do for love. The viewer is left to wonder what will become of Joe and how he could simply throw his life away performing an act in the heat of passion.

For 1954, what a profound and wonderful role for a female, let alone a black female. Typically cast in roles such as maids, waitresses, or even less glamorous parts, how wonderful for Dandridge to capture a challenging role of this caliber. As she sinks her teeth into the meaty and flirtatious Carmen, she is a vixen all the way. Her pizzazz, her flare, and her singing and dancing performances made Dandridge a star and forever known as a groundbreaking talent.

Enough cannot be said of the great importance of the casting of all black actors in Carmen Jones.  Monumental, of course given the time of the film, the result is a film of importance to the black culture, showing that no longer did they need to only appear in “white films” as supporting players, but could carry a film on their own.  How profound and remarkable this was!

My only criticism of the film is undoubtedly a result of the progress made for both black actors and the way black characters are written- though there is still plenty of more work to do. At times feeling a shade on the dated side (in present times plenty of great roles for black actors) with a slight grainy look to the filming, some of the acting from the supporting characters is also not the strongest, but nonetheless liberties must be taken as Carmen Jones is a historical film.

Thanks to the genius and the funding of Preminger, who needed to produce the film independently due to lack of interest, the results are a film that has gone down in history as being worthy, edgy, and open-minded. Wisely casting talented stars with great pipes, the film is a solid success.

A Separation-2011

A Separation-2011

Director-Asghar Farhadi

Starring-Leila Hatami, Peyman Moaadi

Scott’s Review #734

Reviewed March 21, 2018

Grade: A

A Separation is a 2011 Iranian film that was awarded the Best Foreign Language Film Academy Award statuette, the first Iranian film to achieve the honor. The film is a family drama that is wonderfully complex, and weaves typical family issues (divorce and school issues) with more complicated and cultural leanings, and keeps going and going with story nuances. A Separation is directed by the acclaimed Asghar Farhadi, who is also responsible for the brilliant screenplay- this is a top notch film.

Presumably set in Tehran, or a more progressive (by Iranian standards) city in Iran, husband and wife Nader and Simin  reside with their teenage daughter, Termeh, and Nader’s elderly father, who suffers from Alzheimer’s disease. Frustrated by her husbands refusal to leave the country for a better life, Simin files for divorce, but her wish is rejected by male judges. When she leaves her family anyway, Nader is forced to hire a pregnant caregiver, Razieh, to tend to his ailing father. After a controversial tragedy ensues, causing Razieh to suffer a miscarriage, the film shifts directions and adds an entirely new layer to the  already fascinating story.

Farhadi is very keen with his delivery of a good story- he traditionally mixes themes of culture and social class together in an interesting way as his future, 2017, work, The Salesman, would also do. Thanks to Farhadi’s innovative storytelling, more notice is taken to Iran and Iranian culture, thereby humanizing its citizen more within the craft of film. We see Iranian people just like ourselves and not the radical or dangerous individuals we are programmed to see.

With A Separation, there are no clear cut protagonists or antagonists, and viewers allegiances may shift throughout the run of the film. Do we champion Simin for desiring a better life for herself and for Termeh or scold her for refusing to live with her family? A progressive woman for sure, she is a layered character in her ambitions and her autonomy.

Nader is also a complex character- heroic for desiring the best of care for his father, he is also fraught with anger and bad temperament, which is the main reason for the second half of the film, and leads to Razieh’s predicament. Viewers will not be certain whether Nader is a good man or a villain, or perhaps a hybrid of the two. Subsequently, this is the meat of the entire story, and makes for an enthralling experience in character development.

As if the brilliant screenplay was not enough to demand a good watch, the acting across the board is wonderful. A cast including seasoned Iranian actors, Leila Hatami and Peyman Moaadi as Simin and Nader, these are my favorites, and are quite adept at carrying along the nail-biting tension in masterful form.

Shades of Alfred Hitchcock are evident throughout the film as the tension unfolds to a crescendo and the action builds and builds and builds in layers upon layers of good stuff. The quick editing and unique camera angles mirror some classic works of the famous director.

The success of A Separation is the films fast-paced, nicely edited construction, in a way that, at over two hours in length, the film speeds along rather quickly, and causes those who experience it to ponder, wonder, think, and ascertain. Asghar Farhadi has quickly become a prominent director, met with obstacles from his native country, and yet surpassing these hurdles to construct great film. I look forward to many more of his works.

The Florida Project-2017

The Florida Project-2017

Director-Sean Baker

Starring-Willem Dafoe, Brooklynn Prince

Scott’s Review #730

Reviewed February 28, 2017

Grade: A

Incorporating a realism and authenticity rarely found in mainstream films, the 2017 independent drama film, The Florida Project, offers the viewer a glimpse into the underbelly of society, largely from a child’s perspective, as we meet a group of poverty stricken folks residing in a crummy hotel outside of Disney World. Shot almost entirely on location, the film is humorous, dramatic, pathetic, and compelling and also a must-see. The balance between a child’s carefree outlook and the real life adult reality is key.

Director Sean Baker, famous for the ground-breaking and brilliant transgender themed indie from 2015, does it again with a gritty flavored location shot feast of a story involving the welfare stricken, prostitute laden Floridians holing up at a cheap motel. The plot follows six year old  Moonee, played by Brooklynn Prince, as she and her problem prone mother, Halley (Bria Vinaite), attempt to avoid trouble and the police.  They wile away the hot summer months, pandering and stealing from tourists as Halley dabbles in prostitution after failing to get a job at a nearby Waffle House.

In addition to Moonee and Halley, other prominent characters rounding out the hotel community are Bobby Hicks (Willem Dafoe), who manages the Magic Castle Motel, and is the father figure and voice of reason to the others, Ashley , Halley’s friend, Jancey and Scooty, friends of Moonee’s. The group holds a special bond since they are all barely existing on limited funds in a world laden with drugs, violence, and various unsavory characters.

With initial thoughts of an R-rated Little Rascals, the early scenes involve only the children as they create juvenile pranks including car spitting, bed jumping, and more serious mischief like setting fire to abandoned condos. To my knowledge all non-actors, the child scenes are truly brilliant and enough praise cannot go to little Brooklynn Prince the sweet, yet precocious six year old central child character. The films final scene involving this treasured little girl is both heart-wrenching and poignant, as the scene is fraught with raw emotion on the part of Prince.

Dafoe is brilliant in the role of Bobby and the actor chooses a character he does not often play. Frequently playing villains, he truly shines as the heart of gold man attempting to keep things together in a bad world. On the lookout for child predators and the police ,he watches out for the kids, as he sadly knows their lives will only get worse as they grow into teenagers and adults, sure to experience misery or tragic lives.

The most successful and riveting component of The Florida Project is the honest portrayal of the characters and the gritty, realism the viewer experiences. The fact that Baker shot the film entirely on location is immeasurable and key to the story. In a slice of life way, we are brought into this world for the duration of the film and learn the inner workings of the hotel, the streets, and the hotel parking lots. We live the lives of the characters and feel their struggles, their small triumphs, and most importantly empathize with their hopelessness- they are basically stuck, with little of hope of finding a better life.

To avoid a complete downer of a film, Baker incorporates a few humorous moments-mainly the light and fun scenes between Halley and Moonee. As they dance around in their hotel room or outside on the hotel lawn as an unexpected downpour erupts, the close bond between mother and child is apparent. The boisterous trio of kids also break up the monotonous adult tension of the other characters as they frolic and play without a care in the world. The adults versus kids outlook is apparent.

Surely one of the best films of 2017, The Florida Project instills a look at a forgotten and depressing part of the American population and provides a sobering reality of the world in modern times. With the Trump era in full swing, the release of this film is at a timely point in American history and gives a sobering look at the United States in general.

