Category Archives: Independent Drama Films

Miss Juneteenth-2020

Miss Juneteenth-2020

Director-Channing Godfrey Peoples

Starring-Nicole Beharie, Alexis Chikaeze

Scott’s Review #1,119

Reviewed March 6, 2021

Grade: B+

I love when a topic of relevance is explored in film or when an interesting class of people is represented or given a story worth sharing. It enriches everyone. Black stories and actors are still woefully underutilized in cinema and there is so much more unchartered territory to explore.

Unless it’s a story about racism, slavery, or blacks being saved by whites it isn’t always a film that gets made.

Miss Juneteenth (2020) is a film about the black community and how they support, enrich, and have a conflict with each other but it’s a story about them and how they strive to live the best lives they can.

Turquoise Jones (Nicole Beharie) is a single mom from the vicinity of Fort Worth, Texas who leads a household, raises a blossoming teenager (Alexis Chikaeze), and works at a local watering hole. She’s also a former local beauty queen who once reigned as a “Miss Juneteenth” pageant. The title is meant to celebrate the Black culture and enrich the lives of the contestants with the winner receiving a prestigious scholarship.

Life didn’t turn out as beautifully as the title promised since Turquoise had to drop out when she got pregnant, but she is determined that her daughter, Kai, will become the new Miss Juneteenth, even if Kai wants something else.

To complicate her life, Turquoise’s mother runs a local church and exudes grace and kindness on the surface but secretly battles booze and judges others. Turquoise is also embroiled in a love triangle with separated husband Ronnie (Kendrick Sampson), and local funeral home owner Bacon (Akron Watson). The girl has a lot going on!

I love the message that Miss Juneteenth sends and I hope many within the black community (or any community) see the film. It encourages and inspires those who may not have much money or prospects to be their better selves.

When the pageant contestants are taught which cutlery to use while dining or the difference between a red wine glass and a white wine glass I championed the teachers. These are life skills that teach sophistication, grace, and class despite how much money one has. It’s an important scene to view.

It’s worth noting that Miss Juneteenth doesn’t always hit a home run. I wondered why Turquoise didn’t date Bacon, a man perfectly suited for her. He adores her and is quite a catch. I was frustrated that she kept giving what little money she had to Ronnie. I understand she felt passion for him but after his many examples of unreliability why didn’t she move on?

I wanted her to do more for herself, which she eventually does but it’s also not completely satisfying.

Ideally, I wanted her to hit the road and run for Los Angeles or New York City. Beautiful, Torquoise could have made a better life for herself rather than choosing to stay in the town she had always lived and known.

Directed by Channing Godfried Peoples, I wondered how much of the story was autobiographical and personal to her? I also wondered why Turquoise’s mother was written as she was? Certainly a minor character, I wanted more explanation and discussion over their mother and daughter relationship not just Turquoise and Kai.

Turquoise does live in the past and her desire to spend a fortune (which she didn’t have) on a pageant dress seemed superfluous and overbearing. Understood is her determination though I started to find this aspect slightly irritating after a while. Why didn’t she use the money and leave town?

A character study of one woman’s attempts and struggles to improve her life while residing in her past, Miss Juneteenth (2020) shows the challenges a mother faces when wanting the most for her child. The story is a familiar one but Peoples writes and directs with heart and charm which supersedes the several questions and holes the film has.

The main win is that it will enrich the lives of those who choose to see it.

Independent Spirit Award Nominations: Best First Feature, Best First Screenplay, Best Female Lead-Nicole Beharie, Best Supporting Female-Alexis Chikaeze

Saint Ralph-2004

Saint Ralph-2004

Director-Michael McGowan

Starring-Adam Butcher, Campbell Scott

Scott’s Review #1,118

Reviewed March 3, 2021

Grade: C

Saint Ralph (2004) is an indie drama that is overly sentimental with too many added standard plot points.  This makes the film ho-hum and extremely cliched. It feels like the attempt was to create a major studio film in independent clothes but without the grit afforded most indies. There is plenty of ordinary setups and by the numbers, follow-through over anything different or fresh.

The film is too charming and safe for my tastes and is too feel-good. Maybe there are just too many similar types of movies made that it doesn’t stand out very well. And since it’s an indie shouldn’t it strive for more edginess?

The message is meant to inspire and in a way it does but that only goes so far. Saint Ralph is a story of a young man triumphing over insurmountable odds- wonderful but unrealistic. The religious elements of faith, miracles, and the Catholic high school are lost on me but some may champion those elements better.

I did enjoy the 1950s time-period and its share of decade trimmings and set pieces yet too often they felt stagey and any authenticity doesn’t feel fresh. Rather, like actors clad in period clothing.

The lead kid who plays Ralph (Adam Butcher) isn’t impressive enough though Campbell Scott who plays a priest with more wisdom than he probably should have is the best thing about Saint Ralph.

If I’m being harsh it’s unintentional but Saint Ralph is a film I’ve forgotten about a day or so after seeing. I like a film that sticks with me and makes me think about and Saint Ralph just ain’t it. It’s classified as a tear-jerker and I didn’t shed one.

Ralph is a troubled kid. His father has died in World War II and his mother lies ill in a coma. He smokes and masturbates resulting in adult intervention by way of strict Father Fitzpatrick (Gordon Pinsent) and kindly Father Hibbert (Campbell Scott). He is encouraged to run in the upcoming Boston Marathon and he trains mightily with the right encouragement.

He feels if he trains hard and wins the marathon his mother will be granted a miracle by God, wake up from her coma, and live happily ever after. I won’t spoil the ending but the conclusion will satisfy pious audiences.

I embrace films that feature a character championing certain hardships and Saint Ralph does contain a youthful innocence and earnestness that holds some appeal. I felt myself rooting for him to overcome his problems. No kid deserves those hardships.

The weakness is that I felt manipulated. Since the intention was to root for Ralph it was clear what direction the film was going in and the predictability was at an all-time high.

The training sequences are reminiscent of any sports film. Think of a young Rocky Balboa training for an upcoming fight. And the saccharine ending is riddled in predictably.

Saint Ralph (2004) will ruffle no feathers and only appeal to mainstream audiences seeking safe cinema. Most people will not remember it very well.

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

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

Keep the Lights On-2012

Keep The Lights On-2012

Director-Ira Sachs

Starring-Thure Lindhardt, Zachary Booth

Scott’s Review #1,100

Reviewed January 16, 2021

Grade: A

With such a healthy dose of LGBTQ+ films released during the 2010’s, most independent productions, enough exists to please nearly everyone striving for good diversity in film. Over the years in cinema, it was tough to find specific genre films, rather being forced to seek out subtle clues that filmmakers would incorporate. LGBTQ+ films are now a dime a dozen, which is good but makes some films fall under the radar.

Keep The Lights On (2012) is a romantic drama, rather mysterious, about two men and the nine-year-long love affair they share. It’s not a happy watch because drug addiction is a large part of the story. It portrays the men as human beings with passion, feelings, and experiencing joys and pains, instead of being written as caricatures or comic relief. This is progress, and worthy of much praise.

The only issue with the film is that by 2012, and the decade as a whole, there were so many similar films being made that there’s not enough to distinguish it from other high profile works. The LGBTQ bar was set very high with Brokeback Mountain in 2006, and recent offerings like Carol (2015) and Moonlight (2016) thrust the LGBTQ+ community into the spotlight. Keep The Lights On has many positives, especially cinematically, but it risks getting lost in the shuffle matched up against other genre films. Advisable, is to check out this gem.

It might best be compared to the exceptional same-sex love story, Call Me By Your Name (2017). Both are character-driven and are both happy and tragic.

