Tag Archives: 2017 Movie reviews

The Post-2017

The Post-2017

Director-Steven Spielberg

Starring-Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks

Scott’s Review #715

Reviewed January 15, 2018

Grade: A-

Amid the current political upheaval occurring during the year 2017 comes a fresh and quite timely film named The Post, created by esteemed director, Steven Spielberg, and starring two of today’s biggest Hollywood film stars- Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep. The film is a political, historical thriller set during the tumultuous time of 1971, as the controversial Vietnam War raged on, and tells of the bravery of a female newspaper owner (Streep), who risked everything to publish the truth, along with her team of mostly male editors and staff.

The film is an intelligent piece of writing, with a crisp script and quick editing allowing for a believable foray into a different time, when newspapers were hot and rotary telephones, telephone booths, and polyester outfits were all the rage. Spielberg is brilliant at setting just the right mood and tone to transport the audience back to 1971- on the eve of the enormous Watergate scandal. While all of the elements are in play, and the truthful story is important, the film is very good, but not quite brilliant- falling just shy of that bombastic one or two scenes that would land it over the top.

The Post begins in the jungles of Vietnam in 1965, as military analyst Daniel Ellsberg documents the progress of military activities among the soldiers during battle. On the journey home he briefs then President Lyndon Johnson that the war is hopeless and should be stopped. As history unfortunately shows, the brutal war continued on with thousands of lives lost. The film then continues on a journey of the uncovering of top secret Pentagon papers documenting the White House’s knowledge of the useless nature of the war, but each administration chose to continue with the bleeding to avoid the United States being “humiliated”.

Streep gives her best performance in years as Katharine Graham, Washington Post newspaper heiress, a woman who struggles to be taken seriously in a man’s world- especially given the time period- many men were uncomfortable taking direction from a woman. Streep infuses the perfect amount of emotion, insecurity, and charm into the role. Despite her wealth and her control, she is frequently overruled by the all male board of directors, so much so that she often doubts her confidence.

Hanks, however, underwhelms as gruff editor in chief of the Post, Ben Bradlee. Given the enormous talents of the actor, I was expecting a meatier performance, which does not materialize. I also anticipated an equal balance of Hanks and Streep, but the film clearly belongs to Streep. Perhaps because Hanks (the ultimate nice guy) portrays Bradlee as a tough, yet family man, the performance does not quite work. Also, the chemistry between Hanks and Streep is not the specialty of the film.

Evident is the correlation between 1971’s President Nixon and 2017’s President Trump- both administrations shrouded in controversy. A neat trick Spielberg creates is to only show Nixon in shadows, wildly gesturing and threatening, similar to Trump’s mannerisms- this is no accident. In fact, the entire work of The Post seems a big call-out by Spielberg, a devout liberal, to the Trump administration. This comparison of past and present makes The Post incredibly timely and topical for 2017. Clever is the intriguing ending- as the Watergate scandal begins with a security guard catching intruders at the complex, Spielberg seems to be saying “watch out Trump!”

In 2017, the current state of the media versus the White House has never held more controversy, disdain, and even hatred as the “truth” is often tough to come by or even to distinguish. “Fake news” is now a thing and twitter rants are now a daily occurrence, making the “truth” a precious commodity. For this reason alone, The Post must be a film to celebrate and model ourselves after- how timely indeed.

The Boss Baby-2017

The Boss Baby-2017

Director- Tom McGrath

Starring- Alec Baldwin, Tobey Maguire

Scott’s Review #713

Reviewed January 12, 2018

Grade: C

True confession- I was not expecting much from the 2017 offering of the animated film entitled The Boss Baby (a brooding, sarcastic newborn offered no appeal). However, since the film was nominated for a Golden Globe award, I decided to throw caution to the wind and settle down for a viewing. Predictably, the film fulfilled my hunch and resulted in a fair to middling experience- the attempt at a nice message was offset by cliched and silly characters and an over-produced film rather than a directed one, but yet held interesting  and sometimes even beautiful visuals.

Seven year old Tim Templeton (voiced by Tobey Maguire), as an adult, narrates a story of his childhood  days, living with his parents Ted and Janice, both busy marketing professionals, who work at Puppy Co.. One day, his parents return home with a bundle of joy in tow, Theodore Lindsey Templeton (voiced by Alec Baldwin), who immediately monopolizes their time and attention. Isolated, Tim is envious and begins a rivalry with his baby brother, who is secretly a spy named “The Boss Baby”, and who has the mind of an adult in a baby’s body. It is revealed that he is working undercover as a spy to investigate why puppies are now receiving more love than babies. The duo eventually team up and forge a bond to prevent corporate America from ruining all of the love in the world.

To be fair, The Boss Baby presents a positive, good message of love and acceptance, which is nice to see, but this message can only carry a film so far, and there is little else of substance. As with many animated films, the story here contains a “good versus evil” slant, which, in this case, renders the film rather one dimensional. We are instructed who to root for and who not to root for, and while  challenging corporate greed is certainly a cause worth championing, too often I found The Boss Baby causing my mind to wander elsewhere instead of keeping me engaged in the story- not a good sign.

Apparently the target audience for this film is quite young because many sappy or juvenile scenes continue to play out. Closeups of Theodore and whimsical shots of his bulging eyes give the film a cute, too wholesome quality, and in predictable fashion, there are the standard doody and poop jokes, which comedies do all too often to account for sloppy writing.

The character of Theodore is voiced by comedy stalwart Alec Baldwin, and this does wonders to make the baby a bit more interesting than otherwise might have been. Baldwin, fusing assertion and a sarcasm into Theodore, makes him witty and energetic, but again, this can only go so far, and by the time the film has concluded in happily ever after fashion, the once tough character has disintegrated into a hammy kid.

Older brother Timothy is perfectly fine and the idea of having Maguire narrate him as an adult is a nice touch.  The central theme of sibling rivalry between brother and brother and especially the difficulty of some kids adjusting to a newborn debuting into the family may be enough to encourage parents to make it a family outing and see The Boss Baby.

Sadly, the creative and unique sets of animations may be wasted on viewers seeking good story. What a pity that The Boss Baby does not hold both qualities, but alas the film is little more than adequate and will undoubtedly be forgotten before very long.

I, Tonya-2017

I, Tonya-2017

Director-Craig Gillespie

Starring-Margot Robbie, Allison Janney

Scott’s Review #712

Reviewed January 10, 2018

Grade: A-

I, Tonya is a 2017 biopic telling of the life and times of the infamous American Olympic figure skater, Tonya Harding, notorious, of course, for her alleged involvement, along with her husband and his friend, in the attack of fellow skater, Nancy Kerrigan during the 1994 Winter Olympics. The event drew monumental media coverage after the attack with the uncertainty of Harding’s knowledge or involvement and her subsequent guilt or innocence continues to be debated.

The film itself is a dark and violent comedy, never taking itself too seriously, and immediately presents the disclaimer that the stated “facts” in the film are open to interpretation and dependent on who you ask. In this way, I, Tonya is far from preachy or directive to the viewer, but rather offers up the life and times of the skater in a story form. The film features tremendous performances by Margot Robbie and Allison Janney as Tonya and her despicable mother, LaVona.

I, Tonya is told in chronological fashion, culminating with “the incident” in 1994. However, the story begins  back in the mid 1970’s as Tonya, just a tot at the tender age of four, is as cute as a button and shrouded with innocence. One cannot help wonder if director, Craig Gillespie, known for independent films, purposely made this wise casting choice. We see Tonya, once an innocent child, journey into a life of violence, abuse, and tumultuous living. Harding grew up cold and hard and endured an abusive, difficult relationship with her mother- the pressures to be the best skater simply never ended. Even upon achieving success Tonya never felt good enough or loved by her mother.

We then experience Tonya as a fifteen year old girl, fittingly first meeting her boyfriend and later, husband Jeff, Gillooly played well by actor Sebastian Stan. The early scenes between the two are sweet, tender, and fraught with the emotions of first love. As explained by the actors, this was a short-lived time of bliss, and the relationship soon disintegrated into abuse, rage, and chaos.

Certainly the main point of the film is to debate the guilt or innocence of Harding, which Gillespie peppers throughout, so it is never clear what to believe or how the audience should be made to think. “Interpretation” is the key here- some may see Harding as a victim of life’s circumstances and the hardships she had to endure and may place sympathy upon her. Others may view Harding as off-putting, potty-mouthed, and even icy and violent herself with a big chip on her shoulder. In one scene she publicly belittles the hoity toity judges who never cut her a break and give her less than perfect scores.

A clever technique that the film delivers is to have the actors frequently speak to the camera, and thus the audience. This is achieved by either interview style or for the action in the film to simply cease and either Robbie, Janney, Stan, or whomever, turn to the camera and express their version of the events. In this way, I, Tonya possesses a creative, edgy, indie feel.

