Tag Archives: 2019 Movie reviews

Richard Jewell-2019

Richard Jewell-2019

Director-Clint Eastwood

Starring-Paul Walter Hauser, Sam Rockwell, Kathy Bates

Scott’s Review #1,035

Reviewed June 19, 2020

Grade: B

With most Clint Eastwood films, especially in the latter part of his career, one should expect a mainstream story with a conservative edge. The man has lost his touch with age, unlike greats like Martin Scorsese. This may not always make for the most cutting-edge cinematic experience, but the results can still be compelling. Richard Jewell (2019) was not on my radar but for the last minute, surprising Oscar nomination for Kathy Bates. I am still smarting that she presumably took the last spot over the snubbed Jennifer Lopez (Hustlers-2019). But I digress.

As anticipated, the project has a predictable edge and a safe feel, Eastwood clearly sending a nasty note to the media and to the FBI shaming them for their corruption and ineptness. The biography, centering around the Centennial Olympic Park bombing and its aftermath during the 1996 Summer Olympic Games in Atlanta, Georgia, tells the story in a nicely paced way but feels light, pulling too much of a right-wing slant. Lead actor Paul Walter Hauser is the best part of the film, providing empathy and heroism to his character, the one and only Richard Jewell.

Our title character is an overweight, average-looking man who lives with his mother in a modest apartment in Georgia. He works as a supply clerk in a small law firm where he meets arrogant attorney Watson Bryant (Rockwell). They bond over video games and become fast friends. The time is 1986. Jewell, aspiring to become a police officer, lands a job as a security guard at Piedmont College, where he is subsequently fired for overstepping his grounds. Finally, he begins a job running security for a concert series near the Olympic games. He has a keen eye for law enforcement and is passionate about doing his job well.

Hauser, who had supporting roles in I, Tonya (2017) and in BlacKkKlansman (2018), has reached his breakout role.  Hauser makes the character likable and loyal. Law and order are his passions and he eat, sleeps, and breathes the life. The actor makes the audience know that Richard is not dumb. He is highly intelligent but has not been handed an easy life. The relationship with his mother is touching and he genuinely wants to protect those who he serves.

As far as the supporting roles go, Rockwell is fantastic as Watson, who ultimately defends Richard against the FBI. With wit, sarcasm, and outrage, his passion comes across on screen as a gruff but loyal friend. Other big-name stars are not as lucky with their roles. Jon Hamm plays FBI Agent Tom Shaw, a made-up character who wants to railroad Richard at all costs. He tricks Richard into stating a confession that he records. Olivia Wilde is Kathy Scruggs, an unpleasant journalist who will trade sex for stories. The character is unlikable, and rumors abound that the writing is sharply embellished. Both Hamm and Wilde suffer from one-note characters.

Let’s discuss Kathy Bates’s performance. Bates is a legendary actress and well-regarded. In film, her best role is of the maniacal Annie Wilkes in Misery (1990). Throughout recent years she has brightened the small screen with daring and unique roles on American Horror Story. Her role as the sympathetic and kindly Bobi Jewell is not one of her best. There is nothing wrong with her performance, but the character never has a big memorable scene.

Unclear is the historical accuracy of the story and my hunch is that liberties could offer good drama. Inexplicable is the omission of anything related to the real bomber, who is never mentioned. What were his motivations? Whatever happened to him? Viewers can do their own research, but a real miss is to not include this. The story only centers around Richard’s accusers and attempted railroading simply because he fits the profile of a bomber. The film could have gone further.

Also, viewers are left with no knowledge that Richard traditionally put a rose on one of the bombing victims grave or other niceties that could have been included. Why did Eastwood need to hammer home the point that Richard was fretting about the perception that he may have been gay? True or false the point feels like a homophobic tidbit thrown in to appeal to a likely redneck audience.

Richard Jewell (2019) will not appear on Eastwood’s “greatest hits” of top films or even top 10 lists. Mystic River (2003) and Million Dollar Baby (2004) would get my votes for “best of”. The film is only a slightly above average biography of a falsely accused man eventually gaining justice. The spin is a politically conservative one of a main character portrayed as a hero meeting unfortunate circumstances.

Oscar Nominations: Best Supporting Actress-Kathy Bates

Harriet-2019

Harriet-2019

Director-Kasi Lemmons

Starring-Cynthia Erivo

Scott’s Review #1,031

Reviewed June 10, 2020

Grade: B

The story of real-life American freedom fighter, Harriet Tubman, a woman who risked her life multiple times to rescue slaves from the United States of America South, pre-civil war, is a story of monumental importance to get right. An escaped slave herself, Harriet was more than an Abolitionist, she was a political activist and hero to all whose lives she touched. She was a figure that all women and men should aspire to emulate with her message of freedom and civility.

The cinematic telling of Harriet’s story, simply titled Harriet (2019), is a mild success, mostly deserving of praise for being told at all.  At well over one-hundred and fifty years post-civil war, racism still runs rampant across the United States, so the release of the film is important. A gutsy performance by Cynthia Erivo, a British singer turned actor, is the high point but unfortunately, the rest of the offering is lackluster, frighteningly modern in look and feel, with clear heroes and clear villains and nobody with muddied motivations to be found anywhere.

We first meet young Harriet (Erivo), then named “Minty” Ross, in 1840’s Maryland, then a slave state. She is to be married to her intended, John Tubman (Zackary Momoh), already a free man. Minty’s father, also free, asks her owner to release her as his grandfather had promised before his demise. Refusing, his son, Gideon (Joe Alwyn) decides to sell Minty as punishment. Savvy, Minty flees for the northern states and settles in Philadelphia, a newly free woman with her life ahead of her. She risks capture and death to return to Maryland, in disguise, to rescue her family from the horrors of slavery.

Her plight was so important and so heroic that I really wanted to love this film. To be fair, it is okay, but does not do justice to the real-life Harriet, or succeed as a cinematic offering. The weakest point is the modern look that the film and the actors possess, and I think this was done intentionally. Every single actor, black and white, looks like a present day’s actor dressed in mid-nineteenth century garb and it does not work. My hunch is that film makers wanted this to add relevancy to the current racial problems and I am all for that, but the film suffers as a result.

I am all for feminism in cinema, but Harriet can be accurately accused of stomping that point into the ground. During some of the numerous action sequences when Harriet becomes a flawless sharpshooter, she nearly rivals a Marvel superhero instead of a simple woman championing a cause. And why is Harriet psychic? This is a silly addition that feels plot driven. Director Kasi Lemmons, known for films like Eve’s Bayou (1997) and Black Nativity (2013) knows her way around a picture, but Harriet will not be known as her finest achievement.

There are some positives to mention. Erivo, not known for her acting as much as her singing ability, rises to the occasion. Viola Davis nearly ended up being cast, who would have been brilliant, but Erivo nonetheless impresses. She is pretty, yet plain which humanizes Harriet and makes her relatable to many. Erivo provides both toughness and sympathy so that the audience will champion her cause without it feeling forced. Early in the year, thought to be a lock for the Best Actress Oscar, the film lost ground critically, and Erivo limped to an Oscar nod, and she was lucky to get that. She lost.

The cinematography is credible and another positive to the film. The green, lush landscapes are very southern and peaceful, roaring rapids, bridges, and spacious forests making for atmospheric niceties serving as backdrops for many sequences. Casting Janelle Monae as the gorgeous (and free) Marie Buchanan is fine and adds a Color Purple (1985) comparison-think Celie/Shug Avery. Ironically, the acting among the black actors is superior to the mostly over-the-top or cartoon-like white actors.

Best described as a formulaic Hollywood film with a good message, Harriet (2019) could be a launching pad for Erivos, a new name in Hollywood film. She tackles a difficult role and is the best thing about the production. The sleekness and modernism make the resulting experience less than the grittiness that a film like Harriet needs. Much better biographies of legendary figures exist, a shame since Harriet Tubman is one of the most prominent to have their stories told on the big screen.

Oscar Nominations: Best Actress-Cynthia Erivos, Best Original Song-“Stand Up”

Doctor Sleep-2019

Doctor Sleep-2019

Director-Mike Flanagan

Starring-Ewan McGregor, Rebecca Ferguson

Scott’s Review #1,026

Reviewed May 22, 2020

Grade: B

Based on the 2013 novel of the same name written by Stephen King, a sequel to his own 1977 novel The Shining, Doctor Sleep (2019) is also a direct sequel to the film adaptation of The Shining (1980). Events are set several decades after the events of the original and combines elements of the 1977 novel as well. A fun-fact is that King hated the film version of The Shining but approved of the script for Doctor Sleep.

The first and last part of the film are superior to the rest, succeeding mostly when elements of The Shining are incorporated. The rest meanders and teeters too much into supernatural and computer- generated imagery territory, taking away from the haunting ghost story elements that made the original The Shining such a frightening treasure.

Ewan McGregor plays Danny Torrance, the little kid scarred from the trauma he suffered when his father Jack went mad at the looming Overlook hotel decades earlier. Danny, now a grown man and a suffering alcoholic, lives a life that is out of control, suppressing his “shining” gifts that allow him to possess psychic abilities. Hitting rock bottom, Dan moves to a tiny town in New Hampshire and befriends Billy Freeman (Cliff Curtis) who sponsors him in AA. Dan is regularly visited by the spirit of Dick Hallorann, the deceased chef from the hotel who teaches Dan how to contain his demons.

Meanwhile, the True Knot, a cult of psychic vampires led by Rose the Hat (Rebecca Ferguson), extend their lifespans by consuming “steam”, a psychic essence released as they torture and kill those who have the shining. They mostly feed on young children and pursue Abra Stone (Kyliegh Curran), a young girl whose shining is even more powerful than Dan’s. She communicates telepathically with him and form a pact to destroy Rose and her cronies.