Keep The Lights On is technically an American film. It feels like an international film, though, because it centers around a Danish filmmaker who lives in New York City. Erik (Thure Lindhardt) is a troubled, creative soul, struggling to complete a documentary about an artist named Avery Willard. He meets and enters into a loving but complicated long-term relationship with Paul (Zachary Booth), a lawyer in the publishing industry who struggles with drug addiction. Therein lies the complicated nature of their relationship. They are bonded but plagues with outside challenges. It begins in 1998 and ends in 2006.

They meet via a phone sex chatline which adds to the sexual mystique. Erik is gay and happily out, but Paul indulges in both men and women and is conflicted sexually. He gets Erik high. Will he lead Erik down a dark path? Will Paul clean up his act or die? Erik and Paul bed numerous other men throughout the story. This is an intriguing addition to the complicated events.

Since the film is about a filmmaker it ought to include cool and inventive camera angles and trimmings, and it does. Ira Sachs, an American director, provides flourishing shots of New York City and gazes through the lens of an actual creative spirit, which justifies the character of Erik.

The story builds quite slowly and plenty of times I awaited something exciting to happen. But real-life is compiled of many small moments and I loved how the film simply is instead of big momentous scenes being added for effect.  The audience is meant to root for Erik and Paul to trot into happily ever after territory. This may or may not happen. Keep The Lights On has a vague ending open to interpretation.

Erik and Paul look similar to each other which I found very interesting. They say that many same-sex couples are attracted to individuals who look like themselves. I’m not sure how true this is, but I wondered if Sachs had a point to make. Can a person have multiple sides to themselves they see through other people? Keep The Lights On is told more from Erik’s perspective and seeing in Paul the dark side of himself.

Key to the honesty that exudes from Keep The Lights On is that the story is based on Sach’s relationship with a publisher he met and fell in love with. The truthfulness comes across on screen, which is a main appeal to the overall experience. I love the title which can be interpreted in a few different ways, especially once the conclusion is upon us.

I admire the fact that Keep The Lights On (2012) was made and the characters provide a longing and yearning that is quite humanistic. It feels like it was created based on fact rather than a studio idea conjured up around a boardroom table. Ira Sachs creates an excellent, quiet film about two men and the love story they share. Their troubles come and go but their passion and bond never waver.

Independent Spirit Award Nominations: Best Feature, Best Director-Ira Sachs, Best Male Lead-Thure Lindhardt, Best Screenplay

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

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 a makeup artist, gofer, or performed other non-actor or non-director tasks to achieve the 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 afterward. 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 before 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 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 is 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 adds 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 Last Black Man in San Francisco-2019

The Last Black Man in San Francisco-2019

Director-Joe Talbot

Starring-Jimmie Fails, Jonathan Majors

Scott’s Review #1,018

Reviewed May 1, 2020

Grade: A

The brilliance of The Last Black Man in San Francisco (2019) is multi-fold. The immediate call-out is that the work is the creation of up-and-coming director, Joe Talbot, an artist with a great eye for both the visual and humanistic aspects of cinema. Whomever influenced this young man deserves props for he has a great future ahead of him. Being this is his film debut and he also co-wrote it, the future is bright indeed. The film is loosely based on the life of his childhood best friend, Jimmie Fails, who also stars.

A24 is arguably the new “it” film studio for independent entertainment offerings and this is to be celebrated. Indie films provide creative artists with the means and the time to develop their product and tell stories that are fraught with meaning and in many cases dare to go where other films have not ventured to at risk of turning a mainstream audience off. This is to be celebrated and championed and has resulted in many great and unique films. Hereditary (2018), Midsommar (2019), and The Lighthouse (2019) immediately spring to mind.

The Last Black Man in San Francisco gets off to an interesting start as two young black men, Jimmie (Fails) and Mont (Jonathan Majors) wait for the bus as men clad in protective gear appear to clean polluted waters. The implication is clear that residents are not protected while the men are. Protesters chant while images of the changes San Francisco has experienced over the years are shown. The two then skateboard to a Victorian house in the city’s Fillmore District that Jimmie grew up in and says was built by his grandfather in 1946. Their skateboard trip is cerebral and surrealistic and ten glorious cinematic moments.

Evident is that Talbot is channeling either an autobiographic story or one of a friend- it proves to be the latter. Unclear is if Mont is supposed to be Talbot, but my guess would be in the affirmative. Jimmie and Mont are inseparable, residing both at Mont’s grandfather’s house (played by a startlingly elderly Danny Glover) and the house that Jimmie’s grandfather built. The friends trudge along their daily life by enduring insults hurled at them by a neighborhood gang and fixing up the Victorian house whose owners neglect it and are subsequently are evicted.

Jimmie and Mont are fantastically nuanced, rich characters, each for different reasons. Jimmie is pained that his city has forgotten his grandfather and his legacy, cast aside for progress and wealth. His father (Rob Morgan) is angry, his mother, a recovering drug addict is barely in his life, as they run into each other by chance on the city bus. Jimmie’s Aunt (Tichina Arnold) resides outside the city and serves as his confidante.

Mont is a creative, yearning to write a play based on the local gang, but struggles to create the words or authentically express his voice. He works in a fish shop and frequently acts out his thoughts of others down by the water. Considered odd, he is a good guy and loyal to his grandfather. Since a female love interest is never mentioned (another high point of the film) neither Jimmie’s nor Mont’s sexuality is ever discussed, nor is a potential relationship between the two ever mentioned. The ambiguity works amazingly well and conjures up comparisons to the groundbreaking Moonlight (2016).

When a sudden death erupts the proceedings, Mont finally finds his voice and composes an improvised stage play which he stars in as a dedication for the fallen victim. He elicits responses from the people in attendance (including all principal cast members) as a shocking secret erupts resulting in disarray. This takes the already layered film into a new direction as all Jimmie thought to be true is suddenly shattered.

In a word, the film feels fresh, both visually and from a story perspective. Fails and Majors are top young talent with bright futures who add a patient climb with their characters amid a film that paces slowly but steadily, letting the events marinate to a frenzy in a thought-provoking way.

I eagerly await the next project by the talented Talbot. In a film industry hungry for new ideas, the creator of The Last Black Man in San Francisco (2019) offers a journey into the minds of two black men written not as stereotypes, but as interesting and intelligent individuals sadly not looking forward but looking backwards. The film provides characters who are not standard but are so much more than that.

Independent Spirit Award Nominations: Best First Feature, Best Supporting Male-Jonathan Majors

A Dangerous Method-2011

A Dangerous Method-2011

Director-David Cronenberg

Starring-Keira Knightley, Viggo Mortensen, Michael Fassbender

Scott’s Review #1,009

Reviewed April 9, 2020

Grade: B+

A literal psychological themed drama, if ever there was one, director David Cronenberg uses popular actors of the day to create a film based on a non-fiction book. Famous psychoanalysts, Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung share a tumultuous relationship when they catch the eye of the first female psychoanalyst, who was a patient of each. Thanks to a talented cast and an independent feel, the result is a compelling piece and a historical lesson in sexual titillation, jealousy, passion, and drama, among real-life elite sophisticates.

Set on the eve of World War I in Zurich, Switzerland, a young woman, Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley), suffering from hysteria begins a new course of treatment with the young Swiss doctor Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender). He uses word association, dream interpretation, and other experimental methods as part of his approach to psychoanalysis and finds that Spielrein’s condition was triggered by the humiliation and sexual arousal she felt as a child when her father spanked her naked. They embark on a torrid affair.

Jung and friend and confidante, Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen) explore various psychoanalytical methods, but cracks appear in their friendship as they begin to disagree more frequently on matters of psychoanalysis. When Spielrein, now a student, meets Freud, she confides her relationship with Jung to him, which leads to animosity between the men. Spielrein embarks on other lovers as she attempts to reconcile the geniuses, to allow for their psychoanalysis studies to continue to develop with relevancy.

