Tag Archives: 2018 Movie reviews

Shoplifters-2018

Shoplifters-2018

Director-Hirokazu Kore-eda

Starring-Lily Franky, Sakura Ando

Scott’s Review #962

Reviewed November 26, 2019

Grade: A-

Shoplifters (2018) is a fabulous Japanese offering, directed, written and edited by Hirokazu Kore-eda. The film is awfully slow-moving and understated, but provides a moving and poignant message about family, by blood or not, and the powerful ties that bind individuals in a compassionate and emotional way. The film is character driven and humanistic, offering sentiment and emotion without ever feeling overwrought or manipulative. It is not to be missed.

A dysfunctional group of outsiders reside together in a dingy basement establishment in Tokyo, Japan, escaping their poverty by shoplifting and embarking on mild adventures to pass the time. They share a deep bond and look out for each other. The audience assumes they are family, which they are, but not in the biological sense. The family rescues an abused young girl and takes her into their home, showering her with love and affection. Eventually, trouble comes when one of them is caught shoplifting, which leads to a domino effect of terrible events.

The group consists of Osamu (Lily Franky), a day laborer forced to leave his job after twisting his ankle; his “wife” Nobuyo (Sakura Ando), who works for an industrial laundry service; Aki (Mayu Matsuoka), who works at a hostess club; Shota (Kairi Jo), a young boy; and Hatsue (Kirin Kiki), an elderly woman who owns the home and supports the group with her deceased husband’s pension.

The film showcases most of the characters equally as they work, drink and hang out together. The abused girl, named Yuri, is given a haircut and renamed Lin, and is central to the plot. Nobuyo and Shota take a shine to her, she teaches Lin that parents who love their children hug them and do not hit them, while Shota teaches her the ins and outs of stealing groceries.

Though the watch is a slow one the audience inevitably falls in love with the characters and the connection becomes powerful before the viewer knows it. We know Osamu and Nobuyo should leave Yuri where she is when they see her unattended and shivering on a cold balcony, but they cannot help themselves. Their actions lead the audience to immediately realize that they are good, kind people, who have been handed bad life circumstances to deal with.

The film is a tough watch and is not one ever to be defined as edge-of-your seat. Many scenes involve characters walking around the streets, almost aimlessly, commenting that the weather is cold or other trivial conversational bits. The scenes could be defined as boring or bleak, but eventually something magical happens and the characters become favorites, the viewer immersed in their world unflinchingly.

The character of Yuri is a tough one to observe. With bruises on her arms and a burn from a hot iron, tearful is the imagining of the terror the little girl has already been through at the hands of blood relatives, especially since her parents assume she has run off and are thrilled she is out of their lives. The conclusion of the film is cold and harsh, hitting home that the justice system is flawed and cruel, as Yuri ultimately is returned to her parents, certain to face more abuse and eventual death. Doesn’t child abuse usually turn out like this?

Director, Kore-eda, could have spun a feel-good story with the family parading onto the beach in sunshine, but he chooses not to. We wonder how Yuri’s life might have turned out under better circumstances and if the courts had not gotten involved. Kore-eda instead paints of stark picture of reality and not the fictional happily-ever-after that films too often rush to craft.

Shoplifters (2018) offers a look at humanity at its best and its worst with a story about joy and pain. The film is quiet and careful and ultimately keeps one in its grips. It sticks with the viewer and makes one question what a family really is and what it is defined as in the court of law. Who is to decide who is family and who is not family? The film will make one ponder many things which a treasured quality of good cinema is.

The Old Man & the Gun-2018

The Old Man & the Gun-2018

Director-David Lowery

Starring-Robert Redford, Sissy Spacek

Scott’s Review #945

Reviewed October 11, 2019

Grade: B

Quiet films that center on older characters are not the norm in youth obsessed Hollywood, where profits are always in fashion. The Old Man & the Gun (2018) spins a tale offering adventure and a good old-fashioned love story, with appealing stars. The film is slow-moving and not a groundbreaking piece but possesses a fine veneer and a snug plot that leaves the viewer with a nice fuzzy feeling of watching something wholesome. The script is loosely based on David Grann’s 2003 article titled “The Old Man and the Gun”, which was later collected in Grann’s 2010 book The Devil and Sherlock Holmes.

Career criminal Forrest Tucker (Robert Redford) is a wanted man for his daring escape from San Quentin State Prison in 1979, the current time-period is 1981. Addicted to petty bank robberies for relatively small dollar amounts, he is addicted to the rush. A charmer, he is unassuming and unsuspecting. As he flees the scene of a recent heist, he meets a kind widowed woman named Jewel (Sissy Spacek), whose truck has broken down. The pair have lunch at a diner and quickly bond.

Forrest is in cahoots with two other bank robbers as the trio make their way across the southwest United States garnering a reputation. Detective John Hunt (Casey Affleck), a Dallas detective, is tasked with finding and arresting Tucker, until the FBI takes the case away from him. Hunt cannot give up the search as the duo embark on a cat and mouse chase across the area sometimes crossing paths in the local diner.

Where The Old Man & the Gun succeeds is any scene featuring Forrest and Jewel together. Their chemistry is radiant during calm scenes of the couple eating pie and sipping coffee at the diner, simply getting to know each other organically. Adding mystery to their bond is when Forrest slips her a note during their first encounter. It is unclear whether he reveals his shady career to her or not, but it is alluded to that he has confessed something that she is not sure she believes.

Redford carries the film as if he were still a leading man from his 1970’s and 1980’s blockbuster days, which is a testament to his Hollywood staying power. With his charismatic smile and still dashing good looks, it is little wonder that the bank tellers he holds up describe him as nice and polite, easily wooing the folks into his good graces. A crowning achievement for the actor, he narrowly missed an Academy Award nomination, but did score a Golden Globe nod.

The film suffers from predictability during the final act as one of his accomplices turns him into the police and a chase ensues between Forrest and Hunt. This is not the best part of the film and feels like dozens of other crime dramas. Affleck looks to be in a role he didn’t particularly enjoy, at least that is how it seems to me watching the film. The actor is an Oscar winner playing cops and robbers and clearly second fiddle to Redford. Can you blame him for looking glum?

Speaking of misses, Hunt is in an interracial relationship with Maureen, a beautiful black woman, who have a mixed-race daughter. Rural Texas in 1981 must have posed racial issues for the family but this is never mentioned. Maureen and her daughter also look straight out of 2019 with fashionable hairstyles and clothes. The relationship is progressive which is a plus, but written unrealistically.

Rumored to be retiring from the film industry (we’ll see if that happens) Robert Redford gives a terrific turn as a man who reflects upon his life and treats the audience to the same effect. A delicious role and a crowning achievement to a great career, Spacek is perfectly cast and a treasure to have along for the ride, celebrating two fantastic careers. The Old Man & the Gun (2018) is a touching, romantic bank heist film with more positives than negatives.

At Eternity’s Gate-2018

At Eternity’s Gate-2018

Director-Julian Schnabel

Starring-Willem Dafoe

Scott’s Review #944

Reviewed October 9, 2019

Grade: B+

At Eternity’s Gate (2018) is a journey into the mind of one of the most tortured painters of all time- Vincent van Gogh. The film focuses on only the final years of the artists life and the events leading up to his death. Inventive direction by visionary Julian Schnabel creates an isolated and majestic world amid a feeling of being inside Van Gogh’s mind. Though slow-moving, Willem Dafoe gives a brilliant performance, eliciting pathos from its viewers.

The time-period is 1888 as Van Gogh travels to Paris to meet his good friend and fellow painter, Paul Gauguin (Oscar Isaac), an equally tortured individual. They share ideas and qualms about Paris life as Gauguin convinces Van Gogh to travel to the south of France though his brother Theo (Rupert Friend) resides in Paris. Fluctuating scenes occur of Van Gogh’s relationship with a prostitute, a woman he meets on a country road and obsesses over, and his complex relationships with both Theo and Gauguin.

Dafoe, a legendary actor recognized for this role with an Oscar nomination for Best Actor, is one of the best components of At Eternity’s Gate. He engulfs Van Gogh with a constant state of emotional exhaustion and dissatisfaction. As he becomes attached to Gauguin, who ends up leaving him, Dafoe so eloquently emits his quiet depression, seeming to have nobody left in his life. As he violently chops off his ear as a show of loyalty to Gauguin, the mental hospital awaits him. All these complex emotions Dafoe carries with a calm grace and dignity.

Schnabel, known mostly for groundbreaking Oscar nominated work for The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (2007), has a beautiful technique. Providing even the darkest scenes with a lovely and sometimes dizzying camera effect, he adds frequent scenes of blurred focus with close-ups of his characters. A painter himself, the result is a magical interpretation with colors and framed scenes. Many of his films focus on a real-life study and Van Gogh is a great choice by the director.

The French landscape is lovely and culturally significant to the experience. The busy and robust Parisian lifestyle juxtapositions nicely against scenes of the lavish countryside, presumably north and south of the City of Light. When Van Gogh quietly sits and paints numerous canvases of still objects- a bush or a tree, the flavorful colors come through against the landscape, and burst with natural beauty. The cinematography is excellent.

The main detraction to At Eternity’s Gate is the slow, or should I say snail’s pace. At only one hour and fifty-three minutes the entire length of the film feels much, much longer. Viewing the film on an international flight may or may not have influenced this note, but the story seems to drag on endlessly, though the beautiful aspects outweigh the boring scenes.

The mental health aspect and the encouragement Van Gogh receives to get better and heal seem a bit too modern a method for late nineteenth century. This may have been incorporated as an add-on to current and relevant issues to be given exposure, but while inspiring it does not seem to fit the film either. This is a small criticism I noticed.

Bordering on the art film genre, At Eternity’s Gate (2018) is a sad depiction of a disturbed man’s lonely existence creating art that would not be recognized as genius until after his death. A slow film, it uses gorgeous camera shots and lovely snippets of Vincent van Gogh’s works to seem poetic. The film is not for everyone and is not a mainstream Hollywood experience, but rather a quiet biography of one of the greats.

