Tag Archives: Drama films

Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore-1974

Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore-1974

Director-Martin Scorsese

Starring-Ellen Burstyn, Kris Kristofferson, Diane Ladd

Scott’s Review #1,075

Reviewed October 27, 2020

Grade: A-

Deserving of the Best Actress statuette she won for her role, Ellen Burstyn carries the film Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974) from start to finish with drama and comedy. I can’t watch any performance of Burstyn’s without smarting at how she lost the same award years later after her frighteningly good performance in Requiem for a Dream released in 2000. She was defeated by Julia Roberts, who gave an adequate though unexceptional performance in Erin Brockovich (2000). But, I digress.

A character study Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, tells the powerful story of a woman (Burstyn) forced to begin a new life and forge her own path after her husband is killed in a car accident. She is thirty-five years old and wary of middle age approaching as she pursues a singing career. She is joined by her young son, Tommy (Alfred Lutter) and faces fear and loneliness as the pair embarks on a journey throughout the south western United States. She dates, fights, and soul-searches, finally landing a job as a waitress at a roadside diner.

On paper this film could have been reduced to television movie status as the premise sounds kind of corny and sentimental. Shocking to me is that Martin Scorsese directed it. Best known for male driven mobster pictures like Goodfellas (1993), Gangs of New York (2002) and The Irishman (2019), an introspective female journey film doesn’t seem like his thing. A fun fact is that he agreed to direct at Burstyn’s urging as she wouldn’t have starred in it otherwise. The actress surmised that the script needed more darkness and grit, which it contains without losing its heart.

A strange yet lovely photographed scene kicks off the picture and seems to be an homage to The Wizard of Oz (1939). With a dusty, golden backdrop, a young Alice looks like Dorothy with an idyllic life. Suddenly, Alice’s mother bellows her to come home for dinner. She responds with salty language. The scene feels out of place based on the rest of the film but looks good.

Burstyn made me care about Alice from the first scene containing adult Alice. Alice is a good person. She is hard-working and strives to please her husband, hoping he will enjoy the delicious dinner she has prepared for him. He barely grunts at the meal and has a tumultuous relationship with Tommy, who Alice spoils. This plot point returns later in the film. Alice is not a doormat, however, as she provides humor and comic relief during tense moments. She also shares a warm friendship with her neighbor. We do not know what the husband’s demons are (depression?). He and Alice share an emotional moment in bed one night before he dies the next day.

With her marriage behind her and limited financial means, Alice and Tommy take to the road. I adore the relationship between the two. Tommy is not always easy to parent, exhausting his mother with typical young adult nonsense. It’s easy to forget that he has lost his father and has no direction. Their relationship is complicated but there is much love.

The juiciness comes when Alice finally lands a signing gig at a seedy lounge bar and meets the maniacal Ben, played flawlessly by Harvey Keitel. At first he is charming and attentive, wooing her like she’s never been wooed before. When she learns he is married he turns psycho and she is forced to leave town. The meat of the film comes when Alice begins working at the diner and meets new friend, Flo (Diane Ladd) and new love David (Kris Kristofferson). After some trials and tribulations Alice realizes her life is not so bad.

As much as there are dramatic elements Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore is not soap opera or overwrought. The scenes and situations bristle with energy and authenticity and this is thanks to the great acting and fluid direction. My favorite scenes occur at the diner. With greasy, blue plate specials and dishes piled with ham, eggs, and hashed browns, the working-class extras are perfectly positioned around the diner. In the background, they lend a feeling of rush, chaos, and family traditions. The diner scenes are where Alice bonds the most with Flo and David and are delicious.

Turned into a popular television sitcom in the late 1970’s named Alice, a lighter, wholesome production, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974) is a progressive story about a woman on her own and getting it done, mustering courage no matter what life throws at her. It’s an inspiring story for both women and men.

Oscar Nominations: Best Actress-Ellen Burstyn (won), Best Supporting Actress-Diane Ladd, Best Original Screenplay

The Boys in the Band-2020

The Boys in the Band-2020

Director-Joe Mantello

Starring-Jim Parsons, Zachary Quinto, Matt Bomer

Scott’s Review #1,073

Reviewed October 21, 2020

Grade: A-

One may ask themselves why bother checking out the 2020 version of the legendary (and dark!) 1970 stage turned cinematic rendition of the sniping and vicious gay drama The Boys in the Band? Mostly because of the wonderful cast- a cast featuring the troupe who starred in the recent 2018 stage revival. But more than that the film feels surprisingly modern and relevant and provides a message of hope that the original did not contain.

Crucial and historical to point out is that every principle actor is openly gay and their characters are gay, or bisexual. My, how much progress has been made for actors when not too long ago an “out” actor risked both reputation and career for the price of his truth. This is monumental.

The remake wisely keeps to the crucial time-period of 1968, and really, how could a modern setting work at all? Being gay in 1968 is nothing like being gay in 2020, I don’t care if it is the Upper East Side of Manhattan. To bring this film to any other time would diminish its power and importance. If anything, it makes one proud how far the LGBTQ+ community has come, though there are further advancements left to make.

Alas, the Vietnam era is safely intact, during a time when a strip of gay bars and a group of gay friends were the only thing to keep a gay man from going crazy regardless of how abusive they were. This will hopefully teach young gay viewers, or anyone else, what being a gay male was like over 50 years ago. When the rest of the world was deemed “normal” and you were cast aside as either a sexual deviant or a head case this is powerful. Self-hatred, denial, or the closet were commonalities.

The Boys in the Band has no females save for a blink and you’ll miss it moment featuring a snooty neighbor. Important to realize is that the film is pre A.I.D.S epidemic in a time of carefree love and endless hookups, where booze and drugs were a necessary escape and usual was to feel out of sorts on a regular basis.

A few characters are effeminate. One is presumably bisexual and closeted, and one is masculine and recently divorced from a woman, now cohabiting with a male lover, one is black, and one is an escort. Each character comes from a different walk of life but are bonded. The running of the gamut of unique types and personalities is part of why I love this story.

The events commence one evening when Michael (Jim Parsons) throws a birthday party for friend Harold (Zachary Quinto) at his apartment. They are joined by other friends Donald (Matt Bomer), Hank (Tuc Watkins), Larry (Andrew Rannalls), Bernard (Michael Benjamin Washington), Emory (Robin de Jesus).  Guests include Cowboy (Charlie Carver), a “birthday present” for Harold, and Alan (Brian Hutchison), a college friend of Michael’s. As the booze flows talk gets vicious and the claws come out.

The men, prompted by a drunken Michael, play a daring game of “telephone”. Each guest is dared to call the one person he truly believes he has loved. With each call, past scars and present anxieties are revealed in tortuous fashion. This is when the film really gets interesting. Bernard and Emory bear the brunt the hardest as their phone calls take a tremendous toll on each.

Parsons and Quinto are the standouts. As the lead, the character of Michael seems stable at first. He is stylish, well-dressed, and lives in a reputable apartment. Though unemployed, he once traveled the world. Parsons slowly unleashes the vicious fury contained within Michael the more he drinks. He enjoys hurting others just as he has been hurt. The catalyst to his character is Alan. Are they in love? Is Michael in love with Alan? Alan takes a fancy to masculine Hank.

Quinto, as Harold the self-professed “ugly, pock-marked Jew fairy”, is becoming increasingly morose about losing his youthful looks and his ability to attract cute young men. The catalyst to his character is Cowboy, who has those qualities that Harold lacks. Strangely, Harold and Michael are best friends, both loving and hating each other. After brutalizing each other with words, Harold exits the apartment announcing he will call Michael tomorrow. They’ve been through this before and probably will again.

No, The Boys in the Band circa 2020 is not quite on par with The Boys in the Band circa 1970, but this is merely because brilliance is a tough act to replicate. The modern telling is an absolute joy and will hopefully recruit fresh audiences to the perils and brutality is was to be gay in another time.

Thanks to Ryan Murphy for adapting this project to Netflix as part of his United States $300 million deal with the streaming platform.

Thieves Like Us-1974

Thieves Like Us-1974

Director-Robert Altman

Starring-Keith Carradine, Shelley Duvall

Scott’s Review #1,071

Reviewed October 16, 2020

Grade: A

The first time I saw Thieves Like Us (1974) I was not blown away. I have forgotten what my original gripe was, but my lackluster star rating on Netflix years ago is confirmation of such. All is now forgiven and like a fine wine this film gets better and better with each viewing. It’s basically a gangster film, but a heart-wrenching story containing one of the sweetest romances in cinema history.

Based on the novel of the same name by Edward Anderson, director Robert Altman, famous for allowing his actors to ad-lib their lines to their hearts content and peppering his films with overlapping, “real-life” dialogue, limits this technique this time around. His stars, Keith Carradine and Shelley Duvall, regular fixtures in his films, are the main attraction, but supporting players like Louise Fletcher, Bert Remsen, and John Schuck give tremendous performances.

Set in 1930’s United States, Deep South Mississippi, the time-period and location are key elements to the success of the film. Having never have set foot in this geographical area, I nonetheless found myself escaping there and ruminating what it would have been like to live there in the Great Depression era. The many outdoor sequences with trees, forests, country roads, and home-cooked meals provide luminous atmosphere and texture. Small town living never felt so good and cozy.

Wisely, Altman steers clear of any racial overtones or dialogue within the film. The film is not about that. There appear many black characters mostly in background, townspeople scenes or as prisoners which add flavor. But they are represented as living among other folks without any aggression or stereotypes. They simply are and it feels like the South. Altman crafts an experience of understated, good storytelling, proving a quality film can be quiet and proud, not needing explosive bells and whistles to prove showy. The dialogue crackles on its own and is smart.

The plot is compelling. Bowie (Carradine) is an escaped convict who embarks on a crime spree with fellow former prisoners Chicamaw (John Schuck) and T-Dub (Bert Remsen). While in hiding between bank robberies, Bowie meets a young woman named Keechie (Duvall), and the two quickly fall in love. A life of crime doesn’t sit well with Keechie, however, so she and Bowie try to settle down, but the law is determined to bring him to justice.

