Tag Archives: Independent films

You Were Never Really Here-2018

You Were Never Really Here-2018

Director-Lynne Ramsay

Starring-Joaquin Phoenix

Scott’s Review #932

Reviewed August 19, 2019

Grade: A-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Farewell-2019

The Farewell-2019

Director-Lulu Wang

Starring-Awkwafina, Tzi Ma

Scott’s Review #927

Reviewed August 6, 2019

Grade: A-

Any film with a dark premise such as The Farewell (2019) offers runs the risk of resulting in a bleak and depressing outcome, but the film is anything but a downer. Surprising to many will be that the film is classified as both a drama and a comedy with snippets of humor and sadness prevalent throughout. Met with lots of critical buzz, the film is successful at furthering the much-needed presence of quality Asian representation in modern cinema well into the twenty-first century.

Young upstart/comedienne, Awkwafina, memorable for her humorous turn in Crazy Rich Asians (2018), returns to the big screen in a more sedate role, crafting a passionate and dramatic character, strongly leading the charge in an ensemble project exploring the family dynamic. The film succeeds extraordinarily as a multi-generational glimpse into humanity, though at times suffers from being too slow moving.

A thirty-something struggling writer, Billi (Awkwafina), lives in New York City near her parents, all expats from China. Billi is particularly close with her grandmother, Nai Nai (Zhao Shuzhen), who still resides in her birth land as they speak regularly via telephone. When Billi is informed that her grandmother suffers from terminal lung cancer and has weeks to live, the entire family reunites and decides to hold a mock wedding as an excuse to all be together. The decision is made by the family not to tell Nai Nai she is dying preferring to let her live out her days in happiness rather than fear.

Awkwafina is the main draw of the film and much of the action is told from her perspective. One wonders if perhaps director Lulu Wang drew from personal experience when she wrote the screenplay. The audience does not know Billi’s sexuality nor is that even relevant to the film, but the vagueness was noticed. She does not date nor seem very interested in men, does her laundry at her parent’s apartment, and attempts and fails at a prestigious writing scholarship.

The supporting characters add tremendous depth so that the film is not solely Billi’s, providing unique perspectives from her mother, her father, and her aunt, as they each possess their own viewpoints in relation to Nai Nai’s illness. I adore this technique in rich storytelling as it not only fleshes out secondary characters, it also provides interesting ideas.  Nai Nai is not written as a doting old lady nor a victim; she is strong, witty, and full of life. Shuzhen, unknown to me before viewing this film, adds tremendous poise in a crucial role portraying it in just the right way.

The Farewell is a quiet film with both comic and dramatic elements, sometimes within the same scene, thereby giving relief from the dour subject matter. Wang gets the balance just right and makes sure she does not make the film too heavy. A hysterical bowing marathon takes place as the entourage decides to visit grandfather’s grave, as they prepare the necessary essentials to comfort him during the afterlife.

As a direct contrast to a physical comedy nuance, not a dry eye can be found when Billi and her parents depart China by taxi to the airport. Nai Nai tearfully waves goodbye to them, not knowing that will certainly be her final goodbye. Any audience member with an elderly relative who they seldom see will be churning with emotion over this poignant scene. Questions such as “would you keep a loved one unaware of a terminal disease?” will gnaw at the viewer, the central theme of the story.

Influenced by the buzz and word of mouth encircling the film, I salivated at the thought of one big, powerful, emotional scene, but one clearly defined, bombastic moment never came. Rather, the film offers small tidbits, careful not to overpower the audience or risk making the film too sentimental or overwrought. I still think a pivotal teary scene might have been added for good measure. A scene where Billi breaks down in front of her parents was adequate, but never catapulted the film over the top.

The Farewell (2019) is a wonderful film rich with emotion and importance. Like Black Panther (2017) did with a completely different genre, bringing black characters to the forefront of mainstream film, this film provides exposure to the Asian population, typically relegated to doctors, Chinese takeout owners or other cliched roles. Wang delights with an independent film steam-rolling itself across Middle-America.

Lizzie-2018

Lizzie-2018

Director-Craig Macneill

Starring-Chloe Sevigny, Kristen Stewart

Scott’s Review #925

Reviewed July 31, 2019

Grade: B+

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gloria Bell-2019

Gloria Bell-2019

Director-Sebastian Lelio

Starring-Julianne Moore, John Turturro

Scott’s Review #924

Reviewed July 29, 2019

Grade: B+

An English remake of the successful Chilean film from 2013 simply titled Gloria, Gloria Bell (2019) stars Julianne Moore and the setting is moved to Los Angeles. The film is directed by Sebastian Lelio, fresh off a Best Foreign Language Film win for A Fantastic Woman (2017) and both films contain similar themes of oppression and loneliness. Preferring the original by only a hair Gloria Bell is nonetheless a worthy offering with Moore perfectly cast in the title role.

Middle-aged divorcee Gloria Bell (Moore) resides in Los Angeles, working an office job of some respectability but is clearly unfulfilled. She spends frequent nights at a nightclub where she is deemed a regular. The club caters to middle-aged singles who dance and drink while looking for love. When she meets Arnold (John Turturro) one evening and they share a night of passion, the pair begin dating but Gloria realizes that he still supports his ex-wife and grown daughters limiting his time and commitment to her, which leaves her frustrated.

Moore is honest and understated with her performance and the highlight of the film. With another casting choice the character might not have worked so well. She is full of life, singing in her car, attending laughter therapy, and smoking pot in her apartment. She has a warm yet limited relationship with her millennial kids and her ex-husband and his new wife. Moore gives the character an earnestness and likability that works and gets the audience on her side during her trials and tribulations.

This is not to say that Gloria doesn’t occasionally frustrate the audience. After inviting Arnold to meet the whole crew over dinner and wine at her son’s house, what begins as a meet and greet quickly turns into a reminiscing trip down memory lane and whimsical looks at Gloria and her ex’s wedding pictures. Her disregard of Arnold’s feelings is disappointing, but the bad intention is not there. Gloria has baggage and is caught up in the moment simply reliving a happier time at the expense of the current moment.

Arnold has his own demons and is both likable and unlikable to the audience. Tending to bail on Gloria when either his family requires his assistance or he feels left out, he hardly exhibits grown man behavior or anyone Gloria would want to date. The first red flag is his confessions of enamor to Gloria over their first dinner date. From there his on again off again presence makes him the odd man out. The intent by Lelio is to make Gloria the sympathetic one. It’s her movie after all.

Watched sequentially with A Fantastic Woman is a wise idea. Numerous comparisons are apparent beginning with the feelings shared by both central characters. Both are searching for happiness but unsure of how to obtain it especially given the fact that they once had it and it was snatched away from them. Scenes of both characters driving in their cars and singing songs are included, and the look of both films is the same.

Very few comparisons or contrasts can be made between Gloria of 2013 and Gloria Bell of 2019 as both are way above average other than in the former the character is slightly more vivacious than the latter. This could be attributed to the Chilean and South American free thinking and sexual gusto as compared to a more reserved American way of thinking, but this is merely a suggestion. Interesting to note is how Lelio remade his own film only six years later rather than another director putting his or her own stamp on it.

Gloria Bell (2019) paints a vivid canvas of a modern woman dealt a bad hand who struggles to find her happiness and fulfillment any way she knows how. Thanks in large part to Moore’s embracing and filling the character with kindness and care she wins over the audience. The character is written as intelligent and interesting and not desperate in any way for a man. He needs to be the right man.

Oh Lucy!-2017

Oh Lucy!-2017

Director-Atsuko Hirayanagi

Starring-Shinobu Terajima, Josh Hartnett

Scott’s Review #912

Reviewed June 20, 2019

Grade: B+

Japanese culture meets American culture is the underlying component of Oh Lucy! (2017), an interesting dark comedy and the feature film debut from female director Atsuko Hirayanagi. The film was once a short but progressed into a full-length project, deservedly receiving Film Independent nominations for Best Female Lead and Best First Feature. The co-settings of Tokyo and Los Angeles and the tremendous performance by star Shinobu Terajima make this a worthy watch.

Middle-aged Setsuko (Terajima) lives an unfulfilled daily existence in Tokyo, working a drab office job and living in a cluttered one- bedroom apartment riddled with comforting junk. She wears a protective mouth cover, common in her city, to avoid breathing in bad air, but also chain smokes. She is unpopular at work and wishes to date more but is unlucky in love. One day she is convinced by her niece Mika (Shiori Kutsuna) to take English lessons and falls for her handsome instructor John (Josh Hartnett), who nicknames her “Lucy” making her don a blonde wig and talk “American”. A fellow classmate, “Tom” (Koji Yakusho) seems interested in “Lucy”.