Let’s take the good with the bad. The film gets off to a very good start with the recreation of scenes from The Shining, when Danny rides his big wheel throughout the winding 1970’s style hallways of The Overlook and gazes at the forbidden Room 237. The synth musical score that made The Shining atmospheric and unforgettable are also included as the bass infused heartbeat is showcased amid overhead camera angles, a clear ode to The Shining.

The finale of Doctor Sleep comes full circle as Dan and Abra travel from New Hampshire to snowy Colorado and revisit the Overlook, now tattered and ill-forgotten from decades of abandonment. The showdown between Dan, Abra, and Rose treats fans to clips of Jack Nicholson and Shelly DuVall. Visits from familiar characters and sets like the ghostly bartender, the conjoined twins, the wrinkled old naked woman, the gushing elevator blood, and the hedge maze make their returns providing a lovely feeling of nostalgia.

Unfortunately, betwixt the first thirty minutes and final thirty minutes sits another ninety minutes of screen time that doesn’t always work. For starters, a running time of two hours and thirty-two minutes feels too long for a horror film and the filler lying in between is that much more obvious. The action meanders especially given the anticipated final battle which is inevitable.

Taking nothing away from either Ferguson or Curran, who are fine in their respective roles of Rose and Abra, neither are they the most interesting aspects of Doctor Sleep either. They are new characters in the novel and therefore the film but are secondary to Dan and his intricate relationships with Jack, Wendy, and Dick. The only story parts that were interesting to me were the connections and thoughts that Dan had to experiences forty years earlier.

The battle scenes between Rose, Abra, and other characters do nothing for the story and take the film too far in the direction of the supernatural and slick technological aspects that The Shining didn’t need. Since Doctor Sleep was made based on successful recent King adaptations of It Chapter Two (2019) and Pet Sematary (2019) perhaps this is the reason for the modern add-ons.

If Doctor Sleep (2019) could be sliced and diced to eliminate the guts and keep the bookends of the beginning and finale the result would have paid proper homage to The Shining (1980), instead we get only halfway there. The film has some nice elements and stays true to its history but contains a few unnecessary tidbits to make it not great. And how can a film ever compare to the greatness of The Shining (1980)?

The Last Black Man in San Francisco-2019

The Last Black Man in San Francisco-2019

Director-Joe Talbot

Starring-Jimmie Fails, Jonathan Majors

Scott’s Review #1,018

Reviewed May 1, 2020

Grade: A

The brilliance of The Last Black Man in San Francisco (2019) is multi-fold. The immediate call-out is that the work is the creation of up-and-coming director, Joe Talbot, an artist with a great eye for both the visual and humanistic aspects of cinema. Whomever influenced this young man deserves props for he has a great future ahead of him. Being this is his film debut and he also co-wrote it, the future is bright indeed. The film is loosely based on the life of his childhood best friend, Jimmie Fails, who also stars.

A24 is arguably the new “it” film studio for independent entertainment offerings and this is to be celebrated. Indie films provide creative artists with the means and the time to develop their product and tell stories that are fraught with meaning and in many cases dare to go where other films have not ventured to at risk of turning a mainstream audience off. This is to be celebrated and championed and has resulted in many great and unique films. Hereditary (2018), Midsommar (2019), and The Lighthouse (2019) immediately spring to mind.

The Last Black Man in San Francisco gets off to an interesting start as two young black men, Jimmie (Fails) and Mont (Jonathan Majors) wait for the bus as men clad in protective gear appear to clean polluted waters. The implication is clear that residents are not protected while the men are. Protesters chant while images of the changes San Francisco has experienced over the years are shown. The two then skateboard to a Victorian house in the city’s Fillmore District that Jimmie grew up in and says was built by his grandfather in 1946. Their skateboard trip is cerebral and surrealistic and ten glorious cinematic moments.

Evident is that Talbot is channeling either an autobiographic story or one of a friend- it proves to be the latter. Unclear is if Mont is supposed to be Talbot, but my guess would be in the affirmative. Jimmie and Mont are inseparable, residing both at Mont’s grandfather’s house (played by a startlingly elderly Danny Glover) and the house that Jimmie’s grandfather built. The friends trudge along their daily life by enduring insults hurled at them by a neighborhood gang and fixing up the Victorian house whose owners neglect it and are subsequently are evicted.

Jimmie and Mont are fantastically nuanced, rich characters, each for different reasons. Jimmie is pained that his city has forgotten his grandfather and his legacy, cast aside for progress and wealth. His father (Rob Morgan) is angry, his mother, a recovering drug addict is barely in his life, as they run into each other by chance on the city bus. Jimmie’s Aunt (Tichina Arnold) resides outside the city and serves as his confidante.

Mont is a creative, yearning to write a play based on the local gang, but struggles to create the words or authentically express his voice. He works in a fish shop and frequently acts out his thoughts of others down by the water. Considered odd, he is a good guy and loyal to his grandfather. Since a female love interest is never mentioned (another high point of the film) neither Jimmie’s nor Mont’s sexuality is ever discussed, nor is a potential relationship between the two ever mentioned. The ambiguity works amazingly well and conjures up comparisons to the groundbreaking Moonlight (2016).

When a sudden death erupts the proceedings, Mont finally finds his voice and composes an improvised stage play which he stars in as a dedication for the fallen victim. He elicits responses from the people in attendance (including all principal cast members) as a shocking secret erupts resulting in disarray. This takes the already layered film into a new direction as all Jimmie thought to be true is suddenly shattered.

In a word, the film feels fresh, both visually and from a story perspective. Fails and Majors are top young talent with bright futures who add a patient climb with their characters amid a film that paces slowly but steadily, letting the events marinate to a frenzy in a thought-provoking way.

I eagerly await the next project by the talented Talbot. In a film industry hungry for new ideas, the creator of The Last Black Man in San Francisco (2019) offers a journey into the minds of two black men written not as stereotypes, but as interesting and intelligent individuals sadly not looking forward but looking backwards. The film provides characters who are not standard but are so much more than that.

Independent Spirit Award Nominations: Best First Feature, Best Supporting Male-Jonathan Majors

Annabelle Comes Home-2019

Annabelle Comes Home-2019

Director-Gary Dauberman

Starring-Mckenna Grace, Patrick Wilson, Vera Farmiga

Scott’s Review #1,008

Reviewed April 7, 2020

Grade: B

Annabelle Comes Home (2019) was made as a sequel to 2014’s Annabelle and 2017’s Annabelle: Creation, and as the seventh installment in the Conjuring Universe franchise overall. Lest we forget the uninspiring The Nun (2018) it is not necessary to view the films in sequence and with this version, it can serve as a stand-alone film just fine. At this point in the series it is getting tough to connect all the dots in previous offerings. The film is a fun, scary-light experience, which works well.

Borrowing the babysitting theme from the 1978 horror masterpiece Halloween, the film is neither dull nor formulaic either, providing some visual creativity to an otherwise B movie experience. Franchise fan favorites Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga return to their popular roles, but only in the beginning and end of the film, letting the younger set take center stage as they bear the brunt of angry demons.

Presumed to take place sometime after Annabelle but before Annabelle: Creation, demonologists Ed (Wilson) and Lorraine Warren (Farmiga) are determined to stop the frightening Annabelle from wreaking further havoc and drag the possessed doll to the safety of their locked artifacts room, placing her behind sacred glass and enlisting a priest’s holy blessing. After a curious teenage girl snoops, Annabelle is reawakened angrier than usual and unleashes a torrent of evil spirits into the Warren house. Ten-year old daughter, Judy (Mckenna Grace), must be savvy and outsmart the dangerous demons before it’s too late.

Annabelle herself, the doll statuesque and holding a grotesque smirk on its made-up face and possessing bright blue/green eyes, has quietly become a fixture within the horror community, now easily recognizable to mainstream audiences everywhere. That Annabelle does not speak or walk, but only stares, unless possessed by a spirit, is a big part of the fun and the scares. She tends to appear rather than move around which is part of her appeal. And the pretty red ribbons in her hair are a bonus.

The 1970’s time-period is fabulous as the set and art design teams deserve major props for authenticity. The Warren’s house, for example, is a wonderful showcase for the yellow and brown trimmings prevalent in any middle to upper-middle class residence during this decade. The flowered wallpaper enshrouding the downstairs hallway and the pink frosted birthday cake are delightful additions. The standard feathered hairstyles and plaid patterned clothes are standard trademarks and always a hoot.

From a fright perspective, the film provides a perfect balance of buildup and edge of your seat thrills. The best example of this is when nosy Daniela (Katie Sarife), already curious of the Warrens, breaks into the artifacts room determined to talk to the dead. Her motivations are believable since her father recently died in a car accident, and she is a fan favorite. Chaos ensues as she unleashes such evil forces as the Black Shuck, the Ferryman, and the Bride.

The film tries a bit too hard to appeal to a tween or teenage audience with a silly romance between main girl, Mary Ellen (Madison Iseman), the perfect virginal babysitter, and high school crush, Bob (Michael Cimino). He even serenades her after an idea by the pizza delivery man and conveniently lives across the street. This portion of the story is unnecessary and feels like filler, Mary Ellen being responsible enough not to let a boy in the house she is looking after.

Annabelle Comes Home (2019) is a fine horror effort, intelligently traversing both supernatural and classic horror sub-genres with ease and perfect balance. Staying true to its franchise roots and incorporating groovy production and musical score elements representing the decade it celebrates, the film holds up well in a myriad of similar films that rely on gimmicks and cheap thrills more than this one does.

