Tag Archives: 2017 Movie reviews

Girls Trip-2017

Girls Trip-2017

Director-Malcolm D. Lee

Starring-Regina Hall, Queen Latifah, Jada Pinkett Smith

Scott’s Review #760

Reviewed May 18, 2018

Grade: D-

I am truly baffled by some of the positive reviews of the film Girls Trip (2017), not only by viewers but respected critics. Attempts to make females as raunchy as the guys in R-rated comedies never works in my opinion (good writing does!) and the result is a largely unfunny, crude, piece of drivel.  The fact that the film which goes for a “female empowerment” theme is directed by a man is as much disappointing as disrespectful, especially given the fact that the writers are female- they couldn’t find a black female director?

At the risk of giving a testimonial, I am fully aware of the importance of creating good female roles in cinema- especially good female black roles. Unfortunately the roles in Girls Trip do nothing to further the cause as tried and true, standardized parts commence with nary a well-written character to be found. In modern film look to Black Panther (2018) or Hidden Figures (2016) for examples of positive black female role models- they do exist!.

The weak plot involves four forty something lifelong friends who regroup for a reunion after years apart. Famous lifestyle guru Ryan Pierce (Regina Hall) decides to take her “Flossy Posse” to a music festival in New Orleans where they will spend the weekend partying like it’s the 1990’s once again. Ryan is married to a man who cheats on her, Sasha (Queen Latifah) runs a failing gossip site, Lisa (Jada Pinkett Smith) is a divorced, overbearing nurse, and slutty, aggressive Dina (Tiffany Haddish), who has just been fired from her job.

In predictable form- think 2009’s The Hangover or a multitude of other raunchy comedies since then, the girls get into trouble, drink too much, have sex, and partake in other hi-jinks throughout the weekend. The central plot is Ryan’s potential investment deal with rigid and uptight Bethany (Lara Grice) and a wisecracking agent in tow. As events unfold a female nemesis of Ryan’s shows up to cause trouble and stir up drama, testing the group’s patience.

Girls Trip is a typical American comedy film (not a compliment!) that offers weak writing and instead promotes stereotypical stock characters. Many similar comedies have come before it- many more will come after it. Since I disliked the film so much I decided to ask myself a few rhetorical questions as I observed the mess. In films with a group of women why is there always a slutty one (Dina)? Why is there always a mousy one (Lisa)? Why is there always a fat one (Sasha)? Why is it deemed funny to watch women pee or suffer bathroom issues?

The only positives to Girls Trip come in one humorous scene when Dina mixes absinthe into the girls drinks before a meeting causing them to hallucinate. As the girl’s begin to imagine themselves talking in deep baritone voices and Ryan imagines a waitress is her arch enemy the hilarity briefly ensues. A quick wrap up speech by Ryan at the films conclusion does send a nice message about being yourself and staying true to your loved ones, but why we have to suffer through two plus hours of crap to get to the inspiration and point of the film is beyond me.

The success of Girls Trip (2017), which will inevitably produce a sequel leads me to believe that the masses prefer their films idiotic, redundant, and fraught with cheap, crude laughs. The films intention seems to be to push the envelope- not to create great art- but just to make the film as crass as possible. This is presumably to prove that girls can be as nasty as boys, which the film succeeds at portraying.

Jigsaw-2017

Jigsaw-2017

Director-Michael Spierig, Peter Spierig

Starring-Matt Passmore, Tobin Bell

Scott’s Review #739

Reviewed April 9, 2018

Grade: C-

As a fan of the horror genre and specifically of the Saw film franchise  that debuted in brutal form in 2004, directed by James Wan, has sadly become a lesser version of what was once clever writing mixed with wonderful, tortuous kills. Jigsaw is the eighth installment in a series that has now run out of steam- simply riding on the coat-tails of what was once its glory days. The 2017 film can only be appreciated by die-hard fans of the series, otherwise will be unsuccessful at obtaining any new fans.

Admittedly, Jigsaw does begin in strong fashion as the viewer is thrust into the midst of a compelling  rooftop police chase that results in a fleeing criminal, Edgar Munsen, being shot by detectives. Unknown if events are connected, the action shifts to a remote barn where (in typical Saw fashion) five individuals are held captive, each with a noose around their neck. Throughout the film we learn the back-stories of each victim as well as a connecting story of a pathologist, Logan Nelson (Matt Passmore), his sister, and the possibility that John Kramer has either returned from the grave or a copycat killer is on the loose, emulating his shenanigans.

The basic premise and tone of 2017’s Jigsaw is very similar to the preceding seven installments, however this version seems a bit watered down and glossy by comparison. My recurring thought throughout the feature was one of reminiscence of a horror version of a network episodic drama- think CBS’s Criminal Minds or the like. This is not a compliment. The camera style is of a slick production with nary a raw or authentic moment- incredibly produced with good-looking people in peril.

Fans of the previous Saw films will undoubtedly expect the now familiar twist towards the end of the film- a clever story turn making one character revealed to be not what he or she appears to be or even in cahoots with serial killer, “Jigsaw” (John Kramer). To be fair, this quality does surface in Jigsaw, but the surprise is so lame and inexplicable that it is hardly worth mentioning.  Suffice it to say the expected resurfacing of Kramer is a real sham and instead we are fed a less than satisfying riddle of one character faking his death and another sequence taking place ten years earlier. If better written this twist might be worth its salt, but the reasoning seems thrown together with little thought of staying true to the characters or history.

Other familiar elements in Jigsaw abound so that a fan of Saw or Saw II or Saw III will undoubtedly find tidbits that will satisfy them. In this way the film is like a trip to McDonald’s or a neighborhood burger joint- one will more or less get what is expected. As the barn victims are given choices via a tape recorded message by a sinister John Kramer voice, each is given a test and must ultimately confess their sins. As fans know, Saw victims are far from innocent and always harbor a neatly tucked away secret.

Such horrific acts like a haggard young mother smothering her screaming baby and framing her husband for the deed, or a thief stealing a woman’s wallet and causing her to die when her asthma medicine is lost, are back stories thought of by the writers. Another character once sold a motorcycle with a faulty brake line to an innocent man who later crashed and was killed. These aspects are the fun in a film like Jigsaw in that the tortures the victims endure have elements of “serves him or her right”.