When Mika runs off with John to Los Angeles prompting Setsuko and her bitchy sister Ayako (Kaho Minami) to follow suit concerned for her safety, adventure begins. Setsuko and Mika both jockey for position with John, her vacation from her dreary job and her growing obsession with him energizing her, as a rivalry between Setsuko and Ayako hits full throttle. Setsuko begins to exhibit bizarre and unbecoming behavior.

The film delves into an interesting characteristic among Japanese females; rivalry, as the subject matter is heavily female centered in nature. The trio of Setsuko, Ayako, and Mika are family, and love each other unconditionally, but do they like each other? Immediately we are made aware that long-ago Setsuko stole Ayako’s boyfriend, or so she claims. Eventually Setsuko tries to steal Ayako’s man, so there is reoccurring conflict between each of the women. Ayako has a rebellious streak, we assume just like Setsuko did at her age.

Despite the triangle/quadrangle of drama and issues, the main story and focal point belongs to Setsuko and her infatuation with John. From the first moment they embrace, as part of a teacher and student dynamic, Setsuko is hooked, longingly remaining in his arms until he insists she let go. This is a key moment an intrigue looms- does she feel more comfortable and confident with her blonde wig and new persona? Does this give her courage and the guts to flee her boring life for a chance at love in Los Angeles?

John clearly loves Mika, or more importantly, he has no feelings for Setsuko, despite her best efforts. In a pivotal and hilarious scene, John and Setsuko smoke marijuana as he teaches her how to drive in a deserted parking lot. As they feel the effects of the drug, Setsuko comes on to John and before he knows it they have sex. This only deepens her obsession with him as she decides to get the same tattoo as he has. He realizes she may not be stable as the audience, still enamored with the character, becomes to pity her.

Hirayanagi is careful not to make her film a downer and she does an amazing job in that regard. When Setsuko returns to her meager existence in Tokyo she is unceremoniously fired from the job she despises but has held for decades. Is she devastated or liberated? Perhaps a bit of each, but she has reached her breaking point and succumbs to sadness, longing for John. Fortunately, a surprise appearance by an unexpected character uplifts her spirits and the entire film.

Oh Lucy! (2017) is a great example of an independent film from an inexperienced director that is laden with good qualities. A wounded main character who is sympathetic to viewers leads a dynamic story of loneliness, melancholia, but also with witty dialogue and crackling humor, and a multi-cultural approach. A hybrid Japanese and American film with location sequences in both areas, the film will satisfy those seeking an intelligent, quick-witted experience.

Thoroughbreds-2018

Thoroughbreds-2018

Director-Cory Finley

Starring-Olivia Cooke, Anya Taylor-Joy

Scott’s Review #880

Reviewed March 26, 2019

Grade: B

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

First Reformed-2018

First Reformed-2018

Director-Paul Schrader

Starring-Ethan Hawke, Amanda Seyfried

Scott’s Review #870

Reviewed February 22, 2019

Grade: B+

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Suspiria-2018

Suspiria-2018

Director- Luca Guadagnino

Starring-Dakota Johnson, Tilda Swinton

Scott’s Review #864

Reviewed February 7, 2019

Grade: B-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

If Beale Street Could Talk-2018

If Beale Street Could Talk-2018

Director-Barry Jenkins 

Starring-Kiki Layne, Stephan James

Scott’s Review #854

Reviewed January 8, 2019

Grade: A

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Transfiguration-2017

The Transfiguration-2017

Director-Michael O’Shea

Starring-Eric Ruffin, Chloe Levine

Scott’s Review #853

Reviewed January 7, 2019

Grade: B+

The Transfiguration (2017) is a quiet horror film and resoundingly peculiar vampire tale borrowing elements of similar genre pieces but adding fresh nuances to its story. Some may feel the film is too slow paced, but with patience there comes a terrific payoff and tremendous conclusion. Of the independent horror field and with a limited budget, the underlying message of teen loneliness and alienation comes through loud and clear.  The film wisely adds tidbits of classic film history which is a special treat for horror buffs.

Fourteen-year-old Milo (Eric Ruffin) has been through much trauma in his young life. His father has died, and his mother has recently committed suicide. Milo resides in a crummy Brooklyn high-rise with his older brother Lewis (Aaron Clifton Moten), a depressed military veteran. Milo has a horrific secret- he is convinced he is a vampire and habitually kills strangers drinking their blood. When he meets troubled teen Sophie (Chloe Levine), the pair are inseparable, but Milo’s secret is threatened to be uncovered.

The bevy of neighborhood Brooklyn exterior shots are pleasing for those familiar with New York City locales. Similar in style to Beach Rats (2017) another recent coming-of-age story shot in Brooklyn springs to mind. Many scenes of Milo and Chloe wandering around their neighborhood or riding the subway are featured making the overall package feel authentic and not overly produced. The Brooklyn beaches and skylines make frequent appearances.

The most compelling, and frightening, aspect of The Transfiguration is how convinced Milo is of his being a vampire leading me to think the writer is providing a mental health learning. The audience immediately knows he is delusional, but he truly believes. Terrifying is this reality as via flashback we see Milo discovering his mother’s body, her wrists slit. As he gruesomely tastes her blood a sense of wonderment we wonder if this is his vampire discovery moment. Surely a defense mechanism, it is nonetheless extreme behavior.

The character of Sophie is also worthy of discussion. With both of her parents deceased she is sent to live with her abusive grandfather who lives in the same building as Milo. We never see the character but know that he is vile. In one scene Sophie appears to be raped by a group of boys and she yearns for a friend in Milo. As she slowly realizes his secret, but incorrectly assumes he is writing a book not killing people, she is able to look past this to belong. Milo and Sophie desperately need each other.

Despite the macabre characterizations outlined above the film is not quite a downer. In the middle of the vampire story is a sweet and likable young romance between the two leads. There is a charisma and charm between the two that is genuine and heartfelt and even the simplest conversations sparkle with appeal. The final sacrifice that one makes for the other is riddled with kindness.

Fans of classic horror will be delighted with clips of the 1922 film Nosferatu as well as other gory cult classic films that Milo is obsessed with. In a cute and innocent way, he attempts to broaden Sophie’s exposure to vampire films- she thinks the Twilight films are masterpieces much to Milo’s chagrin. This fun banter balances the dreadful main story plot.

Does Milo have rooting power? Despite a history of animal torture and human killings he is a remarkably nice kid. He is tempted to kill both Sophie and a young boy in the park but resists this urge. In the end he also saves Sophie ensuring she will have a better fate than he. The character is complex and a large part of the success of The Transfiguration.

Writer and director Michael O’Shea cleverly uses a side story of a gang of bullies to incorporate a dramatic and shocking conclusion with a wonderful twist. Milo, though tragic and flawed, proves himself a hero as he uses an opportunity to punish and exact revenge on enemies, while saving the life of another character. In this way he will undoubtedly gain sympathy from the audience.

The Transfiguration (2017) is a unique film that infuses character development and a romance with a blend of horrific blood curdling moments, especially during “kill” scenes. I hope that this very small film with no advertising budget receives enough word of mouth to gather a following or at the very least garner recognition for the up and coming director (O’Shea).

The Ice Storm-1997

The Ice Storm-1997

Director-Ang Lee

Starring-Kevin Kline, Joan Allen, Sigourney Weaver

Scott’s Review #850

Reviewed January 1, 2019

Grade: A

The Ice Storm (1997) is a brilliant film directed by Ang Lee of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) and Brokeback Mountain (2005) fame. The film is based on a 1994 novel of the same name, written by Rick Moody. The brilliance lies in the rich way the characters are written with coldness, repression and loneliness being central themes. The film is astonishingly genuine and fresh with an authenticity rarely felt so wholly in adult family dramas.

The time-period is 1973 and the events take place in New Canaan, Connecticut, a wealthy suburban town. Two dysfunctional families, the Hoods and the Carvers, co-exist during the Thanksgiving weekend as each deal with repression and escapism amid alcohol and sexual experimentation. Both the adult’s and the children’s lives are prominently featured in the story. Ben and Elena Hood (Kevin Kline and Joan Allen) and Jim and Janey Carver (Jamey Sheridan and Sigourney Weaver) head the families.