A Fantastic Woman-2017

A Fantastic Woman-2017

Director-Sebastian Lelio

Starring-Daniela Vega, Francisco Reyes

Scott’s Review #729

Reviewed February 27, 2018

Grade: A

A Fantastic Woman is a 2017 Chilean film that is groundbreaking in subject matter and has rightfully received heaps of accolades including an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film. Especially worthy of mention is the films lead actress, Daniela Vega, the first transgender woman to present an award at the Oscars and a dynamo performance in her represented film. Besides all of the cultural achievements, the film succeeds in its own right as a compelling drama.

The film gets off to a sweet and romantic start as we meet Marina (Vega), a young waitress and aspiring singer, and Orlando (Francisco Reyes), a mature, affluent man thirty years her senior. Surprising her with a lovely birthday cake, the pair are beginning to embark on a serious relationship as Marina has recently moved in with Orlando. When tragedy strikes and Orlando is rushed to the hospital after collapsing, Marina must face the harsh reality of her partners narrow minded family and suspicions from law enforcement.

What a wonderful starring vehicle for this astounding young talent that is Vega. The film shares a story that has never been told before, though the transgender genre is slowly coming into its own- think 2015’s brilliant Tangerine. With A Fantastic Woman though, the story telling is more intimate and personal and clearly from Marina’s point of view. Faced with both financial issues and losing her love, she is forced to hurdle obstacles centered around her lifestyle that she had thought had been conquered through her open life with Orlando, who loved her for who she is.

Vega expresses so much with her wide-eyed stares and introspective glazed looks. A performance that is remarkably subdued, she does not have a traditional blowup or dramatic, emotional scene. Instead, she calmly goes from scene to scene with her anger and heartbreak brimming under the surface. As she is verbally insulted and degraded by Orlando’s bitter ex-wife, Marina stands her ground and calmly accepts the verbal attack. Even when Orlando’s thuggish relatives physically assault her with tape, she is calm in her reaction. This is a testament to Vega’s talents.

Perhaps the most touching sub plot involves Marina’s struggle to retain the dog that Orlando had kindly given to her. When Orlando’s son refuses to let her keep the dog, Marina reaches her breaking point and begins to fight dirty, refusing to hand over the keys to Orlando’s flat until she gets her way. The tender affection she has for the animal is wonderful as, despite having a few people in her corner, the dog is her pride and joy and best friend.

As stellar as Vega is, and the film does clearly belong to her, credit and mention must be given to the supporting players, who are largely unknown actors to me. Though we feel no sympathy for Orlando’s ex wife or his relatives, they are competently portrayed and we do feel their anger and spite. We do not know much about the back-story, but we do know that Orlando has revealed to all his involvement with a trans woman and he is proud of Marina. Actor Reyes is a dream as Orlando and we wistfully imagine a different film centered  solely on his romance with Marina. In their short time together, the audience falls madly in love with the duo.

A Fantastic Woman succeeds as a nuanced, level headed drama with a powerful message and a timely approach. Never veering over the top or being too preachy, the film is a wonderful telling of a topical subject matter. I only hope that more stories surrounding this genre are told in the future, since it is a goldmine of uncharted story-telling with so much potential.

Fahrenheit 451-1966

Fahrenheit 451-1966

Director-Francois Truffaut

Starring-Julie Christie, Cyril Cusack

Scott’s Review #728

Reviewed February 26, 2018

Grade: B+

Based upon the famous and fantastic classic 1953 novel, Fahrenheit 451,  by Ray Bradbury, the film adaptation is futuristic and dystopian in nature. Directed by French film-maker Francois Truffaut and starring the “it” girl of the late 1960’s, Julie Christie, the film succeeds as a cool, new wave, edgy, progressive hybrid. Various elements aid in making the film seem set in the future, all with hints of the great director, Alfred Hitchcock sprinkled in the mix. Certainly the novel is superior, but Fahrenheit 451 is a worthy watch if only for Christie alone.

Christie tackles a dual role, as both Clarisse, a young schoolteacher with progressive and forbidden views, and as Linda, the vastly different spoiled wife of central character, Guy Montag, played by German actor, Oskar Werner. The trio exist in a futuristic world where a totalitarian government has banned all literature deeming it bad for society. A force called Firemen, where Guy works, has the right to search anyone at any time and burn all books as needed. Clarisse and Guy begin to question the governments motivations as Guy stashes a copy of Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield, causing danger and peril for the pair.

What I think I like most about the film is the mysterious and foreboding concept, which is a downright scary notion. What if books were suddenly non-existent and forbidden? The film does, as the novel did, provide references to luscious and brilliant literary works of art, so much so that the viewer will undoubtedly feel how this reality would be a devastating one. As with similar titles such as “1984” and “Brave New World”, the futuristic world and the “big brother is watching” theme is a key to its success.

Director, Truffaut, an ardent fan of the master Hitchcock, seamlessly incorporates elements of suspense and key “Hitchcockian” moments, most specifically with the musical score. Truffaut used Bernard Hermann, the same composer that Hitchcock used in 1966’s Torn Curtain, but more importantly, the prevalence of strings is reminiscent of classics like Psycho and Vertigo. A fight scene behind frosted glass so that only shadows can be scene is a direct homage to Hitchcock’s famous style.

To go along with the Hitchcock comparisons, an interesting film anecdote is that legendary Hitchcock superstar, Tippi Hedren, was desired in the central dual role, but since at the time she and Hitchcock were embroiled in a feud, and she was under contract to him, he would allow none of it. The mind wanders with the possibilities this would have presented. But alas, Christie is no slouch as the female star of the film.

In fact major kudos are deserved by Christie as she plays both of her characters to the hilt and is one of the best aspects of the film. Anyone having read Bradbury’s novel will understand how the character of Clarisse is expanded in the film, and one wonders if this was decided in order to showcase more of Christie? Regardless, the characters of Clarisse/Linda are completely different from each other and the actress is superb. Unfortunately, this film is not front of the pack in Christie’s most remembered films.

My main detraction of Fahrenheit 451, the film, is only that, having recently read the novel, there is no comparison whatsoever, as the novel is far superior, however the film is very good and contains some wonderful visuals and imagery. So few times can a film usurp the beauties of the written word, and how ironic given the subject matter of the destruction of books.

Fahrenheit 451 is a stylistic, artistic film with a really cool vibe and featuring a tremendous performance from one of 1960’s biggest talents. The film initially received fair to middling reviews and is now largely forgotten, but is nice to take down from the dusty old shelves of the Hollywood obscure every now and then.

Mudbound-2017

Mudbound-2017

Director-Dee Rees

Starring-Carey Mulligan, Garrett Hedlund

Scott’s Review #724

Reviewed February 12, 2018

Grade: B+

Mudbound is a 2017 Netflix period drama offering that transports the viewer to a time of racism and struggle as World War II ravaged through Europe. The piece is largely set in rural Mississippi, however, during the 1940’s as a vastly different way of life existed for most- especially black folks. The film depicts the hardships and struggles of two families living on the same land- one white and one black, and how their lives intersect with one another’s in dramatic fashion.

The film received several Oscar nominations including Adapted Screenplay, Supporting Actress, Song, and Cinematography. I will suffice it to say I support the latter two mentions in the group, but not the former. While the final act kicks the film into much needed high gear, and the filming detail of the rural southern terrain is quite apt, I kept waiting for a stunning scene involving the usually wonderful Mary J. Blige to erupt, but sadly nothing ever came. The writing, while inspired, would not get my vote in the screenplay category either, especially when other, more worthy films (think Mother!) were bypassed.

The mood of Mudbound is immediately impressive as we are introduced to the grizzled and muddy town of Marietta, Mississippi, a sort of farm wasteland, where brothers Henry and Jamie McAllan struggle to bury their recently deceased “Pappy” as the lands are ravaged by a driving storm. When Henry briefly leaves Jamie in the watery grave the pair has dug, Jamie is panic stricken that Henry will not return. In this way, director Dee Rees reveals a major clue to tension between the brothers as the film rewinds to some time earlier when times were happier for the brothers.