Nancy-2018

Nancy-2018

Director-Christina Coe

Starring-Andrea Riseborough

Scott’s Review #941

Reviewed October 1, 2019

Grade: B+

Part of why I love independent cinema so much is the freedom given the director to simply tell a good story of his or her choosing, usually with little studio interference or opinions. Nancy (2018) is a good example of this as Christina Choe writes and directs a film that is simply hers to share. A quiet film about loneliness, the need to belong, and connect with others are main elements in a compelling and unpredictable story.

Existing in a barren small town in upstate New York, Nancy (Andrea Riseborough) bears weather that is cold, damp and bleak. Working a temporary office job where the staff barely remembers her from her previous stint, Nancy spends her down time caring for her ill mother (Ann Dowd) and playing with her cat, Pete. When an occurrence leaves her vulnerable, she sees a news report featuring a couple whose daughter disappeared thirty years ago, and looks exactly like Nancy, given the sometimes-dishonest woman an idea.

Riseborough carries the film with a strong performance, but not exactly a character the audience easily roots for. Nancy is not unkind, dutifully tending to her mother’s needs when she is not being pleasant. She pretends to be pregnant to meet an internet support group man who lost a child and seeks comfort in Nancy. Hoping for a romance or at least a human connection, the two runs into each other, and when the man realizes her scheme, he calls her psycho. We witness a range of subtle facial expressions revealing the complicated character which Riseborough provides brilliantly.

Choe tells a very humanistic story that is peppered with deep feelings and emotions easy for the audience to relate to. Conflicted views will resound between the three principle characters; Nancy, Leo Lynch (Steve Buscemi), and wife Ellen (J. Smith-Cameron). The Lynch’s, especially Ellen, are vulnerable, yearning for a glimmer of hope that their long-lost daughter, surely dead, is alive. So, the complexities that the director provides work exceptionally well with keeping the emotional level very high.

All three principle actors do a fine job, Smith-Cameron being rewarded with a Film Independent award nomination. She is the most conflicted of the three and the character audiences will ultimately fall in love with and feel much empathy for. Has Buscemi ever played a nicer man? I think not as the actor so often plays villainous or grizzled so well. With Leo, he is rationale, thoughtful and skeptical of the story Nancy spins. He adores Ellen and does not want to see her disappointed yet again, the pain apparent on both their faces. Many quiet and palpable subtleties are possessed by the cast.

The locale in the film is also a high point. Presumably January or February, the cold and angry air fills the screen, adding a measure of hopelessness that each character suffers from in a different way. Numerous scenes of the outdoors are featured, and compelling moments provided. When a pretty snowfall coats the land, this is a tease, as one character’s hopes are ultimately dashed. A cheery landscape such as California or Florida would not have worked as well in this film.

Nancy (2018) is a film that risks turning some viewers off with its unhappy nature and slow pace, but isn’t this much better than a fast-paced Hollywood popcorn film? To me the answer is obvious, and Nancy is a prime example of why little films should be celebrated and revered by the film industry and its enthusiasts. Lies and truths cross a fine line and the potent psychological thriller will leave viewers mesmerized as event progress.

Eighth Grade-2018

Eighth Grade-2018

Director-Bo Burnham

Starring-Elsie Fisher, Josh Hamilton

Scott’s Review #935

Reviewed August 27, 2018

Grade: A-

Occasionally, a film rich with authenticity and pure honesty comes along, and Eighth Grade (2018) is one of those films. Bursting with a lead character who brings a genuine sincerity to a complex role, director Bo Burnham gets the best out of emerging talent, Elsie Fisher, in an autobiographical story about teenage angst and awkwardness that nearly everyone can recollect from those hated middle school years.

The coming-of-age story follows the life and struggles of an eighth-grader, Kayla Day (Fisher), during her last week of classes before graduating to high school. She struggles with severe social anxiety but produces secret YouTube videos as she provides life advice to both herself and her audience. She has a clingy relationship with her sometimes overbearing father, Mark (Josh Hamilton), who adores her but is careful to also provide Kayla with freedom and balance, her mother apparently out of the picture.

Eighth Grade feels fresh and rich with good, old-fashioned, non-cliched scenes, as audiences fall in love with Kayla and her trials and tribulations. In a lesser film, attempting to appeal to the masses, the stereotypes would abound, but this film is going for intelligent writing. The scenes range from touching to comical to frightening- a tender father and daughter talk over a campfire provides layers of character development to both Kayla and Mark as an understanding is realized.

As Kayla ogles over her classmate Aiden, voted student with the nicest eyes, to Kayla’s demoralizing win for quietest student, she bravely attempts to get to know the boy. Realizing to win his heart she must provide dirty pictures of herself or perform lewd acts, she hilariously watches oral sex tutorials and nearly practices on a banana in a scene rivaling any from the crude American Pie (1998). To expand on this, the audience will experience concern for Kayla as she winds up in the backseat of a strange boy’s car, encouraged to take off her top, going rapidly from comedy to alarm.

Enough cannot be said for the casting of Fisher as Kayla. Reportedly seen on a real-life YouTube channel, Burnham plucked the fledgling young actress from the ranks of the unknown. The bright young star is sure to be the next big thing with her innocent yet brazen teenage looks- she is only sixteen after all! With pimples and a pretty face, she admires yet despises popular kids and resorts to telling one off. Fisher gives Kayla sass and poise mixed with her anti-socialism.

Befriended by a pretty and popular high-school student assigned to be her buddy, Kayla awakens with gusto, finally seeing there may be life after middle school, and maybe, just maybe high school will not be as torturous as earlier years. A cute add-on is the adorable relationship that develops in the film’s final act between Kayla and just as awkward Gabe. They dine over chicken nuggets and bond over a nerdy television show they both love.

Deserving of accolades is Hamilton in the more difficult than one might realize role of the father of a thirteen-year-old. Smart is how the film shares his perspective on current events. He can be daring as he enters Kayla’s room to nearly catch her practicing her kissing technique, or creepy, as when he follows Kayla to the mall to see her new friends. His deep affection and admiration for her, though, provide a deep warmth seldom seen in teenage films.

Burnham is careful not to stifle the film with fluff or redundancy, instead making the film timely and relevant. The incorporation of the internet, text messaging and the never-ending use of smartphones makes any older viewer realize that over ninety percent of thirteen-year-olds use these devices and social media is the new normal. The sobering realization is that painful teenage experiences do not end when the three o’clock school bell signals the end of the day.

When the students endure a drill to practice measures to survive a school shooting attack, the reality hits home that this is now also a part of a teenager’s everyday life. American life for the young has changed immensely since most of us were of this age and Burnham does a bang-up job of reinforcing the importance of this.

Whether the viewer is elderly or middle-aged, has fond memories of middle school or cringes at the thought, yearbooks safely packed up in boxes to bury the memories, every viewer can take something away from Eighth Grade (2018). Excellent casting and an infusion of several cross genres into this film make it a fresh and memorable independent comedy/drama deserving of a watch.

You Were Never Really Here-2018

You Were Never Really Here-2018

Director-Lynne Ramsay

Starring-Joaquin Phoenix

Scott’s Review #932

Reviewed August 19, 2019

Grade: A-

You Were Never Really Here (2018) is an independent psychological thriller most reminiscent in tone and texture to the legendary Scorsese film, Taxi Driver (1976). The main characters are worlds apart, but the plot and the trimmings are clearly influenced by the classic, just amid a different time-period (the present).

A terrific and brooding performance by star Joaquin Phoenix leads the charge, as does fantastic direction by Lynne Ramsay, and the editing team, as the dark film is an unusual and impressive choice for a female director. Snippets of cinematic genius exist during a film that, with a more complete package, might have been a masterpiece.

We first meet Joe (Phoenix) somewhere in Ohio as, we learn, he is a hired gun sent to rescue underage girls from sex trafficking rings. He is brutal in his methods of rescue, resorting to gruesome murders to complete his assignments, and is paid handsomely. Back in New York City, he cares for his elderly mother whom he adores, and is contacted to rescue Nina, the daughter of a New York State Senator, Albert Votto for an enormous sum of money. When Joe rescues Nina and waits for Votto, events quickly spin out of control and a sinister web of deception is revealed.

When you look at the story that You Were Never Really There tells, it is one that has been told many times before, typically in slick Hollywood conventional standards. Angry ex-military unleashes brutality on devious criminals, rescues girl, and returns her safely to the open arms of her awaiting parents. Fortunately, the film is more thoughtful than that, adding complexity with the Joe and Nina relationship, and a stylistic, poetic quality featuring Joe’s relationship with his mother.

The plot is paced very well so that the events occur only over the course of a day or two, and the film is highly unconventional and dark. Frequent flashbacks give the film mystique as we see both Joe and his mother abused by Joe’s father, as a young Joe hides in a closet and hyperventilates. Now an adult, Joe is suicidal, frequently fantasizing or practicing his own death until he is interrupted.

As grisly as the film can be, beautiful and tender moments are laden throughout as Ramsay provides gorgeous style and humanity. A homoerotic moment occurs when Joe lies next to the man who has killed his mother. As the man is close to death at the hands of Joe, they hold hands as Joe provides comfort to the man in death. Joe then buries his mother in a pond in upstate New York, providing her with a peaceful final resting place. These are unique scenes that feel almost like an art film.

The conclusion is open-ended leaving lots of questions; Joe and Nina appear to ride off into the sunset together, but what will they do? What is to become of them? Surely, not a romantic element can be found, but where will they go from here? Both characters appear to have nothing left to hang on to other than each other, but is this sustainable? The film is not the type that is poised for a sequel, but I would be very curious what Ramsay has planned for her characters.

Joe is not portrayed as wicked, he is too complex for that. Phoenix, a tremendous actor, perfectly infuses the character with brutality and anger, but also a tenderness and a warmth. The aspects between You Were Never Really Here and Taxi Driver: the grizzled New York portrayals, the political backdrop, and the main characters saving a woeful young girl from the depths of despair, make the two film’s comparable. However, Joe and Travis Bickle are opposites, the latter having a frenetic humor that the former lacks.

