Category Archives: 2019 Movie reviews

Corpus Christi-2019

Corpus Christi-2019

Director-Jan Komasa

Starring-Bartosz Bielenia

Scott’s Review #1,082

Reviewed November 14, 2020

Grade: A-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oscar Nominations: Best International Film

Clemency-2019

Clemency-2019

Director-Chinonye Chukwu

Starring-Alfre Woodard, Richard Schiff

Scott’s Review #1,068

Reviewed October 7, 2020

Grade: A-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Hidden Life-2019

A Hidden Life-2019

Director-Terrence Malick

Starring-August Diehl, Valerie Pachner

Scott’s Review #1,063

Reviewed September 22, 2020

Grade: A

Terrence Malick returns to the big screen with A Hidden Life (2019), a lavish, sprawling beauty with a more structured plot than many of his other films. His recent offering, The Tree Of Life (2011), though marvelous, lost some viewers with its spirituality and lack of pacing. With A Hidden Life, the director offers more substantial writing and an easier to follow story. It seems we can never get enough of World War II Nazi stories and conflict in cinema, as the topic remains relevant and powerful.

This one stands out to me in a powerful way because it is based on a real-life figure, and although set in 1940’s Germany and Austria, shrieks of relevance in current United States history as Malick offers clear parallels to the Donald Trump era. Frightening stuff. He weaves the past with the present, so Trump and Hitler’s personalities are comparisons and the supporters of each portrayed as similar. Again, frightening stuff.

Peaceful peasant farmer, Franz Jägerstätter (August Diehl), lives a quiet life with his wife, Fani (Valerie Pachner), in rural Austria. Over the years they welcome three daughters and exist in the idyllic village, popular and well-liked by the townspeople. Their beautiful life soon turns ugly when the German army recruits Franz for basic training. Events escalate when he refuses to take a loyalty oath to Hitler, wanting nothing to do with a war he does not support nor with those who align themselves with the dictator. This leads to much conflict for Franz and his family as they face the wrath of once kindly neighbors, and the vicious Nazis.

The artistic details are gorgeous as frequent scenes of lush landscape erupt in a frenzy. The statuesque mountains in the background, a shot of a running stream, the characters digging, planting, and growing produce, all are exquisite, adding a grandness and a spirituality. Advisable is to watch the film on the big screen, though I did not and still marvel at these sequences.

Despite the camerawork, A Hidden Life is not an easy watch, but it is an important one. The film is rich with meaning, texture, and substance. You get the feeling you are watching something of worth and that really means something. The film is not a work of fiction and the realism is quite powerful. To imagine a man like Franz sticking to his values and beliefs in the face of death and peril in real-life is astonishing and sobering. Malick does not do glossy or downplay the ordeals that Franz endures in the hideous German prisons. Treated barely better than Jews were in concentration camps, he was nonetheless mocked, humiliated, and eventually executed.

When Franz is repeatedly advised by a local priest and others to merely take the oath and not mean a word of it, Franz cannot do it. I was left wondering how many other German and Austrian people pretended to support Hitler to save off death, but really did not. I couldn’t find any studies.

The comparisons to the horrific conditions in the United States present day with a wannabee dictator in the White House is sobering. Thankfully, the United States is still the land of the brave and the free and certainly the outspoken. But we have a voice, and Franz did not nor do the Austrian people who he presumably represents. He did his best and refused to succumb to the pressures, but the question can be asked if it was worth it.

Oh, how I wish A Hidden Life had a different title, though. Not exactly one that rolls off the tongue it took me days to remember what the title was. I kept confusing it with A Better Life (2011), a completely different type of film with a similar name. Something a bit more dynamic would have been preferred though I totally get why the word “life” was included. It’s such a profound word. The correlation of titles with The Tree of Life (2011) does make sense.

Malick does it again, offering another left-of-center production that goes against the grain compared to most modern cinema. World War II films are a dime a dozen, but this film stands out for its beauty and characterization. One most likely needs to get Terrence Malick and his films to truly understand and appreciate what the man is going for here and props for adding more concise story to draw viewers. A Hidden Life (2019) is grand and fraught with meaning adding a relevance to the current United States political state.

Independent Spirit Award Nominations: Best Director-Terrence Malick

Uncut Gems-2019

Uncut Gems-2019

Director-Ben Safdie, Joshua Safdie

Starring-Adam Sandler, Idina Menzel

Scott’s Review #1,049

Reviewed August 5, 2020

Grade: A-

The Safdie brothers have quickly emerged as a directing force to be reckoned with, producing two “gems” in only three years. Co-writing the screenplay with Ronald Bronstein, the final product is jagged, fast-paced, and frighteningly intense. Uncut Gems (2018) follows up the similar themed Good Time (2017) giving star Adam Sandler his greatest role yet. Yes, his performance even rivals the brilliant Punch-Drunk Love (2002) persona leading him to his first Independent Spirit Award win for Best Male Lead. He was robbed of an Oscar nomination. We can’t have everything.

Playing a loud-mouthed Jew is hardly new territory for the actor. Think-most of his screwball comedies from the 1990’s and 2000’s before he delved into serious actor territory. In the dreadful Jack and Jill (2011) he played two of them! But a trip down memory lane is surely not what the actor prefers, instead undoubtedly preferring to veer off course to more mature movies for the latter part of his film career. Uncut Gems made money so let’s hope so.

We meet Howard Ratner (Sandler) following his first ever colonoscopy which leaves him anxious and irritable. On better days he is needier, and a somewhat lovable teddy bear as he carries on an affair with his employee, Julia (Julia Fox) and his estranged wife Dinah (Idina Menzel) who has agreed to a divorce after Passover. Howard runs KMH, an upscale jewelry store in the Diamond District section of New York City. How he lands and carries on with both gorgeous ladies are a mystery, but Dinah is a kept woman and Julia’s father is in the jewelry industry, thus explaining why Howard is. There is something particularly charismatic about Howard that draws other characters and the viewers to him.

As revealed in the beginning of the film, and the main story line, Howard has made a deal with Ethiopian Jewish miners somewhere in Africa to obtain a valuable black opal and sell it to him for cheap presumably so that he can make a ton of money from it in the States. It is also quickly established that Howard is a mess, owing $100,000 to his brother-in-law and loan shark. To complicate matters, his shady business associate brings basketball star Kevin Garnett into Howard’s shop. After he eyes the opal, he asks to borrow it for one night with his NBA Championship ring as collateral. This cannot end well, and it doesn’t.

The subsequent activity in Uncut Gems is crude, foul-mouthed, and off-putting to some. I have friends who watched eight or twelve minutes of it and either turned it off or left the theater in a huff. If you are expecting a comedy rife with potty jokes or other juvenile humor look elsewhere. This is the real deal with a deadly ending impossible to imagine. I loved the settings of Manhattan, Long Island, and Mohegan Sun in Connecticut the best.

The Safdie brothers have two major knacks. They can craft a tense, edge of your seat crime thriller like nobody’s business with a pulsating backdrop and a herky-jerky editing style. They can also catapult A-list actors teetering on the verge of being typecast for specific roles into the deep waters of creativity and sink or swim risk. No better example than Robert Pattinson’s risky turn as a grizzled bank robber in Good Time (2017), shedding his sterile pretty boy image that The Twilight (2008-2013) films brought him. This led to his wonderful turn in The Lighthouse (2019).

The soon to be household names directing team does not deserve all the credit though even though the men serve in a variety of key positions including acting, editing, shooting, mixing sound, and producing their films. Sandler has become an interesting and versatile actor as he forges into the drama vein. Happy to roll up his sleeves and do an indie film for little money (like he needs it!) he proves that an unlikable character can have hints of likability, black humor, and pizzazz. He completely embodies Howard and makes the audience love/hate him. He balances two women, schemes to get rich, and neglects his kid’s school play, yet he is appealing.

Let’s ceremoniously proclaim 2019 as the year that stars previously known for generic films determined to break out with challenging and fantastic roles were shunned by the Academy. Jennifer Lopez, shockingly snubbed for Hustlers (2019), clearly being punished for years of drivel such as Maid in Manhattan (2002) and Monster-in-Law (2005) joins her compadre Sandler in two of the biggest snubs of the decade with Uncut Gems (2019).

Perhaps an Oscar will be in their future if they stay the course and remain true to the work.

Independent Spirit Award Nominations: Best Feature, Best Male Lead-Adam Sandler (won), Best Director-Benny Safdie and Josh Safdie (won), Best Screenplay, Best Editing (won)

Honeyland-2019

Honeyland-2019

Director-Ljubomir Stefanov, Tamara Kotevska

Starring-Hatidze Muratova

Scott’s Review #1,045

Reviewed July 27, 2020

Grade: B+

Honeyland (2019) is an important documentary for anyone who cares a wit about the environment, or for those who don’t but should, to experience. The setting is the rural mountains of Macedonia, an area probably on nobody’s radar yet comes a terrific story, nonetheless. The key takeaways that the film makers want the audience to get are those of greed, overindulgence, and the need for conservation to be a hot topic, a worthy little something of the utmost importance.