The fun is in watching romance blossom between Bowie and Keechie. Despite Bowie being a criminal, his character contains a sweetness and purity that matches like a glove with the whimsical truth and simplicity of Keechie. Throughout the length of the film I compared the characters to the legendary icons Bonnie and Clyde from the self-titled cinema masterpiece. They are similar but different. The pair sit quietly on the front porch talking about life and the future, optimistically planning their lives together unaware of what fate has in store for them. Their innocence and their goofy humor made me fall in love with them.

The relationship between the three men is apt. They have each other’s backs and are loyal to a fault. The men are convicts and cause death and injury, but there is a humanity that Altman gives to each character. We do not think of them as derelicts. When Bowie poses as a sheriff to break Chickamaw from prison, we root for the escape and not for the warden. Bowie kills the warden, shocking Chickamaw. Even with dispute comes caring between the men.

It does take patience to get into this film, probably I did not give the film its due on my first watch. Once the film ends I was left with a feeling of having experienced something of value and an artistic cinematic visionary story. The homespun characters eating a feast of meat and southern biscuits and discussing the days event are rich and atmospheric.

Carradine and Duvall would reunite a year later in another Altman masterpiece, Nashville (1975) playing vastly different characters, both unlikable, so a recommendation is to watch both films back to back to appreciate the dizzying morphed characterization. Thieves Like Us (1974) is no mere opening act for Nashville, but of a different ilk.

The film is a treasure.

Clemency-2019

Clemency-2019

Director-Chinonye Chukwu

Starring-Alfre Woodard, Richard Schiff

Scott’s Review #1,068

Reviewed October 7, 2020

Grade: A-

I will be candid. Clemency (2019) is not a film that will be everybody’s cup of tea. The topics of prison, execution, and psychological conflict among its characters are quite the heavies. After a long day of work and the desire to snuggle on a comfy couch with a tall glass of wine, this film may not be recommended. But, for those seeking a thought-provoking experience about timely and serious social issues, with racial overtones, Clemency is a riveting and powerful story. This film is written well, and it matters.

Haggard, prison warden Bernadine Williams (Alfre Woodard) trudges along day after day managing the multitude of tasks that her job requires of her. She is committed to overseeing the prison executions and experiences her twelfth at the start of the film. The procedure is botched causing the prisoner excess pain and an investigation is launched. Bernadine is conflicted and consumed by her job causing her marriage to Jonathan (Wendell Pierce) to deteriorate and her visits to a local watering hole to increase.

When Bernadine takes interest in Anthony Woods (Aldis Hodge) a prisoner slated for execution in a case receiving national media attention and prison protests, her conflict escalates. Anthony’s ex-girlfriend (Danielle Brooks) and attorney (Richard Schiff) play vital roles, especially when the convicted cop killer’s innocence is called into question. Will he or won’t he receive a last-minute pardon from the governor sparing his life?

Chinonye Chukwu, a rookie director, is a black, Nigerian, female with lots of interesting things to say and a bright future ahead of her. She also penned the screenplay and tackles a weighty issue of great controversy in the United States. The age-old debate of whether capital punishment is inhumane or even thwarts crime in the film’s subconscious, but neither is the film about that per se. The fact that Chukwu and her characters of Bernadine and Anthony are both black introduces an additional racial element. In the time of “Black Lives Matter”, this is a powerful statement.

To say that Clemency is a downer is an understatement, though it leaves the viewer with some sense of hope amid an ambiguous ending. I won’t spoil the film, but we wonder what will become of Bernadine. Has she had enough of the prison lifestyle and decide to fly off in a new direction or is she so consumed by her work that she is trapped for life, too forgone for any growth?

The final sequence is brilliant. An impending execution, emotional goodbyes are said, and a full minute or so of a closeup scene focused on Woodard’s face taps a range of emotions that includes compassion, disgust, and unbridled sadness. The gloomy and stark atmosphere that Chukwu presents fills the film with a bleakness that is eclipsed ever slightly by the possibility of change.

A common theme, and not only with Bernadine, is the need to be heard and the frightening perception of being invisible. Jonathan, in a strong supporting role by Pierce, is the perfect husband. A teacher, he is responsible, loyal, and even prepares a surprise dinner on their anniversary. He feels diminished by Bernadine and resides in a motel after he has had too much. Anthony’s attorney and a priest, both plan to soon retire, feeling their jobs are pointless, they are not heard, and their work neither appreciated nor noticed.

Interesting that Chukwu does not reveal which state within the United States the twelve or thirteen executions take place in, though we can only guess it’s somewhere in the south, Clemency (2019) is a bold offering fraught with debate, questions, and character conflict. A slow build, there is much to savor and mull over, and the story feels personal. Woodard gives a soaring performance with exceptional work by all the supporting players.

I cannot wait to see what Chukwu comes up with next.

Independent Spirit Award Nominations: Best Feature, Best Female Lead-Alfre Woodard, Best Screenplay

Agatha Christie’s Evil Under the Sun-1982

Agatha Christie’s Evil Under the Sun-1982

Director-Guy Hamilton

Starring-Peter Ustinov, Diana Rigg, Maggie Smith

Scott’s Review #1,065

Reviewed September 29, 2020

Grade: B+

Following the success of Murder on the Orient Express (1974) and Death on the Nile (1978), Agatha Christie’s Evil Under the Sun (1982) is of similar formula and is an entertaining yarn. The experience is like savoring a favorite meal- we know what we will get, and we dive in with pleasure.

Director Guy Hamilton, famous for directing four James Bond films, takes the director’s chair and keeps the action moving quickly crafting an enjoyable effort with a bit more humor than Christie’s novel in which it is based. Nearly on par with the two films save more predictability, this one nonetheless is a fine and joyous offering.

The setup remains the same, only the setting changed, as the affluent characters flock to a swanky resort area for fun and frolicking amid the Adriatic island with a saucer full of secrets and enough intrigue to last a lifetime. Peter Ustinov returns as detective Poirot in a very good effort. The man sleuths his way to a final revelation common in these films as the whodunit culminates in unmasking the murderer or murderers and bringing them to justice. Spoiler alert- there are two killers. The juicy reveal takes place as all suspects are gathered and nervously fret possible accusations.

I found it easy to figure out the culprits since they are written as the most secretive, but it’s fun watching the unraveling and the explanation of their motivations. Also enjoyable is how each character has a specific axe to grind with the victim. Agatha Christie’s Evil Under the Sun is a solid, classic, whodunit done very well, and the characters are rather well-written and the acting stellar.

The action starts off mysteriously in the North York Moors when a hiker finds a strangled, female victim. In quick fashion Hercule Poirot is asked to examine a diamond belonging to rich industrialist, Sir Horace Blatt (Colin Blakely). The diamond deemed a fake, Blatt’s mistress, famous actress Arlena Stuart Marshall (Diana Rigg) has suspicion cast upon her. Events then switch to the resort island as we are left to ponder what the dead woman at the beginning has to do with anything. In good time the audience finds out and this is ultimately satisfying.

As usual a large principal cast is introduced along with well-known stars. Daphne Castle (Maggie Smith) owns the lavish hotel and caters to Arlena’s put upon husband, Kenneth (Denis Quilley) and stepdaughter, Linda (Emily Hone), while Arlena openly flirts with the yummy Patrick (Nicholas Clay), who has fun prancing and preening wearing next to nothing. Other characters are the husband and wife producers Odell and Myra Gardener (James Mason and Sylvia Miles), gay writer Rex Brewster (Roddy McDowell), and Patrick’s ailing wife, Christine (Jane Birkin). Each has an issue with Arlena, who is the intended murder victim.

Like Murder on the Orient Express and Death on the Nile, the setting is a character itself. Though not a train nor a boat, the sunny and sandy island is the perfect locale. The water, a noon cannon, suntan lotion, and a watch are the items most important in the whodunit but wait there’s more! A tennis match, the cliffs, and a by the minute timeline are of utmost importance to figure out the mystery. The point of a film like this, as with the treasured Agatha Christie books, is deducing the why’s and how’s of the murder.

Delicious are the scenes featuring Daphne and Arlena going toe-to-toe and truthfully, there are just not enough of them. Bitch versus bitch, as they trade barbs and snickering insults with glee, Smith and Rigg clearly enjoy their roles and the audience is treated as such. Rigg is great as the bad girl, relishing in offending nearly everyone she encounters, and Smith speaks volumes with her eyes.

As for the male characters, Nicholas Clay gets my vote for sexiest man of the year. With his lean, toned, bronzed chest and white shorts which he confidently pulls up to reveal his bare butt cheeks as he struts near the pool, he can have any girl he wants (and possibly guys) he adds layers to the film. The biggest riddle is what he has in common with his wife, Christine, who is saddled with health issues, and simply not fun.

Staying largely true to the novel, Agatha Christie’s Evil Under the Sun (1982) will satisfy its intended audience. A herculean author penning characters like Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple, everyman and everywoman sleuths, this film was the last to be a big-screen affair. Made for television movies would soon follow. A lavish landscape, bitchy characters, scheming characters, murder and mayhem, are the recipe of the day for a good time.

Sunday Bloody Sunday-1971

Sunday Bloody Sunday-1971

Director-John Schlesinger

Starring-Glenda Jackson, Peter Finch, Murray Head

Scott’s Review #1,062

Reviewed September 15, 2020

Grade: A

Whether it’s the late 1960’s style or the British sophistication or the ahead of its time subject matter, John Schlesinger’s Sunday Bloody Sunday (1971) is a brazen and mature piece of film making. With fantastic acting mostly on the part of Glenda Jackson and Peter Finch, the film is subdued enough to contain the drama while letting the underlying plot marinate and flourish rather than being forced or overdone.

That’s not to say Sunday Bloody Sunday is an easy watch. The main characters stew and simmer rather than explode as the audience comes to grips with their feelings, emotions, and motivations as painful as they can be. Schlesinger offers the complexities of the characters as we get inside their heads during multiple scenes as cameras carefully pan in on their facial expressions. The intention is to read their minds or think we know what they are thinking.

