Category Archives: Independent Films

Calendar Girls-2003

Calendar Girls-2003

Director-Nigel Cole

Starring-Helen Mirren, Julie Walters, Penelope Wilton

Scott’s Review #1,090

Reviewed December 11, 2020

Grade: B+

A clever female version of The Full Monty (1997), the middle-aged bordering on senior citizen characters, nudity comparisons notwithstanding, Calendar Girls (2003) has standard similarities. The film is a light-hearted affair, charming and fun with positive and inspiring messages about friendship and helping with cancer research. How can a film like this not bring a smile to the viewers face? It did to mine.

That said, it’s hardly high drama or material that requires much thought or dissection. I’d wager to say you only need to see it once. There lies a situational or clichéd theme as the women face the standard and guessable awkward moments, but the film entertains in style.

Calendar Girls is based on a true story adding merit, appreciation, and an endearing quality. It’s a feel-good film if there ever was one which is just fine in this case. The film was a box-office smash, and why not? It’s a comically robust experience.

A likable group of “women of a certain age” conspire to launch a calendar, baring their best assets for all to see. Before this sounds too scandalous or corny, the ladies do it for a good cause and not for any titillating pleasure. The women are British and, while attractive, are average looking gals with womanly figures. These tidbits lead to humorous and embarrassing situations as some of the women are more modest than others especially laid parallel to the conservative and crusty town that they live in. This leads to shocks among the prudish townspeople.

Chris (Helen Mirren) and Annie (Julie Walters) are best friends. When Annie’s husband dies of leukemia, they conjure up an idea of creating a nude calendar, where women pose while doing traditional duties like baking and knitting. The proceeds will go to research for the deadly disease. Unexpectedly, Chris and Annie, along with others from the Women’s Institute in which they are members of, achieve worldwide success even invited to Los Angeles to appear on television’s The Tonight Show with Jay Leno.

The women clash due to their success and differing lifestyle directions, before reconciling and deciding that their ordinary lives aren’t so bad. They happily resume their nice lives away from the spotlight.

The comparisons to The Full Monty must be mentioned because they are so obvious. Whereas the men in The Full Monty strip on stage, the women prefer more modesty, nestled behind calendars for safety, but both groups hail from the English countryside and are regular folk. Since nudity is the word of the day, both groups possess average bodies and are championing worthy causes. Like it or not, this setup produces giggles.

The “calendar girls” are a relatable group which is marketing genius and allows the film to achieve much merit. Who would care if a bunch of supermodels posed nude while baking cookies? No, the everywoman factor is sky-high, allowing the film to be appreciated and savored.

Because Mirren and Walters, two respected British actresses appear in Calendar Girls, there is an added respectability. After all, would either choose a project less than credible? The obvious answer is they make the film better than it might have been. Penelope Wilton does too. There is a classiness the ladies bring, so that we can sink into our theater seats and revel in the good-natured comedy, assuring ourselves we are seeing something of quality too.

Calendar Girls (2003) is so like The Full Monty that they ought to be watched back to back. Perhaps a naughty night in, with a bottle of wine and some cheese, ready to embark on delights and jolly laughs.

After Hours-1985

After Hours-1985

Director-Martin Scorsese

Starring-Griffin Dunne, Rosanna Arquette

Scott’s Review #1,069

Reviewed October 9, 2020

Grade: A-

After Hours (1985) is a gem of a film. When thoughts of director Martin Scorsese are conjured, usually Taxi Driver (1976), Raging Bull (1980), or Goodfellas (1993) are his films that immediately spring to mind. Scorsese’s decision to create a pared down independent film was met with enormous success and accolades for the very first Best Feature indie film victory and Best Director honors. The experience is a black comedy set within the gritty and unpredictable underbelly of Soho-New York City in the 1980’s.

Mixing comedy with satire, Scorsese leapfrogs from similar content in The King of Comedy (1983) to this film made only two years later. Any fan of New York City will cheer with joy at the authenticity achieved since the film was shot on location there. The Big Apple in the 1980’s was a notoriously violent cesspool so the genuine setting and the use of dark streets and alleys is an immeasurable treat and adds much zest to this unusual film.

Yuppie nice guy, Paul Hackett (Griffin Dunne), works hard as a computer data entry worker by day and shares an encounter with a quirky young woman named Marcy Franklin (Rosanna Arquette) in a Manhattan coffee shop. After she gives him her number and leaves, he is unable to stop thinking about her and embarks on a late-night adventure to go and see her at her apartment. The night does not end how he thinks it will. Not by a long shot, as he spends the rest of the long night meeting various women and other strange characters as he traverses around the city attempting to get back home. He has lost his money and is broke.

The great aspects to After Hours are its bizarre characters and the cinematography that offers a tantalizing view of downtown Manhattan. The film is atmospheric and zany in its gloomy and steamy side streets and odd locales sprinkled with color. A dingy bar, a sophisticated artist’s apartment and a man sculpture that follows Paul everywhere are usurped by the film’s strangest and most interesting set, Club Berlin, an “after hours” club inhabited by punks who want to shave Paul’s head into a mohawk.