The piece has the honor of being the first documentary to be nominated not only for the Best Documentary Oscar but also for the Best International Feature award. The need to receive dual nominations is a mystery to me as the documentary is as straight-forward as one can be minus the need for any narration. Unclear is if this is the reason for both nominations. It won neither, losing to American Factory (2019) and Parasite (2019), respectively.

The focus is on a middle-aged woman named Hatidze, who lives inside a cave in the village as caretaker to her elderly mother. Not only does she feed and bathe the bedridden matriarch, but she is the keeper of wild bees in her village. She periodically embarks on a journey into the city to sell honey that she collects from the beehives. The honey is of top quality and she can sustain a living based on good reputation. A kind man even gives her a free fan to give to her mother to help keep the flies away during the intense summer heat.

One day, a rambunctious family of seven arrives to live next door to Hatidze. They are energetic and noisy, but she bonds with them, especially one of the sons. Hatidze teaches the father how to produce honey like she does and warns him to only use half of the honey or else it will upset the bees and cause problems. Needing money, the man is pressured to produced more and succumbs to the request only to accidentally kill Hatidze’s bees causing a rift in their friendship. She is heartbroken and angry.

A few reasons to recommend Honeyland are the frequent camera shots that capture moments. Reportedly, it took three years to film and over four-hundred hours of footage used to come up with an hour and a half of running time. The best scenes are gorgeously shot and feature Hatidze in close-up moments. As she gazes into the sunset or prompts her mother to eat bananas for nourishment, the lines on her face express her myriad of emotions. She longs to be married, a missed opportunity, and wonders how her life might have been different had she.

Hatidze’s village will be a novelty to most viewers and she lives in a world which no viewer will have to experience. This is a positive reason for viewers to expose themselves to this other world. With no electric, no water, no nothing, she makes do with what little she has and bares no ill will. The neighbors finally pack up and leave, exhausting their short-lived good fortune, and Hatidze is left alone to endure a hard winter. When her mother finally dies, she succumbs to tears, the burden lifted from her but an endless feeling of grief and uncertainty.

Honeyland (2019) offers a powerful message of the temptations of greed and the ramifications this can have on others who simply wish to live in peace. It brings the viewer into a strange world unfamiliar and dire to nearly everyone. It centers on one woman’s endurance, courage, and tenacity to simply live her life the only way she knows how, one foot in front of the other. With gorgeous cinematography, the documentary is very slow-paced and not an easy watch but mirrors the pace of life in the harsh mountains of Macedonia.

Oscar Nominations: Best International Feature Film, Best Documentary Feature

Independent Spirit Award Nominations: Best Documentary

For Sama-2019

For Sama-2019

Director-Waad al-Kateab, Edward Watts

Starring-Waad al-Kateab, Hanza al-Kateab

Scott’s Review #1,044

Reviewed July 25, 2020

Grade: B+

The wonderful thing about documentaries is that a viewer can absorb and learn something they have not been exposed to and know little or nothing about. Aware via news outlets of unrest in Syria, For Sama (2019) personalizes and humanizes the battles as the film chronicles the life of a young Syrian woman and her husband, both rebels and he a doctor, with a young daughter born and raised amid the war ravaged city of Aleppo from 2011-2016.

For Sama is horrifically brutal and unkind at times, but to soften the experience would be to do an injustice to those on the front lines living with war every day. The viewer should see firsthand the inhumanity and terror imposed on innocent civilians before they are cavalier to what the effects of war really are.  The film bravely shows both human suffering and death including dead children. Waad al-Kateab wrote, produced, co-directed and stars in this brutal yet hopeful production. She also narrates it.

Waad al-Kateab focuses on a five-year span of time living in Aleppo, Syria before and during the infamous Battle of Aleppo, a major military confrontation between the Syrian government and its opposition. She is a marketing student when the documentary begins and highly intelligent. Waad al-Kateab meets and falls in love with Hamza, a skilled doctor whose wife has already fled for safety leaving him behind. Waad gives birth to her first daughter Sama and navigates motherhood all while the conflict begins to engulf the city.

Waad and Hamza work at one of the few remaining hospitals in the city, facing daily agonizing decisions whether to flee to safety or stay behind to help the innocent victims of war. Despite having Sama and later becoming pregnant again, they cannot bring themselves to leave as it would be abandoning those who rely on them. The documentary features their friends who also stay on, refusing to leave the city they still love. The group tries for brief moments of pleasure, sitting around and chatting, all while the constant threat of bombings is a daily occurrence.

Intriguing is that For Sama is told from the perspective of the female. This is unusual in the war genre, whether it be a film or a documentary feature as more common is for it to be male driven. When she provides narration, Waad gives off a warmth and a kindness that is tough not to fall in love with. She cares for Sama, never knowing if today will be their last day alive. In one frightening moment, Waad quickly gives Sama to another person to hide when the bombs start hitting the hospital, determined that Sama’s life might be spared if she is thought to be an orphan, rather than the spawn of hated rebels.

Props must be given for getting this project off the ground and released, rewarded with wide acclaim and recognition. In a country as volatile as Syria, how inspiring to have someone like Edward Watts, an English film maker, able to follow through with For Sama. Amazing is how some footage especially during the bombings was spared.

Waad explains how determined she was to film as much as she possibly could, even during very personal moments. In the most heartbreaking scene, a pregnant woman is injured during a bombing and her lifeless baby is born. After minutes of real-time uncertainty, the baby finally coughs and gags and is alive. Watts and Waad go to horrific depths to show how close the baby comes to dying and the scene is fraught with sadness and finally relief. I have never seen moments as chilling as these in any documentary.

Other scenes feature young boy’s whose playmates or siblings have just been killed by bombs and their emotional exhaustion and grief. Thankfully, the documentary tries to add as many moments of human connection through what laughs and good times can possibly be mustered when fear is the main ingredient of daily life.

For an experience baring the ugliness of war, the constant fear and peril, and a humanistic story of raising one’s child during frightening times, For Sama (2019) also shows the love and dedication to one’s flesh and blood and the beauty of spirit and perseverance during tragic times. It is heartbreaking, humanistic, and inspiring.

Oscar Nominations: Best Documentary Feature

Independent Spirit Award Nominations: Best Documentary

Frozen II-2019

Frozen II-2019

Director-Chris Buck, Jennifer Lee

Starring-Kristen Bell, Idina Menzel

Scott’s Review #1,043

Reviewed July 22, 2020

Grade: B

Six years after the enormous success of Frozen (2013) comes the follow-up, Frozen II (2019). Surprising is the long gap of time between creations but the beauty of animation is that these characters do not age unless creators want them to. The adventure story is fun, incorporating a bit of history which always creates depth, but also charts familiar territory as the first installment. The film showcases lovely visuals and songs which usurp the other elements. Breeding so much familiarity, there seems little need for a third chapter though I’d bet my bottom dollar another will emerge.

We are re-introduced to Anna (Bell) and Elsa (Menzel) as little girls, when they are tucked into bed by their father King Agnarr of Arendelle one night. He relays a story about his father (their grandfather), a treaty made with a neighboring tribe, a dam, and a magical Enchanted Forest. As a youngster, Agnarr barely escapes alive after a fight erupts with the other tribe, causing his father’s death, and enraging the spiritual elements of the forest. There is also a key mention about Anna and Elsa’s parents lost ship, which is apparently how they died.

Fast-forward to present times, Elsa and Anna are adults, three years following the events of the first film. Elsa, the one with ice powers, runs her happy kingdom with Anna serving as Princess. They live in peace and harmony with familiar characters Olaf, the snowman created by Elsa, Kristoff, Anna’s boyfriend, and Sven, his reindeer. When Elsa begins hearing mysterious voices calling to her from the mountains, she pursues them only to reawaken the spirits and threaten her kingdom and her people. The group must come to the rescue to retain harmony learning the reason for Elsa’s powers in the process.

Frozen II has a “nice” feel which is a positive and a negative. Family friendly with a feminist, female perspective is good and crafts a positive and inspired message for youngsters, especially females, who see the film. Anna and Elsa control their destiny, are empowered to go after what they want, and achieve results. They also support each other, share sisterly love rather than are rivals, and treat people fairly.

The adventure that the girls and friends face will end happily, that much we know. Slight peril emerges when Anna goads and then flees from gigantic earth spirits, Olaf melts and is assumed dead, and Elsa is also thought dead in the forest, but these are aspects added for dramatic effect, and the safe feel of the film ensures that all major characters will remain in happily ever after harmony. When Kristoff awkwardly attempts to propose to Anna throughout the film, we are certain he will eventually do the deed which he does.

