Tag Archives: Independent Drama films

Shelter-2007

Shelter-2007

Director-Jonah Markowitz

Starring-Trevor Wright, Brad Rowe

Scott’s Review #758

Reviewed May 16, 2018

Grade: B+

By the mid 2000’s independent LGBT films were coming fast and furious as the genre was still relatively new and ripe for the picking with good ideas.  With Shelter (2007) we have a sweet film that focuses on new romance between two young men, one of whom is coming to terms with his own sexuality. The lead characters are not gay stereotypes and could easily pass for straight men, a characteristic impressive in LGBT film- and other mainstream films for that matter.

Rather than focusing on discrimination the characters may face or any obstacles from other characters (family and friends), the film wisely makes the story a character study and the demons one man wrestles with while “coming out”. The small film is written intelligently save for one supporting characters plot driven decision. Also, in the modern age we are beginning to see a bevy of similar themed films emerge from the LGBT community and Shelter offers nothing we have not seen before.

Set in sunny southern California, our main protagonist is Zach (Trevor Wright), an aspiring artist in his early twenties. The ultimate “good guy” he is popular with friends and girls and frequently babysits his five year old nephew Cody while his sister parties and has one night stands. When Zach meets his best friends older brother Shaun (Brad Rowe), the pair fall in love as Zach wrestles with his sexuality and conflict with his future plans. The sexual and family struggles of Zach are the main themes of the film.

Shelter (not sure I get the title’s meaning) is a solid slice of life story. Zach initially dates a pretty girl, Tori, who is blonde, wholesome, and a girl next door type. This is done intentionally to show that Tori is a girl any young straight man would have interest in. We never see Zach show interest in any other men besides Shaun so the film leans towards a solid romantic drama once the fellas get together. Still, we see Zach’s internal struggles and accepting himself for who he is played out. Actor Wright and director Jonah Markowitz, capture this successfully.

Shaun, arguably second fiddle to Zach, is a character that I feel is very well written. Avoiding negative stereotypes, Shaun is handsome, masculine, and charismatic. Completely confident and exuding great poise, he is a character that any gay male should look up to. He is openly gay yet “one of the guys” as he should be. He immediately connects with Cody becoming a father or cool surrogate uncle figure for the lad. A quick concern of Zach’s sister Jeanne’s of having the boy around a gay man is trivialized in quick form.

Another positive to the film are the multiple scenes showing Zach, Shaun, and Cody as a happy family and how normal this is. Examples of this are the frolicking around the beach playing football or horseplay. A quiet dinner of barbeque steaks and red wine  for the men and macaroni and cheese for Cody elicit images of a connected family unit despite some in society still poo pooing this idea. The film presents the connectivity as normal.

A tiny flaw in the character of Jeanne shows her willingness (almost eagerness) to leave Cody (and her ailing father) behind when she decides to take off to Oregon with her brand new boyfriend. This point seems rushed and out of character. While a party girl with a crappy job in a grocery store Jeanne did exhibit heart and written as sympathetic and caring all throughout the film. Surprising and unrealistic to me is that she would up and leave her life. A paltry excuse of “Oregon not allowing kids” was left unclear and unexplained.

Part coming of age story, part coming out story, Shelter (2007) is an example of the little film that could with an appreciation of independent cinema. The film tells a nice story of one man’s journey to self-discovery and the individuals he surrounds himself with.  With impressive California oceanfront and working class principles as a backdrop, the film has a calming texture and weaves a solid experience for viewers to enjoy.

Lean on Pete-2018

Lean on Pete-2018

Director-Andrew Haigh

Starring-Charlie Plummer, Steve Buscemi

Scott’s Review #747

Reviewed April 24, 2018

Grade: B+

Lean on Pete (2018) is a heartbreaking and emotional slice of life film written and directed by British director, Andrew Haigh. The film centers on the relationship between a boy and a horse so the heart strings will receive a good tugging as the viewer is taken on a journey as the protagonist struggles through both pain and triumph. While slow moving and matter-of-fact, the film is a celebration of wonderful writing and good story chapters, perfectly nestled into the independent drama genre.

Based upon the novel of the same name- reportedly a much darker experience, actor Charlie Plummer portrays Charley Thompson, a fifteen year old boy living outside of Portland, Oregon, with his troubled father- his mother has taken off for parts unknown. As his already complicated life turns upside down after a violent attack, Charley finds himself increasingly attracted to the world of local horse racing as he becomes involved with a shady horse trainer, Del Montgomery (Steve Buscemi). There he befriends and falls in love with an aging horse named Lean on Pete, who sadly is destined for the slaughterhouse in Mexico.

The film is really about Charley’s journey and determination to survive while facing seemingly insurmountable odds and obstacles. The intriguing aspect of Lean on Pete is watching what Charley experiences and hoping against hope that he will come out unscathed and undamaged. The youngsters aspiration is to reach his estranged aunt, who he only knows to have been living in Wyoming as a waitress. How on earth will he be able to find her? If he does reach her will she welcome him with open arms as he hopes or will he suffer more defeat?