The film is intelligently written and for any viewer fascinated with psychology or sexual interest, a wonderful marvel. Since Freud and Jung are two of the most recognizable names in behavioral science and Spielrein one of the most influential women in the field, the production is as much a historical and biographical study as it is dramatic enjoyment. Spanking, bondage, and sexual humiliation for gratification and pleasure, strong taboos at the turn of the twentieth century, are explored and embraced in delicious and wicked style.

Of course, given that Fassbender, Mortensen, and Knightley are easy on the eyes provides further stimulation than if less attractive actors were cast. Nonetheless, what the actors provide in eye-candy is equally matched by their acting talent as each one immerses themselves into each pivotal role. In clever and unique fashion, the film is not a trite romantic triangle or giddy formulaic genre movie. Rather, the sets, costumes, and cinematography are fresh and grip the audience.

Carl Jung is the central figure here as both his personal and professional experiences are given plenty of screen time. He wrestles between remaining committed to his wife or giving in to his deepest desires with Speilrein- we can guess how this turns out! The early scenes between Fassbender and Knightley crackle with passion and will make many blush and smirk with naughtiness.

The title of the film is bold but doesn’t always live up given the subject matter. More sensual, fun, and intelligent than dangerous, the film is hardly raw or gritty, surprising given it’s an independent project. It is softer to the touch, especially during scenes between Jung and Speilrein, than hard-edged. Many early psychoanalytical ideas of approach and remedy are discussed and explored making the film more of a study than a thriller.

A Dangerous Method (2011) received stellar reviews and year-end awards consideration, but unsuccessful box-office returns. Hardly a popcorn film and deeply accepting of its indie roots, the film ought to be shown in high-school or academic psychology classes- whether in abnormal or general studies remains a question. With a fascinating story that risks making the prudish blush or turn away, the film will please those independent thinkers, sexual deviants, or those aching for an expressive and satisfying film.

A Better Life-2011

A Better Life-2011

Director-Chris Weitz

Starring-Demian Bichir, Jose Julian

Scott’s Review #1,004

Reviewed March 26, 2020

Grade: B+

A Better Life (2011) is a heartwarming and timely project that focuses and showcases the Hispanic culture, both positively and negatively. The subject matter of illegal immigration is studied amid a powerful family drama. Lead actor, Demian Bichir, deservedly received a Best Actor Oscar nomination for his sensitive portrayal of a man wanting only the best for his son while having life odds stacked against him. The film is an atypical Hollywood production, told simply and with heart.

Carlos Galindo (Bichir), is a struggling Los Angeles gardener who manicures the lawns of the rich and famous in sunny California with his partner and close friend Blasco. Carlos lives a content life but is always on guard because he is an illegal immigrant and worries about his son Luis (Jose Julian) falling in with the wrong crowd. When one day Carlos’s sister loans him $12,000 to purchase a truck, he needs for his job, the man hits his stride, only to have the truck stolen. Desperate, Carlos and Luis are determined to get back the truck while avoiding trouble with the law.

The title of the film, while basic and not sexy, is powerful in its simplicity.  Bold and thought-provoking, this is merely what Carlos wants for Luis and what every father wants for his son. His trials and tribulations a constant, he strives to teach Luis to steer a positive path and avoid mistakes that Carlos has made. Regardless of the political discussion the film could have, what lies beneath is a heartwarming story of cherished love between a man and his son. In clever fashion, the film provides a hopeful final message for both major characters.

I adore the rich Mexican culture represented in the film. A battle of traditional appreciation of one’s roots versus immersing oneself in the American culture are examined. Nearly the entire cast is of Hispanic descent and the numerous scenes of ethnic flavor, from restaurants and cafes, to nightclubs and street life, the film feels authentic and fresh. Thankfully, the film makers do not try to pull off the insulting ploy of casting white actors clad in Mexican garb or a big-name actor in the role of Carlos. Many of the characters even seem like non-actors.

The setting of Los Angeles is highly successful, especially since the low-budget independent film uses eons of exterior shots. The camerawork is not exceptional but feels fresh, letting the warm climate marinate with viewers so that he or she feels implanted in the southern Californian neighborhoods. The contrast of the East Los Angeles area where Carlos lives versus where he works are a harsh reality for most landscapers.

Bichir more than deserves the accolades reaped upon him for this mesmerizing and intelligent role. He quietly portrays an empathetic man who is an unsung hero and a representative of many fathers never getting their due respect, especially if they are undocumented immigrants. When Luis denounces Mexican music, the pain is evident on the face of Carlos as he must endure what surely breaks his heart. The realism and the truth of the characters is led by Bichir.

A Better Life (2011) is a story rich with poignancy and relevance as the plight of a good man is showcased. Now almost ten years ago, the film is arguably more important than ever since immigration has become a hot ticket item in the turbulent political climate. Do hardworking, undocumented people deserve a break for being in the United States? The answer seems obvious and the film skews steadily to the left, but is there really any other strong viewpoint?

Oscar Nominations: Best Actor-Demian Bichir

Independent Spirit Award Nominations: Best Male Lead-Demian Bichir

50/50-2011

50/50-2011

Director-Jonathan Levine

Starring-Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Seth Rogan

Scott’s Review #1,001

Reviewed March 17, 2020

Grade: B+

The subject matter of cancer is an incredibly tricky one to portray in film. Especially tough when any comedic bits are incorporated- the risk lies in jokes not going over well or being misinterpreted. With 50/50, director Jonathan Levine and writer Will Reiser craft and intelligent and genuine story, based on a true one, led by upstart actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt, shining in the lead role. Comic actor Seth Rogan is on board cementing the comedy elements.

Otherwise healthy twenty-something Seattle resident, Adam Lerner (Gordon-Levitt) experiences severe back pain and is shocked to learn he has a malignant tumor in his spine. Devastated, his world is turned upside down. He is usually accompanied by best friend Kyle (Rogan). While Kyle is brash and outspoken, Adam is reserved and mild-mannered. They are opposites, but inseparable friends. Adam is dating artist Rachael (Bryce Dallas Howard), whom Kyle despises adding conflict to the story.

The screenplay and Gordon-Levitt’s performance are the superior aspects of 50/50. The title of the film is poignant because Adam is given the dubious news that he has only a 50/50 chance of surviving his cancer. The young actor provides heart and soul to his challenging role and his acting is such that scenes do not feel cliched or manufactured. This, naturally, is due to the excellent writing by Will Reiser. He crafts a sincere script that is straightforward, avoiding razzle-dazzle, but one that is also heartfelt.

My only criticism with 50/50 is that I would have liked a bit more darkness. As we all know, real-life cancer patients must endure the ravages that the brutal disease inflict. The film never really goes there and shows how devious the disease is and what happens to the human body. I get that the film tows the line carefully, but despite shaving his head, Adam does not lose much weight or suffer other visible indignities. The toned-down approach feels PG- rated rather than R-rated as it might have been.

This can largely be forgiven because the main message of the film supersedes this point. The film shows that love and friendship can be the best healers and the root of good, kind, humanity. This is something every viewer can take and learn from and it makes the film lovely and worthy to witness. The romantic comedy elements do not work, and I am not even sure they are necessary. The main draw is the undying friendship between Adam and Kyle and Adam’s experiences with other cancer patients along his journey.

Combining comedy and cancer are not easy tasks, but thanks to exceptional writing and a talented cast, 50/50 (2011) succeeds in its achievements. The film and Gordon-Levitt were rewarded with Golden Globe nominations but missed out on any Oscar nominations. If the intended result of the film, to ease cancer patient’s minds about their situations, and provide some meaningful entertainment, the film is a major win.