Ramsay has been around for a while with We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011) her most prominent film. She is successful at telling stories about deeply troubled individuals who are good people handed awful circumstances. With a tremendous actor like Phoenix on board, she crafts a solid work that has provided You Were Never Really Here (2018) with accolades, at least among the indie critics. Ramsay seems poised to break out in a big way and shake up the film industry with future works.

Lizzie-2018

Lizzie-2018

Director-Craig Macneill

Starring-Chloe Sevigny, Kristen Stewart

Scott’s Review #925

Reviewed July 31, 2019

Grade: B+

Lizzie (2018) is an odd and macabre interpretation of the life and times of the infamous Lizzie Borden, who was accused and acquitted of hacking her father and stepmother to bits with a deadly axe. This offering is shrouded in a bit of controversy for inaccuracies and interpretations of the events, specifically Borden’s sexuality called into question. The film is quiet and a tad too slow but thunders to a grand climax more than making up for any negatives. The casting of its leads is perfect and key to success.

Thirty-two-year old Lizzie (Chloe Sevigny) lives with her domineering and affluent father Andrew, (Jamey Sheridan), and rigid stepmother, Abby (Fiona Shaw). Despising both, she lives out a lonely and depressed existence with her only outlet being occasional evenings out at the theater. When an Irish immigrant, Bridget Sullivan (Kristen Stewart), moves in to the Borden residence to work as a servant the women form a strong bond especially after she is abused by Andrew.

Sevigny, one of my favorite modern actresses, possesses a range that is astounding in the myriad of characters she has played in her long career. Debuting to the masses in the critically acclaimed and depressing Boys Don’t Cry (1999) she has churned out a numerous array of independent features portraying one oddball character after another and deserves the strong influence she has achieved over the years.

Director, Craig Macneill makes interesting choices with his film which may or may not please audiences expecting a by the number’s horror offering. He dives into psychological thriller territory with more of a character study approach that provides layers to the finished product. Sevigny is center stage and plenty of camera close-up shots offer an introspective analysis of what her feelings are rather than from her parents’ perspective. Instead of a crazed killer spontaneously committing the crime she is careful and calculating in her plan. Macneill presents Lizzie as the victim and Andrew and Abby the villains.

This is to assume that Borden really committed the crimes, which the film never doubts. Historically, people assume that this is the truth, but Lizzie was set free by a jury refusing to believe a woman of such means would commit such a heinous crime. I wonder if Macneill directed the film with a bit of a smirk at this ridiculous decision of the times when the woman clearly enjoyed the murders. At the end of the film it is explained what happened to Lizzie and Bridget which is a good decision and wraps the film into a nice tidy bow.

Powerful is the quiet subtext which gives a moody and foreboding quality. I adore slow moving films provided the reward is worth the wait and Lizzie sucker punches once the events begin rolling along. Another positive is the gnawing feeling of terrible things about to happen but unsure of when or how the attacks will occur. Most viewers choosing to watch this film will be aware of the context and the reported murders committed.

The atmospheric additions succeed as the late eighteenth century costumes and daily living are believable. The lavish Borden house is well-kept and brightly lit offering a nice New England feel. Finally, the creaks and noises throughout the house perfectly encompass the danger lurking behind corners and the fun is in wondering when Lizzie will strike. Since the film moves back and forth through its time-period we know that strike she will.

Where the film offers its best work is through the relationship between Lizzie and Bridget. Sevigny and Stewart dazzle together with unleashed chemistry nearly rivaling a similar dynamic seen in 2003’s Monster. As with Aline Wuornos and Selby Wall Lizzie is the dominant one and Bridget is submissive following her lead. Both sets of women share a lesbian relationship and neither pair achieves any happiness at the conclusion of the film.

A film sure to fly under the radar and likely to be forgotten before long, Lizzie (2018) is worth the effort. A spooky and controversial interpretation of the events leading up to, during, and after one of the most notorious crimes in United States history is dissected and analyzed from a human perspective. Macneill makes Borden less maniacal and more sympathetic than some may prefer. I think he does a fine job and deserves praise for a rich telling.

Free Solo-2018

Free Solo-2018

Director-Jimmy Chin, Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi

Starring-Alex Honnold

Scott’s Review #920

Reviewed July 17, 2019

Grade: B

Free Solo (2018) is a documentary that takes a standard approach style, offering a traditional, yet informative piece about the perils and triumphs of rock climbing. More precisely, termed “free soloing”, a dangerous feat involving the lack of ropes or any safety harnesses, one false misstep can (and has) resulted in death. The film balances a nice humanistic approach of the featured daredevil with his girlfriend and camera crew’s individual perspectives.

Having personally scolded the Oscar Academy (in my own mind anyway) for omitting the wonderful Won’t You Be My Neighbor? (2018) from the five documentary nominees, a “WTF” moment on nomination day, Free Solo would not be my choice as the winner, with RBG getting the honor from the choices provided. RBG is the more timelier and more important of the bunch, given the current state of United States political affairs, but nonetheless Free Solo was crowned the champion.

The likable young man at the forefront of the feature is Alex Honnold, a modest athlete from the west coast, United States, in his early twenties.  He has a low-key, almost morose personality and is his own person, shunning organized holidays like Halloween because he “doesn’t want someone else telling him when to have fun”. He is thoughtful and introspective and even a bit odd having sought climbing at a young age and never looking back.

Apparent is how he is not necessarily seeking the fame and fortune but has nonetheless become respected in his chosen profession, explaining that it is more a calling than any attempt to show off or boast of his achievements. As he admits to always wanting to climb the dangerously steep and world-famous rock, the 3,000 foot El Capitan in Yosemite National Park… without a rope, he is also concerned about the pressure of performing for camera crews and the responsibility that entails. The documentary stresses this point as Alex bails from the climb on his first attempt.

Throughout the documentary, the film-makers choose to focus on tidbits of story around his loved ones, specifically his girlfriend and mother, offering their perspectives of his dangerous activities. This is a nice added touch and gives heart and layers to the story making it more humanistic than simply watching an unknown person rock climb for an hour and a half. The audience gets to know Alex throughout the piece therefore making us care more about the peril he goes through as he attempts to triumph.

The production is superlative and quite engaging especially throughout the climbing sequences. Vast shots of the amazing views from the giant rock are plentiful and astounding making the viewer feel as if he or she is also climbing the treacherous monument but breathing a sigh of relief when realizing the safety of a sofa or chair is the preferred option. Seriously though, the camera work is a huge appeal of Free Solo and undoubtedly the primary reason it won the Oscar statuette.

The negatives to Free Solo are only slight and perhaps due to my own lack of appeal of rock climbing. During the documentary I kept asking myself why on earth Alex would attempt to achieve the feat and what possible purpose it would serve. From that angle, my attention tended to wander from time to time so the people with passion for adventurous experiences would be the target audience.

Secondly, there was nary a doubt in my mind that the final moments would result in Alex successfully reaching the pinnacle of his career safely despite the concerns of the crew that he could fall to his death at any moment. Sensible reasoning assured me the project would not have been released if tragedy had occurred.

Free Solo (2018) offers a solid and conventional documentary with enough outdoor sequences amid the standard interviews to satisfy all. The finale, while predictable in showing Alex’s successful climb to Mount, is photographed exceptionally well and professional in spirit. The documentary suffers from some predictability issues and a lack of any real cliffhanger (pun intended) but feels fresh and celebrates the human spirit in a big way.

Bad Times at the El Royale-2018

Bad Times at the El Royale-2018

Director-Drew Goddard

Starring-Jeff Bridges, Cynthia Erivo, Dakota Johnson

Scott’s Review #919

Reviewed July 10, 2019

Grade: A-

Bad Times at the El Royale (2018), directed by Drew Goddard, known for crafting the horror film The Cabin in the Woods (2012) is a gem crossing multiple genres with sound results. With Bad Times, he assumes writing and production duties for the thriller and steals a page from the Quentin Tarantino playbook, most notably from The Hateful Eight (2015). The resulting feature is clever, perverse and mysterious, with a fantastic, edge-of-your-seat experience, and a must-see for Tarantino fans.

Set in 1969, the film focuses on seven strangers of differing backgrounds who make their way to a seedy and remote hotel on the California/Nevada border. Each harbors his or her share of dark secrets, which culminates during a deadly and macabre showdown one dark and stormy night. In many ways each character is seeking redemption or forgiveness for a past indiscretion or is otherwise protecting someone or something else. A large sum of money is also in play for the greedier characters to tussle over.

The seven players are as follows: Jeff Bridges plays catholic priest Donald “Dock” O’Kelly, Cynthia Erivo plays struggling soul singer Darlene Sweet, and Dakota Johnson portrays Emily Summerspring, a hippie trying to save her younger sister, Rose, who is devoted to and mesmerized by sadistic cult leader Billy Lee (Chris Hemsworth). Finally, Jon Hamm plays Dwight Broadbeck, a vacuum salesman who may have a secret identity, and hotel clerk Miles Miller (Lewis Pullman), who runs the hotel alone.

As events roll along the complexities of the characters grow and grow, which is my favorite aspect of the film. There are so many twists and turns involving the characters back stories and motivations that surprises are in store. Some characters have strange connections to each other, others meet for the first time resulting in their lives intersecting in interesting ways.

The dynamic between all the actors work tremendously well with the standouts being Bridges and Erivo, who share tremendous chemistry and are the most interesting characters, to mention get the most screen time. During their lengthy scenes together, their characters forge a bond while never completely trusting each other. Erivo, as Darlene, gets to showcase her wonderful singing voice, the grand hotel room sequence as she belts out “This Old Heart of Mine (Is Weak for You”) is the highlight. Old and maligned with memory loss Bridges is successful at granting more sympathy to his character than he deserves.

The film loses momentum towards the end with the introduction of the miscast Hemsworth, pretty but not the greatest acting talent. The actor over acts, playing Billy Lee as sinister and one-dimensional rather than infusing any complexities into the character, which doesn’t work. A better casting choice (and Tarantino mainstays) would have been Leonardo DiCaprio or Brad Pitt, either actor assuredly bringing more depth to the role.

Comparisons to both The Hateful Eight and the comedy Clue (1985) must be made. Like the former, Goddard divides the film into chapters, mostly entitled as the hotel room numbers. With each subsequent room the events going on in that room and its inhabitants are explored. As in both films he brings several mysterious characters with connections, together. Like in Clue, secret passageways which lead to various parts of a building are featured, offering layers of possibilities.

