Category Archives: 2017 Movie reviews

Oh Lucy!-2017

Oh Lucy!-2017

Director-Atsuko Hirayanagi

Starring-Shinobu Terajima, Josh Hartnett

Scott’s Review #912

Reviewed June 20, 2019

Grade: B+

Japanese culture meets American culture is the underlying component of Oh Lucy! (2017), an interesting dark comedy and the feature film debut from female director Atsuko Hirayanagi. The film was once a short but progressed into a full-length project, deservedly receiving Film Independent nominations for Best Female Lead and Best First Feature. The co-settings of Tokyo and Los Angeles and the tremendous performance by star Shinobu Terajima make this a worthy watch.

Middle-aged Setsuko (Terajima) lives an unfulfilled daily existence in Tokyo, working a drab office job and living in a cluttered one- bedroom apartment riddled with comforting junk. She wears a protective mouth cover, common in her city, to avoid breathing in bad air, but also chain smokes. She is unpopular at work and wishes to date more but is unlucky in love. One day she is convinced by her niece Mika (Shiori Kutsuna) to take English lessons and falls for her handsome instructor John (Josh Hartnett), who nicknames her “Lucy” making her don a blonde wig and talk “American”. A fellow classmate, “Tom” (Koji Yakusho) seems interested in “Lucy”.

When Mika runs off with John to Los Angeles prompting Setsuko and her bitchy sister Ayako (Kaho Minami) to follow suit concerned for her safety, adventure begins. Setsuko and Mika both jockey for position with John, her vacation from her dreary job and her growing obsession with him energizing her, as a rivalry between Setsuko and Ayako hits full throttle. Setsuko begins to exhibit bizarre and unbecoming behavior.

The film delves into an interesting characteristic among Japanese females; rivalry, as the subject matter is heavily female centered in nature. The trio of Setsuko, Ayako, and Mika are family, and love each other unconditionally, but do they like each other? Immediately we are made aware that long-ago Setsuko stole Ayako’s boyfriend, or so she claims. Eventually Setsuko tries to steal Ayako’s man, so there is reoccurring conflict between each of the women. Ayako has a rebellious streak, we assume just like Setsuko did at her age.

Despite the triangle/quadrangle of drama and issues, the main story and focal point belongs to Setsuko and her infatuation with John. From the first moment they embrace, as part of a teacher and student dynamic, Setsuko is hooked, longingly remaining in his arms until he insists she let go. This is a key moment an intrigue looms- does she feel more comfortable and confident with her blonde wig and new persona? Does this give her courage and the guts to flee her boring life for a chance at love in Los Angeles?

John clearly loves Mika, or more importantly, he has no feelings for Setsuko, despite her best efforts. In a pivotal and hilarious scene, John and Setsuko smoke marijuana as he teaches her how to drive in a deserted parking lot. As they feel the effects of the drug, Setsuko comes on to John and before he knows it they have sex. This only deepens her obsession with him as she decides to get the same tattoo as he has. He realizes she may not be stable as the audience, still enamored with the character, becomes to pity her.

Hirayanagi is careful not to make her film a downer and she does an amazing job in that regard. When Setsuko returns to her meager existence in Tokyo she is unceremoniously fired from the job she despises but has held for decades. Is she devastated or liberated? Perhaps a bit of each, but she has reached her breaking point and succumbs to sadness, longing for John. Fortunately, a surprise appearance by an unexpected character uplifts her spirits and the entire film.

Oh Lucy! (2017) is a great example of an independent film from an inexperienced director that is laden with good qualities. A wounded main character who is sympathetic to viewers leads a dynamic story of loneliness, melancholia, but also with witty dialogue and crackling humor, and a multi-cultural approach. A hybrid Japanese and American film with location sequences in both areas, the film will satisfy those seeking an intelligent, quick-witted experience.

LBJ-2017

LBJ-2017

Director-Rob Reiner

Starring-Woody Harrelson, Jennifer Jason Leigh

Scott’s Review #890

Reviewed April 27, 2019

Grade: B-

LBJ (2017) provides small glimpses of historical interest with a biography about a United States President perhaps underrepresented in cinema history as compared to other presidents but the production never catches fire and falls flat with an overproduced film lacking bombast. The film can easily be viewed once, never to be thought of again, nor providing need for analysis or discussion. Director Rob Reiner creates a glossy, mainstream Hollywood production with questionable casting choices and a muddled feel.

To its credit the film gets off to a good start introducing the fateful day of November 22, 1963 into the story. As then Vice President Johnson (LBJ), played by Woody Harrelson and wife Lady Bird (Jennifer Jason Leigh) deplane and embark on a motorcade procession through downtown Dallas, Texas, dire events will follow. As the violent assassination of President John F. Kennedy (Jeffrey Donovan) soon arrives the film portrays the initial foreshadowing well then backtracks to 1960 when the Democratic nominee was up for grabs with both JFK and Johnson in contention.

The film traverses back and forth from pre to post JFK assassination as LBJ took over the presidency amid the controversial Civil Rights Bill and a still shocked United States public. A character study develops as the gruff and grizzled man takes center stage to lead the country into the future. The attempt is to show LBJ, the man, at his best and worst personally and professionally facing pressure from his cabinet. Reiner portrays LBJ as complex, brooding, and vulgar, but also as a person whose heart is ultimately in the right place. A man we love to hate? Or hate to love?

From a historical drama perspective, and a genre that has many in the cinematic chambers, the film fails. A powerful political drama is supposed to be compelling but LBJ just feels dull, run-of-the-mill, and extremely forgettable. Some examples of exceptional political film projects are Lincoln (2012), JFK (1991), and Vice (2018). Each has flare, flavor, and a twist or otherwise unusual story construction that LBJ glaringly lacks. Simply put, the experience feels plain and unimpressive.

Having regrettably not seen the HBO film version entitled All the Way starring Bryan Cranston as LBJ, I cannot compare the two other than from word of mouth that Cranston gives the superior portrayal. Based on trailers I would agree with the overall assessment. Harrelson’s version of LBJ is adequate if not sensational. His mannerisms of the President may be effective, but he does not resemble the man too well. With a waxy, heavily made up face, Harrelson the actor is unrecognizable and feels staged rather than authentic.

Jennifer Jason Leigh suffers the same fate as Harrelson in the important role of First Lady, Lady Bird Johnson. The actress is successful at emulating the appropriate characteristics specifically facially but also appears too made up- like a wax figure in a museum sprung to life. As Harrelson and Jason Leigh daftly teeter from scene to scene the result is marginally comical but LBJ the film not a comedy nor a satire, played instead for the heavy drama.

LBJ (2017) is of mild interest but limited as a successful film adaptation of an important figure in United States history. Glimpses of political education for those not alive to experience the tumultuous 1960’s are good but much more was expected from this film than was provided. Better studies exist and hopefully will be created in the future than what adds up too little more than a snore-fest.

BPM (Beats Per Minute)- 2017

BPM (Beats Per Minute)- 2017

Director-Robin Campillo

Starring-Nahuel Perez Biscayart, Arnaud Valois

Scott’s Review #884

Reviewed April 11, 2019

Grade: A-

BPM (Beats Per Minute) (2017) is a film that is both exhilarating and heartbreaking to watch. Churning out emotional reactions such as empathy and empowerment the film channels a potential life-saving cause. Of French language and shot documentary style the film is not an easy watch as the viewer is transplanted back to the early 1990’s when the AIDS epidemic was ravaging the world in general and the gay community specifically. A mixture of a community- oriented movement amidst a love story makes this project worthwhile viewing.

The immediate focal point of the story is an impassioned and aggressive Paris based chapter of ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power), a unified gay and lesbian organization intent on speeding up the French government’s response to the unwieldy AIDS epidemic. The group resorts to extreme public protests consisting of fake blood throwing and invading prominent pharmaceutical company meetings. Their intent is to get them to release trial results immediately instead of waiting until the next year. The various debates and infighting among the chapter are heavily featured.

As the film progresses BPM (Beats Per Minute) slowly shifts its focus from the protests to the personal lives of the ACT UP members as a romance brews between nineteen-year-old HIV positive Sean (Perez Biscayart), who already exhibits visible infections from the disease, and HIV negative Nathan (Valois), a newcomer to the group. The pair quickly become inseparable as Sean’s body becomes ravaged by the disease resulting in a poignant and dire conclusion sure to elicit tears.

Director, Campillo and co-screenwriter Philippe Mangeot drew on their personal experiences with ACT UP in developing the story enriching the authenticity of the experience. Despite being shot in present day the film feels genuine with a 1990’s feel and flavor. The gray Parisian locales though gorgeous and picturesque also portray a sadness and bleakness. As Sean gazes outside we sense his fear and anguish. Through this character Campillo and Mangeot provide personal stories representing the plight of many during that time.

A particularly racy scene erupts approximately halfway through the film as Sean and Nathan’s love story takes center stage. Foreign language films are not known for shying away from nudity or sexuality the way many American films do. As the impassioned pair make love for the first time, little is left to the imagination. Despite the gratuitous nudity and the overt sexual tones, the duo’s relationship is not solely physical, and the audience will undoubtedly come to care for both men the way that I did.

The two-fold story is a wise choice and the overall message that BPM (Beats Per Minute) presents is both inspiring and a good telling of the LGBT community’s struggles at notice and inclusion during the 1980’s and 1990’s. This point is both a positive and a negative as the story beckons back to a day in the community’s history dripping with pain and loneliness and this comes across on film. The film is hardly a happy experience and quite rather the downer.

The main drawback to the film is its length. At nearly two and a half hours the story and principle points begin to become redundant which causes the overall message to lose a bit of thunder. The constant bickering and debate among the ACT UP group becomes tedious to watch as fight and clash after fight and clash resurface repeatedly.

Though painful to experience and not very uplifting, BPM (Beats Per Minute) is an important film to view given how far the treatments of HIV have progressed over several decades. Not taking things for granted, a trip down memory lane for those alive during the epidemic is recommended. For those fortunate enough to have missed the 1980’s and the 1990’s the film is a necessary reminder of how life once was for the unfortunate victim of a devastating epidemic.

Atomic Blonde-2017

Atomic Blonde-2017

Director-David Leitch

Starring-Charlize Theron, James McAvoy

Scott’s Review #857

Reviewed January 19, 2019

Grade: B+

Atomic Blonde (2017) is a female empowering action/spy film directed by David Leitch, a former stuntman. The film plays similarly to a James Bond film only with the genders reversed. Featuring dynamic music and cold, crisp location sequences of Europe, the film is visually stylish. The story is not the main appeal and cannot always be followed, but thanks to a great performance by Charlize Theron in the title role the film is pleasant and recommended for fans of either the spy or the action genres.

