Marriage Story-2019

Marriage Story-2019

Director-Noah Baumbach

Starring-Adam Driver, Scarlett Johansson

Scott’s Review #959

Reviewed November 14, 2019

Grade: A

Marriage Story (2019) is a film that could have been generic, melodramatic, or contrived. Before it was released it was described as a “really good” version of Kramer vs. Kramer (1979) or Terms of Endearment (1983). Those are excellent films but marginally sappy and overwrought. Marriage Story excels at being a smart, powerful, and realistic portrayal of a marriage disintegrating, painting a picture of how good people can turn ugly under certain circumstances. Believe the hype of how good this film is.

Taking place in both New York City and Los Angeles, we meet Charlie and Nicole Barber (Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson), a theater director and his wife, an actress who stars in his plays. They fill notebook paper of what they love most about each other, and the list is lengthy. Appearing to be madly in love, the audience soon realizes that the couple is amid an amicable separation, the writings a result of an assignment by a “separations counselor”, hired to make things easier.

Charlie and Nicole share an eight-year-old son named Henry. Nicole returns to Los Angeles to resume her acting career and spend time with her mother (Julie Hagerty) and sister (Merritt Wever). Adam, successful in New York City, plans to stay and reside with his son. Nicole hires a tough lawyer, Nora (Laura Dern), while Charlie begrudgingly hires semi-retired attorney Bert Spitz (Alan Alda), and later Jay (Ray Liotta). Nicole and Charlie are sensible, planning to work things out by themselves, only needing representation for formalities, or so they think.

The situation escalates, spinning out of control as their divorce becomes increasingly hostile as custody of their young son ups the ante. Qualities they once loved about each other become hate filled arguments as the couple fights and feuds as their attorney’s scramble for a leg up. Can the couple save themselves as secrets bubble to the surface and situations are used against each other?

The film is a lengthy two-hours and sixteen minutes, so the plot takes time to capture its viewer. When it eventually takes grip it never let’s go, forcefully enrapturing the watcher. We care for both Charlie and Nicole and while sympathizing with each at different times, both characters are written as benevolent. There is no villain except the divorce itself.

The key to the success is in the writing. Director, Noah Baumbach, known for The Squid and the Whale (2005), and Frances Ha (2012) knows how to craft witty and clever dialogue, weaving comedy and drama intricately together. He can make the viewer laugh and cry within the same scene. The screenplay is the best part of the film because it is laden with crackling words and interesting situations.

Marriage Story reminds me of a Woody Allen film. Feeling improvised, unknown if any of the dialogue is, the characters speak long soliloquies and endless chatter between each other or themselves. This results in a powerful medium of self-expression and a “talkie” movie. The banter between characters is not drivel nor gibberish, but contains important, emotionally rich meaning and flavor.

The film belongs to Driver and Johansson, each delivering a home run. Driver is the stronger of the two but not by much and this is only because his emotional scenes feel rawer than hers do. When the actors have a knock-down drag-out fight the scene is long and exceptionally acted, each taking turns verbally attacking the other. Vicious rage and emotional fury come to the forefront. This is the best scene in the film.

Dern, Alda, and Liotta are wonderful, bringing respect to the film. Each has been on the Hollywood scene for forever and each plays an attorney. While Dern’s and Liotta’s characters are sharks, Alda’s is a reasonable and realistic older man who has seen it all. Burt lays down the facts for Charlie and makes his realize how much is at stake. Dern shines as the sexy blonde attorney who wears revealing clothes and legs for miles. Grizzled Liotta plans to win at all costs. What a delight to see these veterans bring electricity to each scene.

Lastly, I adore the bi-coastal locales of New York City and Los Angeles. The big cities burst with meaning and are as different as day and night as the film explains. Charlie is a New Yorker and Nicole a California girl at heart. is L.A. The plentiful scenes of both cities on location gives the film richness and texture.

With Marriage Story (2019), Baumbach creates his best and most personal film.  Rumored to be partly autobiographical he takes a subject matter most assume has already been exhausted and spins the story in a different direction that makes it feel fresh. The aspects all come together in an experience that is emotional, powerful, and intelligent. The film is a treasure and an example to young film makers that good writing always wins the day.

Dr. Strangelove-1964

Dr. Strangelove-1964

Director-Stanley Kubrick

Starring-Peter Sellers, George C. Scott

Scott’s Review #958

Reviewed November 13, 2019

Grade: A

Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, more commonly known simply as Dr. Strangelove, is a 1964 political satire black comedy film that satirizes the Cold War and fears of a nuclear conflict between the Soviet Union and the United States. The film, timely in the 1960’s, is as relevant decades later amid the chaos that ensued during the 2016 United States Presidential election, and the tumultuous years to follow. The film is powerful, brave, and important.

