Category Archives: Independent Films

Promising Young Woman-2020

Promising Young Woman-2020

Director-Emerald Fennell

Starring-Carey Mulligan, Bo Burnham

Scott’s Review #1,132

Reviewed April 13, 2021

Grade: A

Emerald Fennell, making her film directorial debut, kicks her viewers in the ass with major help from star Carey Mulligan, with Promising Young Woman (2020). The actress gives the best performance of her career. The film is a sexy and haunting experience mixing black comedy and witty dialogue with an important and timely subject matter- the abuse and victimization of young women by men.

Both men and women can be held responsible as Fennell make abundantly clear. Predators often have a share of people who choose to “look the other way” and thereby enable. This is a constant theme throughout the film involving many characters who are called out for their passivity.

Fennell makes this point during two of the best scenes of the film as she calls out a high-powered dean and attorney for their betrayals. The scenes are so powerful that I wanted the characters to suffer as much as the revenge seeker does.

There is also a wackiness in the pacing and dialogue that reminds me quite a bit of the 1999 masterpiece, American Beauty.

The film is depravity, bizarreness, and brilliance all rolled into one. I felt this film in my bones.

Almost every scene is a treat in the mysterious and unexpected and the film features peculiar characters and creative musical score renditions and includes a scene and music from the underappreciated masterpiece The Night of the Hunter (1955). Fennell knows her classic cinema.

Mulligan stars as a woman named Cassie who seeks to avenge the death of her best friend, who was a victim of rape when they were in medical school and their young lives had potential and such possibility lay ahead of them. Cleverly, we never see her friend, named Nina Fisher, but she is of vital importance and nearly a major character herself despite her absence.

Everyone said Cassie was a “promising young woman” until a mysterious event abruptly derailed her future. But now at age thirty and still living at home, her parents suggest via a giant suitcase for her birthday, it may be time for her to move on.

Cassie is tough to figure out since she’s wickedly clever, sometimes wisecracking, and tantalizingly cunning, and she’s living a secret double life by night. She goes to nightclubs looking drop-dead gorgeous and lures men to her rescue pretending to be inebriated.

What happens when they go back to their pad is shocking, dark, and justified. The men will never see this coming.

Before the presumption is that Cassie is nothing more than a bad-ass, her intentions are not only admirable, but she has a heart and desires love. Promising Young Woman is a dark character study.

Besides the powerful story, Promising Young Woman is riddled with interesting cinematic techniques. Cassie’s parents lounge in their afternoon one afternoon watching The Night of the Hunter, a dark fairy tale for adults. Later, a haunting version of Britney Spear’s “I’m a Slave 4 U” complete with a string arrangement is featured most uniquely.

All the supporting players add pizzazz and strength, some in odd or unclear ways until certain revelations bubble to the surface. Jennifer Coolidge as Cassie’s strange mother, Bo Burnham as the smitten Ryan Cooper, and Alison Brie as Cassie’s college friend Madison McPhee are the best examples.

Bo and Madison have the most to hide but will they or won’t they face Cassie’s wrath is the question. Not much is worse than a woman scorned.

But the main draw is Mulligan. Startlingly good, with an astonishingly powerful, deeply layered performance by her. She showcases a remarkable acting range, where she effortlessly alternates from brash to darkly humorous and at times, emotionally vulnerable in her best performance to date.

Two scenes stand out to me. The first is a delicious scene between Cassie and the female dean of her school, played by Connie Britton. At first dismissive and annoyed by Cassie’s accusations, Dean Elizabeth Walker finally takes notice when she believes that Cassie had kidnapped her teenage daughter and left her with a group of drunken frat boys. What comes around goes around!

The second is the finale wedding scene, interestingly not featuring Cassie other than by text messages. As the happy young couple says their vows a parade of police cars ruins the moment and the audience cheers victory. It’s a satisfying moment.

The screenplay is original, fresh, and timely. In the “Me Too” movement the timing is vital and makes the subject matter relevant. Fennell wrote the screenplay- is there anything she can’t do?