How brilliant are the performances of both Robbie and Janney. Robbie, a gorgeous woman, portrays a “red-neck” to the hilt. Through her bright blue eyes , her face is quite expressive- relaying pain, anger, and a seldom triumph. The film often slants the scales in a sympathetic way towards Harding, but it is the talents of Robbie that make us feel this sympathy. Janney hits the jackpot with a delicious role she sinks her teeth into. A cold-hearted, vicious character, through facial expressions, we occasionally get a glimpse of LaVona, perhaps softening, but as we do, the character does something even more despicable.

A good surprise for fans who remember the real-life events and the real-life players, will be treated to a sequence of the real Tonya, LaVona, Jeff, and Shawn Eckhardt, which play over the films ending credits. How similar in looks are both Robbie to Harding, with her feathered, frizzy, 1980’s style hairdo, and Janney, a dead-ringer for the boozy, chain-smoking LaVona, with her mousy brown bob haircut, complete with scruffy bangs.

Viewers will leave theaters confused, unsure, or perhaps just simply perplexed by what they have just seen, but will most certainly feel thoroughly entertained and may even depart chanting some upbeat 1980’s rock tunes that the film uses throughout. Thanks to wonderful acting and a strong story, I, Tonya is a success.

Wonder Wheel-2017

Wonder Wheel-2017

Director-Woody Allen

Starring-Kate Winslet, James Belushi

Scott’s Review #709

Reviewed December 31, 2017

Grade: B+

Woody Allen typically churns out a new film release each year and 2017’s project is a film called Wonder Wheel. Set in 1950’s Coney Island, a seaside beach in Brooklyn, New York, the film is an authentic looking period drama, with lovely costumes and legitimate New York accents from all principal actors. The story itself is overall quite depressing, though, as a likable character is tough to find, but Wonder Wheel contains fantastic acting, mainly on the part of star Kate Winslet, whose troubled character is the films focal point.

Winslet portrays Ginny Rannell, a struggling forty year old woman living in the seaside neighborhood and working as a waitress at a dingy Clam House. She despises her life and longs for a way out of the doldrums- yearning for the life she had years ago as an aspiring actress. Her husband, Humpty (Jim Belushi), a carousel operator, is an alcoholic. Together they raise Ginny’s son, Richie, a young boy who loves to start fires. When Humpty’s estranged daughter, Carolina (Juno Temple), shows up on their doorstep, having provided information about her mobster husband, and subsequently “marked”, Ginny’s life slowly begins to unravel as she and Carolina pursue the same man, hunky lifeguard, Mickey (Justin Timberlake).

The New York setting of the film is an enormous plus and a standard of many Woody Allen films- the authenticity is clear. The summer mood of the beach, sand, and the sunny boardwalk and beach scenes make the viewer feel like they are transported in time. The 1950’s period works as beachwear and the amusement park sets are used to their advantage. The New York accents of the actors and the language and sayings are appropriate for the times. The apartment that the Rannells rent is a great treat to the film- the set is used with a wonderful beach landscape that is featured during daytime scenes and nighttime scenes so that the change of mood can be noticed-these are all enticing elements to Wonder Wheel.

Enough cannot be said for the talents of Winslet, who makes the character of Ginny come to life. Undoubtedly a tough role for her to play, Winslet, who can make reading the phone book sound interesting, tackles the complex part and arguably gives one of the best performances of her career- my vote would still go to her portrayal of Hannah Schmitz from 2008’s The Reader. Initially a sympathetic character, she longingly desires to return to the stage and perhaps find stardom as an actress and sees Mickey as her last chance. When events curtail her dreams, her character takes a sharp turn and does an unspeakable act.

I love the acting talents of Justin Timberlake and by 2017 he has successfully proven himself a major star in the film world as well as the music world. As the hunky, charismatic, yet studious and intelligent lifeguard, Mickey, he teeters between womanizer and earnest, love-stricken, young man. Timberlake has taken on more interesting film roles beginning with 2010’s The Social Network and let’s hope there are more to come.

Juno Temple is just perfect as the naive Carolina. With an innocent, sweet, personality, all she yearns for is love and a fresh start. Temple, largely known for quirky independent film roles, fits perfectly in a Woody Allen creation. Finally, legendary actor James Belushi fills his character of Humpty with dedication, loyalty, and alcoholic rage. He adores Ginny, but sometimes takes her for granted.

What a treat for fans of The Sopranos to see a couple of familiar faces appear as (what else?) mobsters. Tony Sirico and Steve Schirripa make cameo appearances as Angelo and Nick, henchmen for the unseen husband of Carolina, who are intent on tracking down and killing her. Despite very small parts, the actors seem to have a ball reprising similar roles that made them famous.

Wonder Wheel, certainly shot in similar tone to a stage production, draws comparisons to A Streetcar Named Desire, both with four principal characters- two male and two female, Ginny, Carolina, Mickey, and Humpty, all with some similarities to and some differences with storied characters Blanche, Stella, Stanley, and Mitch. But the comparisons can easily be studied and analyzed.

Woody Allen creates a film that can be appreciated mostly for its top-notch acting talent not surprising given the actors cast, and a compelling, never boring story. The film is a downer, however, with no heroic characters to speak of. Thankfully, this is counterbalanced perfectly by a great New York setting, which is a high point of Wonder Wheel and cheers up the otherwise dour tone of the film.

The Greatest Showman-2017

The Greatest Showman-2017

Director-Michael Gracey

Starring-Hugh Jackman, Michelle Williams, Zac Efron

Scott’s Review #707

Reviewed December 26, 2017

Grade: A-

A pure musical, escapist film, The Greatest Showman holds a dear and relevant message and elicits hope for outcasts everywhere by leading a story of acceptance and perseverance  in the feel-good film of 2017. Hugh Jackman leads the pack, starring as P.T. Barnum, a man struggling to create an entertainment show with live and unusual performers- deemed “freaks” in those days- the 1800’s in New York. The film is quite joyful and light with many cheery musical numbers sure to leave audience members humming along for hours after the conclusion of the film. The Greatest Showman is a rags to riches story and a thoroughly enjoyable film.

Jackman is charismatic and likable as the entrepreneur and showman, Barnum, who we meet as a young boy, the son of a poor tailor. He becomes enamored with wealthy young  Charity (Michelle Williams) and the two eventually marry, much to the chagrin of her pompous parents. Barnum and Charity at first struggle to make ends meet as they begin to raise a family, but eventually find success and wealth when the show succeeds. The film chronicles Barnum’s rise to fame and the trials and tribulations (romantic, business) over the course of several years, mainly through musical numbers. Zac Efron is wonderful as Barnum’s eventual business partner, Phillip Carlyle.

The supporting characters that director Michael Gracey offers up are creative, if not typical mainstays of carnivals and circuses everywhere- the bearded lady, the fat man, and a man covered in tattoos are featured prominently. Unclear to me are whether these characters actually existed or are created simply for plot purposes, but rumor has it that The Greatest Showman has taken great liberties with the factual accuracy of the real P.T. Barnum and his escapades. This would be bothersome if not for the wonderful message this film contains- acceptance and celebrating diversity. Certainly in today’s chaotic world this is of prominent importance for young people everywhere.

Those expecting anything of more substance than a cheery and bright holiday slice of enjoyment may be disappointed- some mainstream critics were not too high on this film, but I am okay with a little escapist adventure on occasion. The message throughout The Greatest Showman is quite good. The best musical number is the show-stopping and anthemic “This Is Me”, and Keala Settle is fabulous as the bearded lady, who leads this important song. The number is empowering and energetic.

The chemistry between Jackman and Williams is not remarkable, but not altogether vacant either. Rather, it is simply decent, and not the films strongest point. In fact, I sense better chemistry between Jackman and Rebecca Ferguson as grand Swedish singer, Jenny Lind. Their “romance” is unfulfilled however and we will just need to imagine the possibilities of that one.

I adore seeing Efron in quality roles (think 2012’s exceptional The Paperboy) and his performance as Phillip is great. Sharing a good bond with Barnum, he has his own romance with acrobat, (and of mixed race) Anne Wheeler. His values and earnestness make the character very appealing as he is torn between riches and standing on principal.

The Greatest Showman may not go down in history as the ultimate tops in film making or even one of the best musicals, but the film does succeed in dazzling the audience and providing a couple of hours worth of fun and entertainment- similar to the way P.T. Barnum energized the crowds with a slice of make-believe, this is more than appropriate.

The Shape of Water-2017

The Shape of Water-2017

Director-Guillermo del Toro

Starring-Sally Hawkins, Richard Jenkins, Michael Shannon

Scott’s Review #705

Reviewed December 16, 2017

Grade: A

Director Guillermo del Toro creates a lovely Beauty and the Beast style film that is as gorgeous to look at as the story is intelligent and sweet to experience. Thanks to a talented cast led by Sally Hawkins, the film is part drama, part science fiction, even part thriller, but touching to ones heart and a lesson in true love regardless of outward appearances. The story was co-written by Vanessa Taylor giving it a needed female perspective to perfectly balance the traditional male machinations.