The story centers around an unhinged United States Air Force general (Sterling Hayden) who orders a first strike nuclear attack on the Soviet Union. The plot then follows the President of the United States, (Peter Sellers), the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and a Royal Air Force (RAF) officer as they try to recall the bombers to prevent a nuclear apocalypse. The film also follows the crew of one B-52 bomber as they try to deliver their payload.

The Cuban Missile Crisis was fresh in viewers minds when this film was released, and President John F. Kennedy was recently assassinated. The United States and the Soviet Union were hardly best buddies. The film was a robust offering not just for the timing but also because political satire in film was fresh. Unintentionally clever is the ironic controversy that exists between the two leaders of the nation’s nearly sixty years after the film was released.

The acting is great. Peter Sellers plays three prominent roles, and each is quite different from the others. Group Captain Lionel Mandrake, a British RAF exchange officer, President Merkin Muffley (what a name!) , the President of the United States, and Dr. Strangelove, the wheelchair-using nuclear war expert and former Nazi. Each glistens with goodness as the actor chomps at the bit, making them precise and unique, careful never to stray too far overboard into ridiculousness.

Director Stanley Kubrick wisely chooses black and white cinematography with stellar results and prominent film making techniques. The film, creative and progressive as many 1960’s films started to become as the decade blossomed, feels like it could have been made in the 1940’s. Kubrick, well known for masterpieces such as The Shining (1980) and 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) delivers perhaps his oddest film in his catalog with Dr. Strangelove.

The story does not feel dated and the dialogue remains crisp and razor-sharp in its delivery and meaning. With fast dialogue delivery and a monotone vocal style, the film is entertaining and humorous, not taking itself too seriously, yet offering a poignant and important idea come to life. The film keeps gnawing at the viewers that as far-fetched as events seem, the possibility they could become real is more than a bit scary.

Who can possibly forget the final sequence of the looming nightmare of the mushroom clouds, set to Vera Lynn’s hopeful We’ll Meet Again?  Since the film has hints of 1940’s cinema style, the rude awakening that the 1960’s produced in terms of nuclear weapons and insecurity, hits home in this sequence.

Dr. Strangelove (1964) is pure satire but frightening in its realism and the uncertainty that one crazy leader could lead an entire nation to detrimental results. The film highly influenced later satires and unique styles in film making- Wes Anderson creations immediately spring to mind. One can ruminate in the differing possibilities the film offers- in a way the absurdity of the situation, and the unthinkable way the situation could easily become reality.

Midsommar-2019

Midsommar-2019

Director-Ari Aster

Starring-Florence Pugh, Jack Reynor

Scott’s Review #957

Reviewed November 11, 2019

Grade: B+

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dawn of the Dead-2004

Dawn of the Dead-2004

Director-Zack Snyder

Starring-Sarah Polley, Ving Rhames

Scott’s Review #956

Reviewed November 8, 2019

Grade: C+

Dawn of the Dead (2004) is a remake of the original horror-comedy-satire film by legendary George Romero. What the original provided in intrigue and concept is lacking in the much bloodier remake- the freshness is not there. The film was made pre-television phenomenon The Walking Dead but watching it now with the zombie obsession at a steady decline, the film, while entertaining, feels tired and dated. The film feels patterned after the successful and fresh 28 Days Later (2002).

Now set in Wisconsin (the original was in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania), Ana (Sarah Polley), returns from a shift at the local hospital, where she works as a nurse. She soon learns that massive bulletins alert sudden zombie plague, where former human beings have turned into cannibalistic corpses. Her husband a victim, Ana joins a small group of survivors at the local shopping mall and attempts to stay alive while being encircled by the creatures, and other not so nice people.

The main group includes a grizzled police sergeant, Kenneth (Ving Rhames), electronics salesman Michael, petty criminal Andre and his pregnant wife, Luda, and three guards, C.J., Bart, and Terry.  They are later joined by others who arrive via delivery truck. The large group befriends another survivor, Andy, who is stranded in his gun store across the zombie-infested parking lot. The rest of the film offs the characters one by one in traditional horror style, while the remaining few try to figure out an escape route.

The main problem with Dawn of the Dead is that the characters are not written well, making them either one note or not particularly interesting, and quite stereotypical. Examples of this are the angry and defiant guards, who make trouble for the rest of the group for no other reason than as a weak plot device to create drama other than from the zombies. Kenneth is an angry cop, a lone wolf type of character, who frequently postures and preaches. Again, there is no interesting reason behind his personality. Finally, Steve is an oversexed playboy who keeps recordings of his sexual shenanigans for repeated viewings.

