Category Archives: Drama Films

Nomadland-2020

Nomadland-2020

Director-Chloé Zhao

Starring-Frances McDormand, David Strathairn, Swankie

Scott’s Review #1,116

Reviewed February 24, 2021

Grade: A

Frances McDormand, an amazing actor in anything she is in, absolutely kills it in Nomadland (2020) an emotional film with startling realism and respect for strength and truth. Mostly a documentary lookalike the drama has heart while wisely incorporating real-life people versus actors in a story with enough weepy moments to go well with the dynamic cinematography.

It’s a character study in the highest regard and a lesson in what compassion is.

Chloé Zhao, who directs, also directed Songs My Brother Taught Me (2015), nominated for a couple of independent spirit awards, which nobody saw. Zhao has such zest and flavor for the western American landscape, which can be both isolating and beautiful. She incorporates plenty of sunrises, sunsets, and wide shots that go well with the theme of the story she tells. She’s well on her way to much-deserved stardom.

Following her husband’s death by cancer and her rural Nevada company town decimated, Fern (McDormand) packs up her van and starts driving having really no idea where she’s headed. Becoming a modern-day nomad, she scrounges for work doing odd jobs and experiencing adventure along the way as she travels across the West. She meets interesting individuals mostly who live as nomads and try to stay alive facing hardships.

McDormand may have delivered her best performance with Nomadland. Forever associated as Marge Gunderson in Fargo (1996) she is unafraid to get down and dirty in her role. As for Fern, she has a nude scene and a scene sitting on the toilet. She also has various close-up scenes appearing tired, worried, or otherwise bleak. She wears no makeup. It’s a testament to McDormand’s craft and artistic ability to appear this way.

I admire her tremendously.

While McDormand carries the film, others must be mentioned for their terrific work. David Strathairn who has been around forever is one of those character actors who always deliver great work. As a potential love interest for Fern he is patient and admiring even offering to have her move in with him and his family. A gorgeous house awaits her but she prefers to be on the road and alone.

The non-actors make the film as rich and lovely as can be with their tales of truth, struggle, and desire. Swankie is a seventy-five-year-old woman dying of cancer. She wants nothing to do with hospitals or treatment but wants to live her remaining months in peace and tranquility among the wildlife in Alaska. She does just that, leaving the world on her own terms.

When Fern learns that Swankie has died, she and the other nomads pay tribute to her life. The greatness of Nomadland is that it shows a sense of community and family amongst a group of people who otherwise are dismissed or forgotten. It’s reminiscent of what the exceptional Boogie Nights (1997) did with the porn industry. It humanizes them when many dehumanize them, and it’s lovely to watch.

In a teary scene, Fern opens up to Bob, a nomad leader, about her loving relationship with her late husband, and Bob shares the story of his adult son’s recent suicide. Bob espouses the view that goodbyes are not final in the nomad community as its members always promise to see each other again down the road.

What a poignant statement.

Nomadland (2021) provides inspiration for those who just want to do their own thing and be independent spirits. The film says that it’s okay to be your own person and I take that to heart. Be true to yourself and good things will come. Well, at least you’ll have self-dignity and a soul.

The film contains exceptional acting, directing, editing, and cinematography. It could be perceived by some as a downer but I found it quite uplifting and inspirational.

I always say a great film will leave you thinking about it and I’m still thinking about Nomadland.

Independent Spirit Award Nominations: Best Feature, Best Director-Chloé Zhao, Best Female Lead-Frances McDormand, Best Cinematography, Best Editing

Rabbit Hole-2010

Rabbit Hole-2010

Director-John Cameron Mitchell

Starring-Nicole Kidman, Aaron Eckhart

Scott’s Review #1,115

Reviewed February 23, 2021

Grade: A

Rabbit Hole (2010) is a raw and brutal film. I say that with major praise because it’s also a great film with much humanity and pathos. The dreariness of the film makes one relate to and empathize with the characters and perhaps recall a loved one who has died. It’s truly brilliant if the viewer can withstand the sadness. I was able to tolerate the tone and immerse myself in it.

Thankfully, there are snippets of humor to offset the heavy drama.

Every film is not meant to be feel-good and enjoyable but they all should conjure emotions and Rabbit Hole succeeds in spades.

Yes, it’s a downer given the topic of the day is the loss of a four-year-old child but it’s a tragedy worth enduring to experience the powerful acting from its stars. It’s a gem because it shows how people deal with and recover from loss if there even is a way to cope with and live and feel again without destroying oneself.

Eight months after the accidental death of their son, Howie (Aaron Eckhart) and Becca (Nicole Kidman) struggle to overcome their grief. He wants to hold on to everything that reminds him of Danny, while she would rather sell their home, relocate, and make a fresh start. Trauma and conflict begin to appear in the relationship as Howie bonds with a member of his therapy group and Becca reaches out to a teenage boy with telling facial scars.

The drama is based on David Lindsay-Abaire’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play of the same name and the film version has the look and feel of a stage production.

Not much is shown before Danny’s death. I love this because it asks that I use imagination. The cleverness is that Danny was not killed by a drunk driver or a speeding car. It was an accident and this point feels genuine.

The pain is watching a once-loving couple crumble from the weight of the devastation they have been dealt. Neither parent is to blame but do they blame each other? Do they resent each other because each reminds the other of Danny’s death?

A pivotal and necessary story point is watching Becca and Howie become drawn to other people, some of them surprising. Becca bonds with the teenage driver of the car that killed Danny. Howie nearly is drawn into a lurid affair with Gabby (Sandra Oh) whom he connects with at group therapy. Is it healthier for Becca and Howie to go their separate ways? Do they stand a chance?

Most can ask themselves the same question as to their partners if faced with devastating qualities. How does one pick up the pieces alone let as part of a couple?

Kidman is breathtaking in her ability to generate the emotions she does. She was recognized with an Academy Award nomination. Terrific, but Aaron Eckhard, forever an underappreciated actor missed out on a nomination. This is a shame because he is just as good as Kidman. Together, they are flawless, building and playing off the emotions and feelings of the other.

A film about grief, Rabbit Hole (2010) bravely tells the story of how an incident can ravage not only a relationship but our inner being turning us into someone we don’t know. This is a terrifying thought and the stellar acting and pacing only make us feel the pain others can suffer.

Oscar Nominations: Best Actress-Nicole Kidman

Portrait of a Lady on Fire-2019

Portrait of a Lady on Fire-2019

Director-Céline Sciamma

Starring-Noémie Merlant, Adèle Haenel

Scott’s Review #1,114

Reviewed February 19, 2021

Grade: A-

A film with tremendous artistry and a cool LGBTQ+ vibe, gay director Céline Sciamma interestingly deliver the goods with Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019). She takes modern-looking actors and transplants them to the era of France during the late 18th century. The film tells the story of a forbidden affair between an aristocrat and a painter commissioned to paint her portrait.

The viewer will ask themselves the following questions. What would become of two young gay women in this long-ago age? How many people repressed their true feelings and desires because of the times they lived in? Would their different classes and backgrounds cause strife within their burgeoning relationship? I know I constantly asked myself these questions.

To those with limited cinematic patience be forewarned. A Portrait of a Lady on Fire is very slow and plodding. I didn’t mind this aspect but some might. The payoff is not bombastic in an act of violence or an explosion sort of way but it’s well worth the effort put in.

In a common approach in modern film that is feeling more standard than special, the first scene actually postdates the events in the rest of the film so that we sort of know-how events will turn out. But we do not know the how’s and the why’s. It is immediately assumed that one character has suffered some loss or misfortune related to a painting.

Painter, Marianne (Noémie Merlant) is summoned to a remote island inhabited by very few people. She is commissioned to paint the wedding portrait of Héloïse (Adèle Haene) who is destined to be married to a nobleman in Milan, Italy. Héloïse is depressed and despondent, wanting nothing to do with her intended whom she has not met. The portrait is a gift to the never-seen husband-to-be. It is revealed that Héloïse’s sister leaped to her death from the cliffs on the family estate so it’s suggested throughout that she may suffer the same fate.

Needless to say, Marianne and Héloïse fall madly in love.

Their love is hardly ever a question as the chemistry is immediately noticed. Sciamma, who wrote the screenplay, avoids stereotypes that would give away the sexuality of the main characters. They are not butch nor do they possess masculine qualities. In fact, we wonder if they are bisexual? They never struggle with their sexuality, a dramatic cliche in other LGBTQ+ films.

I adore this because it makes the love story more powerful rather than one character pursuing the conflicted other.

As brilliant and artistic as I found Portrait of a Lady on Fire to be there are a couple of unexplained or unclear aspects. I am not even sure how they relate to the main story.

Waifish housemaid Sophie has an abortion with assistance from Marianne and Héloïse. Later, the three go to a bonfire gathering where women sing, during which Héloïse’s dress briefly catches fire (just as shown in the painting featured in the beginning). When Sophie is having the abortion there is an infant and child nearby. Are they her children? Who are the women who sing?

I didn’t understand the point of these items.

Fortunately, these missteps can be forgiven for the grander piece is amazing filmmaking. The final shot of Héloïse sitting in a theater is phenomenal and clearly borrowed from Call Me By Your Name (2017) which featured an identical scene. The camera focuses on the face of actress Haene as she emits many emotions during the flawless scene. What a win for an actor!

Despite some side story flaws, I adored Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019). The film is exceptionally shot and almost all shots could be portraits in their own right. Especially lovely are the beach sequences as when Marianne and Héloïse first ignite the flames of their passion. My takeaway is that it tells the story of fate but doesn’t feel like a downer. Rather, it feels like life.

Independent Spirit Award Nominations: Best International Film

Wild Strawberries-1957

Wild Strawberries-1957

Director-Ingmar Bergman

Starring-Victor Sjostrom, Bibi Andersson

Scott’s Review #1,111

Reviewed February 10, 2021

Grade: A

A seventy-eight-year-old man (Victor Sjostrom) reflects on life, loss, and a million other emotions as he ponders his inevitable death in the Ingmar Bergman masterpiece Wild Strawberries (1957). The film has a melancholy tone and forces the viewer to put themselves in the shoes of the old man and wonder how senior citizens view death. One great point is it represents the geriatric demographic, which has traditionally been sorely lacking in cinema.

It’s cerebral and reminds me in a peculiar way of A Christmas Carol in the way an old man ruminates over his forgotten and sometimes misbegotten youth.

Bergman creates genius on par with his most famous work The Seventh Seal also released in 1957. I’d list these two films as his very best and most inspiring.

Do older people fear death?  Do they whimsically revisit their youth from time to time or do they live with regret and unfulfilled desire? My hunch is that it’s probably a bit of all. Wild Strawberries made me think like the old man and the effect was powerful, making me worry and fear my own death and relive my glory days.

Isak Borg (Sjostrom) begins to reflect on his life after he decides to take a road trip from his home in Stockholm to the distant town of Lund to receive a special award. Along the way, a string of encounters causes him to experience hallucinations that expose his insecurities and fears. He realizes that the choices he’s made have rendered his life meaningless, or so he perceives it.

He is accompanied by his daughter-in-law Marianne (Ingrid Thulin) who doesn’t like Isak too much, is pregnant, and plans to leave her husband. They meet a trio of friendly hitchhikers led by Sara (Bibi Andersson) who reminds Isak of the love of his youth. A bickering couple reminds him of his unhappy marriage, while his elderly mother reminds him of himself.

