White Chicks-2004

White Chicks-2004

Director-Keenen Ivory Wayans

Starring-Shawn Wayans, Marlon Wayans

Scott’s Review #647

Reviewed May 29, 2017

Grade: D

Anything but high art, though at the time of release (2004), seeming like a clever, yet silly, slapstick farce, White Chicks was a film that I found rather enjoyable. Watching the film in 2017, some thirteen years later, however, the film feels dated beyond belief and as dumb as can be. The film also contains Paris Hilton gimmick characters and racial overtones that were lost on me when I first saw the film.

Clearly influenced by the drag comedy (and classic) from 1959, Some Like It Hot, the premise sounds interesting and comical. Kevin and Marcus Copeland (played by the comical Wayans brothers) are a pair of black,  masculine, F.B.I. agents who bungle an undercover investigation and are given one last chance to redeem themselves before being booted from the bureau for good. They are assigned the task of protecting the mega-rich cruse-line heiresses Brittany and Tiffany Wilson, who are in town (at the Hamptons) from a planned kidnapping plot over Labor day weekend. Kevin and Marcus don blonde wigs, freakish makeup, and awkwardly pose as the Wilson sisters in order to save their jobs.

As the story goes on, Kevin and Marcus (as Brittany and Tiffany) develop relationships with various characters including millionaire Latrell Spencer (Terry Crews), who takes an interest in Marcus (thinking he is Tiffany, and white). Other antics occur as the “girls” try their best to formulate friendships with the heiresses snotty friends as they attempt to foil the kidnapping plot.

Similarities to the classic Wilder hit, Some Like It Hot, are tough not to notice, and director, Keenen Ivory Wayans, is smart to borrow from a film considered one of the greatest comedies of all time. Just as Joe and Jerry (Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon) go on the lam to escape mafia figures out of desperation, Kevin and Marcus are desperate to keep their jobs, causing both sets of “impersonators”, to suffer from dire circumstances. Also worth mentioning are similar conclusions in both films as love interest Osgood Fielding III, also a millionaire, as is Spencer in White Chicks, each are not phased by the “big reveal” as the men are de-masked as actually being males.

Clever in 2004, the incorporation of celebrity Paris Hilton, in 2017 now all but faded, seems dated and of the past. In real life being a hotel heiress, characters Brittany and Tiffany (cruise line heiresses) clearly mirror Hilton as spoiled, self centered, and oblivious to everyone around her. The aspect was a good idea at the time of the films release, but now is irrelevant, not even as a nostalgia gag- perhaps in the year 2037 White Chicks might be appreciated more, but I would not hold my breathe.

The overall tone of White Chicks is also fraught with silliness and with one gag after another. Rather than being believable as females, the Wayans brothers look downright frightening and robotic as Brittany and Tiffany. Certainly in comedies suspension of disbelief is required, but the producers should have done a bit more to feminize the characters instead of playing them as goofs.

The ending of the film is no frills and formulaic with no real twist or surprise ending to speak of. The ridiculous misunderstandings with Kevin and Marcus’s real significant others, foolishly believing the men are having affairs with other women seem forced and amateurish. Predictably, when the men profess their love for the girls in earnest fashion, they fall for it hook, line, and sinker and the film wraps in disappointing, standard fashion.

Cute and fresh feeling at the time, White Chicks now feels stale and tired with racial overtones, deemed amusing back in the day, but now seeming mean-spirited and unnecessary. The film is an attempt at recreating a classic comedy for a younger audience, but I would recommend seeing the original Some Like It Hot instead- it is much more enjoyable.

Live and Let Die-1973

Live and Let Die-1973

Director-Guy Hamilton

Starring-Roger Moore, Jane Seymour

Scott’s Review #646

Reviewed May 25, 2017

Grade: A-

When Live and Let Die was released in 1973, it began a new chapter in the James Bond film franchise with the introduction of a new Bond. Sean Connery, refusing to do any more Bond pictures, Roger Moore was crowned the new film hero and successfully made the role his own during his tenure. My personal favorite Bond from top to bottom- I enjoyed the wry humor Moore added- he makes Live and Let Die more than it otherwise might have been with a less charismatic actor. The story and the subsequent elements of the film have issues, but this installment holds a soft spot for me as it was one of my first exposures to the mountainous franchise that is Bond, and I adore the time period of the mid 1970’s.