The hotel itself is styled and dressed brilliantly, nearly a character with glossy decal, shiny trimmings but with a solemn and melancholy gloominess.  The establishment has seen its share of heartbreak, schemes, and even death. Clever is the division of the hotel in either the “California” section, sunny and cheerful, or the less posh “Nevada” section, purple and costing one dollar less. The viewer is sucked into its web within the first sequence when a man is shown hiding money under the floorboards and then subsequently shot to death.

Despite justifiably being labeled as a Tarantino rip-off, this does not bother me as I was enthralled with the characters, the details, and the vast nuances offered to me. Unfortunately, the film was a box-office disappointment, suffering from lack of awards buzz and a lofty running-time. Bad Times at El Royale (2018) will entertain, intrigue, and keep one guessing up until the credits roll. Be prepared for a bloody good time!

First Man-2018

First Man-2018

Director-Damian Chazelle

Starring-Ryan Gosling, Claire Foy

Scott’s Review #915

Reviewed July 4, 2019

Grade: B+

First Man (2018) is a re-teaming of efforts by director Damian Chazelle and actor Ryan Gosling, hot on the heels of the 2016 critical and commercial smash hit La La Land. The former could not be more different the latter and the direction unrecognizable for those expecting a comparison. First Man is a mainstream Hollywood production with good camerawork and an edgy quality.  The necessary full-throttle action approach is interspersed nicely with a personal family story and humanistic spin that is never too sappy nor forced.

The focus of the story is on Neil Armstrong (Gosling) and the events leading up to the historic Apollo 11 mission which resulted in the him being the first United States astronaut to walk on the moon. Buzzy Aldrin (Corey Stoll), the second man to walk on the moon is featured to a lesser degree and his character is portrayed as self-centered and difficult though screen time is limited. The overall message is of the triumphs and the costs to families, the astronauts and the country during an already tumultuous decade in history.

Events of the film begin in 1961 as we see Armstrong as a young NASA test pilot suffering mishaps due to his personal problems and culminates in 1969 after the successful mission concludes. Chazelle wisely balances human and personal scenes with the inevitable rocket take-offs and outer space problems that the astronauts face.  Both segments turn out well and keep the action moving, allowing for tender moments between the characters especially showcasing the relationship between Neil and his wife Janet (Claire Foy). Lacking (thankfully) are the scenes of machismo or “guy talk” that sometimes accompany films in this genre.

During one of the first scenes the audience quickly witnesses the couple’s two-and-a-half-year-old daughter Karen retching and suffering from learning disabilities only to quickly die from a brain tumor forever destroying the couple. This important aspect reoccurs as Neil imagines his daughter playing with neighborhood kids and enjoying life. In a wonderful moment he tearfully drops Karen’s tiny bracelet into a giant crater in the hopes of always keeping her memory alive. These additions give the film a character driven quality.

Worthy of analysis before and after viewing the film is the decision of the young director to tackle such a project, heartily appealing to the mainstream audience undoubtedly in mind. Legendary director Clint Eastwood was originally slated to direct and the historically rich story seems right up his alley. Interesting to wonder is if during the 1990’s Tom Hanks might have been cast in the role of Armstrong during his younger days, playing a similar role in Ron Howard’s 1995 film Apollo 13.

Well-known character actors appear in supporting roles fleshing out the production and further adding name and face recognition. Kyle Chandler, Jason Clarke and Ciaran Hinds appear as astronauts or various NASA Chiefs. Viewers who may not be able to name the actors will certainly recognize them as actors seen in other features. This only brings First Man to the big leagues with a hearty and talented central cast.

Gosling and Foy are the main draw and both actors were mentioned as possibilities for Oscar nominations throughout awards season, but a slot in the big race did not come to fruition. While the film drew a couple of nominations for Best Editing and Best Score, a Best Picture nomination was not to be, probably due to the film not being as big a blockbuster success as expected. The film is also more brooding and less patriotic than a Howard or Eastwood production would have been.

To expand on this, First Man came under attack by Senator Marco Rubio from Florida, and President Donald Trump for Chazelle’s decision to omit any mention of the famous planting of the American Flag on the moon by Armstrong and Aldrin. Chazelle refused to admit this was any sort of political statement, instead insisting he chose to focus more on the lesser known aspects of the moon landing rather than facts that everybody already knew.

Youngster Damian Chazelle proves a multi-faceted director by changing course and creating a historic biopic much different from a story of singing and dancing in Los Angeles. He proves to be no one-trick pony and gets the job done, creating a brave and robust effort that does not limit action at the hands of humanity, successfully weaving a good dose of both. First Man (2018) may not be a classic in the making but deserves to be seen.

Tully-2018

Tully-2018

Director-Jason Reitman

Starring-Charlize Theron, Mackenzie Davis

Scott’s Review #905

Reviewed June 2, 2019

Grade: B

Tully, a 2018 film release, was awarded wide recognition largely because of a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actress- Comedy achieved by its star, Charlize Theron. The actress does carry the film and delivers a wonderful performance in an example of great casting. The film is clearly targeted for a specific audience, that of females with newborn babies, a mother of a child with behavioral issues, or women who have experienced something similar during their lifetime.

As such, the perspective is clearly from the female point of view and men may not find much, if anything, to relate to. Nonetheless, the film is a worthy watch though not sure I’d classify it firmly in the comedy category, but this may have more to do with who directed it. Jason Reitman, famous for his creations Juno (2007) and Young Adult (2011) is known for coming-of-age films with dark edges. Nonetheless, I’d carefully teeter the film more into the drama genre than straight comedy.

We meet a very pregnant Marlo (Theron) as she is about to give birth to her third child, the implication being that it is an unplanned pregnancy. She is already frazzled from her other two children, one of whom is Jonah, who has a developmental disorder causing stress. Her world consists of battles with Jonah’s school, her absent-minded husband Drew (Ron Livingston), and her brother Craig (Mark Duplass), who has married an affluent woman and tries to help Marlo. Chris offers to pay for a night nanny which would allow Marlo peace and quiet, and she finally accepts, meeting the bizarre Tully (Mackenzie Davis) who slowly changes her life.

Theron reportedly gained over fifty pounds in preparation for the role and completely immerses herself in the part. Ordinarily a gorgeous woman as well as an astounding actor, she is convincing as the tired and unfulfilled suburban mother. Haggard, going through her day to day routines, it is revealed that she yearns to be young again, and finally revisits her old stomping grounds in Brooklyn where her passion is awakened, New York. Theron not only transforms her appearance but portrays an enormous amount of emotion teetering between responsible mother and flighty middle-aged woman.

To say that Tully is a “woman’s film”, a phrase I dislike, is not entirely fair, but women will relate to the film most of all. Men are not written especially well; we witness Drew meandering around the house mostly holing up in the bedroom, oblivious to his surroundings. He is somewhat aware that a night nanny exists but is more concerned with playing video games or traveling for work than with who is raising his child. He loves his family yet is somewhat only half there and his motivations and feelings are never explored very well. The writing of this character perplexed me, or rather I wondered why the character was written this way to begin with.

As events progress Tully serves up a brilliant twist ending, blurring the lines between fantasy and reality in a daring way. The character of Tully becomes a godsend for Marlo. Suddenly, she is inspired by the younger woman who has her whole life ahead of her. Could Marlo be a bit jealous of the young and thin nanny? Tully inspires Marlo, but could she not be all that she seems? The final reveal leaves questions dangling over the viewer. Is Tully all in Marlo’s head? Is it merely a coincidence that Marlo’s maiden name is Tully or the reason for the nanny in the first place?

Tully (2018) plays like a female centered coming-of-age story perfectly suited for women over the age of thirty. It can be enjoyed by others as the story has layers and borders on a character study, but the target audience is clear. The surprise ending is tremendous and rises the film way above mediocrity, otherwise being a traditional genre film. The performance by Theron also adds an immeasurable amount to the film.

Welcome to Marwen-2018

Welcome to Marwen-2018

Director-Robert Zemeckis

Starring-Steve Carell, Leslie Mann

Scott’s Review #892

Reviewed May 1, 2019

Grade: B

Welcome to Marwen (2018) is a feature film that flew under the radar at the time of release suffering from mostly poor if not scathing reviews. Having debuted in the last quarter of the year the anticipation was assuredly for Oscar love, but this was not to be as the film was a box-office and critical disappointment. Despite a marvelous and sympathetic portrayal by Steve Carell and bold creativity in the animation, the film lags and misfires in the story-telling, never completely coming together despite a heartfelt effort.

Based on a powerful true story chronicled much better in documentary form, the film follows Mark Hogancamp (Carell), a man struggling with post-traumatic stress syndrome after being physically assaulted. He creates a fictional village to deal with his violent trauma as a form of escapism. Mark teeters between fantasy and reality as his various action figures mirror both himself and other people in his life from the benevolent- his pretty new next-door neighbor, Nicol (Leslie Mann), to the malicious- his attackers.

Director Zemeckis, is no stranger to cool and innovative visual effects. Having created such unique film treats as Back to the Future (1985), Death Becomes Her (1992), and Forrest Gump (1994) his track record is proven. Though far from a masterpiece, Welcome to Marwen’s greatest achievement is that of its look, with stunning and realistic figurines coming to life with splendid effect. The modified fashion dolls are morphed into action heroes livening the film and making it a spectacle versus the morose everyday life that Mark lives in.

As Mark frequently escapes into his soothing and self-created fantasy world named Marwen, the mostly female characters are strong, resilient, and protective of Mark. He even embarks on a fantasy romance with Nicol and faces both sweet moments with her as well as peril from Nazis. The negative to the fantasy sequences is in the climax as Zemeckis teeters too broadly towards a full-fledged action film with over the top segments and an overly lengthy battle scene.

The real-life scenes do not work so well as Mark’s small-town residence is glum and depressed providing little interest. Presumed to be two hours outside of New York City the reason Nicol moves to the town is never explained and her true intentions remain mysterious. The presence of her aggressive ex-boyfriend seems forced and the romantic interest that Mark harbors for her becomes awkward. The main detraction is a lack of romantic chemistry between Carell and Mann thus resulting in little reason to root for the pair to be together.