Independent Spirit Award Nominations: Best Feature, Best Supporting Female-Anjelica Huston, Best First Screenplay (won)

Giant Little Ones-2019

Giant Little Ones-2019

Director-Keith Behrman

Starring-Josh Wiggins, Darren Mann

Scott’s Review #1,000

Reviewed March 13, 2020

Grade: B+

Giant Little Ones (2019) is an independent LGBTQ film about both coming to terms with one’s own sexuality and accepting and embracing other people for whom they love, and how they wish to spend their life. It’s an honest and resilient coming-of-age story, most reminiscent (but rawer) of the recent Love, Simon (2018), told from a teenager’s perspective and the pressures and emotions of youth. The subject matter has been done to death at this point in cinema but there is still something fresh and meaningful that is offered.

High school chums Franky Winter (Josh Wiggins) and Ballas Kohl (Darren Mann) have been best friends since diapers. They joke around, go bike-riding, and knock back a six-pack together. They are handsome, integral parts of the swim team, and popular with girls. Each has a steady girlfriend who they anticipate soon going all the way with. Any teenage miscast would love to trade their lives with the boys.

On the night of Franky’s seventeenth birthday party, Franky and Ballas get drunk together and spend the night crashing in the same bed. An unclear incident, sexual in nature, occurs, changing and damaging their friendship. Each boy has one sister and a set of parents, but Franky’s are more prominent, with a story of their own. His father, Ray (Kyle MacLachlan) divorced Franky’s mother, Carly (Mario Bello) after coming to terms with being gay.

While the focal point is on the teen set, and on Franky more than Ballas, it is nice to see parents in these types of films with more to do than pour coffee or dole out unheeded advice. MacLachlan and Bello are fascinating to watch, carefully distant from each other, but also having a mutual respect. Both character’s struggles are pointed out- Carly angrily lashing out that Ray was certainly not gay when she married him; Ray experiencing guilt at wounding Franky emotionally.

The film is careful, admiringly so, to include two high school students who are already outwardly gay. The characters are not ridiculed or repressed, and one, Franky’s best friend Mouse (Niamh Wilson) is assumed to be slowly coming to terms with being transgender. The other is a popular boy on the swim team. These representations are strong, though both characters face some level of opposition, so their plights are not easy.

The best and most heartfelt scene is when Franky and Ray reconnect as father and son in treasured dialogue where Ray explains how he met his partner. The beautiful moment blossoms because it’s Franky who asks Ray how he and his partner met. Any LGBTQ person can attest to the powerful and heartwarming moment when they are asked about their significant other. The proud look in Ray’s eyes and the quiet cadence in which he carefully warns Franky not to label himself, but rather stick with those he connects to, is lovely and sentimental.

I like how Giant Little Ones is not a love story between the two boys and ambiguous is not only whether their friendship can be fixed, but whether one or both is gay, bi-sexual, curious, or merely experimenting with their individual sexuality. The film avoids labels or boasting a clear-cut angle avoiding anything too preachy or defined. This supports its overall point.

A small criticism is that, despite the boys being best friend’s and on equal footing, Franky becomes the central character and Ballas is not explored very well. Ballas borders on sociopathic behavior and has a ton of anger, but why? Is it only his sexuality? The character remains mostly a mystery and I was dying to know more about him and what makes him tick.

Giant Little Ones (2019) is a heartfelt and intimate coming-of-age story about friendship, self-discovery, and the power of love without labels. The young actors are both natural, believable, and earnest, and the seasoned supporting cast lends credibility to a very small, low-budget picture. The LGBTQ community will embrace this film while anyone else will be touched by its honesty and poignancy.

21 Grams-2003

21 Grams-2003

Director-Alejandro G. Inarritu

Starring-Sean Penn, Naomi Watts, Benicio Del Toro

Scott’s Review #990

Reviewed February 14, 2020

Grade: A

21 Grams (2003) is a superlative independent drama that contains crisp writing, top-notch acting, and a unique directing style by Alejandro Inarritu. An early work by the acclaimed director, he delivers a powerful exposure of the human condition using intersecting story lines. The result is a powerful emotional response that resonates among any viewer taking the time to let the story evolve and marinate. Outstanding film making and a sign of things to come for the director.

The film is the second part of screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga’s and Iñárritu’s Trilogy of Death, preceded by Amores Perros (2000) and followed by Babel (2006), 21 Grams interweaves several plot lines in a nonlinear arrangement. Viewing the films in sequence is not necessary or required to appreciate and revel in the gorgeous storytelling and mood.

The story is told in non-linear fashion and focuses on three main characters, each with a “past”, a “present”, and a “future” story thread. Events culminate in a horrific automobile accident, which is the overall story. The sub-story fragments delve into the lives of the principals as the audience learns more about them. Ultimately, all three lives intersect in dramatic fashion leaving the viewer mesmerized and energized by the deep connections.

Paul Rivers (Sean Penn) is a successful, married college mathematics professor who desperately needs a heart transplant. He and his wife are considering having a baby in case he should die. Cristina Peck (Naomi Watts) is a recovering drug addict now living a happy suburban life with a loving husband and two young children. Jack Jordan (Benicio Del Toro) is a former convict who is using his new-found religious faith to recover from drug addiction and alcoholism and live a happy existence with his wife and kids. After the car accident each life takes a shocking turn forever changing things.

The multiple time lines and back and forward story telling are an excellent part of 21 Grams, adding layers upon layers of potential entanglements among the characters. On paper this could be a confusing quality, but instead it provides mystique and endless possibility. What worked so well in the outstanding Traffic (2000) is used by Inarritu and delivers. The recipe of clever plotting, characters the audience care about, and top-notch acting is created, mixed, and served up on a silver platter.

Penn, Watts, and Del Toro are stellar actors who each give their characters strength, sympathy, and glory. Each has suffered greatly and faced (or faces) tremendous obstacles in life, soliciting feeling from viewers. All three are good characters, trying to do the right thing, and grasp hold of any sliver of happiness they can find. They have moral sensibilities without being judgmental, delicious is how each character interacts with the others, but in differing ways.

The film is not a happy one and certainly not for young kids, but the brilliant elements will leave the film lover agape at the qualities featured. The dark, muted lighting of the film is perfect for the morbid stories told throughout and the common themes of anguish, courage, and desperation. The clever title refers to an experiment in 1907 which attempted to show scientific proof of the existence of the soul by recording a loss of body weight (said to represent the departure of the soul) immediately following death.

Only the second full-length film in Inarritu’s young career, 21 Grams (2003) is a brilliant film nuanced in human emotion and connections. The powerful director would go on to create Babel (2006) and The Revenant (2015), two vastly different films but with similar heart. 21 Grams is a wonderful introduction of good things to come while utilizing crafty acting and layered writing to create a gem well worth repeated viewings.

Oscar Nominations: Best Actress-Naomi Watts, Best Supporting Actor-Benicio del Toro

Independent Spirit Award Nominations: Special Distinction Award (won)

Hustlers-2019

Hustlers-2019

Director-Lorene Scafaria

Starring-Constance Wu, Jennifer Lopez

Scott’s Review #942

Reviewed October 3, 2019

Grade: B+

Hustlers (2019) is a film that I had no intention of seeing. It was not on my radar and I did not know much about the film except that it was promoted as a story about a group of strippers who bamboozle Wall Street men. Yawn! The experience was better than experienced- much better in fact thanks to the critically lauded performance by Jennifer Lopez. She astounds in a role perfectly written for her as the true story champions female empowerment, and why shouldn’t it? The result is a feminist film with humor.

Constance Wu, famous for putting Asian actors on the map with Crazy Rich Asians (2018), does a complete one-eighty as the lead character in Hustlers. Unrecognizable, she plays a New York City stripper named Destiny, who works at a trendy Wall Street club named Moves, in 2007. She supports her grandmother and barely gets by on meager tips, possessing the looks but not quite the style. When she witnesses fellow dancer Ramona Vega (Lopez) perform a simmering routine, the women bond and become fast friends.