The three characters featured are Alex (Glenda Jackson), a divorced and restless recruitment worker, a young, free-spirited artist, Bob (Murray Head), and a gay, Jewish, doctor named Daniel (Peter Finch). Bob openly dates both Alex and Daniel, who are aware of the others existence and even have common friends. Instead of scheming against the other in hopes of poisoning their character with Bob, they deal with acceptance and a host of other emotions.

A triangle ensues, though not one with a clear couple to root for, nor is it clear who we want to root for. Sunday Bloody Sunday is not that trite or simplistic and this is the beauty of the film. Each character can be analyzed for individual motivations, peculiarities, and desires that sometimes overlap. The added perk of one character being straight, one character being bisexual, and one character being gay only adds flavor and lustful desire. Sunday Bloody Sunday is a character study if ever there was one.

Screenwriter, Penelope Gilliatt, writes a piece so bristling with unpredictability that the characters and situations are deep and troubling. My favorite character is Daniel, the most adjusted of the three, but a character who would typically be written as the most maladjusted. Schlesinger had directed the brilliant Midnight Cowboy (1969) two mere years earlier, a film which depicted gay characters as troubled and self-hating. Gilliatt crafts Daniel as confident, successful, and masculine, avoiding all stereotypes.

I immediately had thoughts of Ken Russell’s masterpiece, Women in Love, made only one year earlier in 1970, and starring Jackson. Featuring four characters rather than only three, both films are British and feature the complexities of sexual orientation, jealousy, and loneliness. Women in Love is a slightly better film, but only by a small margin, probably because there is one additional character to consider. Both charter then barely touched territory when it was still taboo to explore homosexuality in film.

Adorable is a scene at a Bar Mitzvah given to Daniel’s nephew. As the merriment commences several women are bound to be interested in Daniel, what with him being a successful doctor. He doesn’t have any interest naturally, but politely makes small talk with one woman. The scene is so natural and at ease that it is wonderful and reaffirming to see a gay character treated with such dignity and richness, his problems not being a result of being gay but of being a human being.

Daniel and Alex compete for Bob’s affections but in a polite way. Instead of hating each other they hate the situation. Bob is not the nicest guy in the world so the question can we raised as to why they both feel the way they do about him. But this hardly matters when the heart wants what it wants. The most interesting and realistic scenes occur when each couple lie in bed together or make small talk over a meal. This offers a glimpse of what day to day treasures they each could enjoy.

For those in the mood for a film rife with emotion and psychologically complex feelings wrapped inside a good drama will find Sunday Bloody Sunday (1971) a pure treat. Trimmings like glimpses of the gorgeous city of London lend themselves to added nuances. Each time this film is viewed it could easily be watched from the perspective of either Alex, Bob, or Daniel.

Oscar Nominations: Best Director-John Schlesinger, Best Actor-Peter Finch, Best Actress-Glenda Jackson, Best Original Screenplay

Across the Universe-2007

Across the Universe-2007

Director-Julie Taymor

Starring-Evan Rachel Wood, Jim Sturgess

Scott’s Review #1,057

Reviewed August 27, 2020

Grade: A

Across the Universe (2007) is a film that some will deem sappy or trite or classify as a cliched love story, and admittedly some of those elements exist. But the film offers so much more. Truthfully, the romance genre is not usually for me, for those very reasons. Somehow the inclusion of The Beatles songs and the psychedelic backdrop of musical compositions makes the film beautiful, lovely, and charismatic. The war effects and the healthy dose of chemistry by the lead actors make this a winner in my book.

I adore the pairing of lovebirds Lucy and Jude, played by Evan Rachel Wood and Jim Sturgess. The chemistry between them sizzles from the moment they appear together, though this takes a while to happen. When it does, over a savory Thanksgiving meal and while bowling, I was hooked, and most audiences were too. The beauty is that we experience the characters separately first and get to know them well. The love story is the meat and potatoes of Across the Universe. If the connection between Jude and Lucy were not there the film would not work.

This is far from merely a love story, though. That is only one facet. A hefty thirty-four Beatles compositions are included throughout the film, all strategically placed in clever fashion to match the scene. For example, when Jude is working in a Liverpool shipyard in the 1960’s, he reminisces about a girl he has loved and lost to the tune of “Girl”. In a matching sequence Lucy frets about her current boyfriend heading off to the Vietnam War while singing “Hold Me Tight”.

The 1960’s time-period is brilliantly placed to add not only a clear juxtaposition to when the Beatles ruled the world, but during a frightening time in world history when many young soldiers died needlessly during the ravaging war. The mixture of the war, the songs, and the hybrid of live action and animation provides a magical, other-worldly quality that is perfect. It provides a feeling of escapism to the deadly war. The visuals and the gorgeous colors are a complete contrast to the grey and dark war elements.

Julie Taymor takes an anti-war, activist stance created through the main characters when Jude and Lucy proclaim themselves revolutionaries. This occurs when the war hits home after Lucy’s brother is drafted. They sadly realize they may never see Daniel again, and they are right. Taymor gives a personal touch to the characters and a political decision is made that shapes the film. I found the stance perfectly logical given the characters and their viewpoints, but some audience members could be turned off or feel slighted depending on their beliefs. I love the point she makes that war is bad.

Twenty-five of the vocal tracks are performed by one or more of the six lead cast members. My favorite treasures are the new takes on classic songs, especially “Come Together” and “With a Little Help from My Friends” which are unusual and elegant. When Daniel is killed in Vietnam, and in Detroit a young boy is killed in the 1967 riot (combined “Let It Be”), the moment is sentimental and powerful. A dry eye will not be left.

Locales such as Greenwich Village, New York City show the creative artists who inhabit those streets. The riot-fueled streets of Detroit, Michigan are featured, and finally the dirty and jungle killing fields of Vietnam provide a diverse slate of experiences. The love story and musical soundtrack provide exceptional emotion to an important and timeless film. Across the Universe (2007) is artistic and inspirational.

Oscar Nominations: Best Costume Design

About Schmidt-2002

About Schmidt-2002

Director-Alexander Payne

Starring-Jack Nicholson, Kathy Bates

Scott’s Review #1,054

Reviewed August 18, 2020

Grade: A-

Anyone familiar with the works of director Alexander Payne knows that the man is notorious for crafting pictures with a wry humor and dark sarcasm mixed with emotion. Election-1999, Sideways-2004, and The Descendants-2011 immediately spring to mind. Interestingly, several of his projects are set in Omaha, Nebraska, not exactly a hotbed of excitement, but there is a reason for this- he embraces the every man. Payne also has a knack for casting big stars, sometimes before they are big stars, giving them meaty and clever roles to sink their teeth into.

With About Schmidt (2002) he hits the jackpot and obtains the legendary Jack Nicholson, an actor famous for turning down many roles that simply aren’t good. This already bodes well for the film which spotlights an older character and plants the spotlight firmly on him, admirable in youth obsessed Hollywood. The film is very good, sometimes adding stock characters, but an admirable, worthwhile effort with surprisingly strong emotion and sentimentality. The result was both a critical and commercial success and is highly recommended.

The film kicks off showing Walter Schmidt (Nicholson) literally staring at the clock in his office, day after day counting the minutes until his shift concludes and he goes home for dinner. He has a dull job as an actuary at a life insurance company. Finally, one day he retires and feeling useless, sponsors an African child, the two become quick pen pals. Suddenly, Walter’s wife, Helen (June Squibb), dies as they are about to embark on a cross country trip in their Winnebago. Devastated, he finally goes it alone.

About Schmidt is a film with many emotions: happy, angry, sad. Walter is a lonely, unhappy man, in a loveless marriage with Helen, though he doesn’t have the heart to tell her. She’s a nice lady, but the honeymoon ended years ago, and the spark has dulled. At the same time, he has a tough time coping with her death and can barely cook, clean, or do laundry. He uncovers a secret about his wife that both turn his life into free fall and inspires him to conjure up the nerve to live a little.

Walter is a great character and exhibits traits of many, many men. He is someone for audiences (especially male) to relate to and fall in love with. Bored with life, he is used to doing the same thing every day, no doubt eating the same meals, going to bed at the same time each night, etc. Helen really dictates what he does, reducing him to urinating sitting down. Audiences will champion his reemergence to the land of the living! The fun is witnessing his escapades.

A hilarious sequence erupts when he meets the vivacious Roberta Hertzel (Kathy Bates). She is the mother of Walter’s daughter Jeannie’s (Hope Davis) intended, Randall (Dermot Mulroney) and has a voracious sexual appetite. She immediately sets her sights on Walter and attempts to seduce the unwitting man in her hot tub. Bates is terrific in the role and her nude scene is something to always remember and major props to the actress for letting it all hang out!

The characters of Jeannie and Randall are not written especially well, and I was not a fan at all. They are “types” meant to complicate the plot or effect other characters in some way. Actors Davis and Mulroney do their best with what they are provided, but they are meant to be obstacles for Walter to overcome. He loves his daughter and doesn’t want to see her marry a jerk. Jeannie is angry because her life hasn’t turned out the way she wanted it to, so she takes it out on Walter. I did not buy or bond with Jeannie or Randall the way I did with Walter and Roberta.

Nicholson’s performance is one of the best of his career and certainly the most multi-faceted. The final scene when he returns home to find a note from his pen pal with a sentimental crayon drawing is electric with emotion, feeling authentic and is a pivotal breakthrough for Walter. The character runs the course from submissive and lost to emboldened and strong. It’s a joy to watch his progression.

I love how Payne frequently celebrates and showcases older characters who are more than providers of advice, good listeners, or some other watered-down stock characters. They have their own stories and enriched, meaningful lives. About Schmidt (2002) has it all and is one of Payne’s top films deservedly showcasing this generation in cinema.