Bond (Moore) is summoned to duty by his leader, M, after three MI6 agents are simultaneously killed in the Caribbean, New Orleans, and at the United Nations in New York City. Bond is then tasked with figuring out who killed these agents and how the deaths are connected. The adventure takes Bond from Harlem to an unnamed island in the Caribbean, and back to the bayous of southern Louisiana as he tangles with heroin drug lord, Dr. Kananda. Bond’s main love interest in the film is the virginal tarot card reader, Solitaire, played by Jane Seymour.

Live and Let Die is a breakthrough in some ways, though the film admittedly contains both positives and negatives worthy of discussion. Since the film was made in 1973, following a successful run of “Blaxploitation” films like 1971’s Shaft and 1972’s Super Fly, the film is clearly influenced by those in style (for better or worse). This means that all of the villains are black, from the main villain, Kananga, to various henchman and even background criminals growing the massive amounts of heroin shipped to the United States for distribution. Having such representation among a minority group is fantastic and feels cutting edge, but stereotypes such as derogatory racial epithets, a pimp mobile, and the addition of weird voodoo, exist.

Another major flaw to the film, and despite my  overall warmth for Live and Let Die, is the goofiness that the film turns into towards the end of the film. At a certain point, the film feels like a different film from what it starts off as, which becomes quite jarring.-the introduction of Sheriff J.W. Pepper during a Louisiana chase scene turns the film into more of a cheesy Dukes of Hazzard episode , with bumbling law enforcement officials, rather than a quality film, and the southern stereotypes run rampant. Why does a throwaway scene of a speedboat racing through an outdoor wedding feature all high society white folks with nary a black character existing other than as servants? Some diversity in this scene would have been nice considering the film goes out of its way to feature black characters.

Still, many positives  do exist-Live and Let Die has the honor of containing the first ever black Bond girl- the CIA double-agent, Rosie Carver, who sadly meets a grisly ending far too soon. Gloria Hendry’s  chemistry with Roger Moore is readily apparent, though the film chooses to make the character inept rather than a true equal. The smoldering sex scenes between the duo are wonderful and groundbreaking to watch so the film gets major props for pushing the envelope in this way.

Memorable is the terrific title theme song, “Live and Let Die”, by Paul McCartney and Wings. The success of this hit song, especially decades later, does wonders to elevate the film and keep it relevant in pop culture.

Also great to see are the location sequences and good action car chase scenes along the West Side Highway in New York City and into Harlem. A treat for this retro fan is the inclusion of early 1970’s Chevrolet Impalas and Chevy Novas throughout the entire feature film- was Chevy a financial backer? In fact, classic cars are a major inclusion in Live and Let Die, which as a current day viewer is a cool treat and quite retro.

In the way of the primary villain and primary Bond girl, the film misses. Jane Seymour is a dud as Solitaire, a character that really should have been played by a black actress. Seymour and Moore have zero chemistry and her character is weak and simpering, lacking any sort of backbone. Similarly, Yaphet Kotto as Dr. Kananga seems miscast and lacks any real qualities that make him neither devious nor dangerous and his inevitable swan song underwhelms.

Live and Let Die is certainly not the greatest in the Bond collection and suffers from some problematic, now dated aspects, racial issues, and a silly overtone, but, perhaps more so as a terrific childhood memory,  I hold a particular fondness toward this film despite many negatives.

Spa Night-2016

Spa Night-2016

Director-Andrew Ahn

Starring-Joe Seo

Scott’s Review #645

Reviewed May 19, 2017

Grade: B+

On the surface, Spa Night may seem like a straight-ahead independent LGBT themed film (of which in recent years there is no shortage of), but the plot of the film is really twofold. Sure, it tells the coming of age story of a young man’s sexuality, but Spa Night is also a story of the boy’s Korean parents financial struggles and their desire to raise a son into a successful young man, sacrificing their own happiness in the process. The films tone is very subtle and the action moves slowly, but it is a sweet story and a relevant one.

