Vice-2018

Vice-2018

Director-Adam McKay

Starring-Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Steve Carell

Scott’s Review #849

Reviewed December 31, 2018

Grade: A

On the heels of 2015’s The Big Short, Adam McKay once again creates an intelligently written, thought-provoking political film based on facts and historical accounts. With Vice (2018) he focuses on former Vice President Dick Cheney and his rise through the political ranks to second in command. Brilliant and wise in every way the film is fair-minded in its approach, but predictably, in this era of “fake news” will be embraced by liberals but shunned by conservatives.

In the first seconds of Vice a disclaimer appears stating that Cheney was a private man with secrets, but the film-makers did the very best they could to relay accurate information. The salty language in this clip will likely elicit chuckles, but McKay stays the course with his statement. Immediately, the film flashes to the September 11 attacks with Cheney sitting in crisis mode about to make an important decision.

Vice then retreats to 1963 Wyoming as a drunken college-aged Dick Cheney (Christian Bale) is pulled over for erratic driving after a bar room brawl. He is nearly dumped by his girlfriend and future wife Lynne Cheney (Amy Adams), who threatens to find another man if Dick does not straighten out. He manages an internship and an admiration for Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell) a staunch Republican and White House Chief of Staff and begins his political climb.

In clever form the film is narrated by a character named Kurt (Jesse Plemons), who we know not the connection to Cheney until the end of the film. In this way there is an added measure of intrigue to the overall film as we know a secret will be revealed. Vice is also unique in the direction, with constant back and forth timeline scenes and a quirky humor throughout. Are the Cheney’s portrayed as ridiculous? No, but there is a sardonic humor directed at them as their ambitions and power-hungry motivations are completely exposed.

What the film does so well is take the viewer through the political state of when Cheney was in office- roughly the early 1970’s until 2008 when Obama took office. The Clinton years are completely skipped, but that is more to do with Cheney being in the private sector rather than an intentional slight. The Nixon years and the George W. Bush years are given hefty screen time and the latter is portrayed as nearly a buffoon as Rockwell portrays him as a boozy, dumb frat boy.

Bale is startlingly good as Cheney and deservedly steals the show. In addition to the forty-pound weight gain the actor endured and the facial and hair treatments (props to the makeup department!) he becomes the man. His body movements, smile, and speech patterns are daringly good. With a sneer and a calculating grin, we see the wheels spinning in Cheney’s head numerous times and Bale is incredible at portraying these thoughts to the audience.

The film contains a slew of well-known actors in important supporting roles worth noting. The depictions of the following are examples of wonderful casting with spot-on representations: Tyler Perry as Colin Powell, LisaGay Hamilton as Condoleeza Rice, Sam Rockwell as George W. Bush, Alison Pill as Mary Cheney, and Lily Robe as Liz Cheney. All portrayals are wonderful to watch especially for viewers who remember the real-life people involved.

Some will undoubtedly complain the film gives a “liberal slant” and portrays the Cheney’s as power-hungry and self-serving. While a valid point, and McKay makes left-leaning choices, the director bravely carves the film into an experience that goes both ways. More than a few scenes (including the final scene) justify Cheney’s actions, in his own mind anyway. Claiming to do for the good of the people and be a true American, his actions and yearning for power can be understood to some degree….or perhaps understood by some people.

Controversial and undoubtedly divisive, but that is not surprising given the current state of American politics, Vice (2018) tells an inspiring and rich story of an elusive politician’s life and policies daring to be forgotten that still resonate across the United States. The more I ponder this film’s importance the greater it becomes, but make sure to stay past the credits for arguably the best moment in the film and of monumental importance in 2018.

Mary Poppins Returns-2018

Mary Poppins Returns-2018

Director-Rob Marshall

Starring-Emily Blunt, Lin-Manuel Miranda

Scott’s Review #848

Reviewed December 29, 2018

Grade: A-

Mary Poppins Returns is a charming mixture of reboot and sequel to the immeasurably glorious original, Mary Poppins (1964). Impossible to live up to the magic of that film, the 2018 version comes quite close with a delightful turn by Emily Blunt, numerous Hollywood stalwarts in small roles, and gleeful musical numbers sure to leave audiences humming upon their exit from theaters.

Events begin to percolate twenty-five years following the original story and the setting is 1935 London amid the Great Depression. His wife recently deceased, Michael Banks (Ben Wishaw) lives in the house he grew up in with his three children and housekeeper (Julie Walters) in tow. His sister Jane lives and works nearby as a labor organizer. Faced with the dreary reality that the historic Banks house may be foreclosed, Mary Poppins (Blunt) arrives in elegant fashion on her umbrella to resume order and save the day.

Though her character does not overtake the film, Emily Blunt is dynamic in the title role. Her prim and proper good British charm and sensibilities crackle with wit and poise. It is tough to imagine anyone but Blunt in the role as she does so well with putting her stamp on it. With a smirk and a quick matter-of-fact tone, the character is both no-nonsense and utterly kind. The casting of Blunt is spot-on as she becomes Mary Poppins.

The London setting is both adorable and fraught with good culture and sophisticated manners. The inclusion of the storied Big Ben is meaningful to the tale in a major way and a teachable moment for children unfamiliar with London at all. Furthermore, the inclusion of an important time period in history-the inclusion of the Great Depression-is immeasurably positive.

The supporting characters are rapturous and a treat for elders familiar with the original Mary Poppins film. Meryl Streep plays Topsy, Mary Poppins eccentric eastern European cousin to the hilt, but never teeters over-the-top. Colin Firth adds snarky charm as the villainous bank president, and Angela Lansbury gives grandmotherly zest as The Balloon Lady, an ode to the original novel. Finally, Dick Van Dyke is a delight as the heroic Mr. Dawes Jr. who comes to the rescue at the last hour.

The real winners though are the enchanting musical numbers. With the lovely London landscape in full view Mary Poppins Returns gets off to a spectacular groove with “(Underneath The) Lovely London Sky”. Performed by the charming Lin-Manuel Miranda in the role of Jack the Lamplighter, Mary Poppin’s sidekick, the star has what it takes to keep up with Blunt. This is evident as the duo mesmerize and entertain with a colorful number, “A Cover is Not the Book”, alongside an animated music hall. Finally, fans will revel in the naughty and clever “Turning Turtle”, performed by Streep.