Oscar Nominations: Best Actor-Jack Nicholson, Best Supporting Actress-Kathy Bates

A Woman Under the Influence-1974

A Woman Under the Influence-1974

Director-John Cassavetes

Starring-Gena Rowlands, Peter Falk

Scott’s Review #1,051

Reviewed August 11, 2020

Grade: A

I champion films that are not necessarily easy to digest but are well-worth the struggle if the result is either a fantastic pay-off or the afterglow of watching something of worth or substance. A Woman Under the Influence (1974) is a grueling watch for the ferocious intensity alone that Gena Rowlands infuses into her emotionally challenged title character. Rowlands and director/writer/husband John Cassavetes changed the face of independent film forever with this project.

Critical film darling and fantastic director Cassavetes specifically wrote the screenplay of A Woman Under the Influence for Rowlands who wanted to play the character but could not take the strain of playing her eight days a week on stage as originally envisioned. Thus, the project was birthed using their own money to finance the making of it. Co-star Peter Falk also contributed financially. Each served as makeup artist, gofer, or performed other non-actor or non-director tasks to achieve the end results. A real house was used to film in rather than on a studio set.

The film was rebuffed by distributors and Cassavetes begged to have it shown at college campuses where he would discuss the film afterwards. It was the first time in the history of motion pictures that an independent film was distributed without the use of a nationwide system of sub-distributors. This is the main reason that Cassavetes is heralded as an independent film god and has a category named after him at the annual Independent Spirit Film Awards.

Rowlands parts mountains to make this role her own and she is passionate about it. Originally only seeing the legendary actress in one film, the gritty Gloria (1980), I kept a notion of her as the impatient, tough-as-nails, mobster girlfriend that she played in that excellent film (also directed by Cassavetes). In A Woman Under the Influence, made six years prior to Gloria, she plays a much more vulnerable, to say nothing of unhinged, character. This is not to say that Mabel is crazy in a psychotic sort of way. She is loving and adoring of her husband, Nick (Falk), and kids Margaret and Angelo. Rowlands puts her versatility on display.

In her desperate attempts to keep her family happy she tries to put on a brave front as she dutifully cooks dinner, puts her kids to bed, and kisses her husband. Inside though she is dying and unsure what is wrong with her. She knows she is unhappy and doesn’t know why. What she does know is that she is slowly going insane.

At the risk of making A Woman Under the Influence Rowland’s film as the title implies, it’s really not. Falk does not merely serve as a supporting player to her story but blossoms with one of his own. The story could have easily been told only from Mabel’s perspective, but we see such a range of emotions from Falk as his character tries desperately to keep it together. This is great acting. Nick thinks that inviting friends over to celebrate Mabel’s return home from the hospital is a good idea, and realizing it’s not, angrily sends them home. His emotions spiral as much as hers do, but in a different way.

The best scenes are the most emotionally taxing for all. When Mabel talks gibberish at a speed of a mile a minute, Nick tries to be patient but soon explodes with anger, sympathetic to his wife but also exhausted beyond belief. When Mabel and Nick spar fireworks explode. In pure Cassavetes genius there lies no solution to Mabel’s woes and we wonder what will happen to her. Will she eventually be institutionalized for life? Will she take her own life or someone else’s life? The vagueness is its beauty.

A Woman Under the Influence (1974) is one of the most realistic films ever made to focus on mental illness in a difficult and truthful way. To add boldness to the tough subject matter, especially given the time-period made when we now know more about the disease, Cassavetes and Rowlands add a feminist quality to the film while also showcasing the male point of view. 1970’s cinema oozed with creativity, richness, and experimentation. True artists emerged, who have created an important legacy on small budgeted films forever.

Oscar Nominations: Best Director-John Cassavetes, Best Actress-Gena Rowlands

The Tin Drum-1979

The Tin Drum-1979

Director-Volker Schlöndorff

Starring-David Bennent, Angela Winkler

Scott’s Review #1,047

Reviewed July 31, 2020

Grade: A

A fantastic and mesmerizing film experience that goes deeper than most films do the longer you stick with it, The Tin Drum (1979) takes a brutal point in world history and completes a layered production. The film brings humor morphing into tragedy and back again in the most original of ways seen through the eyes of a young boy named Oskar (David Bennent), who decides to physically grow no further than three-years-old in an allegory of political turmoil amid World War II. The film is riddled with thought provocation and historical meaning resulting in brilliance.

The film begins in 1899 and ends in the early 1940’s. The story starts hilariously in Polish lands when Oskar’s grandfather meets his grandmother while fleeing police. Their tryst in a potato field produces Oskar’s mother, Agnes (Angela Winkler). She is then later torn between two men, her cousin Jan (Daniel Olbrychski) and Alfred Matzerath (Mario Adorf), whom she marries. Oskar is born with his parentage in question since Agnes carries on an affair with Jan throughout the years. Oskar’s grandfather flees to America and becomes rich sans family.

When Oskar turns three, he is given a tin drum as a present that he adores and refuses to part with. He throws himself down the cellar stairs much to his family’s chagrin and develops the uncanny ability to shatter glass by screaming at a high pitch. As the 1930’s become the 1940’s Oskar witnesses his mother’s affair, her tragic death, his father’s and uncle’s deaths, and a beloved Jewish man committing suicide rather than being caught by the Nazis. He finds love with a sixteen-year-old shop girl named Maria and may or may not father her baby.

The Tin Drum is not always an easy watch and teeters between fun and frightening. Oskar is not the lovable kid next door that everyone adores. He is creepy looking and unattractive at first glance, almost demonic in nature. Actor David Bennent is perfectly cast and has a way of offering moments where he stands transfixed, mouth dropped open, taking in the action and making gazing observations. Oskar goes from three years old when the film begins to a grown man when it ends but never changes appearance.

Some viewers may be bothered by certain scenes. Bennent was only eleven years old and suffered from a growth defect in real-life. More prudish viewers may find the youngster’s intimacy a bit shocking since he appears nude and beds a woman in full view. I found it in no way gratuitous or exploitative and would argue that it is vital to show the growth and maturation of little Oskar. Foreign language films typically get away with more sex and nudity than American films, but the scenes are artistic and beautiful.

The pacing in The Tin Drum is terrific. At two hours and forty-three minutes there is plenty of time to explore relevant scenes and sequences slowly letting them brew and marinate. The comedy of Oskar’s grandparent’s sexual appetites taking place under her big dress are hilarious and reminiscent of Federico Fellini’s best films. The intriguing dwarf characters that Oskar meets and befriends bring life and zest to the film as they embrace their peculiarities and profit from them encouraging them to do the same.

The second half of The Tin Drum turns dark. Agnes, now pregnant, vomits after witnessing eel being collected on the beach. When they are prepared for dinner, she at first resists then embarks on a fish-eating obsession resulting in her untimely death. Is this an example of showing German’s stuffing themselves with Nazism? The deaths of Jan, Alfred, and others follow in rapid succession as clips of the Nazi occupation are featured.

A valuable history lesson is offered when The Tin Drum incorporates real-life footage of Adolph Hitler. Most frightening is a clip of him outside of the Eiffel Tower in Paris. How he overtook this magical city and almost destroyed it is unfathomable. This perfectly counterbalances the fairy-tale or ridiculousness of other scenes bringing home the terrible message that much of what the film explores are true events.

The greatness that oozes from The Tin Drum (1979) is layered and dynamic. The filming is mostly in West Germany with bits shot in Poland which gives an authenticity of the experience. Other offerings are surrealistic, sometimes child-like innocence, sometimes tragic and too realistic. The picture drizzles with life, energy, synergy, and multi-faceted character relationships. One of the greats to watch more than once to grasp the numerous things going on. The film version is adapted from the novel of the same name, written by Gunter Grass.

Oscar Nominations: Best Foreign Language Film (won)

Pain and Glory-2019

Pain and Glory-2019

Director-Pedro Almodovar

Starring-Antonio Banderas

Scott’s Review #1,042

Reviewed July 20, 2020

Grade: A-

Thought to be director Pedro Almodóvar’s most personal effort to date, Pain and Glory (2019) showcases the talents of actor Antonio Banderas, who has been appearing in Almodóvar’s films since 1982. A character study, the film poetically reflects on the life of an aging film maker (Banderas) who aches to find his lost creative soul while reminiscing about his first love. The triumphant film could have been faster paced, but above all celebrates life, regret, and pain, and is thus inspiring.

Salvador Mallo (Banderas) is a once well-known filmmaker well on the decline personally and professionally. He suffers from health maladies leaving him in chronic pain and has lost his knack for crafting good projects. When he runs into an old friend and actress, Zulema (Cecilia Roth), who barely acts anymore and is reduced to accepting any roles offered to her, he decides to visit the lead actor from his best-known film, Sabor. Salvador hasn’t spoken to Alberto (Asier Etxeandia) in thirty-years and both ruminate over the film as it is to be remastered and celebrated.

Once a subject of contention, Salvador and Alberto begin to smoke heroin prompting Salvador to revisit his childhood memories, rediscovering life. His most prominent memory is when he and his father and mother Jacinta (Penelope Cruz) move to a whitewashed cave to live. There he meets and befriends an older laborer, whom he teaches to read. Salvador discovers his sexuality through this young man after seeing him naked.

Years later, during the 1980’s, Salvador falls madly in love with Federico (Leonardo Sbaraglia) and the pair share a passionate love-affair that deteriorates at the end of the decade. In present times, Federico re-emerges and tracks down Salvador. They reconnect, sharing drinks and memories, nearly reigniting their passion. Federico is now married to a woman and raising kids in Argentina, but the powerful memories resurface, and the men flirt and gaze at one another longingly.

The film utterly belongs to Banderas. The actor has charisma in many other roles, but Salvador might be his crowning achievement. It’s such a personal role and written specifically for the actor by Almodóvar. He possesses the ability to grasp the viewer into his clutches and never let go. From the agonizing pain he experiences daily causing him to choke for no reason to his inability to fulfill his now elderly mother’s dying wish to die in her village after accusing him of never loving her, we empathize with him every step of the way.

