Black Mass-2015

Black Mass-2015

Director-Scott Cooper

Starring-Johnny Depp, Joel Edgerton

Scott’s Review #278

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Reviewed September 28, 2015

Grade: B+

A dark tale of crime, corruption, and Irish mob ties encompass Black Mass, a crime drama based on the life and times of infamous Boston crime lord Whitey Bulger. Set primarily in Boston, with a segue to sunny Miami during the 1970’s and 1980’s, the film primarily focuses on the intricate dealings between Bulger and childhood friend John Connelly, now FBI, as he uses Bulger as an “informant” to secretly bring down an Italian mafia figure, but slowly becomes more involved in Bulger’s sinister world.

Beginning in 1975, the film is authentic in its use of the styles, cars, and look of the times in Boston during that period. Plausibility is apparent along with powerful acting from top to bottom. The stellar cast of Black Mass, and it is a hefty cast, features an array of well-known and capable actors, which adds a level of realism to the film. Led by Johnny Depp as Whitey himself, Depp gives an eerie, hypnotic performance as his bright blue eyes sparkle in a devious way. Whitey is ruthless and will do whatever is needed to keep power and control. Joel Edgerton, as Connelly, is arguably the lead character in the film, though Depp gets top billing. Edgerton, in real life quite handsome, appears frumpy, and as a regular Joe type. Supporting turns by Benedict Cumberbatch, as Whitey’s powerful Senator brother, is crafty and sleek, but corruption shrouds him. Kevin Bacon, Dakota Johnson, Peter Sarsgaard, and Julianne Nicholson portray smaller yet pivotal roles and all do a fine job.

The screenplay is intelligently written. The story itself is quite dark and there is nary a laugh or a light moment throughout. In fact, there are numerous deaths, the victims shot at point blank range, but also two deaths in particular, where the victims suffering is prolonged and the scenes are cringe-worthy. Needless to say the film is very violent and given the subject matter, is riddled with foul language.

One impressive aspect of Black Mass is it is a character driven tale and the fact that it is based on a real-life person obviously adds to this. But not only was Bulger fleshed out, but John Connelly was written very well. Gradually becoming immersed in the crime world as opposed to the world of law, we see Connelly sink deeper and deeper into Bulger’s world, and not so unwillingly either. He loses his wife Marianne (Nicholson) along the way as she tires of the danger and corruption surrounding her. A chilling scene occurs when Bulger confronts Marianne in her bedroom, after observing negative vibes from her, and warns her in a flirtatious way, never to cross him. As he caresses her face and slowly firms his grip, it is a rather frightening scene.

The dialogue is crisp. When Bulger is invited to a steak dinner at Connelly’s house, there is awkward tension at the dinner table. Jovial small talk over the preparation of the delicious marinated steak everyone is eating comes to the forefront as Bulger asks Connelly’s partner to reveal his family secret recipe for the steak that is favorite he has ever eaten. When the partner eagerly confesses the recipe, he is subsequently berated and coldly quizzed as to whether he would give up Bulger’s secrets as easily. This is one of the best scenes in the film.

Comparisons to Goodfellas are evident, but without the fun. I thought of The Departed throughout the viewing as well. I think director Scott Cooper goes for, and successfully achieves, good straight-forward, dark story-telling. Take the number of killings. The organized crime world is a dirty, intense, unkind world and Black Mass portrays this well.

Black Mass is a success on many levels. The superior acting coupled with smart, detailed writing, and a truthfulness creates a very good film. Just be sure to remember it is a heavy one.

Interstellar-2014

Interstellar-2014

Director-Christopher Nolan

Starring-Matthew McConaughey, Jessica Chastain

Scott’s Review #277

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Reviewed September 25, 2015

Grade: B-

Interstellar is an interesting film to review. A science fiction/futuristic epic with a run time of nearly three hours, it is complex and intricate. It is the latest offering by director Christopher Nolan. I cannot say I loved this film, however, I did appreciate and marvel at the visual and technical aspects of it, which completely usurps the convoluted plot, made difficult to follow due to changing worlds and galaxies.