The setting is Baltimore, Maryland during the early 1960’s. Ongoing is the Cold War pitting the United States and the Soviet Union against each other- both mistrustful of the other side. Kindly and mute, Elisa Esposito (Hawkins) is a curious and whimsical young woman, who works as a cleaning lady at an Aerospace Research Center. When she stumbles upon a mysterious “shape” being held prisoner for experimentation purposes, she slowly communicates with and befriends the creature, eventually falling madly in love with him. The “asset” as the scientists like to call him is an amphibian/humanoid needing salt water to survive. Elisa sees an opportunity to help her love escape captivity and off she goes.

Hawkins exudes warmth and fills Elisa with courage and a determination that is astounding. Not to utter a word is a tough feat for an actor to challenge, but instead of words, Hawkins successfully provides a vast array of emotions to reveal how Elisa feels. Despite her “handicap” she is a strong woman and speaks her mind on more than one occasion using sign language to offer her frustration. Hawkins gives a fantastic and believable performance.

Cast in wonderful and important supporting roles are Richard Jenkins as Elisa’s friend and neighbor, Giles, a closeted gay man who works as a commercial artist. Jenkins fills this character with intelligence, heart, and empathy as he struggles with his own issues of alcoholism and loneliness- unable to be accepted for who he is. Octavia Spencer shines as witty and stubborn Zelda Fuller, Elisa’s best friend and co-worker. Zelda has her own domestic problems, but is forever there for her friend, and Spencer gives her character zest, humor, and energy. Finally, Michael Shannon plays the dastardly and menacing Colonel Richard Strickland, the man who found the “asset” in the rivers of South America and has a nice family. Each of these characters is written exceptionally well and each has their own story-line rather than simply supporting Hawkins character.

The audience becomes involved in the private lives of Giles, Zelda, and Strickland and we get to know and care for them- or hate them as the case may be. Giles, harboring a crush on a handsome pie-shop owner, is afraid to make his feelings known. Zelda, with a lazy husband, dutifully takes care for her man though she is as sassy as they come. And Strickland lives an all-american family life with a pretty wife and two kids, totally unaware of his shenanigans.

The film is really a gorgeous and lovely experience and by this I mean the film has a magical element. The opening and closing sequences, shot underwater, resound in beauty as objects float along in a dreamy way, the narrator (Jenkins) taking us on a journey to explain the events of the story. At its core, The Shape of Water is a romantic love story and my favorite scenes- those of Hawkins and the “asset” are to be treasured. Yes, the two do make love, which may be too much for some, but the scenes are tasteful and important to show the depth of the characters love for one another.

Cherishing is  the way that Elisa uses both music and hard-boiled eggs to communicate with the “asset”. When Elisa imagines the two characters dancing, the sequence is an enchanting experience reminiscent of Beauty and the Beast. Other underwater scenes involving Elisa and the “asset” are tender, graceful, and filled with loveliness.

A key part of the film involves a story of intrigue between the Americans and the Soviets, and while both are portrayed in a negative fashion, the Americans are arguably written as more unsympathetic than the Soviets. Thanks to Strickland- abusive and vicious, and his uncaring superior, General Holt, we do not root for the government officials at all, but rather, the ordinary folks like Elisa, Zelda, and Giles, who are outcasts. Interestingly, Dmitri (Michael Stuhlbarg), a Soviet spy who is a scientist, is the only character working at the center who wants to keep the “asset” alive and is written in a sympathetic way.

My overall assessment of The Shape of Water is that it is a film to be enjoyed on many levels and by particular varied tastes- the film will cater to those seeking an old-style romance, complete with some tasty French music. Then again, the film can be lumped into a political espionage thriller, with a cat-and-mouse chase and other nail-biting efforts. Overall, the film has heart and truth and will appeal to vast audiences seeking an excellent film.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri-2017

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri-2017

Director-Martin McDonagh

Starring-Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell

Scott’s Review #703

Reviewed December 4, 2017

Grade: A

Frances McDormand takes control of Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri from the first scene and never lets go as she gives a riveting portrayal of an angry mid-western woman seeking justice in the Martin McDonagh directed 2017 vehicle. The up and coming director has also created such films as  2008’s In Bruges and 2012’s Seven Psychopaths. Similar to these films, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is peppered with dark comedic moments and vile, bitter characters. The film is a measured success as it is not your standard Hollywood production and, in fact, is quite left of center.

The action begins as we meet McDormand’s Mildred Hayes, sitting alone in her beat up station wagon, brooding by the side of the road gazing at three tattered billboards. She is clearly both pissed off and thoughtful as she formulates a plan to purchase a years worth of billboards, questioning the local police’s ineptitude at finding her daughters rapist and killer. Woody Harrelson portrays the Ebbing police chief, Sheriff Bill Willoughby, and Sam Rockwell plays the racist and dim-whited officer Jason Dixon, both displeased with Mildred’s activities.

Other casting decisions in small yet important roles are Lucas Hedges as Mildred’s adolescent and depressed son, Robbie, and John Hawke as her ex-husband, Charlie, who is dating a eighteen year old ditz. Peter Dinklage is well cast as local car salesman, James, an earnest dwarf with a crush on Mildred. Well cast supporting roles are prevalent throughout the film as small town locales like Jason’s mother, and Red, the owner of the advertising agency who rents the billboards to Mildred shape the experience. The casting in Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri is a strong point of the film as a whole.

The town of Ebbing is portrayed as dreary, blue collar, and racist, but just perfect as a way of setting the tone of the film. I suspect residents of the mid-west or southern United States of America may take some issue with character representations. Jason is clearly written as both racist and not too smart and he encompasses numerous characters in the film. Enough cannot be said for Rockwell’s performance in transforming a hated character during the first two-thirds of the film to suddenly almost becoming the hero towards the end. Props are also deserved by Harrelson’s Chief Willoughby- bordering on hick and racist, he also has a heart, and cares about Mildred’s predicament- when a shocking event occurs, he becomes an even richer character.

Worth pointing out and impressive to me as a viewer, are that the three prominent black characters- Willoughby’s replacement, Abercrombie, Mildred’s best friend and co-worker, Denise, and a kindly billboard painter, are each written as intelligent and sensitive, a fact I found to perfectly balance the other less sympathetic characters. In this way, a nasty film becomes more satisfying.

Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri, though, belongs to McDormand. Successful is she at portraying a myriad of different emotions. From her sly eye-winking as she crafts a good verbal assault on whomever crosses her path, to an emotional breakdown scene towards the end of the film, McDormand embodies the character with depth. During a gorgeous scene, she has a sweet conversation with a peaceful deer grazing nearby, for a second imagining it could be her dead daughter reincarnated. The scene richly counter-balances other violent and difficult scenes. McDormand manages to look downright homely in some scenes- beautiful in others.

A film sure to divide viewers- some will champion the films crisp writing and witty dialogue, others will undoubtedly be turned off by the foul language and nasty nature of some of the characters. I found Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri to be sarcastic, gritty, and well told, a versatile affair rich with layers and brimming with enjoyment.

Lady Bird-2017

Lady Bird-2017

Director-Greta Gerwig

Starring-Saoirse Ronan, Laurie Metcalf

Scott’s Review #700

Reviewed November 28, 2017

Grade: A

Lady Bird is a 2017 independent film release and a wonderful effort by actor turned writer/director, Greta Gerwig, in her solo directorial debut. No stranger to the indie syndicate herself. Gerwig puts her own unique stamp on the film with a rich, female centered perspective that works quite well and that is seeping with charm and wit. Worth noting is how the story is a semi-autobiography-one based on Gerwig’s own life and her stormy dealings with her own mother. The story is well-written, well-paced, and empathetic as the audience views a slice of life through the eyes of a restless yet kindly teenager on the cusp of womanhood.

Saoirse Ronan gives a bravura performance in the title role. Her given birth name being Christine, she defiantly changes it to Lady Bird, in a show of adolescent independence, and much to her parents, Marion and Larry’s (Laurie Metcalf and Tracy Letts ) chagrin. Christine lives in suburban Sacramento, California, and yearns for a more exciting life in New York City, and far away from what she considers Dullsville, USA. Now in her senior year- attending a Catholic high school-Christine applies to college after college, hoping to escape her daily dilemmas. Christine’s best friend Julie and somewhat boyfriend Danny (Lucas Hedges) are along for the ride. The time period is 2002- shortly after 9/11.

The brightest moments in Lady Bird are the scenes between Christine and her mother, which are plentiful. The chemistry between Ronan and Metcalf is wonderful and I truly buy them as a real mother/daughter duo, warts and all. They fight, make up, get on each others nerves, fight, cry, make up, etc. I especially love their knock down-drag-outs, as each actress stands her ground while allowing the other room to shine- feeding off of each other. My favorite Metcalf scene occurs while she is alone- having gotten into a tiff with Christine and giving her the silent treatment while Christine flies to New York, Marion reconsiders as she melts into a ball of tears while she drives away- regretting her decision and missing her daughter already. Metcalf fills the scene with emotional layers as she does not speak- we simply watch in awe as her facial expressions tell everything.