Several key aspects struck me as I watched this film- As Charley embarks on his travels to find his beloved aunt, with Lean on Pete in tow, he encounters many individuals who either aid or hinder his intentions. However, the common theme of waitresses continue to be portrayed- for starters, his aunt is referenced to be working as a waitress at a bar, when Del gives Charley some fatherly advice he implores to him that the best women have always worked as a waitress. On the road, he is treated kindly by two different waitresses- one of whom gives him free dessert, the other gives him a major break. I am not sure why Haigh chose to add this to the film, but it is a nice touch and effectively gives a warm, blue collar sensibility to the story.

Another intelligent decision Haigh makes is to keep the focus on Plummer and Charley’s facial expressions and reactions during pivotal scenes- for example, a scene where Charley is painting a house for extra money is important. As he hears a jovial father and son playing outside, Haigh shoots Charley’s reactions to this poignant scene rather than deciding to show the father and son. Hearing their pleasure is enough to elicit a look of pain on Charley’s face rather than a blatant scene of said father and son shoved down the viewers throat.

Enough praise cannot be given to young talent, Plummer, as he gives a layered performance that will surely make him a star in years to come. The actor possesses an earnest, trustworthy, sensibility which makes him a likely hero in any film he appears in down the road. Furthermore, he quietly gives Charley depth with a range of emotions including disappointment, fear, and anger at his predicament.

The supporting cast members give well-acted performances that add to the overall meat of the story. As grizzled, yet responsible Del, Buscemi sinks his teeth into a role that allows his sarcastic humor and wit to take center stage and he is perfect in the role. Chloe Sevigny, as Bonnie, a female jockey who befriends Charley, yet also gives it to him straight with lessons on life’s hard knocks, gives a fine performance.

Lean on Pete is a quiet film that elicits an emotional response from its intended audience by giving firm texture to the story and wonderful cinematography of the western United States landscape. Viewing a likable young adult in constant turmoil seems to be a difficult subject, but instead is rather beautiful and inspiring as captured by Haigh’s piece, instead of a complete downer as it might have been. The film is a tale of journey and struggle that successfully accomplishes what it sets out to achieve.

Do the Right Thing-1989

Do the Right Thing-1989

Director-Spike Lee

Starring-Danny Aiello, Spike Lee

Scott’s Review #746

Reviewed April 21, 2018

Grade: A

Do the Right Thing is one of the few great films to come out of the year 1989, not remembered as a fantastic year in cinema, when most mainstream films were as glossy as tin foil- and barren on quality substance. Here we have a small, independent gem that made people have discussions about current race relations in the United States and also became a monumental, influential film. Film maker (and star) Spike Lee carves a controversial story of racial tensions in a Brooklyn neighborhood one hot summer day.

Beginning rather light and comedic, then turning violent and dark, the action is set in a largely black neighborhood, Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, where twenty-five year old, Mookie (Spike Lee) works delivering pizzas at an Italian pizzeria owned by Sal (Danny Aiello). With a toddler at home and a nagging girlfriend Tina (Rosie Perez) always in his face, Mookie is unmotivated yet still a decent guy and loyal friend.  Sal has two sons who work at the pizza place- Pino (John Turturro), who is angry and racist and nice guy Vito, who is a friend of Mookie’s. When conflicts erupt over whether Sal’s restaurant should celebrate black celebrities as well as white on a wall in the dining room, tensions reach their breaking point as the intense heat wave makes matters much worse.

What makes Do the Right Thing a marvel are both the overall tone of the film and the atmosphere relayed by Spike Lee, who does an incredible job of writing, producing, and starring in the film. The elements having little to do with the actual story immediately impress as big, bright colors, in comic book style scream at the big screen in bold fashion, eliciting both a warm, inviting feeling and an angry, contemptuous vibe. The loud rap and hip hop beats are exceptionally instrumental at portraying a certain feeling and emotion to the film. Made independently, with little budget, the film feels raw and intense from the get go.

Brooklyn, and New York City in particular, is the perfect setting as Sal and his family are white folks living in a predominantly black neighborhood, so in turn are the minorities in the story. Additionally, the viewer sees the friendly neighborhood and feels a sense of belonging regardless of race- the humorous drunk, the kindly, grandmotherly type people watching from her stoop, and the boombox music kid all form a sense of community and togetherness. This point is tremendously important to the overall plot of the film.

The relationship between Mookie and Sal and his sons is very important and the centerpiece to the entire film, which I found quite interesting as a character study. Clearly open minded, Sal is a decent man and fine with the diversity in his neighborhood- yet still true to his Italian roots. Aiello does a fantastic job of portraying this complex, conflicted character. His two sons could not be more different from each other- Vito, who is a close friend of Mookie’s, is sympathetic and sweet- with nary a racist bone in his body. Pino, on the other hand, is angry and resentful of the black community taking over what he feels is his territory. Finally, Mookie, while lazy, is also a sympathetic character as he is conflicted once tension reach their boiling point. These diverse characters make the film so dynamic.