I enjoyed this film as a sort of “a day in the life of Paul” adventure story, albeit a gothic one. The film concludes wonderfully as the sun begins to rise just as the film ends and thus Paul’s wild night finally ends. I was chomping at the bit with the thought of what a new morning would bring and the possibilities of reuniting with any of the women he encountered the night before, either dead or alive.

Particularly charming to me while watching After Hours, the decade of decadence well into the past, are the relics once commonplace in everyday life. A phone booth, the traditional yellow cabs, and desktop personal computers are heavily featured. These items, relevant when the film was made, now seem like throwback niceties that make the film endearing and like a glimpse into someone’s time capsule.

I did not pick up on much authentic romance between Paul or any of the female characters- Marcy, June, Gail (Catherine O’Hara), or Julie (Teri Garr), but maybe that’s the point. While one winds up dead, not one, but two of them pursuit him, and not in a good way. The film is mystical, weird, and energetic. The inclusion of Cheech & Chong only adds to the revelry.

Sadly, underappreciated and too often forgotten, After Hours (1985) is a Scorsese treat worth dusting off now and then. The birth of the Independent Spirit Awards has a lot to owe to this film for grabbing top honors and the admiration works both ways. For a glimpse at the creative genius that is Martin Scorsese, this film gets an enormous recommendation.

Independent Spirit Award Nominations: Best Feature (won), Best Director-Martin Scorsese (won), Best Female Lead-Rosanna Arquette, Best Screenplay, Best Cinematography

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

Adventureland-2009

Adventureland-2009

Director-Greg Mottola

Starring-Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart

Scott’s Review #1,066

Reviewed October 1, 2020

Grade: B-

Adventureland (2009) is a cute film. That may seem like a compliment, but it’s not. There is nothing wrong with this film, but it’s a rather safe experience. In a word, it is fine, nothing more, nothing less. It plays as a romantic comedy and is mixed with a coming-of-age theme about two young adults merging from kid to adulthood. It’s a story that most of us can appreciate though it’s been done too many times in cinema for this film to do much more with. The selling point is the excellent acting.

The theme park (aka Adventureland) and the nostalgic 1980’s time period is a nice touch though it feels like a 2009 film with the actors fitted into retro costumes and hairstyles. Greg Mottola directed Superbad in 2007 so you can see the influence. He has a knack for directing films with a light comedic touch that will appeal to young adults going through some angst or young, blossoming feelings of love.

The stars of the film, Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart, terrific actors in their own regard, have little chemistry together and that weakens the picture. They are helped immensely by a talented supporting cast, who pick up the slack and improve the film. Bill Hader, Kristen Wiig, Wendie Malick, and Ryan Reynolds give a comic boost to the events. Unfortunately, despite positive trimmings the film feels like your standard, every day, independent comedy with little left to separate it from other contemporaries. It just has big stars.

Likeable James Brennan (Eisenberg) anticipates a fabulous trip to Europe after graduating from Oberlin college, having earned it for his achievements. Unfortunately, his parents Mr. and Mrs. Brennan (Jack Gilpin and Malick) break bad news to him. They are in dire financial straits and can no longer support him. He must get a part-time job immediately. The disappointing news disappointed me as well. I was savoring a nice adventure in London, Paris, and Rome. Sadly, the rest of the film takes place in an amusement park in Pennsylvania.

Predictably, Mottola, who wrote the screenplay as well, offers banal and stereotypical characters such as Mike Connell (Reynolds), the resident mechanic, who is a rival for the affections of Em (Stewart), the love interest of James. Thrown into the mix are various characters who are a bitch, a sarcastic college student, and a nerd. And, for good measure, James is a virgin. Naturally. The film nosedives with some slapstick humor and misunderstandings worthy of American Pie (1999).

When Adventureland was made Eisenberg was on the brink of breaking out into a fantastic role in The Social Network (2010) that garnered him an Oscar nomination and credibility. Stewart, meanwhile, was in the middle of her Twilight (2008-2012) years which made her a household name but was undoubtedly creatively very unfulfilling. This film is a reminder that actors need to work and make the best of the material they are given.

Truth be told, the main attraction of watching Adventureland is to sit back and admire what was to become of Stewart and Eisenberg. Since the film’s release in 2009 they have traversed meatier and better projects. Eisenberg has a Tom Hanks or a James Stewart likeability. His is someone who the average young male can relate to and the problems that James must face could easily be challenges the viewer might also have.

In the case of Stewart, what a star this girl is with the right roles. Since 2012 she has declined roles in big-budget films in favor of independent productions for the next few years. She took on a terrific supporting role in the drama Still Alice (2014) as a troubled daughter. Still young, the future looks very bright for the talented actress.