Comparably, Ronan- likely to receive her third Oscar nomination at the ripe old age of twenty three (Atonement and Brooklyn are the other nods), successfully gives a layered performance of a teenage girl struggling with her identity and restless to see different worlds and get out of what she sees as a bland city. Of Irish decent, Ronan is remarkable in her portrayal of a California girl- sometimes selfish, sometimes sarcastic, but always likable and empathetic.

In fact, the casting from top to bottom is wonderful as the supporting players lend added meat to the story. Christine’s best friend, Julie, played by young upstart Beanie Feldstein (Jonah Hill’s sister) is compelling as the lovable, chubby, and nerdy theater geek. Letts is perfect as Christine’s father, depressed at losing his job in the tough economy and having to compete with young talent as he sees his career slip away. Legendary actress, Lois Smith, adds heart to the role of Sister Sarah Joan- a by the book nun, who proves to be a cool, old chick. Finally, Hedges, seemingly in every film in 2016-2017, is emotionally resounding as Danny, the troubled boyfriend of Christine- struggling with his sexuality.

Gerwig simply does it all with this piece of film- she directs and writes, scripting both laugh out line moments and eliciting heartfelt emotion from her enchanted audience. A hilarious scene occurs as Christine attends a dreary class assembly- an anti-abortion themed one- by a woman who almost did not exist, but for her mother’s decision not to have an abortion. When a bored Christine icily points out that had the woman’s mother had the abortion, she would not be forced to sit through the assembly, it is a laugh out loud moment.

Lady Bird, thanks to a fantastic writer and director, and superlative casting, is a film that has it all- heart, emotion, humor, and great acting. The film is intelligently written and forces the audience to quite willingly embrace its characters. Gerwig carves a story, perhaps done many times before in film, but with a fresh and energetic feel to it.

Murder on the Orient Express-2017

Murder On The Orient Express-2017

Director-Kenneth Branagh

Starring-Kenneth Branagh, Johnny Depp, Michelle Pfeiffer

Scott’s Review #698

Reviewed November 25, 2017

Grade: B+

Kenneth Branagh leads an all-star cast as well as directs them in a 2017 remake of the 1974 thriller, Murder On The Orient Express. The film was, of course, based on the famous 1934 Agatha Christie novel of the same name. With a ritzy cast including Judi Dench, Johnny Depp, Michelle Pfeiffer, Penelope Cruz, and Willem Defoe, top-notch acting is assured. The cinematography is tremendous as the film looks gorgeous from start to finish and the story is an effective, good, old-fashioned whodunit that will satisfy audiences.

We meet our hero, Hercule Poirot (Branagh), in Jerusalem as he has recently solved a murder mystery and is anticipating a good rest. Poirot is invited by a friend to travel back to his homeland of London via the lavish Orient Express. Amid a group of thirteen strangers, all inhabiting the luxurious first-class accommodations, one of them is savagely murdered in the middle of the night, as a blustery blizzard and subsequent avalanche, derails the train atop mountainous terrain. The strangers are trapped together with a murderer on the loose. Poirot must deduce who has committed the crime and why.

Murder On The Orient Express has all the trimmings for a good, solid murder mystery, and director Branagh sets all of these elements in motion with a good flow. Paced quite nicely, each of the principle characters is introduced in intriguing fashion, so much so that each contains a measure of juicy intrigue. The film gives a brief background of each character as he or she boards the grandiose train. Judi Dench broods as rich and powerful Princess Dragomiroff oozing with jewels and a chip on her shoulder. Corrupt American businessman, Samuel Ratchett (Johnny Depp), is suave and shady as he seems destined to cause trouble. Finally, Penelope Cruz gives her character of repressed Pilar Estravados enough shame and guilt that we cannot think something may be off with her motivations. The details to the characters are rich and compelling.

With actors such as Dench and Depp the acting playing field is set very high, and all of the actors play their parts with gusto. Wonderful to experience with Murder On The Orient Express is the true nature of an ensemble casteach character is relevant in his or her own way, regardless of screen time, and the casting works well. Evident is how the cast must have enjoyed working together on this nice project. Each character is written in a way that the individual actor can sink his or her teeth into the role and the wonderful reveal at the end of the film allows for each a chance to shine so that equal weight is given to each part.

After the actual murder is committed the story really takes off as each character is interviewed by Poirot and given a glance of suspicion. The first half of the film is really just the buildup and, at times, the story slightly lags, but this is fixed when the film kicks into high gear mid-way through. Sometimes a climactic conclusion makes up for any slight lag time suffered in the first portion of the film and Murder On The Orient Express is a great example of this.

The standouts for me are Branagh himself as Poirot and Pfeiffer as the sexy Caroline Hubbard, an American man-crazed older woman.  How wonderful to see Pfeiffer back in the game in 2017- with wonderful roles in both Murder On The Orient Express and Mother! She has the acting chops to pull off sex-appeal, vulnerability, and toughness.  In the case of Branagh, the actor never disappoints in any film he appears in, but seeing him in a leading role is fantastic and he has the ability to carry a film with such a dynamic cast. Branagh’s Poirot is classy, intelligent, and charismatic.

I adored the conclusion of the film and found the explanation and the reasoning of the murderer or murderers quite effective and believable. Through use of black and white flashback scenes, the action aboard the grandiose, yet slightly claustrophobic train scenes, are a perfect balance. Furthermore, the explanation and the motivations of the killer or killers makes perfect sense and much sympathy is evoked. In this way, the story is moralistic and certainly not a black and white subject matter.

Murder On The Orient Express succeeds as a wonderfully shot and star-studded affair. The filming is grandiose and the production values high as a caper film with a mystique and class. The film may not be a true masterpiece or necessarily remembered ten years from now, but what it does it does well. The original film from 1974 is a tad bit better, but as remakes go, the 2017 offering is quite good. A rumored sequel, Death on the Nile, is planned.

Wonder Woman-2017

Wonder Woman-2017

Director-Patty Jenkins

Starring-Gal Gadot, Chris Pine

Scott’s Review #696

Reviewed November 20, 2017

Grade: B

Wonder Woman is a 2017 summer offering (and a mega success) that is firmly nestled in the comfort of the super hero, adventure genre, but is quite unique in that it is directed by a woman in what is typically a male dominated field. This must be championed, and the film has a palpable, female empowering quality that I adore since it is still lacking in most mainstream film.

However, at times, the film teeters too much around predictability and possesses many traditional super hero elements, such as good versus evil, climactic fights scenes, and stock villains. But liberties must be taken and overall I saw the film as a female driven work. The fact that Wonder Woman was celebrated by the masses is wonderful news.

Director Patty Jenkins, notable for having previously tackled weighty subject matter in films such as 2003’s Monster, is at the helm of this project and embodies her lead character with a good blend of earnestness, pizzazz, and heart. “Wonder Woman” is a likable character and newcomer Gal Gadot, an unknown to me, is interesting casting. Certainly, there are a myriad of young Hollywood “names” who could have championed the part- Scarlett Johansson or Jennifer Lawrence may have been palpable in the role. Seemingly a brave choice, Gadot clearly takes command of the character and fills her with substance.

We meet “Princess Diana” as a young girl, living on the protected Amazon island of Themyscira- inhabited only by females. The time is around 1918, amid the harsh reality of World War I, though the members of the tribe know nothing about the war or any other current events- nor do any males live on the island. Most of the women are trained warriors, presumably to protect the island from potential dangers. It is soon revealed that Diana has special powers, and after meeting a lost American soldier, Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), she embarks on a mission to save the world from the ravages of war. Mixed in with the main story is a briefly mentioned ancient legend of Zeus’s son Ares plotting to return and destroy the Amazons, whom Zeus created.

My only issue with Wonder Woman as a whole, is with the story.  The plot is not weak, but simply put- it is nestled in Hollywood predictability rather than containing any surprises along the way. Despite deserved kudos for the characterization of Diana, the story ultimately turns ho-hum like many super hero films do- peppered with the inevitable battle scenes. The genre specific “save the world” is played to the hilt as Diana takes it upon herself to stop the war with the belief that people are not entirely bad. With this thought, Diana finally learns a valuable lesson about the complexities of human beings- in this way Wonder Woman contains a moralistic tale- but then come more battle scenes.

The villains are mainly cartoon-like and what one might expect for a film of this kind.  Chemist Isabel Maru/Doctor Poison (Elena Anaya), dons a mask to hide a disfigured face (intentionally to test the poison gas), and General Erich Ludendorff (Danny Huston) plans to destroy all of mankind. These characters are straight out of comic books and contain no redeeming qualities.

Contrary to where the main story may be a tad lacking, the romantic element is nicely done and the scenes involving Diana and Steve are sweet and romantic in nature making them fun to watch and a good balance against the action sequences. Gadot and Pine have great chemistry, adding humor, so the scenes are not forced. As Diana sees Steve naked for the first time a clever sexual flirtation develops and a sly lesbian backstory is briefly hinted at. Diana remarks with a smirk that men are only needed for procreation and that the women on the island “can satisfy themselves”. The duo also have a play of words about his “manhood”.