Based on the 2012 graphic novel The Coldest City, the film is set in Berlin during 1989 and its major theme is the collapse of the Berlin Wall amid a spy story and the Cold War backdrop. A grizzled female MI6 agent, Lorraine Broughton (Charlize Theron), is quizzed about events that occurred during her recent time spent in the German city investigating the death of a fellow spy. She recounts her mission via flashbacks and the whereabouts of a mysterious list that reveals the names of MI6 and KGB Russian agents. Lorraine deals frequently with David Percival (James McAvoy), an odd colleague who may or may not be trusted.

The plot and subsequent story are hardly the finer points of Atomic Blonde and the title- a play on words of “atomic bomb” is too cute to take seriously. Given that the novice director is a former stuntman one should not expect high art nor exceptional writing material. The largest issue besides the plot holes and implausibility of the story is that it is not that engaging. After thirty minutes of trying to ascertain who had “the list” I gave up and tried not to follow too closely instead enjoying the other qualities the film offers.

Theron is well cast as bleached blonde vixen Lorraine- tough as nails and bad-ass to the core. With icy eyes and a sneer to make the toughest opponents cringe the actress contains the charisma to make the role her own. The number of fight scenes that the tall and fit woman endures are too plentiful to count, but her pizzazz and wherewithal make the character believable. Her toned and physicality is not dissimilar from her character in Mad Max: Fury Road (2015). Bisexual, Lorraine has a brief romantic escapade with Delphine Lasalle (Sofia Boutella), a young French agent, until the woman is murdered.

Any adventurer of Europe will be enamored from a logistical perspective with the exciting locales featured heartily in Atomic Blonde.  Sleek and modern, the photography and cinematography departments do a fantastic job of giving the film authenticity and audacity daring to reveal the terrific nooks and crannies the best cities have to offer. Given the number of high-speed car chase scenes and a fantastic underwater sequence, London, Paris, and Berlin are all given their just due.

The feminist overview that Atomic Blonde possesses is worthy of praise. Able to tangle with the best of them, Lorraine takes no prisoners and is determined to battle until the end or until she is too bloody to battle back. She is tough yet sensitive and puts up with no nonsense. Still she has a heart as evidenced by not only the violent death of her girlfriend and her subsequent reaction, but her calm despair at being unable to save a drowning man’s life. Lorraine’s calm and resilience instead of over-dramatic emotional outrage make her a character developed very well and a role model for young women everywhere.

McAvoy is cute as a button as David adding comic relief and sly witticisms to many scenes. He often appears shirtless exposing his lean and muscular physique. As a fan of sexual dalliances, he is both combative and flirtatious with Lorraine though he never beds her. A yin to her yang and sparring partners throughout, David is a nice addition to a cast containing mostly serious characters.

The 1980’s themed musical score features treat after treat of nostalgic songs peppered throughout the film seemingly every few moments. Atomic Blonde plays like a bold music video with intelligently penned songs not disposable crap. The inclusion adds a genuine celebration of the decade of decadence crafted in a thoughtful way. Treats such as the masterful “Voices Carry” by ‘Til Tuesday, “London Calling” by The Clash, and “Der Kommissar” by After the Fire are placed perfectly during relevant scenes.

With a ballsy lead character and enough action to envelope a nearly two-hour action thriller Atomic Blonde (2017) is a gift in atmosphere and great ambiance. Forget bothering to deep-dive into the complex story too much- it isn’t worth it. Admittedly coveting style over substance this can be forgiven because the nice elements overshadow the negatives. Atomic Blonde is best served as a kick-back and enjoy the ride experience.

The Transfiguration-2017

The Transfiguration-2017

Director-Michael O’Shea

Starring-Eric Ruffin, Chloe Levine

Scott’s Review #853

Reviewed January 7, 2019

Grade: B+

The Transfiguration (2017) is a quiet horror film and resoundingly peculiar vampire tale borrowing elements of similar genre pieces but adding fresh nuances to its story. Some may feel the film is too slow paced, but with patience there comes a terrific payoff and tremendous conclusion. Of the independent horror field and with a limited budget, the underlying message of teen loneliness and alienation comes through loud and clear.  The film wisely adds tidbits of classic film history which is a special treat for horror buffs.

Fourteen-year-old Milo (Eric Ruffin) has been through much trauma in his young life. His father has died, and his mother has recently committed suicide. Milo resides in a crummy Brooklyn high-rise with his older brother Lewis (Aaron Clifton Moten), a depressed military veteran. Milo has a horrific secret- he is convinced he is a vampire and habitually kills strangers drinking their blood. When he meets troubled teen Sophie (Chloe Levine), the pair are inseparable, but Milo’s secret is threatened to be uncovered.

The bevy of neighborhood Brooklyn exterior shots are pleasing for those familiar with New York City locales. Similar in style to Beach Rats (2017) another recent coming-of-age story shot in Brooklyn springs to mind. Many scenes of Milo and Chloe wandering around their neighborhood or riding the subway are featured making the overall package feel authentic and not overly produced. The Brooklyn beaches and skylines make frequent appearances.

The most compelling, and frightening, aspect of The Transfiguration is how convinced Milo is of his being a vampire leading me to think the writer is providing a mental health learning. The audience immediately knows he is delusional, but he truly believes. Terrifying is this reality as via flashback we see Milo discovering his mother’s body, her wrists slit. As he gruesomely tastes her blood a sense of wonderment we wonder if this is his vampire discovery moment. Surely a defense mechanism, it is nonetheless extreme behavior.

The character of Sophie is also worthy of discussion. With both of her parents deceased she is sent to live with her abusive grandfather who lives in the same building as Milo. We never see the character but know that he is vile. In one scene Sophie appears to be raped by a group of boys and she yearns for a friend in Milo. As she slowly realizes his secret, but incorrectly assumes he is writing a book not killing people, she is able to look past this to belong. Milo and Sophie desperately need each other.

Despite the macabre characterizations outlined above the film is not quite a downer. In the middle of the vampire story is a sweet and likable young romance between the two leads. There is a charisma and charm between the two that is genuine and heartfelt and even the simplest conversations sparkle with appeal. The final sacrifice that one makes for the other is riddled with kindness.

Fans of classic horror will be delighted with clips of the 1922 film Nosferatu as well as other gory cult classic films that Milo is obsessed with. In a cute and innocent way, he attempts to broaden Sophie’s exposure to vampire films- she thinks the Twilight films are masterpieces much to Milo’s chagrin. This fun banter balances the dreadful main story plot.

Does Milo have rooting power? Despite a history of animal torture and human killings he is a remarkably nice kid. He is tempted to kill both Sophie and a young boy in the park but resists this urge. In the end he also saves Sophie ensuring she will have a better fate than he. The character is complex and a large part of the success of The Transfiguration.

Writer and director Michael O’Shea cleverly uses a side story of a gang of bullies to incorporate a dramatic and shocking conclusion with a wonderful twist. Milo, though tragic and flawed, proves himself a hero as he uses an opportunity to punish and exact revenge on enemies, while saving the life of another character. In this way he will undoubtedly gain sympathy from the audience.

The Transfiguration (2017) is a unique film that infuses character development and a romance with a blend of horrific blood curdling moments, especially during “kill” scenes. I hope that this very small film with no advertising budget receives enough word of mouth to gather a following or at the very least garner recognition for the up and coming director (O’Shea).

Beatriz at Dinner-2017

Beatriz at Dinner-2017

Director-Miguel Arteta

Starring-Salma Hayek, John Lithgow

Scott’s Review #844

Reviewed December 18, 2018

Grade: B+

Thanks to a well-written screenplay and a thought-provoking idea, Beatriz at Dinner (2017) spins an interesting concept about politics and class systems discussed over dinner. Salma Hayek and John Lithgow give tremendous performances as characters with opposing viewpoints helping the film to succeed, though a flawed ending and cookie-cutter style supporting characters detract from the overall enjoyment.

Set in southern California, presumably around Los Angeles, Beatriz (Hayek) works as a holistic health practitioner. Moonlighting as a massage therapist, she becomes stranded at the wealthy home of one of her clients, Kathy (Connie Britton), who she views as a friend. Kathy invites Beatriz to stay for dinner where she encounters real-estate mogul Doug Strutt (Lithgow) and the two gradually develop a feud based on their differing politics and viewpoints.

The setup and flow of Beatriz at Dinner is commendable and paces the film nicely, sort of a day in the life of Beatriz. The film begins as the character awakens to her pet dogs and goat noisily beginning their day and culminates late at night, the dinner party concludes, and the last glass of wine consumed. In this way the film has a nice packaged feel that keeps the story confined and structured.

Being an independent film, the budget is small and most of the scenes are shot in the spacious modern house overlooking the Pacific Ocean, which works well. Gorgeous and vast, many rooms are used as conversations among the characters occur, many overlapping each other. Beatriz at Dinner could have been a play, and this helps with the good flow.

Hayek and Lithgow are the main draws as their initial guarded pleasantries progress to venom and violence, albeit largely imagined. Initially thinking that Beatriz is the household help, Doug is inquisitive about her entry into the United States and makes numerous insulting gestures, mispronouncing her Mexican hometown and mocking her profession. Beatriz calmly endures his racism and begins discussions about how his business harms animals and people as emotions escalate. The actors play off each other wonderfully and share chemistry.

With each glass of wine Beatriz becomes more brazen and shares a story of how people in her village lost their land to real estate development and shares a humanistic viewpoint while Doug sees life as to be lived while you can. Despite their dislike for each-others lifestyle the film has Beatriz and Doug at least listen to one other and attempt to understand the other’s opinion, which is more than can be said for the supporting players motivations or lack thereof.

Besides Kathy, while sympathetic to Beatriz’s calm demeanor and life rich philosophies, she also realizes that Doug is her family’s meal ticket. The other party attendees are written as polite yet uninteresting twits with nothing to talk about except a reality star’s nude photos, dinner, or a handful of other nothing topics. Chloe Sevigny, Jay Duplass, Amy Landecker, and David Warshofsky have little to do other than stand around and react to meatier written material that Hayek and Lithgow get to play.

Beatriz at Dinner had me in its corner until the film takes a jarring turn during the final act. As Beatriz leaves the party and sets about on her way home, she hastily decides to grab a letter opener and bludgeon Doug to death as the dinner guests hysterically realize what is happening. Instead of leaving things be the film chooses to make this only Beatriz’s fantasy and then have her go to the ocean and walk into the waves. Does this mean she commits suicide or is this another fantasy? Unclear and unsatisfying is this final sequence.