The film contains an admirable progressive slant as Mark, while straight in his sexuality, is enamored with women’s shoes and collects hundreds of sensible and erotic pairs. The key to his attack as briefly shown via flashback is his boasting to redneck types while inebriated, his love of the shoes. This plot point is important to the film yet not fleshed out well. What do we know about his attackers? Did they assume Mark was gay prompting the attack? Since the attack is deemed a hate crime we can only assume the answer is yes, but I had hoped for a bit more depth and more about Mark’s backstory.

Based on the superior 2010 documentary Marwencol, Welcome to Marwen (2018) is a production that asks the viewer to revel in a wonderful fantasy world and marvel at the resulting creativity, escaping into a life-like, adventure zone. The story remains uneven with a bandied about romance that never comes together, uneven storytelling and a mediocre conclusion. While I admire Welcome to Marwen’s intentions the film ultimately fails to deliver.

Colette-2018

Colette-2018

Director-Wash Westmoreland

Starring-Keira Knightley, Dominic West

Scott’s Review #888

Reviewed April 20, 2019

Grade: B+

Colette (2018) is a French period piece and biography based on the life and times of novelist Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette. The film is directed by Wash Westmoreland who also directed Still Alice (2014), so the man is successful at creating a film from a strong female point of view. With a prominent and cultured French style and sophistication the film pairs well with and ultimately belongs to star Keira Knightley. The glaring British accents rather than French and the formulaic approach bring the experience down a notch from grandeur in a film likely to be forgotten.

Knightley plays the title character whose upbringing in a rural area of France is pleasant but hardly sophisticated and utterly country. When Colette meets a handsome literary genius named Willy (Dominic West), successful but employing ghostwriters to fill his creative void, the pair marry and combine forces to create popular novels based on Colette’s naughty schoolgirl experiences. The duo embarks on frequent dalliances with feminine and masculine women (Colette is bisexual) and face the trials and tribulations of seesawing finances and competitiveness until their ultimate divorce. Along the way Willy and Colette enjoy the excesses of late nineteenth century Paris.

Besides a few quick exterior shots of the Seine River and fabulous Parisian landmarks such as Notre Dame, the filming likely did not take place in France at all though you’d never know it. Both cozy and flamboyant scenes of Parisian eateries and lavish nightclubs like the Moulin Rouge and one rich socialite’s love nest are featured giving the film an authentic French flair. The costumes are decadent, and stage shows with Colette and her partner crackle with daring artistic merit.

Knightley, a household name but still teetering on the brink of one definitive great role comes close with her portrayal of Colette. Westmoreland is wise to climax the film with photos and summary of the real-life writer and her husband. If only the film exceeded marginally good reviews and achieved great reviews, then perhaps the actress may have secured an Oscar nomination but alas the proverbial boat was missed. Nonetheless, Knightley plays the role with delicious and naughty delight sinking her teeth into a character who wants to live and have fun.

Despite the rich French flavor Colette is plagued by a jarring fault as the actors all possess English accents rather than French. All in favor of occasional suspensions of disbelief to elicit the desired effect or manipulation, assumptions are that Westmoreland decided since most of the actors are British to let the detail slide in favor of comfort in tongues. Perhaps this misfire is why the sets and locations are overcompensated and decorated in such lovely French style.

The story is formulaic and silly if truth be told while Knightley and West share grand chemistry. As Willy and Colette paint the town they also have repeated misunderstandings or outbursts of rage and jealousy (mostly on her part) before deciding to accept and enjoy each other as they are. Unfortunate is how through the affairs and celebratory nights Colette accepts her role as ghostwriter to his name recognition only to divorce and never see Willy again based on his sale of the treasured Claudine series. Hopeful was I for a happily ever after result.

A crisp and polished offering of the life and times of a complex and peculiar French figure Colette (2018) has its share of ups and downs. Unknown how true to real life the story is, the acting compels and accomplishes a high point while the cultured flavor is zestful and spicy. The film may not be well remembered but is ultimately a success for a few above par qualities that supersede the negatives.

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse-2018

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse-2018

Director-Peter Ramsey, Rodney Rothman, Bob Persichetti

Voices-Shameik Moore, Hailee Steinfeld, Lily Tomlin

Scott’s Review #881

Reviewed March 30, 2019

Grade: B+

There have been many film versions of Spider-Man. To my recollection the first series came in three installments and was directed by Sam Raimi: Spider-Man (2002), Spider-Man 2 (2004), and Spider-Man 3 (2007) with Toby Maguire in the title role. These were the good, old, days. Andrew Garfield took over in 2012 and 2014 to mixed reviews before the super-hero was merged into Captain America and The Avengers films as well as one or two additional solo outings. This is where I lose track.

Finally, through all the incarnations comes the very first computer animated film based on the Marvel Comics character. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018) was an enormous box-office success as well as a critical success winning the coveted Best Animated Feature Oscar. My choice would have been for the dark and sarcastic Isle of Dogs, but the former has impressive merits and grand animation that are astounding to the eyes. Towards the climax the film teeters into familiar and predictable territory from a story perspective though admittedly the super-hero and animated genre is not my most cherished.

Miles Morales is a Brooklyn teenager, bright, energetic, and likened to your average city kid. His father, Jefferson Davis, is a muscled policeman who is no fan of Spider-Man, the heroic masked man who prevents city crime outshining the cops daily. While close to his father, Miles is much more connected to his uncle, Aaron Davis, despite his father and uncle having a distant relationship. When Miles is bitten by a hungry spider he immediately begins exhibiting Spider-Man like abilities and stumbles upon others with similar stories.

The teen meets super-villain Wilson Frisk, (a not so subtle Donald Trump parody if ever I saw one) who is intent on accessing a parallel universe to retrieve his deceased wife and son. Events involving a USB drive and the “real” Spider-Man, Peter Parker, also living in a parallel universe come into play. The overly complex story is not the best part of the experience and I began losing interest in the how’s and why’s especially when compared to the escapist and marvelous super-cool animations.

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse deserves some great praise for making the film’s central character ethnically mixed a (Hispanic and Black), never done before in franchise history. This diversity, evident in Black Panther (2018) is all the rage now in the super-hero genre along with gender equality in a once deemed “guy’s movie” slogan. This is a delight to witness with hopefully even more of a slant towards richer diversity. Are Asian, gay, or physically impaired character’s coming next?

The film looks amazing with creative and slick modern animation and graphics across the board that never waver throughout the entire nearly two-hour running time, lengthy for an animated feature. Styled and bright the film’s most brazen appeal is with its colors and shapes and sized. The metropolitan New York City is a treat to witness as the creators not only focus on Manhattan, but on Queens and Brooklyn, boroughs too often forgotten in favor of the glitz and bustle of Manhattan. The clever re-titling of FedEx trucks to Red Ex is a worthy mention.

With a glitzy look, fast-paced action, and interesting villains, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018) is an impressive feat and a deep-dive into the possibilities of incorporating more of the super-hero and animated genres. This is around the corner due to the critical, audience, and awards notice that surrounds this film. If only the story contained more twists and turns and less standard genre-pleasing qualities, the possibilities would be endless.

Thoroughbreds-2018

Thoroughbreds-2018

Director-Cory Finley

Starring-Olivia Cooke, Anya Taylor-Joy

Scott’s Review #880

Reviewed March 26, 2019

Grade: B

Thoroughbreds (2018) is an independent dark comedy with snippets of creative film making and an intriguing premise that loses steam towards the conclusion, closely mirroring too many other similarly themed indies. An enjoyable geographical setting but lackluster monotone dialogue never allows the film a mind of its own and is therefore deemed unmemorable. The lead actors are fine, but the experience lacks too much to raise the bar into its own territory suffering from an odd title that has little to do with the story.

Lily (Anya Taylor-Joy) and Amanda (Olivia Cooke) are former childhood friends whose differing popularity levels have severed their relationship over the years. When Amanda’s mother pays Lily to socialize with Amanda under the guise of tutoring her, Amanda catches wind of the plot and confronts Lily. This event brings the girls closer and in macabre fashion they begin to hatch a scheme to plan the death of Lily’s stepfather, wealthy Mark (Paul Sparks) whom she perceives as abusive. It is revealed via flashback that Amanda euthanized her crippled horse to spare his suffering which resulted in animal cruelty charges.

The setting of affluent Fairfield County, Connecticut, presumably wealthy and snobbish Greenwich is a high point of the film and an immediate comparison to the 1997 masterpiece The Ice Storm. Bored rich kids who perceive themselves to shoulder all the world’s problems, while subsequently attending the best boarding school’s imaginable is delicious and a perfect starting point for drama and intrigue. Lily’s domineering stepfather and her passive and enabling mother are clever additions without making them seem like caricatures.

The dynamic between the girl characters is intelligently written and believable especially as they crack witty dialogue between each other. Lily is academic and stoic, humorously said to suffer from an unnamed condition that results in her being unable to feel or show any emotion. Amanda is the perfect counterbalance as she is sarcastic, witty and serves up one analytical observation after another. From a physicality perspective, the statuesque Lily is believable as the more popular of the two and the perceived leader.

As the girls elicit the participation of local drug dealer Tim (Anton Yelchin) into their plans, at first voluntary and ultimately by blackmail, the plot takes a turn for the formulaic and the redundant. The setup seems too like a standard dramatic story arc and becomes cliched as the once willing participant is subsequently thrust into the scheme. There are no romantic entanglements between the three main characters and subsequently leaving no characters to root for either, one strike to the film.

Otherwise, the “been there, done that” monotone dialogue has become standard in dark comedies so that in 2018 the element seems dated and a ploy to develop offbeat characters. Director Cory Finley borrows heavily from fellow director Wes Anderson (The Royal Tenenbaums-2001 and Moonrise Kingdom) in this regard so that the freshness of the characters and story wears thin mid-stream.