Due to the success of Wonder Woman, a sequel, again directed by Jenkins is in the works. My hope is that because of the box office performance many more liberties can be taken by the talented director and she can further push the envelope as she did with Monster. Wonder Woman is a good film, let’s hope the next installment is a great film.

Battle of the Sexes-2017

Battle of the Sexes-2017

Director-Jonathan Dayton, Valerie Faris

Starring-Emma Stone, Steve Carell

Scott’s Review #691

Reviewed October 11, 2017

Grade: A

Battle of the Sexes is a film that achieves worth on many levels- equal parts sports film, drama, and biography, the film excels across all genres, with exceptional acting and crowd pleasing storytelling. To boot, the film is a true story based not only on the very famous pro tennis match of 1973, termed the “Battle of the Sexes”, but a story of the sexual identity conflict of one of the opponents, in a time where being ones true self was not easy, especially for a public figure.

Emma Stone might very well have given her best portrayal of her young career as Billie Jean King, the talented tennis pro featured in the film. She is kind and fair, but a fierce proponent of women’s rights in a time in the United States when feminism was beginning to first take shape and women, and their male supporters, demanded equal treatment. At first uncertain whether Stone could pull the role off (not because of lack of talent, but the women seem so different), she truly shines as the tomboy athlete with shaggy, feathered locks, and a toothy grin.

Equally worthy of praise is Steve Carell, who bolsters his film credo by tackling the role of King’s opponent and foe in the big match, Bobby Riggs. Portrayed as a certifiable “jerk” and a sexist pig, Carell somehow pours the perfect amount of sympathy and likability into the part. We witness scenes of Riggs’ playfulness with his young son and tender yet troubled relationship with his wife, Priscilla (Elisabeth Shue in a well cast role), that never seems neither trite nor contrived, but rather quite genuine.

In fact, the acting in Battle of the Sexes is across the board good. Sarah Silverman drips with confidence and humor as Gladys Heldman, founder of World Tennis magazine and leader of the troupe of female tennis players she parades around southern California seeking the same respect and pay as their male counterparts. Bill Pullman, makes the most of his one dimensional role of Jack Kramer, a wealthy and male chauvinistic  promoter, while the talented Andrea Riseborough is brilliant as Marilyn, the bisexual, closeted lover of Billie Jean- giving a blend of vulnerability and toughness to her role.

The romantic scenes between Stone and Riseborough smolder with tenderness and heart as they forge ahead with their forbidden romance. The film makes clear that a same sex romance in those days, while accepted by those around them, would be met with shame and rejection by a large part of King’s legions of fans- this is a heartbreaking reality. One of the most tear-jerking scenes comes at the end of the film, when a victorious King is unable to acknowledge Marilyn- her openly gay male dresser earnestly whispers to her that one day she will be free to love who she truly loves- the scene is poignant.

Directors Dayton and Faris carve a finale that is careful not to fall into cliched territory. Given that Battle of the Sexes is a sports film, this is a real risk, as typically these genre films teeter into the “good guys beat bad guys” fairy tale land. Rather, while the film does champion King in the end, the moment is laced with good humor, drama, and sentimentality that does not seem forced, but rather honest and real- I enjoyed the final act immensely.

As the film progressed I found myself drawing parallels to the ever dramatic and historical 2016 Presidential election- sure to have films made in years ahead-and King in many ways mirrors Hillary Clinton while Riggs resembles Donald Trump in the sexist department. The political and sports “Battles of the Sexes” warrants an amount of analysis. My point is a sad one and as much as I love the film, I was left with a cold feeling that forty five years after the famous Billie Jean King versus Bobby Riggs match, male superiority and chauvinism is alive and well in the United States- we still have so much progress to make.

Battle of the Sexes is a film with fantastic acting, stellar casting, passion, excitement, and a telling of a historical, true story. In short the film contains all of the elements of a compelling cinematic experience.

Mother!-2017

Mother!-2017

Director-Darren Aronofsky

Starring-Jennifer Lawrence, Javier Bardem, Ed Harris, Michelle Pfeiffer

Scott’s Review #687

Reviewed October 4, 2017

Grade: A

Mother! is an intense, disturbing, and brilliant 2017 work by acclaimed director Darren Aronofsky, having crafted left of center works such as 2000’s Requiem for a Dream, 2008’s The Wrestler, and 2010’s Black Swan- I shudder to think this film rivals the other in the insanity department. Stocked with four principal characters portrayed by mainstays in the Hollywood world, much buzz circled around this film upon release. The film is thought provoking, analytical, and surely will be discussed following the conclusion. I appreciate complex, difficult watches and Mother! succeeds in spades.

The film is set entirely within the confines of one enormous house in the middle of a vast field of land. Aronofsky never reveals the location adding mystery to the already intriguing premise. A young couple known only as Him (Javier Bardem) and mother (Jennifer Lawrence) cheerfully enjoy married life together and seem very much in love. Him is a renowned author suffering from writer’s block and mother having fixed up the house after it had burned long ago. One day Man (Ed Harris) arrives looking for a place to stay- while Him is delighted by the visitor and encourages Man to stay, mother is not as pleased. When Man’s wife, Woman (Michelle Pfeiffer) arrives, the house guests turn Him and mother’s lives upside down. This is merely the beginning of a complex puzzle.

As the plot unfolds, Mother! is oozing with one bizarre event after the other. mother witnesses unsettling images such as a beating heart within the walls and a bloodstain within the floor that will not go away. When relatives of Man and Woman’s overtake the house and a violent event occurs, events go from dark to downright chaotic.

By giving too much more of the plot points away would ruin the element of surprise, making Mother! a difficult film to review- the film is polarizing and mesmerizing and each of the principle characters can be analyzed and their motivations questioned. Why do Him and mother react differently to the visitors? What manifests the resentment each has towards mother?

Each actor gives a compelling turn and Aronofsky has admitted the character of mother is the one he related to most of all- logically one might assume that Bardem’s Him might receive that honor since the character is famous and a writer. How strange and this revelation by the director will only result in more character analysis.

How wonderful to see Michelle Pfeifer back in the forefront of a Hollywood film- it seems eons ago since we have seen her grace the silver screen, and she is back with a vengeance. Her bitchy portrayal is purely delicious and she encompasses Woman with the perfect amount of venom, toughness, and mystery. As she icily quizzes mother about her intentions of starting a family, she slowly immerses herself in mothers life without missing a beat.

The film is clearly unconventional and layered with symbolism and differing interpretations. Is Aronofsky’s message biblical? Is it political? Or could it be a reference to the obsessions everyday folk have with celebrity? After much pondering, and all three possibilities went through my mind, the biblical message seems the most solid and plausible explanation, but with Aronofsky films, the pleasure is in the analysis.

The final act of the film is particularly macabre as, until this time, the action exclusively centers on the four principal characters and the setting is largely bright.  A slow burn if you will, suddenly, all hell breaks loose as mobs, blood, fire, death and darkness takes over. The brutality and cannibalism involved will churn anyone’s stomach.

Quick to note are the lurid closeups of Jennifer Lawrence’s face during most of her scenes. Certainly, the camera loves her, but there is more going on here. Is the intention to make the viewer focus more on her character or to sympathize more with her character?

Mother! is a film that has stirred controversy among film-goers with some ravishing its elements and themes, while others have reviled and been revolted by the film. Time will tell if Mother! holds up well, but my hope and guess would be that it will become a film studied in film schools everywhere.

My Cousin Rachel-2017

My Cousin Rachel-2017

Director-Roger Michell

Starring-Rachel Weisz, Sam Claflin

Scott’s Review #685

Reviewed September 25, 2017

Grade: B-

My Cousin Rachel has the advantage of providing wonderful, scenic locales of Florence, Italy and lovely scenes filmed around England that makes the film a joy to watch from a cinematic perspective. The acting, especially by seasoned veteran Rachel Weisz,  is also stellar and noteworthy. The plot, however, is a big negative to the film as My Cousin Rachel suffers from weak dramatic storytelling, an anti-climactic conclusion, and missed opportunities with the plot.

The film is based on the 1951 novel of the same name, written by Daphne du Maurier. I have yet to read the book, but I am certain the film does it no justice. The overall tone of the film contains little mystique to say nothing of lacking any sort of haunting elements as one might expect to receive with titillating anticipation.

The story begins well enough as, through narration, we learn that a young man named Philip, having been orphaned as a child and raised by his older cousin, Ambrose, returns home from school to his childhood home in lavish Cornwall. He learns, through a letter, that Ambrose has married his widowed cousin, Rachel, and has moved to Florence. He also cryptically writes that he is in fear for his life and suspects Rachel of poisoning him. The main plot kicks off after Philip finally meets Rachel and astonishingly begins to fall madly in love with her.

To be fair, the film is shot beautifully and glimmers with interesting camera angles and in a few hallucination scenes, uses a blurry, almost magical film-making style. The aforementioned locales give My Cousin Rachel a sophisticated, graceful look. On the negative side of this filming evaluation, the lighting is much too bright, appearing more like an episode of the PBS series Downton Abbey, rather than the mysterious, cryptic film that My Cousin Rachel is promoted as.