Countdown-2019

Countdown-2019

Director-Justin Dec

Starring-Elizabeth Lail, Jordan Calloway

Scott’s Review #999

Reviewed March 12, 2020

Grade: B

Countdown (2019) is a modern horror film that accomplishes what it intends to do- it entertains the audience. With jumps, frights, and some comedic elements, it borrows heavily from the Final Destination (2000-2011) and Happy Death Day (2017-2019) franchises. The film does not reinvent the wheel, steering the course in a conventional way. The superstitious elements become hokey and unbelievable, but the film has enough momentum to offer a solid product, especially pleasing to genre fans.

When a young nurse (Elizabeth Lail) downloads an app that claims to predict exactly when a person is going to die, it tells her she only has three days to live. With time ticking away and death closing in, she must find a way to save her life before time runs out. She struggles to figure out how to delete the app while putting together the pieces of the puzzle to figure out how to break a curse and ruin a threatening demonic spirit. Her sister is also threatened.

Director, Justin Dec, a newcomer to cinema, does not waste any time beginning the action, as events debut at a college keg party. A group of revelers decide to play a drinking game after downloading the new Countdown app which is supposed to determine how long you have left to live. Thinking the app is a joke, unlucky Courtney (Anne Winters) is startled to see that she has only three hours to live. After refusing to drive home with her drunken boyfriend, Ethan, she is murdered at home by an evil spirit, while Ethan crashes his car, a tree spearing through the seat that Courtney would have been sitting in.

With this sequence the audience is hooked as the pacing is well maintained. With the app clock ticking down dangerously towards zero, a theme heavily promoted throughout the film, we can’t wait to see how or if Courtney is killed. Red herrings, like a man following her or a shower curtain that moves, are presented for good suspense. Assumed to be the “main girl”, Courtney’s death is surprising, and the main title then appears, fooling the audience. There is more to come.

Carrying a horror film is not easy, but actor Lail rises to the occasion. Resembling a young Christina Applegate, Quinn is strong and independent. Many of the scenes take place at the hospital she works at, though she also makes time to see her father and sister. Quinn’s mother has recently died, and Quinn blames herself. She connects with Matt (Jordan Calloway), who lost his brother after stealing his toy. Quinn is a character that viewers can admire and emulate.

Countdown deserves credit for adding a plethora of diversity. Matt is black, making his romance with Quinn interracial. Several Asian, Latino, or Black characters can be seen in many scenes, showcasing a hefty dose of multi-culturalism. Unfortunately, and surprisingly, no LGBTQ characters are featured. Comic relief store owner, Derek (Tom Segura) would have been the perfect character to make gay, but this was not to be.

To build on this, a timely and progressive Me-Too side-story is added, when a well-respected doctor at the hospital comes on to Quinn. He reports the incident to Human Resources when she rebuffs his advances. She is suspended, without an investigation, until other women come forward throughout the film. While this would be an important message in another type of film, the relevance does not work, or fit the rest of the story.

The ninety minutes running time is a splendid approach, so the film never drags or dulls. The final twenty minutes or so is a letdown as Quinn and a priest realize that to break the curse one must trick it by someone else dying out of sequence. This is all too like Final Destination, but not as good, as Quinn ends up fighting with the spirit, killing herself with an overdose of morphine, while drawing a circle on her arm where she can subsequently be revived by a syringe with Naloxone.

For a new director eager to break into the horror genre, Justin Dec borrows heavily from previous films and presents a copycat story that is paced perfectly. It provides enough interest and good casting to warrant a follow-up. Due to low box-office returns I doubt Countdown (2019) will become a mainstay franchise, but Dec may have a good future ahead of himself.

Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark-2019

Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark-2019

Director-Andre Ovredal

Starring-Zoe Margaret Colletti, Michael Garza

Scott’s Review #997

Reviewed March 10, 2020

Grade: C+

Admittedly not having read the series of books that Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark (2019) is based upon, nor not knowing the books even existed may have influenced me, but the film is lackluster at best, serving up some creative moments, but more silly ones. The film is too polished, uneven, and feels too alike to modern projects like It (2017) or the television series Stranger Things to have its own individuality. A few interesting moments or sequences exist, but not enough to recommend.

The creepy children’s books written by Alvin Schwartz are adapted into film form as the time-period of 1968 Halloween is brought to life. The small town of Mill Valley, Pennsylvania, is the backdrop for the historic Bellows family mansion that has loomed over the town for decades and holds a haunted mystery. Sarah, a young girl with horrible secrets, has turned her tortured life into a series of scary stories, written in a book that has transcended time. After a group of impressionable teenagers discover Sarah’s terrifying home, they undercover her stories, and they become all too real.

The visual effects and images are the high point of the film. There exist several visceral and stylistic sequences which deserve admiration, and mention. When one of the panicked teenagers’ scrambles into a mental institution, he is met with a horrific, blood-red glowing image that surrounds him. As he attempts to escape, a ghastly, bloated figure slowly approaches him from all sides. Later, a freakish person known as The Jangly Man, able to reconstruct itself from separate body parts, pursues one of the teens. These scenes are credible and inventive. The look of the film is its only real success.

The late 1960’s time-period both works and doesn’t work. Getting off to a splendid start, the theme song performed by Donovan, “Season of the Witch”, also incorporated over the closing credits, is a positive and provides a nice mystique. Since the date is supposed to be Halloween, this is fitting, though too few other seasonal reminders ever exist so that the viewer soon forgets it is Halloween at all.  Attempts at making the characters look the part are feeble and result in modern actors clad in 1960’s wear, reducing the authenticity. Mentions of the Vietnam War, while politically left-leaning, are only added for story purposes, feeling staged.

Once and for all, a note to film makers- making a character wear glasses to appear intelligent is a gimmick done to death and does not work anymore! Actor Zoe Margaret Colletti is fine in the central role of Stella, and does her best delivering the material she is given, but the realism is not there, giving the performance an overwrought quality. The character feels more like a Nancy Drew type than anything deeper.

Viewers are supposed to believe the convoluted story that Sarah was abused and now resides, as an older woman, in a secret room and scripts a book of horror stories that come to life and wreak havoc on those that enter the haunted house. Stella manages to channel Sarah, as an adult, and convinces her to stop writing and cease the terror with a weak female empowerment message. Events are so far-fetched and story-line dictated that it eliminates any character development from the film.

Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark (2019) has difficulty deciding which target audience to focus on. Is it young-adults or an older audience seeking a Halloween themed scare? The story is way too complex and confusing for either audience, or anyone else. The visual effects are fantastic, especially the stylistic red and black end credits, but the overall context suffers from lack of continuity and becomes a forgettable experience.

The Two Popes-2019

The Two Popes-2019

Director-Fernando Meirelles

Starring-Jonathan Pryce, Anthony Hopkins

Scott’s Review #994

Reviewed February 27, 2020

Grade: B+

The Two Popes (2019) is a biographical drama focusing on two real-life religious figures and the close friendship they forge while sharing different ideals and viewpoints. The two men hold the highest religious office and a deep respect culminates over time while past secrets are uncovered. The film carefully balances past and present but offers too few meaty scenes between the legendary actors for my taste. Otherwise, a thought provoking and historical effort, with brilliant sequences of Italy and Argentina.

The film begins in April of 2005 during a pivotal moment in history, following the death of Pope John Paul II. The world is abuzz with the naming of new German Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (Anthony Hopkins), elected Pope Benedict XVI, while Bergoglio (Jonathan Pryce), from Argentina, receives the second-highest vote count. Ratzinger has a stiff and more traditional approach to Christianity while Bergoglio is more modern thinking and open to new ideas.

Seven years later, the Catholic Church is embroiled in the Vatican leaks scandal, which tarnishes the very concept of religion. Benedict’s tenure has been tainted by public accusations regarding his role in the cover-up, which shocks the world. Meanwhile, Bergoglio intends to retire and arrives in Rome to receive Benedict’s blessing. This is the point where the men slowly come to terms with each other and reach a mutual respect and admiration.

The Two Popes is worth the price of admission for the acting alone. With heavyweights such as Hopkins and Pryce, one can rest easy in this regard and simply enjoy the experience. The scenes between the two actors are wonderful and fraught with energy. As the religious figures confide in one another and secrets brim to the surface, the actors are believable as the real-life figures. Even good, old-fashioned small talk is fascinating to watch.

While the present-day sequences enthrall, the flashbacks of Bergoglio as a younger man and his journey into the church are explored a bit too much sometimes halting the flow. He was once engaged to be married, but instead joined the Jesuits. He was marred in scandal when the perception was that he had collaborated with the Argentine military dictatorship, exiled to serve as an ordinary parish priest to the poor for the next ten years. The balance between timelines is okay, but the flashbacks become too prevalent as the film moves along.

Director, Fernando Meirelles, seems more comfortable shooting scenes within Argentina since those are directed best using black and white filming to showcase both the ravages of a chaotic nation and the decades preceding the present. Best known for the wonderful City of God (2003), he also intersperses real-life news sequences featuring the peril of the Argentinian people. The two time-periods do not always flow naturally together, though.

A huge positive is the inclusion of the child abuse scandal that rocked the religious world and the brave decision that Meirelles made to focus on the revelation that Benedict knew about the accusations and dismissed them, clearly aiding in their continuation. Both Popes deal with the struggle between tradition and progress, guilt and forgiveness, and confronting one’s pasts making it a character study.

The exterior and surrounding sequences are an absolute treat. Having visited Rome and particularly Vatican City makes the showcase of the Sistine Chapel wonderful to view on a personal level. The chapel in the Apostolic Palace, the official residence of the pope, is both astounding with the lovely religious art, and the backdrop for many scenes between Benedict and the future Pope Francis (Bergoglio).