While Ben and Janey carry on a secret affair, Elena lives an unfulfilled existence, craving more from life but not knowing how to get more and reduced to consulting self-help books for support. Wendy Hood (Christina Ricci) enjoys sexual escapades with multiple boys while Paul Hood (Tobey Maguire), home from boarding school, takes the train into New York City to see a rich classmate Libbets Casey (Katie Holmes).

The most wonderful aspect of the film is that the story is a slice of life, but with clever nuances. Since the families are rich why should the viewer feel sympathy for any of the characters let alone root for them? Ben and Janey lounge in bed after sex, he chatty about nonsense, she bored and depressed. During a holiday neighborhood gathering a kinky “key party” develops, where participants swap spouses for the night, resulting in titillation and excitement.

The bold and controversial writing is exactly why The Ice Storm scores so many points. The characters are cold and frozen, unlikable and selfish, but might that be the point? All seem unhappy and tired of their dull, small town existence and craving what little excitement they can muster. Written in similar fashion to American Beauty (1999) the films could be watched in tandem for evening of Gothic and macabre story-telling.

My favorite character is Elena as she has the most sensibility. She is lonely and ignored by her husband dutifully going about her day with little emotion. She feels temporarily excited when she develops a romantic crush on a neighbor only to quickly realize the most she can ever hope for with this man is a fling. Her character is fleshed out as she yearns for more than she has. The other characters are largely selfish and pampered.

The film’s conclusion, however, is monumental as it changes the perceptions of some characters and softens them. A tragic death brings characters together in a powerful way. Again, the writing in The Ice Storm is the most interesting and compelling appeal. The acting among the entire cast is professional, heartfelt, and brazen, but the written dialogue and interesting situations make this film rise above others of similar genre.

Lee’s direction is brilliant as the blustery winter atmosphere is central to the story- in more ways than we might originally think. The frozen power lines and slick windy country roads elicit a cozy feeling nestled between harboring family secrets and scandals. The bitter yet beautiful ambiance is a soothing and compelling aspect of the entire film and Lee portrays these elements with precision.

Of the independent drama genre, The Ice Storm (1997) has a low budget and big-name stars. The film could easily be performed as a play, but the cinematic elements and fantastic writing make it a memorable and storied piece of film-making. Ang Lee frequently incorporates astounding character development in his works and The Ice Storm has all the qualities to be considered a masterpiece.

Hereditary-2018

Hereditary-2018

Director-Ari Aster

Starring-Toni Colette, Alex Wolff

Scott’s Review #837

Reviewed December 6, 2018

Grade: B+

Hereditary (2018) is a horror film that provides quite an unsettling feeling long after the credits have rolled, which is always a positive in my book. Moreover, the film contains more than a handful of effectively chilling moments and a breathtakingly good performance by its star Toni Colette, who delivers the goods in spades. The film is the debut project by writer and director Ari Aster, who certainly has a bright future ahead of him.

We meet the Graham family- artist Annie (Colette) and husband Steve, along with sixteen-year-old Peter (Alex Wolff) and thirteen-year-old Charlie as they mourn the death of Annie’s mother. As Annie sees an apparition of her mother in her workshop, the mother’s grave is desecrated prompting her to attend a support group to deal with her problems. When Charlie then tragically dies in a gruesome accident, Annie begins to teeter over the edge putting her remaining loved ones at risk.

The story that Aster writes is tremendously hard to follow leaving many perplexities and assured questions about the plot. Was fellow support group attendee Joan (Ann Dowd) a sinister cultist along with Annie’s mother or merely a kindly friend trying to help? Did Annie kill her family or were their deaths fated, a result of an unstoppable force hence the “hereditary” title? A post- film synopsis will need to be read by many viewers (myself included) for clarity.

Frightful sequences resonated with me for days following my viewing of Hereditary, so much so that a second viewing may very well be required. The decapitation of Charlie is one of the creepiest scenes I have ever witnessed as well as tidbits such as Annie furiously pounding her head on the attic door, clearly not herself. Not to be outdone, Steve bursting into flames and Annie slowly beheading herself with piano wire while coven members look on may lead to nightmares for days.

Shot in a style that makes the film feel claustrophobic and contained, props must be given to the camera crew for creating a dollhouse aesthetic. Enhancing this point is artist Annie’s clay dollhouse, mirroring the families. The viewer sees a mock version of the real family and when Annie decides to create a mimic of Charlie’s headless body to express herself the results are dire.

The best part of Hereditary, though, is Colette’s performance. Flawless as the haggard mother in The Sixth Sense (1999), her role as Annie takes the actress to even greater heights. The woman slowly teeters to the brink of insanity as she awakens one morning to find the headless corpse of her daughter lying in the back seat of her car. Aster wisely has her discovery and reactions appear off camera giving the sequence a high element of anticipatory horror. From this point we know that Annie will steamroll further into insanity as she realizes the death of her daughter was caused by her own son.

Horror films involving witchcraft or other demonic supernatural elements do not always work for me as I find realistic situations more effective, but Hereditary is atmospheric and effective. The film possesses this element throughout the entire run so that we know bad things will happen, we just do not know when.

To further explain, many scenes involve closeups of character’s seemingly deep in thought or shrouded in mystery. Evidence of this is when Peter sits in a classroom hearing the clicking of teeth, a habit of Charlie’s. When a trance-like Peter returns to reality, he is confused and slams his head against his desk breaking his own nose.

Aster might have been wise to write a more concrete screenplay instead of leaving the audience unable to add up the parts. Interpretation is a fine thing, but in the case of Hereditary the sum may have been greater than the parts. Meaning, a more satisfying, though not less frightening, ending would be encouraged for his next picture.

Hereditary (2018) is a demonic horror film that offers a perplexing plot of a family’s hereditary curse and ultimate doom. Thanks to brilliant acting and some of the most disturbing scenes ever witnessed, the film is a breath of fresh air in the over-saturated horror genre and a welcome debut from an upstart director.

Ingrid Goes West-2017

Ingrid Goes West-2017

Director-Matt Spicer

Starring-Aubrey Plaza, Elizabeth Olsen

Scott’s Review #832

Reviewed November 16, 2018

Grade: A-

Ingrid Goes West (2017) is a deliciously wicked black comedy and a bold statement about the current obsession with social media. Combined with a dynamite performance by young actress Aubrey Plaza and smart writing, the small independent film provides a summertime treasure, and two Spirit Award nominations for good measure. The film is a breath of fresh air and a fine achievement by new director Matt Spicer.

The film immediately catapults the audience into the action as we are treated to a closeup of a sobbing Ingrid Thorburn (Plaza). We immediately know that she is not right as she fumes with the realization that she has not been invited to her Instagram friend’s wedding and proceeds to interrupt the reception and attack the bride with pepper spray. Ingrid is carted off to a mental hospital for analysis and recovery.

Once released we learn that Ingrid’s mother has recently died leaving her a tidy sum of money as an inheritance. Ingrid suddenly becomes obsessed with Taylor Sloane (Elizabeth Olsen), a popular and narcissistic young woman who Ingrid follows on Instagram. Taylor becomes Ingrid’s idol as she decides to move to Los Angeles and insinuates herself into Taylor’s life. She stalks Taylor and steals her dog only to pretend she rescued it, thereby becoming a close friend of hers. Gradually, Ingrid’s actions become more and more psychotic as Taylor catches wind of Ingrid’s antics.

Aubrey Plaza is perfectly cast as the unstable, manipulative title character. She possesses such strong comic timing, and with her wide eyes, nervous mannerisms, and determination to get what she wants, the audience roots for and falls in love with her. On paper we should dislike the character as she takes advantage of nearly everyone in her path, but Plaza embodies her with empathy and smarts. Delightful to watch is how she gets out of scrape after scrape with her quick thinking- Plaza truly excels in the role.

Bold and calculating are words to be used to describe Olsen’s performance as the selfish Taylor, and this may very well be why it is easy to root for Ingrid. The character is so plastic and conniving that it is intensely satisfying to see her as the foil. Olsen usually plays good girl roles and possesses a girl next door quality, but in this part, she nestles nicely into a bitch role. Olsen also contains great timing with her character’s dialogue delivery, so much so that Olsen and Plaza had me in stitches during their one on one scenes.