The costumes and lighting are both big hits. As Jack lights and defuses the street lights we get to see the luminous dawn and the evening sunsets which give the film a nice luminous touch. During the film’s conclusion and subsequent race against the stroke of midnight the moonlight is featured giving the film a warm glow. The period piece costumes are lush, but not garish, adding flavor and capturing the time-period perfectly.

With not quite enough oomph to rival the original Mary Poppins (but really who expected that?) Mary Poppins Returns (2018) nonetheless is enchanting and inspiring in every way that a remake or sequel should be. The film is polite, polished, and filled with an authentic zest given the mixing of human and animations. A fine creation and splendid entertainment.

Double Indemnity-1944

Double Indemnity-1944

Director-Billy Wilder

Starring-Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck

Scott’s Review #847

Reviewed December 26, 2018

Grade: A

Double Indemnity (1944) epitomizes the classic film noir genre in perfect fashion. All the necessary elements exist, from intrigue, suspense and unpredictable thrills, to schemes and dastardly deeds by the major players. The on-screen chemistry between leads MacMurray and Stanwyck provide enough romantic flair and provocative moments to entertain all as developments progress when a smitten man meets a femme fatale and a devious plot is hatched.

Director Billy Wilder was one of the most influential directors of his day with this picture being his first effort resulting in fabulous critical acclaim. The accolades put him firmly on the map for years to come culminating in an Oscar win in 1950 for The Apartment. Wilder uses a clever insurance “double indemnity” clause as its title making it one of the best and most influential crime dramas of the 1940’s staking ground for other similarly themed films.

The story is told via flashbacks as a wounded Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) scrambles to record a confession to his colleague and best friend, Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson). The action rewinds to an average, ordinary day when Neff makes a routine stop to sell insurance and meets flirtatious Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck). She brazenly inquires how she ought to go about taking out an insurance policy on her husband’s life without his knowledge. When Neff deduces Phyllis intends to kill her husband he declines any further help but cannot forget the ravishing beauty and her charms. He ultimately succumbs to her whims and aids her in a wicked crime.

The adventure that the audience is taken on is the most fun aspect of the film. We already deduce that Neff is involved in shenanigans but most of the fun occurs after the murder has been committed and Phyllis and Neff’s scheme begins to unravel. The added component of Neff’s colleague and close friend, Keyes, being in the mix as he starts to suspect foul play is equally compelling. Will he finally figure out that Neff is involved in the plot? Will Keyes cover for Neff if discovered? Will Phyllis’s past-history catch up with her and twist events in a different direction? These questions make the film a great picture.

A debate among viewers can ensue as to whether Neff is sympathetic or not as this point continues to cross my mind with each viewing. One can safely say that he is seduced by the charms of an eager and aggressive woman, but if he is to blame for the crimes is she not even more to blame? As events unfold sides can be drawn and defenses of character’s can be more focused particularly after Double Indemnity’s startling conclusion.

Neff is not a strong, heroic character and is rather weak, easily being manipulated by the cagey Phyllis. Interesting is how little time it takes for him to succumb to her plot and willingly do the crime for her. In the final act Neff does show some needed muscle, but this is only because his “goose is cooked” and he finally realizes the dire nature of Phyllis’s character, but shouldn’t he have discovered this sooner?

MacMurray and Stanwyck have smoldering chemistry and this is a major success of the film keeping the audience invested in the plot. The added measure of the murder victim being rather unknown to the audience adds a macabre rooting value to the pair. Wilder never presents the plot as a romantic triangle or Neff and Phyllis having any other romantic entanglements, so the only roadblock is the insurance company and their suspicions surrounding Phyllis.

Wilder adapted the screenplay from James M. Cain’s novella of the same name and spins a potent film noir from these pages. Double Indemnity (1944) is intelligent, sexy, and mysterious mixing in as much sultry poise as witty dialogue. Thanks to the allure of fine actors and a stunning adventure on a train, the film is a measured success and a highly influential cinematic story.

Elf-2003

Elf-2003

Director-Jon Favreau

Starring-Will Ferrell, James Caan

Scott’s Review #846

Reviewed December 20, 2018

Grade: B-

Elf (2003) is one of the few lasting Christmas hits of recent memory or at least one that many fans make a regular viewing experience each holiday season. The film is light and unarguably a safe, feel-good experience mixing a hopeful Christmas message with comic gags and romance. The key to its success is Will Ferrell who possesses wonderful comic timing. More wholesome than my tastes and lacking plausibility the film does succeed as a family friendly, ready-made, fun experience.

The story revolves around one of Santa’s elves (Ferrell) named Buddy who learns he is human and was orphaned as an infant. Revealed that his biological father Walter (James Caan) resides in New York City, Buddy embarks on a trip to find the man and spread Christmas cheer in a world filled with grizzled and cynical human beings. In predictable comic form Buddy has trouble adjusting to the human world and the fast-paced lifestyle with misunderstandings arising repeatedly. Buddy eventually wins over his father and family finding love with downtrodden Jovie (Zooey Deschanel).

Hot on the heels of his Saturday Night Live stint ending in 2002, Ferrell was primed to embark on a successful film career. Elf is a great role for him as it capitalizes on his comic timing and energy and the setup works. At 6’3″ who better to play an elf for laughs than a hulking middle-aged man? Due to his talents Ferrell makes the role of Buddy fun, appealing, and the highlight of the film. With a lesser talent the character would have been too annoying (as it is there are too many hug jokes) and the overall film would have suffered.

Other than Ferrell the supporting roles are nothing memorable other than Caan’s role. The once dashing star of films such as The Godfather (1972) Caan still has the charm and charisma to appeal, though the balding and dyed head of hair does nothing for him. A small role by television star Bob Newhart as Papa Elf is fine, but Deschanel’s role and Mary Steenburgen’s role as Emily, Walter’s wife, could have been played by many actresses and nothing is distinguishable about either part. Lesser roles like Walter’s secretary, Walter’s boss, and the Gimble’s store manager are stock parts with no character development.