Mixed in with the trials and tribulations of brothers McAllan, is Henry’s wife Laura (Carey Mulligan), who shares a loveless marriage with him, while secretly lusting after Jamie. A poor black family resides and works on the McAllan farm, and must endure hardship and racism from the white residents of Marietta, especially when their son Ronsel returns from World War II, a celebrated hero. Old habits die hard as the Ku Klux Klan rears its ugly head- targeting the young soldier for daring to bed with a German woman abroad.

As most of the film meanders during the first hour or so with odd edits and pacing, I did not easily connect with many of the characters, though I wanted desperately to. There seemed to be not enough buildup to the ultimate drama. The film is shot in a way that you know you are watching something of substance, but it takes a long, long time to reach a crescendo. The aforementioned criticism of Mary J. Blige, who portrays long suffering matriarch Florence Jackson, is not of the part itself or her acting, but rather, I expected a gritty, meat and potatoes style performance from the talented lady. I disagree with her Oscar nomination, and instead would have chosen the brilliant Michelle Pfeiffer from Mother!

Praise must be written for Mulligan’s performance, shamefully overlooked, as the haggard, intellectually unfulfilled housewife, Laura. As she wistfully buries her nose in a novel to escape her dull life , or longingly looks at Jamie, disappointed with her loneliness, we feel every emotion that Mulligan plays. A consistent problem with Mudbound was there lacked a grand emotional scene from either Blige or Mulligan.

The film’s racist subject matter can be utterly difficult to watch as a major character sees their tongue removed and another character forced to make a difficult choice. This action leads to a deadly turn of events and the murder of another character, resulting in a lifetime of secrets. The final thirty minutes is the best part of Mudbound.

A must mention, and historical feat, is the nomination of Rachel Morrison in the cinematography category. She is the very first female to ever receive this honor and it is certainly about time. Morrison successfully fills Mudbound with the perfect mood- both picturesque greenery and a depressing, downtrodden aura. This is not as easy as one might imagine, but the creative talent achieves this effortlessly.

Mudbound is a film that has received lots of attention, but is not the masterpiece some are touting is as. Taking way too long to hit its stride, the film has good aspects and also some missed opportunities. Perhaps a better put together film might have  resulted in a brilliant experience instead of “only” a very good watch. I recommend Mudbound, but I expected and hoped for much more than I was given.

Phantom Thread-2017

Phantom Thread-2017

Director-Paul Thomas Anderson

Starring-Daniel Day-Lewis, Vicky Krieps, Lesley Manville

Scott’s Review #722

Reviewed January 31, 2018

Grade: A

Phantom Thread is a 2017 gem of a film that ideally will be studied in film schools and remembered for decades to come, or at the very minimum be discussed and dissected among those fortunate enough to see it currently. Set in England during the 1950’s and centering on the dress-making industry, the film mixes romance with a bizarre psychological element that leave the viewer breathless as the final act comes to a dramatic and startling conclusion.

Daniel Day-Lewis once again does brilliant work as Reynolds Woodcock, an esteemed and famous dressmaker living and working in London during the 1950’s. He creates lavish dresses for the members of high society, including the wedding gown for the famous Belgian princess. Masterful at his work, he is also controlling and demanding, requiring plenty of support and attention from his equally controlling sister, Cyril (Lesley Manville). When he meets Alma Elson, a waitress from a countryside resort, the pair fall into a relationship, as she acts as his assistant, muse, and lover. Complexities develop between Reynolds, Alma, and Cyril as the plot progresses in cerebral and nail-biting fashion.

The film itself is ravishing to look at and a feast for the eyes if only for the classic costumes alone.  Each dress that Reynolds creates is exceptional and at the height of glamour. His domineering nature only makes this realistic as perfection is his modus operandi and his dresses are evidence of this. In one particularly fantastic sequence, Reynolds begrudgingly creates a dress for the boozy Barbara Rose, a rich and mature woman, who promptly falls asleep drunk at her own wedding, soiling the garment. A livid Reynolds, along with Alma, strip Barbara of the dress, rather than see her sleep in and tarnish it.

The main draw to the film, however, is the wonderful, intricate main plot involving Reynolds, Cryil, and Alma. This weaving of personalities and their nuances must be attributed to the fabulous direction of Paul Thomas Anderson,  known for edgy, dark films such as 1997’s Boogie Nights and 1999’s Magnolia. He comes up with a masterpiece in Phantom Thread. The three principle characters are quite unlikable and viewer allegiances may change throughout the tale. Appearing to be the innocent, debutante character of the film, the character of Alma will surprise- especially in the films final act.

A successful nuance to the film is the multitude of scenes involving characters breaking bread with others as events unfold over danishes, omelettes, and crisp asparagus-in fact, sometimes the banter involves discussions and debates about the preparation of the food. This characteristic is a dream for any foodie, and the meals actually aid in the progression of the plot.  Earlier in the film, Alma is scolded by a maid for nearly picking poisonous mushrooms which later becomes a major clue and part of the films conclusion. During a  pivotal scene between Reynolds and Alma, she prepares a delicious mushroom omelette for her love as motivations, secrets, and desires come to the surface.

The grand twist that Anderson reveals at the end of the film will only leave the viewer open-mouthed and quickly reviewing the events and circumstances of the entire film.

The close-up scenes that Anderson uses are magical and each actor allowed to be very expressive- the camerawork over several breakfast scenes- Alma and Cyril gazing at each other revealing emotions that border between hatred and mutual respect, are effectively done. Manville in particular does so much with her blue eyes as she sips coffee, peering over her cup with venomous indignation at her foe. How splendid is the comparison of Cyril to the famous Hitchcock villainous Mrs. Danvers from the classic 1940 film in her cold and creepy mannerisms.

My hope is that Phantom Thread will eventually be appreciated and analyzed as a cinematic work of art. Deservedly honored with a 2017 Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actress, Best Director, and Best Costume Academy Award nomination, the film also is a lesson in great writing, bizarre angles, and important effects. Let’s wish for this film to be recognized as the great work that it is.

The Big Sick-2017

The Big Sick-2017

Director-Michael Showalter

Starring-Kumail Nanjiani, Zoe Kazan

Scott’s Review #720

Reviewed January 29, 2018

Grade: B+

The Big Sick, a 2017 independent “dramedy” film, takes what could be a standard premise and turns it upside down, instead offering a fresh perspective on a familiar tale about a prospering relationship. In this way the screenplay is the standout as the writing is intelligent and crisp. Thanks to exceptional acting by all four principle characters, The Big Sick is a success and well worth a watch.

The story follows an interracial couple, Emily and Kumail, played by Zoe Kazan and Kumail Nanjiani, who have just recently started to casually date. Kumail is a standup comic living in Chicago and meets the flirtatious Emily after a club performance one night. They share a one-night stand and mutually agree to never see one another again. As the smitten pair break their promise and form a romance, a tragedy occurs landing Emily in a coma. Kumail must handle Emily’s parents, Beth (Holly Hunter) and Terry (Ray Romano), who are angry with Kumail for misleading Emily and not telling her about his strict Muslim parents intentions of marrying him off by arranged marriage.

Apparently, the screenplay (nominated for a 2017 Oscar nomination) is loosely based on the relationship between actor/writer Nanjiani (who stars), and Emily Gordon (who co-wrote the screenplay). In this way, especially since Nanjiani stars, the film holds a measure of sincerity and authenticity, as if Nanjiani is living the role. A major plus to the film is the chemistry that Nanjiani and Zoe Kazan share during their many scenes in the start of the film. Before the drama really takes off, the audience will become fully invested in the pair as a couple.  Whether the couple flirt as Kumail drives Emily home, or as the couple fight when Emily learns about his Muslim cultures arranged marriage belief, the couple have a tremendous connection and it shows.