I adore the Los Angeles setting, beyond appropriate for a film about phoniness, obsession, and plastic personas. Beneath the sunny veneer lies darkness and tomfoolery in every direction and besides Ingrid’s landlord/somewhat boyfriend, Dan (O’Shea Jackson Jr.), there are not many likable characters. Attending party after party and lavish club, restaurant, or get-away, being involved in the “scene”, the City of Angels is the perfect backdrop.

One gripe that knocks Ingrid Goes West down a rung for me is how the character of Taylor’s artist husband Ezra (Wyatt Russell) is written. Ingrid realizes as she has a poolside heart to heart with the depressed Ezra, in one of the more authentic scenes, that his wife is not the girl he knew when she moved to L.A. He and Ingrid seem to connect, but shortly after it is as if the conversation never happened and he is ferociously taking his wife’s side again. A nicer approach, and one I was hoping for, is that Ingrid and Ezra would ride off into the sunset, but the film misses this opportunity.

The entire film is a clever piece of work. From the performances, the dark humor, and the witty dialogue, Ingrid Goes West (2018) succeeds on nearly all levels. A modern day Single White Female (1992) with a social media slant, the film goes for the gusto and gets there. I cannot wait to see more from up and coming star Aubrey Plaza as the actress has the comic and dramatic chops to go very far.

My Big Fat Greek Wedding-2002

My Big Fat Greek Wedding-2002

Director-Joel Zwick

Starring-Nia Vardalos, John Corbett

Scott’s Review #806

Reviewed August 28, 2018

Grade: B+

My Big Fat Greek Wedding is a romantic comedy film from 2002 that became a surprising sleeper hit at the time of release. A novel story idea, the film was even recognized with a Best Original Screenplay Oscar nomination. The film achieved success the old-fashioned way by garnering word of mouth buzz despite little promotion. Good natured, earnest, and tender, the film was nonetheless marred by an abysmal sequel and short-lived television series- a lesson learned in leaving well enough alone.

Comedian Nia Vardalos reportedly wrote the story as a one woman play and word of mouth among Hollywood A-list celebrities led to a film version starring Vardalos herself. This casting choice adds enormous authenticity as the writer’s vision shines through on-screen. The film just has a fresh and modern feel to it. Otherwise, the supporting cast is brilliant and perfectly selected. From handsome love interest John Corbett to veterans like Lainie Kazan and Andrea Martin, everyone plays their part to the hilt and seems to be having a ball with the comic elements.

Dowdy Toula Portokalos is a lonely thirty -year-old Greek woman, considered to be the black sheep of her family. Of traditional roots, she is expected to marry and bare children as quickly as possible. Toula still lives at home and works in the family restaurant in bustling Chicago, yearning for something more out of life. When she sees dashing school teacher Ian Miller in the restaurant one day, she makes an embarrassing attempt to catch his attention. Through a computer class, Toula blossoms and finally lands her man, but the drama is just beginning as the couples and their individual families differing cultures collide.

My Big Fat Greek Wedding is written very well and, again, the authenticity is what really shines through in each scene. Admittedly, it does often feel like a television sitcom and many scenes play for obvious laughs, but the laughs work. The funniest of these scenes is when Toula and Ian (now engaged) decide to invite his parents to dinner at her parent’s house. Predictably, events go awry as his parents-conservative and reserved, do not mesh well with hers-festive and bombastic.

Vardalos and Corbett may not have the greatest chemistry in film history, but the build -up and the romance is so charming that we can overlook the lack of lustful vigor or the sexual tension between the pair. In this way the film feels more like a PG rated Cinderella story than anything heavier. Predictably, the couple shares a happily ever after ending.

As much of a jewel as My Big Fat Greek Wedding was in 2002, the risk with a film of this nature is to actually hold up well over time. Specifically, in the romantic comedy genre, films of this ilk have a short relevant self-life (if deemed relevant at all). The humorous Windex references may be lost on audiences over time or just become stale over the years.

My Big Fat Greek Wedding (2002) can be deemed by some as fluff- mainly based on the romantic comedy genre it exists in. But it’s of better worth than that, mainly because of the fresh and genuine use of culture and differing backgrounds. The film has a quality that most of the standard “rom coms” do not possess, that of authenticity. Yes, it certainly contains Greek stereotypes, but the overall vibe of the film is that of a sunny, fun, happy experience. An uplifting film can sometimes be just what the doctor ordered.

Crash-2005

Crash-2005

Director-Paul Haggis

Starring-Matt Dillon, Thandie Newton, Don Cheadle

Scott’s Review #799

Reviewed August 3, 2018

Grade: A-

A superior film that has unfortunately suffered greatly after controversy, Crash (2005) is a story of intersecting vignettes all interrelated. The controversy stems from the films very surprising win over the heavily favored Brokeback Mountain. Many thought the latter was a shoo-in, poised to set the LGBT genre ahead of the game. Sadly, now when Crash is discussed by film lovers, it’s usually in tandem with Brokeback, and usually on the heels of its having stolen the Oscar crown. On its own merits, the film excels as a social story exploring the many facets of race, racism, and bigotry.

The events in Crash take place within one thirty-six hour day in metropolitan Los Angeles. Featuring a slew of characters that would even impress Robert Altman, the audience witness situations involving many races and backgrounds. We meet Rick and Jean Cabot (Brendan Fraser and Sandra Bullock), a white affluent couple who are carjacked when driving home from dinner. The black men who carjack the couple then strike a Korean man and bring him to the hospital.

A racist police officer, John Ryan (Matt Dillon), cares for his troubled father who cannot afford insurance. A Persian father and daughter wish to buy a gun for protection, a Hispanic father (Michael Pena) worries about a rash of drive by shootings. The stories go on and on as a myriad of the characters come into situations involving other characters.

The interconnecting stories all cascade into overlapping situations of interest. The point of Haggis’s film is racism, but with a creative twist. The director points out and shows that those who are racist have good qualities too and those who are discriminated against in turn discriminate against others themselves.

The most interesting character is Dillon’s John Ryan. On the surface a racist, wise-ass, who in one scene embarrasses an affluent light-skinned black woman (Thandie Newton), simply because he carries a gun, then ends up saving her life in a horrific car accident. But is he redeemed? Does he see the world as black people are getting ahead and he is left behind? What about the Persian man, discriminated against, but then vowing revenge on a Hispanic man after a misunderstanding.

The black men who carjack the white couple then release a group of immigrants who will surely be sold, perhaps even for sex trafficking. Does this act make the men good? The point that Haggis makes it that each character is neither all good nor all bad, but rather complicated and nuanced with emotions based on past experiences and discrimination themselves.

Crash is highly similar to Traffic (2000) and Babel (2006) in terms of pace, style, and the way the stories align. The film is different, however, in that the location is strictly confined to Los Angeles, making the setting of monumental importance. How would events be different in a setting like Middle America? Or in a different country? These possibilities are worth contemplating based on the perception that Los Angeles is one of the most diverse cities in the United States. If racism occurs there it can occur anywhere.

Now more about that pesky Oscar controversy! In later years critics would largely be in agreement that the inferior film had won that year and Brokeback Mountain lost due to a level of homophobia on the part of the voting academy. Since the academy is filled with Hollywood liberals, albeit of an older generation, an alternative way of thinking is that perhaps Crash won because it was the “safer” film. Everyone seems to have forgotten the other three nominated films that year. Alas, Crash is permanently marred for winning Best Picture. It would undoubtedly have more supporters had it lost.

Ranked as one of the lowest scoring Best Picture winners, I still believe Crash has some worth- though I agree that it should not have won over Brokeback Mountain. Taken on its own merits the film is actually quite good. A message film with great atmosphere, it succeeds in making the viewer think and ponder perhaps their own discrimination, whether conscious or sub-conscious. The ensemble acting and character representations are all very good and worthy of a second watch.

Transamerica-2005

Transamerica-2005

Director-Duncan Tucker

Starring-Felicity Huffman, Kevin Zegers

Scott’s Review #795

Reviewed July 25, 2018

Grade: A

Transamerica (2005) is a brave and topical independent drama effort. By 2005 the LGBT genre was in full force with a multitude of similar themed films gracing silver screens everywhere.  One prominent mainstream production (Brokeback Mountain-2005) was in theaters everywhere. So in a year celebrating diversity, how wonderful and touching to witness a film focused on a transgender woman come into play.