The character meant to root for is Ana. We sympathize with her for her husband’s gruesome death and her struggle to stay alive, so she is the films hero. Her character is likable and Polley is a worthy actress, but I wonder if a name star would have been better in this circumstance. Polley did not last very long in the Hollywood world and this only makes the film feel more dated than it already does. Many viewers will not know who the actress is.

Another irritant is the decision to make the zombies move faster. Part of the beauty of the zombies is that they are slow and brooding, unable to think, just existing in a mummy-like haze. Suddenly, they are fast, making them tougher to flee from. This attempt at a modern approach by changing things up too much does not work at all.

Dawn of the Dead is not all dour. Props must be given to the mall setting, updated for 2004 shopping inclusiveness. Trendy and timely stores are added, and it feels like a mall of its time. This is one aspect of the film that works and feels interesting. Eagle-eyed viewers may spot some of their favorite stores from this decade.

The strongest part of an otherwise mediocre film is the brilliant incorporation of the heavy-metal band Disturbed’s aggressive song “Down with the Sickness” from 1999. The song is incorporated over the stylistic end credits and a summary of what happens to the survivors is provided over the lyrically brutal song. Unfortunately, it is the very ending of the film where it finally hits a home run.

Since this is a remake it is impossible not to compare it to the 1978 version in many ways. The characters in the original had more salt and a romance added a bit of complexity. The original also felt fun whereas the 2004 version seems hardened and angry. The originality that made the original fresh is lacking in this retread, which limits the unique social context and thought provocation that the original contained.

With little reason to watch Dawn of the Dead (2004) unless it was still 2004, the original 1978 Romero version is far superior. A fun tip might be to watch them in sequence (I did!) to notice differences in style and pacing and for general comparison sake. The final musical score is a win, but much of the rest is dull and dated.

Jojo Rabbit-2019

Jojo Rabbit-2019

Director-Taika Waititi

Starring-Roman Griffin Davis, Scarlett Johansson

Scott’s Review #955

Reviewed November 6, 2019

Grade: A

Jojo Rabbit (2019) is quite simply put, a satire. This type of film, and this style of film making, is not intended for all pallets. The subject of Nazis and Adolf Hitler will hit too close to home for some viewers, especially considering this film is being classified as a comedy, albeit a dark one. With this risk in mind, the film has a fabulous message, is quirky, well-acted, and a marvelous piece of work. But it is a gradual, acquired taste, and not everyone will leave theaters feeling satisfied. I sure did.

Director, Taika Waititi, a Jewish man, is careful to toe the line with his story, teetering close to the edge, but never going too far overboard. He is careful not to offend those who may have close ties to World War II, the horrific events that took place, or disrespect the scars that remain. Rather, he teaches a lesson of acceptance, humanity, and pathos. A laugh one moment leads to tragedy and tears the next, making Jojo Rabbit quite the robust emotional experience.

The time is the 1940’s, the setting Germany, as Roman Griffin Davis portrays the title character, a Hitler Youth who finds out his mother (Scarlett Johansson) is hiding a Jewish girl, Elsa, (Thomasin McKenzie) in their attic. Energetic and excitable, he joins a training camp where he is unable to kill a defenseless rabbit, hence given his new nickname. Jojo slowly comes to question his beliefs, while dealing with the intervention of his imaginary friend, an idiotic version of Adolf Hitler (Waititi). He eventually forges a close bond with Elsa.

As the film kicks off it immediately reminds me of a Wes Anderson style of storytelling. Think The Royal Tenenbaums (2001) or Moonrise Kingdom (2012). With quick editing and fast monotone dialogue the characters initially appear silly and trite, with witty responses to weird situations. As the relationships deepen the audience comes to fall in love with them. Davis is a wonderful child actor and the heart of the film.

Johansson’s Rosie, the mother, is secretly anti-Nazi. She’s got flair, pizzazz, and a good pair of shoes. She states that to dance is to be alive, words of wisdom she provides to Jojo. They come upon a few dangling bodies perched in the center of town for all to see. They have been caught aiding Jewish people and are a deathly symbol to present. Rosie tells Jojo not to look away for these people did what little they could do. This scene is a poignant one.

Captain Klenzendorf (Sam Rockwell), a Nazi captain who runs the youth camp, initially seems to be a buffoon, and a one-note character. He deepens as not just his patriotism, but his sexuality is called into question. The LGBTQ angle is implied, but only skirted over so that the point is vague and mysterious. The Captain stands very close by his second-in-command, Finkel, and a scene at the pool will make many wonder the true relationship between the men.

Finally, Yorki, Jojo’s best friend, is just adorable, providing a sweetness and genuine quality that is undeniably benevolent. McKenzie, as the frightened yet strong Elsa, is courageous to a fault. Stubborn and tough, she softens to Jojo as they get to know each other. Her mysterious boyfriend, Nathan, never seen on-screen, plays a prominent role and is a key to the relationship between she and Jojo. The characters are an integral part of the film.