Destiny enjoys newfound wealth and a close friendship with Ramona. A year later, the financial crisis strikes, and both women find themselves struggling for cash having squandered their fortunes. Destiny becomes pregnant. Her boyfriend leaves her shortly after their daughter’s birth, and she is unable to find a new job. Destiny and Ramona, along with other girls, hatch a plot to manipulate the businessmen they have grown to know, out of desperation. The story is based on true events.

Had the elements not wholly come together in this film the result would have been dreary or at best mediocre. A current trend in modern cinema is to have a group of female characters team-up in some form of heist or crime fighting adventure- think Ocean’s Eight (2018), the Ghostbusters (2016) remake, or Widows (2018). Some results are better than others but hardly memorable as the girl-buddy genre hardly has any depth.

Two important factors stand out to me as rising Hustlers way above a mediocre or standard fare film experience. Jennifer Lopez deserves all the praise she has been showered with for her role of Ramona. From the moment Lopez, who is listed as Executive Producer, appears on screen, she is electrifying and impossible not to be mesmerized by. As she shakes her booty (and many other parts of her anatomy) and writhes on stage to Fiona Apple’s “Criminal” the men in the club literally throw money at her. The scene oozes sexuality and from this moment on Lopez owns the film.

Lopez, besides Selena (1997), has largely chosen mainstream and fluff material like The Wedding Planner (2001) and Maid in Manhattan (2002) over the years. She may not be the Meryl Streep of her time, but it is always nice when an actor charters challenging and dangerous waters. May she continue to choose wisely. She powers through Hustlers with gusto and is the central draw.

Not to limit Hustlers to a conventional women using sex appeal to lure men, the film is certain to get its message across to viewers in a more sobering way. By 2008 the United States was in a financial landslide with Wall Street being hit terribly hard. The point is made that not a single person went to jail for causing the collapse or for causing tens of thousands of people to lose their homes, jobs or life savings. This makes the audience realize that what the women did pales in comparison to Wall Street types (their victims), and many of their lures got what they deserved.

The subject matter at hand being one of the world of strippers may turn off some of the prudish but delving into the emotions and aspirations of those who exist in the industry is eye-opening and quite interesting. Hustlers (2019) successfully garners empathy from its audience and champions a female empowerment movement resulting in the surprising hit of the season.

Independent Spirit Award Nominations: Best Director-Lorene Scafaria, Best Supporting Female-Jennifer Lopez, Best Cinematography

Charlie Says-2019

Charlie Says-2019

Director-Mary Harron

Starring-Hannah Murray, Sosie Bacon

Scott’s Review #936

Reviewed August 28, 2019

Grade: B

With the very high-profile release of Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019) centering around the sadistic Manson murders of 1969, Charlie Says (2019) is another film that delves into the same story though in a very different way. The latter takes the perspective of the followers, victimizing them, and the choices they made that affected the rest of their lives. The angle is of interest, but the production never completely takes off, resulting in an uneven experience with the need for more grit and substance.

Karlene (Merritt Wever), a female graduate student focused on women’s studies, takes an interest in three followers who viciously killed in the name of their “god”, Charles Manson. A few years after their arrests, they co-exist together in relative solitary confinement in a California penitentiary. They remain under the delusion that Manson is their leader and their deeds were all part of a grand cosmic plan, until Karlene slowly brings them out of their haze of unreality with heartbreaking results.

The casting of the real-life figures is as follows: Charles Manson (Matt Smith), Leslie Van Houton (Hannah Murray), Patricia Krenwinkel (Sosie Bacon), and Susan Atkins (Marianne Rendon). Each are prominent characters with the central figure being Leslie “Lulu” and her complex relationship with Manson. The newest to be recruited, the audience witnesses her hypnotic possession and her occasional uncertainty about the cult. For a fleeting moment she is even tempted to leave, which the film hammers home to the audience.

Murray plays the character well but does not resemble her enough for praise, though we read the conflict on her face very well. She is meant to be the thoughtful member of the Manson Family whereas Patricia and Susan are more reactionary and temperamental, especially Susan. Whether this is how things were is not known but I always had a gnawing feeling throughout the running time that historical accuracy may have been secondary to the story points and dramatic effect.

Charlie Says is bothersome because of the realization that the girls were recruited and fed lies, falling for the deceit, hook, line and sinker. The followers were certainly brainwashed into Manson’s disturbed version of reality and that fact is disturbing as the girls were not dumb people, only vulnerable young women. Decades later, it is easy to think of other victims polarized by a central or controversial figure whether it be in politics or another arena. The lesson learned is that people can be easily influenced.

The actual “murder night” and the death of Sharon Tate are featured but up close and personal gore is thankfully avoided. The actress, well known to have suffered a terrible fate, to say nothing of her unborn baby, are a small but crucial aspect of the film. When one of the girls watches one of Tate’s films in her cell, another girl clamors for her to turn off the film, beginning to feel pangs of guilt and remorse.

The film questions the girl’s responsibilities for their actions, a fact that in real-life many wrestled with, including the courts and parole boards. Were they merely duped in the cleverest of ways or do they deserve their fates? Spared of the electric chair due to a California law, a positive of the film is a current update of the happenings of each girl, now over forty years later, mature women. Lulu and Patricia remain incarcerated while Susan has died in prison.

After the film closes and a good measure of time is left to ponder the film, I was left feeling slightly less than fulfilled and desiring a bit more. Charlie Says (2019) feels safe and lacks enough grit or bombast, although it does feel well intended. The film is clearly from the feminist point of view and is an interesting watch though given the subject matter, I hoped for more meat and substance.

The Farewell-2019

The Farewell-2019

Director-Lulu Wang

Starring-Awkwafina, Tzi Ma

Scott’s Review #927

Reviewed August 6, 2019

Grade: A-

Any film with a dark premise such as The Farewell (2019) runs the risk of resulting in a bleak and depressing outcome, but the film is anything but a downer. Surprising to many will be that the film is classified as both a drama and a comedy with snippets of humor and sadness prevalent throughout. Met with lots of critical buzz, the film is successful at furthering the much-needed presence of quality Asian representation in modern cinema well into the twenty-first century.

Young upstart/comedienne, Awkwafina, memorable for her humorous turn in Crazy Rich Asians (2018), returns to the big screen in a more sedate role, crafting a passionate and dramatic character, strongly leading the charge in an ensemble project exploring the family dynamic. The film succeeds extraordinarily as a multi-generational glimpse into humanity, though at times suffers from being too slow moving.

A thirty-something struggling writer, Billi (Awkwafina), lives in New York City near her parents, all expats from China. Billi is particularly close with her grandmother, Nai Nai (Zhao Shuzhen), who still resides in her birth land as they speak regularly via telephone. When Billi is informed that her grandmother suffers from terminal lung cancer and has weeks to live, the entire family reunites and decides to hold a mock wedding as an excuse to all be together. The decision is made by the family not to tell Nai Nai she is dying preferring to let her live out her days in happiness rather than fear.

Awkwafina is the main draw of the film and much of the action is told from her perspective. One wonders if perhaps director Lulu Wang drew from personal experience when she wrote the screenplay. The audience does not know Billi’s sexuality nor is that even relevant to the film, but the vagueness was noticed. She does not date nor seem very interested in men, does her laundry at her parent’s apartment, and attempts and fails at a prestigious writing scholarship.

The supporting characters add tremendous depth so that the film is not solely Billi’s, providing unique perspectives from her mother, her father, and her aunt, as they each possess their own viewpoints in relation to Nai Nai’s illness. I adore this technique in rich storytelling as it not only fleshes out secondary characters, it also provides interesting ideas.  Nai Nai is not written as a doting old lady nor a victim; she is strong, witty, and full of life. Shuzhen, unknown to me before viewing this film, adds tremendous poise in a crucial role portraying it in just the right way.