His sexuality discovered and revealed at a young age, Salvador’s longing and unfulfilled passion are the most intricate and nuanced aspects of the film. As the laborer draws a picture of Salvador, which he rediscovers later, there is unspoken passion between the youngsters. In later years, his assistant nudges him to look the laborer up via Google, to see where he is, perhaps reconnecting. Salvador refuses, sinking in regret of what might have been.

To build on this, his fling with Federico as a young man, shown via flashbacks, is powerful. The scene when a teary Federico, during present times, sits in a theater weeping while watching Salvador’s play, is a testament to his love for the man. Unknown is why the relationship failed and Federico gave up men and succumbed to a traditional relationship, but we can only guess Salvador might not have been able to commit. When the men spend an evening together capped off with a passionate kiss but nothing more, we realize how they could have built a wonderful life together. Props to Sbaraglia for a tremendous performance in a small role.

Assuredly, Pain and Glory was patterned after 8 1/2, a 1963 masterpiece penned and directed by Federico Fellini. The themes of regret, writer’s block, and memories come into play throughout both films. Almodóvar even names Salvador’s lover Federico, an obvious tribute to the famous director, known for infusing stylistic touches and non-linear stories.

Like most of Almodóvar’s other projects, Pain and Glory celebrates vibrant colors, sexuality, and passion in its themes. Set in Madrid, the film has a zesty, cultured Spanish flair with blues, greens and oranges. Even though the overarching theme is loss, pain, and missed opportunities, the film is still stacked with rich energy and pizzazz. For those with a fondness for acting, cinema, or creativity there is enough to satisfy.

After decades in the spotlight crafting film after film with resounding results, Pain and Glory (2019) may be the cream of the crop for the Spanish director. Thanks in large part to the tremendous efforts of a legendary actor, the experience will please fans of the director’s and anyone with a taste for a film about zest for life, unfulfilled pleasures, and new experiences.

Oscar Nominations: Best Actor-Antonio Banderas, Best International Feature Film

Ford v Ferrari-2019

Ford v Ferrari-2019

Director-James Mangold

Starring-Matt Damon, Christian Bale

Scott’s Review #1,041

Reviewed July 18, 2020

Grade: B-

Ford v Ferrari (2019) is a film based on a real-life situation in the world of race car driving featuring two of Hollywood’s most recognizable leading men, Matt Damon and Christian Bale. Co-leads, they share equal screen time and independent story lines that merge together nicely. Bale gives the better performance and is the best part of an otherwise mediocre film. The rest is quite formulaic and traditional in plot and film making sensibilities. Receiving several Academy Award nominations, I expected more from the experience. Granted, car racing isn’t the subject I’m most intrigued by.

Carroll Shelby (Damon) is an American car designer and entrepreneur, who is hired by the Ford motor company to build a car that will beat the Italian owned Ferrari after a feud erupts between the two owners. Shelby is tasked with building the car to debut at the upcoming 1966 24 Hours of Le Mans car race in France. Rebellious race car driver, Ken Miles (Bale) who has no fear, is chosen to drive the new car. He and his wife have money troubles and need the pay day.

Director, James Mangold, certainly adds his share of pomp and circumstance clearly making this a testosterone fueled guy’s film. Traditional styles ensue as the climactic race fills the last act of the way too long production. There is a story of loyalty and brotherhood between Carroll and Ken that feels forced and dated. Ford v Ferrari is formulaic to a tee with a clear modus operandi of providing entertainment and action.

The pieces are all in play. The Ford corporation is pissed at being tricked in a deal by a foreign country (Italy). They vow revenge with a big boy American car that can defeat the foreign car. There is a climactic finish with the American car the clear victor. But first, there are hurdles to face to increase the tension and drama. Ken’s driver door malfunctions causing him to have to gain laps to catch up to Ferrari. Ford is written as the underdog which is a tough sell.

Since the real-life events took place during the Cold War, Mangold spins a definitive Americana, good old boys’ creation that feels too patriotic to be genuine. So many other films have a similar vibe- Apollo 13 (1995), The Martian (2015), and especially the similar themed Rush (2013). The Ford guys, though cagey and gruff, are meant to be the characters the audience roots for and the Italian characters are not. And is there really a need to still show the cliched scene of a dedicated wife obediently watching television at home and cheering on her husband as he races?

The gripes are not to say the film is a bad experience- it’s not. It’s just that it’s on par with good Mexican takeout from your favorite restaurant. You know exactly what you are going to get and there is some comfort and satisfaction in that. Ford v Ferrari is an easy watch and one can sink into his or her lazy-boy and enjoy the revving engines, squealing tires, and smoking mufflers. The film is machismo at its finest. Think a better version of The Fast and the Furious (2001-present) franchise.

Let’s talk Oscar nominations. There is no way Ford v Ferrari should have received a Best Picture nomination. Either Us (2019), Hustlers (2019), or A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (2019) could have deservedly taken its spot. Warranted are nominations for Film Editing, Sound Editing and Sound Mixing in which it won the first two. More realistic is for Christian Bale to have been awarded a Best Supporting Actor nomination, which he did not receive. Sometimes the Academy gets it right, sometimes they don’t.

Being a non-race car driving aficionado might have hindered my enjoyment of the film over a more passionate viewer. For those seeking a standard rev ’em up, male driven race car film, kick up your heels and enjoy the ride- you’ll love it. Ford v Ferrari (2019) will only marginally please those seeking deeper meaning in film or film as art. The film will certainly be remembered as one as mainstream and Hollywood produced as humanly possible.

Oscar Nominations: Best Picture, Best Sound Editing (won), Best Sound Mixing, Best Film Editing (won)

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”

Law of Desire-1987

Law of Desire-1987

Director-Pedro Almodovar

Starring-Antonio Banderas, Eusebio Poncela, Carmen Maura

Scott’s Review #1,021

Reviewed May 8, 2020

Grade: B+

Law of Desire or La ley del deseo (as translated in original Spanish) is a 1987 film written and directed by Pedro Almodóvar. Quite groundbreaking for its time and penned by a respected director, the film was rich in offering what was rarely presented in films during the 1980’s- a complex love triangle between two men and a trans woman. The fact that the trans woman is the sister of one of the men is a bonus to the buttery soap opera premise.

In 2020, when LGBTQ+ films are more plentiful in cinema (at least at the indie level), Law of Desire suffers slightly from a dated feel and parts drag along. It’s tough to heavily criticize a piece so brazen as this one was when it was released to art-house theaters and musty metropolitan theaters. As groundbreaking as the film must be given credit for, the story now feels sillier than it should, and more outlandish than it probably intended to be over thirty years ago.

The fabulous setting of Madrid, Spain is the backdrop for the luscious tale of love, obsession, jealousy, and revenge, think the prime-time television series Dynasty on steroids. Cocky Pablo (Eusebio Poncela), a successful gay film director with his pick from a bevy of young, good-looking gay males, is madly in love with Juan (Miguel Molina), though he has a roving eye. Suave Antonio (Antonio Banderas), who comes from a conservative family, is new to the gay scene and falls madly in love with Pablo when Juan goes to find himself. Tina (Carmen Maura), who likes men and women, has just been dumped and is vulnerable.

Besides the obvious daring gender bending this story could be a simple one told many times across many genres. Almodóvar spins things into a frenzy as the plot unfolds adding manipulations, sub-plots, and bizarre characters into the mix.  For example, Ada is Tina’s surrogate daughter and is a precocious ten-year-old girl in love with Pablo. Ada refuses to go back with her mother (Bibi Andersen) when she comes back to whisk her off to Milan to meet a man she just met.

The gay subtext is what is center stage here. Back in the 1980’s, the term LGBTQ+ was on nobody’s radar and having any representation at all in cinema was still territory barely scratching the surface. This point kept returning to me over the course of the film and imagining how fresh the experience would have been to any gay man or gay woman fortunate enough to have seen it. I am not sure any of the characters would serve as great role models, but the representation is nice. Almodóvar adds in a good deal of naked flesh for an added treat.

Several comic scenes arise with gusto. Antonio, who lives at home with a religious zealot of a mother, convinces Pablo to sign his letters from “Laura P”, a character from his latest play, to trick Antonio’s nosy mama. Tina, not much of an actress, is cast in Pablo’s one-woman theatrical productions. She thinks her performance is great, Pablo thinks she stinks. The comical moments are the ones that work best, giving the plentiful offbeat characters a chance to let loose and shine.

Towards the conclusion, Law of Desire takes a tragic and Shakespearean turn. A drunken Juan is thrown off a cliff to his death prompting an investigation with Antonio and Pablo both prime suspects. Finally, a kidnapping and police stand-off ensue with a murder/suicide providing the film’s final moments.

I am not a fan of the title that Almodóvar chooses. Preferable would be a title that is a bit more titillating. Even Lust of Desire or Object of My Desire would have been better choices. Law of Desire screams of a tepid episode of television’s Law & Order. For a director with such an outlandish approach and such bizarre characters the title is bland, banal and tough to remember.

For those seeking a kinky and provocative late-night affair will find Law of Desire (1987) a good old time. It lacks much of a clear message instead providing a sexy romp and dreary ending. Running the gamut of adding musical score pieces as unique as 1970’s The Conformist, a film also shrouded in same sex desire, to cheesy 1980’s synth laden beats, adds some confusion. Nonetheless, diversity and inclusiveness are good recipes to chow down on and celebrate.

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

Death in Venice-1971

Death in Venice-1971

Director-Luchino Visconti

Starring-Dirk Bogarde, Romolo Valli

Scott’s Review #1,014

Reviewed April 22, 2020

Grade: A

Death in Venice (1971) is a haunting and tragic story of a depressed middle-aged man who becomes obsessed with a fourteen-year-old Polish boy while on holiday in Venice. The story on the surface is dark and dour and not for the judgmental or the closed-minded. With a deeper dive and a haunting musical score the film provides beauty and impressionism. The film is based on the original novella Death in Venice, written by German author Thomas Mann, published in 1912 as Der Tod in Venedig.