I criticized Frozen for limiting diversity in its production, which is corrected in Frozen II. Mattias, leader of a group of Arendelle soldiers, is a strong and protective character, and is black. As an LGBTQ presence, one is only hinted at. When Kristoff befriends Ryder over their love of reindeer, Ryder admits he knows nothing about girls. Mention must be made of Elsa’s barbie doll like appearance with her bright blue eyes and long blonde hair. Does she have to look that stunning? Might impressionable girls get the idea that looks are most important? Let’s hope not.

The best parts of the film are the musical numbers, which feel increased from the first Frozen. Using the same song composers, the tunes feel slightly less poppy. The most emotional number is “Into the Unknown”, which possesses a mysterious quality and powerful, compelling lyrics. Its message is to go for it, which can be interpreted as conquering fears or trying something new. The sound is anthem-like and superior to “Let it Go”.

Frozen II (2019) is a predictable, fun affair ensconced with Scandinavian trimmings with mountains, fjords, and gorgeous landscape providing the necessary cold weather aspects and a magical quality. The visuals are lavish, bright, and sophisticated. Part II is a slightly more mature affair but on par with Frozen and wisely targets the right audience. Tastes change, so if a Part III is made film makers might want to think of a deeper plot or subsequent tidbits to retain interest.

Oscar Nominations: Best Original Song-“Into the Unknown”

Pain and Glory-2019

Pain and Glory-2019

Director-Pedro Almodovar

Starring-Antonio Banderas

Scott’s Review #1,042

Reviewed July 20, 2020

Grade: A-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ford v Ferrari-2019

Ford v Ferrari-2019

Director-James Mangold

Starring-Matt Damon, Christian Bale

Scott’s Review #1,041

Reviewed July 18, 2020

Grade: B-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ready or Not-2019

Ready or Not-2019

Director-Tyler Gillett, Matt Bettinelli-Olpin

Starring-Samara Weaving, Adam Brody

Scott’s Review #1,040

Reviewed July 16, 2020

Grade: B+

A hybrid of dark comedy, horror, and whodunit, Ready or Not (2019) is a splatter of a good time. Witty and macabre, the film is patterned after Knives Out (2019), Clue (1985), and the television series Riverdale, with a dash of Kill Bill Volume 1 and 2 (2003-2004) peppered in for good measure. The results are fantastic, gory and fun and the pacing is on point. The best aspect is the unpredictability factor as the conclusion cannot be drawn and the audience willingly plunges along for a thrilling ride eager to see what happens next.

The film begins with a mysterious flashback. A young boy living in a vast mansion is confronted by an injured man begging for help. The boy cries out for his family who shoots the man dead. Decades later, happier events transpire as Alex (Mark O’Brien) and Grace (Samara Weaving) enjoy a lavish wedding at the Le Domas family estate. Alex’s family is super rich, and he asks Grace if she is sure she wants to join the family. Why wouldn’t she welcome a life of pampering and all the money she can imagine? She readily tells Alex that, yes, she is sure she wants to marry him.

After the wedding, Alex and Grace are summoned by the family to partake in a game, a family tradition. Grace will choose a card, and everyone will play that game. When Grace chooses the Hide-and-Seek card the reactions are morose. When she gleefully trots off at midnight to hide, she assumes it is an innocent game. She quickly realizes that the family is determined to kill her as part of an ancient legend involving a deal to keep the family money secure. Grace spends the night being pursued by members of the family while the household staff are accidentally killed off.

Being a horror film, the rosy start to the film (the wedding) is delicious and short-lived, as any fan of the horror genre knows that dreary events are soon in store. The fun is waiting for the other shoe to drop and the body count to begin rising. Ready or Not succeeds most when Grace is being pursued and when she emerges from the dumb waiter thinking she will give up the game and enjoy a good night’s sleep are spectacular. A house-nanny is shot by a doltish family member who mistakes her for Grace, cowering behind a bed. At that moment the bride realizes she is screwed.

The final thirty minutes of Ready or Not takes a different turn as victimized Grace turns into revenge seeking Grace. Think Carrie White at the prom after being soaked with pig blood. As Grace lumbers through the mansion in her blood streak white gown, happy to kill any one of the filthy rich family members, she has the most fun pummeling Alex’s mother, Becky Le Domas (Andie MacDowell), to death with a box, which he gets to witness. Revenge Grace is like Uma Thurman’s the Bride in the Kill Bill double-feature.

Released the same year as Knives Out (2019), both films treat the wealthy characters the same, making them as shallow and unlikable as humanly possible. Insipid, money-hungry, and impolite, they treat each other as badly as those considered beneath them. Daniel (Adam Brody), may turn out to be Grace’s knight in shining armor but can he be trusted? Can Alex?

Snippets of the 1985 comedy Clue emerge as secret passageways are revealed and one death is reminiscent of the singing telegram girl death, as the character leaps into the room only to be instantly killed. It’s a fun scene and not too seriously intended, which makes it enjoyable. The goth nature of series Riverdale also comes into play with the modern trimmings and dark ambiance.

Ready or Not (2019) successfully produces what it intends to. An entertaining, cleverly written horror yarn. With a clear feminist stance and oozing with wealth and glamour, the rich people are horrible and ultimately get what they deserve. This is satisfying to the viewer despite the silly motivations of the family. Played for laughs, the film doesn’t take itself too seriously despite a subdued lesson in over-indulgences and entitlement. A crackling fun late-night offering.

Maleficent: Mistress of Evil-2019

Maleficent: Mistress of Evil-2019

Director-Joachim Ronnin

Starring-Elle Fanning, Angelina Jolie

Scott’s Review #1,039

Reviewed July 14, 2020

Grade: B+

Maleficent: Mistress of Evil (2019) is the follow-up to the 2014 film, simply named Maleficent and while not a necessary sequel, the sequel bests the original. Clearly, the intent was to create a big, studio effort that would garner lots of cash and the experiment seems to have worked. The production is not as frightening as the title would lead one to believe and kids over the age of ten would be just fine as a target audience.

While the screenplay has traditional plot trimmings and a predictable ending, the real winner is the visual and cinematic treats, which will leave viewers gasping. The lush landscapes, odd little worlds, castles and forests, blossom with vibrant colors and exquisite shapes and objects. It may mostly be CGI but marvelous all the same.

To recap, the character of Maleficent debuted in the 1959 classic animated Disney film Sleeping Beauty. Maleficent is an evil fairy and the self-proclaimed “Mistress of All Evil” who, after not being invited to a christening, curses the infant Princess Aurora to “prick her finger on the spindle of a spinning wheel and die” before the sun sets on Aurora’s sixteenth birthday. The character has since “evolved”, now portrayed as a sympathetic character, who is misunderstood in trying to protect herself and her domain from humans.

For five years Aurora (Elle Fanning) has reigned peacefully as Queen of the Moors with Maleficent (Angelina Jolie) serving as teacher and protector. They have a rapturous relationship and flock and carry on with fairies and animals alike. Handsome Prince Phillip (Harris Dickinson) proposes to Aurora, thereby uniting her kingdom to his, which is met with caution by his parents, specifically his mother Queen Ingrith (Michelle Pfeiffer). When the players gather for a celebratory dinner Maleficent is mocked, causing her to fly into a rage, setting off a war between humans and fairies.

A key positive, and a story shift, is that Maleficent, a legendary film villain, is written sympathetically and the plot device works. Rather than have her sparring with daughter Aurora, the duo team up to thwart the devious efforts of the evil Queen Ingrith, who is the real villain. Jolie and Pfeiffer must have had fun playing the roles and both perform their respective parts adequately. Favorable to me is Jolie, adding just enough vulnerability to balance her fierce nature and blood-red lips. Pfeiffer plays the role straight, as a caricature, with no redeeming value. Both roles are fun.

Keeping in mind the target audience, the characters of Maleficent and Aurora are inspiring, especially to young females everywhere. The film adds more than a hint of progressive feminism as both characters are strong and no-nonsense. This does not take away from their sensitivity or their sense of fairness. Both could equally be role models of tough yet compassionate female characters.

In most Disney films there are heroes and villains and we all know and expect that. The standard story line of good revolting against evil is on display and an epic climactic battle scene gives a customary ending to the film. Likewise, the fairy tale romance between Prince and Princess is prominently featured and for my money, Dickinson and Fanning are tremendous in the roles.

The chemistry is apparent between the actors and there is a nice balance between a believable romance and strong independent characters. Queen Ingrith, barely a mention in the original animated film, is turned into an evil shrew, all completely plot driven. The story is what I expected it to be and not the high point of the film.

More impressive is how the viewer can easily escape into a world of make-believe and long to stay there forever. Especially for the younger viewers the Moors is a bevy of magical creatures and fluttering fairies rich with goodness. The comical Knotgrass, Thistlewit, and Flittle, the red fairy, green fairy, and blue fairy respectively, make a return appearance, though in limited capacity. It would have been nice to give them a stronger presence providing more wisdom, more advice, and more humor, but they serve their comic relief purpose well.