David Cho is a shy Korean-American high school student on the cusp of going to college. His parents (who only speak Korean) have sadly recently lost their take-out restaurant in Los Angeles. The parents struggle to make ends meet (she by waitressing, he by doing odd moving jobs), while David takes SAT classes to ensure he get into a great college. David is also struggling with his sexuality and one night visits a local male spa with drunken friends. He gets a job there and begins to experience male on male shenanigans taking place on the sly in the spa, all the while developing his own blossoming sexual feelings.

David’s development in the story is key- he is resistant to coming out as gay because his parents are traditional Korean, constantly mentioning David finding a girlfriend and succeeding in school, becoming what they have failed to achieve. When, at one point, he fools around with another male in the spa, David insists on a no kissing policy. This reveals to the audience that he has issues with the intimacy with another male and in one compelling scene some self-loathing occurs. When he stares too long at a buddy in the bathroom, while both are inebriated, this clues in the friend, who is then distant towards David.

The film is enjoyable because there are two stories being told rather than one, which helps the film succeed. We also care a great deal about David’s parents, compassionately portrayed rather than the stereotypical “tiger mom” and a rigid father. Wanting only the best for him, and having no clue about his sexuality struggles, they trudge along with their own issues. The father drinks too much and the parents frequently squabble. This is a clue to the film because it explains why David is hesitant to mention anything to them, despite the fact that he is close to his parents.

I also enjoyed the slice of life and coming of age appeal that the film possesses. Several shots of day to day life in Los Angeles are shown, mainly as characters go about their daily routines. The budget allotted Spa Night must have certainly been minimal, but the lesson learned is that some really fantastic films are made for miniscule money, but as long as the characters are rich and the story humanistic, the film succeeds- this is the case in Spa Night.

Almost every single character is of Asian descent- I am guessing all Korean actors. This is another positive I give to Spa Night. In the cinematic world, where other cultures and races are woefully underutilized or still stereo-typically portrayed, how refreshing that Spa Night breaks some new ground with an LGBT centered film with Korean characters.

Spa Night was deservedly crowned the coveted John Cassavetes award at the 2016 Independent Spirit awards (for films made for under $500,000) and director Andrew Ahn is certainly a talented novice director to be on the watch for. He seems destined to tell good, interesting stories about people.

Elle-2016

Elle-2016

Director- Paul Verhoeven

Starring-Isabelle Huppert

Scott’s Review #644

Reviewed May 17, 2017

Grade: A-

Certain to evoke both disgust and intrigue from viewers brave enough to watch it all the way through, and hopefully ponder the character dynamics, Elle is a titillating French film that was showered with heaps of praise upon its release in 2016. Controversial without question, in large part by the films main character, Elle will undoubtedly divide film fans- some heralding the picture as greatness, others detesting it as too exploitive. Not an easy watch by any measure, one aspect is cemented in truth-Isabelle Huppert gives a fantastic performance in a complex and perverse role.

Unique even in its first scene, Michele Leblanc (Huppert) is a ruthless, alpha, business woman, who is raped and beaten by an intruder in her lavish Paris home. The violent act occurs in the very first scene immediately giving the film an “in your face” presence. When the rapist, who wears a ski mask, flees, Michele shakes off the incident with nary an emotional scar. Through backstory we learn that years ago Michele’s father brutally murdered many people and is imprisoned for life. Michele’s mother is an aging glamour girl who hires sexy male escorts. Michele’s son is engaged to a domineering pregnant woman, and her ex-husband is dating a younger woman. Michele lives a complicated life.

At first Michele, for all intents and purposes, seems like a sympathetic character and we feel her pain as she is taunted by a woman in a coffee shop for her fathers past deeds. To say nothing of her rape, we cringe when Michele hears noises and imagines the masked intruder returning to rape again, empathizing with the character. When Michele is harassed by the mystery man- he sends coy notes and leaves “gifts” in her home- we are scared for her. However, as the film goes along Michele’s obsession and other questionable actions, make the character tough to like. I also began to wonder if, perhaps, the entire film was being imagined or dreamed in Michele’s head!