I am not sure why Beatriz at Dinner is considered a comedy. Perhaps a mild dark comedy, I argue that the film is a straight-ahead drama and lacks the witty humor that made dinner party themed films such as Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966) and The Boys in the Band (1970) such masterpieces.

Beatriz at Dinner (2017) is a valiant attempt at offering social commentary in a time when discussions like these are needed in films and the project largely succeeds. An impassioned yet subdued performance by Hayek deservedly earned her a Female Lead Independent Film nomination. Rich writing garnered the film a Best Screenplay nomination too, but a big whiff at the end lowers the overall experience a notch.

Downsizing-2017

Downsizing-2017

Director-Alexander Payne

Starring-Matt Damon, Hong Chau

Scott’s Review #842

Reviewed December 14, 2018

Grade: B

Downsizing (2017) is a film that appeared on many critic’s top ten lists for the year, but that to the average viewers did not resonate well. Part of this discrepancy could have been the way the film was marketed. Despite having Kristen Wiig among its cast, the film is NOT a comedy but rather a social commentary with some science-fiction and dramatic elements mixed in.

Downsizing contains a wonderful and thought-provoking premise, but ultimately does not piece together all parts in a completely satisfying way leaving an erratic and disjointed result. The elements are all there- a charismatic lead actor (Damon), an inventive, socially relevant premise, and a humanistic and beautiful message. Within the film are some gorgeous cinematic treats of picturesque Norway that will make one melt if watched on the big screen. The film has enough positives to recommend without it being truly great.

The story begins as a Norwegian scientist discovers a way to solve the world overpopulation state and global warming problems with a discovery that shrinks people causing them to use few resources. Paul and Audrey Safranek (Damon and Wiig) decide to undergo the procedure and begin a new life in a gorgeous community designed for small people. When Audrey bails at the last-minute leaving Paul on his own, he must forge ahead with a lonely life anyway, unable to be transformed from small to large. He meets Ngoc Lan (Chau), a Vietnamese activist who changes his life forever due to her selflessness. Paul realizes he does have a purpose after all.

The positives of the film are mostly in the individual components. How true that the modern world suffers from overpopulation and director Alexander Payne paints a dire picture of the eventual result. This gives the film a left-leaning environmental opinion that I relish. I was immediately engaged in the humanistic approach Payne relays and the possibilities of a new world with no suffering and riches for all. Of course, this is not sustainable nor realistic as the film shows

The romantic dynamic is also a major win.  The first half features Paul and Audrey as the romantic couple; a likable pair who struggles with bills and cares for planet earth.  Suddenly, this changes and Audrey is discounted from the equation in favor of Paul and Ngoc Lan. An unexpected item, their romance is a slow build, seemingly opposite types of people. He is laid back and thoughtful, she brash and outspoken, yet they work wonderfully as a couple. As a viewer I became wholly invested in them by the closing credits.

Newcomer Huang Chau (Ngoc Lan) is the standout and nearly upstages Damon. The young actress garnered a Golden Globe nomination for this role and deservedly so. Far too few good roles for Asian actors Chau hits the jackpot with this part. Her character is sympathetic yet tough, once an outspoken advocate, she has endured prison only to lose a leg and be reduced to a house cleaner in her new world.

Payne makes the point that a new society does not equate to joy, and this is the crux of the film. At first the community is lavish with luxurious homes and idyllic surroundings, but when Paul meets Ngoc Lan and sees her world of pain, starvation, and neglect he is dumbfounded. This is a sad reality and leads him to make rash decisions about himself and his future.

Where Downsizing misses the boat is with the execution. As strong as the premise is, the story meanders. From Paul and Audrey’s mundane life in Nebraska to the new society to the slums to the introduction of the world ceasing to exist and finally another world being created, there is too much going on. The dots never connect leaving the overall experience of Downsizing erratic.

Christoph Walz deserves a better role than Dusan, an aging Serbian party boy. The character is annoying and a weak attempt at portraying spoiled white men having all the advantages. His character is unnecessary and does not work.

Downsizing (2017) is quite the brave effort holding an ingenious premise and a worthwhile message. I recommend the film for these reasons as Payne attempts to tell a story never told before and that is to be championed. The elements do not add up and the film is missing a solid structure, but as a whole the film is to be admired for what it intends to do.

Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool-2017

Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool-2017

Director-Paul McGuigan

Starring-Annette Bening, Jamie Bell

Scott’s Review #840

Reviewed December 11, 2018

Grade: B+

Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool (2017) showcases a compelling performance by stalwart actress Annette Bening as she plays faded, insecure Hollywood glamour girl, Gloria Grahame. The film focuses only on Grahame’s final two years of life as she battles breast cancer and begins a relationship with a much younger man, Peter Turner (Jamie Bell).

The film is a sad yet poignant dedication to the star featuring enough performance gusto from its actors to make up for a limited span of time and too much back and forth within the timeline that complicated the film too much. As a result, Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool is endearing but does not hit it out of the park.

The entire film takes place between 1979 and 1981 as actress Gloria Grahame, her best days behind her, resides in a rented Liverpool room. In 1979 she has found a bit of success in local theater and befriends her much younger male neighbor. The pair become romantic partners and experience trials and tribulations as the film teeters back and forth between Grahame’s ailing final days in 1981 to happier times in Los Angeles and New York. Gloria also befriends and finally lives with Peter’s parents, who care for her unflinchingly.

The story is enveloped in sadness but is not a downer either. The film begins towards the end of Gloria’s illness though the audience is not aware yet of the seriousness of her disease. Insisting she just has painful gas, the tender relationship between the actress and Peter is explored. The story then parlays back to 1979 when Peter and Gloria first meet- he an aspiring actor unaware of who she is until a bartender makes the connection. In this way the film makes it clear this is not a story about a young man seeking the fortunes of a presumably wealthy woman. I like this point as the story is about romance not money grubbing.

Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool belongs to Bening. The supporting roles are well cast taking nothing away from either Bell’s performance or a nice turn by Julie Walters as Peter’s mum. Bening, however, does wonders emulating the mannerisms of Grahame with an innocent, damsel in distress nature (mirroring the roles she made famous). Bening amazes at revealing the actress’s insecurities and fear of aging and an older appearance. During a fight Peter cruelly refers to her as an “old lady” and we see the comment strike a deadly blow the same as if she had been physically slapped. Bening is so good at portraying a myriad of emotions over the course of the film.

Another high point comes towards the end of the film. I love the way the film connects an earlier argument (and breakup) between Gloria and Peter with a later sequence. As Peter assumes she was carrying on with another man when he learns she lied about her whereabouts, the haunting reality is later revealed, changing the audience’s entire perception of the turn of events. This is good writing by the screenwriters.

To counter the above point, the constant back and forth from 1981 to 1979 and everywhere in between detracts from the enjoyment of the overall film for me. Spanning only two years the film spends way too much time in multiple locations without enough explanation. Suddenly Gloria and Peter are in Los Angeles having dinner with her mother and sister at Gloria’s modest house, then they are in New York City in her lavish Park Avenue apartment. The film would have been better suited with a straightforward approach chronicling events from 1979 to 1981 in sequence.

Another negative is the omission of any scenes prior to 1979. The actress’s career thrived during the 1940’s and 1950’s so it would have been interesting to capture those earlier days. If the fear was that Bening was too old to pass for a younger Grahame, another actress could have been used for those scenes. While a clip of the real Grahame winning the Oscar and a few clips of her starring in films are nice, way more time could have been spent on more story.

Thanks to a brilliant performance by Bening and an emotional story that in large part succeeds, Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool (2017) is a win. Not recognized during awards season as originally anticipated, this could have been due to the overly complex timeline and thus the limiting feeling the film produced. The production and writing are very good, but lack greatness.

Ingrid Goes West-2017

Ingrid Goes West-2017

Director-Matt Spicer

Starring-Aubrey Plaza, Elizabeth Olsen

Scott’s Review #832

Reviewed November 16, 2018

Grade: A-

Ingrid Goes West (2017) is a deliciously wicked black comedy and a bold statement about the current obsession with social media. Combined with a dynamite performance by young actress Aubrey Plaza and smart writing, the small independent film provides a summertime treasure, and two Spirit Award nominations for good measure. The film is a breath of fresh air and a fine achievement by new director Matt Spicer.

The film immediately catapults the audience into the action as we are treated to a closeup of a sobbing Ingrid Thorburn (Plaza). We immediately know that she is not right as she fumes with the realization that she has not been invited to her Instagram friend’s wedding and proceeds to interrupt the reception and attack the bride with pepper spray. Ingrid is carted off to a mental hospital for analysis and recovery.

Once released we learn that Ingrid’s mother has recently died leaving her a tidy sum of money as an inheritance. Ingrid suddenly becomes obsessed with Taylor Sloane (Elizabeth Olsen), a popular and narcissistic young woman who Ingrid follows on Instagram. Taylor becomes Ingrid’s idol as she decides to move to Los Angeles and insinuates herself into Taylor’s life. She stalks Taylor and steals her dog only to pretend she rescued it, thereby becoming a close friend of hers. Gradually, Ingrid’s actions become more and more psychotic as Taylor catches wind of Ingrid’s antics.

Aubrey Plaza is perfectly cast as the unstable, manipulative title character. She possesses such strong comic timing, and with her wide eyes, nervous mannerisms, and determination to get what she wants, the audience roots for and falls in love with her. On paper we should dislike the character as she takes advantage of nearly everyone in her path, but Plaza embodies her with empathy and smarts. Delightful to watch is how she gets out of scrape after scrape with her quick thinking- Plaza truly excels in the role.

Bold and calculating are words to be used to describe Olsen’s performance as the selfish Taylor, and this may very well be why it is easy to root for Ingrid. The character is so plastic and conniving that it is intensely satisfying to see her as the foil. Olsen usually plays good girl roles and possesses a girl next door quality, but in this part, she nestles nicely into a bitch role. Olsen also contains great timing with her character’s dialogue delivery, so much so that Olsen and Plaza had me in stitches during their one on one scenes.

I adore the Los Angeles setting, beyond appropriate for a film about phoniness, obsession, and plastic personas. Beneath the sunny veneer lies darkness and tomfoolery in every direction and besides Ingrid’s landlord/somewhat boyfriend, Dan (O’Shea Jackson Jr.), there are not many likable characters. Attending party after party and lavish club, restaurant, or get-away, being involved in the “scene”, the City of Angels is the perfect backdrop.