The Farewell is a quiet film with both comic and dramatic elements, sometimes within the same scene, thereby giving relief from the dour subject matter. Wang gets the balance just right and makes sure she does not make the film too heavy. A hysterical bowing marathon takes place as the entourage decides to visit grandfather’s grave, as they prepare the necessary essentials to comfort him during the afterlife.

As a direct contrast to a physical comedy nuance, not a dry eye can be found when Billi and her parents depart China by taxi to the airport. Nai Nai tearfully waves goodbye to them, not knowing that will certainly be her final goodbye. Any audience member with an elderly relative who they seldom see will be churning with emotion over this poignant scene. Questions such as “would you keep a loved one unaware of a terminal disease?” will gnaw at the viewer, the central theme of the story.

Influenced by the buzz and word of mouth encircling the film, I salivated at the thought of one big, powerful, emotional scene, but one clearly defined, bombastic moment never came. Rather, the film offers small tidbits, careful not to overpower the audience or risk making the film too sentimental or overwrought. I still think a pivotal teary scene might have been added for good measure. A scene where Billi breaks down in front of her parents was adequate, but never catapulted the film over the top.

The Farewell (2019) is a wonderful film rich with emotion and importance. Like Black Panther (2017) did with a completely different genre, bringing black characters to the forefront of mainstream film, this film provides exposure to the Asian population, typically relegated to doctors, Chinese takeout owners or other cliched roles. Wang delights with an independent film steam-rolling itself across Middle-America.

Independent Spirit Award Nominations: Best Feature (won), Best Supporting Female- Zhao Shu-zhen (won)

Gloria Bell-2019

Gloria Bell-2019

Director-Sebastian Lelio

Starring-Julianne Moore, John Turturro

Scott’s Review #924

Reviewed July 29, 2019

Grade: B+

An English remake of the successful Chilean film from 2013 simply titled Gloria, Gloria Bell (2019) stars Julianne Moore and the setting is moved to Los Angeles. The film is directed by Sebastian Lelio, fresh off a Best Foreign Language Film win for A Fantastic Woman (2017) and both films contain similar themes of oppression and loneliness. Preferring the original by only a hair Gloria Bell is nonetheless a worthy offering with Moore perfectly cast in the title role.

Middle-aged divorcee Gloria Bell (Moore) resides in Los Angeles, working an office job of some respectability but is clearly unfulfilled. She spends frequent nights at a nightclub where she is deemed a regular. The club caters to middle-aged singles who dance and drink while looking for love. When she meets Arnold (John Turturro) one evening and they share a night of passion, the pair begin dating but Gloria realizes that he still supports his ex-wife and grown daughters limiting his time and commitment to her, which leaves her frustrated.

Moore is honest and understated with her performance and the highlight of the film. With another casting choice the character might not have worked so well. She is full of life, singing in her car, attending laughter therapy, and smoking pot in her apartment. She has a warm yet limited relationship with her millennial kids and her ex-husband and his new wife. Moore gives the character an earnestness and likability that works and gets the audience on her side during her trials and tribulations.

This is not to say that Gloria doesn’t occasionally frustrate the audience. After inviting Arnold to meet the whole crew over dinner and wine at her son’s house, what begins as a meet and greet quickly turns into a reminiscing trip down memory lane and whimsical looks at Gloria and her ex’s wedding pictures. Her disregard of Arnold’s feelings is disappointing, but the bad intention is not there. Gloria has baggage and is caught up in the moment simply reliving a happier time at the expense of the current moment.

Arnold has his own demons and is both likable and unlikable to the audience. Tending to bail on Gloria when either his family requires his assistance or he feels left out, he hardly exhibits grown man behavior or anyone Gloria would want to date. The first red flag is his confessions of enamor to Gloria over their first dinner date. From there his on again off again presence makes him the odd man out. The intent by Lelio is to make Gloria the sympathetic one. It’s her movie after all.

Watched sequentially with A Fantastic Woman is a wise idea. Numerous comparisons are apparent beginning with the feelings shared by both central characters. Both are searching for happiness but unsure of how to obtain it especially given the fact that they once had it and it was snatched away from them. Scenes of both characters driving in their cars and singing songs are included, and the look of both films is the same.

Very few comparisons or contrasts can be made between Gloria of 2013 and Gloria Bell of 2019 as both are way above average other than in the former the character is slightly more vivacious than the latter. This could be attributed to the Chilean and South American free thinking and sexual gusto as compared to a more reserved American way of thinking, but this is merely a suggestion. Interesting to note is how Lelio remade his own film only six years later rather than another director putting his or her own stamp on it.

Gloria Bell (2019) paints a vivid canvas of a modern woman dealt a bad hand who struggles to find her happiness and fulfillment any way she knows how. Thanks in large part to Moore’s embracing and filling the character with kindness and care she wins over the audience. The character is written as intelligent and interesting and not desperate in any way for a man. He needs to be the right man.

First Reformed-2018

First Reformed-2018

Director-Paul Schrader

Starring-Ethan Hawke, Amanda Seyfried

Scott’s Review #870

Reviewed February 22, 2019

Grade: B+

First Reformed (2018) is a dark independent film that has received a great deal of buzz for the raw and daring risks it takes and the brave performance by the film’s star, Ethan Hawke. Directed by the same man who wrote the screenplay for Taxi Driver (1976), Paul Schrader, the film is a character study of one man’s efforts for benevolence and normalcy after experiencing insurmountable tragedy as he wrestles with his demons and questions his faith in the church. The film is heavy, raw drama and not for those in the mood for a feel-good experience.

Reverend Ernst Toller (Hawke) is an alcoholic, residing in bleak and barren upstate New York, presumably near Buffalo. He serves as a Protestant minister at a historically significant yet sparsely populated church. The establishment is usurped by another more modern congregation with a robust following. Ernst has recently been dealt a major blow with the death of his son in the Iraq War after encouraging him to enlist. When Mary (Amanda Seyfried), a young pregnant woman, asks Ernst to provide guidance to her radical and troubled husband, Ernst’s life spirals out of control.

Ernst is determined to keep a journal for exactly one year and then subsequently burn it. He chronicles his feelings, thoughts, and doubts as narrated by Hawke. Schrader, who directed and wrote First Reformed succeeds at making the film feel personal and conflicted. He creates a quiet experience masked with underlying turmoil and even suffocating existences. Ernst’s angry protege is an environmentalist determined to change the minister’s views and succeeds in pointing out life’s hypocrisy.

The season is winter, and the elements are cold and depressing in First Reformed. From the crisp air and clutching small town grasps, Schrader makes the audience feel stifled, so we relate to Ernst even though we may not share his views or his beliefs. He is a kind man, helpful, and even keeled but wrestles with constant demons.  Despite his role as a minister what the film does well is resist carving a traditional tale of religious conflict or even questioning Ernst’s sexuality. The film is much darker contextually and does not focus on one theme.

Where Schrader loses me is with Ernst’s questionable actions which sometimes come out of left field. The conclusion is both perplexing and unsatisfying. As the character prepares for a desperate act of brutality, certainly a shock for the audience who has him figured out, he suddenly changes course due to the appearance of Mary. They embrace, and the film ends, but what are his intentions towards Mary? He is fond of her, but are feelings pure friendship or something more emotional? Sadly, we never find out nor do we know where he channels all of his feelings from.

Besides Ernst, and Hawke’s dynamic portrayal of him is never better, the supporting character’s lack much appeal or interest. Mary is nice enough but is a tad clingy and her numerous requests to talk or have Ernst come by to visit get tedious- Seyfried does what she can with the role but is second banana. Cedric the Entertainer as Pastor Joel Jeffers lacks appeal and the dowdy character of Esther meant to be a potential love interest for Ernst is instead bothersome and portrayed as a pest.