But, back to Adventureland (2009). This film is only suggested for a glimpse at the early work of Eisenberg and Stewart. Two young stars who went on to enormous critical cinematic success.

Adaptation-2002

Adaptation-2002

Director-Spike Jonze

Starring-Nicolas Cage, Meryl Streep, Chris Cooper

Scott’s Review #1,064

Reviewed September 24, 2020

Grade: B+

Adaptation (2002) is a kooky film that is recommended for all writer’s or lovers of the written word, especially for those ever having suffered from writer’s block. The film is wonderful for people who are either curious or obsessed (me!) with how a novel is turned into a screenplay. With an A-list cast featuring Nicolas Cage and Meryl Streep the offering is credible and not just a bumbling indie experiment with no budget. Stars must get paid, which allows the film a mainstream audience, and awards.

The film will certainly be too weird for some. There is a measure of conceit and self-indulgence (it’s set in Los Angeles after all!) that is sometimes off-putting, but I adored the premise too much and chomped at the bit at what I was offered. It’s quite non-linear and the characters sometimes do things that are weird or out of turn. Adaptation is certainly different (in a good way) and is recommended for its oddness as I cannot think of another film like it, though Being John Malkovich (1999) would be close. Director, Spike Jonze would later create Her (2013) and, of course, directed Malkovich too.

Charlie Kaufman wrote the screenplay and the central character is Charlie Kaufman, played by Cage, who also plays Kaufman’s brother Donald, a mooch. Charlie is self-loathing and disheveled but somehow likeable. He struggles mightily to bring words into his head as he nervously sits at his typewriter day after day when he is tasked to adapt the novel, The Orchid Thief, into a film. The novel’s author, Susan Orlean, played by Meryl Streep, intimidates Charlie, who decides to pay her a visit in New York City.

This film features the best work of Cage’s career. An actor that is mysteriously “not for everybody”, the performance rivals that of Leaving Las Vegas (1995), in which he won an Academy Award. A dual role is certainly tough to play, but the actor does so with bombast and confidence, making the characters very different from each other and making me forget they were Cage. Too often sinking to inferior action films like Face/Off (1997) or Con Air (1997), the actor wisely had an epiphany or something and made a wise decision. Cage does best when he goes for wacky- Raising Arizona (1987) is proof of that.

The supporting players, specifically Streep and Cooper are fantastic. Streep could fart through a film and still give a great performance and you can tell she enjoys the part of Susan, allowed to let loose. Her character loves sex and drugs and is not above devious shenanigans to get her way. Cooper, who won the Oscar, is delicious as John Laroche, a theatrical character with missing front teeth, who is the secret lover of Susan. Both provide great entertainment.

Adaptation simply feels good for a thought-provoking writer providing oodles of “writer things” to ponder and discuss with friends after the credits roll. Many scenes are rich with layered dialogue and rife with originality making the words sparkle with pizzazz. And there are enough twists and turns to keep viewers guessing.

One of the most original and kooky films you will ever see, Adaptation (2002) pairs well with Being John Malkovich (1999) for an evening of the odd and absurd, but also films not altogether hard to follow. The satirical Hollywood theme will both please and annoy but it’s all good fun and a lesson in creative art cinema.

Oscar Nominations: Best Actor-Nicholas Cage, Best Supporting Actor-Chris Cooper (won), Best Supporting Actress-Meryl Streep, Best Adapted Screenplay

About Schmidt-2002

About Schmidt-2002

Director-Alexander Payne

Starring-Jack Nicholson, Kathy Bates

Scott’s Review #1,054

Reviewed August 18, 2020

Grade: A-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Woman Under the Influence-1974

A Woman Under the Influence-1974

Director-John Cassavetes

Starring-Gena Rowlands, Peter Falk

Scott’s Review #1,051

Reviewed August 11, 2020

Grade: A

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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)

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

A Prophet-2009

A Prophet-2009

Director-Jacques Audiard

Starring-Tahar Rahim

Scott’s Review #1,034

Reviewed June 18, 2020

Grade: A-

A Prophet (2009), known as Un prophète in the French language, is a prison drama/crime thriller made exceptionally well and told from a character perspective rather than a plot angle. Skirting any traditional genre prison characteristics, the film instead crafts a character study with the conflicting emotions of its main character taking center stage. The result is a layered, complex experience led by a brilliant acting turn by actor Tahar Rahim.

Malik (Rahim) is a nineteen-year-old French youth of Algerian descent imprisoned for six years for attacking police officers. Friendless and unable to read, he is vulnerable and coaxed into murdering a witness involved in a crucial trial. He becomes embroiled in tensions between the Corsicans and Muslims who populate much of the prison. Malik cannot forget his participation in a murder, tortures himself, and has frequent nightmares of the incident. He slowly rises the ranks of power within the prison community becoming involved in dangerous events and pivoting from meek to feared.