One gripe that knocks Ingrid Goes West down a rung for me is how the character of Taylor’s artist husband Ezra (Wyatt Russell) is written. Ingrid realizes as she has a poolside heart to heart with the depressed Ezra, in one of the more authentic scenes, that his wife is not the girl he knew when she moved to L.A. He and Ingrid seem to connect, but shortly after it is as if the conversation never happened and he is ferociously taking his wife’s side again. A nicer approach, and one I was hoping for, is that Ingrid and Ezra would ride off into the sunset, but the film misses this opportunity.

The entire film is a clever piece of work. From the performances, the dark humor, and the witty dialogue, Ingrid Goes West (2018) succeeds on nearly all levels. A modern day Single White Female (1992) with a social media slant, the film goes for the gusto and gets there. I cannot wait to see more from up and coming star Aubrey Plaza as the actress has the comic and dramatic chops to go very far.

Faces Places-2017

Faces Places-2017

Director-Agnes Varda, JR

Scott’s Review #816

Reviewed October 3, 2018

Grade: B+

Fans of French culture, landscape, and sophistication will assuredly enjoy Faces Places (2017), a documentary that explores art and creativity.  With both humorous and touching moments, the work explores the friendship between two differing artists of vastly opposite ages. Some scenes of Paris and especially the French countryside make this a personal treat.

The documentary begins by showing its two main characters, thirty-something JR, and eighty-something Agnes Varda, beforehand not knowing one another, missing each other in a coffee shop. Both share their passion for images expressed in different ways- photography and cinema. They each enjoy expressing regular people’s stories by creating lavish portraits and exhibiting them on houses, barns, and the like. Both Varda and JR co-directed this documentary.

When deciding to view Faces Places, I did so with the anticipation that I would be treated to sightseeing type glimpses of both Paris and the surrounding areas- possibly even the south of France or Niece or Burgundy! Paris, however gets short shrift but this can be forgiven as rural France (not known as a tourist hotbed) is featured mostly. We experience many local French people living ordinary lives, but bringing something treasured to the film.

As Agnes and JR cavort around the rural roads in his pickup truck they stop in small towns where they have heard of an interesting story. In one town a farmer works alone and supports his village- a superhero of sorts, while in another town an old woman who has lived in the same house for decades is honored by Varga and JR as they brandish her portrait on the exterior of her house. The woman is tearful and emotionally touched.

The dynamic between Agnes and JR is the high point of the documentary. With more than one generation between them they begin as acquaintances, but their bond flourishes and grows as the documentary moves along. Think-the relationship between Ruth Gordon and Bud Cort featured in the 1971 masterpiece Harold and Maude, save for the romantic element. In a touching moment, JR introduces Agnes to his quite elderly grandmother and the two women hit it off tremendously.

Varda is particularly interesting to me for her contribution to 1950’s French New Wave cinema. Her usage of location sequences and non-professional actors were unconventional at the time and highly influential. In a tender scene Varda attempts to visit friend Jean-Luc Godard, but he refuses to see her, evidently now living as a recluse.

Faces Places (2017) is a rich and soulful experience, one with enough imagination and creativity to inspire its viewers. Perhaps not offering  as much of the vast French landscape as I had anticipated, instead the documentary offers a lesson in the importance of life. With a startlingly connected duo, contributing a whimsical approach to their passion, the result is an inspirational journey that everyone can enjoy.

The Insult-2017

The Insult-2017

Director-Ziad Doueiri

Starring-Adel Karam, Kamel El Basha

Scott’s Review #815

Reviewed October 1, 2018

Grade: B

A Lebanese film nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film Academy award, The Insult (2017) offers its audience what I would categorize as a message film.  A battle of cultures and religions lead to chaos and controversy culminating with an embattled court case as we get to know supporting characters as well. While the film is above average it is also too glossy and at times plays out more like a television series- with dramatic effects and plot developments for miles. Still, the film is a worthy watch.

In a small Lebanese village, main character Tony Hanna (Adel Karam) lives with his pregnant wife Shirine. Working as an automobile mechanic, Tony is a proud member of the Christian community, attending rallies and events. His village employs Palestinian refugees to perform maintenance repairs, which irritates Tony. When a verbal altercation with middle-aged refugee Yasser (Kamel El Basha) occurs over a broken gutter, a failed apology results in physical violence as the situation rapidly escalates.

The courtroom drama, while compelling, seems a very familiar story. Other recent foreign language films such as A Separation (2011), and Gett: The Trial of Vivian Amsalem (2014) use similar plot devices of family conflict that wind up in the courtroom. Those films are better written and feel more authentic and raw than The Insult does. All throughout the film I kept telling myself I was not watching a middle-eastern version of Law & Order, but that is what it felt like.

Personally, I felt little sympathy for Tony and I was not completely sure if we were supposed to feel anything for him. With his brooding nature, and populist attitude he is written as downright unlikable at first. I assume the intent was to soften the character over the length of the film when he briefly comes to Yasser’s aid and helps start the man’s car. However, Tony soon reverts to his original stubborn nature.

Yasser is a much more likable fellow, albeit with a temper. Hurling curse words at Tony is the reason the tension between the two men begins in the first place and attempted apologies only lead to miscommunications between everyone. But Yasser gets my vote for the most compassionate character. In the supporting roles, an interesting (though perhaps not completely necessary) side story exists as the embattled lawyers are revealed to be father and daughter.

The major problem with The Insult is that the entire story seems plot-driven and each step created to come up with a way to build or add tension. For example, a speeding motorcycle angrily side-swipes Tony and his wife.  The partners are then in peril because their daughter is born premature due to the stress. Situations and tensions could have easily been wrapped up or smoothed over under different circumstances, therefore the tone of the films feels less than authentic and manipulative despite some good drama.

Still, what the writing team does is introduce the audience to the turbulent world of Middle Eastern politics in a way that undoubtedly results in thought-provoking views and exposures to opposing ideas. The film also provides a distinct hopeful slant at the conclusion so as not to send a dour message. The direction is that people can come together as one peaceful group, but that it will not be easy.

The Insult (2017) is not a bad watch and, in fact, compels the viewer to witness an interesting story of differing cultures and warring religious beliefs churning two men inside out when faced with conflict. The film also does a fine job of emitting a peaceful message of coming together as human beings.

An overall rating of “B” is a nice score but given the dozens of potential Best Foreign Language finalists, I am not sure the film quite “cuts the mustard” for me- surely there were superior entries. But then this Oscar category’s nominating process has always been a mystery.

The Square-2017

The Square-2017

Director-Ruben Oslund

Starring-Claes Bang, Elisabeth Moss

Scott’s Review #814

Reviewed September 28, 2018

Grade: B+

The Square (2017) is an eccentric Swedish language film that is highly interpretive and does not always make perfect sense the way a more mainstream film would. This is both a positive and a negative as the ultimate message of the film is admirable, though some parts are both perplexing and downright bizarre. The film was bestowed an Oscar nomination, undoubtedly for its bravery and cutting-edge approach, for the Best Foreign Language Film- subsequently it lost to A Fantastic Woman (2017).

The X-Royal art museum in Stockholm, Sweden is the primary setting of the film. The action centers mostly around the museum’s creative director Christian (Claes Bang), who is new to the job and attempting to introduce a new installation called “The Square”. A misunderstanding with a youthful public relations firm hired to make the exhibit as accessible as possible, leads to controversy. The film also interjects various sub-plots that are by and large interesting in themselves, but do not always make logical sense.

Bang is quite compelling in the lead role and the best part of the film for me. He is charismatic, a good father to his two daughters, and helps the homeless- even going so far as to help a young woman when nobody else will, only to find his wallet stolen- an unfortunate victim of a scam. Furthermore, Christian’s desire to create “The Square” is quite humane and admirable- a safe zone for trust and compassion. The character is a good-guy, but also concerned with his status.

Common themes of satire and human being’s natural hypocritical nature abound. For example, in one scene Christian, proud to drive his flashy Tesla car and giving money to the homeless, is then afraid to be seen in a run-down apartment house. Later, a man with tourettes syndrome disrupts an interview at the museum and is looked down on by “open minded people” as a result. The latter scene is admittedly quite amusing as the man erupts with various expletives at the most inopportune times.

My favorite sequence by far occurs approximately mid-way through the film. As bizarre as the scene is, it is also riveting in its momentum and bravery. When a group of well-dressed museum members gather for a lavish dinner and to watch a human art show, a bare-chested man who only grunts emerges and slowly begins to antagonize certain guests. He begins pulling the hair of one woman while chasing one angry man from the hall. Shocking, intense, and thought provoking are words to describe this scene. But perplexing is what does the scene mean?

A treat for me was being able to view the frequent interior and exterior scenes of the famous Stockholm museum- of which I was privy to have visited in 2016. So fresh was this experience that it brought back wonderful memories of not only the museum, but of the gorgeous city of Stockholm itself.

The chemistry between Christian (who is Swedish) and an American reporter, Anne (Elisabeth Moss), does nothing for the film. In fact, it feels completely disjointed and unnecessary and there is little connection between the two characters. Engaging in a one-night stand, the duo has a dispute about a used condom. Does Christian think that Anne is desperate enough to use his sperm and impregnate herself? The resulting spat between the two seems meaningless.

The Square (2017) is a very tough film to review. Oftentimes disjointed and impossible to make heads or tails of, one would be wise to simply “experience” the film on its own merits. I am not sure I particularly need to view it again and try to figure out the plot because I am uncertain if that was the intent by director Ruben Oslund. Having directed the wonderful Force Majeure (2014), a more straightforward and superior film in my opinion, The Square is worth a watch in its own right.

The Disaster Artist-2017

The Disaster Artist-2017

Director-James Franco

Starring-James Franco, Dave Franco

Scott’s Review #781

Reviewed July 2, 2018

Grade: B

The Disaster Artist (2017) is a biography-comedy that I found to be middle of the road to mostly good if I’m judging in overall terms- most I liked with a little criticism. Due to the many accolades I confess to having anticipated a bit more from the finished product and hardly found it any sort of masterpiece. Still, I was both impressed and unimpressed by the performance of James Franco in the lead role, awed at the emergence of the actor as a director, and the Los Angeles setting is great.

At times the film teeters almost into bad slapstick or shtick, and a bit silly, and as much as I respect his performance, this criticism is directed at Franco. Nobody can deny his acting talent if he chooses the right films. His attempt at making his character peculiar is noticeable within seconds so it seems Franco also makes him a bit of a goof and I was not able to take the character seriously all of the time. And the weird accent threw me.

This film is based on the non-fiction book called The Disaster Artist. The work chronicles the making of 2003’s The Room, not to be confused with the 2015 film, Room. The Room was considered amateurish and one of the worst movies to ever have been made.