First Reformed (2018) has shades of appeal and a main character with substance and depth but ultimately the film does not come together as well as it might have. The finale underwhelms and after the great buildup to the character’s changing thoughts and motivations too much was left unclear. Schrader deserves props for attempting to create an edgy experience with a unique and daring character but could have wrapped the film up in a tidier way. This would have served the film better.

Oscar Nominations: Best Original Screenplay

Independent Spirit Award Nominations: Best Feature, Best Director-Paul Schrader, Best Male Lead-Ethan Hawke (won), Best Screenplay

If Beale Street Could Talk-2018

If Beale Street Could Talk-2018

Director-Barry Jenkins 

Starring-Kiki Layne, Stephan James

Scott’s Review #854

Reviewed January 8, 2019

Grade: A

2018 proved to be a year where film makers of color prided themselves in telling stories of diversity, inclusion, social injustice, and the never-ending challenges of minorities. One of the best films of the year is If Beale Street Could Talk (2018), a lovely piece of storytelling by director Barry Jenkins. His other major work, Moonlight (2016) is a similarly poignant and melancholy experience. The film is based on a novel by James Baldwin.

The title is explained in the first dialogue of the film. Beale Street exists in New Orleans, but thousands of streets exist in other cities and is a metaphor for discrimination and unnecessary struggles that black folks continue to endure. Right away the audience knows that an important story is to be told. The wonderful part of If Beale Street Could Talk are all of the combined elements that lead to brilliance.

Tish Rivers (Kiki Layne) and Fonny Hunt (Stephan James) have known each other since childhood. Growing up in a Harlem neighborhood their families are interconnected and community centered. Events begin in 1973 as Tish realizes she is pregnant. Ordinarily a happy occasion, the situation contains a major challenge because Fonny is imprisoned for a crime he did not commit. A woman has accused him of rape and a corrupt policeman has positively identified Fonny as the rapist despite this being a logistical impossibility. Tish is determined to prove his innocence before the baby arrives with the assistance of her family.

The story in non-linear as Jenkins begins the film in present day with Tish breaking the news of her pregnancy to him then notifying her family.  As the film progresses more of the Fonny and Tish love story is explored. The couple fall in love, have romantic dinners, and nervously make love for the first time. In this way the film becomes a tender story of young love. The social injustice and family drama situations are carefully mixed in amid the central romance.

The film impresses with warm touches and ingenious cinematography and musical score. These left me resounding with pleasure at the intricate and intimate details. The frequent use of jazz music over dinner or as the Rivers family sips celebratory wine adds sophistication to many scenes. The texture of the film is muted and warm giving it a subdued look that is genuine and true to the quiet and timeless nature of the production.

The plume of cigarette smoke can be seen in nearly every scene as most of the character’s smokes. Since the time-period is the 1970’s the authenticity is there, and a glamorous image is portrayed. The smoking enhances the sophistication of the character’s and adds to the tremendous cinematography.

Several scenes of simple dialogue crackle with authenticity and passion. In one of the best scenes Fonny’s friend Daniel, a recent parolee, stays for dinner and the friends share a conversation over beer and cigarettes. The lengthy scene is poignant and tremendous with meaning. Daniel recounts his experience in prison and how black men are victims of the whims of white men and the terror involved in that. The scene is powerful in its thoughtfulness and a foreshadowing of Fonny’s impending trauma.

The supporting characters are stellar and add to the bravura acting troupe. Regina King as Sharon Rivers gives a rave performance when she bravely travels to Puerto Rico and confronts Fonny’s accuser in hopes of getting her to modify her story. The scene is laden with emotion and honest dialogue. The other notable actors are Colman Domingo and Teyonah Parris as Tish’s father and sister, respectively. Both do wonders with fleshing out the Rivers family as strong and kind people.

Jenkins is careful to add white characters who are benevolent to offset the other dastardly white characters. Examples are the kindly old woman who comes to the rescue of Fonny and Tish and berates the cop. The Jewish landlord who agrees to rent a flat to the pair is portrayed as decent and helpful, and finally the young lawyer who takes Fonny’s case is earnest and understanding.

If Beale Street Could Talk (2018) continues talented director Barry Jenkins plunge into the depths of being one of the modern greats. With a beautifully visual and narrative film he creates an experience sure to win more and more fans. The ending is moving yet unsatisfying as so many more miles are to go in the race for prison justice. Adapting an important story of race and repression based on skin color is a powerful and detailed affair.  I cannot wait to see what Jenkins comes up with next.

Oscar Nominations: Best Supporting Actress-Regina King (won), Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Original Score

Independent Spirit Award Nominations: Best Feature (won), Best Director-Barry Jenkins (won), Best Supporting Female-Regina King (won)

The Ice Storm-1997

The Ice Storm-1997

Director-Ang Lee

Starring-Kevin Kline, Joan Allen, Sigourney Weaver

Scott’s Review #850

Reviewed January 1, 2019

Grade: A

The Ice Storm (1997) is a brilliant film directed by Ang Lee of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) and Brokeback Mountain (2005) fame. The film is based on a 1994 novel of the same name, written by Rick Moody. The brilliance lies in the rich way the characters are written with coldness, repression and loneliness being central themes. The film is astonishingly genuine and fresh with an authenticity rarely felt so wholly in adult family dramas.

The time-period is 1973 and the events take place in New Canaan, Connecticut, a wealthy suburban town. Two dysfunctional families, the Hoods and the Carvers, co-exist during the Thanksgiving weekend as each deal with repression and escapism amid alcohol and sexual experimentation. Both the adult’s and the children’s lives are prominently featured in the story. Ben and Elena Hood (Kevin Kline and Joan Allen) and Jim and Janey Carver (Jamey Sheridan and Sigourney Weaver) head the families.

While Ben and Janey carry on a secret affair, Elena lives an unfulfilled existence, craving more from life but not knowing how to get more and reduced to consulting self-help books for support. Wendy Hood (Christina Ricci) enjoys sexual escapades with multiple boys while Paul Hood (Tobey Maguire), home from boarding school, takes the train into New York City to see a rich classmate Libbets Casey (Katie Holmes).

The most wonderful aspect of the film is that the story is a slice of life, but with clever nuances. Since the families are rich why should the viewer feel sympathy for any of the characters let alone root for them? Ben and Janey lounge in bed after sex, he chatty about nonsense, she bored and depressed. During a holiday neighborhood gathering a kinky “key party” develops, where participants swap spouses for the night, resulting in titillation and excitement.

The bold and controversial writing is exactly why The Ice Storm scores so many points. The characters are cold and frozen, unlikable and selfish, but might that be the point? All seem unhappy and tired of their dull, small town existence and craving what little excitement they can muster. Written in similar fashion to American Beauty (1999) the films could be watched in tandem for evening of Gothic and macabre story-telling.

My favorite character is Elena as she has the most sensibility. She is lonely and ignored by her husband dutifully going about her day with little emotion. She feels temporarily excited when she develops a romantic crush on a neighbor only to quickly realize the most she can ever hope for with this man is a fling. Her character is fleshed out as she yearns for more than she has. The other characters are largely selfish and pampered.

The film’s conclusion, however, is monumental as it changes the perceptions of some characters and softens them. A tragic death brings characters together in a powerful way. Again, the writing in The Ice Storm is the most interesting and compelling appeal. The acting among the entire cast is professional, heartfelt, and brazen, but the written dialogue and interesting situations make this film rise above others of similar genre.

Lee’s direction is brilliant as the blustery winter atmosphere is central to the story- in more ways than we might originally think. The frozen power lines and slick windy country roads elicit a cozy feeling nestled between harboring family secrets and scandals. The bitter yet beautiful ambiance is a soothing and compelling aspect of the entire film and Lee portrays these elements with precision.