Promising Young Woman (2020) is an exceptional film. It’s a controversial revenge film but it’s so much more. Taking a powerful subject matter and examining the hypocrisy, from men and women, is telling and eye-opening. That is why this film is very important to see and brings awareness to a situation society still too often deems as okay.

Oscar Nominations: Best Picture, Best Director-Emerald Fennell, Best Actress-Carey Mulligan, Best Original Screenplay, Best Film Editing

Independent Spirit Award Nominations: Best Director-Emerald Fennell, Best Female Lead- Carey Mulligan

Year of the Dog-2007

Year of the Dog-2007

Director-Mike White

Starring-Molly Shannon, John C. Reilly

Scott’s Review #1,131

Reviewed April 9, 2021

Grade: B-

Comedienne, Molly Shannon stars in Year of the Dog (2007), a quirky independent film that can be classified as a hybrid of the comedy and drama genres. It’s peculiar, sometimes being very creative and nuanced while other times feeling generic and clichéd. Somehow it’s not predictable either- a plus.

Certainly, it’s not the cute, sentimental film the premise might lead one to believe and at times it’s downright dark and depressing.

A story centering around dogs seems pretty cool but it usually conjures up a pitifully dreary family-style affair with a husband, wife, two cookie-cutter kids (a boy and girl naturally), and some story and drama involving the family pet. And, of course, a happy ending. Thankfully, Year of the Dog bears little resemblance to that type of film.

While it could have been more cohesive and less messy, the film deals with pet death in the most interesting ways and the effort is there. While it’s not a downer it’s not cheery either.

After her beloved beagle, Pencil dies unexpectedly when she lets it stay outside all night, an administrative assistant named Peggy (Shannon) strives to find ways to fill the void in her life while blaming herself for his death.

She becomes lonely and despondent, finally bringing in treats for her co-workers and fussing over other people’s kids. An ill-advised love affair with a gun fanatic (John C. Reilly) leads to more misery causing Peggy to go off the deep end and change her life completely.

Shannon, unsurprisingly, is the best part of the film, though she doesn’t quite cut it as the lead. She is cast perfectly as the odd-ball secretary with no life outside of her pet dog, but isn’t she better as the interesting sidekick?  It’s tough to imagine another actress being as believable in the part and her comic timing is on fire. The dramatic parts are a bit of a stretch and I like her in comedic situations better.

The supporting characters are where Year of the Dog really lacks. None of them are very interesting. Laura Dern and Regina King are reduced to caricature types as the loyal best friend, Layla, and the cold sister-in-law, Bret, respectively. Layla is only interested in finding romance for lonely Peggy while Bret barely notices Peggy’s suffering. Yawn!

Characters like these occur so often in stock comedies I can hardly keep count. Talents like Dern and King deserve better than one-note characters.

Reilly, as the intended love interest has no chemistry with Shannon and it’s obvious from the start that Al is written as the foil and opposite in every way from Peggy. It’s just another standard cliché screaming from a mile away. Peggy dates Newt (Peter Sarsgaard) but the romance isn’t there either.

Where the film gets both interesting and lost, is when Peggy becomes an animal rights activist. It sets up Year of the Dog as a message film which never really works. Peggy ruins furs, attempts to show children a slaughterhouse, and spontaneously adopts fifteen dogs because another injured dog dies.

It just doesn’t flow together with the comedy stuff. Especially when the ending takes Peggy in yet another direction. It’s like the filmmakers decided to try and roll things up in a neat little bow but instead have a sloppily wrapped present with a nice bow on it.

Director, Mike White, also producer and writer, creates a great concept but Year of the Dog (2007) hardly lights the world on fire.  The finale is too sentimental and too many cliches surface as the action plays out. Shannon is the only interesting character and the supporting players are stock written. White also penned School of Rock (2003) which is a better film.