The story fabric takes an interesting turn about midway through the film when Emily is stricken with a debilitating illness and a medically induced coma is needed- as Kumail is forced to pretend to be her husband this opens up many moral and legal ramifications that the film chooses largely to ignore in lieu of dealing with the relationships between Kumail and Emily’s distraught parents. Hunter and Romano are wonderful in the parent roles- Hunter having the more showy of the two  parts with more meat, Romano holds his own and powerhouses a vital comedy club scene, in which he defends his wife from a callous heckler.

Admittedly, the film decides to go the “happily ever after” route, this is hardly a surprise given that Judd Apatow is the producer. Remember this is the same guy who produced such safe films as Superbad and Anchorman 2, but nonetheless, the story within The Big Sick is an enjoyable and character driven ride, if not unpredictable. A darker tinged affair might have set this film over the top as it contains many other credible film qualities.

The addition of comic talent in the supporting roles of Kumail’s comedy club buddies adds a good balance and nicely counterbalances the drama insomuch as the drama does not become too dour. Much of the film involves Emily coma-bound, so comic talent such as SNL’s Aidy Bryant and Comedy Central’s Kurt Braunohler are good adds.

I enjoyed the inclusion of the traditional Pakistani custom of arranged marriages, but at times this seems played for laughs rather than being a major obstacle to the couple. Kumail’s controlling mother parades one young Pakistani girl after another in front of her son as a way of encouraging him to select one of them. Kumail’s traditional family are played as stereotypes and the lighthearted foils of the film.

The Big Sick succeeds with crisp, witty dialogue, and a solid story that mixes with the intended comedy well. A few too many stereotypes and goofiness keeps the action light even when held against the more serious parts- great acting all around.

Beach Rats-2017

Beach Rats-2017

Director-Eliza Hittman

Starring-Harris Dickinson

Scott’s Review #719

Reviewed January 26, 2018

Grade: A-

Beach Rats is a 2017 coming of age film penned and directed by Eliza Hittman, a young female director from Brooklyn, New York, who incorporates her familiar geographical settings into only her second feature film. 2013’s It Felt Like Love was awarded two Independent Film nominations and Beach Rats has followed suit- garnering a Best Actor nomination as well as a Best Cinematography mention. The film is a very good story of conflict that its target audience will surely relate to.

The film is very low-budget, but a successful character study of a young man named Frankie, played by newcomer Harris Dickinson, wrestling with family issues while also in the midst of wrestling with his sexuality, all while hanging out with his troubled friends and dating his sometime girlfriend. Beach Rats is not a downer, but rather, an interesting glimpse into the life of a teenager and his struggle with self identity.

Mirroring It Felt Like Love, Hittman uses plenty of locales unique to Brooklyn, with the most identifiable being the watery, night time beaches of the borough, which gives the film an authentic feel. Many scenes are shot outdoors and is a strong point of the film. Similar to many independent films, Beach Rats clearly uses several “non-actors” in small roles, which also adds depth to the blue-collar, sometimes harsh, Brooklyn feel.

With only two features to her credit, Hittman is successful at having her own hand-print on her films, making them identifiable as her own. Interesting is how the director chooses a male character to write for. Similar to the female Liza in It Felt Like Love, both she and Frankie are vulnerable and coming terms with their sexual feelings and desires. The fact that Liza is straight and Frankie, at most, bisexual, is only a strength of the evidently complex writer/director.

Dickinson is perfectly cast as Frankie. Good-looking, with chiseled features and a lithe, toned body, his bright blue eyes are expressive, as the audience is empathetic to his many dilemmas. Beach Rats is much more than a traditional “gay film”, which is admirable- it is more complex than that. By 2017, the common theme of coming to terms with ones sexuality has been explored. According to Frankie, he “just has sex with men” and refuses to identify as either gay or bisexual. It is implied that because of his group of trouble-making friends, who only want to get high, he might be faced with resistance if he ever came out to them.

The supporting cast is well represented- Frankie’s mother, Donna (Kate Hodge), is faced with a tough predicament as her husband, Frankie’s father, has just died of cancer, ripping the family apart. She knows that Frankie keeps things from her- is she figuring out Frankie’s sexual secrets? Donna implies that it is okay for Frankie to tell her anything- admirable combined with her own problems. Frankie’s girlfriend, Simone, is coming into her own as Frankie is, and despite the fact that the duo share a sweet relationship, it appears doomed for failure.

The most interesting scenes that Beach Rats feature take place between Frankie and the mostly older men  he meets either virtually or in person. Though Frankie is quite nervous, Dickinson always makes the character of Frankie appear confident and well beyond his years. Being street-smart, he is never taken advantage of as is common with young men and older men. Why he mostly prefers older men is never explained, but might it have anything to do with seeking to fill the void left by his deceased father?  Or is it simply to reduce the risk of running into anyone he might know within his own age group?

Hittman is not shy about featuring nudity, yet each scene is tastefully done and never seems to be for either shock value or to elicit a gasp. Full frontal nudity is featured. as well as scenes of Frankie engaging in sexual acts with both the men and his girlfriend. Sure Dickinson has a perfect body, but his assets do not seem to be on display unnecessarily.

Independent films, more often than many “box office” films, are given much creative freedom to simply tell a good story. Thankfully, in the case of Beach Rats, the audience is lucky enough to view a quiet, introspective tale of a conflicted adolescent, and how he deals with demons and complex feelings that he is faced with. Particularly for the predominantly LGBT audience who will see the film, Beach Rats will have much to offer.

Darkest Hour-2017

Darkest Hour-2017

Director-Joe Wright

Starring-Gary Oldman, Kristin Scott Thomas

Scott’s Review #718

Reviewed January 24, 2018

Grade: A-

Darkest Hour is a British historical film that showcases an astounding portrayal of Winston Churchill that legendary actor Gary Oldman gives. Certainly known for numerous other fine acting performances in films such as the Harry Potter series, JFK, and Batman Begins, this performance easily transcends all of the others as he brings perfection to a complex role-infusing humor, drama, and many idiosyncrasies of the storied historic figure. Surely, Churchill is the best role of Oldman’s  lengthy career.

Director, Joe Wright, famous for such classy European films as Pride and Prejudice (2005), Atonement (2007), and Anna Karenina (2012), traditionally offers rich, intelligent experiences with an upper-crust, often British theme, and fills his characters with wry humor and wit. In the case of Darkest Hour, a film that absolutely belongs to Oldman by the way, his Churchill is the master of gruff sarcasm and cantankerous charm.

During the tumultuous time of 1940,  with the barbaric grips of Nazi Germany settling upon both England and France (Allies in World War II), a disheveled England is frustrated with their current Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, for being weak. Chamberlain begrudgingly appoints Winston Churchill as his successor, amid limited support. The film discusses Churchill’s early days in charge as the war and the Nazi presence loomed larger and larger- especially as the historic Dunkirk situation comes into fruition.

Darkest Hour as a film is good quality- there exists a certain historic richness and the feeling of experiencing a film that is worthy and relevant. For those of us not in existence during the 1940’s, the film will likely serve as an educational experience into the events of the day.  Certainly, hundreds of films have been made over time that have explored the events during World War II in fantastic detail, but this film is unique in that it not only provides a perspective of the Allied countries “back against the wall” situation, but the ups and downs and pressures that Churchill, the man, faced.

Despite a few quick clips of Hitler and both very old black and white footage and newspaper headlines of the crazed leader, the focus is not on the enemy country, in fact, no actor was used to play Hitler, rather, the focus is on Churchill and the decisions he made and the influences he was faced with. Pressured to appease the militant German country and reach a “peaceful” deal, Churchill instead listened to the voices of the common, everyday, British people to reach his decision to fight the Germans and not back down.

Clever, and relevant in 2017 cinema, is the films spotlight on the famous Dunkirk situation, when British forces were trapped on the shores of Dunkirk, with German planes looming overhead. Thanks in large part to Churchill and British and French civilian boats who aided in the rescue, many men were saved. The 2017 film, aptly named Dunkirk, would make a wonderful companion piece to Darkest Hour in that the subject matters mirror one another. Not surprisingly, both films received Academy award nominations for Best Picture.