The film reminds me of Inception with an obvious homage to 2001: A Space Odyssey, the former directed by Nolan, but not quite as compelling from a story point of view as Inception was. The complexities of different entities, worlds, and layers of worlds are featured and admittedly, mind blowing, which is the weak part of the film. By making the film arguably too intelligent, it loses the audiences attention. By too intelligent, I mean too complex. As I review the film, I see two halves to it- the story side and the visual side. In Interstellar, both are essential components and one fails and one marvels.

If I am to attempt to summarize the story it goes something like this- Matthew McConaughey plays Cooper, a widowed, former space expert stuck in a small town in the mid-west, where he begrudgingly runs a farm, living out an unsatisfying existence. The Earths food and crops are slowly running out and the planet is dying. His two children, daughter Murphy and son Tom, face a bleak world. One day, a dust pattern with coordinates lead Cooper and Murphy to a secret NASA team intent on finding other worlds and thereby attempting to save Earth. The team is led by Dr. Brand, a college professor and science wizard, played by Michael Caine. Cooper, naturally, is chosen to lead the venture, which could take him away from his family for years. He accepts much to Murphy’s chagrin. Once in outer space- assisted by Amelia Brand (Dr. Brand’s daughter), the team embarks on an endless mission leading them to different planets and one strange encounter with a rebel astronaut (played wastefully by Matt Damon). Years later (on earth anyway) Murphy and Tom (now grown and played by Jessica Chastain and Casey Affleck) assume their father Cooper is dead.

Critically, the story is way too much to comprehend and after awhile I found myself gradually letting go of the story altogether instead focusing on the visual spectacle I was treated to. The plot eventually meanders off track completely as the team traverses through a space wormhole created by an alien intelligence and travels fifty years or so without aging, while obviously life has gone on over planet Earth. Some characters age, others do not. To summarize, the story is convoluted and impossible to follow.

Speaking of the story side to Interstellar, the writing contained an irritating wholesomeness to it, especially in the early stages- pre outer space. McConaughey was given this tough guy, machismo side to him that screamed of Hollywood traditionalism- almost like “I am man- I save family”. Haven’t we seen this too many times in film? I also found the relationship between Cooper and young daughter Murphy incredibly saccharine and screamed of Hollywood schmaltz. To be fair, McConaughey was given, and succeeded in delivering, one great crying scene.

The visual aspect to Interstellar, however, is a spectacle and much, much better than the story, especially during the final third of the film. The sheer grandeur is astounding. When the crew lands on Miller’s planet, an ocean world, a great tidal wave topples their space ship killing one of the team. The massive look of the tidal wave is monumental in size and ferocity. Later, when the crew lands on an icy planet, the immense coldness and shape of the planet work perfectly in the film and one feels like they are really in outer space.

How inventive and creative was the scene where Cooper attempts to contact a character through a bookshelf. The scene was set up like a maze with different time periods, and colors and shapes, seemingly blending together was very impressive and artistic.

Visually speaking, Interstellar has some similarities to the 1968 epic 2001: A Space Odyssey. Grandiose, artistic, experimental, and epic along with the obvious space theme allow the two films to be compared. However, where 2001: A Space Odyssey was about life and contains a clear and powerful message, I did not find the same with Interstellar. Instead, I did not find much of a message, but rather a confusing story, mixed with spectacular visuals.

The Visit-2015

The Visit-2015

Director-M. Night Shyamalan

Starring-Kathryn Hahn

Scott’s Review #276

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Reviewed September 24, 2015

Grade: B

A modern day thriller/horror/comedy hybrid (admittedly it is tough to classify this film as exclusively horror with the dreaded and watered down PG-13 rating) directed by M. Night Shyamalan, The Visit has its moments of genuine scary frights and surprises with a wonderful twist at the end, but suffers from some clich├ęs one severely unlikeable character, and suspensions of disbelief. Bringing grandparents to the forefront of the film is a clever idea, albeit in a stereotypical fashion, The Visit is a decent watch, but laden with a few misfires.