Revered director Spike Lee carves out a story and brings it to the big screen telling of an important topic that is as vital in modern times as it was when Do the Right Thing was released in 1989. The film is intelligent and timely without being condescending to either black or white races, nor preachy- instead telling a poignant story that is angry and sometimes painful to watch, but more importantly is empathetic and real.

The Florida Project-2017

The Florida Project-2017

Director-Sean Baker

Starring-Willem Dafoe, Brooklynn Prince

Scott’s Review #730

Reviewed February 28, 2017

Grade: A

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Fantastic Woman-2017

A Fantastic Woman-2017

Director-Sebastian Lelio

Starring-Daniela Vega, Francisco Reyes

Scott’s Review #729

Reviewed February 27, 2018

Grade: A

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Big Sick-2017

The Big Sick-2017

Director-Michael Showalter

Starring-Kumail Nanjiani, Zoe Kazan

Scott’s Review #720

Reviewed January 29, 2018

Grade: B+

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Beach Rats-2017

Beach Rats-2017

Director-Eliza Hittman

Starring-Harris Dickinson

Scott’s Review #719

Reviewed January 26, 2018

Grade: A-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Call Me By Your Name-2017

Call Me By Your Name-2017

Director-Luca Guadagnino

Starring-Timothee Chalamet, Armie Hammer

Scott’s Review #708

Reviewed December 27, 2017

Grade: A

Call Me by Your Name is a gorgeous film, simply beautiful in story-telling, cinematography, and acting. A humanistic film that crafts a lovely tale of young love, friendship, and emotions, that is simply breathtaking to experience. In fact, in the LGBT category, I would venture to proclaim that this film is groundbreaking- leaving behind any tried and true homophobic elements and instead telling a good story that is fresh, sincere, and simply flawless.

The time period is summer of 1983 and the landscape is the beautiful Italian Riviera. Seventeen year old Italian-American, Elio,  (Timothee Chalamet) dreams the summer away living with his parents in a small village.  They are affluent and his world is rich with culture and learnings- his father (Michael Stuhlbarg) a professor and his mother a translator. A brilliant student, Elio wiles away the days reading, playing music, and flirting with girlfriend  Marzia. When a handsome, twenty-four year old American student, Oliver, (Armie Hammer) arrives for a six week stay assisting Elio’s father on a project, desire and first love blossoms between the young men, as they struggle with their burgeoning relationship.

Directed by Luca Guadagnino, having also directed the lovely 2009 film, I Am Love, is a man known for stories of desire in small Italian villages. Call Me By Your Name is the third in a trilogy- I Am Love and 2015’s A Bigger Splash being the others. The setting is incredibly important to the story as both the summer heat and the world of the intellectual scholars are nestled into a grand shell of culture and the philosophical nature of the story is palpable- the film just oozes with smarts and sophistication.

By 2017, the LGBT genre has become populated with films in the romantic, drama, and comedy sub-genres, but many use the standard homophobic slant to elicit drama and conflict. Not to diminish the importance of homophobic discussions to teach viewers, Call Me By Your Name stands alone in that homophobia is not an issue in this story.  Given the time period of 1983 this may be surprising- at the very cusp of the AIDS epidemic, this topic is also not discussed- rather, the subject matter is simply a love story between two males and the coming of age story that their love expresses.

The film is quite moving and both Elio and Oliver are characters filled with texture and raw emotion. Oliver is confident, charismatic and a great catch for any lucky young lady in the village. Hammer fills the role with poise and humanity. Chalamet, a beautiful young man, gives the complex role his all as so much can be conveyed not by dialogue, but by expressions on the actors face. As Oliver slow dances with a local girl, the wounded look that Chalamet reveals, his eyes welling up with tears, is heartbreaking. Seventeen is a tough age for most young men, but when coming to terms with ones sexuality it can be excruciating. The final scene is poignant as it features at least a five minute long scene gazing into the eyes of Chalamet as many emotions are expressed in this sequence.

Enough credit cannot be given to Stuhlbarg as Elio’s father as he gives one of the best speeches ever performed in film history. What a subtle and poignant performance the actor gives as the sympathetic and knowing father. His speech of understanding and warmth is riveting and inspirational- to be cherished. Mr. Perlman is a role model to fathers everywhere and any gay sons ideal parent.

One scene that could stir controversy is the sure to be controversial “peach scene”. Involving an innocent peach used during a sex act, the scene is erotic and borders on “icky”, but is also important to foster the connection between Oliver and Elio.

Another potential risk to the film is the fact that Oliver is twenty-four and Elio is seventeen, meaning that Elio is underage. However, the film never plays Oliver as more the aggressor and the relationship remains tender and consensual.

Call Me By Your Name is not just a great LGBT film, but it is a film for the ages.  Beautifully crafted with gorgeous landscapes and nuanced, powerful acting, the sequences are subtle and carefully paced. The film is simply a treasure.