Will there be a third incarnation of Maleficent? The film makers provide a strong likelihood. After Aurora and Philip wed, Maleficent returns to the Moors with the other Dark Fey, teaching the young fairies to fly. She promises to return for Aurora and Philip’s future child’s christening. This vow seems like an easy setup to build on the original story line, unlocking the next chapter in this engaging saga.

Oscar Nominations: Best Makeup and Hairstyling

Richard Jewell-2019

Richard Jewell-2019

Director-Clint Eastwood

Starring-Paul Walter Hauser, Sam Rockwell, Kathy Bates

Scott’s Review #1,035

Reviewed June 19, 2020

Grade: B

With most Clint Eastwood films, especially in the latter part of his career, one should expect a mainstream story with a conservative edge. The man has lost his touch with age, unlike greats like Martin Scorsese. This may not always make for the most cutting-edge cinematic experience, but the results can still be compelling. Richard Jewell (2019) was not on my radar but for the last minute, surprising Oscar nomination for Kathy Bates. I am still smarting that she presumably took the last spot over the snubbed Jennifer Lopez (Hustlers-2019). But I digress.

As anticipated, the project has a predictable edge and a safe feel, Eastwood clearly sending a nasty note to the media and to the FBI shaming them for their corruption and ineptness. The biography, centering around the Centennial Olympic Park bombing and its aftermath during the 1996 Summer Olympic Games in Atlanta, Georgia, tells the story in a nicely paced way but feels light, pulling too much of a right-wing slant. Lead actor Paul Walter Hauser is the best part of the film, providing empathy and heroism to his character, the one and only Richard Jewell.

Our title character is an overweight, average-looking man who lives with his mother in a modest apartment in Georgia. He works as a supply clerk in a small law firm where he meets arrogant attorney Watson Bryant (Rockwell). They bond over video games and become fast friends. The time is 1986. Jewell, aspiring to become a police officer, lands a job as a security guard at Piedmont College, where he is subsequently fired for overstepping his grounds. Finally, he begins a job running security for a concert series near the Olympic games. He has a keen eye for law enforcement and is passionate about doing his job well.

Hauser, who had supporting roles in I, Tonya (2017) and in BlacKkKlansman (2018), has reached his breakout role.  Hauser makes the character likable and loyal. Law and order are his passions and he eat, sleeps, and breathes the life. The actor makes the audience know that Richard is not dumb. He is highly intelligent but has not been handed an easy life. The relationship with his mother is touching and he genuinely wants to protect those who he serves.

As far as the supporting roles go, Rockwell is fantastic as Watson, who ultimately defends Richard against the FBI. With wit, sarcasm, and outrage, his passion comes across on screen as a gruff but loyal friend. Other big-name stars are not as lucky with their roles. Jon Hamm plays FBI Agent Tom Shaw, a made-up character who wants to railroad Richard at all costs. He tricks Richard into stating a confession that he records. Olivia Wilde is Kathy Scruggs, an unpleasant journalist who will trade sex for stories. The character is unlikable, and rumors abound that the writing is sharply embellished. Both Hamm and Wilde suffer from one-note characters.

Let’s discuss Kathy Bates’s performance. Bates is a legendary actress and well-regarded. In film, her best role is of the maniacal Annie Wilkes in Misery (1990). Throughout recent years she has brightened the small screen with daring and unique roles on American Horror Story. Her role as the sympathetic and kindly Bobi Jewell is not one of her best. There is nothing wrong with her performance, but the character never has a big memorable scene.

Unclear is the historical accuracy of the story and my hunch is that liberties could offer good drama. Inexplicable is the omission of anything related to the real bomber, who is never mentioned. What were his motivations? Whatever happened to him? Viewers can do their own research, but a real miss is to not include this. The story only centers around Richard’s accusers and attempted railroading simply because he fits the profile of a bomber. The film could have gone further.

Also, viewers are left with no knowledge that Richard traditionally put a rose on one of the bombing victims grave or other niceties that could have been included. Why did Eastwood need to hammer home the point that Richard was fretting about the perception that he may have been gay? True or false the point feels like a homophobic tidbit thrown in to appeal to a likely redneck audience.

Richard Jewell (2019) will not appear on Eastwood’s “greatest hits” of top films or even top 10 lists. Mystic River (2003) and Million Dollar Baby (2004) would get my votes for “best of”. The film is only a slightly above average biography of a falsely accused man eventually gaining justice. The spin is a politically conservative one of a main character portrayed as a hero meeting unfortunate circumstances.

Oscar Nominations: Best Supporting Actress-Kathy Bates

Harriet-2019

Harriet-2019

Director-Kasi Lemmons

Starring-Cynthia Erivo

Scott’s Review #1,031

Reviewed June 10, 2020

Grade: B

The story of real-life American freedom fighter, Harriet Tubman, a woman who risked her life multiple times to rescue slaves from the United States of America South, pre-civil war, is a story of monumental importance to get right. An escaped slave herself, Harriet was more than an Abolitionist, she was a political activist and hero to all whose lives she touched. She was a figure that all women and men should aspire to emulate with her message of freedom and civility.

The cinematic telling of Harriet’s story, simply titled Harriet (2019), is a mild success, mostly deserving of praise for being told at all.  At well over one-hundred and fifty years post-civil war, racism still runs rampant across the United States, so the release of the film is important. A gutsy performance by Cynthia Erivo, a British singer turned actor, is the high point but unfortunately, the rest of the offering is lackluster, frighteningly modern in look and feel, with clear heroes and clear villains and nobody with muddied motivations to be found anywhere.

We first meet young Harriet (Erivo), then named “Minty” Ross, in 1840’s Maryland, then a slave state. She is to be married to her intended, John Tubman (Zackary Momoh), already a free man. Minty’s father, also free, asks her owner to release her as his grandfather had promised before his demise. Refusing, his son, Gideon (Joe Alwyn) decides to sell Minty as punishment. Savvy, Minty flees for the northern states and settles in Philadelphia, a newly free woman with her life ahead of her. She risks capture and death to return to Maryland, in disguise, to rescue her family from the horrors of slavery.

Her plight was so important and so heroic that I really wanted to love this film. To be fair, it is okay, but does not do justice to the real-life Harriet, or succeed as a cinematic offering. The weakest point is the modern look that the film and the actors possess, and I think this was done intentionally. Every single actor, black and white, looks like a present day’s actor dressed in mid-nineteenth century garb and it does not work. My hunch is that film makers wanted this to add relevancy to the current racial problems and I am all for that, but the film suffers as a result.

I am all for feminism in cinema, but Harriet can be accurately accused of stomping that point into the ground. During some of the numerous action sequences when Harriet becomes a flawless sharpshooter, she nearly rivals a Marvel superhero instead of a simple woman championing a cause. And why is Harriet psychic? This is a silly addition that feels plot driven. Director Kasi Lemmons, known for films like Eve’s Bayou (1997) and Black Nativity (2013) knows her way around a picture, but Harriet will not be known as her finest achievement.

There are some positives to mention. Erivo, not known for her acting as much as her singing ability, rises to the occasion. Viola Davis nearly ended up being cast, who would have been brilliant, but Erivo nonetheless impresses. She is pretty, yet plain which humanizes Harriet and makes her relatable to many. Erivo provides both toughness and sympathy so that the audience will champion her cause without it feeling forced. Early in the year, thought to be a lock for the Best Actress Oscar, the film lost ground critically, and Erivo limped to an Oscar nod, and she was lucky to get that. She lost.

The cinematography is credible and another positive to the film. The green, lush landscapes are very southern and peaceful, roaring rapids, bridges, and spacious forests making for atmospheric niceties serving as backdrops for many sequences. Casting Janelle Monae as the gorgeous (and free) Marie Buchanan is fine and adds a Color Purple (1985) comparison-think Celie/Shug Avery. Ironically, the acting among the black actors is superior to the mostly over-the-top or cartoon-like white actors.

Best described as a formulaic Hollywood film with a good message, Harriet (2019) could be a launching pad for Erivos, a new name in Hollywood film. She tackles a difficult role and is the best thing about the production. The sleekness and modernism make the resulting experience less than the grittiness that a film like Harriet needs. Much better biographies of legendary figures exist, a shame since Harriet Tubman is one of the most prominent to have their stories told on the big screen.

Oscar Nominations: Best Actress-Cynthia Erivos, Best Original Song-“Stand Up”

Doctor Sleep-2019

Doctor Sleep-2019

Director-Mike Flanagan

Starring-Ewan McGregor, Rebecca Ferguson

Scott’s Review #1,026

Reviewed May 22, 2020

Grade: B

Based on the 2013 novel of the same name written by Stephen King, a sequel to his own 1977 novel The Shining, Doctor Sleep (2019) is also a direct sequel to the film adaptation of The Shining (1980). Events are set several decades after the events of the original and combines elements of the 1977 novel as well. A fun-fact is that King hated the film version of The Shining but approved of the script for Doctor Sleep.

The first and last part of the film are superior to the rest, succeeding mostly when elements of The Shining are incorporated. The rest meanders and teeters too much into supernatural and computer- generated imagery territory, taking away from the haunting ghost story elements that made the original The Shining such a frightening treasure.