Told repeatedly that his acting stinks, oddball Tommie Wiseau (James Franco), a European-American aspiring actor decides to screw Hollywood and produce, direct, and star in his own film. Mysteriously, Wiseau has an endless amount of bank funds, which he uses towards the film. Roommate and friend, Greg Sestero (Dave Franco), stars in the film and thus gets his big break. The duo, and various others, pitch in to create the project, which suffers from a level of ineptness on the part of Wiseau.

The Los Angeles setting really resonates with me as did the recurring theme of struggle within the Hollywood scene. These are major pluses to the film as a whole. Los Angeles can appear to be a sunny and glamorous town, but always contains a gloomy dark underbelly beneath the shiny exterior. The film realistically depicts struggle and success- from the central characters to the supporting players making the film resemble an ensemble.

Thousands struggle daily for a break with no respect or appreciation given and The Disaster Artist scores a win focusing on this. When Tommie brazenly approaches a powerful producer in a restaurant, he is unceremoniously dismissed for having no talent and told he will never get anywhere. In addition to Tommie, several actors associated with the film struggle. In a wonderful scene, an older actress states that being on a bad movie set beats any other job by miles. The message here is that people in Hollywood are there because they truly love it.

The sweet, empowering theme of friendship and empowerment are also to be celebrated, nice especially given the cut-throat backdrop. Tommie and Greg are best friends and have each-others backs through thick and thin. Neither gives up on the other, even during the tortuous initial audience reaction to The Room premiere.  Could the film have been slightly darker? Yes, certainly, as very few scenes of drug destruction or the porn that many hopeful talents turn to are mentioned. But the film is not really about that, it’s an enchanting tale of hope and fun.

Interesting to note and not evident to me while watching the film is that brothers James and Dave Franco play opposite one another. While there is somewhat of a physical resemblance, the chemistry works between the two actors as best friends. James delivers a worthy portrayal of an unusual character with a strange dialect and long, stringy brown hair, and seemingly cross-eyed. The role is comedic and perfectly suited for an unusual actor such as Franco- he must have had a ball with the part.

Movies about movie-making always fascinate me. What goes on behind the scenes? The Disaster Artist (2017) provides enough good film meat to make it an overall good experience. Staying true to some fine Hollywood history- the famous James Dean is referenced and the spot where he died even visited- nice touch! Franco is both good and disappointing in the main role.  All-in-all, for those who enjoy film making, Hollywood, or L.A. set films, give this one a chance.

The Killing of a Sacred Deer-2017

The Killing of a Sacred Deer-2017

Director-Yorgos Lanthimos

Starring-Colin Farrell, Nicole Kidman

Scott’s Review #774

Reviewed June 15, 2018

Grade: A

For fans of Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos, creator of such disturbing and bizarre films as 2009’s Dogtooth and 2015’s The Lobster, then The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017) will be a treasure. As with those films, the odd story and the peculiar acting styles are prevalent making the film quite the experience. I relish the film and its unusual nature, offering a cinematic experience that is insightful, mesmerizing, extreme, and quite frankly, brilliant.

Steven Murphy (Farrell) is an esteemed cardiac surgeon who “befriends” a troubled teenage boy named Martin (Barry Keogen) whose father had died years earlier as a result of Steven’s negligence. When Martin slowly insinuates himself into Steven’s family life, they begin to fall ill. Martin threatens to kill the entire family unless Steven kills either his wife Anna (Nicole Kidman) or one of his two children- the victim can be of his choosing.

The creepy premise is enormously intriguing as the conclusion cannot be foreseen.  A basic yet deep story line is wonderfully spun with many possible directions for the plot to go in. After forty-five minutes or so of the audience wondering why Steven and Martin meet secretly in diners, hospital corridors, or other remote areas, the teen boy’s true motivations come to the surface as he rapidly and calmly puts his cards on the table for Steven.

Surprisingly, none of the characters are particularly sympathetic. One would assume that the Murphy family- wholesome, affluent, and astute, would garner audience support, but we slowly peel back the onion on each character. With a gorgeous house in a quiet Cincinnati neighborhood, Steven and Anna (a doctor herself) are sometimes harsh and physical with their kids, while the kids (Bob and Kim) develop a strange fascination toward Martin. In this way each character is peculiar and has his or her own dire motivations as the plot unfolds.

Lanthimos is quietly becoming one of my favorite new directors as he slowly churns out one disturbing film after the next. Particularly in The Killing of a Sacred Deer, his clear Stanley Kubrick influences bubble to the surface. With plodding then sudden bombastic classical music pieces, the score is crisp with uniqueness, eliciting emotions like surprise and terror from the audience.

From a visual perspective, fans of Kubrick will no doubt notice the long camera shots and slowly panning camera angles. The hospital’s long and foreboding hallways are prominently featured as we follow a character walking along the corridors. This is highly reminiscent of the Overlook hotel sequences in the 1980 Kubrick masterpiece, The Shining.

One particularly jarring nuance to the film is the speech patterns of most of the actors- clearly dictated by Lanthimos and also occurring in 2015’s The Lobster. The character of Steven talks very quickly, but with monotone delivery and in a matter-of-fact style; Kim and Martin also speak this way. I didn’t notice the quality as much with Kidman’s Anna, but Farrell really went to town. I’m not sure this totally works throughout the entire film since the mannerisms give off almost a comical element. To be sure, this uniqueness makes the film more quirky and decidedly non-mainstream, which is to be celebrated.

The climax of the film is brutal. As Steven brandishes a loaded shotgun, the family gathers in their family room, Anna fussing over her new black dress. As the group dons pillow cases, Steven goes Russian roulette style on the family, randomly firing a shot until one member is killed. When the remaining family members see Martin at the diner the next day, they provide him with icy, hateful looks. The entire scene is done without dialog and is tremendously macabre.

Rest assured, I am eagerly awaiting Lanthimos’s next project (reportedly already in the works) and hope against hope he continues to use the superb Colin Farrell, the brilliant Nicole Kidman, and newcomer Barry Keoghan again. Thanks to tremendous acting, a riveting score, and enough thrills and creeps to last a lifetime, The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017) is at the top of its game.

God’s Own Country-2017

God’s Own Country-2017

Director-Francis Lee

Starring-Josh O’Connor, Alec Secareanu

Scott’s Review #773

Reviewed June 13, 2018

Grade: B+

God’s Own Country (2017) is a British, romantic, LGBT themed drama directed by Francis Lee, making his directorial film debut. The setting is farming land in the Yorkshire (northern England) territory making the film quite lovely to watch and the pace of the film therefore is slow. Lee does not rush the pace of the story either so it mirrors the slow life that farmers must endure. The film is somewhat autobiographical to Lee’s own life.

The connection and chemistry between the two leads is palpable and the love story endearing, especially impressive to show two different cultures coming together and merging as one. The film is a nice watch and an above average story making it worthy for LGBT audiences worldwide. Those believing in true love and finding ones soulmate will be deeply satisfied.

Twenty something Johnny (Josh O’Connor) lives a dull existence on his father’s farm in remote Yorkshire, England. His grandmother (Gemma Jones) also lives there and due to his father’s recent stroke, the success of the farm is in question. Johnny is depressed; drinking regularly and engaging in sexual encounters with men. Romanian migrant worker, Gheorghe (Alec Secareanu), is hired to help out and the two young men eventually fall in love. After some ups and downs in their relationship, they decide to live on the farm together and presumably live happily ever after.

God’s Own Country is a rich story of romance and the only real obstacles that Johnny and Gheorghe face are internal struggles. In unique fashion for LGBT films, neither of the men are necessarily unhappy with their sexual identities nor do they face hurdles by other characters because of their sexuality. Gheorghe faces harassment because he is Romanian and deemed an “outsider”. Besides Johnny’s grandmother and perhaps his father, no characters seem aware that the men are a couple.

The cinematography is gorgeous and a perfect backdrop for the love story. The farm is lush with spacious green rolling hills for miles and miles. The animals the family raise are lamb and cattle and more than one scene features a beautiful birth and the nuzzling of the parent to its newborn baby. Sadly one birth is also a breach, which is tough to watch. The themes of life and birth perhaps mirror the feelings and emotions that Gheorghe and Johnny experience- new love.

Throughout God’s Own Country I frequently drew comparisons to arguably the most mainstream and revolutionary film in LGBT history- that of 2005’s Brokeback Mountain. Certainly similar elements of animals, farming, and the outdoors are featured in both films. Additionally, commonalities like loneliness and loss are heavily featured. Finally, the rough and tumble, machismo fueled wrestling scenes that result in rough sex between the men are used in both Brokeback Mountain and in God’s Own Country. In fact, both films could be companion pieces.

The film does not delve too much into the back story of the main characters; at least I did not catch many mentions. Admittedly, viewing the film on DVD with no closed captioning or subtitle capability made capturing all of the dialogue very difficult. Especially with English and cockney accents this was made doubly challenging. Regardless, both men are lonely, even despondent, but why? What happened to Johnny’s mother? Where is Gheorghe’s parents or his family?

Upstart Francis Lee carves a quiet, thoughtful yet compelling story of unexpected love that develops between two lonely men in a remote area of the United Kingdom. God’s Own Country (2017) paints a nearly perfect experience, slow yes, but featuring exceptional acting from both leads, as well as the two supporting turns. A film recommended for those seeking a poignant and fulfilling story of love.

Gook-2017

Gook-2017

Director-Justin Chon

Starring-Justin Chon, Simone Baker

Scott’s Review #771

Reviewed June 11, 2018

Grade: B+

Gook (2017) is an independent film drama starring and directed by the rising talent, Justin Chon, The film is made on a very limited budget, nonetheless delivering a powerful story with a particularly jaw-dropping final sequence that I did not see coming. In fact, if I am being an honest critic, the film drags at times and is not wholly attention grabbing, but the wrap up is exceptionally done. The use of black and white filming and a poor, ethnic, Los Angeles setting are wins for the film and proof that Chon in becoming someone to keep an eye on in the years to come.

The time period is 1992 amid the soon to be ending Rodney King police brutality trial- news stations and radio programs are abuzz with developments. Intensity and racial strife is in the air as the trial is reaching its controversial conclusion resulting in tumultuous riots across Los Angeles. Two Korean American brothers, Eli (Chon) and Daniel (David So) attempt to keep their deceased father’s shoe store alive in a predominantly African American neighborhood.  The twenty something men hold a unique bond with eleven-year-old Kamilla (Simone Baker), the younger sister of their nemesis, Keith (Curtiss Cook Jr).