As a fan of acclaimed film director, Claude Chabrol, Elle appears to be heavily influenced by him. Director Paul Verhoeven certainly must have studied his works. No slouch himself- female empowering sex films such as Basic Instinct and Showgirls that he directed, come to mind, he gives Elle a sleek and sexy feel. The fact that it is set in romantic Paris somehow helps and also makes the film glamorous and cultured. Verhoeven even weaves a whodunit into the story for much of the film until the rapist is revealed in shocking fashion.

If the film had ended with the big reveal, this would have made for a compelling, if not mainstream Lifetime television type film, but Elle really takes off from this point. Michele, already fancying her handsome rapist, actually begins a macabre relationship with the man, going so far as to act out the rape again- her fantasies coming true! This story turn may repel the average viewer, but to me, this turns the film into a completely left of center, layered, psychologically themed story. Elle is not a revenge tale or a film about a victimized woman, it is so much more.

What a dynamic performance Ruppert gives and here is why- she successfully makes Michele both sympathetic and reviled. Besides the aforementioned rape complexities, she despises her mother, sleeps with her best friends husband, and in a scene which arguably makes Michele cross the line in reprehensible behavior, she confesses her affair to best friend Anna, just when Anna is at her happiest moment- this is downright cruel! So, no, the audience does not completely sympathize with this character, but how layered does this make the character and what a treat for actress Ruppert to sink her teeth into a character like this one.

With a wounded yet cold central character-Elle-in large part thanks to exceptional direction by Verhoeven and a brilliant portrayal by Huppert, takes Elle into largely unchartered territory and brave waters to create a film that will make the viewer both think and loathe. Part nymphomaniac, wounded bird, and vicious shark, Elle contains a complex and memorable leading character.

10 Cloverfield Lane-2016

10 Cloverfield Lane-2016

Director-Dan Trachtenberg

Starring-Mary Elizabeth Winstead,  John Goodman

Scott’s Review #643

Reviewed May 11, 2017

Grade: B+

10 Cloverfield Lane is a 2016 psychological thriller that is billed as somewhat of a successor to the 2008 hit, Cloverfield, though I fail to see the apparent correlation  between the films. Furthermore, the two stories seemingly have little or nothing to do with one another. Despite these pesky details, 10 Cloverfield Lane is a very good, edge of your seat type film that is unpredictable as well as thought provoking. It is a film worthy of discussion by the time the credits roll- a very good quality for a film to have.

Without any dialogue during the opening sequence (a clever move), we meet Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), a twenty-something woman presumably on the outs with her boyfriend, who we never see. Alone, she flees their residence and drives into the night to parts unknown. The couple is metropolitan, living in central New Orleans. Now in the middle of Louisiana, and hearing radio reports of strange blackouts, Michelle is soon involved in a terrible car accident. When she awakens, she finds herself chained to a bed inside a small bunker inhabited by two men, Howard (John Goodman), and Emmitt (John Gallagher, Jr.). They insist that the outside world is no longer and all human beings are dead as a result of a catastrophic attack. Michelle, initially skeptical, slowly uncovers various clues that leave her baffled as to what the truth really is.

10 Cloverfield Lane may very well be John Goodman’s best film performance. He plays Howard with gusto and mystery and the audience is largely left baffled whether or not to trust this man. Is he a vicious abductor, creating a make believe world to keep Michelle hostage-or is he telling the truth? He plays the character as both creepy and surly, but with a tinge of vulnerability and sadness. I certainly was both fascinated and confused by Howard and could not determine his true motivations.

Winstead  also deserves credit for portraying a female character that is strong yet sympathetic and she is never reduced to playing a victim, a testament to the actresses ability. Over the years Winstead has appeared in several duds (Black Christmas and The Thing) so it is nice to see her in a film worthy of her talents. Michelle is smart and determined to deduce her true surroundings and formulate a clever escape- though in a nice twist by film makers, does she really want to leave the safety of her bunker after all?

In this way producer J.J. Abrams weaves a story layered with twists and turns, which does wonders to keep the tension and the interest at a high level throughout the course of the film. The major question that reoccurs is “what on earth lies outside of the bunker?”