A major high-point is the New York City setting and the exterior scenes are aplenty. Filmed in 2002 and released in 2003, the location shots were completed not long after 9/11 and showcasing a city with such recent decimation adds to the film’s appeal. Scenes in Rockefeller Center, Central Park, and the Empire State Building are prominently featured making the film festive and merry. What greater city is there at Christmastime than New York?

Elf remains an entertaining experience with enough shiny ornaments and fun moments in the department store and Walter’s office to hold interest. The luster wears thin at the conclusion as all the traditional elements come together. Jovie leads a chorus of strangers in “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town”, Walter quits his job without concern for paying bills, and everyone happily rides off into a sparkling winter wonderland. This may satisfy some, but I wanted more conflict than a troupe of Central Park Rangers chasing Santa through the park.

A film that might be paired nicely with holiday favorites of similar ilk such as National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (1989) or Christmas with the Kranks (2004), Elf (2003) is an energetic affair with a charismatic lead actor. Containing silly moments, but a spirited and worthwhile message nestled nicely within, the film is worth a watch if in the mood for slapstick. More thought-provoking holiday films with deeper merriment and stronger flair exist, but for a chuckle or two Elf works well.

Meet Me in St. Louis-1944

Meet Me in St. Louis-1944

Director-Vincente Minnelli 

Starring-Judy Garland, Margaret O’Brien

Scott’s Review #845

Reviewed December 19, 2018

Grade: A

With talents such as Vincente Minnelli and Judy Garland involved in a project it is tough for the results not to be resounding, and this is the case with Meet Me in St. Louis (1944), a treasured musical with enough songs and melodrama to last a lifetime. The film is a lively and earnest achievement from both stars when each was at their prime and the film rich with flavor containing a myriad of good touches.

Meet Me in St. Louis is really an ensemble piece featuring a bevy of actors, but the film belongs to Garland for the musical numbers alone. In fact, the film is groundbreaking in that it set the tone for the slew of MGM musicals to follow during the 1950’s and 1960’s. The film is considered one of the greatest and memorable musicals of all time and I certainly share this sentiment.

The story revolves around the upper-middle class Smith family and the setting is 1903 St. Louis. In lovely form the film is composed of seasonal vignettes taking place over the course of a year. Trials and tribulations erupt especially involving the romantic entanglements of eldest sisters Rose (Lucille Bremer) and Esther (Garland) and the possibility of the family having to relocate to New York City. Along with the Smith parents, Rose and Esther are three other siblings, grandpa, and Katie the maid. The household is filled with glee, music, and heartbreak.

The seasonal setup the film chooses to showcase is a huge success and elicits a warm sensation. As the title card displays “Summer 1903” we are welcomed into a sunny and picturesque street amid the St. Louis backdrop, perfectly mid-western. The Smith home is showcased, and the viewer welcomed into an idyllic world of a bonded family. In this way Meet Me in St. Louis feels homespun and like a good best friend, able to be watched and re-watched many times over and during any season of the year as it offers a summer fair, a spooky Halloween sequence and a dazzling Christmastime segment.

Other than Esther, the most memorable and fascinating character is Tootie (Margaret O’Brien). A mere six-years-old during filming O’Brien gives a startlingly good turn and packs emotional wallop enriching a character arguably interpreted as being obsessed with death with some needed humor. She buries her dolls on a dare throws flour in a man’s face on Halloween thereby “killing” him.  Her biggest scene though occurs during a melt-down when Tootie destroys her beloved snowmen in the family lawn. The actress portrays such rage and despair during this scene that is easy to forget how young she was. She was rewarded for her efforts with an honorary Oscar.

The musical numbers by Garland are absolute treasures. Highlights include “The Trolley Song” performed as Esther rides the afternoon trolley across town hoping that the boy next door whom she is madly in love with, John (Tom Drake), will be on the same trolley. The gorgeously performed number “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” is my favorite.  Following a lavish Christmas Eve ball Esther sings the song to Tootie and nestled within its lyrics are emotions such as hope and sadness.

Meet Me in St. Louis (1944) is a film that has it all and can be enjoyed by audiences of all ages. With memorable musical numbers, romance, drama, and a wholesome, timeless sensibility, the film is a beloved favorite to be dusted off from time to time. Like the finest of wines this film gets better and better with age.

Beatriz at Dinner-2017

Beatriz at Dinner-2017

Director-Miguel Arteta

Starring-Salma Hayek, John Lithgow

Scott’s Review #844

Reviewed December 18, 2018

Grade: B+

Thanks to a well-written screenplay and a thought-provoking idea, Beatriz at Dinner (2017) spins an interesting concept about politics and class systems discussed over dinner. Salma Hayek and John Lithgow give tremendous performances as characters with opposing viewpoints helping the film to succeed, though a flawed ending and cookie-cutter style supporting characters detract from the overall enjoyment.

Set in southern California, presumably around Los Angeles, Beatriz (Hayek) works as a holistic health practitioner. Moonlighting as a massage therapist, she becomes stranded at the wealthy home of one of her clients, Kathy (Connie Britton), who she views as a friend. Kathy invites Beatriz to stay for dinner where she encounters real-estate mogul Doug Strutt (Lithgow) and the two gradually develop a feud based on their differing politics and viewpoints.

The setup and flow of Beatriz at Dinner is commendable and paces the film nicely, sort of a day in the life of Beatriz. The film begins as the character awakens to her pet dogs and goat noisily beginning their day and culminates late at night, the dinner party concludes, and the last glass of wine consumed. In this way the film has a nice packaged feel that keeps the story confined and structured.

Being an independent film, the budget is small and most of the scenes are shot in the spacious modern house overlooking the Pacific Ocean, which works well. Gorgeous and vast, many rooms are used as conversations among the characters occur, many overlapping each other. Beatriz at Dinner could have been a play, and this helps with the good flow.