Ewan McGregor plays Danny Torrance, the little kid scarred from the trauma he suffered when his father Jack went mad at the looming Overlook hotel decades earlier. Danny, now a grown man and a suffering alcoholic, lives a life that is out of control, suppressing his “shining” gifts that allow him to possess psychic abilities. Hitting rock bottom, Dan moves to a tiny town in New Hampshire and befriends Billy Freeman (Cliff Curtis) who sponsors him in AA. Dan is regularly visited by the spirit of Dick Hallorann, the deceased chef from the hotel who teaches Dan how to contain his demons.

Meanwhile, the True Knot, a cult of psychic vampires led by Rose the Hat (Rebecca Ferguson), extend their lifespans by consuming “steam”, a psychic essence released as they torture and kill those who have the shining. They mostly feed on young children and pursue Abra Stone (Kyliegh Curran), a young girl whose shining is even more powerful than Dan’s. She communicates telepathically with him and form a pact to destroy Rose and her cronies.

Let’s take the good with the bad. The film gets off to a very good start with the recreation of scenes from The Shining, when Danny rides his big wheel throughout the winding 1970’s style hallways of The Overlook and gazes at the forbidden Room 237. The synth musical score that made The Shining atmospheric and unforgettable are also included as the bass infused heartbeat is showcased amid overhead camera angles, a clear ode to The Shining.

The finale of Doctor Sleep comes full circle as Dan and Abra travel from New Hampshire to snowy Colorado and revisit the Overlook, now tattered and ill-forgotten from decades of abandonment. The showdown between Dan, Abra, and Rose treats fans to clips of Jack Nicholson and Shelly DuVall. Visits from familiar characters and sets like the ghostly bartender, the conjoined twins, the wrinkled old naked woman, the gushing elevator blood, and the hedge maze make their returns providing a lovely feeling of nostalgia.

Unfortunately, betwixt the first thirty minutes and final thirty minutes sits another ninety minutes of screen time that doesn’t always work. For starters, a running time of two hours and thirty-two minutes feels too long for a horror film and the filler lying in between is that much more obvious. The action meanders especially given the anticipated final battle which is inevitable.

Taking nothing away from either Ferguson or Curran, who are fine in their respective roles of Rose and Abra, neither are they the most interesting aspects of Doctor Sleep either. They are new characters in the novel and therefore the film but are secondary to Dan and his intricate relationships with Jack, Wendy, and Dick. The only story parts that were interesting to me were the connections and thoughts that Dan had to experiences forty years earlier.

The battle scenes between Rose, Abra, and other characters do nothing for the story and take the film too far in the direction of the supernatural and slick technological aspects that The Shining didn’t need. Since Doctor Sleep was made based on successful recent King adaptations of It Chapter Two (2019) and Pet Sematary (2019) perhaps this is the reason for the modern add-ons.

If Doctor Sleep (2019) could be sliced and diced to eliminate the guts and keep the bookends of the beginning and finale the result would have paid proper homage to The Shining (1980), instead we get only halfway there. The film has some nice elements and stays true to its history but contains a few unnecessary tidbits to make it not great. And how can a film ever compare to the greatness of The Shining (1980)?

The Last Black Man in San Francisco-2019

The Last Black Man in San Francisco-2019

Director-Joe Talbot

Starring-Jimmie Fails, Jonathan Majors

Scott’s Review #1,018

Reviewed May 1, 2020

Grade: A

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Annabelle Comes Home-2019

Annabelle Comes Home-2019

Director-Gary Dauberman

Starring-Mckenna Grace, Patrick Wilson, Vera Farmiga

Scott’s Review #1,008

Reviewed April 7, 2020

Grade: B

Annabelle Comes Home (2019) was made as a sequel to 2014’s Annabelle and 2017’s Annabelle: Creation, and as the seventh installment in the Conjuring Universe franchise overall. Lest we forget the uninspiring The Nun (2018) it is not necessary to view the films in sequence and with this version, it can serve as a stand-alone film just fine. At this point in the series it is getting tough to connect all the dots in previous offerings. The film is a fun, scary-light experience, which works well.

Borrowing the babysitting theme from the 1978 horror masterpiece Halloween, the film is neither dull nor formulaic either, providing some visual creativity to an otherwise B movie experience. Franchise fan favorites Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga return to their popular roles, but only in the beginning and end of the film, letting the younger set take center stage as they bear the brunt of angry demons.

Presumed to take place sometime after Annabelle but before Annabelle: Creation, demonologists Ed (Wilson) and Lorraine Warren (Farmiga) are determined to stop the frightening Annabelle from wreaking further havoc and drag the possessed doll to the safety of their locked artifacts room, placing her behind sacred glass and enlisting a priest’s holy blessing. After a curious teenage girl snoops, Annabelle is reawakened angrier than usual and unleashes a torrent of evil spirits into the Warren house. Ten-year old daughter, Judy (Mckenna Grace), must be savvy and outsmart the dangerous demons before it’s too late.

Annabelle herself, the doll statuesque and holding a grotesque smirk on its made-up face and possessing bright blue/green eyes, has quietly become a fixture within the horror community, now easily recognizable to mainstream audiences everywhere. That Annabelle does not speak or walk, but only stares, unless possessed by a spirit, is a big part of the fun and the scares. She tends to appear rather than move around which is part of her appeal. And the pretty red ribbons in her hair are a bonus.

The 1970’s time-period is fabulous as the set and art design teams deserve major props for authenticity. The Warren’s house, for example, is a wonderful showcase for the yellow and brown trimmings prevalent in any middle to upper-middle class residence during this decade. The flowered wallpaper enshrouding the downstairs hallway and the pink frosted birthday cake are delightful additions. The standard feathered hairstyles and plaid patterned clothes are standard trademarks and always a hoot.

From a fright perspective, the film provides a perfect balance of buildup and edge of your seat thrills. The best example of this is when nosy Daniela (Katie Sarife), already curious of the Warrens, breaks into the artifacts room determined to talk to the dead. Her motivations are believable since her father recently died in a car accident, and she is a fan favorite. Chaos ensues as she unleashes such evil forces as the Black Shuck, the Ferryman, and the Bride.

The film tries a bit too hard to appeal to a tween or teenage audience with a silly romance between main girl, Mary Ellen (Madison Iseman), the perfect virginal babysitter, and high school crush, Bob (Michael Cimino). He even serenades her after an idea by the pizza delivery man and conveniently lives across the street. This portion of the story is unnecessary and feels like filler, Mary Ellen being responsible enough not to let a boy in the house she is looking after.

Annabelle Comes Home (2019) is a fine horror effort, intelligently traversing both supernatural and classic horror sub-genres with ease and perfect balance. Staying true to its franchise roots and incorporating groovy production and musical score elements representing the decade it celebrates, the film holds up well in a myriad of similar films that rely on gimmicks and cheap thrills more than this one does.

Giant Little Ones-2019

Giant Little Ones-2019

Director-Keith Behrman

Starring-Josh Wiggins, Darren Mann

Scott’s Review #1,000

Reviewed March 13, 2020

Grade: B+

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Countdown-2019

Countdown-2019

Director-Justin Dec

Starring-Elizabeth Lail, Jordan Calloway

Scott’s Review #999

Reviewed March 12, 2020

Grade: B

Countdown (2019) is a modern horror film that accomplishes what it intends to do- it entertains the audience. With jumps, frights, and some comedic elements, it borrows heavily from the Final Destination (2000-2011) and Happy Death Day (2017-2019) franchises. The film does not reinvent the wheel, steering the course in a conventional way. The superstitious elements become hokey and unbelievable, but the film has enough momentum to offer a solid product, especially pleasing to genre fans.

When a young nurse (Elizabeth Lail) downloads an app that claims to predict exactly when a person is going to die, it tells her she only has three days to live. With time ticking away and death closing in, she must find a way to save her life before time runs out. She struggles to figure out how to delete the app while putting together the pieces of the puzzle to figure out how to break a curse and ruin a threatening demonic spirit. Her sister is also threatened.

Director, Justin Dec, a newcomer to cinema, does not waste any time beginning the action, as events debut at a college keg party. A group of revelers decide to play a drinking game after downloading the new Countdown app which is supposed to determine how long you have left to live. Thinking the app is a joke, unlucky Courtney (Anne Winters) is startled to see that she has only three hours to live. After refusing to drive home with her drunken boyfriend, Ethan, she is murdered at home by an evil spirit, while Ethan crashes his car, a tree spearing through the seat that Courtney would have been sitting in.

With this sequence the audience is hooked as the pacing is well maintained. With the app clock ticking down dangerously towards zero, a theme heavily promoted throughout the film, we can’t wait to see how or if Courtney is killed. Red herrings, like a man following her or a shower curtain that moves, are presented for good suspense. Assumed to be the “main girl”, Courtney’s death is surprising, and the main title then appears, fooling the audience. There is more to come.