Initially I was immediately struck (and impressed!) by the clever use of black and white cinematography, which I was not expecting from a film with such a small budget. In addition to adding grittiness and texture of the spread out city, this technique also enhanced the film’s beauty. There exists something so lovely and peaceful, especially since the shoe store location is centered in a rather remote area, against the looming violence and brutality of some of the roughest scenes the film showcases.

The harshness of the obvious racial slur title that Chon chooses, Gook, is both shocking and brave, immediately grabbing one’s interest and piquing curiosity. Wisely, this sets the tone for the entire film and viewers will certainly not mistake it for a feel good affair. Sure there are some light moments of banter between Kamilla and the brothers, but the conclusion of the film brings a painful reminder of how precious life really is.

Yes, the film is admittedly uneven, but that should not be a surprise with a film that teeters around student film making territory. This is hardly a slight, but merely a mention since Chon is so new at his craft. For example, the pacing is very bizarre; at a sleepy, whimsical pace most of the way, the aforementioned final sequence comes in breakneck fashion. As a terrible, accidentally self-inflicted gunshot wound sends one character to the emergency room, the speed at which the scene occurs is strange in comparison to the rest of the film.

The highlight of Gook is a tremendous, humanistic element.  The earnest and endearing relationship between Eli and Kamilla really shines through the ugliness of other components. Since the young girl comes from a broken home led by tyrannical older brother Keith, she has no father figure to speak of. To compensate for what she lacks she spends a great deal of time with the brothers helping out at the store. Naturally, she bonds closely with Eli, whose father (presumably murdered) is not on the scene either- so they really embrace each other. Eli serves as a big brother to Kamilla and their scenes are crisp with good dialogue and emotionally pizzazz.

Another nice touch that Chon provides with his creation is an instance where the first scene is the same as the last scene- Kamilla doing a ceremonial dance amid the burning storefront. The final scene is obviously more meaningful and powerful than the opening scene since by this time the audience knows Kamilla’s fate. Another shining example of the artistic talent that Chon has.

Props must be given to a talented up and comer in the cinematic scene. Justin Chon serves as actor, director, creator, and all around talented performer. Gook (2017) is far from perfect and suffers from choppy story-telling and erratic elements, but is impressive in the good qualities it brings to the big screen. Celebrating young film makers is fun, encouraging, and necessary to ensure that ambitious ideas are embraced.

The Breadwinner-2017

The Breadwinner-2017

Director-Nora Twomey

Voices-Saara Chaudry, Ali Rizvi Badshah

Scott’s Review #769

Reviewed June 7, 2018

Grade: B

Certainly a timely and politically charged story, The Breadwinner (2017) provides relevance and a progressive women’s empowerment message. This should be championed above all else and for that reason alone is recommended as a worthy watch. The film itself is dark and not entirely a children’s movie nor necessarily family friendly either, but rather a good lesson learned. Dragging just a bit throughout, this is small potatoes compared to the importance of the overall story.

The animated feature is based on the best-selling novel by Deborah Ellis, which focuses on life in dangerous Afghanistan (circa 2001) under constant threat by Taliban rule. Since women are not allowed to leave the house and any men daring to question the Taliban are either slaughtered, beaten, or arrested, the film is quite the heavy compared to typical animated fare.

The Breadwinner’s main character is a likable eleven year-old girl named Parvana, who lives in metropolitan Kabul, Afghanistan. Along with her father, she sells items on the city streets to support the rest of the family- wife, daughter and male toddler. Parvana’s older brother has died years ago.  Parvana’s father, Nurullah, is a former teacher left crippled by an injury sustained during war. When he is arrested, Parvana must disguise herself as a boy and work to support her family as she traverses the city with her best friend Shauzia in tow.

The animation is lovely and a definite high point of the film. All of the details look crisp and fresh- from the stark village houses to the vegetable stands and other more metropolitan aspects of the bustling cities, the film just looks very good and professional. The flawless art direction and visuals aid in the believable nature of the story.

Another high point to The Breadwinner is the substance that the story contains- it is not fluff as commonly seen in modern animated films.  All throughout the film I knew that I was watching something of meaning. Parvana faces true danger; if she is found out not to be a young boy but instead a young girl she could be beaten, raped, or worse. Unwisely, early on in the film she makes an enemy of a young, sadistic soldier, who continues to resurface and threaten Parvana throughout the film.

More than a handful of frightening scenes occur, evidence that director Nora Twomey’s intentions are not for a family friendly affair. Given the subject matter at hand this is a wise move. Toning down the violence and treachery of the Taliban would make the film feel insincere and dishonest. Rather, because of the violence and deaths and beatings that occur throughout, the film feels genuine and the characters emotions real.

If I were to point out a shortcoming to the film, The Breadwinner suffers a bit from an erratic approach. I adore the straightforward aspects of the main story and enjoyed not only the survival instincts and female empowerment, but of her innocent friendship with Shauzia. However, a handful of times the film goes in a different direction as Parvana tells stories of a young man’s journey to retrieve seeds stolen from him. Frankly, this slowed down the main plot and one has little to do with the other making them seem disjointed.

With a worthy and meaningful central story line, how nice to feast one’s eyes on an artistic animated production so marvelously made. The Breadwinner (2017) is a treat for those animated film fans yearning for something more intelligent than the standard “kid’s film”. Perhaps not a perfect “A”, but something of quality nonetheless.

Abacus: Small Enough to Jail-2017

Abacus: Small Enough to Jail-2017

Director-Steve James

Scott’s Review #768

Reviewed June 6, 2018

Grade: B+

Abacus: Small Enough to Jail (2017) is a compelling documentary that received a fair amount of notice after earning an Academy Award nomination. The straightforward story never dulls nor drags, but rather stays on point by telling a gripping courtroom style legal thriller of a Chinese family’s struggle to keep their small banking business from criminal prosecution.

The documentary features the Sung family, led by patriarch Mr. Sung who brought the family from China to start a banking business decades ago. Since then the family has set up roots in downtown New York City launching a community style bank to help people living and working in the Chinatown section. The bank had come to be tremendously popular and culturally centered as a way to help struggling neighbors and their business has thrived.

The Abacus Federal Savings Bank became the only bank to face criminal charges following the mortgage crisis in 2009. The documentary argues that this was because the larger banks were untouchable and prosecutors desired to make an example out of the bank because they were an easier target. The documentary wisely presents both sides featuring family interviews as well as the prosecutor’s arguments.

I found Abacus: Small Enough to Jail to move along quite smoothly and at a quick pace. The documentary mainly focuses on the Sung’s- all very driven people. They reside in upscale Greenwich, Connecticut, and consist of the mother and father and three grown daughters in their twenties and thirties. The daughters are highly intelligent and the entire family are intensely loyal to each other and their business despite scenes showing them bicker over trial strategies and take out lunch.

The documentary mainly chronicles the prolonged five year ordeal that the Sung’s endured involving a myriad of paperwork, trial dates, and other particulars. All the while the family continues to uphold their business with gusto, but the trial takes quite a toll on the individuals, particularly the elderly patriarch. It is tough to imagine anyone rooting for a bank, but that is exactly the end result.

Director Steve James is wonderful at portraying the Sung family sympathetically in his work. There is never a doubt that he feels they have been victimized and sought after because they are a relatively easy target compared to the big boys of the banking world- J.P. Morgan and Chase are deemed untouchable, which is a large source of the problem and the film’s main objective to show.

Heartbreaking is a scene containing footage of at least a dozen or so Chinese bank employees being led to processing all chained together- chain gang style. This scene, shown relatively early on in the documentary, cemented my support for the Sung’s. I asked myself, even if they were guilty, why the inhuman and racist treatment? When questioned about the poor treatment of the indicted all the prosecution could muster was that it was “unfortunate”, hardly an apology.

The key element here and the main point of the story is that wrongdoing was committed, but the question asked is if the Sung’s had knowledge of a few of their employee’s shenanigans and I truly think not. As the documentary explains, the jury had extreme difficulty reaching a concrete decision, which is why the trial dragged on and on. All the while I asked myself, “If the large banks were bailed out with no prosecutions whatsoever why should a mom and pop bank be targeted?”

Steve James creates an unexpectedly fast paced piece, tough to do with dry financials, spreadsheets, and other banking type particulars, but that is just what he does. Objectively presenting the facts on both sides and offering a multitude of interviews and court room drawings, Abacus: Small Enough to Jail (2017) is a treat to view and captures a terrible time in United States history and how the undertones of racism still exist.

Good Time-2017

Good Time-2017

Director-Ben Safdie, Joshua Safdie

Starring-Robert Pattinson, Ben Safdie

Scott’s Review #767

Reviewed June 5, 2018

Grade: B+

Every so often an actor who is known for either doing mainstream films or for portraying a mediocre character risks being typecast. Fortunately for actor Robert Pattinson, known mostly as the heartthrob from the trite Twilight films, he has been given the best role of his career. The actor hits the jackpot with a challenging and edgy performance in the fast-paced independent crime drama, Good Time (2017).

The film is a very good ride, and directors Ben and Joshua Safdie successfully provide excellent tension and compelling action scenes (Ben even gives a worthy supporting performance as a mentally challenged character). The overall tone of the film is that of an edge of your seat experience. As enjoyable and taut as the film is, a few minor criticisms must be mentioned below.

Good Time begins with Nick Nikas (Ben Safdie) being quizzed by a therapist. They are quickly interrupted by Nick’s brother Connie (Pattinson), who removes him from the facility so that he can assist with a bank heist. When the attempt goes awry and Nick is arrested, Connie does his best to spring his brother from jail then from the hospital following an altercation with another inmate. All the while, Connie must also evade the police as he forms a strange connection with a sixteen year old girl, Crystal (Taliah Webster).

The fun part of Good Time is that the film is fast paced and filled with twists and turns. Largely taking place over the course of one night, we are compelled by Connie’s journey and wonder if he will outrun the cops. In a way a standard thriller, Good Time rises slightly above this ranking with its wonderful New York City setting with numerous exterior scenes- this is a major plus.

Also garnering props for the film is the look of it. With a slick yet gritty and grainy  feel, the camera angles are quick and plentiful. This is a great tool to keep the action going at lightning speed and the editing deserves kudos too. In this way the intensity and tension runs rampant throughout. A good example of this is the bank robbery scene- as the teller disappears into the vault to get the requested amount of money she takes what seems like an eternity to return, leaving the audience (and Connie) wondering if she has alerted the authorities.