Tadpole-2002

Tadpole-2002

Director-Gary Winick

Starring-Sigourney Weaver, Aaron Stanford, John Ritter

Scott’s Review #1,125

Reviewed March 23, 2021

Grade: B

Tadpole (2002) is an enjoyable coming of age effort that carefully, or too carefully for that matter, toes the line between being cute and exploring some morally questionable material. The film gets away with the naughty subject matter because there exists a wholesomeness that lands somewhere between fresh and a commodity.

It’s a fun romp but nothing terribly memorable either, borrowing from better films.

Aaron Stanford, the lead actor, makes the film better than it might have been and seamlessly matches wits and comic timing with heavyweight actors like Sigourney Weaver, John Ritter, and Bebe Neuwirth. He is charming just like his character and carries the film.

As Oscar Grubman (what a name!) he is compassionate and sophisticated, reciting Voltaire and speaking fluent French. When he arrives home for Thanksgiving weekend it is revealed that he has a major crush on his stepmother, Eve (Weaver). She and Oscar’s father, Stanley (Ritter) share a ritzy Manhattan apartment and entertain a girl they think would be perfect for Oscar but he only has eyes for Eve and rebuffs the poor girl.

Despondent at not having a chance with his stepmom but desiring her, Oscar visits a local bar and runs into Eve’s best friend, Diane (Neuwirth). He gets drunk and she takes him home winding up in bed together! Oscar is filled with remorse.

Oscar’s and Diane’s tryst is the caveat for the rest of the antics of the film. Oscar is terrified that Diane will tell his father and Eve especially as she is on the guestlist for dinner the next night!  An amusing game of footsie under the table ensues between Oscar and Diane.

Diane is clearly a Mrs. Robinson type character to Oscar’s Benjamin if we want to draw comparisons to The Graduate (1967) and how could we not? Eve is like Elaine, Mrs. Robinson’s daughter. Unsuspecting and slightly naive. It’s fun to reminisce about the classic film that director Gary Winick borrows from.

Speaking of Winick, he has a knack for creating coming of age stories featuring teenage characters with light angst and he commonly releases independent films. My hunch is that if Tadpole was a big-budget mainstream affair even more concessions might have been made for the brewing May/December romance.

The “dinner scene” is the best part of Tadpole and provides good physical comedy and a hilarious setup. It’s a stretch in plausibility and borrows from many slapstick comedies but somehow the scene works well and stands out.

The subject matter of a woman three times the age of Oscar is not as harsh as it sounds and is largely played for laughs and misunderstandings. This is where the film misses the mark and stays firmly in the safe lane. Imagine the juicy possibilities that would occur if Eve reciprocated Oscar’s advances? Now that is an interesting concept!

I shudder to think that if Oscar were a fifteen-year-old girl and Eve a forty-something-year-old man this film would never have been made. The double-standard gnawed at me.

The ending is wholesome and predictable making the film satisfying for the character yet limiting for the viewer. Oscar more or less “snaps out of it” and realizes that girls his own age are actually okay after all. I half-wondered if the film would be revealed to have all been Oscar’s dream.

The cougar-Esque subject matter provides light entertainment never daring to go as far as it could have, or should have. In the end, we understand a young, pubescent boy’s dreams and desires and may fondly recall when we were his age and all the troublesome sexual feelings that bubbled under the surface.

Tadpole (2002) is a watchable independent comedy providing enough to digest thanks to the worthy actors among its cast.

Birth-2004

Birth-2004

Director-Jonathan Glazer

Starring-Nicole Kidman, Cameron Bright

Scott’s Review #1,124

Reviewed March 18, 2021

Grade: B+

Due to the difficult nature of the film’s storyline, Birth (2004) is a tough sell to most cinema lovers. A grown woman embarking on any sort of romance with a ten-year-old boy will turn off viewers, though can you even imagine if the genders were reversed? I was fascinated by the premise and the endless possibilities of a conclusion. I’m not quite sure what I expected to ultimately happen but I felt slightly underwhelmed by the ending. All in all, it is a daring effort that I wish had more payoff.

The first hour or so is extremely provocative.