Carrying a horror film is not easy, but actor Lail rises to the occasion. Resembling a young Christina Applegate, Quinn is strong and independent. Many of the scenes take place at the hospital she works at, though she also makes time to see her father and sister. Quinn’s mother has recently died, and Quinn blames herself. She connects with Matt (Jordan Calloway), who lost his brother after stealing his toy. Quinn is a character that viewers can admire and emulate.

Countdown deserves credit for adding a plethora of diversity. Matt is black, making his romance with Quinn interracial. Several Asian, Latino, or Black characters can be seen in many scenes, showcasing a hefty dose of multi-culturalism. Unfortunately, and surprisingly, no LGBTQ characters are featured. Comic relief store owner, Derek (Tom Segura) would have been the perfect character to make gay, but this was not to be.

To build on this, a timely and progressive Me-Too side-story is added, when a well-respected doctor at the hospital comes on to Quinn. He reports the incident to Human Resources when she rebuffs his advances. She is suspended, without an investigation, until other women come forward throughout the film. While this would be an important message in another type of film, the relevance does not work, or fit the rest of the story.

The ninety minutes running time is a splendid approach, so the film never drags or dulls. The final twenty minutes or so is a letdown as Quinn and a priest realize that to break the curse one must trick it by someone else dying out of sequence. This is all too like Final Destination, but not as good, as Quinn ends up fighting with the spirit, killing herself with an overdose of morphine, while drawing a circle on her arm where she can subsequently be revived by a syringe with Naloxone.

For a new director eager to break into the horror genre, Justin Dec borrows heavily from previous films and presents a copycat story that is paced perfectly. It provides enough interest and good casting to warrant a follow-up. Due to low box-office returns I doubt Countdown (2019) will become a mainstay franchise, but Dec may have a good future ahead of himself.

Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark-2019

Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark-2019

Director-Andre Ovredal

Starring-Zoe Margaret Colletti, Michael Garza

Scott’s Review #997

Reviewed March 10, 2020

Grade: C+

Admittedly not having read the series of books that Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark (2019) is based upon, nor not knowing the books even existed may have influenced me, but the film is lackluster at best, serving up some creative moments, but more silly ones. The film is too polished, uneven, and feels too alike to modern projects like It (2017) or the television series Stranger Things to have its own individuality. A few interesting moments or sequences exist, but not enough to recommend.

The creepy children’s books written by Alvin Schwartz are adapted into film form as the time-period of 1968 Halloween is brought to life. The small town of Mill Valley, Pennsylvania, is the backdrop for the historic Bellows family mansion that has loomed over the town for decades and holds a haunted mystery. Sarah, a young girl with horrible secrets, has turned her tortured life into a series of scary stories, written in a book that has transcended time. After a group of impressionable teenagers discover Sarah’s terrifying home, they undercover her stories, and they become all too real.

The visual effects and images are the high point of the film. There exist several visceral and stylistic sequences which deserve admiration, and mention. When one of the panicked teenagers’ scrambles into a mental institution, he is met with a horrific, blood-red glowing image that surrounds him. As he attempts to escape, a ghastly, bloated figure slowly approaches him from all sides. Later, a freakish person known as The Jangly Man, able to reconstruct itself from separate body parts, pursues one of the teens. These scenes are credible and inventive. The look of the film is its only real success.

The late 1960’s time-period both works and doesn’t work. Getting off to a splendid start, the theme song performed by Donovan, “Season of the Witch”, also incorporated over the closing credits, is a positive and provides a nice mystique. Since the date is supposed to be Halloween, this is fitting, though too few other seasonal reminders ever exist so that the viewer soon forgets it is Halloween at all.  Attempts at making the characters look the part are feeble and result in modern actors clad in 1960’s wear, reducing the authenticity. Mentions of the Vietnam War, while politically left-leaning, are only added for story purposes, feeling staged.

Once and for all, a note to film makers- making a character wear glasses to appear intelligent is a gimmick done to death and does not work anymore! Actor Zoe Margaret Colletti is fine in the central role of Stella, and does her best delivering the material she is given, but the realism is not there, giving the performance an overwrought quality. The character feels more like a Nancy Drew type than anything deeper.

Viewers are supposed to believe the convoluted story that Sarah was abused and now resides, as an older woman, in a secret room and scripts a book of horror stories that come to life and wreak havoc on those that enter the haunted house. Stella manages to channel Sarah, as an adult, and convinces her to stop writing and cease the terror with a weak female empowerment message. Events are so far-fetched and story-line dictated that it eliminates any character development from the film.

Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark (2019) has difficulty deciding which target audience to focus on. Is it young-adults or an older audience seeking a Halloween themed scare? The story is way too complex and confusing for either audience, or anyone else. The visual effects are fantastic, especially the stylistic red and black end credits, but the overall context suffers from lack of continuity and becomes a forgettable experience.

The Two Popes-2019

The Two Popes-2019

Director-Fernando Meirelles

Starring-Jonathan Pryce, Anthony Hopkins

Scott’s Review #994

Reviewed February 27, 2020

Grade: B+

The Two Popes (2019) is a biographical drama focusing on two real-life religious figures and the close friendship they forge while sharing different ideals and viewpoints. The two men hold the highest religious office and a deep respect culminates over time while past secrets are uncovered. The film carefully balances past and present but offers too few meaty scenes between the legendary actors for my taste. Otherwise, a thought provoking and historical effort, with brilliant sequences of Italy and Argentina.

The film begins in April of 2005 during a pivotal moment in history, following the death of Pope John Paul II. The world is abuzz with the naming of new German Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (Anthony Hopkins), elected Pope Benedict XVI, while Bergoglio (Jonathan Pryce), from Argentina, receives the second-highest vote count. Ratzinger has a stiff and more traditional approach to Christianity while Bergoglio is more modern thinking and open to new ideas.

Seven years later, the Catholic Church is embroiled in the Vatican leaks scandal, which tarnishes the very concept of religion. Benedict’s tenure has been tainted by public accusations regarding his role in the cover-up, which shocks the world. Meanwhile, Bergoglio intends to retire and arrives in Rome to receive Benedict’s blessing. This is the point where the men slowly come to terms with each other and reach a mutual respect and admiration.

The Two Popes is worth the price of admission for the acting alone. With heavyweights such as Hopkins and Pryce, one can rest easy in this regard and simply enjoy the experience. The scenes between the two actors are wonderful and fraught with energy. As the religious figures confide in one another and secrets brim to the surface, the actors are believable as the real-life figures. Even good, old-fashioned small talk is fascinating to watch.

While the present-day sequences enthrall, the flashbacks of Bergoglio as a younger man and his journey into the church are explored a bit too much sometimes halting the flow. He was once engaged to be married, but instead joined the Jesuits. He was marred in scandal when the perception was that he had collaborated with the Argentine military dictatorship, exiled to serve as an ordinary parish priest to the poor for the next ten years. The balance between timelines is okay, but the flashbacks become too prevalent as the film moves along.

Director, Fernando Meirelles, seems more comfortable shooting scenes within Argentina since those are directed best using black and white filming to showcase both the ravages of a chaotic nation and the decades preceding the present. Best known for the wonderful City of God (2003), he also intersperses real-life news sequences featuring the peril of the Argentinian people. The two time-periods do not always flow naturally together, though.

A huge positive is the inclusion of the child abuse scandal that rocked the religious world and the brave decision that Meirelles made to focus on the revelation that Benedict knew about the accusations and dismissed them, clearly aiding in their continuation. Both Popes deal with the struggle between tradition and progress, guilt and forgiveness, and confronting one’s pasts making it a character study.

The exterior and surrounding sequences are an absolute treat. Having visited Rome and particularly Vatican City makes the showcase of the Sistine Chapel wonderful to view on a personal level. The chapel in the Apostolic Palace, the official residence of the pope, is both astounding with the lovely religious art, and the backdrop for many scenes between Benedict and the future Pope Francis (Bergoglio).

Any viewer fond of world history or religious history will enjoy The Two Popes (2019). With great acting, secrets revealed, conflict, and loyalty, the film is crafted well. Some momentum is lost in the story back and forth, and the film is hardly one that warrants repeated viewings or study in film school, but it provides a realistic look at modern religion with all its arguments and discussions to delve into.

The Lighthouse-2019

The Lighthouse-2019

Director-Robert Eggers

Starring-Robert Pattinson, Willem Dafoe

Scott’s Review #987

Reviewed February 5, 2020

Grade: A-

The Lighthouse (2019) is the sophomore effort by acclaimed and novice horror director, Robert Eggers. His first, The Witch (2015) garnered praise and independent film award nominations, and his latest offering has also received many accolades across the board. This time around, he wisely secures top-notch talent casting the incredible Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson to star.

The result is a well-acted, gorgeously photographed film, that is odd beyond belief, requiring a second viewing to even attempt some understanding. The atmosphere of this film will draw some viewers in and push away others. It is that type of film experience.