Any viewer fond of world history or religious history will enjoy The Two Popes (2019). With great acting, secrets revealed, conflict, and loyalty, the film is crafted well. Some momentum is lost in the story back and forth, and the film is hardly one that warrants repeated viewings or study in film school, but it provides a realistic look at modern religion with all its arguments and discussions to delve into.

The Lighthouse-2019

The Lighthouse-2019

Director-Robert Eggers

Starring-Robert Pattinson, Willem Dafoe

Scott’s Review #987

Reviewed February 5, 2020

Grade: A-

The Lighthouse (2019) is the sophomore effort by acclaimed and novice horror director, Robert Eggers. His first, The Witch (2015) garnered praise and independent film award nominations, and his latest offering has also received many accolades across the board. This time around, he wisely secures top-notch talent casting the incredible Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson to star.

The result is a well-acted, gorgeously photographed film, that is odd beyond belief, requiring a second viewing to even attempt some understanding. The atmosphere of this film will draw some viewers in and push away others. It is that type of film experience.

Shot in startlingly good black and white, the time is the 1890’s, set somewhere off New England. The film stars Dafoe and Pattinson as two lighthouse keepers who start to lose their sanity when a storm strands them on the remote island where they are stationed. They spar, love, and play games, while imaginations run wild with bizarre images of mermaids, death, and claustrophobic storm conditions. Frequent hallucinations render the plot unclear of what is fantasy and what is reality.

The technical aspects of The Lighthouse are superior to the story elements. The gorgeous camera work, looking like either a modern film or a film from the 1940’s is superior. Almost never is a film made like this, and the black and white filming provides a cold and bleak atmosphere. The prevalent wind and driving rain buttress with flying objects and mud to create a looming and foreboding danger. The viewer can tell that sinister events are on the horizon, perfectly encrusting the increasingly dangerous storm.

The story is tough to figure out with the exception that one or both men are losing their minds. Winslow (Pattinson) is the newbie, sent to assist the elder lighthouse keeper, the elderly and cranky Thomas Wake (Dafoe). Wake forbids Winslow to ever set foot in the lantern room, insisting that task is his job alone. This piques the interest of the young man especially when Winslow observes Wake going up to the room at night and stripping naked. Winslow begins experiencing visions and dreams of tentacles in the lighthouse, tree stumps floating in the water, and distant images of a mermaid.

Peculiar scenes exist that make The Lighthouse both memorable and tough to figure out. The presence of seagulls makes the film authentically beach-like with the cawing and flying around. Their existence soon becomes an ode to Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963) as a one-eyed gull begins to stalk Winslow. Told it is bad luck to ever kill a gull since they harbor the souls of sailors, Winslow finally kills the attacking one-eyed gull in a fit of rage during one of the film’s most brutal scenes. Wake seethes with rage.

The film is homoerotic in many scenes, none more so than the lovely scene when the two men begin to dance and sway to music. About to kiss, reality strikes, and the two drunk men come to blows. The scene reminds me of an important one in the groundbreaking LGBT masterpiece Brokeback Mountain (2005). The combustible pent up masculine tension explodes, and we wonder if in another time the men lovers might be. This aspect is cerebral, filling The Lighthouse with psychological mystique.

A common element is the two men’s distrust of one another. Trapped by the bad storm they frequently drink themselves into oblivion- what else is there to do? They sit and stare at each other, sometimes filled with rage, sometimes suspiciously. In a scene both jaw-dropping and hilarious, Winslow forces Wake into a collar and leash and leads him on his hands and knees into a muddy grave. Unsure if the scene is fantasy or reality, it could almost be taken from a gay leather porn film.

Eggers has a bright future ahead of him and I am eager to see his next project. I am not averse to odd or even nonsensical films if the intent is good, but I would recommend a more straight-forward approach next time to see what he comes up with. The Lighthouse (2019) successfully offers a creepy and bizarre tale of men losing their sanity in a dream-like and creative way that will assuredly divide audiences.

Oscar Nominated Animated Short Films-2019

Oscar Nominated Animated Short Films-2019

Directors-Daria Kashcheeva, Matthew A. Cherry, Karen Ruper Toliver, Rosana Sullivan, Kathryn Hendrickson, Bruno Collet, Jean-Francois Le Corre, Siqi Song

Scott’s Review #986

Reviewed February 4, 2020

Grade: A-

Having the honor of being able to view the five short films nominated for the 2019 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 relationships, and not necessarily between human beings, as one of them features a darling relationship between cat and dog. Below is a review of each of the shorts.

Memorable-2019 (France)

This offering is the most visually enticing of the five nominees. In the story, a French painter slowly falls prey to the ravages of dementia, while his wife suffers alongside him as his memory disintegrates. He sinks into a world of impressionistic shapes, vivid with gorgeous color. The film is both beautiful and heartbreaking, and not an easy watch. The swirling colors and fragmented shapes provide a lush and melancholy feel. The viewer will likely envelope the only two characters to appear (husband and wife) and relate to each of them and the misery and confusion they experience with assurance of what the result will be.  Grade: A

Sister-2019 (China)

Sister is a touching tribute to a person who does not even exist. A man thinks back to his childhood memories of growing up with an annoying little sister in China in the 1990’s. What would his life have been like if things had gone differently? Would the siblings annoy each other or be the best of friends? With political overtones, the piece describes the inhumane law that Chinese parents could only have one child, the mother forced to abort an impending birth. Traditional Chinese colors of red and black are used, and the imaginary sister is cute and energetic, a tragic realization of the terrible loss of potential life in a damaged nation. Grade: A-

Hair Love-2019 (USA)

Created by a team from the United States and strongly considered the front-runner, Hair Love feels the shortest of the bunch and is the most accessible of all the nominees, but hardly fluff either. A young black girl battles with her wild head of hair on a special day. After she unsuccessfully tries to create a gorgeous hairstyle by watching You tube videos, she desperately enlists the help of her kindly father. At first disastrous, they manage some success. The relationship is at first unclear. Is he a single dad? Is he her dad at all? Is he an older brother? The puzzle is quickly resolved with the revelation of the mother’s whereabouts in a tender and heartfelt ending. Grade: A

Kitbull-2019 (USA)

My personal favorite of the bunch, Kitbull starts off tough to watch. Any animal abuse in film makes my stomach turn and the beginning turned me off as I anticipated giving the piece a low rating. Instead, Kitbull results in a marvelous experience as a darling and compassionate story of the relationship between a kind cat and a suffering dog. The unlikely connection brought tears to my eyes as the cat, presumed to be an independent alley cat, comes to the rescue of the pit bull, presumed to be a made to dog fight. Any animal lover will watch this short with a mix of anger, empathy, and finally, joy. The sobering reality that so much animal abuse still exists in the world is both mind blowing and a cruel reality. Grade: A

Daughter-2019 (Czech Republic)

Daughter is a vague short film that is confusing to watch, but resilient and creative. The story consists of two characters- a father and daughter- both who seem to suffer from regret.  The father appears to be either sick and recovered, or to have died (unclear is if the story is told via flashbacks). The frequent pained expressions of both characters as they yearn to rewind the clock and treasure moments of the past, both of hardships and joy, are lessons that every viewer can appreciate and relate to. The misshapen ceramic figures and the facial movements, especially the blinking eyes, do much to elicit an emotional reaction from the audience. Grade: B+

Little Women-2019

Little Women-2019

Director-Greta Gerwig

Starring-Saoirse Ronan, Florence Pugh

Scott’s Review #982

Reviewed January 21, 2020

Grade: A-

Numerous creations of the illustrious 1860’s classic novel by Louisa May Alcott have been forged upon the silver screen, some good and some not as good. The consensus is that Little Women (2019) is one of the better offerings, if not the best. Director, Greta Gerwig crafts a clear feminist, progressive version of the trials and tribulations of the March family, led by spirited spit-fire, Jo (Saoirse Ronan). Gerwig’s telling is fantastic, breathing fresh life into a classic story.

The story fluctuates heavily between 1868 and 1861, during and after the United States Civil War. Liberal, the March’s reside in Massachusetts, led by matriarch Marmee (Laura Dern) mainly living life while their patriarch, Father March (Bob Odenkirk) is off at war. The rest of the household includes sisters Jo, Meg (Emily Watson), Amy (Florence Pugh), and the youngest daughter, Beth (Eliza Scanlen). The family endures joy, hardship, romance, love, and death as they carry on through the decade.

The focal point is Jo, a determined young lady, who moves to New York City, frequently reflecting on her life through back and forth sequences. She begins, an aspiring writer as she grows up, eventually becoming a success and boldly having her novel published. She resists the tried and true and questions why a woman must rely on a man for success rather than her own efforts and talents. During the story she is pursued by two young men, Laurie (Timothee Chalamet) and Friedrich (Louis Garrel).

Little Women is a fantastic and emotional story and a film that has no need for CGI, car chases, explosions, or any ingredients meant to enliven a film. It does not need them. The excitement is in the plot, as we thirst for more of the ups and downs that the March family faces. With any successful drama, there are nuanced characters, each taking a turn at story. While Jo is the headliner, Amy, Meg, and Beth are much more than opening acts. They each have their own lives, dreams, triumphs, and hardships, and the audience cares about each of them.

To capitalize on this point, the casting is dynamite. In a small, but brilliant role, Meryl Streep gives bombast to her character of Aunt March, the wealthy widow who owns a gorgeous house and vacations in Paris. She is cranky, but wise, only wanting the very best for her nieces, which is, of course, to marry rich! Ronan is well cast and charismatic as Jo, the actress losing her Irish accent for an American one. She uses her acting chops to infuse Jo with determination and just enough empathy to win over audiences.