I enjoy how this film is not the typical, cookie-cutter type fare where we root for the female victim to escape the clutches of a male maniac- the film is much deeper and complex than that. Most enjoyable is how events slowly unfold and we, the audience, begin to question thoughts we have harbored throughout the run of the film. A perfect example of this comes in the final chapter when events take off in an entirely different direction than the rest of the film. Feeling a bit suffocated inside the bunker, what a relief to finally have some action occur outside of this location and into fresh air. But what lurks in this new setting?

One small oddity is how the film chooses to include famous actor Bradley Cooper’s voice as Michelle’s boyfriend Ben, heard via telephone only. This went unnoticed by me until the credits rolled and seems like a silly and unnecessary inclusion. Also, we never know what the turmoil is between Michelle and Ben- is their domestic trouble simply a plot driven antic or is there further meaning?

In a nutshell, 10 Cloverfield Lane is a film best watched when knowing not the first thing about the plot or circumstances surrounding events. The film was so enjoyable to me because I did not know the twist, the conclusion, or even who starred in the film. In this way, the film kept all of the elements of surprise away from me and I found the film all the more enjoyable because of this.

Arrival-2016

Arrival-2016

Director-Denis Villeneuve

Starring-Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker

Scott’s Review #642

Reviewed May 9, 2017

Grade: B-

Arrival is the latest entry into what has become a recent trend of science fiction themed films to garner Academy Award praise, either by way of technical achievements or in the case of Arrival, a surprising Best Picture nomination in addition to the more traditional awards notice for categories like sound effects and editing. Traditionally, science fiction fare tends to get little or no recognition in major categories, all the more surprising is the films under the radar style inclusion with the big guns.

Similar in style to recent films such as Interstellar and Gravity, Arrival ultimately proves a disappointment as a complete film, succeeding only in specific avenues like its musical score and a sort of surprise twist ending that the film presents, but at times is downright to say nothing of its tedious moments. Needless to say, I disagree with its Best Picture nomination wholeheartedly.

Not claiming to be the world’s greatest science fiction fan either, at times Arrival does have glimmers of success (mainly in the first act) and some high points in the vein of 2001: A Space Odyssey (the greatest of the greats in the genre), but the good moments ultimately fade as the story lumbers on only to show a brief resurgence in the final act. Sadly, the rest of film is rather middling.

In a role seemingly written just for her, Amy Adams stars as Louise banks, a linguist professor living and teaching in Massachusetts.  When one day a series of twelve extraterrestrial aircraft appear across the world, Louise is summoned by an Army Colonel (Forest Whitaker) to travel to a remote area of Montana where one aircraft has taken up residence, and assist a physicist,Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) in communicating with the aliens. Their goal is to determine why they have come to planet Earth. Interspersed with the main story are strange flashbacks of a life Louise briefly spent with her daughter, who appears to have died of cancer as a teenager.

The premise of the film is reminiscent of another film named Contact, made in 1997, and starring Jodie Foster. In fact, the film seems to borrow aspects from several other famous science fiction films such as the creepy, ominous score that harkens back to 2001: A Space Odyssey in its mysteriousness, to the oddity of The Day the Earth Stood Still. So much so that the film reminds me  too much of other films, it therefore has little identity of its own, especially throughout the mid-section of the film.

Other than the character of Louise, there is no character development and this is glaring among the male cast of top talents like Whitaker and Renner- in fact, the roles are glorified throwaway roles. Save for Renner’s limited involvement in the films climactic “twist”, admittedly barely raising the film above mediocrity, neither character serves much purpose and could be played by any actor.

Whitaker’s G.T. Weber has little motivation other than to convince Louise to take part in the mission. The film also seems unsure whether to delve full force into a romantic entanglement between Louise and Renner’s Ian. Certainly a flirtation exists on the surface, but the film never hits a home run with it. Couldn’t meatier story be created for these two storied actors?

The unique extraterrestrial, a hybrid of tentacles, fingers, and funny eyes,  appearing as a pair humorously nicknamed Abbott and Costello, is impressive from an artistic perspective and this does help the film. Also, the fact that the characters are unsure whether Abbott and Costello are friends or foes is slightly intriguing, but the films main negative is that nothing much really happens other than repeated attempts by Louise to communicate, whimsically staring up into the camera in wonderment, and ultimately figure out the alien’s messages and purpose.