Otherwise, the film is helped immensely by the acting performance of Pattinson who owns the film. Having not seen him in anything before I was surprised at how good he is. Thinking of him as more a matinee idol versus a serious actor, I was proven wrong. Grizzled, temperamental, but being a decent guy at times, Pattinson’s Connie is loyal to a fault, putting his brother first and foremost.

Fans of Captain Phillips (2013) will be delighted to see Barkhad Abdi cast in a small yet pivotal role of an amusement park security guard. Nominated for the Best Supporting Actor award for Captain Phillips, the Somali- American actor has been able to find steady work in film since his acclaimed debut performance.  In his role in Good Time, the character is instrumental in kicking off the final act that leads to the downfall of at least one other character.

Worth mentioning are a few small but notable flaws (rather unnecessary) that Good Time contains. Perplexing to me is the casting of Jennifer Jason Leigh in the role of Connie’s girlfriend Corey. Decades older than Connie, Corey is written pretty much as a nitwit- attempting to use her mother’s credit card to bail out Nick. The film does not mention the age difference nor provides much meat to the role- Jason Leigh deserves better than a throwaway role like this.

Otherwise, none of the female characters are treated especially well. Connie frequently directs or shouts at either Corey or even Crystal eliciting a “man in charge” vibe that is slightly off-putting. Also, a gay slur uttered by Connie is thrown into a scene for seemingly no reason, which in 2017 surprises me. Still, there is something that makes the audience root for Connie while we still want him to get his punishment.

Good Time (2017) provides quality entertainment in a specified genre with good acting all the way around. With a weird Ocean’s Eleven style (only with one prominent character) the bank robbery theme will satisfy those in the mood for a good heist film. The title of the film is a mystery (is it irony?) and not sure it totally works, but overall the film is a very good watch.

A Ghost Story-2017

A Ghost Story-2017

Director-David Lowery

Starring-Casey Affleck, Rooney Mara

Scott’s Review #764

Reviewed May 27, 2018

Grade: A-

Marvelous is it to support independent film and I get most of my selections via the annual independent spirit award nominations announced each and every November. In this way rich, creative films that ordinarily would be overlooked are recognized and sometimes treasured instead of forgotten entirely.

A Ghost Story (2017) is a small film fortunate to land big name stars undoubtedly increasing its audience- I am unsure if this film even played in theaters anywhere. Nonetheless, the film is a thought- provoking experience that left me both perplexed and fascinated, but with the knowledge that I had seen something of worth. I may not have completely understood it, but I also adored it.

Writer and director David Lowery must be in good with Hollywood A-listers Casey Affleck and Roony Mara, who star in A Ghost Story. The pair also appeared in Lowery’s first film, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints (2013) which received critical acclaim.

Somewhere outside of Dallas, Texas a young married couple known only as “C” (Affleck) and “M” (Mara) move into a small house. “C” is a musician with an unusual fondness for the small house that the couple rents. While “M” desires to leave the house “C” wishes to stay, somehow drawn to it. After “C” is tragically killed in a car accident his spirit returns unable to let go of either his wife or his home eventually stuck in time to watch generations come and go.

A Ghost Story is a cerebral experience as we watch the events from the perspective of “C”. Adding an eerie quality is that “C” is in the form of a ghost- shrouded in a plain white bed sheet with dark circles for the eyes. While “C” does not speak we experience his perceptions and feelings through what he sees. At first following “M” around as she mourns his loss, eventually she moves on and “C” is forced to watch others live in the house. Pitifully, he awaits the return of “M” as hundreds of years go by.

Lowery is so good at creating an ominous and haunting tone mostly through his classical musical score. In this way the film is wonderfully original. The audience feels the loss and loneliness of both “C” and “M”, but there is a scary quality too. Not in the horror genre way, but rather we do not know what will happen next. When “M” brings a man home “C” is furious and knocks books to the ground and turns the lights on and off. Later, a new family is terrorized when an unhappy “C” breaks all of their dishes in a fit of rage.

A scene that gave me the creeps is when “C”, in spirit form, gazes out the window of his house and notices another ghost looking out the window of the house next door. This ghost looks exactly like him except is female- we know this because her sheet has a flower pattern. They are able to communicate without speaking and “C” learns that she has been waiting for someone to come home to her, but it’s been so long that she can’t remember who it is. This scene is sad and filled with despondence.

A forewarning is that the pacing of the film is very slow- perhaps too slow for most. After “M’s” landlord brings her a pie we watch her devour the pie in a very long five minute scene after which she vomits the contents up. Despite long this scene is powerful and important as the entire time we view her depression and longing for “C” to return absorbing some little comfort from the pie.

A Ghost Story reaches its creative climax towards the end as the film sort of comes full circle and we begin to understand the circumstances. A dynamic sequence of the passage of time occurs showing the demolition of the house and the development that becomes a thriving city over time. Depressed and desolate “C” jumps off of a high rise.

I was mystified, however, by the final scene and was unable to completely make A Ghost Story (2017) add up (was there a second ghost or a rebirth of “C”?), but that is also part of the intrigue of the film. Regardless, the film is a worthy watch if only for a story that is cerebral and makes one think. Its central themes of loneliness and loss are depressing, but also fascinating in relation to the good story that Lowery creates.

Girls Trip-2017

Girls Trip-2017

Director-Malcolm D. Lee

Starring-Regina Hall, Queen Latifah, Jada Pinkett Smith

Scott’s Review #760

Reviewed May 18, 2018

Grade: D-

I am truly baffled by some of the positive reviews of the film Girls Trip (2017), not only by viewers but respected critics. Attempts to make females as raunchy as the guys in R-rated comedies never works in my opinion (good writing does!) and the result is a largely unfunny, crude, piece of drivel.  The fact that the film which goes for a “female empowerment” theme is directed by a man is as much disappointing as disrespectful, especially given the fact that the writers are female- they couldn’t find a black female director?

At the risk of giving a testimonial, I am fully aware of the importance of creating good female roles in cinema- especially good female black roles. Unfortunately the roles in Girls Trip do nothing to further the cause as tried and true, standardized parts commence with nary a well-written character to be found. In modern film look to Black Panther (2018) or Hidden Figures (2016) for examples of positive black female role models- they do exist!.

The weak plot involves four forty something lifelong friends who regroup for a reunion after years apart. Famous lifestyle guru Ryan Pierce (Regina Hall) decides to take her “Flossy Posse” to a music festival in New Orleans where they will spend the weekend partying like it’s the 1990’s once again. Ryan is married to a man who cheats on her, Sasha (Queen Latifah) runs a failing gossip site, Lisa (Jada Pinkett Smith) is a divorced, overbearing nurse, and slutty, aggressive Dina (Tiffany Haddish), who has just been fired from her job.

In predictable form- think 2009’s The Hangover or a multitude of other raunchy comedies since then, the girls get into trouble, drink too much, have sex, and partake in other hi-jinks throughout the weekend. The central plot is Ryan’s potential investment deal with rigid and uptight Bethany (Lara Grice) and a wisecracking agent in tow. As events unfold a female nemesis of Ryan’s shows up to cause trouble and stir up drama, testing the group’s patience.

Girls Trip is a typical American comedy film (not a compliment!) that offers weak writing and instead promotes stereotypical stock characters. Many similar comedies have come before it- many more will come after it. Since I disliked the film so much I decided to ask myself a few rhetorical questions as I observed the mess. In films with a group of women why is there always a slutty one (Dina)? Why is there always a mousy one (Lisa)? Why is there always a fat one (Sasha)? Why is it deemed funny to watch women pee or suffer bathroom issues?

The only positives to Girls Trip come in one humorous scene when Dina mixes absinthe into the girls drinks before a meeting causing them to hallucinate. As the girl’s begin to imagine themselves talking in deep baritone voices and Ryan imagines a waitress is her arch enemy the hilarity briefly ensues. A quick wrap up speech by Ryan at the films conclusion does send a nice message about being yourself and staying true to your loved ones, but why we have to suffer through two plus hours of crap to get to the inspiration and point of the film is beyond me.

The success of Girls Trip (2017), which will inevitably produce a sequel leads me to believe that the masses prefer their films idiotic, redundant, and fraught with cheap, crude laughs. The films intention seems to be to push the envelope- not to create great art- but just to make the film as crass as possible. This is presumably to prove that girls can be as nasty as boys, which the film succeeds at portraying.

Jigsaw-2017

Jigsaw-2017

Director-Michael Spierig, Peter Spierig

Starring-Matt Passmore, Tobin Bell

Scott’s Review #739

Reviewed April 9, 2018

Grade: C-

As a fan of the horror genre and specifically of the Saw film franchise  that debuted in brutal form in 2004, directed by James Wan, has sadly become a lesser version of what was once clever writing mixed with wonderful, tortuous kills. Jigsaw is the eighth installment in a series that has now run out of steam- simply riding on the coat-tails of what was once its glory days. The 2017 film can only be appreciated by die-hard fans of the series, otherwise will be unsuccessful at obtaining any new fans.

Admittedly, Jigsaw does begin in strong fashion as the viewer is thrust into the midst of a compelling  rooftop police chase that results in a fleeing criminal, Edgar Munsen, being shot by detectives. Unknown if events are connected, the action shifts to a remote barn where (in typical Saw fashion) five individuals are held captive, each with a noose around their neck. Throughout the film we learn the back-stories of each victim as well as a connecting story of a pathologist, Logan Nelson (Matt Passmore), his sister, and the possibility that John Kramer has either returned from the grave or a copycat killer is on the loose, emulating his shenanigans.

The basic premise and tone of 2017’s Jigsaw is very similar to the preceding seven installments, however this version seems a bit watered down and glossy by comparison. My recurring thought throughout the feature was one of reminiscence of a horror version of a network episodic drama- think CBS’s Criminal Minds or the like. This is not a compliment. The camera style is of a slick production with nary a raw or authentic moment- incredibly produced with good-looking people in peril.

Fans of the previous Saw films will undoubtedly expect the now familiar twist towards the end of the film- a clever story turn making one character revealed to be not what he or she appears to be or even in cahoots with serial killer, “Jigsaw” (John Kramer). To be fair, this quality does surface in Jigsaw, but the surprise is so lame and inexplicable that it is hardly worth mentioning.  Suffice it to say the expected resurfacing of Kramer is a real sham and instead we are fed a less than satisfying riddle of one character faking his death and another sequence taking place ten years earlier. If better written this twist might be worth its salt, but the reasoning seems thrown together with little thought of staying true to the characters or history.

