Category Archives: Independent Films

About Schmidt-2002

About Schmidt-2002

Director-Alexander Payne

Starring-Jack Nicholson, Kathy Bates

Scott’s Review #1,054

Reviewed August 18, 2020

Grade: A-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Woman Under the Influence-1974

A Woman Under the Influence-1974

Director-John Cassavetes

Starring-Gena Rowlands, Peter Falk

Scott’s Review #1,051

Reviewed August 11, 2020

Grade: A

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Uncut Gems-2019

Uncut Gems-2019

Director-Ben Safdie, Joshua Safdie

Starring-Adam Sandler, Idina Menzel

Scott’s Review #1,049

Reviewed August 5, 2020

Grade: A-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For Sama-2019

For Sama-2019

Director-Waad al-Kateab, Edward Watts

Starring-Waad al-Kateab, Hanza al-Kateab

Scott’s Review #1,044

Reviewed July 25, 2020

Grade: B+

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oscar Nominations: Best Documentary Feature

Independent Spirit Award Nominations: Best Documentary

A Prophet-2009

A Prophet-2009

Director-Jacques Audiard

Starring-Tahar Rahim

Scott’s Review #1,034

Reviewed June 18, 2020

Grade: A-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oscar Nominations: Best Foreign Language Film

Independent Spirit Award Nominations: Best Foreign Film

A Prairie Home Companion-2006

A Prairie Home Companion-2006

Director-Robert Altman

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

Scott’s Review #1,033

Reviewed June 16, 2020

Grade: B

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Independent Spirit Award Nominations: Best Director-Robert Altman

The Last Black Man in San Francisco-2019

The Last Black Man in San Francisco-2019

Director-Joe Talbot

Starring-Jimmie Fails, Jonathan Majors

Scott’s Review #1,018

Reviewed May 1, 2020

Grade: A

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Dangerous Method-2011

A Dangerous Method-2011

Director-David Cronenberg

Starring-Keira Knightley, Viggo Mortensen, Michael Fassbender

Scott’s Review #1,009

Reviewed April 9, 2020

Grade: B+

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Better Life-2011

A Better Life-2011

Director-Chris Weitz

Starring-Demian Bichir, Jose Julian

Scott’s Review #1,004

Reviewed March 26, 2020

Grade: B+

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oscar Nominations: Best Actor-Demian Bichir

Independent Spirit Award Nominations: Best Male Lead-Demian Bichir

(500) Days of Summer-2009

(500) Days of Summer-2009

Director-Marc Webb

Starring-Zooey Deschanel, Joseph Gordon-Levitt

Scott’s Review #1,002

Reviewed March 20, 2020

Grade: B

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

50/50-2011

50/50-2011

Director-Jonathan Levine

Starring-Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Seth Rogan

Scott’s Review #1,001

Reviewed March 17, 2020

Grade: B+

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Giant Little Ones-2019

Giant Little Ones-2019

Director-Keith Behrman

Starring-Josh Wiggins, Darren Mann

Scott’s Review #1,000

Reviewed March 13, 2020

Grade: B+

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

21 Grams-2003

21 Grams-2003

Director-Alejandro G. Inarritu

Starring-Sean Penn, Naomi Watts, Benicio Del Toro

Scott’s Review #990

Reviewed February 14, 2020

Grade: A

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Independent Spirit Award Nominations: Special Distinction Award (won)

The Lighthouse-2019

The Lighthouse-2019

Director-Robert Eggers

Starring-Robert Pattinson, Willem Dafoe

Scott’s Review #987

Reviewed February 5, 2020

Grade: A-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Midsommar-2019

Midsommar-2019

Director-Ari Aster

Starring-Florence Pugh, Jack Reynor

Scott’s Review #957

Reviewed November 11, 2019

Grade: B+

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Don’t Look in the Basement-1973