Paula, a single mother on the outs with her parents for a number years, but recently reunited, sends her two children- Rebecca and Tyler, for a weeks stay at their grandparents farm house, whom they have never met. At the kids prompting, Paula decides to go on a romantic vacation with her new boyfriend. Naturally, when the kids arrive at Grandma and Grandpa’s, strange events occur almost immediately. The children are warned never to go into the basement, not to leave their bedrooms after 9:30pm, plus the grandparents just have a creepy, weird, look to them. Rebecca and Tyler, in true modern horror fashion, arguably contrived at this point, record all the events (think Paranormal Activity) and begin to realize there is something rotten in the state of Denmark.

The Visit contains both positives and negatives so let me first begin with the negatives. The mother and the two kids live in New Jersey and the grandparents in Pennsylvania. That is one state away, yet Rebecca and Tyler have never met, seen photographs of, nor spoken to their grandparents on the phone – not even to discuss the impending visit. The kids constantly use Skype to communicate with Mom throughout their visit, but it never occurred to anyone to chat with the grandparents before embarking on a weeks long visit to, you know, introduce themselves? Okay. This is a convenient plot manipulation.

Another negative is the film contains one of the most annoying film characters in recent memory- that of Tyler and I am baffled as to whether this was intentional or unintentional. The kid is about 12 years old and is written as precocious as possible. There are at least three to four endless scenes of him rapping, mostly to the video camera, that I found to be an utter waste of valuable screen time and lends nothing to the plot. Filler and for a 90 minute movie, unnecessary. In the end though, I got the last laugh, as the character, a germophobe, has his face smeared with human excrement. Ha!

The third negative I observed is that of the constant “old people jokes”, which bordered on offensive after awhile. The grandparents unusual behavior was blamed numerous times on their age, as if all elderly people are scatterbrained, daffy, or just downright strange. Untrue. Many seniors are intelligent, useful, and lively so there was a feeling of disrespect towards the elderly that I could not shake. The film could have portrayed the grandparents with more dignity than it chose to.

Now for some positives- the compelling twist at the end of the film I simply did not see coming and I loved that about The Visit. Rarely is the audience surprised anymore, especially in the horror genre, and I certainly was. Having now replayed the film in my mind the plot makes perfect sense, but in the heart of the climax, it works. On the subject of the conclusion, The Visit has a unique slow-motion/dreamlike feel and an odd, classical type musical score playing throughout the ending that adds much depth to the typical thriller type music heard in most films like this.

The oven scene inevitably viewed by all during early trailers for The Visit, is excellent- as Grandma convinces Rebecca to crawl completely inside her oven to clean it we just know this will not end well. Additionally, the look and texture of the setting- an old deserted farmhouse in a small, rural town in the middle of nowhere- a feeling of being trapped- successfully provides a scary backdrop for the film. All the elements just scream horror and behooves the film.

The Visit has genuine scares, will make the viewer jump, and perhaps even shriek. That is what good horror does- yet I am still unsure if this film is more horror or comedy- unintentionally so, perhaps.

Grandma-2015

Grandma-2015

Director-Paul Weitz

Starring-Lily Tomlin, Marcia Gay Harden

Scott’s Review #275

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Reviewed September 21, 2015

Grade: B+

Grandma is clearly and deservedly, a showcase for the talented and interesting legendary Hollywood actress Lilly Tomlin. Years (twenty seven to be precise) since she has had a starring turn in a film, the role of Grandma is custom made for Tomlin, with the characters sarcasm, wit, and downright bluntness emerging to the forefront. The film is labeled a comedy/drama, which it is, but centers around a heavy topic in that of abortion, and runs the risk of offending pro-life individuals, as the film undoubtedly contains a pro-choice slant.

Ellie (Tomlin) is a poet and former college professor in her seventies living in California. She is a lesbian and is mourning the recent death of her long-time partner. She has recently been dating a lovely young woman named Olivia (played by Judy Greer), whom she unceremoniously, and cruelly dumps, referring to Olivia as little more than a footnote in her life. Afterwards, Ellie beaks down in tears of guilt while showering. One day her granddaughter, Sage, (her daughter Judy being the product of a one-night stand), appears on her doorstep asking for money for an abortion. Having just paid off all of her debts and destroying her credit cards, Ellie is therefore broke. The duo embark on a quest for cash, and race against time in order to make the appointment in time for the scheduled procedure.