Another solid to Jigsaw are the kills, again what fans of the Saw franchise have come to know and love. In this one we delightfully witness a victim’s leg severed, another impaled with needles, and yet another gleefully attempts to shoot one of the other victims trapped in the barn to allow her freedom only to realize the gun is rigged to shoot herself instead. These are fun moments that make Jigsaw less than all bad.

Having created an eighth version of a once great franchise that introduced the world to the term “torture horror”, by 2017 has grown ultimately stale and tired with a few glimpses of former glory created in the familiarity aspects. All great things must come to an end and the Saw series has more than crumbled from its former days of glory.

Loving Vincent-2017

Loving Vincent-2017

Director-Dorota Kobiela, Hugh Welchman

Voices-Douglas Booth, Saoirse Ronan

Scott’s Review #738

Reviewed April 5, 2018

Grade: B+

Loving Vincent (2017) is a highly unique animated feature that is quite the artistic experience and vastly different from any typical film of this genre. Being the first of its kind to be a completely painted animated feature, hopefully other films will follow suit, as the result is an exuberance in creativity. While the biography of Vincent van Gogh is interesting, I was oftentimes left wondering the accuracy of all the details as the plot is rather dramatic. Still, the film is to be celebrated for its progressive  and edgy nature.

In clever fashion the actors starring in the vehicle simply act while they are subsequently drawn so that the viewer can imagine the action as if it were a standard film, since the drawings mirror the actors involved. For example, Saoirse Ronan can clearly be distinguished as the daughter of a local boatman, who was rumored as keeping close company with van Gogh before his death. We know it is the actress, but in painting form, eliciting a surreal experience.

The action begins one year following tortured artist, Vincent van Gogh’s, tragic suicide. Postman Joseph Roulin asks his son Armand to deliver Van Gogh’s last letter to his brother, Theo. Suspicion surrounds the artist’s death as mere weeks earlier his mood was calm and level-headed making his death cause for alarm. From this point, Armand traverses throughout France to spend time with those who had dealings with Van Gogh during the last days of his life. Those characters include his doctor, an inn keeper, and others who may hold clues to the mystery surrounding his death.

From a story perspective, Loving Vincent is a compelling piece as mystery and suspicion is cast around the actual death of the artist. This is not so much a whodunit as we know of the resulting suicide, however, the film certainly casts some doubt about the why of that fateful night. Did someone drive Van Gogh to suddenly take his own life? What was the romantic situation between either Marguerite or perhaps even Adeline? The supposed copying of Van Gogh’s art by his doctor, Dr. Paul Gachet is an interesting point. Through all of these dramatic and intriguing facets I did begin to wonder what was factual and what was not.

The brilliant part of Loving Vincent exists in the unusual and artistic method in which the film is created. The fact that the film is about one of the most respected and appreciated artists of all time is no accident and this perfectly encases the overall tone of the film in wonderful fashion. Throughout the one hour and thirty four minute duration of the film I was continually enamored by the “look” of the film. Exquisite and quite beautiful, the film makers chose classically trained painters over traditional animators and I feel this makes all of the difference.

The use of actual Van Gogh paintings were an instrumental part of the film and modified to fit into the allotted screen room. The cast performed the film, as if a play, in front of a green screen, and then the painters created their magic- pretty incredible! Also mind blowing is the use of colors to change the time of day (brightness and darkness) that results in a highly effective tone.

By creating a visual masterpiece of cinematic beauty, Loving Vincent is a feast for the eyes. Unknown if the story is true to form or whether facts are embellished, the film succeeds as a work of art and a good glimpse into the life of one of the worlds most beloved and tortured artists.

Coco-2017

Coco-2017

Director-Lee Unkrich

Voices-Anthony Gonzalez, Benjamin Bratt

Scott’s Review #737

Reviewed April 4, 2018

Grade: B+

Winner of the 2017 Best Animated Feature Academy Award, Coco is an exuberant and colorful affair filled with marvelous lights and a Mexican cultural infusion that serves the film well, making it feel robust with diversity and inclusion. The overall theme of family, traditions, and musical celebration is apparent and makes for good razzle dazzle with lots of upbeat song and dance. Mixed in is a lovely inter-generational theme, where older folks are respected, something all too lacking in today’s real world.

Miguel Rivera is a twelve year old boy living in Mexico with his extended family, including his elderly great-grandmother, Coco- sadly suffering from intermittent dementia. Through flashbacks we learn that Coco’s father, (Miguel’s great-great-grandfather), was an aspiring musician who abandoned the family for greener pastures. Subsequently, all music has been banned by the Rivera clan in favor of a modest shoe-making business.

As Miguel realizes his passion for music, he comes into conflict with his family, who have other aspirations for the young man. Miguel embarks on a fantastic journey to the magical and somewhat frightening land of his deceased ancestors, coinciding with the festive Day of the Dead celebration, a tradition of Mexican culture. There he realizes the true nature of his great-great-grandfather’s sudden departure.

Coco is a film that can really be enjoyed by all members of the family and is structured in just that way. The blatant use of multiple generations holds great appeal for blending the family unit together. Pixar successfully sets all the right elements in place for a successful film, and the well-written story only adds layers. The film is quite mainstream, yet appealing to the masses.

Perhaps very young viewers may become frightened by some of the skeleton laced faces of Miguel’s ancestors in the other world where he visits, but these images are somewhat tame and mixed with vibrant colors and wonderful production numbers. These images are undoubtedly meant to entertain rather than be scary and the creatures possess a friendly vibe.

Having viewed the film on an airplane traveling cross-country (admittedly not the best way to watch a film), I was entranced by the lovely and touching  musical number, “Remember Me (Lullaby)”, so much so that I was moved to tears right on the plane. How’s that for effectiveness? The emotional level reached via this song impressed me immensely about Coco, even when the story occasionally is secondary to the visual or musical elements.