The best thing about the film, though, is the wonderful acting performance by Rachel Weisz as the title character, Rachel. While not played quite as mysterious, Weisz envelopes her character with a passionate, earnest quality that sells the character as enchanting. With a winning smile, and a polite, dutiful manner, Rachel is tough to imagine as a murderess, which helps the lackluster plot just a bit. She happily goes about making a “special” tea, or performing other household tasks in cheerful, uniform pizzazz. Without Weisz in the role, I shudder to think how bleak the end result might have been.

It is mentioned early on in the story how Philip’s wealthy family, the Kendalls, are surprised that Ambrose married, as he was never known to be in, or enjoy, the company of women. It also must be noted that in flashbacks, Ambrose is portrayed as somewhat effeminate, or at most, less than manly. This seems a blatant attempt to question the character’s sexuality, yet the film chooses never to pursue this topic again. I am unaware of how the novel handled this plot item, but it seems rather a wasted opportunity.

Chemistry, or lack there of, is also an issue with My Cousin Rachel, as no connection between Weisz and Claflin exists throughout, nor is there any between either character and Philip’s intended love interest, Louise Kendall, played by Holliday Graingier. The actress herself is fine in a role that is given little meat or substance.

Uneven at best, My Cousin Rachel is a beautiful looking period piece, but mostly is just a mediocre piece of film-making. The ending is quite sudden and answers definitively none of the main plot questions. Released in 2017, the film will likely be forgotten by 2018.

It-2017

It-2017

Director-Andres Muschietti

Starring-Bill Skarsgard, Jaeden Lieberher

Scott’s Review #684

Reviewed September 20, 2017

Grade: A-

An enormous amount of hype has gone into the first big-screen adaptation of the epic length 1986 Stephen King novel, It. An above average mini-series based on the book was released in 1990, but the film version is much more effective. Officially entitled It: Chapter One, it divides the story in half, only focusing on the characters as children not as adults decades later. The film is highly effective with fantastic story, visuals, cinematography, and a rocking musical score. Simply put, it is one of the better Stephen King film adaptations.

As rabid Stephen King readers will understand, at over eleven hundred pages in length, and spanning a time period of thirty years, a two hour and fifteen minute film simply wouldn’t do to encompass the author’s artistic vision. To be determined is how chapter two will measure up to the glory of the first chapter.

Derry, Maine is the sleepy little town where the action takes place and the time period is 1988- worth pointing out is that the novel takes place in the late 1950’s. On a stormy afternoon, seven year old Georgie takes a paper boat, constructed by his older brother Bill Denbrough, outside to see if it sails. He meets a clown in the storm drain, who introduces himself as “Pennywise the Dancing Clown”. Pennywise toys with Georgie, turns vicious, and tears the boy’s arm off. Months later, life goes on as Bill and his group of friends known as “The Losers Club” all separately begin to see variations of Pennywise.

The film is really part teenage summer adventure balanced with a terrifying horror film and director Andres Muschietti achieves this mixture seamlessly. In fact, the use of lighting is one example of how the film goes about in this fashion. Most of the outdoor sequences, are bright, sunny, and airy. Conversely, the truly scary scenes, usually involving the entity of Pennywise, are shot using dark lighting, thereby eliciting fear and a perfect mood.

The casting is terrific- I specifically found actor Jaeden Lieberher as Stuttering Bill, Jeremy Ray Taylor, as Ben Hanscom, and actress Sophia Lillis, as Beverly Marsh, wonderful performers, and the clear standouts among the teenage characters. Lillis, bright-eyed and possessing a strong-willed composure, is reminiscent of a young Scarlett Johansson, and could have a bright future ahead of her. Lieberher contains an every-kid innocence and is believable in his earnestness and stuttering ability. Lastly, Taylor fills pudgy new kid in town, Ben, with comedy and a romanticism in his unrequited love for Bev.

Successful is the portrayal and appearance of the demonic entity, Pennywise. Since the fictional clown has over thirty years of interpretation and imagination, bringing him to cinematic life was surely a challenge. A risk would have been to make him either too horrific or too cartoon-like- the end result is a perfect hybrid. Bill Skarsgard exudes crazy in his brilliant performance, teetering between goofy and playful with Georgie, and evil personified as he taunts and terrorizes the kids in his dusty hideaway.

Interesting, and to be noted, is the fact that none of the adult characters are written in a sympathetic fashion. From the creepy Alvin Marsh, to the nerdy pharmacist, even the stern librarian, and the overbearing Mrs. Kaspbrak, they are each laden with an unlikable quality. The closest adult to being “nice”, Bill’s father, finally screams at his son to accept the fact that Georgie is dead.

Two small complaints include the two secondary bullies- king bully Henry Bowers cohorts are not given their comeuppance and simply vanish from the screen never to be mentioned again. Secondly, the sound exterior shots of Derry, Maine exude a New England freshness and a small town mystique. Too bad that the scenes were not filmed in Maine at all, but somewhere outside of Toronto, Canada- more realism would have been nice.

Due to the huge success of the adapted film, legions of fans will undoubtedly hold their breaths waiting for the resurrection of Pennywise and “It” to be unleashed on film fans everywhere- probably in 2019. I will be one of those fans.

XX-2017

XX-2017

Director-Jovanka Vuckovic, Annie Clark, Roxanne Benjamin, Karyn Kusama

Starring-Natalie Brown, Melanie Lynskey

Scott’s Review #677

Reviewed September 1, 2017

Grade: B

XX is a 2017 American anthology film consisting of four unique horror vignette’s all directed by female directors- a brazen feat in itself as this gender is too often under-represented in the genre. The chapters do not always make complete sense, but what they do achieve is a creative, unpredictable edge and a feeling of having watched something of substance. Surely, another anomaly is that each features a female lead, giving the film as a whole a measure of female empowerment.

Immediately we are treated to an odd tale named The Box, based on a short story written by an author notable for composing tales of the gruesome, Jack Ketchum. In this story a young boy named Danny, cheerfully riding a train with his mother and sister during the holidays, innocently asks an odd-looking man if he can peek inside a shiny, red, gift-wrapped box. When the man agrees, Danny initially goes about his day, but proceeds to stop eating, much to his parents horror. This installment is my favorite of the four as it is the only holiday themed chapter, and contains a morbid quality amid the cheeriness of the season. The perspective soon switches from Danny to his mother, Susan, and the conclusion is a surprising one.

Next up, The Birthday Party features middle-aged Mary, intent on holding a birthday party for her young daughter, Lucy. When Mary finds her husband dead, she dresses him up in a panda costume and attempts to conceal him from the group of anxious young party-goers. The conclusion is a mix of the hilarious and the disturbing. This vignette features a nanny and a neighbor, both odd and mysterious characters. I admire the black comedy in this one most of all.

Third in the series is Don’t Fall, which transports the viewer to the middle of the desert, where four friends are on an expedition, seeking adventure. The main character, Gretchen, is deathly afraid of heights. When the group discovers a cave with ancient, evil writings on it, one of the group becomes possessed and embarks on a killing spree against the others. Very short in length, Don’t Fall suffers a bit from absurdity and the least character development of the four- it is also the one I found to be the weakest.

Finally, Her Only Living Son is the strangest in the quartet. Working class single mom, Cora, has only one son, Andy. About to turn eighteen, he is rebellious and known to be cruel to classmates- even gleefully tearing off one poor girls fingernails. Ironically, the high school faculty seems to worship Andy, deeming him remarkable and seeming somewhat entranced by him. As Cora becomes influenced by her mailman, Chet, it is revealed that Andy’s father is a Hollywood star, wanting nothing to do with Cora nor Andy. When Andy develops claws on his fingernails and toenails, Cora fears that he is not her ex-husband’s son at all, but rather the spawn of Satan. Clearly, this tale is a miniature of the classic 1968 horror film, Rosemary’s Baby, both haunting and devious in tone.

Enticing is how each chapter runs the gamut in theme and each is unique and different enough from the others so that they are distinguishable and do not suffer from a blended or all too similar feel. Certainly, each situation is implausible in “real life” and some head scratching plot points abound. For instance, how is is possible for a emaciated child, under doctor’s care, not to be force fed? Also, a teenager growing claws and hooves? Really? But, it is horror, and sometimes supernatural, or even silly, elements can be fun.

XX, new for 2017, is reminiscent of the successful horror anthology that the Showtime cable network was daring enough to air from 2005-2007- this series ran the gamut in stylized and edgy horror escapades, using various directors to achieve this result. Here’s to hoping that XX opens some new doors and prompts a new horror series. XX has a few flaws, but is successful in undoubtedly pleasing the legions of horror fans.

Annabelle: Creation-2017

Annabelle: Creation-2017

Director-David F. Sandberg

Starring-Talitha Bateman, Lulu Wilson

Scott’s Review #672

Reviewed August 17, 2017

Grade: B+

Annabelle: Creation is a prequel to the successful 2014 horror film, entitled Annabelle, and the fourth installment in total of the popular The Conjuring series.  Over just a few years these films have become well-crafted, intertwined stories in the modern supernatural horror genre. As a comparison to another latter day horror franchise, Saw, Annabelle/The Conjuring elicits more of the classic spook factor rather than the gore associated with the Saw franchise.