Hayek and Lithgow are the main draws as their initial guarded pleasantries progress to venom and violence, albeit largely imagined. Initially thinking that Beatriz is the household help, Doug is inquisitive about her entry into the United States and makes numerous insulting gestures, mispronouncing her Mexican hometown and mocking her profession. Beatriz calmly endures his racism and begins discussions about how his business harms animals and people as emotions escalate. The actors play off each other wonderfully and share chemistry.

With each glass of wine Beatriz becomes more brazen and shares a story of how people in her village lost their land to real estate development and shares a humanistic viewpoint while Doug sees life as to be lived while you can. Despite their dislike for each-others lifestyle the film has Beatriz and Doug at least listen to one other and attempt to understand the other’s opinion, which is more than can be said for the supporting players motivations or lack thereof.

Besides Kathy, while sympathetic to Beatriz’s calm demeanor and life rich philosophies, she also realizes that Doug is her family’s meal ticket. The other party attendees are written as polite yet uninteresting twits with nothing to talk about except a reality star’s nude photos, dinner, or a handful of other nothing topics. Chloe Sevigny, Jay Duplass, Amy Landecker, and David Warshofsky have little to do other than stand around and react to meatier written material that Hayek and Lithgow get to play.

Beatriz at Dinner had me in its corner until the film takes a jarring turn during the final act. As Beatriz leaves the party and sets about on her way home, she hastily decides to grab a letter opener and bludgeon Doug to death as the dinner guests hysterically realize what is happening. Instead of leaving things be the film chooses to make this only Beatriz’s fantasy and then have her go to the ocean and walk into the waves. Does this mean she commits suicide or is this another fantasy? Unclear and unsatisfying is this final sequence.

I am not sure why Beatriz at Dinner is considered a comedy. Perhaps a mild dark comedy, I argue that the film is a straight-ahead drama and lacks the witty humor that made dinner party themed films such as Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966) and The Boys in the Band (1970) such masterpieces.

Beatriz at Dinner (2017) is a valiant attempt at offering social commentary in a time when discussions like these are needed in films and the project largely succeeds. An impassioned yet subdued performance by Hayek deservedly earned her a Female Lead Independent Film nomination. Rich writing garnered the film a Best Screenplay nomination too, but a big whiff at the end lowers the overall experience a notch.

The Favourite-2018

The Favourite-2018

Director-Yorgos Lanthimos

Starring-Olivia Colman, Emma Stone, Rachel Weisz

Scott’s Review #843 

Reviewed December 17, 2018

Grade: A

The Favourite (2018) is a deliciously wicked comedy about greed, jealousy, and rage during early eighteenth century England. The primary rivalry consists between two feuding cousins, each jockeying for position and “favor” with the Queen, both resorting to dire methods to achieve these goals. With splendid acting and grand designs, director Yorgos Lanthimos adds to his growing collection of odd and compelling works with the dark comedy offering.

The film takes place amid the British and French war of 1708 as a physically and mentally ill Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) rules the country by way of her confidante and secret lover, Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough (Rachel Weisz). Though deals and modifications must be made with the ruling Parliament Anne has final say in all decisions including doubling the state tax to pay for the war. When Abigail (Emma Stone), a distant cousin of the Duchess, and of former royalty herself, arrives seeking work as a servant, she quickly plots her way to the bedside of the Queen at all costs.

Lanthimos, known for such bizarre treats like Dogtooth (2009), The Lobster (2015), and The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017), is not afraid to get down and dirty and wrestle with macabre subject matter. The Favourite is the director’s most mainstream affair yet and is quickly becoming one of my favorite modern-day film makers. As he now charters into royal territory the possibilities are endless in a world of politics and scheming. Some morose highlights include an abused bunny, naked tomato throwing, and pheasant shooting. The film is not kind to animals.

Despite being a mainstream affair in the world of Lanthimos, The Favourite is a bizarre and brazen experience. The heaps of award nominations are quite remarkable given the film will not be enjoyed by all audiences. Despite categorized as a comedy (see more below) the film is not an easy watch and none of the characters are likable. Abigail is sympathetic at first and quite humorous but as the plot develops her true colors and motivations are exposed. Conversely, Anne and Sarah are initially despicable, but garner support as the story evolves.

The comic elements are the best elements and clever lines come at a deliciously rapid pace. The best dialogue is the sparring between Sarah and Abigail as the women realize they are bitter enemies and each attempt to one-up the other in a chess game for Anne’s attentions. Anne, known for fits of emotion, stuffing her face with cake and vomiting, and berating the servants, offers her own comic wit. The language is salty bordering on vulgar, but that is what makes the experience so stellar and morosely enjoyable.

The musical score adds muscle and the diabolical string arrangements give The Favourite a gruesome, morbid atmosphere. The feeling of dread is prevalent and downright haunting at times as the audience, knowing that some sort of shenanigans will soon occur, does not know when or how. This quality enhances the overall product and gives ambiance to an already superior piece.

Finally, the acting in The Favourite is brilliant and worth the price of admission. With heavyweights like Colman, Stone, and Weisz this is unsurprising, but the gravy is in the individual moments. The chemistry the women share together is what works best as every scene sparkles with exceptional deliver and a sly sense of humor. When the three women appear together-these are the best scenes.

Deserving of all the accolades lauded upon it The Favourite (2018) is an experience that contains all elements of a fine film though one that is quite the unconventional work. With glistening art direction, set pieces that shine with authenticity, and costumes that would make Scarlett O’Hara drool with envy, The Favourite takes all of its parts and spins a crafty tale that encompasses the entire film.

Downsizing-2017

Downsizing-2017

Director-Alexander Payne

Starring-Matt Damon, Hong Chau

Scott’s Review #842

Reviewed December 14, 2018

Grade: B

Downsizing (2017) is a film that appeared on many critic’s top ten lists for the year, but that to the average viewers did not resonate well. Part of this discrepancy could have been the way the film was marketed. Despite having Kristen Wiig among its cast, the film is NOT a comedy but rather a social commentary with some science-fiction and dramatic elements mixed in.