The best part of the film is when the group stops at Isak’s childhood seaside home and imagines his sweetheart Sara, with whom he remembered gathering strawberries, but who instead married his brother. Anyone who has returned to their own childhood home or neighborhood can easily relate to the powerful memories that are served. I pretended I was in Isak’s character and several emotions occurred.

Sjostrom is incredibly good and infuses a natural range of emotions. At first crotchety and distant I grew to admire his sentimentality as he fondly recalls innocently picking strawberries on a summer day. How glorious and innocent to reminisce in an act so mundane yet monumental. An old man, he was once young. How quickly the years go by. I took this as a lesson to appreciate each day and experience. Sjostrom had me mesmerized.

Some find Izak unsympathetic but I disagree. I found him incredibly likable.

Relationships are a strong element of Wild Strawberries. Izak muses over past loves, but also his mother, daughter-in-law, housekeeper, and hitchhikers. Peculiar is his relationship with his housekeeper, Agda, played stunningly well by Julian Kindahl. Are they secret lovers or platonic friends? They seem like husband and wife.

While the story is astounding, the visual qualities of Wild Strawberries are amazing. For starters, the video content is crisp and clear with very bright black and white photography. Each shot is mesmerizing and reminiscent of paintings.

To that end, there is so much going on in Wild Strawberries if one looks closely enough. The closest adjectives to describe the experience are hallucinogenic and mesmerizing. The group of people gathered over a meal was young, fresh, and carefree. They all have a life ahead of them and almost every viewer can recount a time where he or she felt that way. It’s both nostalgic and sad to realize it doesn’t last as Bergman makes so painfully evident.

The scene where Isak witnesses a hearse approaching is terrifying. When he realizes it is himself lying in the casket it’s enough to give one a chill. It’s creepy and powerful in tone and affects.

Wild Strawberries (1957)  possesses many facets of the human experience. Sorrow, joy, depression, acceptance, frustration, and fulfillment. This is a work of genius and is highly recommended to anyone who appreciates great experiences in cinema.

Oscar Nominations: Best Original Screenplay

Mank-2020

Mank-2020

Director-David Fincher

Starring-Gary Oldman, Amanda Seyfried, Tom Pelphrey

Scott’s Review #1,110

Reviewed February 9, 2021

Grade: A

Everyone knows that Citizen Kane (1941) is one of the greatest films ever made. Well, I hope so anyway. Almost always appearing at the top of ‘best of’ lists its merits are justified and creativity astounding. In a word it’s groundbreaking. The visual beauty, tone, and lighting are exceptional, to say the least. But this review is not meant to kiss the ass of that treasured masterpiece.

Mank (2020) is a film that is a love letter to the Golden Age of Hollywood. For those unfamiliar with Citizen Kane, please see the film immediately or the beauty of Mank will be missed.

The film celebrates the brilliance of Citizen Kane by offering new fans a glimpse into the creation of the film while breathing life into the 1930s and 1940s film for new and younger fans to experience. It also gives classic film fans something to sink their teeth into and reaffirmation of their passion for the cinema. Film lovers will adore Mank.

The project stems back to the 1990s when director David Fincher’s father, Jack, began work on the film. It never came to fruition, and Jack Fincher died in 2003. Eventually, the project was officially announced, and filming took place around Los Angeles from November 2019 to February 2020.

The film is about Citizen Kane specifically but is so much more than that. It’s part biography about alcoholic screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman) as he scrambles to finish writing Citizen Kane given a tight deadline while also trying to recover from a broken leg. He is hired by the famous Orson Welles (director and star of Citizen Kane) to pen the script without any credit.

As terrific as Oldman is, as he always is, Mank also explores and dissects the politics of California of that time, the impending Nazi regime that soon led to World War II, and the rich and powerful producers. It harkens back to the 1930s so genuinely that I felt I was living this important decade through my cinematic eyes. How different Hollywood was then!

Oldman is the star of a large cast with many actors being given small yet important roles. Nearly unrecognizable with a bloated beer belly and stringy hair, Herman is a lifelong boozer. Mank spans ten years, from 1930 to 1940, and going back in forth between the years. Mankiewicz dictated dialogue to his secretary, Rita (Lily Collins) in one scene while visiting the set of films made in the early 1930s.

Fun fact- Collins is the daughter of British pop artist Phil Collins and is on the cusp of a big career.

With his wit and humor, never afraid to call a spade a spade, or insult billionaire American businessman William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance), he offends glamorous starlets over an extravagant dinner, forcing them to depart one by one as he gets drunker and drunker.

Never a big fan of Amanda Seyfried’s, the actress impresses with a fabulous performance, the best of her career. Playing Marion Davies, the inspiration for a character in Citizen Kane, she befriends Mankiewicz platonically, and the pair become close. Seyfried nails it with a giving performance. Tom Pelphrey plays Herman’s handsome brother, Joseph, on the cusp of becoming a famous writer and director and the actor is terrific.

The look of Mank is delicious. The black and white cinematography offers an homage to Citizen Kane with the stark use of dark and light contrasting each other in gorgeous form. Two great scenes come to mind- In 1933 Herman and Marion go for a stroll in a lavish courtyard, where they bond over discussions on politics and the film industry. It’s a benevolent and sweet scene where many topics are explored and embraced and is a definite ode to Hollywood.

The other takes place within the Hearst Mansion, directly before the aforementioned scene, where a drunken Herman lets loose on some of the Hollywood elite. He insults Louis B. Mayer, founder of the famous MGM studios, the most famous and influential of all studios.

A gem is the addition of so many historic Hollywood figures, a treasure chest for fans of old cinema. Joan Crawford, Great Garbo, and Bette Davis are featured, although if you blink you’ll miss them.

A wonderful suggestion is to work double-time and follow-up a viewing of Mank with Citizen Kane (I did!) for further appreciation of the film. A gift is realizing how the characters who appear in the classic film are based on real-life characters in Mankiewicz’s world.

Mank (2020) should be appreciated and revered for its lovely hybrid of crisp dialogue and wry comedy based on a real-life Hollywood director, and its cinematography and visual appreciation of a long-ago era of cinema. I hope this inspires some to appreciate and salivate over films created almost a hundred years ago.

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom-2020

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom-2020

Director-George C. Wolfe

Starring-Viola Davis, Chadwick Boseman

Scott’s Review #1,107

Reviewed February 3, 2021

Grade: A-

Viola Davis and the late Chadwick Boseman lead tremendous performances in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (2020), a film fueled by exceptional acting. The production is shot like a play and is based on one written by August Wilson. He also wrote Fences, turned into a film in 2017, which also starred the terrific Davis.

As wonderful as Davis is amid a bruhaha of hype over how powerful her performance is, it’s an ensemble event that makes Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom a memorable experience.

Ruben Santiago-Hudson adapts a fast-paced screenplay with quick dialogue, long scenes, and a startling turn of events. The action takes place over the course of one day, similar to other Wilson works, which adds a robust and powerful strength as the situations unfold. The time-period and the racial aspects are key to the crackling dialogue.

Most of the cast is black and it’s 1927 so how can the work not be about race? In clever and heartbreaking form, much of the racism is internalized pitting black versus black instead of the standard white versus black.

Despite the wonderful singing and acting this point hit home the most with me and was the most uniquely palpable. It’s bad enough when black people, or any other minority group, faces hatred and resentment from other people, but when it’s one of your own this is bitter and hard to watch.

The conflict and fury escalate to a vicious climax as one character lashes out in deadly form ruining more than just their own life. It has a spiraling effect that utilizes the claustrophobic rehearsal hall where these scenes take place as a backdrop.

There are two different stories taking place here and both are superb.

Ma Rainey (Davis) is a superstar, being female and black, her victory is achieving that success, to begin with, against insurmountable odds. We only imagine this because the film doesn’t go into her back story too much- they don’t need to. Her struggle is obvious and we can only imagine how she was able to manage to get so far in her career. Was she able to capitalize on her success with her voice alone?

Ma is immensely talented and angry. She is pouty and tough as nails with her white producers, who have invited her to Chicago to record an album. She knows they want one thing from her and that’s money-making profits from her talent.

She demands a Coke before she will perform. She smirks as the producers scurry to fulfill her request, not daring to show too much irritation that will cause her to cancel the session and return to the South. Is she a diva? Well, yes, but shouldn’t she be? If she were gracious people would walk all over her?

We learn she would easily be arrested for causing a stir in the streets if not for her manager, Irvin (Jeremy Shamos) schooling the police on who she is.

Davis, who can play any role handed to her is brilliant. Ma is brazen, tough, but releases emotion when she belts out her tunes.

Though Davis is the star, Ma is almost a supporting player against the robust and juicy other plot occurring among the male cast, one floor below. Boseman is flawless as the trumpeter in her band, Levee Green. His humor masks a wave of anger and cynicism lurking beneath that slowly builds as he feels jealous and cheated by the older members of Ma’s band.

Colman Domingo and Glynn Turmann are fantastic, adding stability and wisdom in supporting roles. Their characters try to teach the younger Levee that being a black man also represents stoicism, a calm demeanor, and wisdom.

From a diversity and inclusion perspective, the film features Ma’s bi-sexual girlfriend Dussie Mae (Taylour Paige), and nephew Sylvester (Dusan Brown) who stutters. This offers LGBTQ+ and disability inclusion.

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (2020) is a film that celebrates fearlessness, determination, and the ugliness and frustration of inner turmoil within one’s own race. It also features gorgeous and emotional songs from the roaring 1920s and top-notch acting performances.

Independent Spirit Award Nominations: Best Feature, Best Female Lead-Viola Davis, Best Male Lead-Chadwick Boseman, Best Supporting Male-Colman Domingo, Glynn Turmann

Ma Mère-2005

Ma Mère-2005

Director-Christophe Honoré

Starring-Isabelle Huppert, Louis Garrel

Scott’s Review #1,103

Reviewed January 21, 2021

Grade: A

Brilliant French film actress, Isabelle Huppert, turns in another outstanding performance in Ma Mère (2005). The film is a daring and sometimes shocking experience met with mostly derision from many fans and critics. The subject matter is hard for the weak of heart to take or understand, or maybe even put up with. The taboo nature of incest is what the film is about but also the dark and far reaches of the human psyche and emotion. A heavy and ingenious film for where the filmmakers dare to go. I found it brilliant.

Fun fact Ma Mère was rated NC-17 when it was released in the United States. The reason was “strong and aberrant sexual content”. Despite the sexual fetishism, there is NO drug use.

Huppert plays a recently widowed and sexually adventurous woman named Hélène. She is visited by her young and restless son, Pierre (Garrel) just before his father’s death when he plans to reside with his parents on their lavish island villa. Instead of mourning the loss of her husband, Hélène boasts about her infidelities to Pierre as he copes by masturbating to and then urinating on his father’s pornographic magazines.

Ma Mère is not a happy film but quite intriguing. Of course, the film is french which automatically gives it a sense of style and sophistication which writer/director Christophe Honoré dazzles the audience with. If the film were American it would not work at all. The characters need to be European.

An intense attraction develops between mother and son when Pierre struts around the villa naked and broods. Instead of acting on her impulses, Hélène encourages her uninhibited sex partner Réa (Joana Preiss) to have sex with Pierre.  They do so at a popular shopping and nightlife complex. Hélène looks on longingly as the partially clothed couple makes love with passersby raising no objections. Hélène appears to be turned on.