Chronic-2015

Chronic-2015

Director-Michel Franco

Starring-Tim Roth, Robin Bartlett

Scott’s Review #682

Reviewed September 18, 2017

Grade: A-

Chronic is a brave film, a character study, that offers an in depth look at the life of a male nurse and his rich relationships with his patients. What the film also does quite soundly is reflect on not just the obvious physical needs of the patients, but the deep effects that the main characters dying patients have on himself as well. The film is quite bleak with a quiet element and very long scenes containing little dialogue, but is a treasure in bold storytelling and brazen reflection.

The film is a subdued work requiring attention and focus. Yes, some would deem Chronic to be slow and certainly most would describe it as “a downer”, but to dismiss the film is a mistake as it offers rich writing and an in depth look at a vocation and lifestyle misunderstood or confusing to most people.

Tim Roth, famous for his bad boy roles, especially in Quentin Tarantino films, does an about face, delivering a superb, subdued performance as David Wilson, a lonely and depressed nurse living in the Los Angeles area. He is a quiet, kindly man whose internal pain registers on his face as he dutifully treats his mostly close to death patients, sometimes attending their funerals after they have expired.

Initially, we meet David as he tends to a sickly young woman. Clearly once beautiful, she is gaunt and haggard and I cringed when the woman’s nude, skeleton-like body, is on display as David washes her with a wash cloth. The film makers do not gloss over his tender attention to her private areas, which is shot gracefully and certainly not done garishly. Still, the long scene is unnerving and frightening in its realism.

When the woman succumbs to AIDS, David reluctantly becomes involved in a celebratory drink with a newly engaged young couple after he goes to a bar to unwind. When he pretends the deceased woman was his wife, he receives sympathy, but the couple quickly become aloof when he reveals what she died of. Does he do this purposely to push the couple away? Throughout the film we realize that David thrives on being with his patients, and can do no other type of work. In contrast, he has difficulty with relations with “normal” people.

Perplexities abound in this film, which make the viewer think and ponder throughout, and certainly after the story ends. For example, David searches through a young girls Facebook account looking at her photos- he later finds the girl, revealed to be studying medicine, and they happily reunite. Is she his daughter or the daughter of a deceased patient? Later, David is sued by an affluent family, and subsequently fired, after he watches porn with an elderly man to lift his spirits. There is a glimmer of uncertainty where we are not sure what David’s sexual orientation is.

In the most heartbreaking sequence of all, David begins caring for a middle-aged woman with progressive cancer. Martha (Robin Bartlett) is strong-willed and no nonsense and makes the painful decision not to continue with chemotherapy after suffering chronic nausea and later soiling herself. It is apparent that her family only visits her out of obligation as she lies to them that her cancer is gone and she is in the clear. She then pleads with David to end her life with dignity using a heavy does of morphine- the sequence is heartbreaking.

The final scene of the film will blow one away and I did not see this conclusion coming. The event left me questioning the entire sequence of the film, wondering how all the pieces fit together. Surely, being overlooked for an Oscar nomination, Tim Roth proves he is a layered, complex, full-fledged actor, in a painful, yet necessary story.

In the Flesh-1998

In the Flesh-1998

Director-Ben Taylor

Starring-Dane Ritter, Ed Corbin

Scott’s Review #663

Reviewed July 10, 2017

Grade: B

In the Flesh is a steamy, pre-Brokeback Mountain, LGBT film from 1998. The budget for this film is very small and the acting quite wooden. My initial reaction was that In the Flesh is a terrible film, yet something sucked me in as a fan, whether the crime theme or the romance (or both). The atmosphere is quite dreamlike and moody, which I find appealing and the addition of a whodunit murder mystery amid the romantic drama is highly appealing- therefore I hesitantly recommend this film for perhaps a late night adult viewing. But be prepared for endless plot holes and unnecessary sub-plots.

Oliver Beck (Dane Ritter) is a handsome college student who works as a hustler in a dive bar named The Blue Boy in Atlanta, Georgia. He has his share of loyal, older men who use his services and adore him, especially a lonely man named Mac- a barfly at the watering hole. When closeted Detective Philip Kursch (Ed Corbin) begins an undercover assignment to bust a drug ring at The Blue Boy, their lives intersect, as Philip falls in love with Oliver and investigates his past.

As the drug investigation seems to be quickly forgotten, a murder mystery develops when Mac is murdered at the ATM machine- Oliver looks on, panics,  and speeds away. When Philip covers for Oliver as an alibi, the plot really thickens. Other side stories like a flashback sequence involving Oliver’s past- while driving drunk he killed his best childhood friend, the introduction of his sometime boss and girlfriend, Chloe, and his caring of Lisa, his sister, addicted to heroin- are brought to the table, but really have little to do with the main story and only confuse the plot.

The most compelling element is the relationship between Oliver and Philip and their dysfunctional love story, but many questions abound. Is Philip secretly married or dating a female? We know nothing about his personal life. Oliver, hustling and hating every minute of it, merely as a way to support Lisa’s habit is ridiculous- why not get her help?