Downsizing contains a wonderful and thought-provoking premise, but ultimately does not piece together all parts in a completely satisfying way leaving an erratic and disjointed result. The elements are all there- a charismatic lead actor (Damon), an inventive, socially relevant premise, and a humanistic and beautiful message. Within the film are some gorgeous cinematic treats of picturesque Norway that will make one melt if watched on the big screen. The film has enough positives to recommend without it being truly great.

The story begins as a Norwegian scientist discovers a way to solve the world overpopulation state and global warming problems with a discovery that shrinks people causing them to use few resources. Paul and Audrey Safranek (Damon and Wiig) decide to undergo the procedure and begin a new life in a gorgeous community designed for small people. When Audrey bails at the last-minute leaving Paul on his own, he must forge ahead with a lonely life anyway, unable to be transformed from small to large. He meets Ngoc Lan (Chau), a Vietnamese activist who changes his life forever due to her selflessness. Paul realizes he does have a purpose after all.

The positives of the film are mostly in the individual components. How true that the modern world suffers from overpopulation and director Alexander Payne paints a dire picture of the eventual result. This gives the film a left-leaning environmental opinion that I relish. I was immediately engaged in the humanistic approach Payne relays and the possibilities of a new world with no suffering and riches for all. Of course, this is not sustainable nor realistic as the film shows

The romantic dynamic is also a major win.  The first half features Paul and Audrey as the romantic couple; a likable pair who struggles with bills and cares for planet earth.  Suddenly, this changes and Audrey is discounted from the equation in favor of Paul and Ngoc Lan. An unexpected item, their romance is a slow build, seemingly opposite types of people. He is laid back and thoughtful, she brash and outspoken, yet they work wonderfully as a couple. As a viewer I became wholly invested in them by the closing credits.

Newcomer Huang Chau (Ngoc Lan) is the standout and nearly upstages Damon. The young actress garnered a Golden Globe nomination for this role and deservedly so. Far too few good roles for Asian actors Chau hits the jackpot with this part. Her character is sympathetic yet tough, once an outspoken advocate, she has endured prison only to lose a leg and be reduced to a house cleaner in her new world.

Payne makes the point that a new society does not equate to joy, and this is the crux of the film. At first the community is lavish with luxurious homes and idyllic surroundings, but when Paul meets Ngoc Lan and sees her world of pain, starvation, and neglect he is dumbfounded. This is a sad reality and leads him to make rash decisions about himself and his future.

Where Downsizing misses the boat is with the execution. As strong as the premise is, the story meanders. From Paul and Audrey’s mundane life in Nebraska to the new society to the slums to the introduction of the world ceasing to exist and finally another world being created, there is too much going on. The dots never connect leaving the overall experience of Downsizing erratic.

Christoph Walz deserves a better role than Dusan, an aging Serbian party boy. The character is annoying and a weak attempt at portraying spoiled white men having all the advantages. His character is unnecessary and does not work.

Downsizing (2017) is quite the brave effort holding an ingenious premise and a worthwhile message. I recommend the film for these reasons as Payne attempts to tell a story never told before and that is to be championed. The elements do not add up and the film is missing a solid structure, but as a whole the film is to be admired for what it intends to do.

Mrs. Miniver-1942

Mrs. Miniver-1942

Director-William Wyler

Starring-Greer Garson, Walter Pidgeon

Scott’s Review #841

Reviewed December 13, 2018

Grade: A-

Released in 1942 amid the horrific World War II, Mrs. Miniver (1942) was a smash hit, winning over audiences concerned with the troubled and uncertain times. Decades later the film does not age as well as other similar themed films, but nonetheless still entertains and tells a good story with an important theme. The film is nestled in the war drama genre with a bit of romance thrown in. The film won numerous Oscars the year of its release including Best Picture and star Greer Garson winning for Best Actress.

The story is told from the perspective of an affluent British family and the struggles they face to keep things together during growing peril. The focus mostly remains squarely on unassuming housewife, Kay Miniver (Garson). The supporting players do much to flesh out the film with wonderful performances by Walter Pidgeon, Teresa Wright, and Henry Travers as Clem Miniver, Carol Beldon, and Mr. Ballard, respectively. The direction by William Wyler is astounding and adds to the perfectly crafted ambiance and homey details.

The Miniver’s live a comfortable life in a whimsical village outside of London. Quite idealized, they own a large garden and a motorboat on the river Thames. Along with Kay and Clem, their three children of varying ages and their housekeeper and cook reside with them. Besides the parents, the central couple are son Vin (Richard Ney) and the prominent Carol (Wright), the pair initially disagreeing on politics, but finally falling madly in love. As the soap-opera style family situations continue to occur the war grows closer and closer to their house.

As Mrs. Miniver progresses, Vin enlists in the army to assist with war efforts, a German Nazi breaks into the Miniver house, a central character dies, and bombs and planes crash. Through it all, Kay remains stoic and takes the family through challenging situations adding much melodrama to the film. The woman’s journey and resolve to keep everything and everyone intact is the core of the film.

The film is mainly a family drama with both the Miniver’s and the townspeople experiencing trials and tribulations. In this way Mrs. Miniver risks being a one trick pony, albeit an emotional and teary-eyed one.  The rich characteristics and the polished nature make the film more than it ought to be and the superlative cast and production values as well as the timeliness of the film’s release undoubtedly made it what is was in 1942.

In present times, however, Mrs. Miniver seems diminished in importance and relevance with a sappy and overly sentimental feel, World War II in the distant past and several other wars come and gone. Apparent is that Wyler carefully packaged the film to hit every emotion from the bombastic musical score to the proper English characters, to the comic relief housekeeper. The film is a giant Hollywood production, but perhaps a bit too perfect to age with any zest or reason to watch more than once?

The film might be better remembered for its strong female lead. Told from Kay’s perspective, unusual in 1942 was for a film (especially with a war theme) not to have the story from the male point of view. Still refreshing in 2018, this quality was downright groundbreaking at the time. Kay stays strong and proud through the ravages of war that are closing in on her family with unbridled boldness and nary a simpering quality. An early champion for strong, female driven characters and in a smaller way, Wright’s Carol is also a muscled female role model.