Mixing drama with some needed humor, the film succeeds in large part because it does not take itself too seriously, never becoming too preachy, it merely tells a story. The film’s brilliant casting of Felicity Huffman in the role of a pre-op male to female transsexual is a success as the decision to cast a female rather than a male in the important role pays off in spades.

The premise allows for a story of both adventure and humor as the film mixes an important issue in. Transgender woman, Bree (Huffman) decides to go on a road trip with her long-lost son, Toby (Kevin Zegers). The intrigue is that Toby is unaware that Bree is both transgender and his father, the fun coming by way of the relationship between the individuals. Adding to the setup is that prior to a week before Bree’s scheduled operation, she has no idea who Toby is. Encouraged by her therapist, Bree decides to throw caution to the wind and travel to pick up her son- however does not realize that Bree (being transgender) is his real father. Talk about complicated material!

I love the overall message of the film; the theme clearly being one of self-discovery and a personal journey towards happiness. These qualities do not only apply to Bree, but also to Toby. Being a teenage boy, abused and neglected, he has his share of issues, which the film does not skirt over. The areas of male prostitution and gay porn are featured and the film does its best not to shy away from these sensitive matters. Therefore, even though the tone of the film is light and more of a coming of age story, there are underlying painful emotions suffered by the characters. This makes their bonding easier and more fulfilled.

Without a doubt the film belongs to Huffman, who was honored with a Best Actress Oscar nomination. No offense to that year’s winner (Reese Witherspoon for Walk the Line (2005), but the rightful owner of the statuette should be Huffman. The actress simply comes out of nowhere and slays this role. Known for playing a different type of role on the hit television series, ABC’s Desperate Housewives, Bree is in a different league entirely. Huffman possesses strength, vulnerability, and sarcasm, while physically undertaking a transformation that makes her both feminine and masculine while not becoming a “joke.” All of this she pours into the character.

Transamerica (2005) is an unconventional film that on the surface feels mainstream, like many other road trip films made over the years. With a twist and thus a breath of fresh air considering the importance and relevance for the time released, the film should be championed. When combined with the tremendous performance by Huffman, the film is a heavyweight and should be viewed and celebrated for its influence.

The Dead Girl-2006

The Dead Girl-2006

Director-Karen Moncrieff

Starring-Brittany Murphy, Toni Collette

Scott’s Review #794

Reviewed July 24, 2018

Grade: A

The Dead Girl (2006) is a unique independent drama with a moody, gloomy underbelly, and is quite the downer, however is also a masterpiece. Reminiscent of David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive (2001), the remote and dark setting perfectly counter-balances the traditional image of sunny California as a young woman’s murder is discovered. Writer and director, Karen Moncrieff spins a delicious tale in the mysterious and sinister.

Moncrieff, (a former daytime television actress), wisely carves the film into five chapters- each focusing on a different character. The clever approach, since at first it seems as if the stories are independent of each other, are actually all intertwined. The mystery of who the woman is, why she was killed, and other major questions come into play as the chapters unfold. To twist the drama even further, one of the chapters is revealed to be a complete red herring.

The five chapters are each compelling in their own way. Chapter one focuses on Arden (Toni Collette) and her relationship with her abusive mother- deliciously played by Piper Laurie. Arden has a love interest in Rudy (Giovanni Ribisi), who she confides in when she discovers the “Dead Girl”. The film then moves to various other chapters entitled “The Sister”, “The Wife”, “The Mother”, and finally “The Dead Girl”, which is from the perspective of the murder victim when final clues are revealed. The last chapter is the best and most heartbreaking in my opinion.

The casting is just wonderful as a myriad of top talents appear in the film. With low budget independent films, especially before 2006, finding big stars willing to accept little pay was quite difficult. Moncreiff, however, scores big with the actors cast in her film. Mainly an all-female cast, talents like Collette, Laurie, Mary Beth Hurt, Brittany Murphy, and Marcia Gay Harden round out the all-star cast. Names like these could fill up a Hollywood marquee let alone a small indie like The Dead Girl.

Speaking of Murphy, this may be the very best role of her career. Sadly, meeting death shortly after this film, she gives a mesmerizing performance in the title role- also known as Krista. With heavy, gothic style makeup, her character is vulnerable, having had a difficult childhood and struggling to send an enormous teddy bear to her daughter on her birthday. Tragically, events do not go as planned for Krista, but what a bravura performance by Murphy.

The overall tone of the film is a great achievement and key to its success.  The film is small and does not need explosions, car chases, nor police banter to achieve the message it relays. The Dead Girl is a quiet film about struggles, decisions, and wounded characters dealing with the life that they have been given the best they can.

The mysterious identities of the character’s and the loneliness and lack of identity of some of the characters makes me think Moncrieff was at least somewhat inspired by Lynch’s Mulholland Drive. Certainly not quite as oddball as the former, but definitely more of a downer, The Dead Girl shows elements by way of unusual characters and a melancholy vibe. The latter focuses more on a serial killer subject matter.

Being a huge proponent of the genre of independent film (think modern 1970’s films with directors who have a clear vision), The Dead Girl (2006) is an enormous achievement. Despite a handful of independent spirit awards, I still feel the film is under-appreciated and a decade later is largely forgotten, if anyone really knew about it to begin with. Let’s hope that enough young, aspiring film makers were inspired by Moncrieff and what she created with The Dead Girl.

Babel-2006

Babel-2006

Director-Alejandro Inarritu

Starring-Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett

Scott’s Review #791

Reviewed July 19, 2018

Grade: A

Babel (2006) is part of director Alejandro Inarritu’s “Death trilogy” films- Amores perros (2000) and 21 Grams (2001) are the others. The director crafts a riveting drama involving intersecting stories that is a thrill-ride a minute and highly compelling. The film is at risk of being forgotten however, largely due to Inarritu’s subsequent successes- Birdman (2014) and The Revenant (2015), but Babel is great and a fantastic companion piece to either Traffic (2000) or Crash (2006), as those films hold a similar style.

The three stories are riveting in their own right and could each be a gripping short film of their own. The fact that characters within each segment are related to the others in some way takes the stories over the top. The film switches back and forth within each story which is a huge plus, making the tension even more palpable as we begin to connect the dots. The spliced editing is a remarkable achievement in making the continuity seamless. Each story is summarized below.

An affluent American couple, Richard and Susan (Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett), vacation in Morocco, happily enjoying a bus tour. When two local boys play with their father’s rifle and experiment by shooting in long range, the American woman is shot, leading to a terrorist accusation while the couple desperately seeks medical attention in the middle of nowhere and in a foreign country.

In Japan, a wealthy businessman (and owner of the rifle), is investigated while his promiscuous teenage daughter (Rinko Kikuchi) seeks attention from young men. The girl, deaf, is angry and depressed due to her mother’s recent suicide. As she flirts with a local detective, she slips him a mysterious note and implores him to read the note only after he leaves her father’s gorgeous high-rise apartment, leading to a mysterious revelation.

Finally, in southern California, Richard and Susan’s Mexican nanny, Amelia (Adriana Barraza), cares for the couple’s young children. Almost like a real family member, Amelia adores the kids (and they love her.) When she is notified that the couple will be delayed returning home, she panics and foolishly takes the kids across the border to Mexico to attend her son’s wedding. When an incident allows the police to become involved, Amelia and the kid’s lives are in peril.

The connecting stories are only part of what makes Babel so fantastic, but an enormous aspect is the direction Inarritu has the character’s go in. As the stories play out we care deeply for the characters which plays a great role in adding meat to each story. Sometimes the connections of the characters is immediately known, other times the audience can savor the inevitable big reveal. Not every story featured in Babel will have a happy ending, which makes the film all the more compelling and satisfying.

How incredible are the differing locales and cultures featured in Babel from a geographical perspective alone. The action traverses from the hip, modern metropolis of Tokyo, with slick night time sequences and dance clubs and urban hip hop beats. The deserts of remote Morocco with the vast and sweeping lands mix perfectly with the hot Mexican atmosphere and the cultural nuances of a real Mexican wedding.

Another key element are the different backgrounds of the characters and the conflict this sometimes leads to. As Richard frantically seeks medical attention for Susan, he is met with resistance from some while receiving aid from a local veterinarian. At the border of Mexico and the United States, Amelia and her brother are not treated well by Border patrol. One cannot help having the knowledge that this is because they are Mexican and carrying American children, thus discriminated against.