Nicole Kidman excels at making the unbelievable material as believable as she can and the film is directed very well by Jonathan Glazer who gives it a haunting and mysterious Stanley Kubrick vibe. The director would really come into name recognition following his 2013 masterpiece Under the Skin.

The film opens with a voiceover of an unknown man, a professor, lecturing about his disbelief in reincarnation. The audience then sees the man jogging through New York City’s Central Park where he collapses and dies.

It takes Anna (Kidman) ten years to recover from the death of her husband, Sean, (the professor) but now she’s on the verge of marrying her boyfriend, Joseph (Danny Huston), and finally moving on. We suspect she may not be completely keen on marrying Joseph but most of their relationship is unclear. We know that she aches for Sean.

On the night of their lavish engagement party, a young boy named Sean (Cameron Bright) turns up, saying he is her dead husband reincarnated. At first, she ignores the child, thinking it’s a joke, but his knowledge of her former husband’s life is uncanny, leading her to slowly realize that he could be telling the truth.

Anna is conflicted to say the very least and Kidman effortlessly makes the audience believe that what is considered ridiculous might actually be true. Is there a supernatural element here?

Her family members, led by her mother Eleanor (Lauren Bacall) are disbelieving and antagonistic towards the boy for disrupting Anna’s life. An issue is that other than one supporting character, Clara (Anne Heche), who has a great opening sequence burying mysterious letters, the others have next to nothing to contribute to the story except to brood and get angry.

Bacall, in particular, is completely wasted in a role that could have been played by any other older actress.

Parallels to Rosemary’s Baby (1968) are hard not to make. Anna dons a similar pixie hair as Rosemary had. They both reside in swanky old-style New York City high-rises that have a ghostly, haunting feeling. The ambiance is positive.

My favorite camera shot that Glazer includes is a lengthy one of Kidman’s Anna. A close-up, the character’s reactions are on full display for what feels like several minutes. Kidman gets to show her tremendous range- tears, shock, realization. I’ve noticed a similar shot in a handful of modern films and it’s an actor’s delight- a viewer’s too!

The finale, without giving much away, is interesting to a point. The big reveal involving Clara is intriguing until the viewer backtracks and tries to add up all the events. The fact is they don’t add up and I longed for something more concrete or believable.

There lacks a good payoff.

Birth (2004) doesn’t always add up to satisfaction but it’s edgy, gloomy, and unpredictable and I enjoyed those facets enough to recommend it. This is not a mainstream film like Ghost (1990) with a similar theme- it’s much more cerebral and thought-provoking.

Kidman’s performance is the main draw here but it’s tough to find a film the actress is not great in.

Luce-2019

Luce-2019

Director-Julius Onah

Starring-Naomi Watts, Octavia Spencer, Kelvin Harrison, Jr. 

Scott’s Review #1,122

Reviewed March 16, 2021

Grade: B+

Oftentimes unpleasant with shifting character allegiances, Luce (2019) is a painful look at race relations. The clever nuance is the relationships between people of the same race. Superior acting rises the film above just simply a nice idea as heavyweights like Octavia Spencer and Naomi Watts lend credibility to a small indie film.

The result is sometimes muddied waters and an unclear direction but the effort is exceptional and a worthy subject matter in modern times.

The film is down and dirty and makes no apologies for what it’s dissecting. The co-writer and director, Julius Onah, a Nigerian-American man, offers glimpses of grandeur, and definitely impossible to guess how it will end. We wonder if he bases the story on his own very real experiences and I am eager to see what projects he comes up with in the future.

Some aspects of the film I found implausible if not logically impossible and not every point adds up or is successfully outlined. But the effort and the balance of drama, thrills, and social issues are definitely there for the taking.

I realized I was rooting throughout for one character and then suddenly I was disappointed in their actions and my allegiance shifted to another of the principal characters. This is key and a positive to a good character-driven film. At times though the character’s actions are questionable and more than one mighty shake of the head in disbelief will be experienced.