Don’t Look in the Basement-1973

Director-S.F. Brownrigg

Starring-Anne MacAdams, Rosie Holotik

Scott’s Review #954

Reviewed November 5, 2019

Grade: B

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hustlers-2019

Hustlers-2019

Director-Lorene Scafaria

Starring-Constance Wu, Jennifer Lopez

Scott’s Review #942

Reviewed October 3, 2019

Grade: B+

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nancy-2018

Nancy-2018

Director-Christina Coe

Starring-Andrea Riseborough

Scott’s Review #941

Reviewed October 1, 2019

Grade: B+

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Charlie Says-2019

Charlie Says-2019

Director-Mary Harron

Starring-Hannah Murray, Sosie Bacon

Scott’s Review #936

Reviewed August 28, 2019

Grade: B

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eighth Grade-2018

Eighth Grade-2018

Director-Bo Burnham

Starring-Elsie Fisher, Josh Hamilton

Scott’s Review #935

Reviewed August 27, 2018

Grade: A-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You Were Never Really Here-2018

You Were Never Really Here-2018

Director-Lynne Ramsay

Starring-Joaquin Phoenix

Scott’s Review #932

Reviewed August 19, 2019

Grade: A-

You Were Never Really Here (2018) is an independent psychological thriller most reminiscent in tone and texture to the legendary Scorsese film, Taxi Driver (1976). The main characters are worlds apart, but the plot and the trimmings are clearly influenced by the classic, just amid a different time-period (the present).

A terrific and brooding performance by star Joaquin Phoenix leads the charge, as does fantastic direction by Lynne Ramsay, and the editing team, as the dark film is an unusual and impressive choice for a female director. Snippets of cinematic genius exist during a film that, with a more complete package, might have been a masterpiece.

We first meet Joe (Phoenix) somewhere in Ohio as, we learn, he is a hired gun sent to rescue underage girls from sex trafficking rings. He is brutal in his methods of rescue, resorting to gruesome murders to complete his assignments, and is paid handsomely. Back in New York City, he cares for his elderly mother whom he adores, and is contacted to rescue Nina, the daughter of a New York State Senator, Albert Votto for an enormous sum of money. When Joe rescues Nina and waits for Votto, events quickly spin out of control and a sinister web of deception is revealed.

When you look at the story that You Were Never Really There tells, it is one that has been told many times before, typically in slick Hollywood conventional standards. Angry ex-military unleashes brutality on devious criminals, rescues girl, and returns her safely to the open arms of her awaiting parents. Fortunately, the film is more thoughtful than that, adding complexity with the Joe and Nina relationship, and a stylistic, poetic quality featuring Joe’s relationship with his mother.

The plot is paced very well so that the events occur only over the course of a day or two, and the film is highly unconventional and dark. Frequent flashbacks give the film mystique as we see both Joe and his mother abused by Joe’s father, as a young Joe hides in a closet and hyperventilates. Now an adult, Joe is suicidal, frequently fantasizing or practicing his own death until he is interrupted.

As grisly as the film can be, beautiful and tender moments are laden throughout as Ramsay provides gorgeous style and humanity. A homoerotic moment occurs when Joe lies next to the man who has killed his mother. As the man is close to death at the hands of Joe, they hold hands as Joe provides comfort to the man in death. Joe then buries his mother in a pond in upstate New York, providing her with a peaceful final resting place. These are unique scenes that feel almost like an art film.

The conclusion is open-ended leaving lots of questions; Joe and Nina appear to ride off into the sunset together, but what will they do? What is to become of them? Surely, not a romantic element can be found, but where will they go from here? Both characters appear to have nothing left to hang on to other than each other, but is this sustainable? The film is not the type that is poised for a sequel, but I would be very curious what Ramsay has planned for her characters.

Joe is not portrayed as wicked, he is too complex for that. Phoenix, a tremendous actor, perfectly infuses the character with brutality and anger, but also a tenderness and a warmth. The aspects between You Were Never Really Here and Taxi Driver: the grizzled New York portrayals, the political backdrop, and the main characters saving a woeful young girl from the depths of despair, make the two film’s comparable. However, Joe and Travis Bickle are opposites, the latter having a frenetic humor that the former lacks.

Ramsay has been around for a while with We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011) her most prominent film. She is successful at telling stories about deeply troubled individuals who are good people handed awful circumstances. With a tremendous actor like Phoenix on board, she crafts a solid work that has provided You Were Never Really Here (2018) with accolades, at least among the indie critics. Ramsay seems poised to break out in a big way and shake up the film industry with future works.