Mrs. Miniver (1942) is a well-crafted film of its time that displays lavish production values and strong characters worthy of admiration. For a glimpse back into the 1940’s time-capsule, especially for those fans of good, solid drama, the film is a major win. There are no major flaws to harp on, but the overall piece has not aged especially well and other similar films (Casablanca, 1942) are more memorable affairs.

Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool-2017

Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool-2017

Director-Paul McGuigan

Starring-Annette Bening, Jamie Bell

Scott’s Review #840

Reviewed December 11, 2018

Grade: B+

Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool (2017) showcases a compelling performance by stalwart actress Annette Bening as she plays faded, insecure Hollywood glamour girl, Gloria Grahame. The film focuses only on Grahame’s final two years of life as she battles breast cancer and begins a relationship with a much younger man, Peter Turner (Jamie Bell).

The film is a sad yet poignant dedication to the star featuring enough performance gusto from its actors to make up for a limited span of time and too much back and forth within the timeline that complicated the film too much. As a result, Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool is endearing but does not hit it out of the park.

The entire film takes place between 1979 and 1981 as actress Gloria Grahame, her best days behind her, resides in a rented Liverpool room. In 1979 she has found a bit of success in local theater and befriends her much younger male neighbor. The pair become romantic partners and experience trials and tribulations as the film teeters back and forth between Grahame’s ailing final days in 1981 to happier times in Los Angeles and New York. Gloria also befriends and finally lives with Peter’s parents, who care for her unflinchingly.

The story is enveloped in sadness but is not a downer either. The film begins towards the end of Gloria’s illness though the audience is not aware yet of the seriousness of her disease. Insisting she just has painful gas, the tender relationship between the actress and Peter is explored. The story then parlays back to 1979 when Peter and Gloria first meet- he an aspiring actor unaware of who she is until a bartender makes the connection. In this way the film makes it clear this is not a story about a young man seeking the fortunes of a presumably wealthy woman. I like this point as the story is about romance not money grubbing.

Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool belongs to Bening. The supporting roles are well cast taking nothing away from either Bell’s performance or a nice turn by Julie Walters as Peter’s mum. Bening, however, does wonders emulating the mannerisms of Grahame with an innocent, damsel in distress nature (mirroring the roles she made famous). Bening amazes at revealing the actress’s insecurities and fear of aging and an older appearance. During a fight Peter cruelly refers to her as an “old lady” and we see the comment strike a deadly blow the same as if she had been physically slapped. Bening is so good at portraying a myriad of emotions over the course of the film.

Another high point comes towards the end of the film. I love the way the film connects an earlier argument (and breakup) between Gloria and Peter with a later sequence. As Peter assumes she was carrying on with another man when he learns she lied about her whereabouts, the haunting reality is later revealed, changing the audience’s entire perception of the turn of events. This is good writing by the screenwriters.

To counter the above point, the constant back and forth from 1981 to 1979 and everywhere in between detracts from the enjoyment of the overall film for me. Spanning only two years the film spends way too much time in multiple locations without enough explanation. Suddenly Gloria and Peter are in Los Angeles having dinner with her mother and sister at Gloria’s modest house, then they are in New York City in her lavish Park Avenue apartment. The film would have been better suited with a straightforward approach chronicling events from 1979 to 1981 in sequence.

Another negative is the omission of any scenes prior to 1979. The actress’s career thrived during the 1940’s and 1950’s so it would have been interesting to capture those earlier days. If the fear was that Bening was too old to pass for a younger Grahame, another actress could have been used for those scenes. While a clip of the real Grahame winning the Oscar and a few clips of her starring in films are nice, way more time could have been spent on more story.

Thanks to a brilliant performance by Bening and an emotional story that in large part succeeds, Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool (2017) is a win. Not recognized during awards season as originally anticipated, this could have been due to the overly complex timeline and thus the limiting feeling the film produced. The production and writing are very good, but lack greatness.

Green Book-2018

Green Book-2018

Director-Peter Farrelly

Starring-Viggo Mortensen, Mahershala Ali

Scott’s Review #839

Reviewed December 10, 2018

Grade: A

To be candid, it was not originally on my radar to see Green Book (2018) despite the high regard and the bevy of award nominations reaped upon the film. From the trailers, and admittedly my own assumptions, the production looked somewhat of a Driving Miss Daisy (1989) role-reversal with the standard over-saturation and glossy view of racism. I confess to being wrong in my initial assessment as Green Book is a wonderful film with a multitude of worthy efforts, successfully crossing the drama and comedy barriers delivering an astounding message of compassion and benevolence.

Viggo Mortensen and Mahershali Ali show tremendous flair and exhibit fine chemistry as an Italian blue-collar driver and an astute African-American classical pianist, respectively. The men travel together in the Deep South circa 1962 on a concert tour requested by the renowned musician despite the dangers of southern racism and prejudice.

Mortensen’s Tony Lip is a struggling New York City bouncer who needs any gig for two months while the club he works for is closed for renovations. Ali plays a sophisticated musician who needs a driver with a measure of toughness, and Tony comes highly recommended. The two men initially are strangers but form a close-knit bond and a deep understanding for each other as they become better acquainted during their journey.

The first half of the film focuses on Tony. As the viewer we experience his Italian lifestyle. He possesses a strong family unit, a dedicated wife, Dolores, (Linda Cardellini), and loves to eat, winning a hot dog eating contest for $50 to pay the rent. He thinks nothing of beating an unsavory character to a bloody pulp if they are out of line and has more than one link to the mafia. Still, he is a decent man, with a salt of the earth mentality, and loves his family.

“Doc” Don Shirley (Ali) is the opposite of Tony. Raised as a highly gifted musical prodigy, he surrounds himself with high culture, well-versed in many languages, and of affluent means. Nonetheless, he is a wounded soul and drinks himself into oblivion each night, frequently deep in thought pondering life and its problems.  Despite being black he knows nothing about black culture.