Neither actor Ed Corbin nor Dane Ritter will ever be accused of being the world’s greatest actor, and can hardly act their way out of a paper bag. Both actors performances are wooden and unemotional, even when emotion is required in the scene. Still, oddly this somewhat works in the film.

Regardless of In the Flesh being riddled with plot holes and sub-par acting, the film has some charm. The moody Atlanta nights, rife with sex and secrets , is quite appealing. A murderer on the loose and disguised save for a green watch is intriguing. The film also has a mysterious, almost haunting nature, and the muted camera work, whether intentional or the result of a poor DVD copy, works very well.

Since the time is 1998, a time period where more and more LGBT films were beginning to be made, but not overly so, In the Flesh and director, Ben Taylor, deserve credit for even being able to get this film produced and made. The mainstream success of LGBT juggernaut, Brokeback Mountain, undoubtedly was helped, albeit in a small way, by this film. Though, strangely, I never noticed the two main characters ever kiss- too soon for 1998?

Not the finest acting nor the best written screenplay, In the Flesh is a bare bones film that will be enjoyed largely by an LGBT audience seeking a peek into a time when these types films were not running aplenty and typically made in the independent film venue.

I Smile Back-2015

I Smile Back-2015

Director-Adam Salky

Starring-Sarah Silverman

Scott’s Review #654

Reviewed June 13, 2017

Grade: B+

As a fan of Sarah Silverman, the comedienne, I was anxious to see the 2015 film, I Smile Back, which garnered her a Screen Actors Guild Award nomination. Silverman tackles a heavily dramatic role in a film which teeters on being a pure “downer”. In fact, many fans expecting the actresses comic wit to be featured need not see the film. Rather, I embraced the performance and found the film to be an independent film treat, in large part thanks to Silverman’s powerful performance. She nails the part and carries the film to success. I Smile Back is a very small film that I wished had garnered more viewers.

Laney Brooks (Silverman) appears to have it all. She lives an affluent existence in Westchester County, NY with handsome husband, Bruce (Josh Charles), and their two young children. With a gorgeous house, dinner parties, and friends, who could ask for anything more?  Bored and troubled by a tough childhood and “daddy issues”, Laney has a tendency to drink too much, abuse drugs and prescription pills, carry on an affair with her best friends husband, all while managing to successfully run a household. As she gradually begins to spiral down a darker path, Laney sees her perfect world slowly begin to crumble around her.

My question throughout the entire film was, “Are we supposed to root for Laney or dislike her?” Certainly director Adam Salky does not make it easy to like her. In addition to her substance abuse use (or over-use), Laney is rather selfish. From the small scenes when Laney drops off her kids from school and is annoyed when the crossing guard and a teacher refuse to give her special treatment, she mutters insults under her breathe as she grabs a cigarette and heads for her scandalous rendezvous.  But when she is put in great peril later in the film, following one of her benders, I could not help but feel deep sympathy for her. In this way, the film is a bit unclear of what the audience should feel.

This leads me to conclude without a doubt that the film belongs to Silverman. In fact, what impressed me most is how believable she is in most scenes. She packs creative lunches for her kids and plays fun birthday cake decorating games with them, but in the next breathe snorts cocaine and rails at a neighbor lady for not celebrating Thanksgiving. Thanks to Silverman, she plays these scenes with gusto.

Some critics have complained about the script, but I find no real fault in it. Clearly not the strongest element, it is fine, nonetheless. I Smile Back is a low-budget indie drama that serves its purpose- it does not delve too deeply into the how’s and why’s of her addiction, and a nice scene with Laney’s father (Chris Sarandon) offers no concrete evidence of why this man drove her to drugs by his abandonment, but the film seems to be more about proving a good performance by Silverman than anything else.

Sarah Silverman commands great respect with her dark portrayal in I Smile Back. This role, combined with her recent turn in Showtime’s Masters of Sex television series, portraying a pregnant lesbian in the 1960’s, proves that she has what it takes to compete with the great dramatic actresses of today. She is certainly much more than a stand-up comic. Here’s to hoping for more drama from this talented lady in the years ahead.

Spa Night-2016

Spa Night-2016

Director-Andrew Ahn

Starring-Joe Seo

Scott’s Review #645

Reviewed May 19, 2017

Grade: B+

On the surface, Spa Night may seem like a straight-ahead independent LGBT themed film (of which in recent years there is no shortage of), but the plot of the film is really twofold. Sure, it tells the coming of age story of a young man’s sexuality, but Spa Night is also a story of the boy’s Korean parents financial struggles and their desire to raise a son into a successful young man, sacrificing their own happiness in the process. The films tone is very subtle and the action moves slowly, but it is a sweet story and a relevant one.

David Cho is a shy Korean-American high school student on the cusp of going to college. His parents (who only speak Korean) have sadly recently lost their take-out restaurant in Los Angeles. The parents struggle to make ends meet (she by waitressing, he by doing odd moving jobs), while David takes SAT classes to ensure he get into a great college. David is also struggling with his sexuality and one night visits a local male spa with drunken friends. He gets a job there and begins to experience male on male shenanigans taking place on the sly in the spa, all the while developing his own blossoming sexual feelings.