Made in 2019, a volatile time on planet earth, and especially in the United States, the film breathes fresh air into the world of inclusion and acceptance. Much of this is slowly revealed as events transpire to a crescendo. As the war ends, several lives are forever changed, some good, others tragic, but each connected to the others, enriching their respective lives. Waititi celebrates the gift, joys and heartbreaks of life.

Jojo Rabbit (2019) is a film that makes the viewer think and challenges him or her to soak in innocence and evil. Despite the subject matter, the film is not cold or harsh, nor does it disrespect history. Incorporated are death and tragedy mixed with learning and strong relationships. The film is a great experience and an important find among many routine and mainstream projects. Jojo Rabbit perks up cinema, and hopefully the viewer, with a beautiful message.

Don’t Look in the Basement-1973

Don’t Look in the Basement-1973

Director-S.F. Brownrigg

Starring-Anne MacAdams, Rosie Holotik

Scott’s Review #954

Reviewed November 5, 2019

Grade: B

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Joker-2019

Joker-2019

Director-Todd Phillips

Starring-Joaquin Phoenix

Scott’s Review #953

Reviewed November 1, 2019

Grade: A

Joker (2019) is a film that has divided audiences. Some love it, others loathe it. The experience is not your standard fun super-hero fare with a hero’s rescue and the good triumphing over the evil.  Despite the parlay into Batman territory the film smacks the viewer across the face with its brutality, violence, and social and psychological injustices. Joaquin Phoenix pummels the audience with an angry and bitter portrayal of the title character, easily one of the best performances of the year.

In one of the first scenes, before we even know the character, we experience a long close-up of Phoenix laughing hysterically. We wonder what is so funny, before the revelation that he, Arthur Fleck, suffers from a nervous condition that causes inappropriate outbursts. The time is 1981 and the fictional Gotham city, clearly a mirror image of New York City, is the setting. Times are tough, and crime is rampant. Arthur lives in a dumpy apartment with his sickly mother Penny (Frances Conroy) and visits a social worker regularly to receive his prescription medicine.

Arthur finds meager work as a party clown and aspires to be a stand-up comedian. After a gang attacks him in an alley, Arthur’s co-worker, Randall, encourages him to take a gun. Arthur invites his neighbor, single mother Sophie, to his stand-up comedy show, and they happily begin dating. Finally, another person understands him. Segments of the population are disenfranchised and impoverished as Thomas Wayne, a billionaire philanthropist, runs for mayor of Gotham. A strange connection develops between Arthur, Penny and Thomas becoming central to the plot.

Can we discuss the bravura performance by Phoenix for a moment? If anyone thinks that Heath Ledger was phenomenal when he portrayed the same character in 2008’s The Dark Knight will be elated by Phoenix who takes the character to a completely different level. What Phoenix adds is a strong sympathy for Arthur/the joker, and a caring for the character. We feel sorry for him but should we? He is a villain after all. One could easily debate whether his character can be considered the bad guy, or could he be deemed the hero?  Regardless of the assessment the performance is an unforgettable one.

A turn off to some, which I found tremendously powerful, is the role-reversal in the portrayal of the Wayne family/Bruce/Batman characters. Always deemed the “good guys”, in Joker, Thomas Wayne is self-centered, pompous, and embodies a sense of entitlement and snobbery. Bruce is a young boy, but the implication is that the family is unkind and what might the child grow up to believe?  Why is Batman/Bruce Wayne heralded as good and the joker evil? It turns the tradition upside down into a twisted mind warp and this is wonderfully creative and thought-provoking.

The best scene in the film, which triggers much of the subsequent violence and chaos, occurs when Arthur is invited to appear on a late- night talk show hosted by Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro). A week earlier Franklin had played a humiliating clip of Arthur poorly performing stand-up. Arthur decides to appear in full “joker” attire, and the eventual discussion and words lead to tragic events. The scene is tense, intelligently written, and combative as the men spar over politics and class distinction.

Lastly, the musical score is dark, haunting, and mesmerizing without overtaking the film. Many key scenes of Arthur dancing and posturing are masterful with the inclusion of the bombastic music. He is a celebratory character, in his own mind at least, and the music fuses into the scene with gusto and power. The combination of clowns and an incredible score add an immense amount to the production.

Joker (2019) showcases a marvelous acting performance on the part of Phoenix which combines a haunting musical score in its depth. Providing a social commentary for the poor and disenfranchised, this film will divide viewers, probably based on preconceived expectations of a traditional Marvel type super-hero event. The film offers much more than safer films like Wonder Woman (2017) or Black Panther (2018) ever could- a dark and violent character study.