Don is highly uncomfortable in his own skin while Tony is happy with who he is, a major point that the film hits home on as the men have conflict. Don feels Tony can do so much better to educate himself while Tony sees nothing wrong with being who he is. The men forge a middle ground as they come to respect each other. Ferrelli does a wonderful job in showing Tony as Don’s protector as he is accosted by rednecks or is caught with another man at the YMCA. In turn, Don helps Tony write warm love letters to Dolores.

Green Book is a film about friendship and how different backgrounds can result in a closeness and respect. The film is humanistic in its approach to an overall message and is the feel-good film of 2018 without the slightest thread of sappiness or any contrived situations. In fact, the film is best on two real-life men who remained friends until their deaths.

Director, Peter Farrelly, known mostly for silly films such as Dumb and Dumber (1994) finds breakthrough success with Green Book. The film is mainstream material, but of a sort that can be appreciated for the goodness is exudes. Don exhibits racism on more than one occasion- Birmingham and Mississippi specifically- but also experiences kindness from other folks.

Worth noting is that Don experiences discrimination and abuse not only from whites, but also from blacks. In this way Farrelly avoids the usual stereotypes or elicits humor from them as in the scene where Tony teaches Don to enjoy fried chicken, a food theretofore foreign to Don.

A key point to the film occurs early on when Dolores graciously invites two black workers to make a repair thinking nothing of treating the men to refreshing lemonade. Tony, witnessing the empty glasses in the sink throws them in the trash not wanting to drink from the same glasses. Is Tony along with his family, racist or uncomfortable with blacks? Regardless of the answer, at the films conclusion they think very differently which is monumental. The final sequence of Green Book is teary, heartfelt, and provides a feeling of incredible warmth.

In the tumultuous times of current American history, Green Book (2018) is sentimental and inspirational in a day where racism has once again reared its ugly head thanks to the chaotic political environment. The film is a lesson-learned in how far we have come as a society, but also how things have not changed so much and how much further we need to go creating equality for all. Farrelly creates a timely and wonderful film that everyone can appreciate.

Casablanca-1942

Casablanca-1942

Director-Michael Curtiz

Starring-Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman

Scott’s Review #838

Reviewed December 7, 2018

Grade: A

Casablanca (1942) is a classic style Hollywood film made during a decade when big studio productions were all the rage. The film may very well be in the top ten creations of its day and a film that nearly everyone has either seen or is aware of. A grand romantic World War II drama released at the perfect time, the film contains legendary stars Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman and is flawless in nearly every way as a lavish production ought to be.

Bogart stars as Rick Blaine, an expatriate who owns a lavish nightclub in Casablanca, Morocco. The time is December 1941, before the United States emerged into the vicious World War II. His clientele ranges from French and German officials to refugees attempting to flee the country, fearful of being stuck in a foreign land. Mixed in with the melee of varied characters is Ilsa (Bergman) a former flame of Rick’s, who appears with new husband Victor, a Czech leader. Ilsa begs Rick for help escaping the country and their ended romance begins to blossom once again.

Through scenes we see Rick and Ilsa together, living a perfect life in pre-war Paris. They happily co-exist, sharing a happy life unaware of the conflict and secrets that will emerge in Casablanca merely two years later. As Victor is initially presumed dead, this is cause for Ilsa’s initial freedom and romance with Rick.

Back in Casablanca, Rick is in possession of important letters that will allow the holder to escape the city and be bound for safety in another country.  While Ilsa is desperate for these letters, she is also madly in love with Rick, and vice versa, adding a strong romantic element to the film. Supporting characters are mixed into the plot as desperation and impending doom interplay.

Casablanca is a film with a myriad of things going on simultaneously which is a major part of its draw. From the obvious romance of Rick and Ilsa- the focal point of the story-part of the draw are the sub-plots weaved within. The nasty Nazi Major Heinrich Strasser encompasses the future Third Reich and the devastation this group would ultimately cause. A multitude of supporting characters and extras perfectly flesh out both the cast and the look and feel of the film.

The most interesting character is Rick. Once an idealistic and moral man he has changed becoming cynical and broken. In this way the film nearly becomes a character study. The audience sees the change in Rick and slowly realizes he has given, the war the culprit. The final sequence reveals the fate of Rick and Ilsa, their doomed romance assuredly coming as no surprise, true to the message of the film. An “unhappily ever after” result was quite rare in a big studio production in this day and this is a testament to the good written story.

The featured piano number and Casablanca’s “theme song” is the lovely yet melancholy “As Time Goes By”. Beautifully played by house pianist and close friend of Rick’s, Sam (Dooley Wilson), the number is instrumental to the plot and specifically to Rick and Ilsa’s romance. The song is a painful memory of the once idyllic life the pair shared.

Made in 1941 and released in 1942 the timing of the film is the key to its unrelenting success. American audiences undoubtedly found the film identifiable and the uncertainties of the impending war put their current freedoms at risk. In this way Casablanca was marketed wonderfully and the compelling nature of the film resonated. Especially in the case of Rick audiences undoubtedly shared his conflict and “for the greater good” perspective.

Casablanca (1942) is a film that educates, entertains, and romances without exhibiting a shred of pretension. From the crisp black and white filming and the unique use of light and shadows to reflect character’s thoughts, the film is lovely to look at and possesses a lofty budget. Immersed in the richness is a sadness and a timely message about a changed man, a failed romance, and the ravages of war that still resonate decades later.

Hereditary-2018

Hereditary-2018

Director-Ari Aster

Starring-Toni Colette, Alex Wolff

Scott’s Review #837

Reviewed December 6, 2018

Grade: B+

Hereditary (2018) is a horror film that provides quite an unsettling feeling long after the credits have rolled, which is always a positive in my book. Moreover, the film contains more than a handful of effectively chilling moments and a breathtakingly good performance by its star Toni Colette, who delivers the goods in spades. The film is the debut project by writer and director Ari Aster, who certainly has a bright future ahead of him.

We meet the Graham family- artist Annie (Colette) and husband Steve, along with sixteen-year-old Peter (Alex Wolff) and thirteen-year-old Charlie as they mourn the death of Annie’s mother. As Annie sees an apparition of her mother in her workshop, the mother’s grave is desecrated prompting her to attend a support group to deal with her problems. When Charlie then tragically dies in a gruesome accident, Annie begins to teeter over the edge putting her remaining loved ones at risk.