Things get stranger when afterward, Hélène includes her son in an orgy with her friends. After the orgy, Hélène decides that she must leave her son to travel. While saying goodbye to Pierre, she implies that something taboo has happened between them and that she must leave to prevent it from happening again. We are left unsure of what she means.

Hélène’s motivations are unclear or is she simply a good poker player? Does she feel bad about her attraction to her son or does she secretly revel in it?

There is a ton of masturbating and jealousy in this film. There is also a hefty dose of sadomasochism and such talk. It’s for the extremely adult viewer.

Ma Mere leaves the viewer to ponder many questions over the course of the running time. Is Hélène a lesbian or just sexually promiscuous? What is the back story with her husband? Do they happily cheat on each other or what is their arrangement?

I completely get why people wouldn’t be enamored with Ma Mère. It’s a tough watch though I laughingly find myself wondering if those skeptics are mostly prudes. I found myself absorbed by the machinations of the characters, especially Pierre and Hélène, and chomping at the bit to figure out what would eventually happen to the characters. Spoiler alert- the film does not end happily.

A criticism hurled at Ma Mère is that why we should care about the characters? There is nobody to root for. While mother and child partake in orgies and other sexual dalliances, it’s not as if Hélène exactly takes advantage of the boy, nor is he especially likable. I deem the film fascinating.

For a weird trip inside the minds of sexual deviants and those who love the joy of sex and sexuality, Ma Mère (2005) is a delightful experience. It’s also creepy shit. The ending is dire and dreary and will make the viewer think long after the film ends. And that what provocative films do. And so do great films. Anyone who thinks they have a mommy complex will soon be cured.

Isabelle Huppert does it again.

L.A. Confidential-1997

L.A. Confidential-1997

Director-Curtis Hanson

Starring-Kevin Spacey, Russell Crowe, Kim Basinger

Scott’s Review #1,102

Reviewed January 19, 2021

Grade: A

An enormous critical and commercial hit of 1997, L.A. Confidential spins a tale of intrigue and mystery during the 1950s with plenty of big-name stars to go around. The film can be classified as a throwback, neo-noir escapade, but it’s quite stylistic and fleshed out. It’s well-made with slick elements and Hollywood look and feel like the lavish production design and musical score, but it’s the seduction and bevy of secrets that will keep and viewer glued to their seats, trying to guess what happens next.

As if it doesn’t have enough great elements a powerful whodunit is constructed leading viewers to question if the bad guys are good or the good guys bad?

Stalwarts like Kevin Spacey, Kim Basinger, and Danny DeVito bring star power, while unknowns at the time, Russell Crowe and Guy Pearce are the real reasons to tune in. L.A. Confidential has a seemingly endless tangled web to absorb and unravel, but the film is paced well and never overcomplicates itself. The strong art direction and musical score make it a delight on the eyes and ears.

The film is fraught with a saucerful of secrets just waiting to be brought to the surface.

Based on the James Ellroy 1990 novel of the same name, it’s the third book in his L.A. Quartet series, the others being The Black Dahlia (1987) and The Big Nowhere (1988). All focus on the Los Angeles Police Department, corruption, and scandal. The former was turned into an unsuccessful film in 2006 starring Josh Hartnett and Scarlett Johansson.

I love films set in the City of Angels with the focus on Hollywood darkness lurking beneath the sunny and swanky exterior. Especially effective is the 1950s time-period, post World War II, when everything seemed to be coming up roses. Naturally, murder is the offering of the day.

To summarize, three policemen, each with his motives and obsessions, tackle the corruption surrounding an unsolved murder at a downtown Los Angeles coffee shop in the early 1950s. Detective Lieutenant Exley (Pearce), the son of a murdered detective, is out to avenge his father’s killing. The ex-partner of Officer White (Crowe), implicated in a scandal uncovered by Exley, was one of the victims. Sergeant Vincennes (Spacey) feeds classified information to a tabloid magnate (DeVito). Basinger portrays Lynn Bracken, a glamorous prostitute.

It’s nice watching the film with the knowledge of the big stars Crowe and Pearce would become. Also interesting is to see Spacey when he was a big star, eventually destined to turn into Hollywood mud due to a scandal. That’s the beauty of watching a classic film and adds a realistic element unknown at the time of the first release.

From a romantic angle, it’s fun and juicy wondering who Lynn, a Veronica Lake lookalike, will wind up with. Basinger has chemistry with all of the handsome cops and one wonders who she will screw and screw over. The role is the best of Basinger’s career.

L.A. Confidential (1997) is a film that can be viewed multiple times to notice intricacies missed during the first go-around. It harkens back to the 1940s in style, pizazz, and texture. There is something for everyone and it develops well beyond the film noir genre. It contains great acting, exceptional writing with twisting storylines and events, bloodshed, and thrills. It is an exceptional crime drama almost on par with one of the greats, Chinatown (1974).

The 1990s was an excellent decade for well-made films and L.A. Confidential is near the top of the pile.

Oscar Nominations: Best Picture, Best Director-Curtis Hanson, Best Supporting Actress-Kim Basinger (won), Best Screenplay Based on Material Previously Produced or Published (won), Best Original Dramatic Score, Best Sound, Best Art Direction, Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing

 

J. Edgar-2011

J. Edgar-2011

Director-Clint Eastwood

Starring-Leonardo DiCaprio, Armie Hammer, Naomi Watts

Scott’s Review #1,099

Reviewed January 12, 2021

Grade: A

When director Clint Eastwood and actor Leonardo DiCaprio align, exceptional things can happen. This is evidenced by J. Edgar (2011), a compelling and well-constructed drama with a biographical and character driven focus. One gets inside the head and psyche of the title character, J. Edgar Hoover, the head of the Federal Bureau of Investigations, with DiCaprio playing him flawlessly.

The film is left-of-center, surprising for the mainstream director, though his film-making style is familiar. Eastwood does what he does best by constructing a slick and “Hollywood” experience. There are not the daring camera angles or unique uses of light that Kubrick might use.  He creates a steady affair that will appeal to the American heartland, getting viewer’s butts to the movie theater on his name alone.

The film opens in 1919, when a young Hoover (DiCaprio) is tasked with purging radicals from the United States and obtaining their secrets, something he’d carry with him for decades. He meets a new Secretary, Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts), who he makes an awkward pass at, and an even more awkward marriage proposal. She refuses, and they become professional and personal allies. The story then plods along with historical stops through the decades like the Lindbergh baby kidnapping, Martin Luther King Jr., and Richard Nixon. Hoover is always involved in these escapades.

Hoover, who served as the head of the bureau from 1924 until his death in 1972, was a powerful and ruthless man. Eastwood carefully dissects him, professionally and personally. He never married, lived with his mother, traveled and enjoyed dinners with one man who in death, bequeathed his estate to. You do the math. He was a gay man when one couldn’t be an openly gay man. Thus, he is conflicted, and Eastwood does a great job at showing the demons he wrestled with.

The relationship between Hoover and lawyer, Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer) is my favorite part of J. Edgar because it is interesting and humanistic. DiCaprio and Hammer give outstanding performances with flawless chemistry and charisma. When Hoover professes his love for Tolson and quickly recants his statement then professes love for an actress, we view his turmoil. He loves Tolson but cannot bear to accept it even though it would free him from his chains.

Despite the tender nature of the sequence above or that his mother was a traditional, no-nonsense, shrew, Hoover is not portrayed as a hero. He was a complicated and damaged man and Eastwood hits this point home. He blackmailed Martin Luther King Jr., kept sexual secrets on several Hollywood stars, and participated in various abuses of power. The film does admit that the director also instituted fingerprinting and forensic measures that reduced crime.

Those who desire a straight-forward lesson in history may be slightly perturbed by the focus on Hoover’s personal life. Eastwood could have easily made Hoover’s career the only facet of the production-enough material exists for this. But instead, we get to see the inner working of the man. Kudos for this.

Dustin Lance Black, who wrote Milk (2008), a portrait of a gay man, is back at the helm serving as screenwriter. But the two films are not modeled after one another. They are very different animals. While Milk celebrates a man refusing to deny who he and others are, demanding their just civil rights, J. Edgar provides the narrative of a man fleeing from who he is.

Offering a rich and complex biography of a tortured man, the audience is exposed to a person wrestling with inner turmoil. Hoover was a famous man, but the film could easily represent those thousands of men who could not bring themselves to accept who they really were. Largest praise goes to DiCaprio who makes us sympathize, pity, and admire the complexities of his character. J. Edgar (2011) hits a grand slam.

I Am Sam-2001

I Am Sam-2001

Director-Jessie Nelson

Starring-Sean Penn, Michelle Pfeiffer

Scott’s Review #1,097

Reviewed December 30, 2020

Grade: B-

Sean Penn stars as a mentally disabled man who fathers a child and is determined to cling to custody of her after he is deemed unfit to parent in I Am Sam (2001), a drama that garnered Penn an Oscar nomination. The brilliant actor may have deserved the win since he breathes life into a film riddled with every cliché imaginable. Besides his performance, and that of novice Dakota Fanning, the film would be drivel. As it is, it’s mediocre at best.

Somewhere, sometime, somehow, in cinema history, the consensus became that if an actor plays a mentally challenged character, he or she is assured an Academy award nomination. Juliette Lewis tried and failed with the cringeworthy The Other Sister (1999), but Penn has better credibility. Dustin Hoffman also succeeded with Rain Man (1988).

Sam (Penn) is well-adjusted man and has a supportive group of friends with disabilities. His neighbor, Annie, (Dianne Wiest) assists with raising Sam’s daughter, Lucy (Fanning), but the eight-year-old quickly exceeds the mental capacity of her father, leading to frustration and conflict. Lucy’s mother, a homeless woman, has vanished from the scene.

The justice system determines that Lucy must go to a foster family led by Randy (Laura Dern), which results in Sam hiring a no-nonsense attorney, Rita (Pfeiffer). Both Randy and Rita sympathize with Sam and must convince the courts that he can raise her.

Jessie Nelson, who directs I Am Sam, also directed safe films like Corrina, Corrina (1994) and Stepmom (1999), so her intention to present a warm and soft experience is easy to figure out. This is not meant to criticize her direction style as much as to point out that the  result is not a hard-edged, gritty experience. It’s a crowd-pleaser and there is never a moment where Nelson wants the audience to root against Sam keeping custody of Lucy, regardless of the reality.

Penn saves the film from being a complete stereotype. It’s apparent that Sam adores Lucy and the actor is not afraid to cry and express genuine emotion on cue. He’s a great actor and makes the most out of the role. He does his best to insinuate that mentally challenged people are like everyone else- they can keep a job, pay bills, hire a lawyer, and fight for their kids. His task is tough, but he succeeds. That’s what raises I Am Sam as an overall product.

Fanning, who in 2001 was about to embark on a fabulously rich acting career, is wonderful. Unlike many child actors, cast because they are cute or bubbly, she has real acting chops. She is neither girly nor overly sad in her emotions. Fanning is as strong, focused, and detailed as her eight-year-old character is.

Speaking of stereotypes, Pfeiffer is awarded the grand prize in female attorney banality. She is haggard, absorbed in her work, and has no time for her own son, only taking Sam’s case to prove she is a kind person since she agrees to pro bono work. Predictably, she realizes, through Sam, that she is wasting her life away, leaves her husband, and spends more time with her son. Dern does her best with a weak role as the one-dimensional foster parent who realizes she cannot be half the parent that Sam can.