In fact, for me, the story began to lag slightly until the aforementioned big musical number came into play. The song really kicked the action into high gear in an emotional way, and I became more enamored with the characters and the connections they had to one another. The love that Miguel and his relatives share became clearer to me and the conclusion is fine and satisfactory.

A slight miss to the film, corrected mid way through, is the bratty and entitled nature to Miguel. Heaving sighs when he does not get his way, this seems more apparent early on and was quite the turn off- at first I did not care for the character, yet I knew I was supposed to. Thankfully, the character becomes, naturally, the hero of the film and ultimately a sweet, likable character. I began to ponder,  “is that what kids are really like these days”?

Pixar does it again as they create a family friendly experience with a positive, yet non cliched message of belonging, forgiveness, and the importance of family connections, that feels fresh. In current times of divisiveness, especially with immigration and other cultures being attacked, how appropriate to experience a feel-good, yet not contrived project.

The Blackcoat’s Daughter-2017

The Blackcoat’s Daughter-2017

Director-Oz Perkins

Starring-Emma Roberts, Kiernan Shipka

Scott’s Review #732

Reviewed March 12, 2018

Grade: B+

The Blackcoat’s Daughter is an eerie 2017 independent horror film offering that combines various chilling elements to achieve its goal. Largely a fusion of the supernatural, the occult, and the psychological, the film, while slow at times, does offer a unique experience and is unpredictable in nature. Parts of the film are downright scary and spooky as religion meets satanism, always a safe bet for an unsettling experience. Writer/Director Oz Perkins, should be well on his way to a successful career in the industry with this, almost full-on artsy, film.

The action begins in a prestigious Catholic boarding school in a quiet, wintry area of upstate New York. As students (largely unseen) leave the school for a February break, Kat (Kiernan Shupka), and Rose (Lucy Boynton) are left behind when their parents do not arrive to pick them up. While the girls hunker down for the night, hoping their parents show up the next day, a third girl, Joan (Emma Roberts), who may be a psychopath, is en route towards the school, enlisting the help of a strange married couple (Bill and Linda), whose daughter had died years ago and was the same age as Joan. Also in the mix are two school nuns who are rumored to be satanists.

Little is known about the town, but the fact that nobody is around makes the setting a major plus. This may very well be due to budgetary restrictions associated with the film, but regardless, the use of very few characters or extras is a score, with the number of principle characters below ten. The cold and bleak nature of the town and the stark journey that Joan is on make the ambiance very successful. Many scenes throughout The Blackcoat’s Daughter are set during night time in relative seclusion and given the icy texture of upstate New York in the middle of winter the setting chosen by Perkins is spot on and quite atmospheric.

The overall story to The Blackcoat’s Daughter is both peculiar and mysterious and does not make complete sense a good deal of the time.  In fact, by the time the film concludes and the credits role, not a lot of the film adds up from a story perspective, which left me rather unsatisfied. Since Bill and Linda’s daughter looks identical to Rose, are we to assume that the events at the school occurred a decade before the events involving Joan? What ends up happening to Kat is perplexing- haunted by spirits and forced to kill, is she healed at the end of the film? Or is Kat really Joan? Too many loose ends are left.

The film is very heavy on the violence and the gore, and dares not hold back in showcasing the victims pain and suffering before they cease to exist. More than one character lies bleeding and immobile as the killer calmly approaches to finish the deed. Three characters are decapitated in horrific form as we later see their severed heads lined up in a boiler room. The demonic chanting of “Hail, Satan!” may turn some viewers off as would the overall story line- those who feel 1973’s The Exorcist is disturbing need not see this film as similar elements abound.

Also worthy of a quick mention is the cool, unique musical soundtrack that singer/songwriter, and brother of the director, Elvis Perkins, creates. With goth/techno elements, the score is noticed (in a good way) at various points throughout the running time, and adds to the overall feel of the film.

The Blackcoat’s Daughter succeeds as a disturbing and experimental piece of independent horror-making sure to at least pique the interests of horror aficionados. With plenty of blood-letting and squeamish parts, Oz Perkins knows what works. The story, though, would have been made better by a clear, definitive beginning, middle, and end, to avoid a confusing outcome. Still, I look forward to more works from this up and coming director.

The Florida Project-2017

The Florida Project-2017

Director-Sean Baker

Starring-Willem Dafoe, Brooklynn Prince

Scott’s Review #730

Reviewed February 28, 2017

Grade: A

Incorporating a realism and authenticity rarely found in mainstream films, the 2017 independent drama film, The Florida Project, offers the viewer a glimpse into the underbelly of society, largely from a child’s perspective, as we meet a group of poverty stricken folks residing in a crummy hotel outside of Disney World. Shot almost entirely on location, the film is humorous, dramatic, pathetic, and compelling and also a must-see. The balance between a child’s carefree outlook and the real life adult reality is key.

Director Sean Baker, famous for the ground-breaking and brilliant transgender themed indie from 2015, does it again with a gritty flavored location shot feast of a story involving the welfare stricken, prostitute laden Floridians holing up at a cheap motel. The plot follows six year old  Moonee, played by Brooklynn Prince, as she and her problem prone mother, Halley (Bria Vinaite), attempt to avoid trouble and the police.  They wile away the hot summer months, pandering and stealing from tourists as Halley dabbles in prostitution after failing to get a job at a nearby Waffle House.

In addition to Moonee and Halley, other prominent characters rounding out the hotel community are Bobby Hicks (Willem Dafoe), who manages the Magic Castle Motel, and is the father figure and voice of reason to the others, Ashley , Halley’s friend, Jancey and Scooty, friends of Moonee’s. The group holds a special bond since they are all barely existing on limited funds in a world laden with drugs, violence, and various unsavory characters.

With initial thoughts of an R-rated Little Rascals, the early scenes involve only the children as they create juvenile pranks including car spitting, bed jumping, and more serious mischief like setting fire to abandoned condos. To my knowledge all non-actors, the child scenes are truly brilliant and enough praise cannot go to little Brooklynn Prince the sweet, yet precocious six year old central child character. The films final scene involving this treasured little girl is both heart-wrenching and poignant, as the scene is fraught with raw emotion on the part of Prince.