Wonderful call-outs are deserved for relative unknown actors, Kikuchi and Barraza, both of whom received tremendous accolades in 2006 for their work, when they could have easily been overlooked in favor of bigger, high profile stars like Blanchett and Pitt. I love when this happens and gritty performances find their due respect. Both actors give great performances in complex, layered characters.

Since making Babel (2006) Inarritu has progressed to great acclaim with Oscar winners like Birdman and The Revenant, but let’s not forget that Babel received a heap of Oscar nominations, though sadly only one victory for musical score. Unfortunately usurped by his more high profile works, Babel is an excellent, fast-paced, and layered film with spectacular characters, story-telling, and editing.

Sorry, Haters-2005

Sorry, Haters-2005

Director-Jeff Stanzler

Starring-Robin Wright

Scott’s Review #787

Reviewed July 12, 2018

Grade: A

Sorry, Haters (2005) is small, indie film that was not well received by audiences or necessarily by many film critics, but that I am a champion of. The film is a little known gem and a showcase piece for star Robin Wright, who has become quite the indie queen over the years. Thankfully, the film did receive some recognition via two independent film nominations, which is how I heard of it. Regardless, Wright gives a fantastic performance as a troubled television executive who becomes involved with a Muslim taxi driver in New York City, in panic stricken post 9/11.

Ashade (Abdel Kechiche), struggles with driving a cab and the myriad of family issues he faces, including legal troubles. When an upscale, white woman, Phoebe (Wright) enters his cab one night, she insists on forging a friendship, but what is her motivation? She immediately seems slightly unbalanced and tense.  Reluctant, but needing her help, Ashade’s life becomes entangled with hers as Phoebe offers Ashade assistance. But when her true motivations are revealed, the audience will never see the terrific and terrifying conclusion coming.

The film is very dark in tone and hardly a feel good film. The best facet of Sorry, Haters is the complicated relationship between Phoebe and Ashade and how this plays out within the story. More accurate is the complex dynamic of Phoebe herself as her motivations are slowly revealed. As great as Kechiche is, the standout is Wright, but both play well opposite each other. Her role is more developed and the centerpiece as the audience slowly becomes aware of her dark secrets and disturbing behaviors.

Phoebe immediately claims to be going through a divorce and hires Ashade to drive her to nearby New Jersey to observe her ex-husband. She talks his ear off, recounting how she has lost her family. This scene becomes the first clue that Phoebe may be unbalanced. As the film progresses, this becomes more obvious. As Phoebe dines with colleagues, she engages in reluctant conversation as she violently cuts her leg with a fork underneath the table for some relief.

Wright can do no wrong as an actress appearing in numerous films over the years. She is not a “box office” type of actress and this is to her credit.  She chooses independent films that allow her to sink her teeth into good, meaty, complex, female roles. The role of Phoebe is certainly of that ilk. The character is unstable and borders on madness and has rage bubbling under the surface. Wright portrays these emotions successfully.

Let’s not forget the other leading actor- Kechiche is purely dynamic in the male leading role. The audience will undoubtedly sympathize right away with this man and the character. Since the time period is so close to the events of 9/11, and the character is Muslim (some big clues to the climactic conclusion here), the man is a prime target for discrimination. Since his brother is imprisoned and needs a legal team, Ashade is quite vulnerable and ultimately at Phoebe’s mercy.

The interesting dynamic between Phoebe and Ashade is that they do not share a romantic relationship at all. Developing a friendship based on need, there is clearly something not right with the situation, and director Jeff Stanzler, provides the appropriate mood with many scenes occurring either at night or in the confines of Ashade’s taxi. Dialogue frequently seems awkward between the two.

Despite not being an easy film to watch, Sorry, Haters (2005) is a film with a powerful message and great scenery of one of the most vibrant cities in the world. The film is dark, even dour, but above all contains a powerful message with a timely subject matter. Rich is character development between the leads and the maniacal motivations of some. I found the film to be topical, riveting, and disturbing.

Slumdog Millionaire-2008

Slumdog Millionaire-2008

Director-Danny Boyle

Starring-Dev Patel, Freida Pinto

Scott’s Review #786

Reviewed July 11, 2018

Grade: A-

Winner of the 2008 Best Picture Oscar (as well as seven other Academy Awards), Slumdog Millionaire (2008) arguably was the “feel good” film of the year. While I am not sure if all of those awards are ultimately deserved, the film is nonetheless very good, offering a mixture of good culture, a young man overcoming enormous odds, and a love story. Fans of the universal game show hit, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, will be pleased.

Young Dev Patel (critically acclaimed for 2016’s Lion) stars as a poor young Indian man, Jamal Malik. He is detained after being a contestant on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, after he comes one question away from winning the million dollars. The producers go to a commercial break and Jamal is whisked away to custody as suspicions are aroused and the young man is accused of cheating. Since he is a “slumdog” and poorly educated, it is assumed there is no way possible he could know all the answers. Jamal recounts, via flashbacks, through experience, how he came to know all of the correct answers.

Director, Danny Boyle does a fantastic job directing the film. Slumdog Millionaire is edited in fast-paced fashion and the camera angles are quick and stylized, making for an excellent flow. The soundtrack to the film is very effective and enhances the plot. For example, the music is extremely diverse and features genres such as traditional Indian classical music, European house music, and America style hip hop. This is an ingenious way for Boyle to incorporate multiple cultures and he therefore creates a rousing crowd- pleasing experience.

Another successful aspect to the film is its use of knowledge and intelligence to tell a story. As we experience Jamal’s difficult life beginning as a five-year-old orphan, the unlikely success story and his adventures on the streets are engulfed in both life lessons and education. In this way, the audience is learning important details about the world while Jamal simultaneously is.

The romantic, love-story featured in Slumdog Millionaire is also a highlight and extremely well-crafted. In heartbreaking manner, Jamal, his older brother Salim, and the lovely Latika (later played by the gorgeous Freida Pinto), are on the run when Latika vanishes. Her disappearance and later reappearance are vital aspects to the heart of the film and Patel and Pinto make a handsome and highly likable couple. Their reconciliation is heartfelt and beautiful and gives the film a nice emotional investment.

The incorporation of a relevant and acclaimed game show into the story is wonderful, though hopefully as the years go by, the film does not suffer from a dated feel if and when Who Wants to Be a Millionaire is long forgotten, but alas this is a risk and only time will tell. The glossy set and for American audiences, the Indian style version of the game show is great fun as are the Indian locales, which visually dazzle.

A slight detraction of Slumdog Millionaire is the film is unquestionably uplifting and light feeling. Even though the characters face peril and dangerous experiences, the film just “feels” safe. So much so that qualities such as slick and mainstream resound. Don’t get me wrong, the film is genuine and has heart and soul, but just slightly too cheery. Of course, since the film is made well and the story and the acting great, this can easily be overlooked.

Slumdog Millionaire (2008) is a wonderful piece of work and is quite simply a film that lots of people will champion.  All of the elements are perfectly in place, which is a main selling point and a prime reason for the film’s many accolades. The romance and adventure pieces are the best parts- with a quick flow and lots of fun, educational tools utilized. The film is a nice pleasure to experience.

We Need to Talk About Kevin-2011

We Need to Talk About Kevin-2011

Director-Lynne Ramsay

Starring-Tilda Swinton, Ezra Miller

Scott’s Review #785

Reviewed July 9, 2018

Grade: A

We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011) is a tremendously disturbing independent drama with eerie similarities to the infamous Columbine school shooting massacre. The point of view of the film is from the perspective of Eva (Tilda Swinton), a haggard, troubled mother doubting her love for her violent teen son. Swinton was shamefully overlooked for an Academy Award nomination despite her brilliant and breathtaking role. The overall film itself is equally astounding and powerful.

Adapted from a Lionel Shriver novel, the events of the film begin in present times after tragedy has occurred. Eva, once a successful, writer of affluent means, now lives alone in a rundown house near a prison where she frequently visits her son Kevin (Ezra Miller). She is now reduced to working a mundane job in a travel agency while terrorized by neighbor’s who blame her for her son’s machinations. In chilling fashion, Eva ponders the warning signs Kevin exhibited throughout his childhood and tortures herself with thoughts of what she could have done differently to prevent the shootings and the death of her loved ones.