The film’s title is derived from the opening lines “I am Sam / Sam I am” of the book Green Eggs and Ham, which is read in the movie. This makes the film showcase a sentimentalism and hammers home the point that the mentally disabled are child-like and need the help, patience, and understanding of non-disabled adults, as if that isn’t obvious.

The conclusion to I Am Sam is expected. The lengthy courtroom scenes are wrapped with a nice shiny bow as Sam predictably retains custody of Lucy as the supporting cast gather on a soccer field and dutifully gush with delight at how great a father he is. This is a fine tribute, or fantasy, and if only real-life were like this what a better world it would be. I would have preferred a story with more meat.

I Am Sam (2001) is recommended only for huge fans of Sean Penn or those who desire an oversentimental experience. It might have been better suited for Lifetime television.

Oscar Nominations: Best Actor-Sean Penn

Game Change-2012

Game Change-2012

Director-Jay Roach

Starring-Julianne Moore, Woody Harrelson, Ed Harris

Scott’s Review #1,094

Reviewed December 23, 2020

Grade: B

Sarah Palin is an idiot. John McCain is not. We didn’t know that in 2008-we do now. Somehow their different worlds collided as partners in crime for the 2008 United States Presidential election, she the vice-presidential nominee to his presidential. McCain’s people wanted a fresh face, someone with charisma, who could help defeat the surging U.S. Senator from Illinois, named Barack Obama.

Game Change (2012), an HBO film, chronicles how an unknown female governor from Alaska was chosen as McCain’s running mate without proper vetting, leading to one of the biggest political fiascos of the twenty-first century.

The production is a well-acted, well-paced affair that makes even the most liberal viewer (me!) sympathize, ever so slightly, with Palin, who was thrust into the spotlight at lightning speed. Julianne Moore takes center stage, giving the political figure empathy and some heart. Supporting turns by Woody Harrelson as the campaign’s senior strategist, Steve Schmidt, and Ed Harris as John McCain provide levity.

The acting is the best part of the film. Otherwise, the film might have been best served as a documentary (more about that below). As believable as Moore, Harrelson, and Harris are, they feel like performances rather than authenticity. They try to give their best interpretations of the players instead of immersing themselves into their bodies. Maybe that’s the point of the film?

I love how the film opens. In 2010, after the debacle has ended, Steve Schmidt sits uncomfortably before Anderson Cooper from CNN. He asks Schmidt if Palin was chosen as the VP candidate because she would make the best vice president or because she could win the election? The question is quite poignant and the basis for the entire film.

Another excellent sequence is set during the Republican National Convention. Palin’s speech is well received, bombastic even, and energetic, catapulting her as the potential saving grace of the party. Sadly, for her, the campaign becomes concerned that she is ignorant about many political issues and grossly unprepared. These scenes are the weakest- the audience laughably realizes she believes Korea is one country, and many other gaffs follow. But, unless you’ve been hiding under a rock, this is common knowledge.

Game Change makes a mistake by editing too many snippets of real-life interviews and other news media moments. This detracts from the dramatization that is the intention and makes me wonder why a solid documentary wasn’t made instead.

Jay Roach, who directs Game Change, revels in close-ups, especially of Palin, perhaps as a nod to her being thrust onto every television station in the United States. Danny Strong screen writes the project. The duo sets up the predictable situations nicely. Palin’s disagreements with McCain, the woman clearly not his choice. For reference, he wanted Joe Lieberman, a moderate from Connecticut who was considered “boring”.

Let’s give the most credit to Moore. The actress doesn’t exactly embody Palin. She is more like a dressed-up impersonator, hardly Charlize Theron flawlessly playing Aileen Wuornos. But what she does do is successfully make the audience care about her and feel sorry for her. Palin had no idea what she was in store for, nor knew what she signed up for. Moore portrays the emotions well.

Moore carries the film. Palin became a source of venom and mockery after her embarrassing interview with Katie Couric in which she was unable to name any magazines. She quickly became the whipping girl rather than the ‘it” girl.

The message is competent without feeling preachy or overpowering, but there is something a bit dull about Game Change. Schmidt and Nicole Wallace chose Palin, making the enormous mistake of knowing very little about the woman.

Game Change (2012) is recommended for those who want to be entertained or who desire a history lesson without seeing the real people. I still think a documentary would have worked better.

East of Eden-1955

East of Eden-1955

Director-Elia Kazan 

Starring-James Dean, Julie Harris, Jo Van Fleet

Scott’s Review #1,092

Reviewed December 17, 2020

Grade: A

James Dean wasn’t with us for very long, tragically dying at the tender age of twenty-four, but he made three films: Rebel Without a Cause (1955), Giant (1956), and East of Eden (1955), all-powerful showcases and unique. In each, Dean gives a brilliant, humanistic, and sometimes tragic performance. East of Eden, his first film, is the only one he got to preview. I hope he liked it because it will live on forever as a gem.

Based on the John Steinbeck novel of the same name, the story is also a biblical retelling of Cain and Abel, brothers who clash and spar. Director, Elia Kazan, famous for supporting and using Method actors in his films, was able to get a tremendous performance out of Dean, which was key to the empathetic nature of the film. The key to East of Eden is that it reflects on several characters, who are both good and bad, possessing qualities of each, detailing their struggles.

Nobody is completely good or completely bad. The story is an analysis of good versus evil and the multitude of layers that exist between both extremes. It’s complicated, which makes the experience juicy, truthful, and brilliant.

Set during World War I, around 1917, two sunny coastal California towns are the backdrop for the action, Cal Trask (Dean) perceives his father, farmer Adam (Raymond Massey) as favoring Cal’s brother, Aron (Richard Davalos), which leads to much resentment, jealousy, and conflict. Aron is the apple in Adam’s eye, and we wonder why?

Furthering the drama is that Cal is in love with Aron’s girlfriend, Abra (Julie Harris) who doesn’t rebuff any advances. Cal and Aron’s mother, Kate (Jo Van Fleet), who they think is dead, is alive and well and running a brothel in a nearby town. Assuming a different name, she harbors secrets.

Before you get the impression this is some cheesy form of soap opera, East of Eden, like the novel, is heavily character-driven and nuanced with development. It completely draws the audience in and envelopes one around the simmering qualities of everyone.

East of Eden is packed with powerful scene after powerful scene and in more than one the allegiances and rooting values shift from character to character. Some of the best are when Cal self-destructs following his father’s refusal of his birthday gift, or when Cal cruelly exhibits the true nature of their mother’s vocation to the innocent and unsuspecting Aron. Finally, Cal and Abra’s kiss atop a Ferris wheel is filled with both smoldering desire and deadly consequences.

The acting tremendous across the board, much of the thanks must go to Kazan for being able to pull the fabulous performances out of the players- a talent only a Method acting director can achieve. While the entire cast is exceptional, the film belongs to Dean, who provides enough emotion and vulnerability to sustain his character’s topsy-turvy and tortured existence. Knowing that the actor died soon after filming gives an eerie and sentimental feeling. This is comparable to a more modern-day example when Heath Ledger died after giving a brilliant performance in The Dark Knight (2008).

This is hardly a war film or a guy’s film, as the ladies get to shine with rich characters too. Julie Harris and Jo Van Fleet portray flawed characters in juicy roles rife with meaty scenes filled with conflict.

As with most of Steinbeck’s works, specifically The Grapes of Wrath, the landscape is a character, and East of Eden is no exception. With dusty roads and mountainous backgrounds, events ooze with atmosphere and beauty. The lush northern, coastal, California landscape portrays a grandiose magnificence that counterbalances the conflict its human beings are dealing with.

The major note to take away from East of Eden (1955) is that we are complex creatures with a mixture of good and bad. We sometimes want to do the right thing but end up hurting those we love. The main characters suffer from pain, regret, good intentions, poor decisions, and loss. The rich dialogue, adaptation, acting, and cinematography make the film near perfection.

Oscar Nominations: Best Director-Elia Kazan, Best Actor-James Dean, Best Supporting Actress-Jo Van Fleet (won), Best Screenplay

Corpus Christi-2019

Corpus Christi-2019

Director-Jan Komasa

Starring-Bartosz Bielenia

Scott’s Review #1,082

Reviewed November 14, 2020

Grade: A-

Questions of faith and redemption enshroud the powerful film, Corpus Christi (2019), directed by Jan Komasa, a Polish filmmaker. Many viewers will not possess the patience to get through the slow pace of the film, but I’ve seen enough of these quiet films to know that the payoff is usually worth the time invested. I was right and there is a prize to be awarded at the end of the film while gradually sucking the viewer in along the way.

Komasa creates some beautiful camera work and shows what life is like in a small Polish village, but the culminating story and its afterthought is the main attraction. I imagined myself living in this sleepy village where church and religion are the main highlights, while scandal and gossip seep below the surface. The church where some of the action takes place is stunningly beautiful.

Juvenile delinquent, Daniel (Bartosz Bielenia) resides in a Warsaw detention center, serving time for second-degree murder. He has bonded with the resident priest, Father Tomasz (Lukasz Simlat), and spiritually awakened, determined to become a priest himself. He is disappointed to learn this is an impossibility because of his conviction. Released and sent to work doing manual labor in a sawmill, Daniel stops in the village church to pray and pretends to be a priest. Assuming he is a real priest, the local priest asks him to temporarily fill in for him, which he eagerly does.

The main ingredient of the story is the plight of Daniel and his yearning for redemption, and this is wise on the part of the screenwriter (Mateusz Pacewicz). In a more conventional story, Daniel might pretend to be a priest to avoid capture or a redundant existence at the sawmill. Instead, Daniel desires to be a priest and he wants to do right by the parishioners who warm to his overt and unconventional style. He is seen as a leader and a moral compass, and Daniel adores and needs that.

Others side stories emerge to compliment the main story and flesh out the happenings even more. This gives supporting characters more to do than merely support Daniel’s story. This is a refreshing choice and makes it more of an ensemble piece.

A recent car wreck has devastated the village, angering the inhabitants. The driver, reportedly a drunk, killed several teenagers and himself in the crash. His widow bears the rage of the villagers, receiving hate letters and nasty notes written on her house. Marta (Eliza Rycembel), whose brother died in the accident, sympathizes with the widow and wants the driver to be buried alongside the other victims, but everyone else refuses.

Marta’s mother, a religious woman, is conflicted and devastated. The mayor supports the villagers in their anger, even going so far as threatening Daniel. A fellow inmate spots Daniel and blackmails him. Marta and Daniel begin an affair. There is so much going on with the different characters that the film could be turned into a miniseries. Despite the slow pace, I became fully enveloped in the lives of the villagers and began to care about other character’s conflict, not only Daniel’s.

Inevitably, questions will need to be answered. When will Daniel be found out? Who will rat him out or who will harbor his secret? What will happen to him if he is discovered? How will Marta react to the news? These questions constantly went through my mind as the plot unfolded which kept me wonderfully engaged.

Bielenia is fantastic in the lead role. The complexities of Daniel are seen during intense sequences when he abuses drugs, has tawdry sex, and bludgeons a fellow inmate during a bloody fight. He is not always the peaceful young man befitting of a priest. But that makes the character nuanced and complicated.

Corpus Christi is about conflict and character’s wrestling with their demons. It’s a character study. Marta, her mother, the widow, the priest at the youth detention center, and Daniel’s prison buddy, are all multi-dimensional. Each of the central character’s face a demon: regret, sorrow, conflict. This is what makes the film so intriguing.