Dafoe is brilliant in the role of Bobby and the actor chooses a character he does not often play. Frequently playing villains, he truly shines as the heart of gold man attempting to keep things together in a bad world. On the lookout for child predators and the police ,he watches out for the kids, as he sadly knows their lives will only get worse as they grow into teenagers and adults, sure to experience misery or tragic lives.

The most successful and riveting component of The Florida Project is the honest portrayal of the characters and the gritty, realism the viewer experiences. The fact that Baker shot the film entirely on location is immeasurable and key to the story. In a slice of life way, we are brought into this world for the duration of the film and learn the inner workings of the hotel, the streets, and the hotel parking lots. We live the lives of the characters and feel their struggles, their small triumphs, and most importantly empathize with their hopelessness- they are basically stuck, with little of hope of finding a better life.

To avoid a complete downer of a film, Baker incorporates a few humorous moments-mainly the light and fun scenes between Halley and Moonee. As they dance around in their hotel room or outside on the hotel lawn as an unexpected downpour erupts, the close bond between mother and child is apparent. The boisterous trio of kids also break up the monotonous adult tension of the other characters as they frolic and play without a care in the world. The adults versus kids outlook is apparent.

Surely one of the best films of 2017, The Florida Project instills a look at a forgotten and depressing part of the American population and provides a sobering reality of the world in modern times. With the Trump era in full swing, the release of this film is at a timely point in American history and gives a sobering look at the United States in general.

A Fantastic Woman-2017

A Fantastic Woman-2017

Director-Sebastian Lelio

Starring-Daniela Vega, Francisco Reyes

Scott’s Review #729

Reviewed February 27, 2018

Grade: A

A Fantastic Woman is a 2017 Chilean film that is groundbreaking in subject matter and has rightfully received heaps of accolades including an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film. Especially worthy of mention is the films lead actress, Daniela Vega, the first transgender woman to present an award at the Oscars and a dynamo performance in her represented film. Besides all of the cultural achievements, the film succeeds in its own right as a compelling drama.

The film gets off to a sweet and romantic start as we meet Marina (Vega), a young waitress and aspiring singer, and Orlando (Francisco Reyes), a mature, affluent man thirty years her senior. Surprising her with a lovely birthday cake, the pair are beginning to embark on a serious relationship as Marina has recently moved in with Orlando. When tragedy strikes and Orlando is rushed to the hospital after collapsing, Marina must face the harsh reality of her partners narrow minded family and suspicions from law enforcement.

What a wonderful starring vehicle for this astounding young talent that is Vega. The film shares a story that has never been told before, though the transgender genre is slowly coming into its own- think 2015’s brilliant Tangerine. With A Fantastic Woman though, the story telling is more intimate and personal and clearly from Marina’s point of view. Faced with both financial issues and losing her love, she is forced to hurdle obstacles centered around her lifestyle that she had thought had been conquered through her open life with Orlando, who loved her for who she is.

Vega expresses so much with her wide-eyed stares and introspective glazed looks. A performance that is remarkably subdued, she does not have a traditional blowup or dramatic, emotional scene. Instead, she calmly goes from scene to scene with her anger and heartbreak brimming under the surface. As she is verbally insulted and degraded by Orlando’s bitter ex-wife, Marina stands her ground and calmly accepts the verbal attack. Even when Orlando’s thuggish relatives physically assault her with tape, she is calm in her reaction. This is a testament to Vega’s talents.

Perhaps the most touching sub plot involves Marina’s struggle to retain the dog that Orlando had kindly given to her. When Orlando’s son refuses to let her keep the dog, Marina reaches her breaking point and begins to fight dirty, refusing to hand over the keys to Orlando’s flat until she gets her way. The tender affection she has for the animal is wonderful as, despite having a few people in her corner, the dog is her pride and joy and best friend.

As stellar as Vega is, and the film does clearly belong to her, credit and mention must be given to the supporting players, who are largely unknown actors to me. Though we feel no sympathy for Orlando’s ex wife or his relatives, they are competently portrayed and we do feel their anger and spite. We do not know much about the back-story, but we do know that Orlando has revealed to all his involvement with a trans woman and he is proud of Marina. Actor Reyes is a dream as Orlando and we wistfully imagine a different film centered  solely on his romance with Marina. In their short time together, the audience falls madly in love with the duo.

A Fantastic Woman succeeds as a nuanced, level headed drama with a powerful message and a timely approach. Never veering over the top or being too preachy, the film is a wonderful telling of a topical subject matter. I only hope that more stories surrounding this genre are told in the future, since it is a goldmine of uncharted story-telling with so much potential.

Oscar Nominated Animated Short Films-2017

Oscar Nominated Animated Short Films-2017

Directors-Glen Keane, Florian Babikian, Dave Mullins, Ru Kuwahata, Jan Lachauer

Scott’s Review #727

Reviewed February 21, 2018

Grade: A-

Having the honor of being able to view the five short films nominated for the 2017 Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film at my local art theater was pretty amazing. Far too often dismissed as either irrelevant or completely flying under the radar of animated offerings, it is time to champion these fine little pieces of artistic achievement. On par with or even superseding the full length animated features, each of the five offers a vastly different experience, but each offers either inspired or hopeful messages or dark, devious, and edgy stories. Below is a review of each Short.