Set somewhere in the desert and mountainous region of California, the time is 1943. Doll maker Samuel Mullins (Anthony LaPaglia) and wife Esther (Miranda Otto) live a cheerful existence with their young daughter, Annabelle, who they nickname Bee. The family attend church services regularly and engage in cute games of hide and seek in their vast farmhouse and land. When one sunny day Bee is struck and killed by a passing car, the couple is devastated beyond repair.

Twelve years later, a group of orphans led by Sister Charlotte (Stephanie Sigman), are invited by Mr. Mullins (Mrs. Mullins now bed-ridden due to a mysterious accident) to spend some time at the farmhouse when their orphanage shuts down. The six orphans, led by best friends Janice (Talitha Bateman), and Linda (LuLu Wilson) embark on the quiet farmhouse and immediately are met by strange goings on, most notably a life-sized doll living inside a forbidden room, which Janice inevitably stumbles upon out of curiosity. Stricken with polio, Janice is left a cripple, unable to move around very well.

As Janice discovers the creepy doll, or shall we say, Janice awakens the doll from a strange closet covered with bible verses, the doll begins to terrorize the girls and wreaks havoc on Janice and Linda in particular. Apparently, the doll is inhabited by an evil entity and the peculiar circumstances following Annabelle’s death years earlier rise to the surface as secrets are revealed and demons seek refuge in the farmhouse.

Annabelle: Creation is quite well made and inundated with scary elements of surprise. The farmhouse, in particular, is a fantastic setting for a horror film- the remote locale, the eerie quiet, the dark, unfamiliar layout of the house, all come to fruition throughout the film. Specifically, a scarecrow, a stairwell chair-lift, and the years between 1943 and 1955 are of special importance.

Besides the common horror elements that the film uses to its advantage, the film is just downright scary and tense. On plenty of occasions the cameras are positioned as such so that a figure or object could easily be lurking behind a particular character, but out of sight from the audience. Sometimes nothing will appear and the scene goes on, but other times a scare occurs that makes us jump out of our seats- this is good, classic, horror at its finest- one knows not what is, or could, be coming next. I did not find Annabelle: Creation predictable in the slightest, which makes the film succeed.

As if I was not entertained enough throughout the duration of the film, the final set of scenes, now some twelve years after 1955, brings us to the very beginning of 2014’s Annabelle, as we witness the very first scenes of that picture, now making perfect sense and weaving the two films together in compelling fashion. Apt viewers will remember that Annabelle begins with a horrific home invasion scene, brilliantly crafted and shot. Now, the story line will make more sense and an “oh wow” moment will be experienced.

Certainly, I was left with a couple of slight gripes about Annabelle: Creation. The characters appearances are quite modern day, not the clothes per se, but the hairstyles, mannerisms and figures of speech- I never, for a second, believed the time period of the mid-1950’s. To build on this point, and at the risk of an honest historical inaccuracy critique , a black orphan would never have resided with white orphans, let alone be one of the “popular girls”, nor would the orphans ever have been led by a sexy, Indian nun wearing heavy mascara.

I get that the film makers deemed inclusiveness a higher priority over historical accuracy, but these details are noticed and readily apparent to me as not having  existed if the film were “real life”. Furthermore, the point was repeatedly hammered home that the film was a huge supporter of Christianity and went out of their way to promote the goodness of religion over evil.

Annabelle: Creation reaffirms my belief that good, old fashioned horror films can still be successfully made in the modern era, using elements firmly etched in the genre, but used in a  modern, scary and sinister way. Here’s to hoping the creators think of another good idea and make another segment in this thrilling dual franchise.

Dunkirk-2017

Dunkirk-2017

Director-Christopher Nolan

Starring-Fionn Whitehead, Tom Hardy

Scott’s Review #666

Reviewed July 24, 2017

Grade: A

Of the hundreds of war films that have been made over the years, most have a similar style with either a clear patriotic slant, or, of a questioning/message type nature. Regardless, most  have a certain blueprint from the story to the visuals to the direction- and rarely stray from this. The genre is not my particular favorite as the machismo is  usually overdone  and too many  of the films turn into standard “guy films”, or the “good guys versus the bad guys”. Finally, along comes a film like Dunkirk that gives the stale genre a good, swift, kick in the ass.

The story is both simple, yet historical. In 1940, Nazi Germany, having successfully invaded France, pushes thousands of French and British soldiers to a seaside town named Dunkirk.  With slim hopes of rescue or survival, the soldiers are sitting ducks for the raid of German fighter planes, who drop bombs both on the soldiers and rescue ships. In parallel stories, a kindly British civilian (Mark Rylance) and his son sail to Dunkirk to help rescue the soldiers, and two British fighter pilots chase the German fighter planes, attempting to thwart their deadly intentions.

One will immediately be struck by the pacing of the film as it is non-stop action from start to close. The action, combined with very little dialogue, and an eerie musical score, are what make the film feel so unique and fresh. Directed by Christopher Nolan, (The Dark Knight trilogy and Inception) critics are heralding this film as his greatest work yet- I tend to agree.  Scenes involving such differing musical scores as screechy violins mixed with thunderous, heavy beats, really shake up the film and keep the audience on their toes as to what is coming next.

An interesting facet to the film, and certainly done on purpose, is that the backstories of the characters are not revealed- we know very little about any of them.  Do they have families? Are they married? This is a beautiful decision by the screenwriters and by Nolan.  For instance, the very first scenes involve a disheveled private, named Tommy (Fionn Whitehead).  Panicked, he runs through the streets in pursuit of the beach, where he meets a fellow soldier named Gibson, who is burying another soldier in the sand. Together, they find a wounded soldier and carry him to a departing ship- the men never speak, but communicate through their eyes and gestures-it is  a powerful series of scenes.

Another positive to Dunkirk is the anonymity of the enemy. The German soldiers are never shown. Certainly, we see many scenes of the fighter planes overhead, pummeling the soldiers with bombs, and pulsating gunfire in various scenes, but the mystique of  the enemy troops is a constant throughout the film. The faceless component to the villains adds a terror and haunting uncertainty.  In this way, the film adds to the audiences confusion about where the enemy may be, at any given moment.

The visuals and the vastness of the ocean side beach, forefront throughout the entire film, at one hour and forty six minutes relatively brief for a war film, elicits both beauty and a terrible gloominess. Scenes of the vastness of the beach peppered with thousands of cold and hungry men is both pathetic and powerful.

The best scenes take place on Mr. Dawson’s  (Rylance) mariner boat. Aided by his son Peter, and Peter’s frightened schoolmate, the trio head for dangerous Dunkirk to help rescue, but en route pick up a shell-shocked soldier determined to stay as far away from Dunkirk as possible. This leads to compelling drama and a deep characterization of all the central characters.

Many list 1998’s Saving Private Ryan as tops in the modern war genre, but Dunkirk may very well rival that film in intensity and musical effectiveness. Dunkirk also contains shockingly little bloodshed or dismembered soldiers- it does not need this to tell a powerful story. At times emotional,  the film is always intense and never lets go of its audience from the very first frame. A war film for the history books and a lesson in film creativity and thoughtfulness.

The Beguiled-2017

The Beguiled-2017

Director-Sofia Coppola

Starring-Nicole Kidman, Colin Farrell

Scott’s Review #659

Reviewed July 4, 2017

Grade: A-

A remake of the 1971 film (also adapted from an earlier novel) starring Clint Eastwood, The Beguiled is a 2017 release directed by Sofia Coppola (Lost in Translation), a director ready to burst onto the front lines. Coppola carefully chooses her films, but each one is different from the others and The Beguiled is no different. A piece fraught with atmosphere and tension, Coppola does a wonder from a directing standpoint. The story has tons of unchartered potential and drags at times, but overall The Beguiled is a hit, if nothing more than to look at in wonderment.

The film gets off to a moody start as we follow a young girl, eerily humming as she picks mushrooms, along a deserted southern road. It is Civil War times (1864), and the setting is a mostly deserted all-girls boarding school in southern Virginia. The girl (Amy) is startled when she discovers an injured, handsome Union Army soldier, Corporal John McBurney (Farrell). Sympathetic, Amy helps the soldier back to the school, led by headmistress, Martha Farnsworth (Kidman). Slowly, the females in the school become enamored with John as they develop rivalries with each other in order to gain the upper hand for his affections.

There is something so sinister and wickedly foreboding about almost every scene as we shrink at the thought that something bad will happen at any moment- sometimes it does and sometimes it does not. Almost like a horror film would, the camera angles are such that something or someone is bound to suddenly leap out and grab a character.

The colors are muted and almost pastel and there is commonly fog floating through the exterior scenes. Coppola does a fantastic job of portraying a deserted southern landscape. The lighting of the film is also intriguing as lit candles serve to enhance the dimness and the final dinner scene (poison mushrooms anyone?) is gloomy and Shakespearean.