David’s development in the story is key- he is resistant to coming out as gay because his parents are traditional Korean, constantly mentioning David finding a girlfriend and succeeding in school, becoming what they have failed to achieve. When, at one point, he fools around with another male in the spa, David insists on a no kissing policy. This reveals to the audience that he has issues with the intimacy with another male and in one compelling scene some self-loathing occurs. When he stares too long at a buddy in the bathroom, while both are inebriated, this clues in the friend, who is then distant towards David.

The film is enjoyable because there are two stories being told rather than one, which helps the film succeed. We also care a great deal about David’s parents, compassionately portrayed rather than the stereotypical “tiger mom” and a rigid father. Wanting only the best for him, and having no clue about his sexuality struggles, they trudge along with their own issues. The father drinks too much and the parents frequently squabble. This is a clue to the film because it explains why David is hesitant to mention anything to them, despite the fact that he is close to his parents.

I also enjoyed the slice of life and coming of age appeal that the film possesses. Several shots of day to day life in Los Angeles are shown, mainly as characters go about their daily routines. The budget allotted Spa Night must have certainly been minimal, but the lesson learned is that some really fantastic films are made for miniscule money, but as long as the characters are rich and the story humanistic, the film succeeds- this is the case in Spa Night.

Almost every single character is of Asian descent- I am guessing all Korean actors. This is another positive I give to Spa Night. In the cinematic world, where other cultures and races are woefully underutilized or still stereo-typically portrayed, how refreshing that Spa Night breaks some new ground with an LGBT centered film with Korean characters.

Spa Night was deservedly crowned the coveted John Cassavetes award at the 2016 Independent Spirit awards (for films made for under $500,000) and director Andrew Ahn is certainly a talented novice director to be on the watch for. He seems destined to tell good, interesting stories about people.

99 Homes-2015

99 Homes-2015

Director-Ramin Bahrani

Starring-Andrew Garfield, Michael Shannon

Scott’s Review #633

Reviewed April 13, 2017

Grade: B+

99 Homes is a 2015 independent film that contains an underlying theme of morality as its central message, bubbling to the surface throughout the run of the film as our main hero is faced with a major dilemma. Set in 2010 in the midst of the dark economic housing crisis where thousands of families lost their homes to foreclosure, the film is depressing at times, but turns uplifting towards the end. Reminiscent of The Big Short and Inside Job in subject matter, we witness a wonderful performance by Andrew Garfield in the lead role, with a worthy supporting turn by Michael Shannon as a venomous opportunist.

Director Ramin Bahrani immediately creates tension with a taut musical score that bombards the screen. We see a poor victim of foreclosure, having shot himself to avoid the humiliation of being evicted from his home, followed by the introduction of powerful real-estate mogul, Rick Carver. Carver has wisely capitalized on the slew of Florida working class families, living well beyond their means and novice homeowners, booted from their homes thanks to adjustable mortgages that they cannot afford to pay.

Andrew Garfield plays Dennis Nash, a struggling construction worker, raising his young son and presumably supporting his mother (Laura Dern). They are fated to be evicted even though they have tried to win an extension with the court- months behind in their mortgage payments. They feel victimized and are forced to move to a seedy motel that houses many others in the same circumstances. Desperate for work, Dennis ironically ends up working for Rick and becomes encased in the dishonest world of real estate scheming- manipulating banking and government rules at the expense of homeowners who are down on their luck.

The main point of the film is the exploitation of the “working man” at the expense of “the man” and Rick is an example of this beast. Dennis represents the goodness of humanity as he wrestles with the moral repercussions of evicting families since he himself has met with similar circumstances. Is the money worth the pain and the hardship he causes people? How is it Rick has no morals, but Dennis does? Will Dennis choose money and lose himself in the process? What would the viewer do?

Despite the morality questions, the film does play like a slick thriller, with a few slight contrivances and the “wrapped up in a neat bow” style ending. This slightly makes the film lose its luster at times. It is implied that the film ends happily for Dennis and that Rick gets his “just desserts”, but what about the characters kicked out of their homes? Sadly, as in real-life, they are largely forgotten by the end of the film and play as footnotes in a larger story. Some follow-up as to what happens to them might have been nice.

99 Homes is a thinking man’s film and will undoubtedly leave the viewer asking what he or she would do in many situations that Dennis is faced with. The emotions ooze from the face of Andrew Garfield as Bahrani uses many close-ups and enough cannot be said for Garfield’s bravura performance. In one heart-wrenching scene, he is forced to evict a man and his wife and children from their home, the man reduced to tears, comforted by his wife-Dennis is pained. In another, an elderly man with nowhere to go is evicted, left defeated by the side of the road. These scenes may have played as overwrought, but Garfield convincingly brings honesty and raw emotion to the work.