The Farewell-2019

The Farewell-2019

Director-Lulu Wang

Starring-Awkwafina, Tzi Ma

Scott’s Review #927

Reviewed August 6, 2019

Grade: A-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lizzie-2018

Lizzie-2018

Director-Craig Macneill

Starring-Chloe Sevigny, Kristen Stewart

Scott’s Review #925

Reviewed July 31, 2019

Grade: B+

Lizzie (2018) is an odd and macabre interpretation of the life and times of the infamous Lizzie Borden, who was accused and acquitted of hacking her father and stepmother to bits with a deadly axe. This offering is shrouded in a bit of controversy for inaccuracies and interpretations of the events, specifically Borden’s sexuality called into question. The film is quiet and a tad too slow but thunders to a grand climax more than making up for any negatives. The casting of its leads is perfect and key to success.

Thirty-two-year old Lizzie (Chloe Sevigny) lives with her domineering and affluent father Andrew, (Jamey Sheridan), and rigid stepmother, Abby (Fiona Shaw). Despising both, she lives out a lonely and depressed existence with her only outlet being occasional evenings out at the theater. When an Irish immigrant, Bridget Sullivan (Kristen Stewart), moves in to the Borden residence to work as a servant the women form a strong bond especially after she is abused by Andrew.

Sevigny, one of my favorite modern actresses, possesses a range that is astounding in the myriad of characters she has played in her long career. Debuting to the masses in the critically acclaimed and depressing Boys Don’t Cry (1999) she has churned out a numerous array of independent features portraying one oddball character after another and deserves the strong influence she has achieved over the years.

Director, Craig Macneill makes interesting choices with his film which may or may not please audiences expecting a by the number’s horror offering. He dives into psychological thriller territory with more of a character study approach that provides layers to the finished product. Sevigny is center stage and plenty of camera close-up shots offer an introspective analysis of what her feelings are rather than from her parents’ perspective. Instead of a crazed killer spontaneously committing the crime she is careful and calculating in her plan. Macneill presents Lizzie as the victim and Andrew and Abby the villains.

This is to assume that Borden really committed the crimes, which the film never doubts. Historically, people assume that this is the truth, but Lizzie was set free by a jury refusing to believe a woman of such means would commit such a heinous crime. I wonder if Macneill directed the film with a bit of a smirk at this ridiculous decision of the times when the woman clearly enjoyed the murders. At the end of the film it is explained what happened to Lizzie and Bridget which is a good decision and wraps the film into a nice tidy bow.

Powerful is the quiet subtext which gives a moody and foreboding quality. I adore slow moving films provided the reward is worth the wait and Lizzie sucker punches once the events begin rolling along. Another positive is the gnawing feeling of terrible things about to happen but unsure of when or how the attacks will occur. Most viewers choosing to watch this film will be aware of the context and the reported murders committed.

The atmospheric additions succeed as the late eighteenth century costumes and daily living are believable. The lavish Borden house is well-kept and brightly lit offering a nice New England feel. Finally, the creaks and noises throughout the house perfectly encompass the danger lurking behind corners and the fun is in wondering when Lizzie will strike. Since the film moves back and forth through its time-period we know that strike she will.

Where the film offers its best work is through the relationship between Lizzie and Bridget. Sevigny and Stewart dazzle together with unleashed chemistry nearly rivaling a similar dynamic seen in 2003’s Monster. As with Aline Wuornos and Selby Wall Lizzie is the dominant one and Bridget is submissive following her lead. Both sets of women share a lesbian relationship and neither pair achieves any happiness at the conclusion of the film.

A film sure to fly under the radar and likely to be forgotten before long, Lizzie (2018) is worth the effort. A spooky and controversial interpretation of the events leading up to, during, and after one of the most notorious crimes in United States history is dissected and analyzed from a human perspective. Macneill makes Borden less maniacal and more sympathetic than some may prefer. I think he does a fine job and deserves praise for a rich telling.

Gloria Bell-2019

Gloria Bell-2019

Director-Sebastian Lelio

Starring-Julianne Moore, John Turturro

Scott’s Review #924

Reviewed July 29, 2019

Grade: B+

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oh Lucy!-2017

Oh Lucy!-2017

Director-Atsuko Hirayanagi

Starring-Shinobu Terajima, Josh Hartnett

Scott’s Review #912

Reviewed June 20, 2019

Grade: B+

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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