Gerwig assures that the audience is reminded of the times and what it meant to be female during the 1860’s, with minimal chance at self-achievement, having to rely on a man for nearly everything. She in no way demeans or ridicules the male gender though. In fact, she paints no villains in her film, instead showing men as supportive at times, enamored at other times, but never exerting their power over women.

Little Women receives a small demerit in the pacing department. The film sharply plows back and forth, in too rapid a way, from period to period, at times leaving the viewer unclear as to what section in the film he or she is in. Blessedly, this ceases about midway through, but the technique is jarring and unnecessary. One wonders what the action was intended for and why not a more straightforward approach to the story telling was used.

A key facet of any outstanding film is the emotional reaction and Little Women had this viewer with tears streaming down his face. Sometimes for joy, sometimes for sadness, all in an organic way given oomph by a powerful musical score that resonates but never overwhelms. The film is one in which most of the elements come together in perfect harmony.

The film was served up six nominations, including Best Picture, Best Actress (Ronan), Best Supporting Actress (Pugh), and Best Adapted Screenplay. Sadly, and in a never-ending slight for female directors, Gerwig was overlooked. Prior to 2019’s Little Women, the novel was adapted six times for film, most successfully in 1933 and 1949. Seventy years later, the most modern version is arguably the best, with a left-leaning stance that is oh so necessary in modern times.

The Lion King-2019

The Lion King-2019

Director-Jon Favreau

Voices-Donald Glover, Alfre Woodard, Seth Rogan

Scott’s Review #981

Reviewed January 17, 2020

Grade: B

An impossible feat would have been to eclipse the magic of the stage version or the loveliness of the animated version, but The Lion King (2019) offers a different approach well. Arguably, animated in a way and in a way not, this version is heavily CGI (or in this case computer-generated animation-CGA) infused with marvelous visual effects and creativity. Partial to the two-former offering, this telling is lovely and perfect for the entire family. The realism of the animals and scenery is remarkable.

To recap new viewers, the story centers on a den of lions living among the creatures in the “Pride Lands of Africa”. They hunt, prance, love, and guard their territory, mostly from the hungry hyenas, who are kept at bay during peaceful times. King Mufasa (James Earl Jones) and Queen Sarabi (Alfre Woodard) are fair rulers and anticipate their son, Simba (Donald Glover), taking over the throne one day much to the chagrin of Mufasa’s evil brother, Scar (Chiwetal Ejiofor), who was passed over for the crown.

Envious of Simba, Scar tricks him and his friend Nala (Beyonce) into wandering in the land of the hyenas hoping to cause their deaths. When his plot is foiled by a heroic Mufasa, Scar ups the ante and hatches a scheme to kill his own brother. He not only succeeds, but makes Simba believe he caused his father’s death. Ashamed, the youngster runs away to begin a new life unaware that he will one day return to save the day.

Props must be given to the filmmakers for inclusion and cultural authenticity as many of the characters, especially those front and center, are voiced by African- American talent. This is high achievement since the film is set in Africa and why would the voices be Caucasian? Heavyweights like Jones and Woodard sound polished, especially Jones with his deep and dominant, yet fatherly voice, perfectly cast as the King. Woodard provides a gentle warmth and confident complexity.

The musical numbers are terrific. The film begins with an energetic and tribal rendition of “Circle of Life” where a legion of wild animals dance around together in a warm example of diversity. The song appears later in the film. The powerful and romantic “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” is performed against a lovely moonlight sky with decadent stars. The new song “Spirit” performed by Beyonce is adequate but does not figure into the story as much as it should, seeming more like an afterthought.

The best parts of The Lion King, however, are the astounding visuals. With contrasting sequences of bright, sprawling African terrain and a magical oasis of colorful flowers and running water, set against the dark and foreboding land of the dangerous hyenas, offers the viewer a multitude of treats to dine on. The orange and red colors during the climactic finale is unrivaled in dazzling bombast of adventure.

As realistic as the elements are in the film, they are also a negative. Watching the animals talk and prowl amid the lush landscape felt wonderful, until realizing that all of it is fake. Real animals were never used, and it is all a virtual reality tool making the effects look real. This aspect slightly saddens me as the genuine quality left me feeling robbed. The possibility of another alternative would have meant a reboot of the animated classic and I am not sure that would have been wise.

Favreau, once an actor and now a director, known for creating films such as Iron Man (2008) and Iron Man 2 (2010), certainly knows his way around an adventure film. The story, while containing some menacing moments, also feels a bit safe and lacking a freshness or edginess that the 1994 version possessed. Something seems watered down and the excitement and heart of the original feels missed.

I will always go back to the animated 1994 treasure for a cinematic feast, but while The Lion King (2019) could have been a disaster, it really isn’t. With modernized songs and enough CGA to last a lifetime, I could easily see some people hating the film, but I embraced it for what it is. Spectacular visual treats await any fan of cinema as one will ponder how the project all came together.

1917-2019

1917-2019

Director-Sam Mendes

Starring-George Mackay, Dean-Charles Chapman

Scott’s Review #979

Reviewed January 14, 2020

Grade: A

My personal tastes do not always lean towards the standard war film, so when I first heard about 1917 (2019) I was less than enthusiastic for no other reason than my own pre-conceived perceptions. Though peaked with the idea of a World War I film rather than the standard World War II or Vietnam War film, I anticipated a run of the mill experience, or a story that had already been told. Boldly told with incredible intensity and a brilliant technical style, director Sam Mendes creates a memorable cinematic treasure.

In April 1917, during the height of World War I, two British soldiers are tasked with a daring assignment, to hand deliver crucial news to the 2nd Battalion of the Devonshire Regiment, calling off their planned attack on the German forces. The Germans have faked a retreat to the Hindenburg Line and are ready to ambush the battalion, intending to kill sixteen-hundred soldiers. Schofield (George Mackay) and Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman), are chosen, Blake’s brother Joseph among the soldiers bound to meet their fate.

As they journey, the young men face a myriad of hurdles including booby traps left by the Germans, terrain littered with dead bodies of their comrades, a precarious helicopter crash, giant rats, and the rapidly approaching deadline to deliver their message. If they do not accomplish their mission in a timely fashion (twenty-four hours) the results will be devastating. Mendes keeps the tension high because he tells his film in real-time style.

1917 is raw and emotional and hits a hard punch. Powerful scenes of dead bodies riddle the land, fat and pale from days spent immersed in cold water, young soldiers once handsome, now dead and bloated, remind the viewer what a terrible thing war is, and the ravages caused. Unlike other war films, the patriotism and nationalist pride is not there. Rather, the soldiers are weary and angry, confused as to why they are sent to fight for land as ugly as where they are, to die for land that is not even their own. They are depressed and confused.

The relationship between Schofield and Blake is wonderful. Both men are weary and afraid but have each other’s backs throughout their assignment. It is not clear how long they have known each other, but they are at least acquaintances. They each come to the others rescue and a pivotal scene occurs in a dusty hideout where they nearly die after a cave-in. The characters have grit and determination, but a humanity and a connection with each other that resonates powerfully to the viewer.

A wonderful scene is produced as day turns into night, Schofield well into enemy territory. To avoid a pursuant German soldier, he hides in a dusty basement area and finds a cowering young French girl. At first fearful, the pair quickly bond, and a realization occurs to Schofield. The girl is accompanied by a newborn child.

Assumed to be hers, the soldier immediately parts with his stash of food, not realizing the baby can have only milk. A ghastly realization is that the baby is not the French girls at all but was instead found and rescued to prevent its death. The scene is tender and beautiful, perfectly contrasting the ugliness of the war. The wonderful scene gives the viewer pause wondering what will become of the girl and the baby.

Nearly rivaling this lovely scene, another poignant moment occurs when Schofield stumbles upon a group of soldiers watching another soldier perform a rendition of the melancholy war tune, “Wayfaring Stranger”. This moment slows the action down to a crawl with a dedication to loneliness and sadness amid the terrible battles.

The technical aspects that Mendes creates are spectacular and meant to be enjoyed on the largest screen possible. He uses a one-take approach which keeps the action fast and furious. The lavish and grandiose exterior scenes of immense dry land perfectly counterbalance a terrific watery scene when Schofield is chased into the river and soon embarks into wavy grand rapids. The camera remains on the soldier throughout the scene as the viewer is the one taken on the wild adventure, sweeping every morsel of up and down motion with the tide.

To piggy-back this point, a scene occurs when one of the young men is knocked unconscious. It is daylight, but when he regains consciousness it is night. The cinematography is brilliant with a sharp left turn to translucent colors and blurry images of buildings. The viewer is as disoriented as the soldier and fears what lurks in the shadows, as is found out when an unknown approaching figure begins to fire his gun.

1917 (2019) is a progressive leaning gem with an anti-war message and a genuine approach to a “day in the life of a soldier”. It is not glossy or contrived, but a candid realistic view of the savagery of war. With a creative technical style, it is one of the best of its genre ever made.

Bombshell-2019

Bombshell-2019

Director-Jay Roach

Starring-Charlize Theron, Margot Robbie, Nicole Kidman

Scott’s Review #972

Reviewed December 26, 2019

Grade: B+

Bombshell (2019) is the type of the film that depending on your political affiliation, you will either refuse to see, or see and have a love/hate reaction to. As a non-lover of “news” network Fox News I am firmly ensconced in the latter camp, so my opinion of the film is mixed. The importance of releasing the film in the time of political turmoil during 2019 is crucial and intentional, which is why I commend the film but the subject matter of sexual harassment against women is difficult to watch and a sobering reminder that this behavior continues to occur.