Laura Dern is very good in her role as young mother, Lynn,  to Garfield’s Dennis and I am perplexed why she was cast- she barely seems old enough to play convincingly as his Mom, but she does pull it off. However, I could not help but desire more meat from this Oscar nominated Actress- sure there is one great scene when Lynn realizes the extent of Dennis’s involvement with Rick, but I wanted more. Still, the acting all around in this film is superb.

What left me so bothered by 99 Homes is that situations just like the ones that played out in the film are examples of countless real-life occurrences people experienced due to greed, dishonesty, and uncaring fellow human beings and that is a sad realization. Director, Bharani, surrounded by a stellar cast, brings this realism to the big screen in raw, honest, storytelling.

American Honey-2016

American Honey-2016

Director-Andrea Arnold

Starring-Sasha Lane, Shia LaBeouf

Scott’s Review #622

Reviewed March 6, 2017

Grade: A-

American Honey is an unconventional coming of age drama that deserves kudos for not only being shot on a shoe-string budget, but also of having something of substance to tell. The film is mostly shot outdoors throughout the scouring summer months in heat drenched Oklahoma, Nebraska, and Kansas, as the film follows a group of rebellious, lonely teenagers as they attempt to sell magazines as part of a shady con organization. Their female leader uses cult-like rallying techniques to achieve loyalty. The film is shot mainly by hand-held cameras and only uses natural light, which are admirable feats in film.

The film’s central character is an eighteen-year old girl named Star, played by novice actress, Sasha Lane. Saddled with a deadbeat boyfriend with two young kids that she is forced to care for, she takes food from dumpsters in order to survive. One day, she is approached by a charismatic, handsome bad boy, Jake (Shia LaBeouf). Jake, along with a group of teenagers, offers her a job in Kansas. Hesitant, but realizing her dead-end existence, she accepts the mysterious job and travels with other unsavory characters across the bible-states, where they prey on wealthy, religious types willing to lend a hand, under the guise of selling them magazines.

The main story envelopes Star, her romantic feelings for Jake, and her quandaries that she faces on the road. She drinks, smokes, curses, and is sexually active, yet also savvy and wise beyond her years. The audience wonders if she will continue this lifestyle and worries when she comes into contact with older men- all rather well mannered and some affluent. Will they pay her for her magazines or some other forms of entertainment? How will Star handle propositions and scrapes in and out of precarious situations. Star grows up throughout the film. Star is also a kind and confident character.

At two hours and forty three minutes long, American Honey is extremely lengthy, especially given the fact that the film is an independent feature and also seems not to contain many concrete plot points nor much of a conclusion. It seems to just go on and on and on. Despite, the film never bored me and I was quite enraptured with the antics of the stories characters, finding myself quite fond of the surprising love story shrouded amongst the hip hop and rap soundtrack. Star and Jake (thanks in large part to the talents of Lane and LaBeouf) have true chemistry and likability as a couple.

The mystery surrounding Star is we know nothing about her parents or family or how she came to this existence at such a young age. At one point, she does mention her mother dying of a meth overdose, but it is unclear whether she makes this story up for the benefit of a magazine sale or if it is the truth. Star is rebellious, but very intelligent and capable, all the while exhibiting a kindness to strange children and her “colleagues”.

Interesting to note about American Honey are two key aspects: the film uses almost all non-actors- most of the kids were scouted and offered roles at local malls or various hangouts by director Andrea Arnold, so the film has a rawness and energy that is powerful given that the film is largely improvised. Also, the film is almost entirely shot using a basic hand-held camera or cellphone eliciting a shaky, documentary style feel. Instead of these characteristics giving American Honey an amateurish feel, it gave the film an authentic quality.

The left of center approach of featuring male frontal nudity and same sex relations gives the film much credo as an alternative film- the teens also swear and use drugs quite a bit, which could turn some off.

Receiving a heap of 2016 Independent Film award nominations (but winning none), my reason for watching the film, American Honey breathes some fresh air into the world of independent cinema, where sometimes too many big name stars appear in the indies to garner some credibility. Watching a film of novices or individuals with no acting aspirations simply create a good story is worth something in itself. And kudos to Arnold for spinning such a fresh tale.

Captain Fantastic-2016

Captain Fantastic-2016

Director-Matt Ross

Starring-Viggo Mortensen

Scott’s Review #616

Reviewed February 10, 2017

Grade: B+

A thought provoking story that raises a question of home-schooled, non- traditional book intelligence versus the lack of social norms and interactions, and debates which upbringings are more relevant, Captain Fantastic is a terrific film with a moral center. Starring Viggo Mortensen, who is not afraid to tackle complex and thoughtful roles, the film is a family drama with a unique spin and an edgy subject matter. Perhaps not as gritty as it could have been and feeling a bit safe, it still entertains and elicits thought, which is an important aspect to film and is oftentimes lacking in modern films.