A great lesson I carried away from the film is with Churchill himself. Sure, I knew that he was the Prime Minister of England during the 1940’s and was instrumental in the events of the bloody war, but I knew little about the man himself. Thanks to Wright and, of course, Oldman, the viewer will learn the good and bad characteristics of this man. A heavy drinker, commonly downing champagne with lunch and brandy the rest of the day, he was initially not well liked, nor taken very seriously by British royalty.

With Churchill’s bumbling personality, Oldman is fantastic at filling the role with humor, frustration, and just the correct amount of empathy and concern. Despite having a temper, we can tell that he has a love of country and pride for the people living there- that is why he is adamant at conquering the enemy. So we know he is a good man despite his temper tantrums. Oldman also successfully embodies the mannerisms that this historical figure contained. Kristin Scott Thomas also gives a worthy performance, albeit in a small role, as the mature and graceful wife, who can both support and match wits with her husband.

Thanks to a brilliant acting performance by Gary Oldman, who takes on a difficult role that could easily be botched by lesser talent, he makes a film that could have been dull and flat, into a worthy watch to both learn something and be amazed at a truly great acting performance. Darkest Hour is a 2017 historical drama worth seeing.

The Post-2017

The Post-2017

Director-Steven Spielberg

Starring-Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks

Scott’s Review #715

Reviewed January 15, 2018

Grade: A-

Amid the current political upheaval occurring during the year 2017 comes a fresh and quite timely film named The Post, created by esteemed director, Steven Spielberg, and starring two of today’s biggest Hollywood film stars- Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep. The film is a political, historical thriller set during the tumultuous time of 1971, as the controversial Vietnam War raged on, and tells of the bravery of a female newspaper owner (Streep), who risked everything to publish the truth, along with her team of mostly male editors and staff.

The film is an intelligent piece of writing, with a crisp script and quick editing allowing for a believable foray into a different time, when newspapers were hot and rotary telephones, telephone booths, and polyester outfits were all the rage. Spielberg is brilliant at setting just the right mood and tone to transport the audience back to 1971- on the eve of the enormous Watergate scandal. While all of the elements are in play, and the truthful story is important, the film is very good, but not quite brilliant- falling just shy of that bombastic one or two scenes that would land it over the top.

The Post begins in the jungles of Vietnam in 1965, as military analyst Daniel Ellsberg documents the progress of military activities among the soldiers during battle. On the journey home he briefs then President Lyndon Johnson that the war is hopeless and should be stopped. As history unfortunately shows, the brutal war continued on with thousands of lives lost. The film then continues on a journey of the uncovering of top secret Pentagon papers documenting the White House’s knowledge of the useless nature of the war, but each administration chose to continue with the bleeding to avoid the United States being “humiliated”.

Streep gives her best performance in years as Katharine Graham, Washington Post newspaper heiress, a woman who struggles to be taken seriously in a man’s world- especially given the time period- many men were uncomfortable taking direction from a woman. Streep infuses the perfect amount of emotion, insecurity, and charm into the role. Despite her wealth and her control, she is frequently overruled by the all male board of directors, so much so that she often doubts her confidence.

Hanks, however, underwhelms as gruff editor in chief of the Post, Ben Bradlee. Given the enormous talents of the actor, I was expecting a meatier performance, which does not materialize. I also anticipated an equal balance of Hanks and Streep, but the film clearly belongs to Streep. Perhaps because Hanks (the ultimate nice guy) portrays Bradlee as a tough, yet family man, the performance does not quite work. Also, the chemistry between Hanks and Streep is not the specialty of the film.

Evident is the correlation between 1971’s President Nixon and 2017’s President Trump- both administrations shrouded in controversy. A neat trick Spielberg creates is to only show Nixon in shadows, wildly gesturing and threatening, similar to Trump’s mannerisms- this is no accident. In fact, the entire work of The Post seems a big call-out by Spielberg, a devout liberal, to the Trump administration. This comparison of past and present makes The Post incredibly timely and topical for 2017. Clever is the intriguing ending- as the Watergate scandal begins with a security guard catching intruders at the complex, Spielberg seems to be saying “watch out Trump!”

In 2017, the current state of the media versus the White House has never held more controversy, disdain, and even hatred as the “truth” is often tough to come by or even to distinguish. “Fake news” is now a thing and twitter rants are now a daily occurrence, making the “truth” a precious commodity. For this reason alone, The Post must be a film to celebrate and model ourselves after- how timely indeed.

Wonder Wheel-2017

Wonder Wheel-2017

Director-Woody Allen

Starring-Kate Winslet, James Belushi

Scott’s Review #709

Reviewed December 31, 2017

Grade: B+

Woody Allen typically churns out a new film release each year and 2017’s project is a film called Wonder Wheel. Set in 1950’s Coney Island, a seaside beach in Brooklyn, New York, the film is an authentic looking period drama, with lovely costumes and legitimate New York accents from all principal actors. The story itself is overall quite depressing, though, as a likable character is tough to find, but Wonder Wheel contains fantastic acting, mainly on the part of star Kate Winslet, whose troubled character is the films focal point.

Winslet portrays Ginny Rannell, a struggling forty year old woman living in the seaside neighborhood and working as a waitress at a dingy Clam House. She despises her life and longs for a way out of the doldrums- yearning for the life she had years ago as an aspiring actress. Her husband, Humpty (Jim Belushi), a carousel operator, is an alcoholic. Together they raise Ginny’s son, Richie, a young boy who loves to start fires. When Humpty’s estranged daughter, Carolina (Juno Temple), shows up on their doorstep, having provided information about her mobster husband, and subsequently “marked”, Ginny’s life slowly begins to unravel as she and Carolina pursue the same man, hunky lifeguard, Mickey (Justin Timberlake).

The New York setting of the film is an enormous plus and a standard of many Woody Allen films- the authenticity is clear. The summer mood of the beach, sand, and the sunny boardwalk and beach scenes make the viewer feel like they are transported in time. The 1950’s period works as beachwear and the amusement park sets are used to their advantage. The New York accents of the actors and the language and sayings are appropriate for the times. The apartment that the Rannells rent is a great treat to the film- the set is used with a wonderful beach landscape that is featured during daytime scenes and nighttime scenes so that the change of mood can be noticed-these are all enticing elements to Wonder Wheel.

Enough cannot be said for the talents of Winslet, who makes the character of Ginny come to life. Undoubtedly a tough role for her to play, Winslet, who can make reading the phone book sound interesting, tackles the complex part and arguably gives one of the best performances of her career- my vote would still go to her portrayal of Hannah Schmitz from 2008’s The Reader. Initially a sympathetic character, she longingly desires to return to the stage and perhaps find stardom as an actress and sees Mickey as her last chance. When events curtail her dreams, her character takes a sharp turn and does an unspeakable act.

I love the acting talents of Justin Timberlake and by 2017 he has successfully proven himself a major star in the film world as well as the music world. As the hunky, charismatic, yet studious and intelligent lifeguard, Mickey, he teeters between womanizer and earnest, love-stricken, young man. Timberlake has taken on more interesting film roles beginning with 2010’s The Social Network and let’s hope there are more to come.

Juno Temple is just perfect as the naive Carolina. With an innocent, sweet, personality, all she yearns for is love and a fresh start. Temple, largely known for quirky independent film roles, fits perfectly in a Woody Allen creation. Finally, legendary actor James Belushi fills his character of Humpty with dedication, loyalty, and alcoholic rage. He adores Ginny, but sometimes takes her for granted.

What a treat for fans of The Sopranos to see a couple of familiar faces appear as (what else?) mobsters. Tony Sirico and Steve Schirripa make cameo appearances as Angelo and Nick, henchmen for the unseen husband of Carolina, who are intent on tracking down and killing her. Despite very small parts, the actors seem to have a ball reprising similar roles that made them famous.