Other familiar elements in Jigsaw abound so that a fan of Saw or Saw II or Saw III will undoubtedly find tidbits that will satisfy them. In this way the film is like a trip to McDonald’s or a neighborhood burger joint- one will more or less get what is expected. As the barn victims are given choices via a tape recorded message by a sinister John Kramer voice, each is given a test and must ultimately confess their sins. As fans know, Saw victims are far from innocent and always harbor a neatly tucked away secret.

Such horrific acts like a haggard young mother smothering her screaming baby and framing her husband for the deed, or a thief stealing a woman’s wallet and causing her to die when her asthma medicine is lost, are back stories thought of by the writers. Another character once sold a motorcycle with a faulty brake line to an innocent man who later crashed and was killed. These aspects are the fun in a film like Jigsaw in that the tortures the victims endure have elements of “serves him or her right”.

Another solid to Jigsaw are the kills, again what fans of the Saw franchise have come to know and love. In this one we delightfully witness a victim’s leg severed, another impaled with needles, and yet another gleefully attempts to shoot one of the other victims trapped in the barn to allow her freedom only to realize the gun is rigged to shoot herself instead. These are fun moments that make Jigsaw less than all bad.

Having created an eighth version of a once great franchise that introduced the world to the term “torture horror”, by 2017 has grown ultimately stale and tired with a few glimpses of former glory created in the familiarity aspects. All great things must come to an end and the Saw series has more than crumbled from its former days of glory.

Loving Vincent-2017

Loving Vincent-2017

Director-Dorota Kobiela, Hugh Welchman

Voices-Douglas Booth, Saoirse Ronan

Scott’s Review #738

Reviewed April 5, 2018

Grade: B+

Loving Vincent (2017) is a highly unique animated feature that is quite the artistic experience and vastly different from any typical film of this genre. Being the first of its kind to be a completely painted animated feature, hopefully other films will follow suit, as the result is an exuberance in creativity. While the biography of Vincent van Gogh is interesting, I was oftentimes left wondering the accuracy of all the details as the plot is rather dramatic. Still, the film is to be celebrated for its progressive  and edgy nature.

In clever fashion the actors starring in the vehicle simply act while they are subsequently drawn so that the viewer can imagine the action as if it were a standard film, since the drawings mirror the actors involved. For example, Saoirse Ronan can clearly be distinguished as the daughter of a local boatman, who was rumored as keeping close company with van Gogh before his death. We know it is the actress, but in painting form, eliciting a surreal experience.

The action begins one year following tortured artist, Vincent van Gogh’s, tragic suicide. Postman Joseph Roulin asks his son Armand to deliver Van Gogh’s last letter to his brother, Theo. Suspicion surrounds the artist’s death as mere weeks earlier his mood was calm and level-headed making his death cause for alarm. From this point, Armand traverses throughout France to spend time with those who had dealings with Van Gogh during the last days of his life. Those characters include his doctor, an inn keeper, and others who may hold clues to the mystery surrounding his death.

From a story perspective, Loving Vincent is a compelling piece as mystery and suspicion is cast around the actual death of the artist. This is not so much a whodunit as we know of the resulting suicide, however, the film certainly casts some doubt about the why of that fateful night. Did someone drive Van Gogh to suddenly take his own life? What was the romantic situation between either Marguerite or perhaps even Adeline? The supposed copying of Van Gogh’s art by his doctor, Dr. Paul Gachet is an interesting point. Through all of these dramatic and intriguing facets I did begin to wonder what was factual and what was not.

The brilliant part of Loving Vincent exists in the unusual and artistic method in which the film is created. The fact that the film is about one of the most respected and appreciated artists of all time is no accident and this perfectly encases the overall tone of the film in wonderful fashion. Throughout the one hour and thirty four minute duration of the film I was continually enamored by the “look” of the film. Exquisite and quite beautiful, the film makers chose classically trained painters over traditional animators and I feel this makes all of the difference.

The use of actual Van Gogh paintings were an instrumental part of the film and modified to fit into the allotted screen room. The cast performed the film, as if a play, in front of a green screen, and then the painters created their magic- pretty incredible! Also mind blowing is the use of colors to change the time of day (brightness and darkness) that results in a highly effective tone.

By creating a visual masterpiece of cinematic beauty, Loving Vincent is a feast for the eyes. Unknown if the story is true to form or whether facts are embellished, the film succeeds as a work of art and a good glimpse into the life of one of the worlds most beloved and tortured artists.

Coco-2017

Coco-2017

Director-Lee Unkrich

Voices-Anthony Gonzalez, Benjamin Bratt

Scott’s Review #737

Reviewed April 4, 2018

Grade: B+

Winner of the 2017 Best Animated Feature Academy Award, Coco is an exuberant and colorful affair filled with marvelous lights and a Mexican cultural infusion that serves the film well, making it feel robust with diversity and inclusion. The overall theme of family, traditions, and musical celebration is apparent and makes for good razzle dazzle with lots of upbeat song and dance. Mixed in is a lovely inter-generational theme, where older folks are respected, something all too lacking in today’s real world.

Miguel Rivera is a twelve year old boy living in Mexico with his extended family, including his elderly great-grandmother, Coco- sadly suffering from intermittent dementia. Through flashbacks we learn that Coco’s father, (Miguel’s great-great-grandfather), was an aspiring musician who abandoned the family for greener pastures. Subsequently, all music has been banned by the Rivera clan in favor of a modest shoe-making business.

As Miguel realizes his passion for music, he comes into conflict with his family, who have other aspirations for the young man. Miguel embarks on a fantastic journey to the magical and somewhat frightening land of his deceased ancestors, coinciding with the festive Day of the Dead celebration, a tradition of Mexican culture. There he realizes the true nature of his great-great-grandfather’s sudden departure.

Coco is a film that can really be enjoyed by all members of the family and is structured in just that way. The blatant use of multiple generations holds great appeal for blending the family unit together. Pixar successfully sets all the right elements in place for a successful film, and the well-written story only adds layers. The film is quite mainstream, yet appealing to the masses.

Perhaps very young viewers may become frightened by some of the skeleton laced faces of Miguel’s ancestors in the other world where he visits, but these images are somewhat tame and mixed with vibrant colors and wonderful production numbers. These images are undoubtedly meant to entertain rather than be scary and the creatures possess a friendly vibe.

Having viewed the film on an airplane traveling cross-country (admittedly not the best way to watch a film), I was entranced by the lovely and touching  musical number, “Remember Me (Lullaby)”, so much so that I was moved to tears right on the plane. How’s that for effectiveness? The emotional level reached via this song impressed me immensely about Coco, even when the story occasionally is secondary to the visual or musical elements.

In fact, for me, the story began to lag slightly until the aforementioned big musical number came into play. The song really kicked the action into high gear in an emotional way, and I became more enamored with the characters and the connections they had to one another. The love that Miguel and his relatives share became clearer to me and the conclusion is fine and satisfactory.

A slight miss to the film, corrected mid way through, is the bratty and entitled nature to Miguel. Heaving sighs when he does not get his way, this seems more apparent early on and was quite the turn off- at first I did not care for the character, yet I knew I was supposed to. Thankfully, the character becomes, naturally, the hero of the film and ultimately a sweet, likable character. I began to ponder,  “is that what kids are really like these days”?

Pixar does it again as they create a family friendly experience with a positive, yet non cliched message of belonging, forgiveness, and the importance of family connections, that feels fresh. In current times of divisiveness, especially with immigration and other cultures being attacked, how appropriate to experience a feel-good, yet not contrived project.

The Blackcoat’s Daughter-2017

The Blackcoat’s Daughter-2017

Director-Oz Perkins

Starring-Emma Roberts, Kiernan Shipka

Scott’s Review #732

Reviewed March 12, 2018

Grade: B+

The Blackcoat’s Daughter is an eerie 2017 independent horror film offering that combines various chilling elements to achieve its goal. Largely a fusion of the supernatural, the occult, and the psychological, the film, while slow at times, does offer a unique experience and is unpredictable in nature. Parts of the film are downright scary and spooky as religion meets satanism, always a safe bet for an unsettling experience. Writer/Director Oz Perkins, should be well on his way to a successful career in the industry with this, almost full-on artsy, film.

The action begins in a prestigious Catholic boarding school in a quiet, wintry area of upstate New York. As students (largely unseen) leave the school for a February break, Kat (Kiernan Shupka), and Rose (Lucy Boynton) are left behind when their parents do not arrive to pick them up. While the girls hunker down for the night, hoping their parents show up the next day, a third girl, Joan (Emma Roberts), who may be a psychopath, is en route towards the school, enlisting the help of a strange married couple (Bill and Linda), whose daughter had died years ago and was the same age as Joan. Also in the mix are two school nuns who are rumored to be satanists.

Little is known about the town, but the fact that nobody is around makes the setting a major plus. This may very well be due to budgetary restrictions associated with the film, but regardless, the use of very few characters or extras is a score, with the number of principle characters below ten. The cold and bleak nature of the town and the stark journey that Joan is on make the ambiance very successful. Many scenes throughout The Blackcoat’s Daughter are set during night time in relative seclusion and given the icy texture of upstate New York in the middle of winter the setting chosen by Perkins is spot on and quite atmospheric.

The overall story to The Blackcoat’s Daughter is both peculiar and mysterious and does not make complete sense a good deal of the time.  In fact, by the time the film concludes and the credits role, not a lot of the film adds up from a story perspective, which left me rather unsatisfied. Since Bill and Linda’s daughter looks identical to Rose, are we to assume that the events at the school occurred a decade before the events involving Joan? What ends up happening to Kat is perplexing- haunted by spirits and forced to kill, is she healed at the end of the film? Or is Kat really Joan? Too many loose ends are left.

The film is very heavy on the violence and the gore, and dares not hold back in showcasing the victims pain and suffering before they cease to exist. More than one character lies bleeding and immobile as the killer calmly approaches to finish the deed. Three characters are decapitated in horrific form as we later see their severed heads lined up in a boiler room. The demonic chanting of “Hail, Satan!” may turn some viewers off as would the overall story line- those who feel 1973’s The Exorcist is disturbing need not see this film as similar elements abound.

Also worthy of a quick mention is the cool, unique musical soundtrack that singer/songwriter, and brother of the director, Elvis Perkins, creates. With goth/techno elements, the score is noticed (in a good way) at various points throughout the running time, and adds to the overall feel of the film.

The Blackcoat’s Daughter succeeds as a disturbing and experimental piece of independent horror-making sure to at least pique the interests of horror aficionados. With plenty of blood-letting and squeamish parts, Oz Perkins knows what works. The story, though, would have been made better by a clear, definitive beginning, middle, and end, to avoid a confusing outcome. Still, I look forward to more works from this up and coming director.