Garden Party-2016

Perhaps the strangest of all the shorts,  the viewer is transported into an eerie world of amphibians. Seemingly a pair, but unclear to me if this is so, they seem to either expand or multiply as they follow their primal instincts, navigating a wealthy mansion. Containing spilled champagne, a revolver, and various items that evidence a party, the amphibians jump around and communicate from room to room. When eventually they descend on a dead and bloated fat man in a vast swimming pool, the film ends in mysterious fashion. The short was impressively a French animation school’s graduation project. Grade: A-

Lou-2017

An impressive Pixar product, Lou is the more accessible of all the entries with a heartfelt and uplifting message. In this age of school bullying awareness, the piece is an important one. Chubby J.J. takes pleasure in snatching other kids toys on the playground, keeping them for himself. A sweet creature named Lou collects lost toys and shapes himself using the toys, returning them to various parts of the playground for the kids to find the next day. When Lou and J.J.’s worlds collide, Lou teaches J.J. a valuable lesson in goodness and fairness. Lou is a wonderful short film that must be seen by small children and adults alike to experience a humanistic, wonderful tale. Grade: A

Dear Basketball-2017

The shortest of all the entries, Dear Basketball is a piece written by NBA superstar Kobe Bryant that features a lovely narrative by a young boy (presumably Bryant himself), who develops a love for the game of basketball and his inevitable rise among the ranks of athletes. As he ages, his body wears down and he realizes his time on the court has come to an end. The storytelling in Dear Basketball is inspiring to young boys and girls everywhere and, never mind that it is a piece about basketball, can be an inspired message really about anything. My one slight gripe to this Short is its minimal length and I wonder if it could have been fleshed out slightly. Grade: B+

Revolting Rhymes-2016

By far my favorite of the bunch and also by far the longest in length, the offering based on the book of the same name by legendary author, Roald Dahl, Revolting Rhymes is a dark and disturbing collection of fairy tales, all intertwined. As a wolf engages an old woman in a coffee shop and regales her with stories of his two nephews, he incorporates the stories of Little Red Riding Hood, Snow White, and the Three Little Pigs into his story telling until the wolf does something dire to the woman. The short is only part one of a two part collection as part one concludes with a cliffhanger assuring the viewer will see the next chapter. With a crisp written story and intelligent premise, Revolting Rhymes is the most unique and most deserving of the Oscar statuette since the complexities alone make it the most cerebral. Grade: A

Negative Space-2017

Negative Space, another wonderful French nugget, is an exemplary stop-motion story about an odd relationship between a father and son. The pair, whose psychological elements are not too heavily dissected, but with a longer piece, could be, clearly have some bonding issues. The father works as a frequently traveling businessman, and father and son strangely bond solely over packing a suitcase and the efforts to never leave an inch of suitcase space under-utilized. As the father eventually dies and lies in a coffin, the son is bothered by the leftover space the coffin leaves. A macabre and humorous Short, I was left wanting more backstory of said father and son but what a clever tale Negative Space is. Grade: A

Happy Death Day-2017

Happy Death Day-2017

Director-Christopher B. Landon

Starring-Jessica Rothe, Israel Broussard

Scott’s Review #726

Reviewed February 20, 2018

Grade: C+

Happy Death Day is a 2017 horror/slasher film offering that incorporates the “groundhog day” theme into its story in clever fashion.  Oddly, the film was released in October instead of February- missed marketing opportunity? Despite a unique premise, the film is overly complicated, especially for this genre of film, and rather than succeeding as a late Friday night treat, Happy Death Day becomes tough to follow leaving too many questions and puzzled thoughts in the after effects.

We first meet snobbish and sarcastic sorority sister, Theresa “Tree” Gelbman (Jessica Rothe), as she awakens with a pounding headache and a bad attitude one morning in the dorm room of a handsome classmate, Carter Davis (Israel Broussard). She barely remembers the drunken tryst as she haggardly goes about her morning- today is her birthday!  Irritated with the day, she proceeds to dismiss her kindly roommate, and her father, and is rude to a former one-night stand, finally going to a party, where she is followed and brutally murdered by a figure wearing a campus mascot mask. She suddenly awakens to the same morning she has just experienced!

Perplexed, Tree spends the remainder of the film on the hunt to figure out who killed her, and to unravel the mystery of putting the events to a halt by going on a continues “loop” of the same night, each time uncovering more clues. Mixed in with the events, Tree realizes she has feelings for Carter and should really become a nicer person.

Star Jessica Rothe is perfectly fine in a breakout film role- though she had a small part in the musical La La Land from 2016. Her chemistry with Broussard is adequate, though when we talk horror, romance is not at the top of the list- blood is. Unfortunately, Happy Death day offers little in true kills or scares- the film is rated PG-13 for heaven’s sake.

A nice aside and testament to the character of Tree, though, is her possession of both “good girl” and “bad girl” qualities. Trendy in slasher films  is that the girl who parties and has sex is offed before very long, but in Happy Death Day, we are served both in the same character. Tree is, in fact, butchered, but then when brought back to life, the character eventually blossomed into the clear heroine. This is a nice twist on a traditionally written character.

I enjoyed the perpetual whodunit factor that screenwriter Scott Lobdell carves into the fabric. A bevy of suspects are introduced and the tale changes direction with each loop. In this way, with each loop the story becomes a bit more complex and characters stories or motivations shift each time. Furthermore, a few more characters are introduced giving the story more layers. This is both a strength and problematic- Trees professor, Dr. Gregory Butler, her secret lover, is a suspect. Is Trees sweet roommate, Lori, who wants nothing more than to treat her friend to a lovely birthday cupcake, too good to be true?

At a certain point things spiral out of control from a story perspective. What is the point of the local serial killer, John Tombs, injured and conveniently staying at the campus hospital, other than to serve as a red herring? Who is the masked killer and why do they suddenly disappear from the story? How is Tree able to seemingly change the details of her murder so much so that it ends up never happening? The reveal of the true killer is very good, but how did we get to this point? By the big reveal at the end I had stopped trying to figure out the film.

Slightly above par, Happy Death Day, while spirited and reaching for something different, becomes muddled and senseless, leaving the viewer wondering how all the various “groundhog day” stories add up to a satisfying conclusion. Sadly, by the time the films conclusion is reached, one will likely not wish to waste the time bothering to care. Still, some props for creativity must be awarded.

Mudbound-2017

Mudbound-2017

Director-Dee Rees

Starring-Carey Mulligan, Garrett Hedlund

Scott’s Review #724

Reviewed February 12, 2018

Grade: B+

Mudbound is a 2017 Netflix period drama offering that transports the viewer to a time of racism and struggle as World War II ravaged through Europe. The piece is largely set in rural Mississippi, however, during the 1940’s as a vastly different way of life existed for most- especially black folks. The film depicts the hardships and struggles of two families living on the same land- one white and one black, and how their lives intersect with one another’s in dramatic fashion.