The events unfold at a slow, but steady pace sure to enrapture the thinking man’s viewer. A similar American film would be Paul Schrader’s First Reformed (2017), starring Ethan Hawke. Corpus Christi (2019) needs no explosions, CGI effects, bombs, or car chases to grip the viewer and provide a truthful story based on honest emotion.

Oscar Nominations: Best International Film

Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore-1974

Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore-1974

Director-Martin Scorsese

Starring-Ellen Burstyn, Kris Kristofferson, Diane Ladd

Scott’s Review #1,075

Reviewed October 27, 2020

Grade: A-

Deserving of the Best Actress statuette she won for her role, Ellen Burstyn carries the film Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974) from start to finish with drama and comedy. I can’t watch any performance of Burstyn’s without smarting at how she lost the same award years later after her frighteningly good performance in Requiem for a Dream released in 2000. She was defeated by Julia Roberts, who gave an adequate though unexceptional performance in Erin Brockovich (2000). But, I digress.

A character study Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, tells the powerful story of a woman (Burstyn) forced to begin a new life and forge her own path after her husband is killed in a car accident. She is thirty-five years old and wary of middle age approaching as she pursues a singing career. She is joined by her young son, Tommy (Alfred Lutter), and faces fear and loneliness as the pair embarks on a journey throughout the southwestern United States. She dates, fights, and does a soul-search, finally landing a job as a waitress at a roadside diner.

On paper, this film could have been reduced to television movie status as the premise sounds kind of corny and sentimental. Shocking to me is that Martin Scorsese directed it. Best known for male-driven mobster pictures like Goodfellas (1993), Gangs of New York (2002), and The Irishman (2019), an introspective female journey film doesn’t seem like his thing. A fun fact is that he agreed to direct at Burstyn’s urging as she wouldn’t have starred in it otherwise. The actress surmised that the script needed more darkness and grit, which it contains without losing its heart.

A strange yet lovely photographed scene kicks off the picture and seems to be an homage to The Wizard of Oz (1939). With a dusty, golden backdrop, a young Alice looks like Dorothy with an idyllic life. Suddenly, Alice’s mother bellows her to come home for dinner. She responds with salty language. The scene feels out of place based on the rest of the film but looks good.

Burstyn made me care about Alice from the first scene containing adult Alice. Alice is a good person. She is hard-working and strives to please her husband, hoping he will enjoy the delicious dinner she has prepared for him. He barely grunts at the meal and has a tumultuous relationship with Tommy, who Alice spoils. This plot point returns later in the film. Alice is not a doormat, however, as she provides humor and comic relief during tense moments. She also shares a warm friendship with her neighbor. We do not know what the husband’s demons are (depression?). He and Alice share an emotional moment in bed one night before he dies the next day.

With her marriage behind her and limited financial means, Alice and Tommy take to the road. I adore the relationship between the two. Tommy is not always easy to parent, exhausting his mother with typical young adult nonsense. It’s easy to forget that he has lost his father and has no direction. Their relationship is complicated but there is much love.

The juiciness comes when Alice finally lands a singing gig at a seedy lounge bar and meets the maniacal Ben, played flawlessly by Harvey Keitel. At first, he is charming and attentive, wooing her like she’s never been wooed before. When she learns he is married he turns psycho and she is forced to leave town. The meat of the film comes when Alice begins working at the diner and meets her new friend, Flo (Diane Ladd), and her new love David (Kris Kristofferson). After some trials and tribulations, Alice realizes her life is not so bad.

As much as there are dramatic elements Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore is not soap opera or overwrought. The scenes and situations bristle with energy and authenticity and this is thanks to the great acting and fluid direction. My favorite scenes occur at the diner. With greasy, blue plate specials and dishes piled with ham, eggs, and hash browns, the working-class extras are perfectly positioned around the diner. In the background, they lend a feeling of rush, chaos, and family traditions. The diner scenes are where Alice bonds the most with Flo and David and are delicious.

Turned into a popular television sitcom in the late 1970s named Alice, a lighter, wholesome production, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974) is a progressive story about a woman on her own and getting it done, mustering courage no matter what life throws at her. It’s an inspiring story for both women and men.

Oscar Nominations: Best Actress-Ellen Burstyn (won), Best Supporting Actress-Diane Ladd, Best Original Screenplay

The Boys in the Band-2020

The Boys in the Band-2020

Director-Joe Mantello

Starring-Jim Parsons, Zachary Quinto, Matt Bomer

Scott’s Review #1,073

Reviewed October 21, 2020

Grade: A-

One may ask themselves why bother checking out the 2020 version of the legendary (and dark!) 1970 stage turned cinematic rendition of the sniping and vicious gay drama The Boys in the Band? Mostly because of the wonderful cast- a cast featuring the troupe who starred in the recent 2018 stage revival. But more than that the film feels surprisingly modern and relevant and provides a message of hope that the original did not contain.

Crucial and historical to point out is that every principle actor is openly gay and their characters are gay, or bisexual. My, how much progress has been made for actors when not too long ago an “out” actor risked both reputation and career for the price of his truth. This is monumental.

The remake wisely keeps to the crucial time-period of 1968, and really, how could a modern setting work at all? Being gay in 1968 is nothing like being gay in 2020, I don’t care if it is the Upper East Side of Manhattan. To bring this film to any other time would diminish its power and importance. If anything, it makes one proud how far the LGBTQ+ community has come, though there are further advancements left to make.

Alas, the Vietnam era is safely intact, during a time when a strip of gay bars and a group of gay friends were the only thing to keep a gay man from going crazy regardless of how abusive they were. This will hopefully teach young gay viewers, or anyone else, what being a gay male was like over 50 years ago. When the rest of the world was deemed “normal” and you were cast aside as either a sexual deviant or a head case this is powerful. Self-hatred, denial, or the closet were commonalities.

The Boys in the Band has no females save for a blink and you’ll miss it moment featuring a snooty neighbor. Important to realize is that the film is pre A.I.D.S epidemic in a time of carefree love and endless hookups, where booze and drugs were a necessary escape and usual was to feel out of sorts on a regular basis.

A few characters are effeminate. One is presumably bisexual and closeted, and one is masculine and recently divorced from a woman, now cohabiting with a male lover, one is black, and one is an escort. Each character comes from a different walk of life but are bonded. The running of the gamut of unique types and personalities is part of why I love this story.

The events commence one evening when Michael (Jim Parsons) throws a birthday party for friend Harold (Zachary Quinto) at his apartment. They are joined by other friends Donald (Matt Bomer), Hank (Tuc Watkins), Larry (Andrew Rannalls), Bernard (Michael Benjamin Washington), Emory (Robin de Jesus).  Guests include Cowboy (Charlie Carver), a “birthday present” for Harold, and Alan (Brian Hutchison), a college friend of Michael’s. As the booze flows talk gets vicious and the claws come out.

The men, prompted by a drunken Michael, play a daring game of “telephone”. Each guest is dared to call the one person he truly believes he has loved. With each call, past scars and present anxieties are revealed in tortuous fashion. This is when the film really gets interesting. Bernard and Emory bear the brunt the hardest as their phone calls take a tremendous toll on each.

Parsons and Quinto are the standouts. As the lead, the character of Michael seems stable at first. He is stylish, well-dressed, and lives in a reputable apartment. Though unemployed, he once traveled the world. Parsons slowly unleashes the vicious fury contained within Michael the more he drinks. He enjoys hurting others just as he has been hurt. The catalyst to his character is Alan. Are they in love? Is Michael in love with Alan? Alan takes a fancy to masculine Hank.

Quinto, as Harold the self-professed “ugly, pock-marked Jew fairy”, is becoming increasingly morose about losing his youthful looks and his ability to attract cute young men. The catalyst to his character is Cowboy, who has those qualities that Harold lacks. Strangely, Harold and Michael are best friends, both loving and hating each other. After brutalizing each other with words, Harold exits the apartment announcing he will call Michael tomorrow. They’ve been through this before and probably will again.

No, The Boys in the Band circa 2020 is not quite on par with The Boys in the Band circa 1970, but this is merely because brilliance is a tough act to replicate. The modern telling is an absolute joy and will hopefully recruit fresh audiences to the perils and brutality is was to be gay in another time.

Thanks to Ryan Murphy for adapting this project to Netflix as part of his United States $300 million deal with the streaming platform.

Thieves Like Us-1974

Thieves Like Us-1974

Director-Robert Altman

Starring-Keith Carradine, Shelley Duvall

Scott’s Review #1,071

Reviewed October 16, 2020

Grade: A

The first time I saw Thieves Like Us (1974) I was not blown away. I have forgotten what my original gripe was, but my lackluster star rating on Netflix years ago is confirmation of such. All is now forgiven and like a fine wine, this film gets better and better with each viewing. It’s basically a gangster film, but a heart-wrenching story containing one of the sweetest romances in cinema history.

Based on the novel of the same name by Edward Anderson, director Robert Altman, famous for allowing his actors to ad-lib their lines to their heart’s content and peppering his films with overlapping, “real-life” dialogue, limits this technique this time around. His stars, Keith Carradine and Shelley Duvall, regular fixtures in his films, are the main attraction, but supporting players like Louise Fletcher, Bert Remsen, and John Schuck give tremendous performances.

Set in the 1930’s United States, Deep South Mississippi, the time-period and location are key elements to the success of the film. Having never have set foot in this geographical area, I nonetheless found myself escaping there and ruminating what it would have been like to live there in the Great Depression era. The many outdoor sequences with trees, forests, country roads, and home-cooked meals provide a luminous atmosphere and texture. Small town living never felt so good and cozy.

Wisely, Altman steers clear of any racial overtones or dialogue within the film. The film is not about that. There appear many black characters mostly in the background, townspeople scenes, or as prisoners which add flavor. But they are represented as living among other folks without any aggression or stereotypes. They simply are and it feels like the South. Altman crafts an experience of understated, good storytelling, proving a quality film can be quiet and proud, not needing explosive bells and whistles to prove showy. The dialogue crackles on its own and is smart.

The plot is compelling. Bowie (Carradine) is an escaped convict who embarks on a crime spree with fellow former prisoners Chicamaw (John Schuck) and T-Dub (Bert Remsen). While in hiding between bank robberies, Bowie meets a young woman named Keechie (Duvall), and the two quickly fall in love. A life of crime doesn’t sit well with Keechie, however, so she and Bowie try to settle down, but the law is determined to bring him to justice.

The fun is in watching romance blossom between Bowie and Keechie. Despite Bowie being a criminal, his character contains sweetness and purity that matches like a glove with the whimsical truth and simplicity of Keechie. Throughout the length of the film, I compared the characters to the legendary icons, Bonnie and Clyde, from the self-titled cinema masterpiece. They are similar but different. The pair sit quietly on the front porch talking about life and the future, optimistically planning their lives together unaware of what fate has in store for them. Their innocence and their goofy humor made me fall in love with them.

The relationship between the three men is apt. They have each other’s backs and are loyal to a fault. The men are convicts and cause death and injury, but there is a humanity that Altman gives to each character. We do not think of them as derelicts. When Bowie poses as a sheriff to break Chickamaw from prison, we root for the escape and not for the warden. Bowie kills the warden, shocking Chickamaw. Even with dispute comes caring between the men.

It does take patience to get into this film, probably I did not give the film its due on my first watch. Once the film ends I was left with a feeling of having experienced something of value and an artistic cinematic visionary story. The homespun characters eating a feast of meat and southern biscuits and discussing the day’s event are rich and atmospheric.