The film belongs to Tomlin, but is enhanced by excellent supporting turns, specifically by Marcia Gay Harden as daughter Judy, and veteran actor Sam Elliot, as Ellie’s former flame Karl, to cite examples. Judy and Ellie have experienced a tumultuous relationship their entire lives while Karl harbors resentment for Ellie for long-ago aborting their child. Harden is thrilling as a borderline, one-dimensional bitch character. She is driven, angry, and self-centered, and it is mentioned that she has gone through numerous administrative assistants in her high-level corporate role. In fact, I have not seen Harden in a role quite like this before. As unsympathetic as the character is, one cannot help wondering if Ellie’s mothering skills may have perhaps made Judy turn out this way. Karl on the other hand, I found to be sympathetic. He is clearly still wounded from his ages ago relationship with Ellie and may still hold a flame for her, as unlikely a romance between them would be.

The film is darker than I expected, and is not a syrupy, mainstream, family story one might expect from the fuzzy one word title. Still, Tomlin’s cantankerous, sarcasm kept me in stitches and perfectly balanced the tough subject matter displayed in Grandma. The relationships between the main characters are complex and tough to watch as they argue, swear, and berate each other repeatedly. There is love mixed in, to be sure, but complexities arise due to the controversial subject matter. The history of and, in many cases, painful memories are dredged up between characters.

Impressively, Grandma is not a film that debates the hot button issue of abortion as one might assume. Sage never really considers keeping her baby- the issue is more a matter of having the procedure done as quickly as possible- no fuss no muss style. Ellie and Judy never try to persuade Sage to keep the child nor does Sage really seriously contemplate keeping the baby. The only instance of a pro life perspective is when two ridiculous characters- a young mother and her ten year old daughter- suggest Sage not kill her baby. When Ellie steps in the young girl punches her in the face. Is this intended as comic relief or to make these characters appear as buffoons? These characters are certainly laughable. The father of Sage’s baby is unsympathetic and a very minor blip on the radar. My theory is that the film chooses to go this route intentionally to avoid a debate over the abortion issue. A debate is not the point of the film, but rather the relationships between the characters is.

The scenes involving Ellie becoming irritated and sarcastic are priceless and successfully utilize the talents of Tomlin to the hilt. As she hilariously goes from situation to situation in an attempt to earn the $600 for Sage she resorts to various means as diverse as selling books, giving a kiss, or collecting an old debt and this is the main draw of this witty little film.

Dear White People-2014

Dear White People-2014

Director-Justin Simien

Starring-Tyler James Williams, Tessa Thompson

Scott’s Review #274

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Reviewed September 18, 2015

Grade: B+

Dear White People is a highly creative, independent satire that begs to be watched if for nothing else but its message of existing racism in present times, homophobia, and class distinction. Set at an Ivy League college and written tongue and cheek, but also with a direct message from newly discovered director Justin Simien, it is a meaningful gem that challenges audiences to think as well as be entertained and emit an occasional chuckle at the wit and comical lines presented.

Set in present day- assuming 2013 or 2014, and well beyond the Civil Rights era, the film features a hip, sharp look and a myriad of characters, all with differing perspectives, and all of whom are either caucasian or black in racial identities. All of the characters attend the affluent and sophisticated Winchester University, a mostly white, conservative school with a small community of black students, who curiously all seem to reside in the same dorm house. In addition, the Dean is a black man (played by Dennis Haysbert).

Sam White is a rebellious female student, of mixed race, who runs a radio show entitled “Dear White People”, which challenges the current state of racism in America, and specifically at Winchester University. Supporting characters include Lionel Higgins, a gay, bookish student with an enormous afro, who is excluded from almost all of the sub-groups. Lionel is intrigued with Sam’s radio show. Other characters include Coco- an attractive black girl with typically “white” mannerisms and friends, who tried to fit in with white culture. Troy, a very handsome black student (who tries to act “white”), dating a white girl (who tries to act “black”). Finally, the film features Kirk, a white student whose father is the school president, who values an old-style way of thinking. Kirk, shockingly, hosts a blackface party, which leads to a major controversy at the school and is the focus of much of the films drama.