Liberal-minded parents Amy (Watts) and Peter Edgar (Eli Roth) have adopted Luce (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), a child of refuge and a dangerous third-world country. It is referenced that they have spent years in therapy to repair the damage he has suffered as a child. It is implied he learned to shoot and possibly kill at a young age. Now a teenager, and Americanized, Luce is popular in high school and a star scholar and track star.

Life is good. Or is it?

The film, based on the play of the same name by J.C. Lee, is shot nothing like a play and is conventionally shot.

Luce writes and submits an extremely disturbing essay that forces the Edgars to reconsider their marriage and their family after it is brought to their attention by his teacher.

He challenges and makes an enemy of this teacher, Harriet Wilson (Spencer) who is extremely tough on students of color, being black herself. She snoops through one student’s locker and finds drugs, ratting on him and blowing his chances for a scholarship. When she finds fireworks in Luce’s locker she is appalled and makes it her mission to entangle his parents but could she have planted them herself?

Is she out to get Luce, jealous of his success when she has had to struggle for hers? Tensions mount between Harriet and Luce as the story unfolds.

The acting is powerful all around the canvas but Harrison and Spencer deliver the standout performances- nearly brilliant. Watts and Roth are good too but with more standard portrayals.

Excellent is how we get to know each of the four principles in detail. Harriet at first appears a tough shrew, but her personal life makes her sympathetic. She attempts to care for her mentally ill sister herself but after a humiliating scene at school is forced to return her to a home.

Suddenly, I was a fan of Harriet, Later, I was disappointed in Luce and Amy, who I thought I was intended to root for. The film is topsy turvy and I enjoyed this juicy infusion of not knowing what was to come next.

When a female classmate of Luce’s who harbors an enormous secret takes center stage the roller-coaster ride becomes even bumpier.

I wish there were more films of a similar nature as Luce (2019) to hit mainstream theaters. It provokes thought and opinion while featuring social problems, pre-conceived notions, and trusting one’s merits. I just wish the puzzle had been solved in a more satisfying way than it was.

Independent Spirit Award Nominations: Best Director-Julius Onah, Best Male Lead-Kelvin Harrison, Jr., Best Supporting Female-Octavia Spencer

Miss Juneteenth-2020

Miss Juneteenth-2020

Director-Channing Godfrey Peoples

Starring-Nicole Beharie, Alexis Chikaeze

Scott’s Review #1,119

Reviewed March 6, 2021

Grade: B+

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saint Ralph-2004

Saint Ralph-2004

Director-Michael McGowan

Starring-Adam Butcher, Campbell Scott

Scott’s Review #1,118

Reviewed March 3, 2021

Grade: C

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nomadland-2020

Nomadland-2020

Director-Chloé Zhao

Starring-Frances McDormand, David Strathairn, Swankie

Scott’s Review #1,116

Reviewed February 24, 2021

Grade: A

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

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

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

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

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

I admire her tremendously.

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

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

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

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

What a poignant statement.

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

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

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

Oscar Nominations: Best Picture, Best Director-Chloé Zhao, Best Actress-Frances McDormand, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing

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

Rabbit Hole-2010

Rabbit Hole-2010

Director-John Cameron Mitchell

Starring-Nicole Kidman, Aaron Eckhart

Scott’s Review #1,115

Reviewed February 23, 2021

Grade: A

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oscar Nominations: Best Actress-Nicole Kidman

Portrait of a Lady on Fire-2019

Portrait of a Lady on Fire-2019

Director-Céline Sciamma

Starring-Noémie Merlant, Adèle Haenel

Scott’s Review #1,114

Reviewed February 19, 2021

Grade: A-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I didn’t understand the point of these items.

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

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

Independent Spirit Award Nominations: Best International Film

Booksmart-2019

Booksmart-2019

Director-Olivia Wilde

Starring-Beanie Feldstein, Kaitlyn Dever

Scott’s Review #1,113

Reviewed February 17, 2021

Grade: A-

I usually avoid teenage coming-of-age comedies or more to the point, being not of that demographic, they are not usually even on my radar. The only reason I saw Booksmart (2019) is but for the Independent Spirit Award it won and the Golden Globe nomination it achieved. Still, I was skeptical of what the appeal of two female teenaged bookworms who decide to become party animals would have on me.