Carradine and Duvall would reunite a year later in another Altman masterpiece, Nashville (1975) playing vastly different characters, both unlikable, so a recommendation is to watch both films back to back to appreciate the dizzying morphed characterization. Thieves Like Us (1974) is no mere opening act for Nashville but of a different ilk.

The film is a treasure.

Clemency-2019

Clemency-2019

Director-Chinonye Chukwu

Starring-Alfre Woodard, Richard Schiff

Scott’s Review #1,068

Reviewed October 7, 2020

Grade: A-

I will be candid. Clemency (2019) is not a film that will be everybody’s cup of tea. The topics of prison, execution, and psychological conflict among its characters are quite the heavies. After a long day of work and the desire to snuggle on a comfy couch with a tall glass of wine, this film may not be recommended. But, for those seeking a thought-provoking experience about timely and serious social issues, with racial overtones, Clemency is a riveting and powerful story. This film is written well, and it matters.

Haggard, prison warden Bernadine Williams (Alfre Woodard) trudges along day after day managing the multitude of tasks that her job requires of her. She is committed to overseeing the prison executions and experiences her twelfth at the start of the film. The procedure is botched causing the prisoner excess pain and an investigation is launched. Bernadine is conflicted and consumed by her job causing her marriage to Jonathan (Wendell Pierce) to deteriorate and her visits to a local watering hole to increase.

When Bernadine takes interest in Anthony Woods (Aldis Hodge) a prisoner slated for execution in a case receiving national media attention and prison protests, her conflict escalates. Anthony’s ex-girlfriend (Danielle Brooks) and attorney (Richard Schiff) play vital roles, especially when the convicted cop killer’s innocence is called into question. Will he or won’t he receive a last-minute pardon from the governor sparing his life?

Chinonye Chukwu, a rookie director, is a black, Nigerian, female with lots of interesting things to say and a bright future ahead of her. She also penned the screenplay and tackles a weighty issue of great controversy in the United States. The age-old debate of whether capital punishment is inhumane or even thwarts crime in the film’s subconscious, but neither is the film about that per se. The fact that Chukwu and her characters of Bernadine and Anthony are both black introduces an additional racial element. In the time of “Black Lives Matter”, this is a powerful statement.

To say that Clemency is a downer is an understatement, though it leaves the viewer with some sense of hope amid an ambiguous ending. I won’t spoil the film, but we wonder what will become of Bernadine. Has she had enough of the prison lifestyle and decide to fly off in a new direction or is she so consumed by her work that she is trapped for life, too forgone for any growth?

The final sequence is brilliant. An impending execution, emotional goodbyes are said, and a full minute or so of a closeup scene focused on Woodard’s face taps a range of emotions that includes compassion, disgust, and unbridled sadness. The gloomy and stark atmosphere that Chukwu presents fills the film with a bleakness that is eclipsed ever slightly by the possibility of change.

A common theme, and not only with Bernadine, is the need to be heard and the frightening perception of being invisible. Jonathan, in a strong supporting role by Pierce, is the perfect husband. A teacher, he is responsible, loyal, and even prepares a surprise dinner on their anniversary. He feels diminished by Bernadine and resides in a motel after he has had too much. Anthony’s attorney and a priest, both plan to soon retire, feeling their jobs are pointless, they are not heard, and their work neither appreciated nor noticed.

Interesting that Chukwu does not reveal which state within the United States the twelve or thirteen executions take place in, though we can only guess it’s somewhere in the south, Clemency (2019) is a bold offering fraught with debate, questions, and character conflict. A slow build, there is much to savor and mull over, and the story feels personal. Woodard gives a soaring performance with exceptional work by all the supporting players.

I cannot wait to see what Chukwu comes up with next.

Independent Spirit Award Nominations: Best Feature, Best Female Lead-Alfre Woodard, Best Screenplay

Agatha Christie’s Evil Under the Sun-1982

Agatha Christie’s Evil Under the Sun-1982

Director-Guy Hamilton

Starring-Peter Ustinov, Diana Rigg, Maggie Smith

Scott’s Review #1,065

Reviewed September 29, 2020

Grade: B+

Following the success of Murder on the Orient Express (1974) and Death on the Nile (1978), Agatha Christie’s Evil Under the Sun (1982) is of similar formula and is an entertaining yarn. The experience is like savoring a favorite meal- we know what we will get, and we dive in with pleasure.

Director Guy Hamilton, famous for directing four James Bond films, takes the director’s chair and keeps the action moving quickly crafting an enjoyable effort with a bit more humor than Christie’s novel in which it is based. Nearly on par with the two films save more predictability, this one nonetheless is a fine and joyous offering.

The setup remains the same, only the setting changed, as the affluent characters flock to a swanky resort area for fun and frolicking amid the Adriatic island with a saucer full of secrets and enough intrigue to last a lifetime. Peter Ustinov returns as detective Poirot in a very good effort. The man sleuths his way to a final revelation common in these films as the whodunit culminates in unmasking the murderer or murderers and bringing them to justice. Spoiler alert- there are two killers. The juicy reveal takes place as all suspects are gathered and nervously fret possible accusations.

I found it easy to figure out the culprits since they are written as the most secretive, but it’s fun watching the unraveling and the explanation of their motivations. Also enjoyable is how each character has a specific axe to grind with the victim. Agatha Christie’s Evil Under the Sun is a solid, classic, whodunit done very well, and the characters are rather well-written and the acting stellar.

The action starts off mysteriously in the North York Moors when a hiker finds a strangled, female victim. In quick fashion Hercule Poirot is asked to examine a diamond belonging to rich industrialist, Sir Horace Blatt (Colin Blakely). The diamond deemed a fake, Blatt’s mistress, famous actress Arlena Stuart Marshall (Diana Rigg) has suspicion cast upon her. Events then switch to the resort island as we are left to ponder what the dead woman at the beginning has to do with anything. In good time the audience finds out and this is ultimately satisfying.

As usual a large principal cast is introduced along with well-known stars. Daphne Castle (Maggie Smith) owns the lavish hotel and caters to Arlena’s put upon husband, Kenneth (Denis Quilley) and stepdaughter, Linda (Emily Hone), while Arlena openly flirts with the yummy Patrick (Nicholas Clay), who has fun prancing and preening wearing next to nothing. Other characters are the husband and wife producers Odell and Myra Gardener (James Mason and Sylvia Miles), gay writer Rex Brewster (Roddy McDowell), and Patrick’s ailing wife, Christine (Jane Birkin). Each has an issue with Arlena, who is the intended murder victim.

Like Murder on the Orient Express and Death on the Nile, the setting is a character itself. Though not a train nor a boat, the sunny and sandy island is the perfect locale. The water, a noon cannon, suntan lotion, and a watch are the items most important in the whodunit but wait there’s more! A tennis match, the cliffs, and a by the minute timeline are of utmost importance to figure out the mystery. The point of a film like this, as with the treasured Agatha Christie books, is deducing the why’s and how’s of the murder.

Delicious are the scenes featuring Daphne and Arlena going toe-to-toe and truthfully, there are just not enough of them. Bitch versus bitch, as they trade barbs and snickering insults with glee, Smith and Rigg clearly enjoy their roles and the audience is treated as such. Rigg is great as the bad girl, relishing in offending nearly everyone she encounters, and Smith speaks volumes with her eyes.

As for the male characters, Nicholas Clay gets my vote for sexiest man of the year. With his lean, toned, bronzed chest and white shorts which he confidently pulls up to reveal his bare butt cheeks as he struts near the pool, he can have any girl he wants (and possibly guys) he adds layers to the film. The biggest riddle is what he has in common with his wife, Christine, who is saddled with health issues, and simply not fun.

Staying largely true to the novel, Agatha Christie’s Evil Under the Sun (1982) will satisfy its intended audience. A herculean author penning characters like Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple, everyman and everywoman sleuths, this film was the last to be a big-screen affair. Made for television movies would soon follow. A lavish landscape, bitchy characters, scheming characters, murder and mayhem, are the recipe of the day for a good time.

Sunday Bloody Sunday-1971

Sunday Bloody Sunday-1971

Director-John Schlesinger

Starring-Glenda Jackson, Peter Finch, Murray Head

Scott’s Review #1,062

Reviewed September 15, 2020

Grade: A

Whether it’s the late 1960’s style or the British sophistication or the ahead of its time subject matter, John Schlesinger’s Sunday Bloody Sunday (1971) is a brazen and mature piece of filmmaking. With fantastic acting mostly on the part of Glenda Jackson and Peter Finch, the film is subdued enough to contain the drama while letting the underlying plot marinate and flourish rather than being forced or overdone.

That’s not to say Sunday Bloody Sunday is an easy watch. The main characters stew and simmer rather than explode as the audience comes to grips with their feelings, emotions, and motivations as painful as they can be. Schlesinger offers the complexities of the characters as we get inside their heads during multiple scenes as cameras carefully pan in on their facial expressions. The intention is to read their minds or think we know what they are thinking.

The three characters featured are Alex (Glenda Jackson), a divorced and restless recruitment worker, a young, free-spirited artist, Bob (Murray Head), and a gay, Jewish, doctor named Daniel (Peter Finch). Bob openly dates both Alex and Daniel, who are aware of the existence of the other and even have common friends. Instead of scheming against the other in hopes of poisoning their character with Bob, they deal with acceptance and a host of other emotions.

A triangle ensues, though not one with a clear couple to root for, nor is it clear who we want to root for. Sunday Bloody Sunday is not that trite or simplistic and this is the beauty of the film. Each character can be analyzed for individual motivations, peculiarities, and desires that sometimes overlap. The added perk of one character being straight, one character being bisexual, and one character being gay only adds flavor and lustful desire. Sunday Bloody Sunday is a character study if ever there was one.

Screenwriter, Penelope Gilliatt, writes a piece so bristling with the unpredictability that the characters and situations are deep and troubling. My favorite character is Daniel, the most adjusted of the three, but a character who would typically be written as the most maladjusted. Schlesinger had directed the brilliant Midnight Cowboy (1969) two mere years earlier, a film that depicted gay characters as troubled and self-hating. Gilliatt crafts Daniel as confident, successful, and masculine, avoiding all stereotypes.

I immediately had thoughts of Ken Russell’s masterpiece, Women in Love, made only one year earlier in 1970, and starring Jackson. Featuring four characters rather than only three, both films are British and feature the complexities of sexual orientation, jealousy, and loneliness. Women in Love is a slightly better film, but only by a small margin, probably because there is one additional character to consider. Both charter then barely touched territory when it was still taboo to explore homosexuality in film.

Adorable is a scene at a Bar Mitzvah given to Daniel’s nephew. As the merriment commences several women are bound to be interested in Daniel, what with him being a successful doctor. He doesn’t have any interest naturally, but politely makes small talk with one woman. The scene is so natural and at ease that it is wonderful and reaffirming to see a gay character treated with such dignity and richness, his problems not being a result of being gay but of being a human being.

Daniel and Alex compete for Bob’s affections but in a polite way. Instead of hating each other, they hate the situation. Bob is not the nicest guy in the world so the question can be raised as to why they both feel the way they do about him. But this hardly matters when the heart wants what it wants. The most interesting and realistic scenes occur when each couple lies in bed together or makes small talk over a meal. This offers a glimpse of what day-to-day treasures they each could enjoy.