In unique fashion, the film segues to before Kevin was even born. Eva and her husband Franklin (John C. Reilly), happily welcome their baby boy, but he is immediately “not right” and difficult and cold towards her. This behavior continues over the years as Kevin is distant towards Eva, but warm and adoring towards his father, leading to mental games and the death of a pet. When Eva and Franklin have another child things get progressively worse leading to the tragic events.

The film is a pure masterpiece with riveting acting performances all around (especially Swinton) and a slow, plodding pace. This is a perfect aspect to the film because there is a continuous gloomy and moody vibe. Director, Lynne Ramsay reveals all in the beginning moments of the film so we know how events will transpire, but the pure enjoyment is the development of the characters. Dad, Franklin, and daughter, Celia, are around, but the film belongs to the characters of Eva and Kevin and their relationship with each other.

Many questions will be asked throughout the film (I know I asked myself these questions). Should any blame be cast upon Eva or is she purely innocent? How about on Franklin? Is Kevin just a “bad kid”? Was Eva wrong for breaking Kevin’s arm in anger or justified? Should Eva have never had kids because of her earlier doubts? Should she have been more proactive in getting treatment for Kevin?

Swinton delivers her career best performance and while she was recognized with a Golden Globe nomination, the ultimate gold statuette (Oscar) alluded her. I find this to be troubling especially since she won for 2007’s Michael Clayton, a performance that was very good, but certainly not on the level as Eva. Swinton is one of the great modern actresses and hopefully great roles will continue to follow this treasured star.

Almost on par with Swinton is young talent Ezra Miller. A relative newcomer in 2011 he has appeared in the indie gem The Perks of a Wallflower (2012) and in later years traversed into more mainstream fare like Trainwreck (2015) and Suicide Squad (2016). We Need to Talk About Kevin remains his best and most challenging effort.

One of the best sequences occurs during the school massacre scene. Shot at night time (and in my hometown of Stamford, Connecticut!) the sequence involve flashing police lights and chaos as Eva approaches the school in horror. With no dialogue, we see Kevin enter the school and render the doors useless as an escape route. Terrified students are murdered as Kevin erupts with maniacal rage. The scene is downright chilling and incredibly effective.

2017’s The Killing of a Sacred Deer reminds me quite a bit of We Need to Talk About Kevin in tone and style, so much so that I wonder if the latter was watched and studied before the former. Either way, the duo could be watched subsequently for a double-dose of teenage maniacs.

With a bleak and dark tone, We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011) offers a story that is a clear message. Never discussing the hot topic of gun control- in fact guns are not used in the slaughter, a bow is, weapon restrictions will nevertheless be an obvious discussion point. This film is one to be observed, savored, dissected, and thought about after the finale, and is one to be remembered as a great piece of cinema.

Magnolia-1999

Magnolia-1999

Director-Paul Thomas Anderson

Starring-Tom Cruise, Julianne Moore

Scott’s Review #777

Reviewed June 21, 2018

Grade: A

Paul Thomas Anderson is one of my favorite modern directors. His best film in my opinion is Boogie Nights (1997), but has also created other dark offerings such as Phantom Thread (2017) and Inherent Vice (2014). Arguably, his most peculiar effort might be Magnolia (1999), a cerebral film with themes of forgiveness and the meaning of life. An ambitious effort with a stellar ensemble cast make the film a fantastic experience.

Set in San Fernando Valley (a mountainous area of Los Angeles), the film resembles David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive (2001) in area and oddness alone with unusual dialogue and offbeat characters. A narrator explains three situations of extreme coincidence and surmises that chance may not be the only responsible party. Anderson then carves an intricate tale involving numerous characters, intersecting lives, and a riveting final climax during one rainy California day (an oddity in itself!).

The plot begins when we meet Jim Kurring (John C. Reilly), a police officer who is called to investigate a disturbance. After finding a woman’s body in an apartment closet, events turn bizarre as a children’s game show host (Philip Baker Hall), his estranged daughter (Melora Walters), the show’s former producer, Earl (Jason Robards), who is dying from cancer, his drug-addicted wife Linda (Julianne Moore), Earl’s male caretaker (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a former game show champion (William H. Macy), and finally, an intense motivational speaker (Tom Cruise). Quite a bevy of talented actors!

As the plot moves along in mysterious fashion, the connections of each of the characters is not only revealed, but their peculiar motivations start to take shape. For example, Linda, who clearly married Earl for his money, seems to have an epiphany and demands her lawyer change Earl’s will. Later, a character may have a connection to Earl and Linda, but is all as it seems? In the case of Magnolia, the film is so wonderfully strange that it leaves the audience guessing throughout most of its running time.

Bizarre scenes are commonplace throughout the duration of the film. My favorite one is a marvelously creative scene. Suddenly, frogs begin to fall out of nowhere from the Los Angeles sky with numerous consequences for the characters. The incident causes a ripple effect, of sorts, as many of the character’s fates are determined. Though one may not be able to make heads or tails of this scene or take complete logic from it, it’s enthralling all the same.

Magnolia has an overall quirky tone- sometimes upbeat-sometimes melancholy- that I adore. Films that are tough to figure out and that add an interesting musical score are so rich with flavor. Aimee Mann is responsible for composing many of the songs on the musical soundtrack, so much so that she received a title credit on the soundtrack itself. Mann infuses a richness into her music that is moody and diverse with ambient essentials.

Many actors make frequent appearances in Paul Thomas Anderson films. Magnolia alone seems almost like a Boogie Nights reunion with Moore, Walters, Macy, Baker Hall, and Philip Seymour-Hoffman to name just a handful. The amazing aspect is that all of the aforementioned actors play vastly different, and arguably even more complex roles, than they did in Boogie Nights. Similar to Quentin Tarantino’s actors appearing in many of his films, what a creative treat this must be for them.

There is no doubt that Magnolia (1999) is a complex, dream-like, film. Open to interpretation and reflection, I find it to be a film that feels brilliant and that I would like to revisit and deep dive into even more and more with further viewings, for hopefully a better understanding and an even deeper appreciation.

The Killing of a Sacred Deer-2017

The Killing of a Sacred Deer-2017

Director-Yorgos Lanthimos

Starring-Colin Farrell, Nicole Kidman

Scott’s Review #774

Reviewed June 15, 2018

Grade: A

For fans of Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos, creator of such disturbing and bizarre films as 2009’s Dogtooth and 2015’s The Lobster, then The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017) will be a treasure. As with those films, the odd story and the peculiar acting styles are prevalent making the film quite the experience. I relish the film and its unusual nature, offering a cinematic experience that is insightful, mesmerizing, extreme, and quite frankly, brilliant.

Steven Murphy (Farrell) is an esteemed cardiac surgeon who “befriends” a troubled teenage boy named Martin (Barry Keogen) whose father had died years earlier as a result of Steven’s negligence. When Martin slowly insinuates himself into Steven’s family life, they begin to fall ill. Martin threatens to kill the entire family unless Steven kills either his wife Anna (Nicole Kidman) or one of his two children- the victim can be of his choosing.

The creepy premise is enormously intriguing as the conclusion cannot be foreseen.  A basic yet deep story line is wonderfully spun with many possible directions for the plot to go in. After forty-five minutes or so of the audience wondering why Steven and Martin meet secretly in diners, hospital corridors, or other remote areas, the teen boy’s true motivations come to the surface as he rapidly and calmly puts his cards on the table for Steven.

Surprisingly, none of the characters are particularly sympathetic. One would assume that the Murphy family- wholesome, affluent, and astute, would garner audience support, but we slowly peel back the onion on each character. With a gorgeous house in a quiet Cincinnati neighborhood, Steven and Anna (a doctor herself) are sometimes harsh and physical with their kids, while the kids (Bob and Kim) develop a strange fascination toward Martin. In this way each character is peculiar and has his or her own dire motivations as the plot unfolds.

Lanthimos is quietly becoming one of my favorite new directors as he slowly churns out one disturbing film after the next. Particularly in The Killing of a Sacred Deer, his clear Stanley Kubrick influences bubble to the surface. With plodding then sudden bombastic classical music pieces, the score is crisp with uniqueness, eliciting emotions like surprise and terror from the audience.

From a visual perspective, fans of Kubrick will no doubt notice the long camera shots and slowly panning camera angles. The hospital’s long and foreboding hallways are prominently featured as we follow a character walking along the corridors. This is highly reminiscent of the Overlook hotel sequences in the 1980 Kubrick masterpiece, The Shining.