The film received several Oscar nominations including Adapted Screenplay, Supporting Actress, Song, and Cinematography. I will suffice it to say I support the latter two mentions in the group, but not the former. While the final act kicks the film into much needed high gear, and the filming detail of the rural southern terrain is quite apt, I kept waiting for a stunning scene involving the usually wonderful Mary J. Blige to erupt, but sadly nothing ever came. The writing, while inspired, would not get my vote in the screenplay category either, especially when other, more worthy films (think Mother!) were bypassed.

The mood of Mudbound is immediately impressive as we are introduced to the grizzled and muddy town of Marietta, Mississippi, a sort of farm wasteland, where brothers Henry and Jamie McAllan struggle to bury their recently deceased “Pappy” as the lands are ravaged by a driving storm. When Henry briefly leaves Jamie in the watery grave the pair has dug, Jamie is panic stricken that Henry will not return. In this way, director Dee Rees reveals a major clue to tension between the brothers as the film rewinds to some time earlier when times were happier for the brothers.

Mixed in with the trials and tribulations of brothers McAllan, is Henry’s wife Laura (Carey Mulligan), who shares a loveless marriage with him, while secretly lusting after Jamie. A poor black family resides and works on the McAllan farm, and must endure hardship and racism from the white residents of Marietta, especially when their son Ronsel returns from World War II, a celebrated hero. Old habits die hard as the Ku Klux Klan rears its ugly head- targeting the young soldier for daring to bed with a German woman abroad.

As most of the film meanders during the first hour or so with odd edits and pacing, I did not easily connect with many of the characters, though I wanted desperately to. There seemed to be not enough buildup to the ultimate drama. The film is shot in a way that you know you are watching something of substance, but it takes a long, long time to reach a crescendo. The aforementioned criticism of Mary J. Blige, who portrays long suffering matriarch Florence Jackson, is not of the part itself or her acting, but rather, I expected a gritty, meat and potatoes style performance from the talented lady. I disagree with her Oscar nomination, and instead would have chosen the brilliant Michelle Pfeiffer from Mother!

Praise must be written for Mulligan’s performance, shamefully overlooked, as the haggard, intellectually unfulfilled housewife, Laura. As she wistfully buries her nose in a novel to escape her dull life , or longingly looks at Jamie, disappointed with her loneliness, we feel every emotion that Mulligan plays. A consistent problem with Mudbound was there lacked a grand emotional scene from either Blige or Mulligan.

The film’s racist subject matter can be utterly difficult to watch as a major character sees their tongue removed and another character forced to make a difficult choice. This action leads to a deadly turn of events and the murder of another character, resulting in a lifetime of secrets. The final thirty minutes is the best part of Mudbound.

A must mention, and historical feat, is the nomination of Rachel Morrison in the cinematography category. She is the very first female to ever receive this honor and it is certainly about time. Morrison successfully fills Mudbound with the perfect mood- both picturesque greenery and a depressing, downtrodden aura. This is not as easy as one might imagine, but the creative talent achieves this effortlessly.

Mudbound is a film that has received lots of attention, but is not the masterpiece some are touting is as. Taking way too long to hit its stride, the film has good aspects and also some missed opportunities. Perhaps a better put together film might have  resulted in a brilliant experience instead of “only” a very good watch. I recommend Mudbound, but I expected and hoped for much more than I was given.

Phantom Thread-2017

Phantom Thread-2017

Director-Paul Thomas Anderson

Starring-Daniel Day-Lewis, Vicky Krieps, Lesley Manville

Scott’s Review #722

Reviewed January 31, 2018

Grade: A

Phantom Thread is a 2017 gem of a film that ideally will be studied in film schools and remembered for decades to come, or at the very minimum be discussed and dissected among those fortunate enough to see it currently. Set in England during the 1950’s and centering on the dress-making industry, the film mixes romance with a bizarre psychological element that leave the viewer breathless as the final act comes to a dramatic and startling conclusion.

Daniel Day-Lewis once again does brilliant work as Reynolds Woodcock, an esteemed and famous dressmaker living and working in London during the 1950’s. He creates lavish dresses for the members of high society, including the wedding gown for the famous Belgian princess. Masterful at his work, he is also controlling and demanding, requiring plenty of support and attention from his equally controlling sister, Cyril (Lesley Manville). When he meets Alma Elson, a waitress from a countryside resort, the pair fall into a relationship, as she acts as his assistant, muse, and lover. Complexities develop between Reynolds, Alma, and Cyril as the plot progresses in cerebral and nail-biting fashion.

The film itself is ravishing to look at and a feast for the eyes if only for the classic costumes alone.  Each dress that Reynolds creates is exceptional and at the height of glamour. His domineering nature only makes this realistic as perfection is his modus operandi and his dresses are evidence of this. In one particularly fantastic sequence, Reynolds begrudgingly creates a dress for the boozy Barbara Rose, a rich and mature woman, who promptly falls asleep drunk at her own wedding, soiling the garment. A livid Reynolds, along with Alma, strip Barbara of the dress, rather than see her sleep in and tarnish it.

The main draw to the film, however, is the wonderful, intricate main plot involving Reynolds, Cryil, and Alma. This weaving of personalities and their nuances must be attributed to the fabulous direction of Paul Thomas Anderson,  known for edgy, dark films such as 1997’s Boogie Nights and 1999’s Magnolia. He comes up with a masterpiece in Phantom Thread. The three principle characters are quite unlikable and viewer allegiances may change throughout the tale. Appearing to be the innocent, debutante character of the film, the character of Alma will surprise- especially in the films final act.

A successful nuance to the film is the multitude of scenes involving characters breaking bread with others as events unfold over danishes, omelettes, and crisp asparagus-in fact, sometimes the banter involves discussions and debates about the preparation of the food. This characteristic is a dream for any foodie, and the meals actually aid in the progression of the plot.  Earlier in the film, Alma is scolded by a maid for nearly picking poisonous mushrooms which later becomes a major clue and part of the films conclusion. During a  pivotal scene between Reynolds and Alma, she prepares a delicious mushroom omelette for her love as motivations, secrets, and desires come to the surface.