Of the independent drama genre, The Ice Storm (1997) has a low budget and big-name stars. The film could easily be performed as a play, but the cinematic elements and fantastic writing make it a memorable and storied piece of film-making. Ang Lee frequently incorporates astounding character development in his works and The Ice Storm has all the qualities to be considered a masterpiece.

The Favourite-2018

The Favourite-2018

Director-Yorgos Lanthimos

Starring-Olivia Colman, Emma Stone, Rachel Weisz

Scott’s Review #843 

Reviewed December 17, 2018

Grade: A

The Favourite (2018) is a deliciously wicked comedy about greed, jealousy, and rage during early eighteenth century England. The primary rivalry consists between two feuding cousins, each jockeying for position and “favor” with the Queen, both resorting to dire methods to achieve these goals. With splendid acting and grand designs, director Yorgos Lanthimos adds to his growing collection of odd and compelling works with the dark comedy offering.

The film takes place amid the British and French war of 1708 as a physically and mentally ill Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) rules the country by way of her confidante and secret lover, Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough (Rachel Weisz). Though deals and modifications must be made with the ruling Parliament Anne has final say in all decisions including doubling the state tax to pay for the war. When Abigail (Emma Stone), a distant cousin of the Duchess, and of former royalty herself, arrives seeking work as a servant, she quickly plots her way to the bedside of the Queen at all costs.

Lanthimos, known for such bizarre treats like Dogtooth (2009), The Lobster (2015), and The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017), is not afraid to get down and dirty and wrestle with macabre subject matter. The Favourite is the director’s most mainstream affair yet and is quickly becoming one of my favorite modern-day film makers. As he now charters into royal territory the possibilities are endless in a world of politics and scheming. Some morose highlights include an abused bunny, naked tomato throwing, and pheasant shooting. The film is not kind to animals.

Despite being a mainstream affair in the world of Lanthimos, The Favourite is a bizarre and brazen experience. The heaps of award nominations are quite remarkable given the film will not be enjoyed by all audiences. Despite categorized as a comedy (see more below) the film is not an easy watch and none of the characters are likable. Abigail is sympathetic at first and quite humorous but as the plot develops her true colors and motivations are exposed. Conversely, Anne and Sarah are initially despicable, but garner support as the story evolves.

The comic elements are the best elements and clever lines come at a deliciously rapid pace. The best dialogue is the sparring between Sarah and Abigail as the women realize they are bitter enemies and each attempt to one-up the other in a chess game for Anne’s attentions. Anne, known for fits of emotion, stuffing her face with cake and vomiting, and berating the servants, offers her own comic wit. The language is salty bordering on vulgar, but that is what makes the experience so stellar and morosely enjoyable.

The musical score adds muscle and the diabolical string arrangements give The Favourite a gruesome, morbid atmosphere. The feeling of dread is prevalent and downright haunting at times as the audience, knowing that some sort of shenanigans will soon occur, does not know when or how. This quality enhances the overall product and gives ambiance to an already superior piece.

Finally, the acting in The Favourite is brilliant and worth the price of admission. With heavyweights like Colman, Stone, and Weisz this is unsurprising, but the gravy is in the individual moments. The chemistry the women share together is what works best as every scene sparkles with exceptional deliver and a sly sense of humor. When the three women appear together-these are the best scenes.

Deserving of all the accolades lauded upon it The Favourite (2018) is an experience that contains all elements of a fine film though one that is quite the unconventional work. With glistening art direction, set pieces that shine with authenticity, and costumes that would make Scarlett O’Hara drool with envy, The Favourite takes all of its parts and spins a crafty tale that encompasses the entire film.

Oscar Nominations: Best Picture, Best Director-Yorgos Lanthimos, Best Actress-Olivia Colman (won), Best Supporting Actress-Emma Stone, Rachel Weisz, Best Original Screenplay, Best Production Design, Best Cinematography, Best Costume Design, Best Film Editing

Independent Spirit Award Nominations: Best International Film

Crash-2005

Crash-2005

Director-Paul Haggis

Starring-Matt Dillon, Thandie Newton, Don Cheadle

Scott’s Review #799

Reviewed August 3, 2018

Grade: A-

A superior film that has unfortunately suffered greatly after controversy, Crash (2005) is a story of intersecting vignettes all interrelated. The controversy stems from the films very surprising win over the heavily favored Brokeback Mountain. Many thought the latter was a shoo-in, poised to set the LGBT genre ahead of the game. Sadly, now when Crash is discussed by film lovers, it’s usually in tandem with Brokeback, and usually on the heels of its having stolen the Oscar crown. On its own merits, the film excels as a social story exploring the many facets of race, racism, and bigotry.

The events in Crash take place within one thirty-six hour day in metropolitan Los Angeles. Featuring a slew of characters that would even impress Robert Altman, the audience witness situations involving many races and backgrounds. We meet Rick and Jean Cabot (Brendan Fraser and Sandra Bullock), a white affluent couple who are carjacked when driving home from dinner. The black men who carjack the couple then strike a Korean man and bring him to the hospital.

A racist police officer, John Ryan (Matt Dillon), cares for his troubled father who cannot afford insurance. A Persian father and daughter wish to buy a gun for protection, a Hispanic father (Michael Pena) worries about a rash of drive by shootings. The stories go on and on as a myriad of the characters come into situations involving other characters.

The interconnecting stories all cascade into overlapping situations of interest. The point of Haggis’s film is racism, but with a creative twist. The director points out and shows that those who are racist have good qualities too and those who are discriminated against in turn discriminate against others themselves.

The most interesting character is Dillon’s John Ryan. On the surface a racist, wise-ass, who in one scene embarrasses an affluent light-skinned black woman (Thandie Newton), simply because he carries a gun, then ends up saving her life in a horrific car accident. But is he redeemed? Does he see the world as black people are getting ahead and he is left behind? What about the Persian man, discriminated against, but then vowing revenge on a Hispanic man after a misunderstanding.

The black men who carjack the white couple then release a group of immigrants who will surely be sold, perhaps even for sex trafficking. Does this act make the men good? The point that Haggis makes it that each character is neither all good nor all bad, but rather complicated and nuanced with emotions based on past experiences and discrimination themselves.

Crash is highly similar to Traffic (2000) and Babel (2006) in terms of pace, style, and the way the stories align. The film is different, however, in that the location is strictly confined to Los Angeles, making the setting of monumental importance. How would events be different in a setting like Middle America? Or in a different country? These possibilities are worth contemplating based on the perception that Los Angeles is one of the most diverse cities in the United States. If racism occurs there it can occur anywhere.

Now more about that pesky Oscar controversy! In later years critics would largely be in agreement that the inferior film had won that year and Brokeback Mountain lost due to a level of homophobia on the part of the voting academy. Since the academy is filled with Hollywood liberals, albeit of an older generation, an alternative way of thinking is that perhaps Crash won because it was the “safer” film. Everyone seems to have forgotten the other three nominated films that year. Alas, Crash is permanently marred for winning Best Picture. It would undoubtedly have more supporters had it lost.

Ranked as one of the lowest scoring Best Picture winners, I still believe Crash has some worth- though I agree that it should not have won over Brokeback Mountain. Taken on its own merits the film is actually quite good. A message film with great atmosphere, it succeeds in making the viewer think and ponder perhaps their own discrimination, whether conscious or sub-conscious. The ensemble acting and character representations are all very good and worthy of a second watch.

Oscar Nominations: Best Picture (won), Best Director-Paul Haggis, Best Supporting Actor-Matt Dillon, Best Original Screenplay (won), Best Original Song-“In the Deep”, Best Film Editing (won)

Independent Spirit Award Nominations: Best Supporting Male-Matt Dillon (won), Best First Feature (won)