One particularly jarring nuance to the film is the speech patterns of most of the actors- clearly dictated by Lanthimos and also occurring in 2015’s The Lobster. The character of Steven talks very quickly, but with monotone delivery and in a matter-of-fact style; Kim and Martin also speak this way. I didn’t notice the quality as much with Kidman’s Anna, but Farrell really went to town. I’m not sure this totally works throughout the entire film since the mannerisms give off almost a comical element. To be sure, this uniqueness makes the film more quirky and decidedly non-mainstream, which is to be celebrated.

The climax of the film is brutal. As Steven brandishes a loaded shotgun, the family gathers in their family room, Anna fussing over her new black dress. As the group dons pillow cases, Steven goes Russian roulette style on the family, randomly firing a shot until one member is killed. When the remaining family members see Martin at the diner the next day, they provide him with icy, hateful looks. The entire scene is done without dialog and is tremendously macabre.

Rest assured, I am eagerly awaiting Lanthimos’s next project (reportedly already in the works) and hope against hope he continues to use the superb Colin Farrell, the brilliant Nicole Kidman, and newcomer Barry Keoghan again. Thanks to tremendous acting, a riveting score, and enough thrills and creeps to last a lifetime, The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017) is at the top of its game.

Good Time-2017

Good Time-2017

Director-Ben Safdie, Joshua Safdie

Starring-Robert Pattinson, Ben Safdie

Scott’s Review #767

Reviewed June 5, 2018

Grade: B+

Every so often an actor who is known for either doing mainstream films or for portraying a mediocre character risks being typecast. Fortunately for actor Robert Pattinson, known mostly as the heartthrob from the trite Twilight films, he has been given the best role of his career. The actor hits the jackpot with a challenging and edgy performance in the fast-paced independent crime drama, Good Time (2017).

The film is a very good ride, and directors Ben and Joshua Safdie successfully provide excellent tension and compelling action scenes (Ben even gives a worthy supporting performance as a mentally challenged character). The overall tone of the film is that of an edge of your seat experience. As enjoyable and taut as the film is, a few minor criticisms must be mentioned below.

Good Time begins with Nick Nikas (Ben Safdie) being quizzed by a therapist. They are quickly interrupted by Nick’s brother Connie (Pattinson), who removes him from the facility so that he can assist with a bank heist. When the attempt goes awry and Nick is arrested, Connie does his best to spring his brother from jail then from the hospital following an altercation with another inmate. All the while, Connie must also evade the police as he forms a strange connection with a sixteen year old girl, Crystal (Taliah Webster).

The fun part of Good Time is that the film is fast paced and filled with twists and turns. Largely taking place over the course of one night, we are compelled by Connie’s journey and wonder if he will outrun the cops. In a way a standard thriller, Good Time rises slightly above this ranking with its wonderful New York City setting with numerous exterior scenes- this is a major plus.

Also garnering props for the film is the look of it. With a slick yet gritty and grainy  feel, the camera angles are quick and plentiful. This is a great tool to keep the action going at lightning speed and the editing deserves kudos too. In this way the intensity and tension runs rampant throughout. A good example of this is the bank robbery scene- as the teller disappears into the vault to get the requested amount of money she takes what seems like an eternity to return, leaving the audience (and Connie) wondering if she has alerted the authorities.

Otherwise, the film is helped immensely by the acting performance of Pattinson who owns the film. Having not seen him in anything before I was surprised at how good he is. Thinking of him as more a matinee idol versus a serious actor, I was proven wrong. Grizzled, temperamental, but being a decent guy at times, Pattinson’s Connie is loyal to a fault, putting his brother first and foremost.

Fans of Captain Phillips (2013) will be delighted to see Barkhad Abdi cast in a small yet pivotal role of an amusement park security guard. Nominated for the Best Supporting Actor award for Captain Phillips, the Somali- American actor has been able to find steady work in film since his acclaimed debut performance.  In his role in Good Time, the character is instrumental in kicking off the final act that leads to the downfall of at least one other character.

Worth mentioning are a few small but notable flaws (rather unnecessary) that Good Time contains. Perplexing to me is the casting of Jennifer Jason Leigh in the role of Connie’s girlfriend Corey. Decades older than Connie, Corey is written pretty much as a nitwit- attempting to use her mother’s credit card to bail out Nick. The film does not mention the age difference nor provides much meat to the role- Jason Leigh deserves better than a throwaway role like this.

Otherwise, none of the female characters are treated especially well. Connie frequently directs or shouts at either Corey or even Crystal eliciting a “man in charge” vibe that is slightly off-putting. Also, a gay slur uttered by Connie is thrown into a scene for seemingly no reason, which in 2017 surprises me. Still, there is something that makes the audience root for Connie while we still want him to get his punishment.

Good Time (2017) provides quality entertainment in a specified genre with good acting all the way around. With a weird Ocean’s Eleven style (only with one prominent character) the bank robbery theme will satisfy those in the mood for a good heist film. The title of the film is a mystery (is it irony?) and not sure it totally works, but overall the film is a very good watch.

A Ghost Story-2017

A Ghost Story-2017

Director-David Lowery

Starring-Casey Affleck, Rooney Mara

Scott’s Review #764

Reviewed May 27, 2018

Grade: A-

Marvelous is it to support independent film and I get most of my selections via the annual independent spirit award nominations announced each and every November. In this way rich, creative films that ordinarily would be overlooked are recognized and sometimes treasured instead of forgotten entirely.

A Ghost Story (2017) is a small film fortunate to land big name stars undoubtedly increasing its audience- I am unsure if this film even played in theaters anywhere. Nonetheless, the film is a thought- provoking experience that left me both perplexed and fascinated, but with the knowledge that I had seen something of worth. I may not have completely understood it, but I also adored it.

Writer and director David Lowery must be in good with Hollywood A-listers Casey Affleck and Roony Mara, who star in A Ghost Story. The pair also appeared in Lowery’s first film, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints (2013) which received critical acclaim.

Somewhere outside of Dallas, Texas a young married couple known only as “C” (Affleck) and “M” (Mara) move into a small house. “C” is a musician with an unusual fondness for the small house that the couple rents. While “M” desires to leave the house “C” wishes to stay, somehow drawn to it. After “C” is tragically killed in a car accident his spirit returns unable to let go of either his wife or his home eventually stuck in time to watch generations come and go.

A Ghost Story is a cerebral experience as we watch the events from the perspective of “C”. Adding an eerie quality is that “C” is in the form of a ghost- shrouded in a plain white bed sheet with dark circles for the eyes. While “C” does not speak we experience his perceptions and feelings through what he sees. At first following “M” around as she mourns his loss, eventually she moves on and “C” is forced to watch others live in the house. Pitifully, he awaits the return of “M” as hundreds of years go by.

Lowery is so good at creating an ominous and haunting tone mostly through his classical musical score. In this way the film is wonderfully original. The audience feels the loss and loneliness of both “C” and “M”, but there is a scary quality too. Not in the horror genre way, but rather we do not know what will happen next. When “M” brings a man home “C” is furious and knocks books to the ground and turns the lights on and off. Later, a new family is terrorized when an unhappy “C” breaks all of their dishes in a fit of rage.

A scene that gave me the creeps is when “C”, in spirit form, gazes out the window of his house and notices another ghost looking out the window of the house next door. This ghost looks exactly like him except is female- we know this because her sheet has a flower pattern. They are able to communicate without speaking and “C” learns that she has been waiting for someone to come home to her, but it’s been so long that she can’t remember who it is. This scene is sad and filled with despondence.

A forewarning is that the pacing of the film is very slow- perhaps too slow for most. After “M’s” landlord brings her a pie we watch her devour the pie in a very long five minute scene after which she vomits the contents up. Despite long this scene is powerful and important as the entire time we view her depression and longing for “C” to return absorbing some little comfort from the pie.

A Ghost Story reaches its creative climax towards the end as the film sort of comes full circle and we begin to understand the circumstances. A dynamic sequence of the passage of time occurs showing the demolition of the house and the development that becomes a thriving city over time. Depressed and desolate “C” jumps off of a high rise.

I was mystified, however, by the final scene and was unable to completely make A Ghost Story (2017) add up (was there a second ghost or a rebirth of “C”?), but that is also part of the intrigue of the film. Regardless, the film is a worthy watch if only for a story that is cerebral and makes one think. Its central themes of loneliness and loss are depressing, but also fascinating in relation to the good story that Lowery creates.