Largely avoided are overused prison elements common in many films of similar ilk. In other films, humor or standard dramatic situations occur that make a watered-down experience. A Prophet breathes fresh life into the prison film, albeit grisly and violent life. The film is not for everyone and is extremely dark, even brutal at times. During murder scenes, blood and guts are spilled at an alarming rate, and there ceases to exist many characters to sympathize with. Malik is the main character but is an opportunist, readily doing what he must to gain power and control. Can we blame him? No.

Malik is a complex and nuanced character who is a joy to watch and dissect. He starts his prison tenure as a naive and timid boy, illiterate and easily manipulated. Over time, he grows into a seasoned gangster becoming involved in intricate plots and messy situations. Actor Tahar Rahim successfully makes the character both likable and detestable, fleshing him out so the audience will love and hate him. This is the mark of a wonderful actor who can give complicated dynamics to the character.

Prison life is portrayed exceptionally well by director Jacques Audiard, who relays an authentic representation. It was good enough to make me never want to be imprisoned anyway. He wisely hired former convicts as both extras and advisors to flesh out the experience. Life in prison, Audiard style, is not a rosy picture, but one filled with pain, fright, and violence. The Arab population, woefully underrepresented in cinema, is given a voice.

Another subject matter, homosexuality, a popular addition in prison films is not explored. Mostly played either for laughs or providing a conveniently situational plot device, A Prophet does not need the inclusion, too much else is going on. Although a titillating prospect for many, the subject may have added a sexual or romantic angle taking away from the main point of the film, which is one man’s journey within the prison system.

Told from one man’s viewpoint, A Prophet (2009) is a triumphant French film that deservedly received accolades for its courage and realistic feel. Starring a young actor with great potential and a brave director unafraid to develop logical storytelling and avoid typical traits, one wonders what their next project will be. Violent gangs, corrupt guards, and impressionable prisoners would be a good way to continue.

Oscar Nominations: Best Foreign Language Film

Independent Spirit Award Nominations: Best Foreign Film

A Prairie Home Companion-2006

A Prairie Home Companion-2006

Director-Robert Altman

Starring-Meryl Streep, Kevin Kline, Woody Harrelson, Lily Tomlin

Scott’s Review #1,033

Reviewed June 16, 2020

Grade: B

The final film by legendary and influential director Robert Altman is not his greatest work. If I were to compare A Prairie Home Companion (2006) to another of Altman’s pictures it would be Nashville (1975) both having grassroots entertainment similarities. The latter combines satire amid a political rally in a southern city while the former celebrates behind the scenes events at a long-running radio show in Minneapolis.

Difficult to criticize anything a genius does, my expectation was much more than was given. The film plods along with little excitement or juiciness ever happening so the experience is to enjoy the standard Altman fixtures like a huge cast, overlapping dialogue, and witty chatter. A melancholy effort since no new material will ever be released by the cinema great, but a chance to celebrate his achievements all the same.

Set in present times, events take place in Saint Paul, Minnesota, a chilly city in the United States mid-west. A long-running live radio variety show, A Prairie Home Companion, prepares for its final broadcast. The radio station’s new parent company has scheduled the show’s home, the storied Fitzgerald Theater, for demolition and dispatched “the Axeman” (Tommy Lee Jones) to judge whether to save the show. Prospects are grim as radio shows are deemed a thing of the past and irrelevant.

The many radio stars revel and reminisce in memories as they prepare for cancellation. Led by the singing Johnson Girls, Yolanda (Meryl Streep) and sister Rhonda (Lily Tomlin), and daughter Lola (Lindsay Lohan) who are most prominent, other characters include cowboy duo Dusty (Woody Harrelson) and Lefty (John C. Reilly); pregnant PA Molly (Maya Rudolph) and the show’s creator and host, Garrison Keillor. A spirit known as “Dangerous Woman” (Virginia Madsen) also joins the group.

Star-power is not the issue here and pleasing is to witness a bevy of A-list Hollywood stars duke it out for screen-time. Anyone possessing knowledge of Altman knows that he was an actor’s director, meaning he let his actors truly shine and interpret what the motivations of the characters were. Garrison Keillor, who wrote the piece, follows Altman’s lead in this area letting the cast try and bring to life what is on the written page. Unfortunately, they fail.

While meandering greatly, A Prairie Home Companion has an earthy and humanistic theater troupe quality. The stars of the radio show are like family and cling to each other for moral support during uncertainty. This feels nice to the viewer as a common compassion is endearing, many of the individuals have spent decades together. Their stories and experiences resonate warmly, and one can’t help but being sucked into their lives.

The problem with this is that the stories go on and on and quickly seem pointless. There is little doubt whether the show will close. While the people are enamoring nothing much really happens in the film and it becomes a bore. The character interactions lack any energy and do not carry the film in any direction. They merely are what they are.

I can appreciate a slow build if there eventually is a pay-off. A Prairie Home Companion (2006) never achieves full-throttle or hits the gas petal so that the film exists but doesn’t shine. With masterpieces such as The Long Goodbye (1973), Nashville (1975), and 3 Women (1977) my expectations were soaring so that may be a part of my let down. Prairie Home is not included in my go-to catalog of Altman greats and would teeter at the bottom of a master ranking of his films.