The title of the film could be better as a quick scene involving Amanda and a horse in the beginning and a brief mention of horses envisioned in a dream by one character is all there is about the animals. I expected more of an incorporation between animal and human or at least a more poignant connection.  The privileged lives of Lily and Amanda seem the perfect correlation to brings horses into the central story in a robust way.

Finley is on the cinematic map, crafting an effort that proves he possesses some talent and an eye for a wicked and solid offering. Thoroughbreds (2018) represents a film too like many others in the same genre to rise to the top of the pack but is not without merits and sound vision. It will be interesting to see what this up and coming director chooses for his next project.

First Reformed-2018

First Reformed-2018

Director-Paul Schrader

Starring-Ethan Hawke, Amanda Seyfried

Scott’s Review #870

Reviewed February 22, 2019

Grade: B+

First Reformed (2018) is a dark independent film that has received a great deal of buzz for the raw and daring risks it takes and the brave performance by the film’s star, Ethan Hawke. Directed by the same man who wrote the screenplay for Taxi Driver (1976), Paul Schrader, the film is a character study of one man’s efforts for benevolence and normalcy after experiencing insurmountable tragedy as he wrestles with his demons and questions his faith in the church. The film is heavy, raw drama and not for those in the mood for a feel-good experience.

Reverend Ernst Toller (Hawke) is an alcoholic, residing in bleak and barren upstate New York, presumably near Buffalo. He serves as a Protestant minister at a historically significant yet sparsely populated church. The establishment is usurped by another more modern congregation with a robust following. Ernst has recently been dealt a major blow with the death of his son in the Iraq War after encouraging him to enlist. When Mary (Amanda Seyfried), a young pregnant woman, asks Ernst to provide guidance to her radical and troubled husband, Ernst’s life spirals out of control.

Ernst is determined to keep a journal for exactly one year and then subsequently burn it. He chronicles his feelings, thoughts, and doubts as narrated by Hawke. Schrader, who directed and wrote First Reformed succeeds at making the film feel personal and conflicted. He creates a quiet experience masked with underlying turmoil and even suffocating existences. Ernst’s angry protege is an environmentalist determined to change the minister’s views and succeeds in pointing out life’s hypocrisy.

The season is winter, and the elements are cold and depressing in First Reformed. From the crisp air and clutching small town grasps, Schrader makes the audience feel stifled, so we relate to Ernst even though we may not share his views or his beliefs. He is a kind man, helpful, and even keeled but wrestles with constant demons.  Despite his role as a minister what the film does well is resist carving a traditional tale of religious conflict or even questioning Ernst’s sexuality. The film is much darker contextually and does not focus on one theme.

Where Schrader loses me is with Ernst’s questionable actions which sometimes come out of left field. The conclusion is both perplexing and unsatisfying. As the character prepares for a desperate act of brutality, certainly a shock for the audience who has him figured out, he suddenly changes course due to the appearance of Mary. They embrace, and the film ends, but what are his intentions towards Mary? He is fond of her, but are feelings pure friendship or something more emotional? Sadly, we never find out nor do we know where he channels all of his feelings from.

Besides Ernst, and Hawke’s dynamic portrayal of him is never better, the supporting character’s lack much appeal or interest. Mary is nice enough but is a tad clingy and her numerous requests to talk or have Ernst come by to visit get tedious- Seyfried does what she can with the role but is second banana. Cedric the Entertainer as Pastor Joel Jeffers lacks appeal and the dowdy character of Esther meant to be a potential love interest for Ernst is instead bothersome and portrayed as a pest.

First Reformed (2018) has shades of appeal and a main character with substance and depth but ultimately the film does not come together as well as it might have. The finale underwhelms and after the great buildup to the character’s changing thoughts and motivations too much was left unclear. Schrader deserves props for attempting to create an edgy experience with a unique and daring character but could have wrapped the film up in a tidier way. This would have served the film better.

Oscar Nominated Animated Short Films-2018

Oscar Nominated Animated Short Films-2018

Directors-Alison Snowden, David Fine, Domee Shi, Becky Neiman, Louise Bagnall, Nuria Gonzalez Blanco, Andrew Chesworth, Bobby Pontillas, Trevor Jiminez

Scott’s Review #869

Animal BehaviourBaoLate AfternoonOne Small StepWeekends

Reviewed February 18, 2019

Grade: A

Having the honor of being able to view the five short films nominated for the 2018 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. The commonality this year is that four of them feature parent-child relationships. Below is a review of each of the shorts.

Animal Behaviour-2018 (Canada)

The strangest in the group, Animal Behaviour is also the most humorous and the best in the bunch, but only by a narrow margin. We witness a therapy session led by a prim and proper dog, who clearly has his own issues. In attendance are a blood-sucking leech, a praying mantis, a cat, a pig, and the newest attendee, a gorilla. All are happy to participate except the gorilla who sees the session as a waste of time. As eating jokes, butt jokes, and other adult humor encases the camaraderie each character develops a clear identity and the gorilla learns, in comedic fashion, that he really does require therapy. This short plays out like an intelligent television sitcom. Grade: A

Bao-2018 (USA)

The most mainstream of the contenders, Pixar creation Bao is cute and heartwarming and an ode to motherhood. A perfect Mother’s Day offering, the story tells the tale of a Chinese mother who imagines one of her delicious dumplings to be her son. She takes him to soccer practice, rides the bus together and are inseparable. As the dumpling matures, he wants to be alone, see friends, and eventually meets a young woman and proposes marriage. The mother is aghast and in a state of panic swallows the dumpling! Depressed, she is awakened by her real son and the two form a sweet bond made from of respect and love. The story is blooming with colors and nuanced with kindness so is easily the crowd favorite. Grade: A-

Late Afternoon-2018 (Ireland)

Some will undoubtedly find Late Afternoon a bit of a downer, but I found its honesty uplifting and fraught with creativity. An elderly woman suffering from Alzheimer’s disease is visited by a caring nurse each afternoon. The nurse is kind and her actions, serving a hot cup of tea or giving the woman a book to read, trigger memories of her youth with so much promise lying ahead of her. Eventually, she can recognize that the nurse is really her own daughter. The short is filled with compassion and while melancholy it is also inspiring, not to mention the creativity immersed in the colors and design. Grade: A

One Small Step-2018 (USA/China)

The most conventional in the lot, One Small Step will be perceived as empowering to women and a story of both loss and courage. A Chinese-American girl is raised by her patient and caring single father in California. She is taught to reach for the stars and he kindly repairs a shoe of hers and secretly stores it away. Over the years she is determined to become an astronaut and while she loves her father, she oftentimes takes him for granted. She is denied admission into a prestigious school and, depressed, gives up her dream. When her father dies suddenly the girl redoubles her efforts and finally becomes a successful astronaut in dedication to her father. The short champions energy and a never give up attitude. Grade: A-

Weekends-2018 (USA)

Weekends is my second favorite of all the shorts, barely runner-up to Animal Behaviour. The most complex and confusing, the short also features the most interesting hand drawings and art-work with a surreal and beautiful touch. A child of divorce spends his weekdays with his mother and his weekends with his father. His mother is depressed and lets the house languish while his father lives a metropolitan bachelor style life. When the mother begins dating an abusive man the boy is terrified imagining birthday candles that turn into the frightful man. The mother wears a neck brace which implies physical abuse. The short is moving and hits home on a personal level. Grade: A

Suspiria-2018

Suspiria-2018

Director- Luca Guadagnino

Starring-Dakota Johnson, Tilda Swinton

Scott’s Review #864

Reviewed February 7, 2019

Grade: B-

Dario Argento’s 1977 creative masterpiece is the original Suspiria, an orgy of style and visual spectacles carefully immersed within a standard slasher film appropriate for the times. To attempt at a remake might be deemed foolhardy by some. Argento’s film contains comprehensive and defined story elements whilst the new Suspiria (2018) changes course with a brazen attempt at achieving the same mystique as the original but falling short instead offering a plodding and mundane story that is almost nonsense and does not work. Thankfully, a bloody and macabre finale brings the film above mediocrity.

Director Luca Guadagnino fresh off the Italian and LGBT themed Call Me by Your Name (2017), a bright film peppered with melancholy romance and lifestyle conflict could not be more of a departure from Suspiria. The respected director parlays into the horror genre with two of Hollywood’s top talents in tow, Tilda Swinton and Dakota Johnson, and a nice nod to the original film with a small appearance by leading lady Jessica Harper.

The premise of Suspiria remains intact as the time-period once again is 1977 and the location stays as Berlin, Germany. Susie Bannion (Johnson) is a gifted American dancer who joins the prestigious Tanz dance academy run by a coven of witches where she unearths demonic tendencies. Coinciding with her arrival is the disappearance of another student, Patricia Hingle, and the revelation that her psychotherapist Josef Klemperer (Swinton) is in possession of Patricia’s journals chronicling details of the dastardly coven.

From an acting perspective Swinton impresses the most as she tackles three distinctive roles: an elderly and troubled psychotherapist, artistic director Madame Blanc, and Mother Marko, an aging witch. Each character is vastly different from the rest and allows the talented actress to immerse herself into the different characters. So convincing is she that I did not realize while watching the film that she played the psychotherapist or that the character was played by a female.

Admittedly not a fan of Dakota Johnson for perceptively using her Hollywood royalty to rise the ranks to film stardom or her lackluster film roles thus far- think Fifty Shades of Grey or the innumerable sequels- she does not do much for me in the central role of Susie. The miscast is more palpable in comparison to Harper’s rendition of the role decades earlier. Johnson is predictably wooden and quite painful to watch especially matched against a stalwart like Swinton in many scenes. Lithe and statuesque the young actress does contain the physical qualities of a dancer, so there is that.

As a stand-alone film my evaluation of Suspiria might be less harsh, but the original Suspiria is held at such lofty heights that this is impossible. The problem is with the screenplay as compelling writing is sparse. Much of the plot makes little sense and does nothing to engage the viewer in the moment. Slow moving and meandering and lacking a spark or an abrupt plot break through, I quickly lost interest in what was going on. The interminable running time of over two and a half hours is unnecessary and unsuccessful.