Gustav von Aschenbach (Dirk Bogarde) is a lonely composer who travels to Venice for health reasons and a recipe for recovery. His maladies are unclear at the start but is assumed to be sent to the picturesque city as a form of therapy. While enjoying a tranquil holiday, he spots and becomes obsessed with the stunning, youthful beauty of Tadzio (Bjorn Andresen), who is staying with his family at the luxurious Grand Hôtel des Bains, just as Gustav is. Their encounters run rampant as they are viewed by the audience from afar, but never speak to each other.

This is the brilliance of Death in Venice. A more standard approach may have been to make the story more forceful. If Gustav dared to have approached, harassed, or even molested Tadzio, the direction of the film would have vastly changed, and he would have been deemed a pervert. Suddenly the film would have been about a pedophile preying on a youngster, rather than incorporating a beautiful subtext of longing and unfulfilled passion. The masterful classical numbers that open and close the film help to achieve this mindset.

The controversial subject matter, still taboo by today’s progressive standards, is not gratuitous, but is quite obsessive. Worthy of mention is that Gustav’s plight begins harmless enough as he appreciates a beautiful image, almost like gazing at a sculpture- think Michelangelo’s David-since we are in Italy. But when he begins to follow Tadzio and see him more and more his desperation increases as his health deteriorates. For a while it is unclear whether the boy even realizes he is an object of affection. It is Gustav’s feelings and emotions that are most explored.

As a side-story, the city of Venice is gripped by a cholera epidemic, and the city authorities do not inform the holiday-makers of the problem for fear that they will flee the vital city. In 2020, with the vicious Covid-19 pandemic gripping the world with savage ferocity, this classic film takes on a whole new importance. When the Venice officials downplay the epidemic as tourists increasingly fall ill, a modern realism is conjured to the audience.

Death in Venice, as the title should make clear, is not a love story, otherwise it would be called Love in Venice. Gustav’s lust for Tadzio is unrequited. Neither is Gustav’s own sexuality clear, though he is assumed to be bisexual. In one of the film’s saddest scenes, also the finale, Gustav lounges on the sandy beach in ill health dressed in an improper white suit. He sees Tadzio playfully frolicking with an older boy and afterwards walks away and turns back to look at Gustavo. As Tadzio outreaches his arms towards the water, Gustav does the same as if he is enveloping the boy. The moment is breathtaking.

Many symbolic and meaningful scenes occur like when Gustav visits a barber who insists he will return his customer to his youth. The results are ghastly. Dyeing his grey hair black and whitening his face and reddening his lips to try and make him look younger leaves a macabre and somber image of a man feebly attempting to turn back the hands of time, something all of us can relate to. His heavily made up face are meant to hide his insecurities.

Incorporating an ingenious mix of beauty, tragedy, obsession, and loneliness, Italian director, Luchino Visconti crafts a brilliant and painful dissection of human emotion. The subject matter of Death in Venice (1971) will not appeal to all viewers, but those brave enough to traverse the sometimes-rocky waters will find an underlying treasure and a meaningful cinematic experience.

Oscar Nominations: Best Costume Design

A Few Good Men-1992

A Few Good Men-1992

Director-Rob Reiner

Starring-Tom Cruise, Jack Nicholson, Demi Moore

Scott’s Review #1,012

Reviewed April 15, 2020

Grade: B+

A Few Good Men (1992) is a film firmly ensconced in the mainstream Hollywood courtroom drama genre. If all the necessary elements had not been well- weaved the results might have been trite or even cringe-worthy. Nonetheless, with big stars and excellent acting, director Rob Reiner (yes, “Meathead” from All in the Family), lucks out with a predictable screenplay that compels and is made better by the sum of its parts. The film will never bore and is a standard edge-of-your-seat thrill ride.

The drama was rewarded with several year-end niceties including several nominations for the upper-crust Academy Awards. Best Supporting Actor, Best Film Editing, Best Sound Mixing, and surprisingly the lofty Best Picture statuette. With no shame for the embarrassment of riches, deserved or undeserved is the real question, the film walked away empty-handed on Oscar night.

When cocky and handsome military lawyer Lieutenant Daniel Kaffee (Tom Cruise) and his co-counsel, Lieutenant Commander JoAnne Galloway (Demi Moore), are assigned to a murder case, their investigation uncovers a hazing ritual that could implicate high-ranking officials. U.S. Marines Lance Corporal Harold Dawson (Wolfgang Bodison) and Private First Class Louden Downey (James Marshall) are facing a general court-martial, accused of murdering fellow Marine William Santiago at the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base in Cuba.

Kaffee and Galloway are to determine if higher ranking officers orchestrated and forced the lower-ranking men to carry out a “code red” order: a violent extrajudicial punishment, and their own form of justice, to kill the young victim, thus silencing him forever. The questionable part of the plot is whether Base Camp Commander Jessup (Jack Nicholson) administered the order or instead ordered Santiago’s commanding officer, Lieutenant Jonathan James Kendrick (Kiefer Sutherland), to merely “train” Santiago to become a better Marine. This is where the courtroom drama takes center stage with gusto.

As good as Moore, Sutherland, and Marshall are in offering compelling roles, the film belongs to Cruise and Nicholson, certainly the veterans of the group. The best scenes come at the end of the film as Cruise and Nicholson spar in the courtroom with bombast and trickery. Nicholson as Jessup is brooding and traditional, clearly a lifelong military man channeling honor and dedication at any cost. Cruise as Kaffee has something to prove and wants to win at any costs. So, they tangle in a fierce machismo way. When he catches Jessup in a lie, just like a spider captures a fly, the scenes crackle and spark with grit and energy. The unforgettable line, “You can’t handle the truth!” is uttered by Nicholson.

A Few Good Men will both satisfy and dissatisfy those with a connection or a penchant for the military. On the one hand, the military is celebrated during the film as the need for efficiency in the world and the decorated appeal are to be admired. But the film also stands up and questions the hypocrisy of one of the oldest establishments and its male domination and bullying methods not so different from a classic college fraternity. The courtroom trial of a patriotic group is serious business.

While not a revolutionary film, sticking to a tried and true courtroom drama script seen in television drama series since the beginning of time, A Few Good Men (1992) provides a hefty two-hour and twenty minutes worth of pure entertainment. Powerful acting across the board make the film a superior experience and a thought-provoking message of whether blindly following orders without a thought is still a relevant approach, not just in the military, but anywhere.

Oscar Nominations: Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor-Jack Nicholson, Best Sound, Best Film Editing

A Dangerous Method-2011

A Dangerous Method-2011

Director-David Cronenberg

Starring-Keira Knightley, Viggo Mortensen, Michael Fassbender

Scott’s Review #1,009

Reviewed April 9, 2020

Grade: B+

A literal psychological themed drama, if ever there was one, director David Cronenberg uses popular actors of the day to create a film based on a non-fiction book. Famous psychoanalysts, Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung share a tumultuous relationship when they catch the eye of the first female psychoanalyst, who was a patient of each. Thanks to a talented cast and an independent feel, the result is a compelling piece and a historical lesson in sexual titillation, jealousy, passion, and drama, among real-life elite sophisticates.

Set on the eve of World War I in Zurich, Switzerland, a young woman, Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley), suffering from hysteria begins a new course of treatment with the young Swiss doctor Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender). He uses word association, dream interpretation, and other experimental methods as part of his approach to psychoanalysis and finds that Spielrein’s condition was triggered by the humiliation and sexual arousal she felt as a child when her father spanked her naked. They embark on a torrid affair.

Jung and friend and confidante, Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen) explore various psychoanalytical methods, but cracks appear in their friendship as they begin to disagree more frequently on matters of psychoanalysis. When Spielrein, now a student, meets Freud, she confides her relationship with Jung to him, which leads to animosity between the men. Spielrein embarks on other lovers as she attempts to reconcile the geniuses, to allow for their psychoanalysis studies to continue to develop with relevancy.

The film is intelligently written and for any viewer fascinated with psychology or sexual interest, a wonderful marvel. Since Freud and Jung are two of the most recognizable names in behavioral science and Spielrein one of the most influential women in the field, the production is as much a historical and biographical study as it is dramatic enjoyment. Spanking, bondage, and sexual humiliation for gratification and pleasure, strong taboos at the turn of the twentieth century, are explored and embraced in delicious and wicked style.

Of course, given that Fassbender, Mortensen, and Knightley are easy on the eyes provides further stimulation than if less attractive actors were cast. Nonetheless, what the actors provide in eye-candy is equally matched by their acting talent as each one immerses themselves into each pivotal role. In clever and unique fashion, the film is not a trite romantic triangle or giddy formulaic genre movie. Rather, the sets, costumes, and cinematography are fresh and grip the audience.

Carl Jung is the central figure here as both his personal and professional experiences are given plenty of screen time. He wrestles between remaining committed to his wife or giving in to his deepest desires with Speilrein- we can guess how this turns out! The early scenes between Fassbender and Knightley crackle with passion and will make many blush and smirk with naughtiness.

The title of the film is bold but doesn’t always live up given the subject matter. More sensual, fun, and intelligent than dangerous, the film is hardly raw or gritty, surprising given it’s an independent project. It is softer to the touch, especially during scenes between Jung and Speilrein, than hard-edged. Many early psychoanalytical ideas of approach and remedy are discussed and explored making the film more of a study than a thriller.

A Dangerous Method (2011) received stellar reviews and year-end awards consideration, but unsuccessful box-office returns. Hardly a popcorn film and deeply accepting of its indie roots, the film ought to be shown in high-school or academic psychology classes- whether in abnormal or general studies remains a question. With a fascinating story that risks making the prudish blush or turn away, the film will please those independent thinkers, sexual deviants, or those aching for an expressive and satisfying film.