Independent Spirit Award Nominations: Best Director-Robert Altman

The Last Black Man in San Francisco-2019

The Last Black Man in San Francisco-2019

Director-Joe Talbot

Starring-Jimmie Fails, Jonathan Majors

Scott’s Review #1,018

Reviewed May 1, 2020

Grade: A

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Dangerous Method-2011

A Dangerous Method-2011

Director-David Cronenberg

Starring-Keira Knightley, Viggo Mortensen, Michael Fassbender

Scott’s Review #1,009

Reviewed April 9, 2020

Grade: B+

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Better Life-2011

A Better Life-2011

Director-Chris Weitz

Starring-Demian Bichir, Jose Julian

Scott’s Review #1,004

Reviewed March 26, 2020

Grade: B+

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oscar Nominations: Best Actor-Demian Bichir

Independent Spirit Award Nominations: Best Male Lead-Demian Bichir

(500) Days of Summer-2009

(500) Days of Summer-2009

Director-Marc Webb

Starring-Zooey Deschanel, Joseph Gordon-Levitt

Scott’s Review #1,002

Reviewed March 20, 2020

Grade: B

(500) Days of Summer (2009) is an unconventional love story that deserves props for being different, but never completely catches fire as a film effort. What it tries to do left-of-center from most conventional romantic comedies is to be admired, but I did not feel much connection to the characters and the result seemed pointless.

The independent film garnered some praise for being unique and clever, but this is out-shined by a gnawing, forced feeling, like the filmmakers are trying to be edgy for the sake of being edgy, adding in story elements that are contrived. The lead characters conveniently both like an obscure band and an obscure artist, throwing them immediately together. The film is a modest effort but will only be remembered as an indie project with a bit of unfulfilled potential.

When his girlfriend, Summer (Zooey Deschanel), unceremoniously dumps him, greeting-card copywriter and hopeless romantic Tom (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) spins into a depression and begins reflecting on the year-long relationship the pair spent together, looking for clues as to what went wrong. As he rummages through the good times and the bad times, his heart reawakens to find what is most important. The Los Angeles backdrop sets the tone for the five-hundred days of Tom and Summer.

Director, Marc Webb, a first-time director at this point, now known more for The Amazing Spider-Man reboot franchise (2012-2014) steers in an experimental direction. Shown somewhat as a “year in the life” in the young lovebirds blossoming relationship, the film is presented in a nonlinear narrative, jumping between various days within the five-hundred days of Tom and Summer’s relationship. There is an on-screen timer showing the day, which is a nice addition.

Props are given for the creativity Webb infuses. The romantic comedy genre, not my favorite, is constantly saturated with formulaic films, predictable from the start. Frequently told from the female perspective, (500) Days of Summer tells the story from the male perspective, even reversing the traditional gender stereotypes. Tom is the lovesick romantic, and Summer the rough and tumble, one-night stand type. This is nuanced and throws the entire genre upside down.

The characters are questionable and the most able to relate to is Tom. There is some confusion and mystery with some motivations. The audience can understand how Tom falls head over heels for Summer, immediately smitten. His depression is deep and to be taken seriously, but he is depressed because of Summer, and any history or previous causes of depression are not mentioned. It feels like his depression is a convenient way of adding a story element.

Summer is even more perplexing and not deeply explored. Is she merely playing the field? After a song and dance scene where she explains she is not looking for anything serious and wants a casual romance, she suddenly marries another man. She hurriedly tells Tom that she discovered her husband was her true love and that she now believes in love, whereas Tom doesn’t anymore. Again, this feels more like story-line dictated writing versus anything character-rich.

Despite receiving a Best Screenplay Independent Spirit Award nomination, two Golden Globe Award nominations, and oodles of praise, (500) Days of Summer (2009) is a non-conformist piece with some nice moments but feels irrelevant. The lead actors are talented and do a decent job with the material given, but meander through the experience since it is more about the film than the acting. The result is not a pure dud, but neither is it a pedigree winner.

Independent Spirit Award Nominations: Best Feature, Best Male Lead-Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Best Screenplay (won)

50/50-2011

50/50-2011

Director-Jonathan Levine

Starring-Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Seth Rogan

Scott’s Review #1,001

Reviewed March 17, 2020

Grade: B+

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Giant Little Ones-2019

Giant Little Ones-2019

Director-Keith Behrman

Starring-Josh Wiggins, Darren Mann

Scott’s Review #1,000

Reviewed March 13, 2020

Grade: B+

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

21 Grams-2003

21 Grams-2003

Director-Alejandro G. Inarritu

Starring-Sean Penn, Naomi Watts, Benicio Del Toro

Scott’s Review #990

Reviewed February 14, 2020

Grade: A

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Independent Spirit Award Nominations: Special Distinction Award (won)