The grand twist that Anderson reveals at the end of the film will only leave the viewer open-mouthed and quickly reviewing the events and circumstances of the entire film.

The close-up scenes that Anderson uses are magical and each actor allowed to be very expressive- the camerawork over several breakfast scenes- Alma and Cyril gazing at each other revealing emotions that border between hatred and mutual respect, are effectively done. Manville in particular does so much with her blue eyes as she sips coffee, peering over her cup with venomous indignation at her foe. How splendid is the comparison of Cyril to the famous Hitchcock villainous Mrs. Danvers from the classic 1940 film in her cold and creepy mannerisms.

My hope is that Phantom Thread will eventually be appreciated and analyzed as a cinematic work of art. Deservedly honored with a 2017 Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actress, Best Director, and Best Costume Academy Award nomination, the film also is a lesson in great writing, bizarre angles, and important effects. Let’s wish for this film to be recognized as the great work that it is.

The Big Sick-2017

The Big Sick-2017

Director-Michael Showalter

Starring-Kumail Nanjiani, Zoe Kazan

Scott’s Review #720

Reviewed January 29, 2018

Grade: B+

The Big Sick, a 2017 independent “dramedy” film, takes what could be a standard premise and turns it upside down, instead offering a fresh perspective on a familiar tale about a prospering relationship. In this way the screenplay is the standout as the writing is intelligent and crisp. Thanks to exceptional acting by all four principle characters, The Big Sick is a success and well worth a watch.

The story follows an interracial couple, Emily and Kumail, played by Zoe Kazan and Kumail Nanjiani, who have just recently started to casually date. Kumail is a standup comic living in Chicago and meets the flirtatious Emily after a club performance one night. They share a one-night stand and mutually agree to never see one another again. As the smitten pair break their promise and form a romance, a tragedy occurs landing Emily in a coma. Kumail must handle Emily’s parents, Beth (Holly Hunter) and Terry (Ray Romano), who are angry with Kumail for misleading Emily and not telling her about his strict Muslim parents intentions of marrying him off by arranged marriage.

Apparently, the screenplay (nominated for a 2017 Oscar nomination) is loosely based on the relationship between actor/writer Nanjiani (who stars), and Emily Gordon (who co-wrote the screenplay). In this way, especially since Nanjiani stars, the film holds a measure of sincerity and authenticity, as if Nanjiani is living the role. A major plus to the film is the chemistry that Nanjiani and Zoe Kazan share during their many scenes in the start of the film. Before the drama really takes off, the audience will become fully invested in the pair as a couple.  Whether the couple flirt as Kumail drives Emily home, or as the couple fight when Emily learns about his Muslim cultures arranged marriage belief, the couple have a tremendous connection and it shows.

The story fabric takes an interesting turn about midway through the film when Emily is stricken with a debilitating illness and a medically induced coma is needed- as Kumail is forced to pretend to be her husband this opens up many moral and legal ramifications that the film chooses largely to ignore in lieu of dealing with the relationships between Kumail and Emily’s distraught parents. Hunter and Romano are wonderful in the parent roles- Hunter having the more showy of the two  parts with more meat, Romano holds his own and powerhouses a vital comedy club scene, in which he defends his wife from a callous heckler.

Admittedly, the film decides to go the “happily ever after” route, this is hardly a surprise given that Judd Apatow is the producer. Remember this is the same guy who produced such safe films as Superbad and Anchorman 2, but nonetheless, the story within The Big Sick is an enjoyable and character driven ride, if not unpredictable. A darker tinged affair might have set this film over the top as it contains many other credible film qualities.

The addition of comic talent in the supporting roles of Kumail’s comedy club buddies adds a good balance and nicely counterbalances the drama insomuch as the drama does not become too dour. Much of the film involves Emily coma-bound, so comic talent such as SNL’s Aidy Bryant and Comedy Central’s Kurt Braunohler are good adds.

I enjoyed the inclusion of the traditional Pakistani custom of arranged marriages, but at times this seems played for laughs rather than being a major obstacle to the couple. Kumail’s controlling mother parades one young Pakistani girl after another in front of her son as a way of encouraging him to select one of them. Kumail’s traditional family are played as stereotypes and the lighthearted foils of the film.

The Big Sick succeeds with crisp, witty dialogue, and a solid story that mixes with the intended comedy well. A few too many stereotypes and goofiness keeps the action light even when held against the more serious parts- great acting all around.

Beach Rats-2017

Beach Rats-2017

Director-Eliza Hittman

Starring-Harris Dickinson

Scott’s Review #719

Reviewed January 26, 2018

Grade: A-

Beach Rats is a 2017 coming of age film penned and directed by Eliza Hittman, a young female director from Brooklyn, New York, who incorporates her familiar geographical settings into only her second feature film. 2013’s It Felt Like Love was awarded two Independent Film nominations and Beach Rats has followed suit- garnering a Best Actor nomination as well as a Best Cinematography mention. The film is a very good story of conflict that its target audience will surely relate to.

The film is very low-budget, but a successful character study of a young man named Frankie, played by newcomer Harris Dickinson, wrestling with family issues while also in the midst of wrestling with his sexuality, all while hanging out with his troubled friends and dating his sometime girlfriend. Beach Rats is not a downer, but rather, an interesting glimpse into the life of a teenager and his struggle with self identity.

Mirroring It Felt Like Love, Hittman uses plenty of locales unique to Brooklyn, with the most identifiable being the watery, night time beaches of the borough, which gives the film an authentic feel. Many scenes are shot outdoors and is a strong point of the film. Similar to many independent films, Beach Rats clearly uses several “non-actors” in small roles, which also adds depth to the blue-collar, sometimes harsh, Brooklyn feel.

With only two features to her credit, Hittman is successful at having her own hand-print on her films, making them identifiable as her own. Interesting is how the director chooses a male character to write for. Similar to the female Liza in It Felt Like Love, both she and Frankie are vulnerable and coming terms with their sexual feelings and desires. The fact that Liza is straight and Frankie, at most, bisexual, is only a strength of the evidently complex writer/director.