Exodus-1960

Exodus-1960

Director-Otto Preminger

Starring-Paul Newman, Eva Marie Saint

Scott’s Review #1,005

Reviewed March 30, 2020

Grade: A-

Creating a monumental epic about the modern state of Israel, director Otto Preminger’s vast project Exodus (1960) is a bold adaptation of the Leon Uris novel from 1958. Starring stars of the day for added Hollywood spice and a romantic element, the result is a sprawling war drama with robust proportions and a hefty running time. At times the film lags or even drags, but the enormous importance of the message and the influence of stimulating Zionism should never be forgotten.

With the treacherous World War II barely in the rear-view mirror, Israeli resistance fighter, Ari Ben Canaan (Paul Newman), attempts to bring six-hundred European Jewish Holocaust survivors from British-blockaded Cyprus into newly developed Palestine. He meets Kitty Fremont (Eva Marie Saint), an American volunteer nurse, at the camp. The pair team-up, along with others, to attempt to liberate the survivors.

The action eventually switches to Palestine where other characters and motives come into play in a complex story. During this time, opposition to the partition of Palestine into Arab and Jewish states is heating up, leading to tension, bombs, and death among similar types of people. Central to the main plot is a young love-story involving spirited Dov Landau (Sal Mineo), a radical Zionist resistance group member, and Karen Hansen Clement (Jill Haworth), a young Danish-Jewish girl searching for the father from whom she was separated during the war.

Exodus has so much story going on and multiple plots to follow. The main draw, besides the tense story, are the two love stories told amid the political turmoil. Newman and Saint have marginal chemistry, he is eye-candy who electrifies the screen, she seems too old for him and does not photograph well. Kitty, a widow, hedges on her romantic feelings for Ari, but they do ultimately unite. A gorgeous sequence occurs when the two share a delicious meal of fish and martinis amid a rooftop restaurant overlooking the dazzling landscape. She later dines with his parents, his mother a classic Jewish mother who in stereotypical fashion, cooks and fusses.

The fresh-faced pairing of Dov and Karen is reminiscent of Tony and Maria from West Side Story. Doomed from the start, the youngsters are opposites in many ways, he hot-headed, she sensible and resilient. He is bronze and swarthy, she is blonde and blue-eyed. I fell in love with the couple, more than Ari and Kitty, and rooted for their happily-ever-after moment, which sadly never occurred.

At nearly four hours in length, the film is best watched in segments, perhaps even four, to let the action marinate overnight. The complex drama is aided by the sweeping cinematic photography and the lush exterior sequences. A drawback was not getting to see the film on the big-screen, almost a must in hindsight, and limited by the DVD quality over Blu-Ray. Nonetheless, the film is delicious in nearly every way. Just when tedium is about to occur, an event happens that snaps the viewer back to immediate attention.

A notable fun fact is that Preminger boldly hired blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, on the dreaded Hollywood blacklist for over a decade for communist leanings, to write the script Together with Spartacus (1960), made the same year, Exodus is credited with ending the practice of Blacklisting in the motion picture industry. The importance of what is written on the blank page is arguably surpassed by the man who wrote those pages.

Exodus (1960) nearly rivals the epic of all epics, Lawrence of Arabia (1962) in its cinematography of exotic and sacred landscapes in daring and forbidding lands. Perhaps twenty minutes or so could be carved out when the action loses momentum, but with great direction, a top tier cast, and a historical lesson in the harshness of war and generations of conflict, makes the film resonate with the realism of the subject matter.

Oscar Nominations: Best Supporting Actor-Sal Mineo, Best Music Score of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture (won), Best Cinematography, Color

A Better Life-2011

A Better Life-2011

Director-Chris Weitz

Starring-Demian Bichir, Jose Julian

Scott’s Review #1,004

Reviewed March 26, 2020

Grade: B+

A Better Life (2011) is a heartwarming and timely project that focuses and showcases the Hispanic culture, both positively and negatively. The subject matter of illegal immigration is studied amid a powerful family drama. Lead actor, Demian Bichir, deservedly received a Best Actor Oscar nomination for his sensitive portrayal of a man wanting only the best for his son while having life odds stacked against him. The film is an atypical Hollywood production, told simply and with heart.

Carlos Galindo (Bichir), is a struggling Los Angeles gardener who manicures the lawns of the rich and famous in sunny California with his partner and close friend Blasco. Carlos lives a content life but is always on guard because he is an illegal immigrant and worries about his son Luis (Jose Julian) falling in with the wrong crowd. When one day Carlos’s sister loans him $12,000 to purchase a truck, he needs for his job, the man hits his stride, only to have the truck stolen. Desperate, Carlos and Luis are determined to get back the truck while avoiding trouble with the law.

The title of the film, while basic and not sexy, is powerful in its simplicity.  Bold and thought-provoking, this is merely what Carlos wants for Luis and what every father wants for his son. His trials and tribulations a constant, he strives to teach Luis to steer a positive path and avoid mistakes that Carlos has made. Regardless of the political discussion the film could have, what lies beneath is a heartwarming story of cherished love between a man and his son. In clever fashion, the film provides a hopeful final message for both major characters.

I adore the rich Mexican culture represented in the film. A battle of traditional appreciation of one’s roots versus immersing oneself in the American culture are examined. Nearly the entire cast is of Hispanic descent and the numerous scenes of ethnic flavor, from restaurants and cafes, to nightclubs and street life, the film feels authentic and fresh. Thankfully, the film makers do not try to pull off the insulting ploy of casting white actors clad in Mexican garb or a big-name actor in the role of Carlos. Many of the characters even seem like non-actors.

The setting of Los Angeles is highly successful, especially since the low-budget independent film uses eons of exterior shots. The camerawork is not exceptional but feels fresh, letting the warm climate marinate with viewers so that he or she feels implanted in the southern Californian neighborhoods. The contrast of the East Los Angeles area where Carlos lives versus where he works are a harsh reality for most landscapers.

Bichir more than deserves the accolades reaped upon him for this mesmerizing and intelligent role. He quietly portrays an empathetic man who is an unsung hero and a representative of many fathers never getting their due respect, especially if they are undocumented immigrants. When Luis denounces Mexican music, the pain is evident on the face of Carlos as he must endure what surely breaks his heart. The realism and the truth of the characters is led by Bichir.

A Better Life (2011) is a story rich with poignancy and relevance as the plight of a good man is showcased. Now almost ten years ago, the film is arguably more important than ever since immigration has become a hot ticket item in the turbulent political climate. Do hardworking, undocumented people deserve a break for being in the United States? The answer seems obvious and the film skews steadily to the left, but is there really any other strong viewpoint?

Oscar Nominations: Best Actor-Demian Bichir

Independent Spirit Award Nominations: Best Male Lead-Demian Bichir

A Beautiful Mind-2001

A Beautiful Mind-2001

Director-Ron Howard

Starring-Russell Crowe, Jennifer Connelly

Scott’s Review #1,003

Reviewed March 25, 2020

Grade: A-

A Beautiful Mind (2001) is a superior made film based on the life and times of American mathematician John Nash, a Nobel Laureate in Economics and Abel Prize winner. The biography explores Nash’s battles with schizophrenia and the delusions he suffered, causing tremendous stress on friends and family. The film is well-written and brilliantly acted, but deserves a demerit for factual inaccuracies, especially related to Nash’s complex sexuality and family life. This leaves a gnawing paint-by-the-numbers approach for mass appeal only.

The film was an enormous success, winning four Academy Awards, for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Supporting Actress. It was also nominated for Best Actor, Best Film Editing, Best Makeup and Best Original Score. Arguably one of the best films of 2001, it cemented director Ron Howard’s reputation as a mainstream force to be reckoned with in the Hollywood world. The project was inspired by the Pulitzer Prize-nominated book of the same name.

Starting off in 1947, we meet Nash (Russell Crowe) as a virginal and socially awkward college scholar, studying at Princeton University. He is a whiz at science and mathematics, coming up with unique and dynamic ideas to problem-solve. Rising the ranks in respectability, he is given an important job with the United States Department of Defense, tasked with thwarting Soviet plots. He becomes increasingly obsessive about searching for hidden patterns and believes he is being followed, sinking further into depression and secrecy.

A Beautiful Mind is an important film because it brings to light the overwhelming issue of mental health and the struggles one suffering from it is forced to endure. Nash largely lives in a fantasy world and has imaginary friends who have followed him for decades by the time the film ends. Nash conquers his demons with little aid of medication causing a controversial viewpoint. Amazing that the man was able to rise above, but is this a realistic message for those suffering from hallucinations?

Russell Crowe carries the film, fresh off his Oscar win the year before for his stunning turn in Gladiator (2000). Certainly, he would have won for portraying Nash had he not recently received the coveted prize. Crowe, hunky at this point in his life, convincingly brings the brainy and nerdy character, rather than the stud, to life, adding layers of empathy and warmth to the role. We root for the man because he is as much sensitive as he is a genius.

Jennifer Connelly, in what is disparagingly usually described as the wife or the girlfriend role, does her best with the material given. My hunch is her Oscar nomination and surprising win has more to do with piggybacking off the slew of other nominations the film received. She is competent as the supportive yet strong Alicia, wife of Nash. In her best scene, she flees the house after a confused Nash leaves their infant daughter near a full bath tub, putting her life in danger.

The most heartfelt scene of the film occurs during the conclusion. After many years of struggle, Nash eventually triumphs over this tragedy, and finally, late in life, receives the Nobel Prize. This is a grand culmination of the man’s achievements and a sentimental send-off for the film. The aging makeup of all principle characters, specifically Nash and Alicia are brilliantly done.

Despite the heaps of accolades reaped on A Beautiful Mind, several factual points are reduced to non-existence. Questionable is why Howard chose not to explore Nash’s rumored bisexuality, instead passing him off as straight. Admittedly, the film is not about sexuality, but isn’t this a misrepresentation of truth? Nash had a second family, which is also never mentioned. These tidbits eliminated from the film leave a glossy feel, like Howard picked and chose what to tell and not to tell for the sake of the mainstream audience.