The story that Aster writes is tremendously hard to follow leaving many perplexities and assured questions about the plot. Was fellow support group attendee Joan (Ann Dowd) a sinister cultist along with Annie’s mother or merely a kindly friend trying to help? Did Annie kill her family or were their deaths fated, a result of an unstoppable force hence the “hereditary” title? A post- film synopsis will need to be read by many viewers (myself included) for clarity.

Frightful sequences resonated with me for days following my viewing of Hereditary, so much so that a second viewing may very well be required. The decapitation of Charlie is one of the creepiest scenes I have ever witnessed as well as tidbits such as Annie furiously pounding her head on the attic door, clearly not herself. Not to be outdone, Steve bursting into flames and Annie slowly beheading herself with piano wire while coven members look on may lead to nightmares for days.

Shot in a style that makes the film feel claustrophobic and contained, props must be given to the camera crew for creating a dollhouse aesthetic. Enhancing this point is artist Annie’s clay dollhouse, mirroring the families. The viewer sees a mock version of the real family and when Annie decides to create a mimic of Charlie’s headless body to express herself the results are dire.

The best part of Hereditary, though, is Colette’s performance. Flawless as the haggard mother in The Sixth Sense (1999), her role as Annie takes the actress to even greater heights. The woman slowly teeters to the brink of insanity as she awakens one morning to find the headless corpse of her daughter lying in the back seat of her car. Aster wisely has her discovery and reactions appear off camera giving the sequence a high element of anticipatory horror. From this point we know that Annie will steamroll further into insanity as she realizes the death of her daughter was caused by her own son.

Horror films involving witchcraft or other demonic supernatural elements do not always work for me as I find realistic situations more effective, but Hereditary is atmospheric and effective. The film possesses this element throughout the entire run so that we know bad things will happen, we just do not know when.

To further explain, many scenes involve closeups of character’s seemingly deep in thought or shrouded in mystery. Evidence of this is when Peter sits in a classroom hearing the clicking of teeth, a habit of Charlie’s. When a trance-like Peter returns to reality, he is confused and slams his head against his desk breaking his own nose.

Aster might have been wise to write a more concrete screenplay instead of leaving the audience unable to add up the parts. Interpretation is a fine thing, but in the case of Hereditary the sum may have been greater than the parts. Meaning, a more satisfying, though not less frightening, ending would be encouraged for his next picture.

Hereditary (2018) is a demonic horror film that offers a perplexing plot of a family’s hereditary curse and ultimate doom. Thanks to brilliant acting and some of the most disturbing scenes ever witnessed, the film is a breath of fresh air in the over-saturated horror genre and a welcome debut from an upstart director.

Bohemian Rhapsody-2018

Bohemian Rhapsody-2018

Director-Dexter Fletcher, Bryan Singer

Starring-Rami Malek

Scott’s Review #836

Reviewed December 3, 2018

Grade: A-

Crafting a biography of a performer with the personality the size of Freddie Mercury is a tough feat to accomplish- successfully anyway. The film makers of Bohemian Rhapsody (2018) opt to go in a decidedly mainstream direction and this proves a wise choice as the film becomes an enthralling foot-stomping crowd-pleaser. For those nitpicking about accurate timelines and rigid facts may be disappointed, but others content to sit back and enjoy a heartfelt biopic will certainly love the film.

Rami Malek gives a flawless performance as Mercury, the legendary singer of the British rock band, Queen. In fact, I will go out on a limb and state that this could be the young actor’s crowning achievement and his “role of a lifetime”. The film wisely chronicles the singer’s initial struggles finding his band-mates and the band’s subsequent rise to fame and fortune during the 1970’s and the 1980’s. Predictably, as with many rock bands, in-fighting, drug use, and jealousies reared their ugly heads.

Other points of interest featured are Mercury’s personal life and his HIV diagnosis culminating in his ultimate death in 1991 at the tender age of forty-five. Less so a biography of the band, Mercury takes center stage as the point of the film. With his four-octave vocal range and his operatic sensibilities, the star was a force to be reckoned with, nobody who would back down from either studio executives or pesky reporters eager for a scoop about his personal life and preference for male companions.

Malek sinks his teeth into an enormous role undoubtedly intimidating for most actors and an unbelievable challenge for the casting department. With boldness and charisma for miles what actor could ever fill this challenging role? Malek completely shines as he dons dentures to emulate Mercury’s famous overbite, a fact that the film nearly over exaggerates.

With wounded eyes and clever dialogue Malek delivers witty one-liners and comical comebacks with a smirk, a hand wave, or a retort of “my dear”. The actor is careful though to perfect the dramatic and emotional scenes flawlessly and portray the singer as a lonely and isolated being.

To the delight of most classic rock fans Bohemian Rhapsody features many songs in the Queen catalog. “Killer Queen”, “Hammer to Fall”, “Another One Bites the Dust”, “We Will Rock You/We Are the Champions”, and the game changing “Bohemian Rhapsody” complete with the histories and stories behind many of these legendary hits are featured. Perhaps the loveliest tune “Love of My Life”, which Mercury wrote for his fiance Mary Austin, is prominently featured.

The film concludes with the band’s fantastic performance at Wembley Stadium in London for the Live Aid event in 1985. A breathtaking finale, this final sequence is jaw-dropping with emotion, heart, and entertainment and is clearly the film’s finest moment. As the story reaches its climax at this point with Mercury’s HIV diagnosis (a death sentence for gay men in the 1980’s) and revelation to his band mates, the lengthy scene will not leave a dry eye in the house. A weakening Mercury powered through his illness to deliver a dynamic performance.

The numerous historical inaccuracies of Bohemian Rhapsody (2018) as well as the incorrect timeline of the events has been called into question. Also, the fact that two members of Queen (Brian May and Roger Taylor) had a staggering amount of creative control is cause for alarm. Additionally, in further reading the characters of Mary and Mercury’s manager Paul may have not been as good or bad as they were respectively written. These points may be valid, but as a source of good entertainment the film is a major champion.