Boy, was I wrong? The film is a fabulous and fast-paced experience that I enjoyed immensely.

Director, Olivia Wilde, in her very first effort, believe it or not, delivers the goods. She takes a genre absolutely told to death and knocks it on its keester offering a fresh and creative spin on a tried and true formula that feels anything but formulaic. There is diversity, inclusiveness, and heart for miles without the feeling that these add-ons were done intentionally for a modern spin.

Before I get carried away too much Wilde carefully keeps the standard moments of teenage angst, rejection, breakups, and makeups, and there are one or two of the commonplace high school “types”- loner, jock, weirdo, etc. but evident is a strong LGBTQ+ stronghold including one of the main female characters. Booksmart sure feels authentic to me.

Molly (Beanie Feldstein) and Amy are forever friends. The girl’s study, they giggle, they hang-out, and they tell each other about their problems, sexual and otherwise. The kicker is that Molly is straight and Amy is gay. Amy is happily “out” and nobody gives a damn. Her parents, played in small but juicy parts by Will Forte and Lisa Kudrow are hilarious and progressive in their approach to understand a gay child. They incorrectly assume that Molly and Amy are a couple which the girls use to their advantage.

Anyway, Amy and Molly are intelligent and anticipate graduation day and going off to great schools. Once they realize that their fellow students who in their minds slack off and party are also going off to Ivy League schools, they panic. They realize they have wasted four years studying and decide to let finally let their hair down the night before graduation, intent on attending a popular boy’s (and Molly’s crush) party.

The situations the duo get themselves into are clever and witty and the most fun of the film. Feldstein and Dever have exceptional chemistry and I bought them as best friends from the moment of their first scene. When they have a knock-down, drag-out argument towards the end of the film it’s acting at its finest, which made me feel proud. I admire young talent with great acting chops and pride in their craft and Feldstein and Dever both have it.

Wilde peppers much of the film with hip and trendy pop songs that surprisingly enhance rather than slow down or take away from the viewer enjoyment. The lyrics match the specific events of the particular scene.

The romanticism is pivotal as the crushes Molly and Amy have are not necessarily who they wind up with at the end of the film, which naturally culminates on graduation day. I love how their ceremony includes no parents.

The creativity within Booksmart is admirable. When Molly and Amy trip on a hallucinogenic they accidentally ingest they imagine they are barbie dolls. The scene is laden with hilarity as they bend and twist and turn. Later, Molly imagines a dance with Nick amid a colorful, slow-motion sequence that is beautiful, while Amy has an awkward unexpected sexual experience with a mean girl.

Booksmart (2019) is quite R-rated almost shockingly so, which is not a negative. In fact, it’s a positive. Too many films of this ilk try to soften how teenagers really speak and the feelings they really have which are usually sexual. It’s raunchy and definitely not for the younger teen set but mature audiences will reminiscence about their own high school days.

Independent Spirit Award Nominations: Best First Feature (won)

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom-2020

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom-2020

Director-George C. Wolfe

Starring-Viola Davis, Chadwick Boseman

Scott’s Review #1,107

Reviewed February 3, 2021

Grade: A-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oscar Nominations: Best Actor-Chadwick Boseman, Best Actress-Viola Davis, Best Production Design, Best Costume Design, Best Makeup and Hairstyling

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

Keep the Lights On-2012

Keep The Lights On-2012

Director-Ira Sachs

Starring-Thure Lindhardt, Zachary Booth

Scott’s Review #1,100

Reviewed January 16, 2021

Grade: A

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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 1980s.

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 1980s 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 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 of 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 a makeup artist, gofer, or performed other non-actor or non-director tasks to achieve the results. A real house was used to film in rather than on a studio set.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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 (2019) 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