The main theme of the film is obviously race, but different characters have different viewpoints on the subject matter, and all are explored, which is what makes the film so unique and interesting. Sam, for example, is a true advocate for racial equality and constantly challenges white people’s motivations and actions, blatantly so. Coco, on the other hand, is resistant to being stereotyped as a woman of color and, in one scene is incorrectly assumed to be from the hood by a reality television producer she is auditioning for. She is clearly envious of white people and the advantages they have, even going so far as having straight hair and blue contact lenses. Then we have Lionel, who is both gay and black, and clearly considered an outcast. He fits in with no group and curiously seems okay with being his own person.

What is unique and compelling about Dear White People is that it brings up a controversial issue, mixes it in satire, humorously so, but also presents compelling arguments against stereotypes, but also bringing those stereotypes center stage, which most films avoid like the plague. One black character is frustrated that, in their mind, most black people are content watching dumb black comedies, thereby supporting a negative racial stereotype.

One interesting aspect regarding the score of the film is the use of lily white classic film music- such as Barry Lyndon- the most lily white of lily white films (British and Irish). Famous film director, Quentin Tarantino, is called out as being a racist director. What wonderful irony!

Dear White People is a witty, intelligent slice of inventive film making that is worth seeing if only for its controversial subject of inequality and racism, that is too often forgotten in today’s day and age. A non-formulaic indie treat for those inclined to think a little.

(Le Boucher) The Butcher-1970

(Le Boucher) The Butcher-1970

Director-Claude Chabrol

Starring-Stephane Audran, Jean Yanne

Scott’s Review #273

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Reviewed September 14, 2015

Grade: A-

(Le Boucher) The Butcher is a French thriller made in 1970 that is slow moving at first, but progresses to a dramatic crescendo as the latter part of the film escalates, and turns from plodding to cerebral mind-blower. Clearly mirrored after and inspired by director Alfred Hitchcock, The Butcher is surprisingly not quite horror (based on the title one might assume it is), but rather, an intelligent dreamy thriller.

Gorgeous schoolteacher Helene Daville is smart, confident, and filled with a zest for life. She tutors children needing extra help, laughs with them, and even lets one sip champagne during a wedding to try the taste of it. She enjoys living and the occasional adventure. One day, at a wedding, she meets the local butcher, Paul Thomas, and they immediately hit it off as they tenderly walk home together. Cordial and kind, they develop a friendship and laugh together. As time goes on, a series of killings begins to occur in the town. Helene begins to suspect Paul of the murders and wrestles with her conflict between her budding love for him and her revulsion at the thought of being in love with a vicious murderer. Her conflict is the point of the film.

The relationship between Helene and Paul is an interesting dynamic and, I now realize, the reason for the slow pace of the picture. Helene and Paul enjoy a nurturing, caring courtship and the film successfully achieves the intended slow build. The murder mystery is rather secondary and helps support the main plot. We know little- almost nothing- about the female victims. They are strangers to the audience and the reason for their deaths are unknown. The killer simply kills- no motivation is revealed. This is what makes the film so cerebral and mysterious.

The Butcher is really a love story intertwined with a thriller. It is not a mainstream thriller in the conventional sense and the final twenty or thirty minutes reeled me in completely and gave me great admiration for the film, which I had been hedging about throughout. The meat of the film might have started an additional thirty minutes prior to when it did in my opinion, but then again the slow build may have been intended to make the end result more powerful. The moral conflict, love versus hate, tenderness, affection, caring, devastation, and betrayal are all explored during this relatively brief finale. In addition, the blurry camera shots and angles from the vantage point of an automobile driver traveling down a dark, tree-lined street are highly creative and unique.