For those in the mood for a film rife with emotion and psychologically complex feelings wrapped inside a good drama will find Sunday Bloody Sunday (1971) a pure treat. Trimmings like glimpses of the gorgeous city of London lend themselves to added nuances. Each time this film is viewed it could easily be watched from the perspective of either Alex, Bob, or Daniel.

Oscar Nominations: Best Director-John Schlesinger, Best Actor-Peter Finch, Best Actress-Glenda Jackson, Best Original Screenplay

Across the Universe-2007

Across the Universe-2007

Director-Julie Taymor

Starring-Evan Rachel Wood, Jim Sturgess

Scott’s Review #1,057

Reviewed August 27, 2020

Grade: A

Across the Universe (2007) is a film that some will deem sappy or trite or classify as a cliched love story, and admittedly some of those elements exist. But the film offers so much more. Truthfully, the romance genre is not usually for me, for those very reasons. Somehow the inclusion of The Beatles songs and the psychedelic backdrop of musical compositions makes the film beautiful, lovely, and charismatic. The war effects and the healthy dose of chemistry by the lead actors make this a winner in my book.

I adore the pairing of lovebirds Lucy and Jude, played by Evan Rachel Wood and Jim Sturgess. The chemistry between them sizzles from the moment they appear together, though this takes a while to happen. When it does, over a savory Thanksgiving meal and while bowling, I was hooked, and most audiences were too. The beauty is that we experience the characters separately first and get to know them well. The love story is the meat and potatoes of Across the Universe. If the connection between Jude and Lucy were not there the film would not work.

This is far from merely a love story, though. That is only one facet. A hefty thirty-four Beatles compositions are included throughout the film, all strategically placed in clever fashion to match the scene. For example, when Jude is working in a Liverpool shipyard in the 1960’s, he reminisces about a girl he has loved and lost to the tune of “Girl”. In a matching sequence Lucy frets about her current boyfriend heading off to the Vietnam War while singing “Hold Me Tight”.

The 1960’s time-period is brilliantly placed to add not only a clear juxtaposition to when the Beatles ruled the world, but during a frightening time in world history when many young soldiers died needlessly during the ravaging war. The mixture of the war, the songs, and the hybrid of live action and animation provides a magical, other-worldly quality that is perfect. It provides a feeling of escapism to the deadly war. The visuals and the gorgeous colors are a complete contrast to the grey and dark war elements.

Julie Taymor takes an anti-war, activist stance created through the main characters when Jude and Lucy proclaim themselves revolutionaries. This occurs when the war hits home after Lucy’s brother is drafted. They sadly realize they may never see Daniel again, and they are right. Taymor gives a personal touch to the characters and a political decision is made that shapes the film. I found the stance perfectly logical given the characters and their viewpoints, but some audience members could be turned off or feel slighted depending on their beliefs. I love the point she makes that war is bad.

Twenty-five of the vocal tracks are performed by one or more of the six lead cast members. My favorite treasures are the new takes on classic songs, especially “Come Together” and “With a Little Help from My Friends” which are unusual and elegant. When Daniel is killed in Vietnam, and in Detroit a young boy is killed in the 1967 riot (combined “Let It Be”), the moment is sentimental and powerful. A dry eye will not be left.

Locales such as Greenwich Village, New York City show the creative artists who inhabit those streets. The riot-fueled streets of Detroit, Michigan are featured, and finally the dirty and jungle killing fields of Vietnam provide a diverse slate of experiences. The love story and musical soundtrack provide exceptional emotion to an important and timeless film. Across the Universe (2007) is artistic and inspirational.

Oscar Nominations: Best Costume Design

About Schmidt-2002

About Schmidt-2002

Director-Alexander Payne

Starring-Jack Nicholson, Kathy Bates

Scott’s Review #1,054

Reviewed August 18, 2020

Grade: A-

Anyone familiar with the works of director Alexander Payne knows that the man is notorious for crafting pictures with a wry humor and dark sarcasm mixed with emotion. Election-1999, Sideways-2004, and The Descendants-2011 immediately spring to mind. Interestingly, several of his projects are set in Omaha, Nebraska, not exactly a hotbed of excitement, but there is a reason for this- he embraces the every man. Payne also has a knack for casting big stars, sometimes before they are big stars, giving them meaty and clever roles to sink their teeth into.

With About Schmidt (2002) he hits the jackpot and obtains the legendary Jack Nicholson, an actor famous for turning down many roles that simply aren’t good. This already bodes well for the film which spotlights an older character and plants the spotlight firmly on him, admirable in youth obsessed Hollywood. The film is very good, sometimes adding stock characters, but an admirable, worthwhile effort with surprisingly strong emotion and sentimentality. The result was both a critical and commercial success and is highly recommended.

The film kicks off showing Walter Schmidt (Nicholson) literally staring at the clock in his office, day after day counting the minutes until his shift concludes and he goes home for dinner. He has a dull job as an actuary at a life insurance company. Finally, one day he retires and feeling useless, sponsors an African child, the two become quick pen pals. Suddenly, Walter’s wife, Helen (June Squibb), dies as they are about to embark on a cross country trip in their Winnebago. Devastated, he finally goes it alone.

About Schmidt is a film with many emotions: happy, angry, sad. Walter is a lonely, unhappy man, in a loveless marriage with Helen, though he doesn’t have the heart to tell her. She’s a nice lady, but the honeymoon ended years ago, and the spark has dulled. At the same time, he has a tough time coping with her death and can barely cook, clean, or do laundry. He uncovers a secret about his wife that both turn his life into free fall and inspires him to conjure up the nerve to live a little.

Walter is a great character and exhibits traits of many, many men. He is someone for audiences (especially male) to relate to and fall in love with. Bored with life, he is used to doing the same thing every day, no doubt eating the same meals, going to bed at the same time each night, etc. Helen really dictates what he does, reducing him to urinating sitting down. Audiences will champion his reemergence to the land of the living! The fun is witnessing his escapades.

A hilarious sequence erupts when he meets the vivacious Roberta Hertzel (Kathy Bates). She is the mother of Walter’s daughter Jeannie’s (Hope Davis) intended, Randall (Dermot Mulroney) and has a voracious sexual appetite. She immediately sets her sights on Walter and attempts to seduce the unwitting man in her hot tub. Bates is terrific in the role and her nude scene is something to always remember and major props to the actress for letting it all hang out!

The characters of Jeannie and Randall are not written especially well, and I was not a fan at all. They are “types” meant to complicate the plot or effect other characters in some way. Actors Davis and Mulroney do their best with what they are provided, but they are meant to be obstacles for Walter to overcome. He loves his daughter and doesn’t want to see her marry a jerk. Jeannie is angry because her life hasn’t turned out the way she wanted it to, so she takes it out on Walter. I did not buy or bond with Jeannie or Randall the way I did with Walter and Roberta.

Nicholson’s performance is one of the best of his career and certainly the most multi-faceted. The final scene when he returns home to find a note from his pen pal with a sentimental crayon drawing is electric with emotion, feeling authentic and is a pivotal breakthrough for Walter. The character runs the course from submissive and lost to emboldened and strong. It’s a joy to watch his progression.

I love how Payne frequently celebrates and showcases older characters who are more than providers of advice, good listeners, or some other watered-down stock characters. They have their own stories and enriched, meaningful lives. About Schmidt (2002) has it all and is one of Payne’s top films deservedly showcasing this generation in cinema.

Oscar Nominations: Best Actor-Jack Nicholson, Best Supporting Actress-Kathy Bates

A Woman Under the Influence-1974

A Woman Under the Influence-1974

Director-John Cassavetes

Starring-Gena Rowlands, Peter Falk

Scott’s Review #1,051

Reviewed August 11, 2020

Grade: A

I champion films that are not necessarily easy to digest but are well-worth the struggle if the result is either a fantastic pay-off or the afterglow of watching something of worth or substance. A Woman Under the Influence (1974) is a grueling watch for the ferocious intensity alone that Gena Rowlands infuses into her emotionally challenged title character. Rowlands and director/writer/husband John Cassavetes changed the face of independent film forever with this project.

Critical film darling and fantastic director Cassavetes specifically wrote the screenplay of A Woman Under the Influence for Rowlands who wanted to play the character but could not take the strain of playing her eight days a week on stage as originally envisioned. Thus, the project was birthed using their own money to finance the making of it. Co-star Peter Falk also contributed financially. Each served as makeup artist, gofer, or performed other non-actor or non-director tasks to achieve the end results. A real house was used to film in rather than on a studio set.

The film was rebuffed by distributors and Cassavetes begged to have it shown at college campuses where he would discuss the film afterwards. It was the first time in the history of motion pictures that an independent film was distributed without the use of a nationwide system of sub-distributors. This is the main reason that Cassavetes is heralded as an independent film god and has a category named after him at the annual Independent Spirit Film Awards.

Rowlands parts mountains to make this role her own and she is passionate about it. Originally only seeing the legendary actress in one film, the gritty Gloria (1980), I kept a notion of her as the impatient, tough-as-nails, mobster girlfriend that she played in that excellent film (also directed by Cassavetes). In A Woman Under the Influence, made six years prior to Gloria, she plays a much more vulnerable, to say nothing of unhinged, character. This is not to say that Mabel is crazy in a psychotic sort of way. She is loving and adoring of her husband, Nick (Falk), and kids Margaret and Angelo. Rowlands puts her versatility on display.

In her desperate attempts to keep her family happy she tries to put on a brave front as she dutifully cooks dinner, puts her kids to bed, and kisses her husband. Inside though she is dying and unsure what is wrong with her. She knows she is unhappy and doesn’t know why. What she does know is that she is slowly going insane.

At the risk of making A Woman Under the Influence Rowland’s film as the title implies, it’s really not. Falk does not merely serve as a supporting player to her story but blossoms with one of his own. The story could have easily been told only from Mabel’s perspective, but we see such a range of emotions from Falk as his character tries desperately to keep it together. This is great acting. Nick thinks that inviting friends over to celebrate Mabel’s return home from the hospital is a good idea, and realizing it’s not, angrily sends them home. His emotions spiral as much as hers do, but in a different way.

The best scenes are the most emotionally taxing for all. When Mabel talks gibberish at a speed of a mile a minute, Nick tries to be patient but soon explodes with anger, sympathetic to his wife but also exhausted beyond belief. When Mabel and Nick spar fireworks explode. In pure Cassavetes genius there lies no solution to Mabel’s woes and we wonder what will happen to her. Will she eventually be institutionalized for life? Will she take her own life or someone else’s life? The vagueness is its beauty.

A Woman Under the Influence (1974) is one of the most realistic films ever made to focus on mental illness in a difficult and truthful way. To add boldness to the tough subject matter, especially given the time-period made when we now know more about the disease, Cassavetes and Rowlands add a feminist quality to the film while also showcasing the male point of view. 1970’s cinema oozed with creativity, richness, and experimentation. True artists emerged, who have created an important legacy on small budgeted films forever.

Oscar Nominations: Best Director-John Cassavetes, Best Actress-Gena Rowlands

The Tin Drum-1979

The Tin Drum-1979

Director-Volker Schlöndorff

Starring-David Bennent, Angela Winkler

Scott’s Review #1,047

Reviewed July 31, 2020

Grade: A

A fantastic and mesmerizing film experience that goes deeper than most films do the longer you stick with it, The Tin Drum (1979) takes a brutal point in world history and completes a layered production. The film brings humor morphing into tragedy and back again in the most original of ways seen through the eyes of a young boy named Oskar (David Bennent), who decides to physically grow no further than three-years-old in an allegory of political turmoil amid World War II. The film is riddled with thought provocation and historical meaning resulting in brilliance.