Shot in startlingly good black and white, the time is the 1890’s, set somewhere off New England. The film stars Dafoe and Pattinson as two lighthouse keepers who start to lose their sanity when a storm strands them on the remote island where they are stationed. They spar, love, and play games, while imaginations run wild with bizarre images of mermaids, death, and claustrophobic storm conditions. Frequent hallucinations render the plot unclear of what is fantasy and what is reality.

The technical aspects of The Lighthouse are superior to the story elements. The gorgeous camera work, looking like either a modern film or a film from the 1940’s is superior. Almost never is a film made like this, and the black and white filming provides a cold and bleak atmosphere. The prevalent wind and driving rain buttress with flying objects and mud to create a looming and foreboding danger. The viewer can tell that sinister events are on the horizon, perfectly encrusting the increasingly dangerous storm.

The story is tough to figure out with the exception that one or both men are losing their minds. Winslow (Pattinson) is the newbie, sent to assist the elder lighthouse keeper, the elderly and cranky Thomas Wake (Dafoe). Wake forbids Winslow to ever set foot in the lantern room, insisting that task is his job alone. This piques the interest of the young man especially when Winslow observes Wake going up to the room at night and stripping naked. Winslow begins experiencing visions and dreams of tentacles in the lighthouse, tree stumps floating in the water, and distant images of a mermaid.

Peculiar scenes exist that make The Lighthouse both memorable and tough to figure out. The presence of seagulls makes the film authentically beach-like with the cawing and flying around. Their existence soon becomes an ode to Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963) as a one-eyed gull begins to stalk Winslow. Told it is bad luck to ever kill a gull since they harbor the souls of sailors, Winslow finally kills the attacking one-eyed gull in a fit of rage during one of the film’s most brutal scenes. Wake seethes with rage.

The film is homoerotic in many scenes, none more so than the lovely scene when the two men begin to dance and sway to music. About to kiss, reality strikes, and the two drunk men come to blows. The scene reminds me of an important one in the groundbreaking LGBT masterpiece Brokeback Mountain (2005). The combustible pent up masculine tension explodes, and we wonder if in another time the men lovers might be. This aspect is cerebral, filling The Lighthouse with psychological mystique.

A common element is the two men’s distrust of one another. Trapped by the bad storm they frequently drink themselves into oblivion- what else is there to do? They sit and stare at each other, sometimes filled with rage, sometimes suspiciously. In a scene both jaw-dropping and hilarious, Winslow forces Wake into a collar and leash and leads him on his hands and knees into a muddy grave. Unsure if the scene is fantasy or reality, it could almost be taken from a gay leather porn film.

Eggers has a bright future ahead of him and I am eager to see his next project. I am not averse to odd or even nonsensical films if the intent is good, but I would recommend a more straight-forward approach next time to see what he comes up with. The Lighthouse (2019) successfully offers a creepy and bizarre tale of men losing their sanity in a dream-like and creative way that will assuredly divide audiences.

Oscar Nominated Animated Short Films-2019

Oscar Nominated Animated Short Films-2019

Directors-Daria Kashcheeva, Matthew A. Cherry, Karen Ruper Toliver, Rosana Sullivan, Kathryn Hendrickson, Bruno Collet, Jean-Francois Le Corre, Siqi Song

Scott’s Review #986

Reviewed February 4, 2020

Grade: A-

Having the honor of being able to view the five short films nominated for the 2019 Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film at my local art theater was pretty amazing. Far too often dismissed as either irrelevant or completely flying under the radar of animated offerings, it is time to champion these fine little pieces of artistic achievement. On par with or even superseding the full-length animated features, each of the five offers a vastly different experience, but each offers either inspired or hopeful messages or dark, devious, and edgy stories. The commonality this year is relationships, and not necessarily between human beings, as one of them features a darling relationship between cat and dog. Below is a review of each of the shorts.

Memorable-2019 (France)

This offering is the most visually enticing of the five nominees. In the story, a French painter slowly falls prey to the ravages of dementia, while his wife suffers alongside him as his memory disintegrates. He sinks into a world of impressionistic shapes, vivid with gorgeous color. The film is both beautiful and heartbreaking, and not an easy watch. The swirling colors and fragmented shapes provide a lush and melancholy feel. The viewer will likely envelope the only two characters to appear (husband and wife) and relate to each of them and the misery and confusion they experience with assurance of what the result will be.  Grade: A

Sister-2019 (China)

Sister is a touching tribute to a person who does not even exist. A man thinks back to his childhood memories of growing up with an annoying little sister in China in the 1990’s. What would his life have been like if things had gone differently? Would the siblings annoy each other or be the best of friends? With political overtones, the piece describes the inhumane law that Chinese parents could only have one child, the mother forced to abort an impending birth. Traditional Chinese colors of red and black are used, and the imaginary sister is cute and energetic, a tragic realization of the terrible loss of potential life in a damaged nation. Grade: A-

Hair Love-2019 (USA)

Created by a team from the United States and strongly considered the front-runner, Hair Love feels the shortest of the bunch and is the most accessible of all the nominees, but hardly fluff either. A young black girl battles with her wild head of hair on a special day. After she unsuccessfully tries to create a gorgeous hairstyle by watching You tube videos, she desperately enlists the help of her kindly father. At first disastrous, they manage some success. The relationship is at first unclear. Is he a single dad? Is he her dad at all? Is he an older brother? The puzzle is quickly resolved with the revelation of the mother’s whereabouts in a tender and heartfelt ending. Grade: A

Kitbull-2019 (USA)

My personal favorite of the bunch, Kitbull starts off tough to watch. Any animal abuse in film makes my stomach turn and the beginning turned me off as I anticipated giving the piece a low rating. Instead, Kitbull results in a marvelous experience as a darling and compassionate story of the relationship between a kind cat and a suffering dog. The unlikely connection brought tears to my eyes as the cat, presumed to be an independent alley cat, comes to the rescue of the pit bull, presumed to be a made to dog fight. Any animal lover will watch this short with a mix of anger, empathy, and finally, joy. The sobering reality that so much animal abuse still exists in the world is both mind blowing and a cruel reality. Grade: A

Daughter-2019 (Czech Republic)

Daughter is a vague short film that is confusing to watch, but resilient and creative. The story consists of two characters- a father and daughter- both who seem to suffer from regret.  The father appears to be either sick and recovered, or to have died (unclear is if the story is told via flashbacks). The frequent pained expressions of both characters as they yearn to rewind the clock and treasure moments of the past, both of hardships and joy, are lessons that every viewer can appreciate and relate to. The misshapen ceramic figures and the facial movements, especially the blinking eyes, do much to elicit an emotional reaction from the audience. Grade: B+

Little Women-2019

Little Women-2019

Director-Greta Gerwig

Starring-Saoirse Ronan, Florence Pugh

Scott’s Review #982

Reviewed January 21, 2020

Grade: A-

Numerous creations of the illustrious 1860’s classic novel by Louisa May Alcott have been forged upon the silver screen, some good and some not as good. The consensus is that Little Women (2019) is one of the better offerings, if not the best. Director, Greta Gerwig crafts a clear feminist, progressive version of the trials and tribulations of the March family, led by spirited spit-fire, Jo (Saoirse Ronan). Gerwig’s telling is fantastic, breathing fresh life into a classic story.

The story fluctuates heavily between 1868 and 1861, during and after the United States Civil War. Liberal, the March’s reside in Massachusetts, led by matriarch Marmee (Laura Dern) mainly living life while their patriarch, Father March (Bob Odenkirk) is off at war. The rest of the household includes sisters Jo, Meg (Emily Watson), Amy (Florence Pugh), and the youngest daughter, Beth (Eliza Scanlen). The family endures joy, hardship, romance, love, and death as they carry on through the decade.

The focal point is Jo, a determined young lady, who moves to New York City, frequently reflecting on her life through back and forth sequences. She begins, an aspiring writer as she grows up, eventually becoming a success and boldly having her novel published. She resists the tried and true and questions why a woman must rely on a man for success rather than her own efforts and talents. During the story she is pursued by two young men, Laurie (Timothee Chalamet) and Friedrich (Louis Garrel).

Little Women is a fantastic and emotional story and a film that has no need for CGI, car chases, explosions, or any ingredients meant to enliven a film. It does not need them. The excitement is in the plot, as we thirst for more of the ups and downs that the March family faces. With any successful drama, there are nuanced characters, each taking a turn at story. While Jo is the headliner, Amy, Meg, and Beth are much more than opening acts. They each have their own lives, dreams, triumphs, and hardships, and the audience cares about each of them.

To capitalize on this point, the casting is dynamite. In a small, but brilliant role, Meryl Streep gives bombast to her character of Aunt March, the wealthy widow who owns a gorgeous house and vacations in Paris. She is cranky, but wise, only wanting the very best for her nieces, which is, of course, to marry rich! Ronan is well cast and charismatic as Jo, the actress losing her Irish accent for an American one. She uses her acting chops to infuse Jo with determination and just enough empathy to win over audiences.