Beyond the look of the film, The Beguiled is well-acted. With heavyweights like Farrell, Kidman, and frequent Coppola star, Kirsten Dunst, as the vulnerable and unhappy teacher, Miss Morrow, the acting is stellar and believable. The audience is unsure if John is manipulating the women for his own gain or if he has developed feelings for any (or all) of them. The lovesick teen, Alicia (Elle Fanning), with hormones clearly raging, sets her sights on John almost from the beginning, sneaking out of musical lessons, to kiss an unconscious John goodnight.

The story, while compelling, is quite slow moving and left with oodles of possibilities when the conclusion finally happens. Other than the tart, Alicia, endless romantic potential could have been reached with both Miss Morrow and Miss Farnsworth. I was left wondering throughout the film when a romance would develop between Martha and John, but only towards the end of the film was this ever addressed and barely skirted over, as the take charge and stoic Martha slowly began to let her guard down. In this way, the film could have added some further romantic complications and beefed up the very short running time of ninety three minutes.

As Nicole Kidman is one of my favorite film stars of all time (she can tell a story by facial expressions alone), she has wisely begun to choose fantastic supporting roles as she ages in Hollywood (2016’s Lion immediately comes to mind). Dunst has aged gracefully into a middle-aged actress chomping at the bit for meaty roles, and Colin Farrell is as ruggedly handsome as ever sprouting a dark and bushy beard for most of the role. The acting in The Beguiled is fantastic.

The Beguiled is a film to watch if only to escape to the joys of great, atmospheric, film-making, and to appreciate the wonderful talents of one of the few prominent female director’s of today (hopefully the mega success of 2017’s female directed Wonder Woman will begin to change this). The story has a few issues, but overall The Beguiled is worth the money spent.

Beauty and the Beast-2017

Beauty and the Beast-2017

Director-Bill Condon

Starring-Emma Watson, Dan Stevens

Scott’s Review #634

Reviewed April 18, 2017

Grade: A-

Upon going to see 2017’s spring release offering of the live action version of the Disney animated classic, Beauty and the Beast, I was not sure what to expect. Would it be a cheesy or amateurish retread of the 1991 animated smash only with human beings? Why the lackluster March release date? Surely this is telling, otherwise why not release the film in the coveted fourth quarter with potential Oscar buzz? I do not have the answers to all of these questions, but this version of Beauty and the Beast is enchanting, romantic, and lovely- a spring treat for the entire family to enjoy.

Our protagonist , Belle, (producers wisely casting Harry Potter legend Emma Watson), is a kindly farm girl living with her father, Maurice (Kevin Kline),  in a quaint village outside of Paris. Considered a bit odd by her village mates because she loves to read, she rebuffs the advances of dashing soldier, Gaston, because he is arrogant- the other village ladies (as well as Gaston’s gay companion LeFou) flaunt over Gaston’s good looks.

When Maurice ventures into parts unknown and stumbles upon a dilapidated castle, he is locked up by a vicious beast, having once been a handsome prince, since cursed by a beggar woman. The only way the beast can return to his former self is to find true love before a wilted rose loses all of its peddles- enter Belle to the rescue. Belle convinces the Beast to let her stay prisoner and release her father. Will Beast and Belle fall madly in love? Of course they will. The fated romance is part of what makes the film heartwarming and nice.

The now legendary classic fairy tale feels fresh and energized with the Disney produced project. Director Bill Condon carefully, and successfully, crafts an honest effort, making sure that while providing a fairy tale happy ending, not to make the film seem contrived, overblown, or overdramatized. I fell for the film hook, line, and sinker. it is an uplifting experience. The song and dance numbers abound with gusto and good costumes- my personal favorites being the rousing “Be Our Guest” and the sentimental “Beauty and the Beast”.

The crucial romance between Watson’s Belle, and the Beast, earnestly played by Dan Stevens (Downton Abbey fame), works in spades, as their chemistry feels authentic and passionate. As Belle is at first held captive by the misunderstood bad boy in lieu of Maurice, the pair at first loathe each other, but this is done with innocence and no malice. Condon wonderfully exudes the right amount of slow build to make the pair beloved by audiences with the correct amount of pacing.

The CGI is heavy in Beauty and the Beast, as is expected. The distraction of the Beast is a bit confusing. Was the Beast a complete CGI creation save for the close ups or was Watson dancing with Stevens when filming commenced in certain scenes? I am unsure.

The controversial “gay storyline”, which helped the film be banned in the southern United States and Russia, as well as other countries is pure and utter rubbish. The subject is explored extremely superficially and not worthy of all the fuss. In fact, worthier of mention is the wonderful diversity that is featured in the film, most notably in the opening sequence. Interracial couples appear in the form of Madame de Garderobe (Audra McDonald), the opera singer turned wardrobe, and Maestro Cadenza (Stanley Tucci) turned harpsichord. On the gay issue, how sweet that the implied gay character of LeFlou finds love with another man at the end of the film.

A minor complaint is the scattered authentic French accents by many of the household staff and village people, but Belle and Maurice speak in British tongue. Being a fairy tale, liberties must be taken and suspension of disbelief is certainly a necessity, but this was noticed.

Beauty and the Beast is a lovely experience that mixes fantastic musical numbers with romance with a side of diversity mixed in for good measure. Since the film will undoubtedly be seen by oodles of youngsters and teens this is a wonderful aspect to the film and hopefully, a shining, positive example in film making.

Get Out-2017

Get Out-2017

Director-Jordan Peele

Starring-Daniel Kaluuya, Allison Williams

Scott’s Review #629

Reviewed March 28, 2017

Grade: A

Get Out, a modern day horror film, is a unique film, mixing classic horror elements (especially great camera angles to elicit jumps) with bits of slapstick humor, not done very often in horror. In the case of Get Out, all of these tidbits come together in a marvelous experience, and the subject matter is rather risqué (see below), a plus for me as I like films that push the envelope a bit.

Certainly, as with most horror films, liberties must be taken in the way of plot points and continuity issues, but this film is an impressive work. Kudos, given the film is director Jordan Peele’s directorial film debut.

Chris Washington is a young photographer, handsome, educated, and enjoying life. He is black, and his girlfriend, Rose, is a pretty white girl from an affluent upbringing- it is implied that they are opposites on the social scale. One weekend, they traverse out of the city (presumably New York City) to visit Rose’s parents in the country. Her parents, Dean and Missy, own a sprawling estate with acres of land. Nervous to meet Rose’s parents and make a good first impression, Chris notices that Dean and Missy’s servants are all black and act in quite a peculiar fashion. Soon, it is revealed that Chris’s mother died when he was a little boy and when Chris is hypnotized by Missy, things begin to go from strange to downright scary.

I adore how the film immediately feels ominous- there is simply something not “right” with the situation-even before Chris and Rose arrive at her parent’s estate, something seems off. They hit and kill a deer with their car, the policeman who aids them seems racist, and despite Rose seeming fresh-faced, she also seems not to be trusted. There are so many ominous warnings not to approach her parents house, that when they finally  do arrive the audience is compelled to nervously watch for more, perhaps while biting fingernails.

Jordan Peele’s decision to have everything cheery and bright during most of the film only makes the audience wonder what secrets are lurking about in the grand estate- the setting where most of the action takes place. When the pair finally arrive at her parent’s house everything is out of whack. The film undoubtedly borrows from The Stepford Wives in the pleasant, almost robotic cheerfulness of some of the characters.

The big reveal and the rather objectification of all of the black characters- specifically black males- can certainly be cause for debate. The racial motives of the characters are also only skimmed over and never discussed or rationalized in detail. The physical strength and resilience of the black male is mentioned a few times and Rose’s parents being a psychologist and a neurosurgeon are major points in the story, but the intentions are somewhat wishy- washy and hardly plausible.

In a wise move, Peele mixes a hilarious scene amid the doom and gloom. Clearly the comic relief of the film, Rod, Chris’s best friend and proud TSA agent, calls the police and describes in detail his fears of a sex slave operation, which results in the police having a good guffaw- at Rod’s expense. Rod serving as an instrumental part of the film’s conclusion is a fantastic decision- mixing dark humor with more grotesque horror moments. This succeeds in setting Get Out well above the traditional genre.

The acting by all parties is believable and deserving of acclaim, but newcomer (to me) Daniel Kaluuya carries the film very well, even offering more than one heartfelt dramatic scene, mostly when remembering his mother. Allison Williams (a dead ringer for a young Jennifer Connelly) is also a marvel, especially as the character changes direction mid-stream and essentially becomes a different character.

Fantastic is the throwback elements of The Stepford Wives, complete with a similar setting. The film does not reveal whether “in the country” is Connecticut or upstate New York-Stepford Wives was Connecticut.

Get Out is a fresh, novel approach to the standard elements of horror, mixing comedy and aspects of race into a story brimming with suspense, good frights, and especially, interesting camera angles. This film, a great success at the box office, does not seem like the sequel type, but if so, I am intrigued by what more can be done with it.