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 Nominations: Best Cinematography

Independent Spirit Award Nominations: Best Director-Robert Eggers, Best Male Lead-Robert Pattinson, Best Supporting Male-Willem Dafoe (won), Best Cinematography (won), Best Editing

Midsommar-2019

Midsommar-2019

Director-Ari Aster

Starring-Florence Pugh, Jack Reynor

Scott’s Review #957

Reviewed November 11, 2019

Grade: B+

Director Ari Aster made a splash with his feature length directorial debut, the horror-drama film, Hereditary in 2018. The film received enormous accolades, even considered for an Oscar nomination, and was quite bizarre and horrific. Aster follows up with Midsommar (2019), a film arguably even more freaky and ambitious. The film is very slow-moving and foreboding, but finally reaches a macabre and perplexing climax. My initial reaction is the film is a fine wine with additional richness upon subsequent viewings.

The film quickly gets off to a creepy start in the United States as college student Dani Ardor (Florence Pugh) receives a cryptic email from her troubled sister. Her sister soon kills herself and her parents by filling the house with carbon monoxide fumes. Dani is devastated and needs support from her distant boyfriend, Christian (Jack Reynor), an anthropology student. The couple continue to feel disconnected from each other as months go by.

Dani and Christian decide to join some friends at a midsummer festival in a remote Swedish village. One friend has relatives in the village and another decides to work on his thesis. What begins as a carefree holiday takes a devious turn when the villagers invite the group to partake in festivities that grow increasingly unnerving and viscerally disturbing. Strange events begin to occur as the subsequent series of celebrations gets underway.

Any horror film that mixes pagan cults, folklore and religion easily provides the creeps and Midsommar successfully hybrids American culture with Swedish culture in frightening form. Much of the film takes place in a remote area, with sprawling sunny lands, and a deathly silent atmosphere. The cheery locale has a peculiar California vibe and the Charles Manson era hairstyles are adorn by the Swedish women. Uncertain is whether this was Aster’s intent or not.

I love how the students are intelligent and worldly, using their time in the village to learn and study. The traditional horror stereotype involving high school or college students is their desire to guzzle beer, party, have sex, and do little else. Aster wisely makes his group intellectual and more studious than the norm. The students do partake in drugs, but this has more to do with the villagers having healing remedies and other sorts of herbal delicacies.

Midsommar contains many lengthy nude scenes, both male and female, the actors readily baring both their fronts and their rears. This is almost unheard of in American film, but Midsommar is a co-production between the United States and Sweden, providing more leeway in the nudity department. When Christian is given a strong psychedelic and beds a virginal villager eager to mate, the poor chap winds up chased around the village in the buff. This occurs after he inseminates the girl as they are surrounded by nude female villagers cheering them on.

Confusing and left unclear is the motivations of the villagers. The point is made that nine human sacrifices must be made to rid the village of evil, but why is the evil there to begin with? During a ritual it is revealed, in gruesome form, that elderly folks commit suicide at age seventy-two and their names given to newborns. The handsome Christian is a prime candidate to provide life, but why are the others killed? Were they lured intentionally and does their being American have anything to do with it? Was the intent all along to crown Dani May Queen or did she win the dancing competition?

The climax of the film ties back to the beginning portion only in terms of Dani’s and Christian’s relationship and her family’s deaths seem to have little to do with anything. Does Dani intend revenge on Christian or is she so drugged she knows not what she is doing? Will she remain in the village?

A film heavily influenced by The Wicker Man (1973), Midsommar (2019) has divided audiences based on common reviews. Some despise the film, calling it one of the worst ever seen. Others herald it as a work of art, an unsettling offering that provokes thought and provides a sinister feel. I found an enormous amount of questions left unanswered and this may be a good thing. It only makes me want to see the film again or peel back the onion post-film to dissect the many layers Aster creates.

Independent Spirit Award Nominations: Best Cinematography

Don’t Look in the Basement-1973

Don’t Look in the Basement-1973

Director-S.F. Brownrigg

Starring-Anne MacAdams, Rosie Holotik

Scott’s Review #954

Reviewed November 5, 2019

Grade: B

A film that is so low-budget that it strongly resembles the quality of independent master John Waters films, Don’t Look in the Basement (1973) has very low production values. In fact, it half makes Waters films look like grandiose budget-fests. It contains a campy and cheap quality that adds to the fun of watching. With a video-taped look and marginal acting, the film is perfect for a late-night indulgence, but little more.

Director S.F. Brownrigg, with screenwriter, Tim Pope, brought this project to life. Also named The Forgotten and Death Ward #13, Don’t Look in the Basement is the title that works best and conjures up the most intrigue. The story revolves around a collection of odd hospital inmates running the asylum while a series of mishaps occur.

Stephens Sanitarium is a secluded mental health facility in a remote area run by the quirky Dr. Stephens. The good doctor believes that the secret to curing his crazy group of loons is to allow them to express themselves, acting out their own realities in hopes of solving their problems. Stephens and an elderly nurse are both killed separately, he accidentally hacked to bits by an ax, and she having her head crushed by a female patient who thinks her baby (a doll) is being taken from her.