Gerwig assures that the audience is reminded of the times and what it meant to be female during the 1860’s, with minimal chance at self-achievement, having to rely on a man for nearly everything. She in no way demeans or ridicules the male gender though. In fact, she paints no villains in her film, instead showing men as supportive at times, enamored at other times, but never exerting their power over women.

Little Women receives a small demerit in the pacing department. The film sharply plows back and forth, in too rapid a way, from period to period, at times leaving the viewer unclear as to what section in the film he or she is in. Blessedly, this ceases about midway through, but the technique is jarring and unnecessary. One wonders what the action was intended for and why not a more straightforward approach to the story telling was used.

A key facet of any outstanding film is the emotional reaction and Little Women had this viewer with tears streaming down his face. Sometimes for joy, sometimes for sadness, all in an organic way given oomph by a powerful musical score that resonates but never overwhelms. The film is one in which most of the elements come together in perfect harmony.

The film was served up six nominations, including Best Picture, Best Actress (Ronan), Best Supporting Actress (Pugh), and Best Adapted Screenplay. Sadly, and in a never-ending slight for female directors, Gerwig was overlooked. Prior to 2019’s Little Women, the novel was adapted six times for film, most successfully in 1933 and 1949. Seventy years later, the most modern version is arguably the best, with a left-leaning stance that is oh so necessary in modern times.

The Lion King-2019

The Lion King-2019

Director-Jon Favreau

Voices-Donald Glover, Alfre Woodard, Seth Rogan

Scott’s Review #981

Reviewed January 17, 2020

Grade: B

An impossible feat would have been to eclipse the magic of the stage version or the loveliness of the animated version, but The Lion King (2019) offers a different approach well. Arguably, animated in a way and in a way not, this version is heavily CGI (or in this case computer-generated animation-CGA) infused with marvelous visual effects and creativity. Partial to the two-former offering, this telling is lovely and perfect for the entire family. The realism of the animals and scenery is remarkable.

To recap new viewers, the story centers on a den of lions living among the creatures in the “Pride Lands of Africa”. They hunt, prance, love, and guard their territory, mostly from the hungry hyenas, who are kept at bay during peaceful times. King Mufasa (James Earl Jones) and Queen Sarabi (Alfre Woodard) are fair rulers and anticipate their son, Simba (Donald Glover), taking over the throne one day much to the chagrin of Mufasa’s evil brother, Scar (Chiwetal Ejiofor), who was passed over for the crown.

Envious of Simba, Scar tricks him and his friend Nala (Beyonce) into wandering in the land of the hyenas hoping to cause their deaths. When his plot is foiled by a heroic Mufasa, Scar ups the ante and hatches a scheme to kill his own brother. He not only succeeds, but makes Simba believe he caused his father’s death. Ashamed, the youngster runs away to begin a new life unaware that he will one day return to save the day.

Props must be given to the filmmakers for inclusion and cultural authenticity as many of the characters, especially those front and center, are voiced by African- American talent. This is high achievement since the film is set in Africa and why would the voices be Caucasian? Heavyweights like Jones and Woodard sound polished, especially Jones with his deep and dominant, yet fatherly voice, perfectly cast as the King. Woodard provides a gentle warmth and confident complexity.

The musical numbers are terrific. The film begins with an energetic and tribal rendition of “Circle of Life” where a legion of wild animals dance around together in a warm example of diversity. The song appears later in the film. The powerful and romantic “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” is performed against a lovely moonlight sky with decadent stars. The new song “Spirit” performed by Beyonce is adequate but does not figure into the story as much as it should, seeming more like an afterthought.

The best parts of The Lion King, however, are the astounding visuals. With contrasting sequences of bright, sprawling African terrain and a magical oasis of colorful flowers and running water, set against the dark and foreboding land of the dangerous hyenas, offers the viewer a multitude of treats to dine on. The orange and red colors during the climactic finale is unrivaled in dazzling bombast of adventure.

As realistic as the elements are in the film, they are also a negative. Watching the animals talk and prowl amid the lush landscape felt wonderful, until realizing that all of it is fake. Real animals were never used, and it is all a virtual reality tool making the effects look real. This aspect slightly saddens me as the genuine quality left me feeling robbed. The possibility of another alternative would have meant a reboot of the animated classic and I am not sure that would have been wise.

Favreau, once an actor and now a director, known for creating films such as Iron Man (2008) and Iron Man 2 (2010), certainly knows his way around an adventure film. The story, while containing some menacing moments, also feels a bit safe and lacking a freshness or edginess that the 1994 version possessed. Something seems watered down and the excitement and heart of the original feels missed.

I will always go back to the animated 1994 treasure for a cinematic feast, but while The Lion King (2019) could have been a disaster, it really isn’t. With modernized songs and enough CGA to last a lifetime, I could easily see some people hating the film, but I embraced it for what it is. Spectacular visual treats await any fan of cinema as one will ponder how the project all came together.

1917-2019

1917-2019

Director-Sam Mendes

Starring-George Mackay, Dean-Charles Chapman

Scott’s Review #979

Reviewed January 14, 2020

Grade: A

My personal tastes do not always lean towards the standard war film, so when I first heard about 1917 (2019) I was less than enthusiastic for no other reason than my own pre-conceived perceptions. Though peaked with the idea of a World War I film rather than the standard World War II or Vietnam War film, I anticipated a run of the mill experience, or a story that had already been told. Boldly told with incredible intensity and a brilliant technical style, director Sam Mendes creates a memorable cinematic treasure.

In April 1917, during the height of World War I, two British soldiers are tasked with a daring assignment, to hand deliver crucial news to the 2nd Battalion of the Devonshire Regiment, calling off their planned attack on the German forces. The Germans have faked a retreat to the Hindenburg Line and are ready to ambush the battalion, intending to kill sixteen-hundred soldiers. Schofield (George Mackay) and Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman), are chosen, Blake’s brother Joseph among the soldiers bound to meet their fate.

As they journey, the young men face a myriad of hurdles including booby traps left by the Germans, terrain littered with dead bodies of their comrades, a precarious helicopter crash, giant rats, and the rapidly approaching deadline to deliver their message. If they do not accomplish their mission in a timely fashion (twenty-four hours) the results will be devastating. Mendes keeps the tension high because he tells his film in real-time style.

1917 is raw and emotional and hits a hard punch. Powerful scenes of dead bodies riddle the land, fat and pale from days spent immersed in cold water, young soldiers once handsome, now dead and bloated, remind the viewer what a terrible thing war is, and the ravages caused. Unlike other war films, the patriotism and nationalist pride is not there. Rather, the soldiers are weary and angry, confused as to why they are sent to fight for land as ugly as where they are, to die for land that is not even their own. They are depressed and confused.

The relationship between Schofield and Blake is wonderful. Both men are weary and afraid but have each other’s backs throughout their assignment. It is not clear how long they have known each other, but they are at least acquaintances. They each come to the others rescue and a pivotal scene occurs in a dusty hideout where they nearly die after a cave-in. The characters have grit and determination, but a humanity and a connection with each other that resonates powerfully to the viewer.

A wonderful scene is produced as day turns into night, Schofield well into enemy territory. To avoid a pursuant German soldier, he hides in a dusty basement area and finds a cowering young French girl. At first fearful, the pair quickly bond, and a realization occurs to Schofield. The girl is accompanied by a newborn child.

Assumed to be hers, the soldier immediately parts with his stash of food, not realizing the baby can have only milk. A ghastly realization is that the baby is not the French girls at all but was instead found and rescued to prevent its death. The scene is tender and beautiful, perfectly contrasting the ugliness of the war. The wonderful scene gives the viewer pause wondering what will become of the girl and the baby.

Nearly rivaling this lovely scene, another poignant moment occurs when Schofield stumbles upon a group of soldiers watching another soldier perform a rendition of the melancholy war tune, “Wayfaring Stranger”. This moment slows the action down to a crawl with a dedication to loneliness and sadness amid the terrible battles.

The technical aspects that Mendes creates are spectacular and meant to be enjoyed on the largest screen possible. He uses a one-take approach which keeps the action fast and furious. The lavish and grandiose exterior scenes of immense dry land perfectly counterbalance a terrific watery scene when Schofield is chased into the river and soon embarks into wavy grand rapids. The camera remains on the soldier throughout the scene as the viewer is the one taken on the wild adventure, sweeping every morsel of up and down motion with the tide.

To piggy-back this point, a scene occurs when one of the young men is knocked unconscious. It is daylight, but when he regains consciousness it is night. The cinematography is brilliant with a sharp left turn to translucent colors and blurry images of buildings. The viewer is as disoriented as the soldier and fears what lurks in the shadows, as is found out when an unknown approaching figure begins to fire his gun.

1917 (2019) is a progressive leaning gem with an anti-war message and a genuine approach to a “day in the life of a soldier”. It is not glossy or contrived, but a candid realistic view of the savagery of war. With a creative technical style, it is one of the best of its genre ever made.