The performances of the principle players- Charlize Theron, Nicole Kidman, Margot Robbie, Kate McKinnon, and John Lithgow are wonderful and key to the film’s power. Theron and Lithgow receive the lion’s share of makeup and prosthetic work, making them look identical to their real-life counterparts. Beneficial are a myriad of Fox News political figure portrayals (Sean Hannity, Jeanine Pirro, and Bill O’Reilly) with frighteningly good accuracy creating a surreal effect.

The film centers on female Fox News personnel in Manhattan and their sexual harassment allegations against founder Roger Ailes (Lithgow). The central figure- Megyn Kelly (Theron) is conflicted over the risks to both her career and her financial stability if she comes forward and admits her own harassment by Ailes years ago after Gretchen Carlson sues the network. Margot Robbie plays Kayla, a young Fox employee, who is also harassed by Ailes.  McKinnon plays closeted lesbian and confidante to Kayla, who works for the network despite being liberal and a huge admirer of Hillary Clinton.

The plot is fast-paced and plays out like a quick page-turner, with some of it narrated by Kelly. Bombshell feels timely and has a distinct “ripped from the headlines” makeup. The fact that the real-life events occurred as recent as 2016 is an unmistakable aspect that will grip the viewer, especially those who follow United States politics or current events. The story is fresh and vibrant with familiarity, not a story from an event decades ago that many viewers have forgotten or were too young to remember.

I had difficulty feeling much sympathy for most of the characters which knocks the film down a notch. The standard definition that the term “Fox News” usually conjures is one of male chauvinism and the good old boys club with old fashioned machismo ruling the roost. Why would any woman choose to work for them or align themselves with the Conservative party which is not a fan of women or women’s rights? With this fact in mind, it was difficult for me to watch the film.

To build on this, CEO Roger Ailes is written as the clear villain with no redeeming value. During one scene, he salivates over Kayla when she visits him in his office and instructs her to lift her skirt higher and twirl for him. The scene is sickening, and we feel Kayla’s embarrassment and humiliation. In a cheer out loud moment at the end of the film, she ups and quits, unable to remain in such a corrupt corporation.

One of the only likable characters is Jess Carr (McKinnon), probably fictitious. Hardly fitting the mold of the female staff, not perky or showing leg, she goes out for drinks with Kayla and admits to being gay, the two ending up having a one-night stand. The character is unique, and McKinnon makes wise acting choices. Worth mentioning is Ailes’s long-time secretary Faye (Holland Taylor). Surely, she has knowledge of the antics that go on in her boss’s office, but she almost serves as an accomplice. Why?

Sad to realize is that as recent as 2016, women were still having to face discrimination in the workplace. Industries with powerful men still can be toxic and poisonous to women attempting to climb the ranks. If the women harassed at Fox News were not top anchors there is no way the accusations would have even been heard. What about the receptionists, the cleaning staff, or the admins who are harassed? Would anyone listen to them? This message crossed my mind while watching Bombshell.

With fantastic acting and incredible makeup, time will tell if Bombshell (2019) remains a relevant film. Leaving the viewer with an unsatisfying ending rather than a hopeful one, it is tough to sympathize with most of the characters even when supposed to. Bombshell would make a perfect companion piece to Vice (2018), a similar political, yet superior film.

Knives Out-2019

Knives Out-2019

Director-Rian Johnson

Starring-Ana de Armas, Daniel Craig

Scott’s Review #969

Reviewed December 17, 2019

Grade: B+

Knives Out (2019) is a cleverly constructed whodunit, created in a style not too dissimilar from the famous board game, Clue. In fact, this facet is mentioned by one character during a scene in the film. With a hefty cast of film stars both young and old (mostly old), the result is a good time with intelligent writing and surprises and a crowd-pleasing tone. The project is presented by a cast who undoubtedly had a ball during filming. The point of the film is to try and figure out whodunit and why, in perfect murder mystery form.

It is explained through narration that wealthy crime novelist Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) has invited his family to flock to his mansion for his eighty-fifth birthday party. The next morning, Harlan’s housekeeper Fran finds him dead, apparently having slit his own throat. An anonymous figure hires private detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) to investigate the situation. When Blanc arrives at the grand estate to interrogate family and friends, tidbits of scandal and intrigue slowly brim to the surface as layers are revealed.

The sizable cast features Hollywood stalwarts like Jamie Lee Curtis (Linda, Harlan’s daughter), Don Johnson (Richard, Harlan’s son-in-law, and Linda’s husband), Chris Evans (Ransom, Harlan’s grandson), Michael Shannon (Walt, Harlan’s youngest son), and Toni Collette (Joni, widow of Harlan’s deceased son Neil). Helpful is how the film spends time introducing and explaining each prominent character so that the viewer has a good sense of who’s who and how one character relates to the others before the tangled web unravels.

The delicious aspect of Knives Out are the many twists and turns offered throughout the course of the run time. Surprising me was a key revelation exposed quite early on, so that the pacing is more left of center than classic whodunits of days past. Once the new story arc is revealed the plot thickens further and we know more events will ultimately abound as the story just cannot be this simple. This successfully kept me as a viewer engaged during the entire experience.

Having witnessed the previews at length and the way the trailer presents a Hercule Poirot/Agatha Christie/Jessica Fletcher type sleuth to solve, it was delightful to see one-character snuggling on the couch absorbed in an episode of the 1980’s television series “Murder, She Wrote”. Director, Rian Johnson offers several sly homages to influential tidbits of pop culture that helped create his film and retain the amusements.

Another momentous positive is the incorporation of a political discussion among the family as they brood and fret over how much money they stand to inherit from their dead patriarch. Donald J. Trump, a man who catapulted the United States into controversy post 2016, is never mentioned by name, but immigration, children in cages, and expletives are carefully hurled about in his honor so there is no question the connotations. Harlan’s caregiver is Marta (Ana de Armas), the heroine of the film and the standout, and whose mother is an undocumented immigrant. So political overtones abound.

Knives Out mixes dark humor with traditional mystery and is never dull. The big reveal at the end is not brilliant nor is it disappointing. It simply satisfies after numerous red-herrings and lies bubble to the surface. The final sequence is palpable and smart viewers will wonder what one character will possibly do next to either please or anger the rest of the characters. Might a sequel be at hand?

A film not meant to be high art or anything more than an entertaining good time, Knives Out (2019) achieves its intent by offering an experience reminiscent of an Agatha Christie tale that is fun for the audience. The benefits are reaped as an enormous box office return was awarded the film. Thanks in large part to a talented cast, a gloomy mansion, and wealthy people faced with peril and comeuppance, these elements are a wonderful recipe for a good solid mystery.

Toy Story 4-2019

Toy Story 4-2019

Director-Josh Cooley

Voices-Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, Annie Potts

Scott’s Review #966

Reviewed December 10, 2019

Grade: B

Toy Story 4 (2019) is the fourth installment in the Pixar/Disney produced Toy Story series, now nearly twenty-five years old! The glitter is beginning to fade on a once endearing franchise and hopefully this is the last one- additional segments are not needed unless desperation develops.

After a slow start and too many retread moments, the film shows bombast and familiar heart and tenderness in the finale, presumably wrapping up the lengthy story with a neat bow. The animation is vivid and colorful, almost astounding, making up for an unnecessary story.

In a flashback sequence, nine-years after Toy Story 2, Bo Peep (Annie Potts) is donated to a new owner and Woody (Tom Hanks) begrudgingly decides to maintain his loyalty to owner, Andy. Years later and now a teenager, Andy donates a forgotten Woody to a young child named Bonnie, who lacks the affection for the toy that Andy had. When Bonnie makes and bonds with Forky, a toy made of plastic, Woody struggles to convince Forky that each is more than garbage.

When Bonnie and her parents embark on a summer road trip to an amusement park, Woody and other familiar faces are along for the ride. The group meets other forgotten toys, some benevolent and some sinister, at the park and a nearby antique store. Woody’s dear friend and comic relief, Buzz (Tim Allen), is in the mix and helps all the toys realize that they are not forgotten, and that they can still bring joy to children.

The film provides an unwieldy list of celebrities in major and minor roles. The incorporation of characters like Chairol Burnett, Bitey White, and Carl Reineroceros (voiced naturally by Carol Burnett, Betty White, and Carl Reiner) may not be necessary, but it’s fun to watch the credits roll and see who’s who from the cast. The minor characters are little more than window dressing, but the creativity is admirable.

The main story of abandonment, loyalty, and discarding of one’s toys is ample and nice, but has occurred in every segment thus far in the series. Do we need to see this again? Yes, it is an important message for both children and adults, but why not simply watch the first three installments of Toy Story, each brilliant in their own right? Ty Story 4 plays by the numbers with little surprises.

One glaring notice is how almost every single adult is either incompetent or played for laughs. I get that the main draw is the toys and outsmarting the adults is half the fun, but when Bonnie’s father assumes his navigation system is on the fritz, rather than catching on to the fact that one of the toys is voicing the system, one must shake his or her head. Suspension of disbelief is required more and more in these types of films.

Toy Story 4 picks up steam in the final twenty minutes with a thrilling adventure through the amusement park and a cute romance between Woody and Bo Peep. When long forgotten toy Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks) emotionally rescues a lost child, she is rejuvenated and breathes new life into both the child’s life and her own. In a darling moment, Forky meets another creation named Knifey. Knifey suffers from the same existential crisis as Forky once did, and Forky immediately becomes smitten with her, both realizing that even though they are odd looking, they still matter.