Dr. Geraldine Masters (Anne MacAdams) is left to run the facility and greets a new nurse, the sexy Charlotte (Rosie Holotik) when she arrives from out of town expecting a job. Charlotte encounters all the inmates before strange events begin to occur like an older patient having her tongue cut out, and a visiting telephone repairman being murdered.

One could speculate that Don’t Look in the Basement influenced independent treats such as Supervixens (1975), High Anxiety (1977) or the plethora of slasher films soon to be on the horizon, but this may be wishful thinking. A few choice scenes seem like quick blueprints for these films to follow, but in an amateurish way.

Despite the film being of the horror genre category, several scenes, mostly of Charlotte and Geraldine talking in an office, seem carved from a daytime soap-opera, which were popular in those days. The long dialogue, almost throwaway scenes, do not further the plot much, and it’s really the occasional macabre death scene that achieves the most reaction.

Don’t Look in the Basement adds a big twist that is really not difficult to figure out once all the pieces are presented to the viewer. The foreboding title ultimately underwhelms as this anticipated big secret barely comes to fruition. As the players are offed one by one the implausible conclusion reaches a climax and the viewer will ruminate that the early stages of the film are superior to the ending. The poor pacing and meandering story made me tune out from time to time.

Still, the film is fun and a good, old-fashioned camp-goofy good time. The characters are completely over-the-top in the best possible way. A female nymphomaniac who, it is relayed, has been left by any man she has ever met and craves love and affection, is convinced that the repairman will marry her (they have only just met!) and has sex with his corpse. A lobotomized black man only eats purple lollipops and has a heart of gold, while the ugly old woman, sans tongue, attempts to convey a secret message.

Don’t Look in the Basement (1973) is a marginal success because it does not take itself too seriously. This is both good and bad because the project takes on a juvenile quality that sometimes seems to be going for laughs more than for frights. The acting is below par, but somehow the characters retain enough interest to warrant a recommendation, but only for those with interest in the genre.

Hustlers-2019

Hustlers-2019

Director-Lorene Scafaria

Starring-Constance Wu, Jennifer Lopez

Scott’s Review #942

Reviewed October 3, 2019

Grade: B+

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nancy-2018

Nancy-2018

Director-Christina Coe

Starring-Andrea Riseborough

Scott’s Review #941

Reviewed October 1, 2019

Grade: B+

Part of why I love independent cinema so much is the freedom given the director to simply tell a good story of his or her choosing, usually with little studio interference or opinions. Nancy (2018) is a good example of this as Christina Choe writes and directs a film that is simply hers to share. A quiet film about loneliness, the need to belong, and connect with others are main elements in a compelling and unpredictable story.

Existing in a barren small town in upstate New York, Nancy (Andrea Riseborough) bears weather that is cold, damp and bleak. Working a temporary office job where the staff barely remembers her from her previous stint, Nancy spends her down time caring for her ill mother (Ann Dowd) and playing with her cat, Pete. When an occurrence leaves her vulnerable, she sees a news report featuring a couple whose daughter disappeared thirty years ago, and looks exactly like Nancy, given the sometimes-dishonest woman an idea.

Riseborough carries the film with a strong performance, but not exactly a character the audience easily roots for. Nancy is not unkind, dutifully tending to her mother’s needs when she is not being pleasant. She pretends to be pregnant to meet an internet support group man who lost a child and seeks comfort in Nancy. Hoping for a romance or at least a human connection, the two runs into each other, and when the man realizes her scheme, he calls her psycho. We witness a range of subtle facial expressions revealing the complicated character which Riseborough provides brilliantly.

Choe tells a very humanistic story that is peppered with deep feelings and emotions easy for the audience to relate to. Conflicted views will resound between the three principle characters; Nancy, Leo Lynch (Steve Buscemi), and wife Ellen (J. Smith-Cameron). The Lynch’s, especially Ellen, are vulnerable, yearning for a glimmer of hope that their long-lost daughter, surely dead, is alive. So, the complexities that the director provides work exceptionally well with keeping the emotional level very high.

All three principle actors do a fine job, Smith-Cameron being rewarded with a Film Independent award nomination. She is the most conflicted of the three and the character audiences will ultimately fall in love with and feel much empathy for. Has Buscemi ever played a nicer man? I think not as the actor so often plays villainous or grizzled so well. With Leo, he is rationale, thoughtful and skeptical of the story Nancy spins. He adores Ellen and does not want to see her disappointed yet again, the pain apparent on both their faces. Many quiet and palpable subtleties are possessed by the cast.

The locale in the film is also a high point. Presumably January or February, the cold and angry air fills the screen, adding a measure of hopelessness that each character suffers from in a different way. Numerous scenes of the outdoors are featured, and compelling moments provided. When a pretty snowfall coats the land, this is a tease, as one character’s hopes are ultimately dashed. A cheery landscape such as California or Florida would not have worked as well in this film.