Dickinson is perfectly cast as Frankie. Good-looking, with chiseled features and a lithe, toned body, his bright blue eyes are expressive, as the audience is empathetic to his many dilemmas. Beach Rats is much more than a traditional “gay film”, which is admirable- it is more complex than that. By 2017, the common theme of coming to terms with ones sexuality has been explored. According to Frankie, he “just has sex with men” and refuses to identify as either gay or bisexual. It is implied that because of his group of trouble-making friends, who only want to get high, he might be faced with resistance if he ever came out to them.

The supporting cast is well represented- Frankie’s mother, Donna (Kate Hodge), is faced with a tough predicament as her husband, Frankie’s father, has just died of cancer, ripping the family apart. She knows that Frankie keeps things from her- is she figuring out Frankie’s sexual secrets? Donna implies that it is okay for Frankie to tell her anything- admirable combined with her own problems. Frankie’s girlfriend, Simone, is coming into her own as Frankie is, and despite the fact that the duo share a sweet relationship, it appears doomed for failure.

The most interesting scenes that Beach Rats feature take place between Frankie and the mostly older men  he meets either virtually or in person. Though Frankie is quite nervous, Dickinson always makes the character of Frankie appear confident and well beyond his years. Being street-smart, he is never taken advantage of as is common with young men and older men. Why he mostly prefers older men is never explained, but might it have anything to do with seeking to fill the void left by his deceased father?  Or is it simply to reduce the risk of running into anyone he might know within his own age group?

Hittman is not shy about featuring nudity, yet each scene is tastefully done and never seems to be for either shock value or to elicit a gasp. Full frontal nudity is featured. as well as scenes of Frankie engaging in sexual acts with both the men and his girlfriend. Sure Dickinson has a perfect body, but his assets do not seem to be on display unnecessarily.

Independent films, more often than many “box office” films, are given much creative freedom to simply tell a good story. Thankfully, in the case of Beach Rats, the audience is lucky enough to view a quiet, introspective tale of a conflicted adolescent, and how he deals with demons and complex feelings that he is faced with. Particularly for the predominantly LGBT audience who will see the film, Beach Rats will have much to offer.

Darkest Hour-2017

Darkest Hour-2017

Director-Joe Wright

Starring-Gary Oldman, Kristin Scott Thomas

Scott’s Review #718

Reviewed January 24, 2018

Grade: A-

Darkest Hour is a British historical film that showcases an astounding portrayal of Winston Churchill that legendary actor Gary Oldman gives. Certainly known for numerous other fine acting performances in films such as the Harry Potter series, JFK, and Batman Begins, this performance easily transcends all of the others as he brings perfection to a complex role-infusing humor, drama, and many idiosyncrasies of the storied historic figure. Surely, Churchill is the best role of Oldman’s  lengthy career.

Director, Joe Wright, famous for such classy European films as Pride and Prejudice (2005), Atonement (2007), and Anna Karenina (2012), traditionally offers rich, intelligent experiences with an upper-crust, often British theme, and fills his characters with wry humor and wit. In the case of Darkest Hour, a film that absolutely belongs to Oldman by the way, his Churchill is the master of gruff sarcasm and cantankerous charm.

During the tumultuous time of 1940,  with the barbaric grips of Nazi Germany settling upon both England and France (Allies in World War II), a disheveled England is frustrated with their current Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, for being weak. Chamberlain begrudgingly appoints Winston Churchill as his successor, amid limited support. The film discusses Churchill’s early days in charge as the war and the Nazi presence loomed larger and larger- especially as the historic Dunkirk situation comes into fruition.

Darkest Hour as a film is good quality- there exists a certain historic richness and the feeling of experiencing a film that is worthy and relevant. For those of us not in existence during the 1940’s, the film will likely serve as an educational experience into the events of the day.  Certainly, hundreds of films have been made over time that have explored the events during World War II in fantastic detail, but this film is unique in that it not only provides a perspective of the Allied countries “back against the wall” situation, but the ups and downs and pressures that Churchill, the man, faced.

Despite a few quick clips of Hitler and both very old black and white footage and newspaper headlines of the crazed leader, the focus is not on the enemy country, in fact, no actor was used to play Hitler, rather, the focus is on Churchill and the decisions he made and the influences he was faced with. Pressured to appease the militant German country and reach a “peaceful” deal, Churchill instead listened to the voices of the common, everyday, British people to reach his decision to fight the Germans and not back down.

Clever, and relevant in 2017 cinema, is the films spotlight on the famous Dunkirk situation, when British forces were trapped on the shores of Dunkirk, with German planes looming overhead. Thanks in large part to Churchill and British and French civilian boats who aided in the rescue, many men were saved. The 2017 film, aptly named Dunkirk, would make a wonderful companion piece to Darkest Hour in that the subject matters mirror one another. Not surprisingly, both films received Academy award nominations for Best Picture.

A great lesson I carried away from the film is with Churchill himself. Sure, I knew that he was the Prime Minister of England during the 1940’s and was instrumental in the events of the bloody war, but I knew little about the man himself. Thanks to Wright and, of course, Oldman, the viewer will learn the good and bad characteristics of this man. A heavy drinker, commonly downing champagne with lunch and brandy the rest of the day, he was initially not well liked, nor taken very seriously by British royalty.

With Churchill’s bumbling personality, Oldman is fantastic at filling the role with humor, frustration, and just the correct amount of empathy and concern. Despite having a temper, we can tell that he has a love of country and pride for the people living there- that is why he is adamant at conquering the enemy. So we know he is a good man despite his temper tantrums. Oldman also successfully embodies the mannerisms that this historical figure contained. Kristin Scott Thomas also gives a worthy performance, albeit in a small role, as the mature and graceful wife, who can both support and match wits with her husband.

Thanks to a brilliant acting performance by Gary Oldman, who takes on a difficult role that could easily be botched by lesser talent, he makes a film that could have been dull and flat, into a worthy watch to both learn something and be amazed at a truly great acting performance. Darkest Hour is a 2017 historical drama worth seeing.

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 an 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.