Worthy of mention is a fantastic and ominous musical score that allows the film some climactic and dark components that feel like the highlights of the film. It adds chilling, effective components. In this way, the elements raise the film up a notch from complete blandness.

The best part of the film is its ending and I rather got a bit of chills up and down my spine with the unique and inspired big reveal. In this way Arrival saves itself from being completely lackluster, but too little too late. I would have preferred the film balance the emotions, the surprises, and the thrills a bit more rather than exist mostly as a tedious, uninteresting film. Overall, the outcome of Arrival is more of a retread rather than anything new or original.

Free Fall-2013

Free Fall-2013

Director-Stephan Lacant

Starring-Hanno Koffler, Max Riemelt

Scott’s Review #641

Reviewed May 3, 2017

Grade: A-

Free Fall is a 2013 German language film that is very reminiscent of the highly influential LGBT film, Brokeback Mountain, only set in Germany- during present times. The loneliness, struggles, and deceit that the characters face are similar in both films and both are arguably bleak as overall films. I, however, truly enjoyed this film and embraced the touching aspects and truthful writing.

In the case of Free Fall as compared with Brokeback Mountain, only one of the male characters is a family man- coming to terms with his sexuality in very bad timing, while the other male character is more comfortable in his own skin. A case could be made that a similar characterization is apparent in Brokeback. In both films, a love story develops between two men and outside forces thwart their happiness. The film is a very good watch and the love scenes particularly steamy and emotional.

Marc Borgmann is a young police officer, fresh out of the academy, living with his very pregnant girlfriend, Bettina. They are temporarily staying with Marc’s parents until the baby is born. Seemingly happy, Marc befriends a new recruit, Kay, and they begin a ritual of jogging together in the forest. Both men are young and handsome and very masculine- an aspect in a LGBT film that I personally find as a positive. Kay is much more brazen about his sexuality than Marc, and they eventually fall in love with the added pressure of their very macho surroundings, and Marc’s pregnant girlfriend to contend with.

Free Fall, as the title implies, is not a cheerful, romantic film, as a whole- nor is it completely bleak either. Yes, the love affair between Marc and Kay has some happy moments, but more often than not they face some sort of peril and do not get much time to relax and enjoy each other. As circumstances begin to unravel, Marc’s girlfriend slowly suspects something is going on with Marc, but when Kay is outed (the film suggests he purposely outs himself) during a gay nightclub raid, their lives spiral out of control.

The film itself is very realistic and does not come across as forced nor plot driven. The acting by both principal actors (Koffler and Riemelt) is quite strong and I buy their attraction instantly. The scenes where Marc questions whether the pair are buddies while internally fighting his attraction for Kay, are excellent and very passionate. The range of emotions on the face of actor, Koffler, is excellent. In fact, passion is felt during each and every scene the pair share together.

The way many of the supporting characters are portrayed, however, is disappointing,  yet also a brutal strength of the film. Marc’s parents are quite unsympathetic to either Marc or Kay and are written as stereotypical, anti-progressive and rigid. When Marc’s mother catches Marc and Kay kissing, she coldly chastises Marc for being “raised better than that”. In her mind being gay is bad- the father wholeheartedly sharing her beliefs. Another of the cops in the police academy is written as homophobic, but the film wisely writes Marc and Kay exceptionally well, proudly with none of the unfair effeminate qualities films and television still seem to cling to. The characters are not written for laughs, nor should they be. They are strong men.

The film wisely throws in a handful of supportive characters, like the police force as a whole- teaching and recognizing diversity and inclusion, and a fellow cop who is supportive of the situation with Marc and Kay, but most of the characters come across as harsh and unfeeling to same sex attraction.

The conclusion of the film is slightly disappointing as the story ends abruptly and in a rather unsatisfying way- rumors of a proposed sequel have circulated around the film. Certainly shot on a very small budget, the funding for a follow-up film must still be raised, which hopefully will occur. A nicer (and happier) ultimate resolution would be great.

American LGBT films, sometimes going too much the comical, or worse yet, the sappier route, can take a lesson from this treasure of a German language film. Free Fall is a humanistic, realistic, and brave film that I hope more people find themselves experiencing. The film will touch those who are either involved in or sympathetic towards the LGBT community.