The comparisons to Hitchcock are evident. Helene is similar to Tippi Hedren’s “Melanie Daniels” from The Birds. She is glamorous, alluring, blonde, tall, well-dressed, and the heroine of the film. Attractive and blonde are traits featured in many Hitchcock films. Paul, on the other hand, reminds me of Rod Taylor’s Mitch, also from The Birds, though not as handsome or charismatic. Still, their relationship reminds me of the two of them as the chemistry oozes from the screen and a romance and thriller are combined.

Helene is perceived as a wholesome wonderful person by the audience, but is she truly? In the end we are left questioning her true feelings and are left with a distaste in our mouths. Her choices confuse us or is she simply a complex human being like each of us is? The interesting aspect of The Butcher is it leaves one questioning how we ourselves would handle Helene’s dilemma, and more importantly, how we would channel our feelings if faced with a similar predicament.

Inside Out-2015

Inside Out-2015

Director-Pete Docter

Starring-Amy Poehler, Diane Lane

Scott’s Review #272

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Reviewed September 8, 2015

Grade: B+

Frequently, when I view a modern animated feature, (and by modern, I mean 1990 and beyond), I am either bored or left with a “meh” feeling- or both. It seems the trend is “let’s create a manufactured film that will appeal to five year old’s who will drag their parents to it”. It is almost as if mediocrity is accepted in animated film, but Inside Out challenges this trend with a thoughtful, interesting slab of story. With this latest Pixar offering we find a refreshing, intelligent film that makes the viewer think, in addition to containing a genuine cute factor, with lots of colors and interesting animation interspersed throughout.

Our story finds eleven year old Riley Anderson, and her five different personalities, working within her brain in unison. The emotions are five distinct little people representing (and named) Joy, Sadness, Disgust, Fear, and Anger. They overlap, conflict, and humorously strive to take control of Riley’s mind and thought processes. Joy is the central, and obviously happiest of the emotions. They all live in Riley’s conscious mind, named Headquarters. One day, Riley and her family pack up and move from Minnesota to the unknown and overwhelming city of San Francisco to capitalize on a job opportunity offered to Riley’s father. The city is bustling and the family is thrown for a loop. Riley in particular has a difficult time adjusting to this vastly different world and finds herself friendless and acting out of character. Sadness accidentally begins touching other emotions within Riley’s mind, which sets off a plethora of strange emotions causing her to behave strangely and become irritable. Joy and Sadness struggle to return to Headquarters and fix the issues.

Inside Out is a complex animated film and will certainly go way above the heads of many youngsters who will undoubtedly see it. I find this rather refreshing. It is a coming of age tale for adults and mature kids that challenges its audience rather than spitting out a retread or formulaic family story that we have scene countless times over. In fact, Riley and her parents are arguably supporting players in the story, taking a back seat to the small, interesting creatures in Riley’s mind. In a way, her mind is a carnival of riches and cool characters emerge. I smiled as more characters were introduced. Riley’s imaginary friend from years ago, named Bing Bong, was pulled to the forefront of her emotions, as he was sadly was forgotten in her mind. Who cannot relate to this? A childhood ritual of creating a friend.

I adored the trip through Riley’s mind and marveled at the revelation of the inner workings of her mind- with creative colors and bright interesting lights. What a super-cool adventure for a young film lover to experience! Inside Out is quite sophisticated. The main concern is the level of patience that this film requires. It is not a force-fed story, but rather encourages one to experience and feel. Touching scenes do prevail, but the message I receive from Inside Out is an important one- a multitude of emotions in every human being is normal and the way the film shows them overlap and work together is ingenious- nobody is one emotion all the time- nor should they be as the movie promotes successfully. Human beings are meant to feel.

The film also contains humor. I had to laugh out loud when one character sees a button labeled “puberty” and assumes it is nothing of importance. This inside joke is also alluded to at the conclusion of the film- a sequel perhaps? Given that Riley is only eleven years old, puberty will be the natural progression and an enormous one at that.

Inside Out challenges the norm in animated film and entices audiences to think. It feels genuine, which is impressive in itself. It is sentimental without feeling contrived or corny. The film succeeds on many levels.