Nancy (2018) is a film that risks turning some viewers off with its unhappy nature and slow pace, but isn’t this much better than a fast-paced Hollywood popcorn film? To me the answer is obvious, and Nancy is a prime example of why little films should be celebrated and revered by the film industry and its enthusiasts. Lies and truths cross a fine line and the potent psychological thriller will leave viewers mesmerized as event progress.

Independent Spirit Award Nominations: Best Supporting Female-J. Smith-Cameron, Best First Screenplay

Charlie Says-2019

Charlie Says-2019

Director-Mary Harron

Starring-Hannah Murray, Sosie Bacon

Scott’s Review #936

Reviewed August 28, 2019

Grade: B

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eighth Grade-2018

Eighth Grade-2018

Director-Bo Burnham

Starring-Elsie Fisher, Josh Hamilton

Scott’s Review #935

Reviewed August 27, 2018

Grade: A-

Occasionally, a film rich with authenticity and pure honesty comes along, and Eighth Grade (2018) is one of those films. Bursting with a lead character who brings a genuine sincerity to a complex role, director Bo Burnham gets the best out of emerging talent, Elsie Fisher, in an autobiographical story about teenage angst and awkwardness that nearly everyone can recollect from those hated middle school years.

The coming-of-age story follows the life and struggles of an eighth-grader, Kayla Day (Fisher), during her last week of classes before graduating to high school. She struggles with severe social anxiety but produces secret YouTube videos as she provides life advice to both herself and her audience. She has a clingy relationship with her sometimes overbearing father, Mark (Josh Hamilton), who adores her but is careful to also provide Kayla with freedom and balance, her mother apparently out of the picture.

Eighth Grade feels fresh and rich with good, old-fashioned, non-cliched scenes, as audiences fall in love with Kayla and her trials and tribulations. In a lesser film, attempting to appeal to the masses, the stereotypes would abound, but this film is going for intelligent writing. The scenes range from touching to comical to frightening- a tender father and daughter talk over a campfire provides layers of character development to both Kayla and Mark as an understanding is realized.

As Kayla ogles over her classmate Aiden, voted student with the nicest eyes, to Kayla’s demoralizing win for quietest student, she bravely attempts to get to know the boy. Realizing to win his heart she must provide dirty pictures of herself or perform lewd acts, she hilariously watches oral sex tutorials and nearly practices on a banana in a scene rivaling any from the crude American Pie (1998). To expand on this, the audience will experience concern for Kayla as she winds up in the backseat of a strange boy’s car, encouraged to take off her top, going rapidly from comedy to alarm.

Enough cannot be said for the casting of Fisher as Kayla. Reportedly seen on a real-life YouTube channel, Burnham plucked the fledgling young actress from the ranks of the unknown. The bright young star is sure to be the next big thing with her innocent yet brazen teenage looks- she is only sixteen after all! With pimples and a pretty face, she admires yet despises popular kids and resorts to telling one off. Fisher gives Kayla sass and poise mixed with her anti-socialism.

Befriended by a pretty and popular high-school student assigned to be her buddy, Kayla awakens with gusto, finally seeing there may be life after middle school, and maybe, just maybe high school will not be as torturous as earlier years. A cute add-on is the adorable relationship that develops in the film’s final act between Kayla and just as awkward Gabe. They dine over chicken nuggets and bond over a nerdy television show they both love.

Deserving of accolades is Hamilton in the more difficult than one might realize role of the father of a thirteen-year-old. Smart is how the film shares his perspective on current events. He can be daring as he enters Kayla’s room to nearly catch her practicing her kissing technique, or creepy, as when he follows Kayla to the mall to see her new friends. His deep affection and admiration for her, though, provide a deep warmth seldom seen in teenage films.

Burnham is careful not to stifle the film with fluff or redundancy, instead making the film timely and relevant. The incorporation of the internet, text messaging and the never-ending use of smartphones makes any older viewer realize that over ninety percent of thirteen-year-olds use these devices and social media is the new normal. The sobering realization is that painful teenage experiences do not end when the three o’clock school bell signals the end of the day.

When the students endure a drill to practice measures to survive a school shooting attack, the reality hits home that this is now also a part of a teenager’s everyday life. American life for the young has changed immensely since most of us were of this age and Burnham does a bang-up job of reinforcing the importance of this.

Whether the viewer is elderly or middle-aged, has fond memories of middle school or cringes at the thought, yearbooks safely packed up in boxes to bury the memories, every viewer can take something away from Eighth Grade (2018). Excellent casting and an infusion of several cross genres into this film make it a fresh and memorable independent comedy/drama deserving of a watch.

Independent Spirit Award Nominations: Best Feature, Best Female Lead-Elsie Fisher, Best Supporting Male-Josh Hamilton, Best First Screenplay (won)