Bringing needed attention to a problem of epic proportions, A Beautiful Mind (2001) recognizes the issue of mental health in the United States. The methods may be questionable, and the film has an overall safe “Hollywood” vibe but must be credited for a job well-done in a film that is not only important but displays a good biography for viewers eager to learn about a genius who faced unrelenting issues.

Oscar Nominations: Best Picture (won), Best Director-Ron Howard (won), Best Actor-Russell Crowe, Best Supporting Actress-Jennifer Connelly (won), Best Screenplay Based on Material Previously Produced or Published/Adapted Screenplay (won), Best Original Score, Best Makeup, Best Film Editing

50/50-2011

50/50-2011

Director-Jonathan Levine

Starring-Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Seth Rogan

Scott’s Review #1,001

Reviewed March 17, 2020

Grade: B+

The subject matter of cancer is an incredibly tricky one to portray in film. Especially tough when any comedic bits are incorporated- the risk lies in jokes not going over well or being misinterpreted. With 50/50, director Jonathan Levine and writer Will Reiser craft and intelligent and genuine story, based on a true one, led by upstart actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt, shining in the lead role. Comic actor Seth Rogan is on board cementing the comedy elements.

Otherwise healthy twenty-something Seattle resident, Adam Lerner (Gordon-Levitt) experiences severe back pain and is shocked to learn he has a malignant tumor in his spine. Devastated, his world is turned upside down. He is usually accompanied by best friend Kyle (Rogan). While Kyle is brash and outspoken, Adam is reserved and mild-mannered. They are opposites, but inseparable friends. Adam is dating artist Rachael (Bryce Dallas Howard), whom Kyle despises adding conflict to the story.

The screenplay and Gordon-Levitt’s performance are the superior aspects of 50/50. The title of the film is poignant because Adam is given the dubious news that he has only a 50/50 chance of surviving his cancer. The young actor provides heart and soul to his challenging role and his acting is such that scenes do not feel cliched or manufactured. This, naturally, is due to the excellent writing by Will Reiser. He crafts a sincere script that is straightforward, avoiding razzle-dazzle, but one that is also heartfelt.

My only criticism with 50/50 is that I would have liked a bit more darkness. As we all know, real-life cancer patients must endure the ravages that the brutal disease inflict. The film never really goes there and shows how devious the disease is and what happens to the human body. I get that the film tows the line carefully, but despite shaving his head, Adam does not lose much weight or suffer other visible indignities. The toned-down approach feels PG- rated rather than R-rated as it might have been.

This can largely be forgiven because the main message of the film supersedes this point. The film shows that love and friendship can be the best healers and the root of good, kind, humanity. This is something every viewer can take and learn from and it makes the film lovely and worthy to witness. The romantic comedy elements do not work, and I am not even sure they are necessary. The main draw is the undying friendship between Adam and Kyle and Adam’s experiences with other cancer patients along his journey.

Combining comedy and cancer are not easy tasks, but thanks to exceptional writing and a talented cast, 50/50 (2011) succeeds in its achievements. The film and Gordon-Levitt were rewarded with Golden Globe nominations but missed out on any Oscar nominations. If the intended result of the film, to ease cancer patient’s minds about their situations, and provide some meaningful entertainment, the film is a major win.

Independent Spirit Award Nominations: Best Feature, Best Supporting Female-Anjelica Huston, Best First Screenplay (won)

Giant Little Ones-2019

Giant Little Ones-2019

Director-Keith Behrman

Starring-Josh Wiggins, Darren Mann

Scott’s Review #1,000

Reviewed March 13, 2020

Grade: B+

Giant Little Ones (2019) is an independent LGBTQ film about both coming to terms with one’s own sexuality and accepting and embracing other people for whom they love, and how they wish to spend their life. It’s an honest and resilient coming-of-age story, most reminiscent (but rawer) of the recent Love, Simon (2018), told from a teenager’s perspective and the pressures and emotions of youth. The subject matter has been done to death at this point in cinema but there is still something fresh and meaningful that is offered.

High school chums Franky Winter (Josh Wiggins) and Ballas Kohl (Darren Mann) have been best friends since diapers. They joke around, go bike-riding, and knock back a six-pack together. They are handsome, integral parts of the swim team, and popular with girls. Each has a steady girlfriend who they anticipate soon going all the way with. Any teenage miscast would love to trade their lives with the boys.

On the night of Franky’s seventeenth birthday party, Franky and Ballas get drunk together and spend the night crashing in the same bed. An unclear incident, sexual in nature, occurs, changing and damaging their friendship. Each boy has one sister and a set of parents, but Franky’s are more prominent, with a story of their own. His father, Ray (Kyle MacLachlan) divorced Franky’s mother, Carly (Mario Bello) after coming to terms with being gay.

While the focal point is on the teen set, and on Franky more than Ballas, it is nice to see parents in these types of films with more to do than pour coffee or dole out unheeded advice. MacLachlan and Bello are fascinating to watch, carefully distant from each other, but also having a mutual respect. Both character’s struggles are pointed out- Carly angrily lashing out that Ray was certainly not gay when she married him; Ray experiencing guilt at wounding Franky emotionally.

The film is careful, admiringly so, to include two high school students who are already outwardly gay. The characters are not ridiculed or repressed, and one, Franky’s best friend Mouse (Niamh Wilson) is assumed to be slowly coming to terms with being transgender. The other is a popular boy on the swim team. These representations are strong, though both characters face some level of opposition, so their plights are not easy.

The best and most heartfelt scene is when Franky and Ray reconnect as father and son in treasured dialogue where Ray explains how he met his partner. The beautiful moment blossoms because it’s Franky who asks Ray how he and his partner met. Any LGBTQ person can attest to the powerful and heartwarming moment when they are asked about their significant other. The proud look in Ray’s eyes and the quiet cadence in which he carefully warns Franky not to label himself, but rather stick with those he connects to, is lovely and sentimental.

I like how Giant Little Ones is not a love story between the two boys and ambiguous is not only whether their friendship can be fixed, but whether one or both is gay, bi-sexual, curious, or merely experimenting with their individual sexuality. The film avoids labels or boasting a clear-cut angle avoiding anything too preachy or defined. This supports its overall point.

A small criticism is that, despite the boys being best friend’s and on equal footing, Franky becomes the central character and Ballas is not explored very well. Ballas borders on sociopathic behavior and has a ton of anger, but why? Is it only his sexuality? The character remains mostly a mystery and I was dying to know more about him and what makes him tick.

Giant Little Ones (2019) is a heartfelt and intimate coming-of-age story about friendship, self-discovery, and the power of love without labels. The young actors are both natural, believable, and earnest, and the seasoned supporting cast lends credibility to a very small, low-budget picture. The LGBTQ community will embrace this film while anyone else will be touched by its honesty and poignancy.

Bread and Chocolate-1974

Bread and Chocolate-1974

Director-Franco Brusati

Starring-Nino Manfredi

Scott’s Review #996

Reviewed March 6, 2020

Grade: B

Bread and Chocolate (1974), known as Pane e cioccolata in Italian is a mixed dramatic and comedic offering by director, Franco Brusati, a well-known Italian screenwriter and director. The film is charming and tells of one man’s trials and tribulations trying to make it as a migrant worker in a foreign country- in this case neighboring Switzerland. He is conflicted by the opportunities presented and the catastrophic way his life is screwed up at every turn. The film is meaningful and poignant but sometimes has no clear path. A commonality is the representation of differing cultures.

Nino (Nino Manfredi) is a hard-working Sicilian man who heads for Switzerland in search of a better life- the time-period is the 1960’s or the 1970’s when this was a common occurrence. Despite his best efforts to fit in with his neighbors, he never quite seems to make it, haplessly going from one situation to the next.

He befriends and is supported for a time by a Greek woman named Elena, who is a refugee and harbors secrets. He forages a career as a waiter and befriends a bus boy. As his luck dwindles, he is reduced to finding shelter with a group of Neapolitans living in a chicken coop, with the same chickens they tend to in order to survive. With bizarre gusto they frequently emulate the chickens, strangely parading around their quarters like animals.

The main character of Nino reminds me of the character that Roberto Benigni played in the 1997 gem, Life is Beautiful. In that film, Guido tries to shelter his son from the horrors of war. In Bread and Chocolate Nino has a zest for life using humor to survive and get through daily situations, slowly realizing his dire straits. Both characters are scrappy and daring; Nino humorously urinating on a tree or awkwardly finding a dead body in the woods.

The theme of the film is loaded with conflict over staying in Switzerland to find a better life or returning in shame to his homeland of Italy, assumed a failure. Nino constantly wrestles with this quandary and discusses this point with his family photos in his bedroom. In two instances he nearly gets on a train headed back to Italy but changes his mind. The film does not do a great job explaining or showing what is so awful back in Italy.

Bread and Chocolate is difficult to categorize because it is neither straight ahead comedy nor pure drama. As the film progresses it loses some situation comedy moments in favor of exhibiting melancholia and sadness. I am not sure this is a great decision as we wonder many times if we should laugh with Nino or feel badly for him? Perhaps both?

The film scores big when it focuses on the comedy as evidenced by several laugh out loud restaurant scenes. Nino, clearly not knowing what he is doing, struggles to properly peel an orange to serve a guest. He emulates another waiter with hilarious results. Later he offends a snobbish, sophisticated woman after she blames him for causing her to fall to the floor.

The strangest scene occurs when the chicken people spy four gorgeous Swiss siblings bathing in a nearby river. Gorgeous and tranquil, they are the definition of stunning and lush. Charmed by the idyllic vision of the group, Nino decides to dye his hair and pass himself off as a local. The images of the cackling and dirty Italian people, with their snickering and drooling set against the peaceful family is both beautiful and odd. The scene could almost be featured in an Ingmar Bergman art film.

Bread and Chocolate (1974) is a film about a man’s journey that nearly can be classified as an adventure, drama, art film, or comedy, and sometimes crosses genres too much. The comedic antics draw rave reviews, but the film slips a bit when it goes in the dramatic territory and becomes middling and too preachy. Actor Nino Manfredi breathes all the life he can into a film that is appealing, but not quite marvelous.