Wonder Wheel, certainly shot in similar tone to a stage production, draws comparisons to A Streetcar Named Desire, both with four principal characters- two male and two female, Ginny, Carolina, Mickey, and Humpty, all with some similarities to and some differences with storied characters Blanche, Stella, Stanley, and Mitch. But the comparisons can easily be studied and analyzed.

Woody Allen creates a film that can be appreciated mostly for its top-notch acting talent not surprising given the actors cast, and a compelling, never boring story. The film is a downer, however, with no heroic characters to speak of. Thankfully, this is counterbalanced perfectly by a great New York setting, which is a high point of Wonder Wheel and cheers up the otherwise dour tone of the film.

Call Me By Your Name-2017

Call Me By Your Name-2017

Director-Luca Guadagnino

Starring-Timothee Chalamet, Armie Hammer

Scott’s Review #708

Reviewed December 27, 2017

Grade: A

Call Me by Your Name is a gorgeous film, simply beautiful in story-telling, cinematography, and acting. A humanistic film that crafts a lovely tale of young love, friendship, and emotions, that is simply breathtaking to experience. In fact, in the LGBT category, I would venture to proclaim that this film is groundbreaking- leaving behind any tried and true homophobic elements and instead telling a good story that is fresh, sincere, and simply flawless.

The time period is summer of 1983 and the landscape is the beautiful Italian Riviera. Seventeen year old Italian-American, Elio,  (Timothee Chalamet) dreams the summer away living with his parents in a small village.  They are affluent and his world is rich with culture and learnings- his father (Michael Stuhlbarg) a professor and his mother a translator. A brilliant student, Elio wiles away the days reading, playing music, and flirting with girlfriend  Marzia. When a handsome, twenty-four year old American student, Oliver, (Armie Hammer) arrives for a six week stay assisting Elio’s father on a project, desire and first love blossoms between the young men, as they struggle with their burgeoning relationship.

Directed by Luca Guadagnino, having also directed the lovely 2009 film, I Am Love, is a man known for stories of desire in small Italian villages. Call Me By Your Name is the third in a trilogy- I Am Love and 2015’s A Bigger Splash being the others. The setting is incredibly important to the story as both the summer heat and the world of the intellectual scholars are nestled into a grand shell of culture and the philosophical nature of the story is palpable- the film just oozes with smarts and sophistication.

By 2017, the LGBT genre has become populated with films in the romantic, drama, and comedy sub-genres, but many use the standard homophobic slant to elicit drama and conflict. Not to diminish the importance of homophobic discussions to teach viewers, Call Me By Your Name stands alone in that homophobia is not an issue in this story.  Given the time period of 1983 this may be surprising- at the very cusp of the AIDS epidemic, this topic is also not discussed- rather, the subject matter is simply a love story between two males and the coming of age story that their love expresses.

The film is quite moving and both Elio and Oliver are characters filled with texture and raw emotion. Oliver is confident, charismatic and a great catch for any lucky young lady in the village. Hammer fills the role with poise and humanity. Chalamet, a beautiful young man, gives the complex role his all as so much can be conveyed not by dialogue, but by expressions on the actors face. As Oliver slow dances with a local girl, the wounded look that Chalamet reveals, his eyes welling up with tears, is heartbreaking. Seventeen is a tough age for most young men, but when coming to terms with ones sexuality it can be excruciating. The final scene is poignant as it features at least a five minute long scene gazing into the eyes of Chalamet as many emotions are expressed in this sequence.

Enough credit cannot be given to Stuhlbarg as Elio’s father as he gives one of the best speeches ever performed in film history. What a subtle and poignant performance the actor gives as the sympathetic and knowing father. His speech of understanding and warmth is riveting and inspirational- to be cherished. Mr. Perlman is a role model to fathers everywhere and any gay sons ideal parent.

One scene that could stir controversy is the sure to be controversial “peach scene”. Involving an innocent peach used during a sex act, the scene is erotic and borders on “icky”, but is also important to foster the connection between Oliver and Elio.

Another potential risk to the film is the fact that Oliver is twenty-four and Elio is seventeen, meaning that Elio is underage. However, the film never plays Oliver as more the aggressor and the relationship remains tender and consensual.

Call Me By Your Name is not just a great LGBT film, but it is a film for the ages.  Beautifully crafted with gorgeous landscapes and nuanced, powerful acting, the sequences are subtle and carefully paced. The film is simply a treasure.

The Shape of Water-2017

The Shape of Water-2017

Director-Guillermo del Toro

Starring-Sally Hawkins, Richard Jenkins, Michael Shannon

Scott’s Review #705

Reviewed December 16, 2017

Grade: A

Director Guillermo del Toro creates a lovely Beauty and the Beast style film that is as gorgeous to look at as the story is intelligent and sweet to experience. Thanks to a talented cast led by Sally Hawkins, the film is part drama, part science fiction, even part thriller, but touching to ones heart and a lesson in true love regardless of outward appearances. The story was co-written by Vanessa Taylor giving it a needed female perspective to perfectly balance the traditional male machinations.

The setting is Baltimore, Maryland during the early 1960’s. Ongoing is the Cold War pitting the United States and the Soviet Union against each other- both mistrustful of the other side. Kindly and mute, Elisa Esposito (Hawkins) is a curious and whimsical young woman, who works as a cleaning lady at an Aerospace Research Center. When she stumbles upon a mysterious “shape” being held prisoner for experimentation purposes, she slowly communicates with and befriends the creature, eventually falling madly in love with him. The “asset” as the scientists like to call him is an amphibian/humanoid needing salt water to survive. Elisa sees an opportunity to help her love escape captivity and off she goes.

Hawkins exudes warmth and fills Elisa with courage and a determination that is astounding. Not to utter a word is a tough feat for an actor to challenge, but instead of words, Hawkins successfully provides a vast array of emotions to reveal how Elisa feels. Despite her “handicap” she is a strong woman and speaks her mind on more than one occasion using sign language to offer her frustration. Hawkins gives a fantastic and believable performance.

Cast in wonderful and important supporting roles are Richard Jenkins as Elisa’s friend and neighbor, Giles, a closeted gay man who works as a commercial artist. Jenkins fills this character with intelligence, heart, and empathy as he struggles with his own issues of alcoholism and loneliness- unable to be accepted for who he is. Octavia Spencer shines as witty and stubborn Zelda Fuller, Elisa’s best friend and co-worker. Zelda has her own domestic problems, but is forever there for her friend, and Spencer gives her character zest, humor, and energy. Finally, Michael Shannon plays the dastardly and menacing Colonel Richard Strickland, the man who found the “asset” in the rivers of South America and has a nice family. Each of these characters is written exceptionally well and each has their own story-line rather than simply supporting Hawkins character.

The audience becomes involved in the private lives of Giles, Zelda, and Strickland and we get to know and care for them- or hate them as the case may be. Giles, harboring a crush on a handsome pie-shop owner, is afraid to make his feelings known. Zelda, with a lazy husband, dutifully takes care for her man though she is as sassy as they come. And Strickland lives an all-american family life with a pretty wife and two kids, totally unaware of his shenanigans.

The film is really a gorgeous and lovely experience and by this I mean the film has a magical element. The opening and closing sequences, shot underwater, resound in beauty as objects float along in a dreamy way, the narrator (Jenkins) taking us on a journey to explain the events of the story. At its core, The Shape of Water is a romantic love story and my favorite scenes- those of Hawkins and the “asset” are to be treasured. Yes, the two do make love, which may be too much for some, but the scenes are tasteful and important to show the depth of the characters love for one another.

Cherishing is  the way that Elisa uses both music and hard-boiled eggs to communicate with the “asset”. When Elisa imagines the two characters dancing, the sequence is an enchanting experience reminiscent of Beauty and the Beast. Other underwater scenes involving Elisa and the “asset” are tender, graceful, and filled with loveliness.