Before I completely rake Suspiria across the coals my cumulative rating increases with the astounding and garish final sequence which features a plethora of blood and dismemberment in a sickening witches’ sabbath. As Klemperer lies incapacitated after being ambushed by the witches one girl is disemboweled followed by a decapitation as the bold use of red is blended into the lengthy sequence. As the withered and bloated Mother Markos relinquishes her title an incarnation of Death is summoned, and heads explode. The finale plays out like a horrible dance sequence.

To add to the above point the visuals and the cinematography are its highlights. By using mirrors and possessing a dream-like quality the film looks great and harbors an eerie and stylistic deathly crimson hue. The resulting project is one of spectacle and intrigue rather than a sum of its parts. Rather than approaching the film with an introspective or cerebral motif simply going with the flow and letting it fester is recommended.

Guadagnino deserves credit for bravely attempting to undertake the creation of such a masterpiece and bringing it to audiences in 2018. Suspiria (2018) suffers from a lack of plot or pacing and is clearly second runner up to the original.  The story is not worth attempting to make heads or tails of since it is not interesting enough to warrant the effort. Ultimately skip this version and stick to the brilliance of the Argento effort or better yet do not compare the two films at all.

Roma-2018

Roma-2018

Director-Alfonso Cuaron

Starring-Yalitza Aparicio, Marina de Tavira

Scott’s Review #862

Reviewed February 2, 2019

Grade: A

Roma (2018) is a film to be experienced rather than merely viewed. A cinematic, black and white feast for the eyes and direction to be amazed with is utterly impressive and a triumph in masterful film-making. On par with geographically picturesque epics such as Lawrence of Arabia (1962), the piece is at first not an easy watch, but the audience will become both enraptured and rewarded with each passing moment as the characters emerge to flawless perfection reaching a crescendo of magnificent art.

Set during a politically tumultuous time in Mexico City during 1970 and 1971, the film follows a young maid working for a middle-class Mexican family and her perspective on her surroundings. She serves as housekeeper going about her numerous duties of mopping, cooking, even cleaning up the family dog excrement that runs rampant and as emotional support for the members of the family.

Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio) and her best friend, fellow maid Adela (Nancy Garcia) tend to four children of varying ages and their troubled parents, he a doctor and she the family matriarch. Antonio and Sofia (Marina de Tavira) have a troubled marriage as he supposedly goes to Quebec for business as tensions mount among the family. Through it all, Teresa, Antonio’s mother resides with the family as Cleo learns she is pregnant, and her boyfriend Fermin flees after hearing the news.

Director Alfonso Cuaron, responsible for the writing, direction, cinematography, editing, and nearly every other aspect of the picture, draws from his own personal experience growing up in Mexico City. Cuaron reportedly created the film as an artful love letter to his beloved family housekeeper whom he adored. In this way there is rich personality and intimacy throughout and a definite family angle. As the film centers mainly around Cleo’s trials and tribulations, the entire family appear in numerous scenes and thus feels like an ensemble feature.

Cleo is a quiet and modest girl happily going about her chores and serving the needs of everyone around her. She is treated well by the family and adored by the children only occasionally enduring the wrath of Sofia’s temper and troubles, but she is loved and appreciated. In love with Fermin and her only sexual experience she winds up pregnant which scares the aggressive and battle-minded young man. The story-line takes place over the course of a year, so we see Cleo’s entire pregnancy progress and experience her devastation as she gives birth to a still-born girl.

My favorite aspects of Roma are the simplicity and the monumental touches that Cuaron includes. The film begins with a lengthy shot of water being thrown on a cement garage and the puddles and circulation of the water. Seen from above is a slow-moving airplane and numerous background shots of a slowly landing airplane subsequently appear throughout the film. Is this to represent the slowness of life? Life, death, and near-death experiences are featured in Roma. Cleo’s pregnancy, the death of a baby, and the near drowning of one of the children rescued by Cleo despite the girl not being able to swim.

Gorgeous scenes of Cleo traversing through the streets of downtown Mexico City exude beauty. Undoubtedly the scenes represent her journey through life and the pain and rewards that she experiences, but they also feature dozens of interesting characters if one pays close attention. A man lighting a cigarette, a woman gazing, and other ordinary people doing things that look illuminating and like glimpses of the past. The automobiles are representative of the 1970’s as a Ford Galaxy, the family car, is extensively featured.

The films cover art (pictured above) is a creation that perfectly captures the theme of Roma and is highly symbolic. Huddled on sand at the beach the family encircles Cleo with expressions of panic, fear, and gratitude. The black and white adds depth as it could easily be a piece immersed in an art museum. The group of people appear unified and cling to Cleo for dear life also in a show of support and appreciation. The photo is endearing and beautiful to look at.

Roma (2018) received an impressive ten Academy Award nominations as well as numerous year-end accolades an impressive achievement for a foreign language film. For those with enough patience to let the film and its components marinate will be rewarded with a fine appreciation for cinematic artistry. The dreamlike quality with meticulous attention to detail makes this personal work a fascinating masterpiece.

Cold War-2018

Cold War-2018

Director-Pawel Pawlikowski

Starring-Joanna Kulig, Tomasz Kot

Scott’s Review #861

Reviewed January 29, 2019

Grade: A

Every once in a long while a modern film set in a different time- period comes along that embodies that era with such authenticity and grace that we forget that it was not shot in the time the story is told. Cold War (2018) is one such film that dares to whisk the viewer to another world with genuine timelessness emboldened by the torturous romantic entanglements of its main characters.

Reminiscent of an Ingmar Bergman film and shot in black and white the film is lovely, tragic, and fraught with historical references. One can dissect both character nuances and atmospheric qualities encompassing the entire experience. The film is a sum of its parts with a painful layer of veneer immersed in all the various tidbits. Cold War contains almost no humor but rather doom and gloom.

Amid the ruins of post- World War II Poland, repressed and self-destructive musicians Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) and Zula (Joanna Kulig) forge into an obsessive love-affair and cannot stay away from each other despite the European cities and countries that stand in their way. Spanning over a decade they battle alcohol abuse, rage, and imprisonment as they traverse between Poland, France, Berlin, and Yugoslavia.

Zula does obtain a level of success with her musicianship, but at a steep cost. She is forced to marry a hated man whom she does not love and many years away from Wiktor. Still, their romance perseveres over time until the duo makes a fateful decision that leads to a profound climax. The conclusion of the film is powerful, macabre, and emotional.

To state that Cold War is a tragedy is almost an understatement though viewers will probably not realize this going into the film. When Zula auditions at a Polish house for the musically gifted and Wiktor accompanies her on the piano sparks fly between the two as they meet for the first time. Zula appears to be a simple farm girl and sings a mountain song in duet with another girl. Spirited, Zula flirts with men, but is forever drawn to Wiktor and their chemistry runs rampant.

The direction, art direction, and cinematography are superb offering a magnificent look to the film. The use of black and white filming gives the piece an immeasurably timeless quality especially as streets and avenues in Paris emerge from time to time. They could easily be 1950’s France. The lovely halls that the pair perform in add ambiance and effect and musical treasures such as the melancholy main song performed in multiple languages and tones sparkles with culture.

With a run-time of only eighty-nine brief minutes Cold War never feels rushed and compartmentalizes all that it needs to tell in this span of time. The story contents run from 1949 until the early 1960’s and the film’s title is no mere accident. The historical reference plain and obvious the film also contains a bleak and frigid quality in both its surroundings and its characters. One worth mentioning is a rigid government man who complains that one girl in the chorus is “too dark”, the connotation being one of nationalism.

Multiple comparisons to Pawlikowski’s masterpiece Ida (2014) can be drawn one of which is that Kulig stars in both films. In addition to the black and white shooting both films feature a central female character that is tortured, a Nazi occupation of Poland or the after-effects of such an occupation, and the effects of repression or otherwise obsessive behavior featured in both films. Pawlikowski is superb at crafting these types of damaged and conflicted characters in his films.

Director Pawlikowski successfully achieves a second Polish film offering that challenges his audiences with remarkable story-telling, a dark mood, and a reminder of the terrible effects of the aftermath of World War II and those left in its wake. Psychological scars can wound as much as physical scars as Pawlikowski proves in the characters he draws from and their doomed lives. Cold War (2018) is an achievement in many ways and makes for thoughtful conversation after the credits roll.

Crazy Rich Asians-2018

Crazy Rich Asians-2018

Director-Jon M. Hu

Starring-Constance Wu, Henry Golding

Scott’s Review #860

Reviewed January 26, 2019

Grade: B+

Crazy Rich Asians (2018), the romantic comedy smash of 2018 is a fun romp that is memorable because it centers on the Asian population, shamefully underrepresented in mainstream American cinema. For this point alone, the film is recommended and worthy of praise but otherwise is a standard genre film with gimmicks and stock characters galore and a predictable conclusion. A mention must be made for the numerous cultural tidbits included which rises the film above mediocrity .

Rachel Chu (Constance Wu) and Nick Young (Henry Golding) are a happily dating New York City couple, she a New York University college professor and he an entrepreneur. They fly to Singapore to attend Nick’s best friend’s wedding resulting in antics and anguish.  Rachel realizes that Nick comes from an extremely wealthy family and are Chinese royalty owning a multitude of lavish hotels and real estate. Most of Nick’s family, especially his traditional mother Eleanor (Michelle Yeoh), disapprove of the pairing viewing Rachel as a typical American placing passion over family.

Nick is a sought-after commodity among the single women of Singapore as Rachel is forced to endure harassment and mockery at every turn. Her allies are Nick’s kind sister Astrid (Gemma Chan) and Rachel’s outrageous college pal Peik Lin (Awkwafina) and her equally garish family. The plot thickens when Nick’s scheming mother does a background check on Rachel and discovers a family secret.

Crazy Rich Asians is a formulaic romantic comedy with the standard types of situations and characters expected of a genre film. The rivalry between the good girl and her boyfriend’s domineering mother, the comic relief of the gay sidekicks as Peik Lin and another friend of Rachel’s provide. The caricatures of Peik Lin’s wild family, her unattractive brother fond of taking secret photos of Rachel, and Eleanor’s snooty judgmental circle of female friends are all well cast yet one-dimensional.