The film begins in 1899 and ends in the early 1940’s. The story starts hilariously in Polish lands when Oskar’s grandfather meets his grandmother while fleeing police. Their tryst in a potato field produces Oskar’s mother, Agnes (Angela Winkler). She is then later torn between two men, her cousin Jan (Daniel Olbrychski) and Alfred Matzerath (Mario Adorf), whom she marries. Oskar is born with his parentage in question since Agnes carries on an affair with Jan throughout the years. Oskar’s grandfather flees to America and becomes rich sans family.

When Oskar turns three, he is given a tin drum as a present that he adores and refuses to part with. He throws himself down the cellar stairs much to his family’s chagrin and develops the uncanny ability to shatter glass by screaming at a high pitch. As the 1930’s become the 1940’s Oskar witnesses his mother’s affair, her tragic death, his father’s and uncle’s deaths, and a beloved Jewish man committing suicide rather than being caught by the Nazis. He finds love with a sixteen-year-old shop girl named Maria and may or may not father her baby.

The Tin Drum is not always an easy watch and teeters between fun and frightening. Oskar is not the lovable kid next door that everyone adores. He is creepy looking and unattractive at first glance, almost demonic in nature. Actor David Bennent is perfectly cast and has a way of offering moments where he stands transfixed, mouth dropped open, taking in the action and making gazing observations. Oskar goes from three years old when the film begins to a grown man when it ends but never changes appearance.

Some viewers may be bothered by certain scenes. Bennent was only eleven years old and suffered from a growth defect in real-life. More prudish viewers may find the youngster’s intimacy a bit shocking since he appears nude and beds a woman in full view. I found it in no way gratuitous or exploitative and would argue that it is vital to show the growth and maturation of little Oskar. Foreign language films typically get away with more sex and nudity than American films, but the scenes are artistic and beautiful.

The pacing in The Tin Drum is terrific. At two hours and forty-three minutes there is plenty of time to explore relevant scenes and sequences slowly letting them brew and marinate. The comedy of Oskar’s grandparent’s sexual appetites taking place under her big dress are hilarious and reminiscent of Federico Fellini’s best films. The intriguing dwarf characters that Oskar meets and befriends bring life and zest to the film as they embrace their peculiarities and profit from them encouraging them to do the same.

The second half of The Tin Drum turns dark. Agnes, now pregnant, vomits after witnessing eel being collected on the beach. When they are prepared for dinner, she at first resists then embarks on a fish-eating obsession resulting in her untimely death. Is this an example of showing German’s stuffing themselves with Nazism? The deaths of Jan, Alfred, and others follow in rapid succession as clips of the Nazi occupation are featured.

A valuable history lesson is offered when The Tin Drum incorporates real-life footage of Adolph Hitler. Most frightening is a clip of him outside of the Eiffel Tower in Paris. How he overtook this magical city and almost destroyed it is unfathomable. This perfectly counterbalances the fairy-tale or ridiculousness of other scenes bringing home the terrible message that much of what the film explores are true events.

The greatness that oozes from The Tin Drum (1979) is layered and dynamic. The filming is mostly in West Germany with bits shot in Poland which gives an authenticity of the experience. Other offerings are surrealistic, sometimes child-like innocence, sometimes tragic and too realistic. The picture drizzles with life, energy, synergy, and multi-faceted character relationships. One of the greats to watch more than once to grasp the numerous things going on. The film version is adapted from the novel of the same name, written by Gunter Grass.

Oscar Nominations: Best Foreign Language Film (won)

Pain and Glory-2019

Pain and Glory-2019

Director-Pedro Almodovar

Starring-Antonio Banderas

Scott’s Review #1,042

Reviewed July 20, 2020

Grade: A-

Thought to be director Pedro Almodóvar’s most personal effort to date, Pain and Glory (2019) showcases the talents of actor Antonio Banderas, who has been appearing in Almodóvar’s films since 1982. A character study, the film poetically reflects on the life of an aging film maker (Banderas) who aches to find his lost creative soul while reminiscing about his first love. The triumphant film could have been faster paced, but above all celebrates life, regret, and pain, and is thus inspiring.

Salvador Mallo (Banderas) is a once well-known filmmaker well on the decline personally and professionally. He suffers from health maladies leaving him in chronic pain and has lost his knack for crafting good projects. When he runs into an old friend and actress, Zulema (Cecilia Roth), who barely acts anymore and is reduced to accepting any roles offered to her, he decides to visit the lead actor from his best-known film, Sabor. Salvador hasn’t spoken to Alberto (Asier Etxeandia) in thirty-years and both ruminate over the film as it is to be remastered and celebrated.

Once a subject of contention, Salvador and Alberto begin to smoke heroin prompting Salvador to revisit his childhood memories, rediscovering life. His most prominent memory is when he and his father and mother Jacinta (Penelope Cruz) move to a whitewashed cave to live. There he meets and befriends an older laborer, whom he teaches to read. Salvador discovers his sexuality through this young man after seeing him naked.

Years later, during the 1980’s, Salvador falls madly in love with Federico (Leonardo Sbaraglia) and the pair share a passionate love-affair that deteriorates at the end of the decade. In present times, Federico re-emerges and tracks down Salvador. They reconnect, sharing drinks and memories, nearly reigniting their passion. Federico is now married to a woman and raising kids in Argentina, but the powerful memories resurface, and the men flirt and gaze at one another longingly.

The film utterly belongs to Banderas. The actor has charisma in many other roles, but Salvador might be his crowning achievement. It’s such a personal role and written specifically for the actor by Almodóvar. He possesses the ability to grasp the viewer into his clutches and never let go. From the agonizing pain he experiences daily causing him to choke for no reason to his inability to fulfill his now elderly mother’s dying wish to die in her village after accusing him of never loving her, we empathize with him every step of the way.

His sexuality discovered and revealed at a young age, Salvador’s longing and unfulfilled passion are the most intricate and nuanced aspects of the film. As the laborer draws a picture of Salvador, which he rediscovers later, there is unspoken passion between the youngsters. In later years, his assistant nudges him to look the laborer up via Google, to see where he is, perhaps reconnecting. Salvador refuses, sinking in regret of what might have been.

To build on this, his fling with Federico as a young man, shown via flashbacks, is powerful. The scene when a teary Federico, during present times, sits in a theater weeping while watching Salvador’s play, is a testament to his love for the man. Unknown is why the relationship failed and Federico gave up men and succumbed to a traditional relationship, but we can only guess Salvador might not have been able to commit. When the men spend an evening together capped off with a passionate kiss but nothing more, we realize how they could have built a wonderful life together. Props to Sbaraglia for a tremendous performance in a small role.

Assuredly, Pain and Glory was patterned after 8 1/2, a 1963 masterpiece penned and directed by Federico Fellini. The themes of regret, writer’s block, and memories come into play throughout both films. Almodóvar even names Salvador’s lover Federico, an obvious tribute to the famous director, known for infusing stylistic touches and non-linear stories.

Like most of Almodóvar’s other projects, Pain and Glory celebrates vibrant colors, sexuality, and passion in its themes. Set in Madrid, the film has a zesty, cultured Spanish flair with blues, greens and oranges. Even though the overarching theme is loss, pain, and missed opportunities, the film is still stacked with rich energy and pizzazz. For those with a fondness for acting, cinema, or creativity there is enough to satisfy.

After decades in the spotlight crafting film after film with resounding results, Pain and Glory (2019) may be the cream of the crop for the Spanish director. Thanks in large part to the tremendous efforts of a legendary actor, the experience will please fans of the director’s and anyone with a taste for a film about zest for life, unfulfilled pleasures, and new experiences.

Oscar Nominations: Best Actor-Antonio Banderas, Best International Feature Film

Ford v Ferrari-2019

Ford v Ferrari-2019

Director-James Mangold

Starring-Matt Damon, Christian Bale

Scott’s Review #1,041

Reviewed July 18, 2020

Grade: B-

Ford v Ferrari (2019) is a film based on a real-life situation in the world of race car driving featuring two of Hollywood’s most recognizable leading men, Matt Damon and Christian Bale. Co-leads, they share equal screen time and independent story lines that merge together nicely. Bale gives the better performance and is the best part of an otherwise mediocre film. The rest is quite formulaic and traditional in plot and film making sensibilities. Receiving several Academy Award nominations, I expected more from the experience. Granted, car racing isn’t the subject I’m most intrigued by.

Carroll Shelby (Damon) is an American car designer and entrepreneur, who is hired by the Ford motor company to build a car that will beat the Italian owned Ferrari after a feud erupts between the two owners. Shelby is tasked with building the car to debut at the upcoming 1966 24 Hours of Le Mans car race in France. Rebellious race car driver, Ken Miles (Bale) who has no fear, is chosen to drive the new car. He and his wife have money troubles and need the pay day.

Director, James Mangold, certainly adds his share of pomp and circumstance clearly making this a testosterone fueled guy’s film. Traditional styles ensue as the climactic race fills the last act of the way too long production. There is a story of loyalty and brotherhood between Carroll and Ken that feels forced and dated. Ford v Ferrari is formulaic to a tee with a clear modus operandi of providing entertainment and action.

The pieces are all in play. The Ford corporation is pissed at being tricked in a deal by a foreign country (Italy). They vow revenge with a big boy American car that can defeat the foreign car. There is a climactic finish with the American car the clear victor. But first, there are hurdles to face to increase the tension and drama. Ken’s driver door malfunctions causing him to have to gain laps to catch up to Ferrari. Ford is written as the underdog which is a tough sell.

Since the real-life events took place during the Cold War, Mangold spins a definitive Americana, good old boys’ creation that feels too patriotic to be genuine. So many other films have a similar vibe- Apollo 13 (1995), The Martian (2015), and especially the similar themed Rush (2013). The Ford guys, though cagey and gruff, are meant to be the characters the audience roots for and the Italian characters are not. And is there really a need to still show the cliched scene of a dedicated wife obediently watching television at home and cheering on her husband as he races?

The gripes are not to say the film is a bad experience- it’s not. It’s just that it’s on par with good Mexican takeout from your favorite restaurant. You know exactly what you are going to get and there is some comfort and satisfaction in that. Ford v Ferrari is an easy watch and one can sink into his or her lazy-boy and enjoy the revving engines, squealing tires, and smoking mufflers. The film is machismo at its finest. Think a better version of The Fast and the Furious (2001-present) franchise.

Let’s talk Oscar nominations. There is no way Ford v Ferrari should have received a Best Picture nomination. Either Us (2019), Hustlers (2019), or A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (2019) could have deservedly taken its spot. Warranted are nominations for Film Editing, Sound Editing and Sound Mixing in which it won the first two. More realistic is for Christian Bale to have been awarded a Best Supporting Actor nomination, which he did not receive. Sometimes the Academy gets it right, sometimes they don’t.

Being a non-race car driving aficionado might have hindered my enjoyment of the film over a more passionate viewer. For those seeking a standard rev ’em up, male driven race car film, kick up your heels and enjoy the ride- you’ll love it. Ford v Ferrari (2019) will only marginally please those seeking deeper meaning in film or film as art. The film will certainly be remembered as one as mainstream and Hollywood produced as humanly possible.

Oscar Nominations: Best Picture, Best Sound Editing (won), Best Sound Mixing, Best Film Editing (won)