The nice lesson learned is that even toys from the 1960’s and 1970’s can provide warmth and comfort to a young child and are more than “of their time”. This is a clear and bold message that correlates with human beings and how advanced age does not come with an expiration date. Everyone matters and brings importance. The overlying theme is heartwarming and central to the film, bringing it above mediocrity.

What should certainly be the final chapter in a tired franchise that continues to trudge along, the bright message and strong animations remain, but the film feels like a retread. Given that Toy Story 3 was made in 2010, Toy Story 4 (2019) needs to bring the series to a conclusion before installment 5, 6, 7 or 8 results in dead on arrival.

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood-2019

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood-2019

Director-Marielle Heller

Starring-Matthew Rhys, Tom Hanks

Scott’s Review #964

Reviewed December 6, 2019

Grade: A

Any viewer seeking a weepy affair should look no further than A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (2019). The film is sentimental, without ever feeling sappy or overwrought, instead abounding with freshness and authenticity. Tom Hanks is brilliant as the iconic children’s television personality and Matthew Rhys holds his own as he gives a fantastic performance as an angry journalist tasked with doing a magazine article on the legend. The film is heartwarming and teary with a poignant and inspirational message, and in 2019 we could all use a little Mister Rogers in our lives.

The time-period of the film is 1998, and on the outs with his father Jerry (Chris Cooper), Lloyd Vogel (Rhys) works for Esquire magazine as a writer. Both attend Lloyd’s sister’s wedding where the two men come to blows over past disputes, ruining the wedding reception and reigniting their feud. Lloyd’s wife, Andrea, serves as mediator when their newborn son becomes an interesting link between father and son. When Lloyd meets with Mister Rogers (Hanks), he at first is skeptical of the man’s benevolence, but the two men slowly develop a strong bond, forging a deep friendship.

Director, Marielle Heller drew acclaim for her recent film, Can You Ever Forgive Me? (2018), a project about a grizzled New York writer. Once again, her lead character is a dark and troubled writer, but with enough humanity bubbling under the surface to make the character likable. The contrast between the two main characters (Lloyd and Mister Rogers) is palpable and central to the story, making it intriguing and successful. Her message is a strong lesson in humanity.

The setup is tremendous for anyone possessing a clue to the unconditional kindness that Mister Rogers has. He not only adores children but all mankind and, as referenced, he is attracted to wounded or broken people. The legend sees the goodness in all human beings and focuses on everyone he speaks with rather than on himself. What a wonderful message of patient, goodness, and empathy Heller carves from start to finish.

No surprise is how Rogers teaches Lloyd to accept and forgive Jerry. During a thrilling scene Lloyd lashes out at his father, reminding him that when he was bedding other women, his wife (Lloyd’s mother) lie riddled with cancer, not dying in peace, but screaming with agony. The irony is that Jerry is now at death’s door, attempting to make amends with Lloyd before he dies. Both men are wounded and damaged, but because of Mister Roger’s kindness, come to an understanding. The message is lovely and kind.

I was surprised at how emotionally fulfilling the film turns out to be. Mister Rogers simply cares, and one can easily slip into a fantasy that as he sits and holds a conversation with Lloyd, gazing whimsically and thoughtfully into his eyes, that he is gazing into our very own eyes. I sure did and what a powerful emotion that conjures. When Mister Rogers asks to take a moment of silence to think about the people who have shaped our lives, there is no doubt that each member of the movie theater audience did just that.

Hanks is a godsend and simply perfect in the role. Known to be a kindly humanitarian himself, he easily slips into the role of Mister Rogers, and imitates the mannerisms perfectly. Especially impressive is when Danny, a puppet bear, appears on screen. Smart viewers will realize that Rogers channels his own childhood through this character, and the pain he felt as an overweight child. Hanks is a tremendous actor, winning Oscars for Philadelphia (1993) and Forrest Gump (1994), so we have every confidence in his ability to craft a new character so well.

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (2019) wins the years award for the most emotion it will elicit from viewers. The familiar Mister Rogers Neighborhood tune will bring up memories and add a level of sentiment to a heartwarming film. Instead of crafting a sterile or preachy film, Heller delivers a simple message of kindness and understanding and a lesson in accepting people as they are.

Parasite-2019

Parasite-2019

Director-Joon-ho Bong

Starring-Song Kang-ho, Jang Hye-jin

Scott’s Review #963

Reviewed November 28, 2019

Grade: A

Parasite (2019) is a South Korean language film that has it all. The writing is powerful and thought-provoking, the direction is unique and intriguing, the acting stellar, and the story perfectly paced with dizzying twists and turns. The film is uncomfortable and unsettling (in a good way), catapulting from dark humor to horror by the time the shocking finale plays. An experience to be dazzled by and ravaged at the emotions it will instill in the viewer.

The story centers on two families. The affluent Park’s live in the lap of luxury, enjoying the finer things in life like a lavish residence, a personal driver, and a live-in housekeeper. Park Dong-ik is the CEO of an IT company, his beautiful wife, Park Yeong-gyo, stays at home with their two children, Park Da-hye and Park Da-Song. They are rich and, on the surface, rather spoiled and superficial.

The struggling Kim’s reside in a semi-basement that constantly floods, accept menial jobs to pay the bills, and are grifters. Patriarch Kim Ki-taek and wife Kim Chung-sook have two teenage children, Kim Ki-woo and Kim Ki-jeong. They are cagey and resourceful and think up schemes to garner money. Each is good-looking but struggles to find much success in life.

Kim Ki-woo’s friend tutors for the Park daughter and will soon travel abroad for studies. He convinces Kim Ki-woo to interview for the position, who easily gets the job by charming the gullible Park Yeong-gyo. He and the rest of the Kim’s create an elaborate ruse to insinuate themselves into the Park family by tricking Mr. and Mrs. Park into dismissing their driver and housekeeper. The Park’s are unaware that their new staff are related!

The underlying theme of Parasite is one of class distinction and social inequality. The tension builds more and more with each scene and the monetary differences between the haves and have nots is always on the surface. Once the Kim’s get a taste of the good life they have no intention of being satisfied merely as hired help- they want it all for themselves.

The fact that the Kim’s are clever, and manipulative is no accident on the part of director, Joon-ho Bong. Conversely, the Park’s are gullible and easily outsmarted by the Kim’s. Why are they rich and the Kim’s poor, the audience wonder? Are we to root for the Kim’s to overtake the Park’s? The Kim’s are no saints as they resort to the firings of other people to get what they want. Allegiances to characters will shift along the way.

As the Kim’s get comfy one night in the Park house when the family goes on a weekend camping trip, the film really takes off. Drunk and sparring with each other, the doorbell rings and the haggard former housekeeper begs to be let in. When she claims to have left something behind in the basement, this leads to a shocking secret and dramatic turn of events. I did not see the revelation coming and events only catapult the film into something else. The pacing and tension during this scene are outstanding.

Tough to rival this scene, the film does just that with the gruesome and bloody birthday party scene. The proverbial “sh## hits the fan” as the tensions among the characters come to life. The scene results in several deaths and the rage of a prominent character reaches a crescendo. The scene is set on a gorgeous sunny day, perfect for birthday cake, balloons, and shiny wrapped presents. After a lovely start the party becomes laden with blood, screams and intensity.

Bong writes the Kim patriarch as the most sympathetic character, and a montage at the end of the film makes this clear. The other characters are less benevolent and more complicated. When Mrs. Kim shoves the family dog she is unlikable, but then she is kind to the former housekeeper. Mrs. Park appears innocent at first but then is a shrew when she plans her son’s birthday party, expecting all to cater to her every whim. Finally, Mr. and Mrs. Park mock Mr. Kim behind his back and insinuate that poor people “smell funny”. Do the Park’s deserve their fates?

Parasite (2019) is a dark film filled with clever writing, good character development, that takes audiences on a roller coaster ride. The sub-titles do little to detract from the fantastic experience this film offers as Bong spins a spider-web of deceit, desperation, and tragedy. Viewers will certainly be thinking and talking about this one for days.

The Irishman-2019

The Irishman-2019

Director- Martin Scorsese

Starring-Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Joe Pesci

Scott’s Review #960

Reviewed November 20, 2019

Grade: A

Any film created by legendary director, Martin Scorsese is sure to impress legions of adoring followers and most critics. Every project he touches results in something fantastic, and easy to revel in good analysis and discussion about the movie moments after the closing credits have rolled. The Irishman (2019) is a film that requires repeated viewings and thought to obtain the full flavor and relish in the savory and vast cast of characters.

The picture may not be on the same level as Goodfellas (1990) or The Godfather (1972), which it seems patterned after, but the work is highly impressive and should stand the test of time resulting in a fine wine analogy. The years will likely be kind to the film and enrich the experience- it’s that kind of film. With stars like Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Joe Pesci, and Harvey Keitel on board, the viewer expects a plethora of riches and that is exactly what is delivered.

The film spans the period of the 1950’s through the 1970’s and follows the life of Frank Sheeran (De Niro), a truck driver who becomes a hit man and gets involved with mobster Russell Bufalino (Pesci) and his crime family, including his time working for the powerful Teamster Jimmy Hoffa (Pacino). Sheeran is dubbed “the Irishman”. He narrates much of the story, now quite elderly and residing in a nursing home, of his time in the mafia and the mystery surrounding the death of Hoffa.

The only negatives to the film are the suspension of disbelief that De Niro is Irish- was there ever a more Italian New Yorker? But, alas, this film is Scorsese directed and De Niro produced, so they could tell me the sky is green and I would readily nod in agreement. At three hours and twenty-nine minutes, the film is a long haul and towards the middle the film meanders a bit. Perhaps twenty or thirty minutes could have been sliced to the cutting room floor.