A key part of the film involves a story of intrigue between the Americans and the Soviets, and while both are portrayed in a negative fashion, the Americans are arguably written as more unsympathetic than the Soviets. Thanks to Strickland- abusive and vicious, and his uncaring superior, General Holt, we do not root for the government officials at all, but rather, the ordinary folks like Elisa, Zelda, and Giles, who are outcasts. Interestingly, Dmitri (Michael Stuhlbarg), a Soviet spy who is a scientist, is the only character working at the center who wants to keep the “asset” alive and is written in a sympathetic way.

My overall assessment of The Shape of Water is that it is a film to be enjoyed on many levels and by particular varied tastes- the film will cater to those seeking an old-style romance, complete with some tasty French music. Then again, the film can be lumped into a political espionage thriller, with a cat-and-mouse chase and other nail-biting efforts. Overall, the film has heart and truth and will appeal to vast audiences seeking an excellent film.

Howards End-1992

Howards End-1992

Director-James Ivory

Starring-Anthony Hopkins, Emma Thompson, Helena Bonham Carter

Scott’s Review #702

Reviewed December 1, 2017

Grade: A-

Howards End is my favorite film in the collection of E.M. Forster adapted novels turned into films during the 1980’s and 1990’s (1985’s A Room with a View and 1987’s Maurice are the other two quality works). The novels were written during the early 1900’s and set during the same period, focusing on class relations  during 20th-century England. The film is lovely, picturesque, and carves an interesting story about romance and drama between the haves and the have-nots during this time period. The film was a success and received heaps of Academy Award nominations in 1993.

Margaret Schlegel (Emma Thompson), an upper-middle class intellectual , part of London’s bourgeoisie, befriends wealthy and sophisticated, yet shockingly conservative Ruth Wilcox (Vanessa Redgrave). The two women strike up a powerful friendship, which results in her beloved country home being left to Margaret when an ailing Mrs. Wilcox dies. To complicate matters, Margaret falls in love with businessman (and husband of Ruth), Henry (Anthony Hopkins), while Margaret’s sister Helen, briefly becomes engaged to Paul Wilcox, Henry’s son. The two families lives further intersect when they wind up as neighbors in London and the true ownership of the beloved “Howards End” is questioned. Added in the mix are several other characters of various social backgrounds, having connections to the families.

The writing in Howards End is rich and emotional as each character is perfectly fleshed out- and this includes the supporting as well as the lead characters. Thompson and Hopkins, both sensational actors, have tremendous chemistry together, and unsurprising was Thompson’s win for Best Actress during this competitive year. She carries the film seamlessly with her upper middle class ideals- not conservative rich, but far from working class- she epitomizes poise and grace and empathy for those less fortunate than she. Hopkins, on the other hand, is calculating and confident, yet charismatic and sexy as a old-school, controlling businessman. Somehow, these two characters compliment each other exceptionally well despite their varied backgrounds

The role of Helen may very well be Helena Bonham Carter’s finest. Not being an enormous fan of the actress-overrated and too brooding in my opinion-she enjoys portraying an interesting character in Helen. Lovelorn and earnest, yet somewhat oblivious, she develops a delicious romance with young clerk, Leonard Bast, my favorite character in the film. Living with Jacky, a woman of dubious origins, he is the ultimate nice guy, and sadly winds up down on his luck after heeding terrible business advice. Bast, thanks in large part to actor Samuel West, who instills an innocent, good guy quality to his character, deserves major props.

The cinematography featured in Howards End is just beautiful with extravagant outdoor scenes- the lavish gardens of Howards End- just ravishing and wonderful. Kudos too to the art direction, set design, and costume department for making the film look so enchanting. There is something so appealing about the look of this film and director, James Ivory, undoubtedly deserves praise for pulling it all together into a suave picture. Whether the scene call for sun or rain, tranquil or bustling, each and every scene looks great.

If I were to knock any points from this fine film it would be at two hours and twenty two minutes, Howards End does drag ever so slightly, and many scenes involve the characters merely having chats with each other, without much action, but this criticism is small potatoes when compared to the exceptional writing and well-nuanced character development displayed throughout the piece.

Admittedly, and perhaps shamefully, I have not read any of the Forster novels, but Howards End appears to be the film that is most successfully adapted, gleaming with textured finesse, grace, and style. With films finest actors along for the experience, and intricate, fine story-telling, Howards End is a film well worth watching.

Murder on the Orient Express-2017

Murder On The Orient Express-2017

Director-Kenneth Branagh

Starring-Kenneth Branagh, Johnny Depp, Michelle Pfeiffer

Scott’s Review #698

Reviewed November 25, 2017

Grade: B+

Kenneth Branagh leads an all-star cast as well as directs them in a 2017 remake of the 1974 thriller, Murder On The Orient Express. The film was, of course, based on the famous 1934 Agatha Christie novel of the same name. With a ritzy cast including Judi Dench, Johnny Depp, Michelle Pfeiffer, Penelope Cruz, and Willem Defoe, top-notch acting is assured. The cinematography is tremendous as the film looks gorgeous from start to finish and the story is an effective, good, old-fashioned whodunit that will satisfy audiences.

We meet our hero, Hercule Poirot (Branagh), in Jerusalem as he has recently solved a murder mystery and is anticipating a good rest. Poirot is invited by a friend to travel back to his homeland of London via the lavish Orient Express. Amid a group of thirteen strangers, all inhabiting the luxurious first-class accommodations, one of them is savagely murdered in the middle of the night, as a blustery blizzard and subsequent avalanche, derails the train atop mountainous terrain. The strangers are trapped together with a murderer on the loose. Poirot must deduce who has committed the crime and why.

Murder On The Orient Express has all the trimmings for a good, solid murder mystery, and director Branagh sets all of these elements in motion with a good flow. Paced quite nicely, each of the principle characters is introduced in intriguing fashion, so much so that each contains a measure of juicy intrigue. The film gives a brief background of each character as he or she boards the grandiose train. Judi Dench broods as rich and powerful Princess Dragomiroff oozing with jewels and a chip on her shoulder. Corrupt American businessman, Samuel Ratchett (Johnny Depp), is suave and shady as he seems destined to cause trouble. Finally, Penelope Cruz gives her character of repressed Pilar Estravados enough shame and guilt that we cannot think something may be off with her motivations. The details to the characters are rich and compelling.

With actors such as Dench and Depp the acting playing field is set very high, and all of the actors play their parts with gusto. Wonderful to experience with Murder On The Orient Express is the true nature of an ensemble casteach character is relevant in his or her own way, regardless of screen time, and the casting works well. Evident is how the cast must have enjoyed working together on this nice project. Each character is written in a way that the individual actor can sink his or her teeth into the role and the wonderful reveal at the end of the film allows for each a chance to shine so that equal weight is given to each part.

After the actual murder is committed the story really takes off as each character is interviewed by Poirot and given a glance of suspicion. The first half of the film is really just the buildup and, at times, the story slightly lags, but this is fixed when the film kicks into high gear mid-way through. Sometimes a climactic conclusion makes up for any slight lag time suffered in the first portion of the film and Murder On The Orient Express is a great example of this.

The standouts for me are Branagh himself as Poirot and Pfeiffer as the sexy Caroline Hubbard, an American man-crazed older woman.  How wonderful to see Pfeiffer back in the game in 2017- with wonderful roles in both Murder On The Orient Express and Mother! She has the acting chops to pull off sex-appeal, vulnerability, and toughness.  In the case of Branagh, the actor never disappoints in any film he appears in, but seeing him in a leading role is fantastic and he has the ability to carry a film with such a dynamic cast. Branagh’s Poirot is classy, intelligent, and charismatic.

I adored the conclusion of the film and found the explanation and the reasoning of the murderer or murderers quite effective and believable. Through use of black and white flashback scenes, the action aboard the grandiose, yet slightly claustrophobic train scenes, are a perfect balance. Furthermore, the explanation and the motivations of the killer or killers makes perfect sense and much sympathy is evoked. In this way, the story is moralistic and certainly not a black and white subject matter.