Perplexing is why the film makers decided to make Nick only half Chinese rather than authentically Asian. Sadly, this may have been a reassurance of making the film more marketable to mass audiences. The film is presented as an Asian film, but it is really an American film. The story-line justification is that Nick’s father (surprisingly never seen) is British and that he and Eleanor met in college- only she being Chinese. Nick and Astrid’s English accents gnawed at me throughout the film.

Despite the myriad of cliche’s and manipulations Crazy Rich Asians has a nice flow and offers a fun two hours. The film is flavorful with bright colors and visual spectacles of the stylish and sophisticated Singapore and its modern and sleek nuances. I adored the locales featuring the skyline and a rich overview of the robust and relevant city/country.

Fantastic is how the film-makers add spices of traditional Chinese culture throughout the telling of the film quickly becoming more of an ode to the good history. Nick’s grandmother Su-Yi (Lisa Lu) takes pride in her wonderful and artistic flowers and Rachel is introduced to the art of dumpling making. Crazy Rich Asians introduces a history lesson for those unfamiliar with ancient Chinese customs.

Flavorful inclusions of Mandarin Chinese language versions of American pop hits are also nice additions, so the film has some tidbits to revel in other than the story. Most of the songs offer a reference to money such as “Money Honey” by Lady Gaga and “Rich Girl” by Hall & Oates.

The pacing of the film is nice with never a boring or dragging moment and a nice balance of comedy and drama results. Humorous is when Peik Lin provides Rachel with a costume makeover ensuring she look dynamic for the grand wedding as she convinces her to fight Eleanor with fire. Drama ensues when someone casts a dead fish on Rachel’s bed and Eleanor spits that Rachel will never be enough for her son.

Predictable is the film’s conclusion resulting in a marriage proposal aboard a jet heading from Singapore to New York City. With a film like Crazy Rich Asians it is guaranteed that the couple live happily ever after riding off into the sunset in great defiance of Nick’s roots. Due to the success of the film a sequel is a solid bet though I am also not betting the follow-up will be any good. Are romantic comedy sequels ever decent?

Filled with cliche’s, but satisfying most mainstream film-goers, Crazy Rich Asians (2018) creates a film with enough shards of Asian culture to at least get the Asian population on the map with a Hollywood production. Containing a polished look and some stereotypes the film breaks no new ground other than good inclusion and that is a start.

If Beale Street Could Talk-2018

If Beale Street Could Talk-2018

Director-Barry Jenkins 

Starring-Kiki Layne, Stephan James

Scott’s Review #854

Reviewed January 8, 2019

Grade: A

2018 proved to be a year where film makers of color prided themselves in telling stories of diversity, inclusion, social injustice, and the never-ending challenges of minorities. One of the best films of the year is If Beale Street Could Talk (2018), a lovely piece of storytelling by director Barry Jenkins. His other major work, Moonlight (2016) is a similarly poignant and melancholy experience. The film is based on a novel by James Baldwin.

The title is explained in the first dialogue of the film. Beale Street exists in New Orleans, but thousands of streets exist in other cities and is a metaphor for discrimination and unnecessary struggles that black folks continue to endure. Right away the audience knows that an important story is to be told. The wonderful part of If Beale Street Could Talk are all of the combined elements that lead to brilliance.

Tish Rivers (Kiki Layne) and Fonny Hunt (Stephan James) have known each other since childhood. Growing up in a Harlem neighborhood their families are interconnected and community centered. Events begin in 1973 as Tish realizes she is pregnant. Ordinarily a happy occasion, the situation contains a major challenge because Fonny is imprisoned for a crime he did not commit. A woman has accused him of rape and a corrupt policeman has positively identified Fonny as the rapist despite this being a logistical impossibility. Tish is determined to prove his innocence before the baby arrives with the assistance of her family.

The story in non-linear as Jenkins begins the film in present day with Tish breaking the news of her pregnancy to him then notifying her family.  As the film progresses more of the Fonny and Tish love story is explored. The couple fall in love, have romantic dinners, and nervously make love for the first time. In this way the film becomes a tender story of young love. The social injustice and family drama situations are carefully mixed in amid the central romance.

The film impresses with warm touches and ingenious cinematography and musical score. These left me resounding with pleasure at the intricate and intimate details. The frequent use of jazz music over dinner or as the Rivers family sips celebratory wine adds sophistication to many scenes. The texture of the film is muted and warm giving it a subdued look that is genuine and true to the quiet and timeless nature of the production.

The plume of cigarette smoke can be seen in nearly every scene as most of the character’s smokes. Since the time-period is the 1970’s the authenticity is there, and a glamorous image is portrayed. The smoking enhances the sophistication of the character’s and adds to the tremendous cinematography.

Several scenes of simple dialogue crackle with authenticity and passion. In one of the best scenes Fonny’s friend Daniel, a recent parolee, stays for dinner and the friends share a conversation over beer and cigarettes. The lengthy scene is poignant and tremendous with meaning. Daniel recounts his experience in prison and how black men are victims of the whims of white men and the terror involved in that. The scene is powerful in its thoughtfulness and a foreshadowing of Fonny’s impending trauma.

The supporting characters are stellar and add to the bravura acting troupe. Regina King as Sharon Rivers gives a rave performance when she bravely travels to Puerto Rico and confronts Fonny’s accuser in hopes of getting her to modify her story. The scene is laden with emotion and honest dialogue. The other notable actors are Colman Domingo and Teyonah Parris as Tish’s father and sister, respectively. Both do wonders with fleshing out the Rivers family as strong and kind people.

Jenkins is careful to add white characters who are benevolent to offset the other dastardly white characters. Examples are the kindly old woman who comes to the rescue of Fonny and Tish and berates the cop. The Jewish landlord who agrees to rent a flat to the pair is portrayed as decent and helpful, and finally the young lawyer who takes Fonny’s case is earnest and understanding.

If Beale Street Could Talk (2018) continues talented director Barry Jenkins plunge into the depths of being one of the modern greats. With a beautifully visual and narrative film he creates an experience sure to win more and more fans. The ending is moving yet unsatisfying as so many more miles are to go in the race for prison justice. Adapting an important story of race and repression based on skin color is a powerful and detailed affair.  I cannot wait to see what Jenkins comes up with next.

Mary Queen of Scots-2018

Mary Queen of Scots-2018

Director-Josie Rourke

Starring-Saoirse Ronan, Margot Robbie

Scott’s Review #851

Reviewed January 2, 2019

Grade: B+

A period piece that has all the trimmings for brilliance (on paper anyway) Mary Queen of Scots (2018) is a very good film but misses the mark in the pacing department preventing it from being a truly great film. Fantastic acting and wonderful photography are the high points of an otherwise uneven experience even if most of the components are intact. This is not so much a total knock as much as a light criticism as the film is ultimately quite good and just missing the big oomph to take it over-the-top.

Saoirse Ronan stars as Mary Stuart, the likable Queen of France, who has returned to her native Scotland to reclaim the throne after her husband dies. Only eighteen years of age she initially refuses pressure to remarry, but conflict ultimately ensues with Queen Elizabeth I (Margot Robbie), who rules neighboring England and Ireland. The women admire each other from afar but develop a rivalry in power and love. To complicate matters, religious conflict, scandals, and deceit are enveloped within the story.

The feminist theme is inspiring and makes the film better than merely a soap opera of two rival females sparring over men. In the mid-sixteenth century women in control was hardly commonplace and quite resented by the men forced to serve the “whims of women” as one male character puts it. Constantly showcased are male’s attempts at wooing the women in hopes of gaining power and ultimately the throne. Still, director Josie Rourke (a woman) keeps the power firmly among the women showing they can be as tough as they are sympathetic.

Furthermore, Mary Queen of Scots continues its progressive agenda with a startling LGBT sub-plot, which largely enriches the image of Mary. One young androgynous male friend, presumably a bodyguard, frolics with Mary and other maids and confesses that he feels more like a sister than a brother to her. She accepts him wholeheartedly with an added message of “being your true nature”. Later, the character suffers a terrible fate which devastates Mary. Regardless of the accuracy, what a nice addition to include with an inspiring message.

The acting, particularly among leads Ronan and Robbie is fantastic. Both young “it” women in Hollywood, the roles of Mary and Elizabeth showcase their acting talents and chops for handling period piece roles. Ronan, with flawless pale skin and authentic red locks is beyond believable as Mary exuding strength yet kindness in the role she tackles. She can be stubborn, but also fun and light and Ronan has no trouble making the role her own.

Robbie, hot on the heels of playing the trailer trash character of Tonya Harding in I, Tonya (2017) hits it out of the park and does a one eighty with the role of Elizabeth. Insecure and barren, afflicted with a skin disorder and a balding head of hair, the actress infuses the character with sensitivity and composure. As she wears bawdy wigs and pancake makeup to hide her affliction, Robbie portrays her insecurity and yearning for unconditional love.

A mistake that Rourke makes is not including more scenes of Ronan and Robbie together save for one treasured scene at the very end of the film. This makes for wasted opportunity as the treasured actresses could have played off of each other’s talents in innumerable ways. A knock-down, drag out fight scene would have been a treasure to view.

The male characters do not leave much impact other than perhaps Lord Darnley (Jack Lowden), Mary’s bisexual second husband. As he betrays her on her wedding night with another man, Mary sees little use for him other than to produce a child. The handsome blonde actor adds some pizzazz but is ultimately unlikable as are the other similarly written men. Mary’s half-brother and Elizabeth’s advisor (Guy Pearce) are fine, but ultimately underdeveloped.

Mary Queen of Scots (2018) is an effort to be commended for the female driven and pro-LGBT stances it features. Perhaps unrealistic given the time-period and questions of historical accuracy looming over the entire film, problems with the production do exist. The film ebbs and flows will some high moments and some looming blandness, but overall is to be respected and thereby recommended.

Vice-2018

Vice-2018

Director-Adam McKay

Starring-Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Steve Carell

Scott’s Review #849

Reviewed December 31, 2018

Grade: A

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mary Poppins Returns-2018

Mary Poppins Returns-2018

Director-Rob Marshall

Starring-Emily Blunt, Lin-Manuel Miranda

Scott’s Review #848

Reviewed December 29, 2018

Grade: A-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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