The rest of the experience The Irishman serves up is brilliance, with rich characters and wonderful atmosphere. Have I mentioned that Scorsese directed this film? The cast of characters is endless and drizzles with zest speaking volumes for what The Godfather did with casting. Many recognizable actors appear in small roles like Ray Romano as attorney Bill Bufalino, Bobby Cannavale as “Skinny Razor”, and Anna Paquin as Frank’s estranged daughter, Peggy. An endless supply of character actors fleshes out the remaining cast.

Wonderful are the plethora of food references that would impress notable food director, Alfred Hitchcock, known for incorporating meals into many of his scenes. The delectable early scenes when Frank delivers meat to grocers and gets in with a gangster over a discussion about a good steak will leave viewers mouth-watering for a tender sirloin.

The conversations between characters are interesting, slowly building and adding robust grit to a packed film. They have good, careful dialogue exchanges and talk matter-of-fact about life and experiences. Characters are given a chance to develop and grow and even small characters like a nurse or a wife add a good, comforting aura. It is evident what treasured films look like when a director can simply create and develop without outside interference.

The standouts in the acting department are Pacino and De Niro, the former crossing my fingers will receive an Oscar nomination. The pairing is flawless and eagle-eyed fans will recall that both actors appeared together in The Godfather Part II (1974) yet never shared a scene. In The Irishman they appear together in pivotal scenes. Pacino infuses Hoffa with humor and poise as only Pacino can do with a character. He is my favorite character and is tough to look away from.

Both actors, along with Pesci, are treated to a recent marvel in cinema- that of the de-aging process. Each actor, well into his seventy’s, is transformed to mid-forties in many scenes and then aged to appear elderly later in life. While each has a strange unnatural look to him as a younger man, the process is impressive and an innovative technique that assuredly will become more common in film, and subsequently offer limitless possibilities.

The Irishman (2019) is a cinematic gem by a storied director advancing in years, but still offering grandiose films. With stalwarts like De Niro, Pesci, and Pacino, the players are well cast, and nuanced touches add dimensions to the finished product. Offering a gangster film with grace and style, the story is poignant and crisp and a thoughtful approach to one of the legendary mysteries- what really happened to Jimmy Hoffa?

Marriage Story-2019

Marriage Story-2019

Director-Noah Baumbach

Starring-Adam Driver, Scarlett Johansson

Scott’s Review #959

Reviewed November 14, 2019

Grade: A

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Midsommar-2019

Midsommar-2019

Director-Ari Aster

Starring-Florence Pugh, Jack Reynor

Scott’s Review #957

Reviewed November 11, 2019

Grade: B+

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jojo Rabbit-2019

Jojo Rabbit-2019

Director-Taika Waititi

Starring-Roman Griffin Davis, Scarlett Johansson

Scott’s Review #955

Reviewed November 6, 2019

Grade: A

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Joker-2019

Joker-2019

Director-Todd Phillips

Starring-Joaquin Phoenix

Scott’s Review #953

Reviewed November 1, 2019

Grade: A

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yesterday-2019

Yesterday-2019

Director-Danny Boyle

Starring-Himesh Patel, Lilly James

Scott’s Review #952

Reviewed October 29, 2019

Grade: B-

Yesterday (2019) is a film that is silly but sentimental, oozing with a nice quality that becomes tiresome towards the conclusion. For those seeking a safe experience the film will be deemed as wonderful, but for those with an appetite for left of center grit, the film will only marginally entertain. It’s safe. Director, Danny Boyle (2008’s Slumdog Millionaire) again chooses a charismatic British-Indian actor, Himesh Patel, in the starring role, in a film any fan of the rock band The Beatles should see.

Jack Malick (Patel) is a struggling musician who resides in Lowestoft, England, a suburb of London. Unsuccessful, he is nonetheless encouraged by his manager and childhood friend, Ellie (Lilly James), to reach for the stars and never give up his dreams of achieving success. One day he is hit by a bus during a global blackout and is hospitalized with a head injury and missing teeth. When he performs the Beatles song “Yesterday” for his friends they are blown away by its genius. Jack realizes that the entire world has never heard of the legendary band and capitalizes on the stroke of luck, becoming a rock n roll superstar.

The massive song catalog of the Beatles featured in Yesterday is the best part of the film. The pleasure is in wondering which songs will appear next and in what context. Jack awkwardly “debuts” the song “Let it Be” to his parents, who continuously botch the name of the song, only showing mild interest. Next, Jack furiously attempts to remember the lyrics to “Eleanor Rigby”, a difficult song lyrically. Other gorgeous classics featured are “The Long and Winding Road”, “Here Comes the Sun”, and “Something”.

A sentimental nod, and appearance of a John Lennon figure is a nice touch and a worthy dedication to the deceased legend. The key here is wondering what would have become of the assassinated star had he not been famous. The film approaches this when revealing that Lennon would today be an old man- Lennon tells Jack in a sentimental scene that he has lived happily with his wife by his side. If only this had been the case.

Patel is charming and a character to root for. As the butt of jokes made by his friends, who truly adore him, he is neither the handsome lead nor the wimpy co-star, more of a hybrid of the two. We want him to achieve musical success because he is a nice guy but are glad when he finally fesses to the phony plot, as predictable as that point is to the film. Patel’s best scenes occur on-stage when he either rocks out to the guitar or adorns us with a piano ballad.

Other than the above notes, Yesterday is only mildly entertaining mixing a musical with a romantic story that does not work. If the audience is expected to root for Jack and Ellie to get together then the idea falls flat. The pair have no chemistry nor is Ellie even remotely written as being the type who will live the rock n roll lifestyle or want to. She is an elementary school teacher and asks Jack to give up his dream and lead a simple life in the suburbs. Who would do that?

Yesterday is riddled with stock characters, some of whom may or may not exist in real-life. As much as I love actress/comedian Kate McKinnon, her overbearing character of Debra Hammer doesn’t showcase her best work. Driven and cold, the character is played for laughs with her over-the-top behavior, but it feels too much like a part written to showcase McKinnon. Jack’s parents are cliche-filled characters doting around with confused expressions and seeming to be overwhelmed by all events.

A musical film that cringes with a safe and saccharin feel saved only slightly by the bevy of mostly 1960’s hits by the Beatles, some of which lyrically are dissected and showcased. Yesterday (2019) includes pop star Ed Sheeran, who cannot act, and does nothing for the film. Way too polished and superfluous for its own good, Boyle, a worthy director, should have added some edginess rather than going for safe pop. Thank goodness the film is about the Beatles rather than the Backstreet Boys.

Ma-2019

Ma-2019

Director-Tate Taylor

Starring-Octavia Spencer, Diana Silvers

Scott’s Review #949

Reviewed October 22, 2019

Grade: B+

Marketed as a slasher film based on the trailers, Ma (2019) impressed me immensely as my expectations of a standard horror film were superseded by a more complex, perfectly paced psychological thriller. A fantastic performance by Octavia Spencer, and dare I mention an Oscar worthy one if this were a different type of film, the actress effortlessly brings vulnerability to a not so easy role to play. The finale is disappointing, and the film throws in a few too many stereotypes, but nevertheless is a very good effort.

Set somewhere in remote Ohio, but looking more like the southern United States, teenager Maggie Thomson (Diana Silvers) and her mom Erica (Juliette Lewis) return to Erica’s hometown after her marriage fails. Reduced to a job as a cocktail waitress at a local casino, she encourages Maggie to make friends. Maggie falls into the popular crowd as Erica reconnects with high-school friends who are mostly the parents of Maggie’s new friends. Sue Ann (Spencer) bonds with the cool kids by purchasing them booze and holding parties in her basement much to the displeasure of the parents.

The audience soon knows that something is not right with Sue Ann. She forbids the kids from ever venturing to her upstairs and slowly develops a needy attachment to the teens. Flashbacks begin to emerge as clues to her connection to the other parents and her plot for revenge. The incorporation of a place in the house to avoid is a common horror gimmick that always works well. Inevitably, someone will venture to that area of the house and a secret is revealed. Ma is no different in this regard.

How wonderful to see more diversity, and specifically among the African-American population, represented in the horror genre. Typically, other than at best being cast as a best friend or in small supporting roles, the horror genre has been an all-white affair. Thanks to Get Out (2017) and Us (2019) horror films have recently included all black casts and have been tremendous hits. Let’s hold out hope that the Asian, Latino and LGBTQ communities will receive more inclusion and bring a freshness to a key cinematic genre.

The film belongs to Spencer. The Oscar winning actress must have had a fun time with this role and gets to let loose during many scenes. She goes from coquettish to maniacal, sometimes within the same scene, with flawless precision and gutsy acting decisions. My favorite Sue Ann is the unhinged one as she slyly threatens to cut one male character’s genitalia off. She smirks and uses her large, expression filled eyes to her advantage. Psycho has never looked so good!

The climax, so important in horror or thrillers, to follow through and capitalize on the build-up, ultimately fails in Ma. Once the big reveal surfaces and a childhood prank is exposed, the trick hardly seems worthy of a killing bonanza. A mousy Sue Ann performed fellatio on a nerd instead of her crush. Even those involved on the outskirts are blamed and waiting twenty years to exact revenge on her tormentors (most of whom have repented) doesn’t seem plausible.

Ma (2019) contains a hefty cast of stalwarts but it’s Spencer who brings the sometimes-generic material and trivial conclusion to crackling life with her brilliant portrayal of a damaged woman. Allison Janney, Lewis and others add respectability when the film teeters too close to mediocrity with its teen character cliches, but the film excels when it focuses on character rich story and unexpected plot points.