Murder On The Orient Express succeeds as a wonderfully shot and star-studded affair. The filming is grandiose and the production values high as a caper film with a mystique and class. The film may not be a true masterpiece or necessarily remembered ten years from now, but what it does it does well. The original film from 1974 is a tad bit better, but as remakes go, the 2017 offering is quite good. A rumored sequel, Death on the Nile, is planned.

A Room with a View-1986

A Room with a View-1986

Director-James Ivory

Starring-Helena Bonham Carter, Julian Sands

Scott’s Review #695

Reviewed November 3, 2017

Grade: B+

A Room with a View (1986) is one of four major films to be based on famed British author E.M. Forster novels- Howards End (1992) and A Passage to India (1986), and Maurice (1987) being the other three. The foursome contain common elements such as vast English countrysides and class distinctions, leading to heartaches and passion. In the case of A Room with a View, the film traverses from artistic Florence, Italy to a cozy village in England.

The film is a period drama mixed with lots of authentic, unforced, good humor and at its core is a solid romantic drama, though if comparing with the aforementioned other films, is not quite on par, though is still an entertaining watch- given the dismal year of cinema circa 1986. The film was considered one of the best releases that particular year and was awarded a handful of Oscar nominations- winning Costume Design, Adapted Screenplay, and Art Direction.

Cultured and often times brooding, Lucy Honeychurch (Helena Bonham Carter), goes on holiday to Florence with her rigid and conventional older cousin Charlotte (Maggie Smith), who also serves as her chaperone. While enjoying the artistry of the European city, Lucy meets and falls madly in love with free-spirited George Emerson (Julian Sands), who is also visiting Florence with his easy going father, Mr. Emerson (Denholm Elliott). The men seem oblivious to Lucy’s (and Charlotte’s) Victorian era upbringing, which attracts Lucy and appalls Charlotte. Months later, the would-be lovers reunite in England and spend time averting obstacles thwarting their love, while admitting to themselves that their love is blossoming.

As Lucy has become engaged to snobbish Cecil Vyse (Daniel Day-Lewis), a sophisticate deemed suitable by her family to marry Lucy, the pair lack the romantic connection that she shares with George. Day-Lewis, on the cusp of becoming a breakout star and brilliant talent (think Maurice a year later), gives Cecil a somewhat comical, yet endearing persona, that makes him the main foil, but also breathes sympathy into the character. This is especially evident during the Lucy/Cecil break-up scene.

The standout performance in A Room with a View is the comic brilliance of Smith as the manipulative and witty, Charlotte Bartlett, and this is evident throughout. Smith injects vigor and comic wit into her character, as Charlotte seemingly makes one blunder after the other in the self deprecating way she manages to use to her advantage to humorously manipulate other characters into doing things her way.

A risqué and quite hysterical all male frontal nudity scene occurs mid-way through the film and, while not advancing the plot in any way, steals the entire film in its homoerotic and free-spirited way. As the Reverend, young George, and Lucy’s energetic brother, Freddy, walk along a beautiful path, they decide to skinny dip in a pond where they horseplay and wrestle with each other completely in the buff. As they chase each other around the pond, grab each other, and lightly smack bottoms, one cannot help but wonder if this scene set the tone for 1987’s gay themed period piece based on another E.M. Forster novel, called Maurice. A coincidence? I think not. As the trio of rascals come upon the properly dressed girls on the path, hilarity takes over the scene.

The art direction and costumes are of major excellence to A Room with a View as the film “looks” like a 1910 time period rather than it seeming like it is 1986 with the actors donning early twentieth century styles. In fact, each and every scene is a treat from this perspective as we wonder who will wear what attire in the next scene.

As with the other aforementioned E.M. Forster films, class distinctions and expectations are a major element to A Room with a View and makes Lucy and George all the more likable as a couple. Still, from an overall standpoint there is something slightly amiss in the story department. I did not find Helena Bonham Carter, an actor I like, overall very compelling as Lucy, and I think this leads to the story being slightly less than it might have with another in the role. We may root for Lucy and George, but if the pair do not wind up together it is more of a pity rather than a travesty.

To summarize A Room with a View, the story is good, not great, and other key components to the film are much better than the central love story of Lucy and George, but are therefore secondary to the main action. Given a Charlotte romance, the films best character, now that would have catapulted this film to the exceptional grade. Imagine the possibilities? Or more of the two Miss Alan’s and their gossipy nature, or even a story to the rugged nude horseplay among men. Many of the aspects that could have made A Room with a View great, were too often on the sidelines.

Battle of the Sexes-2017

Battle of the Sexes-2017

Director-Jonathan Dayton, Valerie Faris

Starring-Emma Stone, Steve Carell

Scott’s Review #691

Reviewed October 11, 2017

Grade: A

Battle of the Sexes is a film that achieves worth on many levels- equal parts sports film, drama, and biography, the film excels across all genres, with exceptional acting and crowd pleasing storytelling. To boot, the film is a true story based not only on the very famous pro tennis match of 1973, termed the “Battle of the Sexes”, but a story of the sexual identity conflict of one of the opponents, in a time where being ones true self was not easy, especially for a public figure.

Emma Stone might very well have given her best portrayal of her young career as Billie Jean King, the talented tennis pro featured in the film. She is kind and fair, but a fierce proponent of women’s rights in a time in the United States when feminism was beginning to first take shape and women, and their male supporters, demanded equal treatment. At first uncertain whether Stone could pull the role off (not because of lack of talent, but the women seem so different), she truly shines as the tomboy athlete with shaggy, feathered locks, and a toothy grin.

Equally worthy of praise is Steve Carell, who bolsters his film credo by tackling the role of King’s opponent and foe in the big match, Bobby Riggs. Portrayed as a certifiable “jerk” and a sexist pig, Carell somehow pours the perfect amount of sympathy and likability into the part. We witness scenes of Riggs’ playfulness with his young son and tender yet troubled relationship with his wife, Priscilla (Elisabeth Shue in a well cast role), that never seems neither trite nor contrived, but rather quite genuine.

In fact, the acting in Battle of the Sexes is across the board good. Sarah Silverman drips with confidence and humor as Gladys Heldman, founder of World Tennis magazine and leader of the troupe of female tennis players she parades around southern California seeking the same respect and pay as their male counterparts. Bill Pullman, makes the most of his one dimensional role of Jack Kramer, a wealthy and male chauvinistic  promoter, while the talented Andrea Riseborough is brilliant as Marilyn, the bisexual, closeted lover of Billie Jean- giving a blend of vulnerability and toughness to her role.

The romantic scenes between Stone and Riseborough smolder with tenderness and heart as they forge ahead with their forbidden romance. The film makes clear that a same sex romance in those days, while accepted by those around them, would be met with shame and rejection by a large part of King’s legions of fans- this is a heartbreaking reality. One of the most tear-jerking scenes comes at the end of the film, when a victorious King is unable to acknowledge Marilyn- her openly gay male dresser earnestly whispers to her that one day she will be free to love who she truly loves- the scene is poignant.

Directors Dayton and Faris carve a finale that is careful not to fall into cliched territory. Given that Battle of the Sexes is a sports film, this is a real risk, as typically these genre films teeter into the “good guys beat bad guys” fairy tale land. Rather, while the film does champion King in the end, the moment is laced with good humor, drama, and sentimentality that does not seem forced, but rather honest and real- I enjoyed the final act immensely.

As the film progressed I found myself drawing parallels to the ever dramatic and historical 2016 Presidential election- sure to have films made in years ahead-and King in many ways mirrors Hillary Clinton while Riggs resembles Donald Trump in the sexist department. The political and sports “Battles of the Sexes” warrants an amount of analysis. My point is a sad one and as much as I love the film, I was left with a cold feeling that forty five years after the famous Billie Jean King versus Bobby Riggs match, male superiority and chauvinism is alive and well in the United States- we still have so much progress to make.

Battle of the Sexes is a film with fantastic acting, stellar casting, passion, excitement, and a telling of a historical, true story. In short the film contains all of the elements of a compelling cinematic experience.