Director Matt Ross immediately treats us to aerial views of green and mountainous Pacific Northwest where a family of seven- 1 father and 6 children ranging in age from five to seventeen- silently prey on and kill a deer grazing in the forest- this is their dinner. The family is unorthodox to say the least. Led by Ben Cash, he teaches the children how to fight, how to survive, and how to be ready for any situation. They are highly intelligent kids- able to recite the Bill of Rights and the most complex of literature.

Soon, it is revealed that their mother, Leslie, has committed suicide and a battle ensues between her parents (Frank Langella and Ann Dowd) who are determined to bury her “properly” with a Christian funeral, and Ben and his children, who are determined to honor her last wishes for cremation. Ben and the gang travel via their run down school bus to New Mexico, meeting local townspeople along the way as a battle of cultures takes place.

I commend Ross for creating a story that challenges the viewer to think- depending on the viewers religious or political views, there is a risk of people either loving or hating the film. The film is skewed toward the left, certainly, as a dinner and sleepover with Ben’s sister and her very “Americanized” family is awkward- the families having completely different styles. Ross makes it clear that Ben and family are the intelligent ones and his sisters kids quite dumb- not even knowing what the Bill of Rights is and mindlessly playing violent video games. The fact that they are a “typical American family” is sad and quite telling of what Ross’s view might be.

Captain Fantastic wisely shows that either side is not perfect. His oldest son, Bodevan, blooming sexually, has an awkward encounter with a pretty girl, proposing marriage to her with her mother present, because he knows no social norms. A younger son is attracted to a “normal” life with his grandparents, who are a wealthy couple. The grandparents are not presented as bad people, but rather, wanting the best for their grandchildren, and fearing how their lives will turn out without better structure or what they perceive as a better upbringing. Some of the kids blame Ben for their lack of social skills and being what they perceive as “freaks”.

The film does end in a safe fashion as a happy medium is ultimately reached, but I never felt cheapened by this result. I found Captain Fantastic to be rich in intelligent writing and a challenging tale. Many moments of “what would you do?” were brought to the forefront. Mortensen portrays Ben Cash flawlessly mixing just the right vulnerability with stubbornness to the character, and it is a great film for anyone fearing being intelligent is not cool, because it is.

The Diary of a Teenage Girl-2015

The Diary of a Teenage Girl-2015

Director-Marielle Heller

Starring-Bel Powley, Alexander Skarsgard, Kristen Wiig

Scott’s Review #614

Reviewed February 2, 2017

Grade: A-

I was not entirely sure of what I expected from the Independent Spirit award winning film, Diary of a Teenage Girl. I surmised that I would be treated to a light hearted, yet well-written coming of age story, but the film is much darker than I would have thought- and this is a plus- the film is edgy. There is so much depth to the central characters and an incredibly complex performance by newcomer, Bel Powley as the title role. Stars Kristen Wiig and Alexander Skarsgard also give tremendous performances. The film is based on the graphic novel The Diary of a Teenage Girl: An Account in Words and Pictures by Phoebe Gloeckner.

Set in 1976 San Francisco, a time filled with hippies, drugs, music, and life, fifteen year old Minnie, an aspiring comic book writer, is insecure as any typical fifteen year old is. With wide-eyes and stringy hair, she is cute, but rather quirky looking, not the prettiest girl in her class, and records all of her deepest thoughts into a cassette recorder. Minnie is intelligent and worldly, accepting of alternative lifestyles and drugs, despite her young age. She is wise well beyond her years.

Minnie’s mother Charlotte (Wiig), lives a bohemian lifestyle, constantly partying and losing jobs, and is divorced from Minnie’s and sister Gretel’s affluent, but mostly absent father, Pascal (Christopher Meloni). In a comic way, the girls refer to him as “Pascal” instead of “Dad”, which he abhors. Determined to lose her virginity, Minnie is man crazy and develops a sweet relationship with her mother’s boyfriend, Monroe (Skarsgard). Things begin slowly, but develop into a full-blown sexual relationship. A controversial piece to the story is that Monroe is thirty five years old- Minnie only fifteen. Both Monroe’s and Minnie’s feelings are challenged due to circumstances and Minnie’s emotions spiral out of control.

The subject matter of The Diary of a Teenage Girl will undoubtedly be off-putting for many folks as the actions are technically statutory rape, but the film never goes in that direction. Rather, director Marielle Heller crafts a tender story of young love and when there is too much drama, there is comic relief thrown in. Monroe is never the aggressor and, in fact, Minnie is. She is a young girl who knows what she wants. Since the director is female there is absolutely no hint of Minnie being taken advantage of or regretting her affair- the film is not about this. Rather, it is about a young girl with blooming sexuality and blooming emotions finding herself in the world. I admire this left of center approach to story immensely.

Other aspects of the film may be too much for some- Minnie and her best friend pretend to be prostitutes and orally service two young men in the men’s room on a lark. Later, Charlotte uses filthy language to describe Monroe’s and Minnie’s relationship. The film is not safe, but brazen and honest- I admire its courage.

Enough cannot be said for the three principle actors in Diary of a Teenage Girl. Bel Powley is a find! Nominated for an Independent Spirit award, this amazing young actress should have been recognized by the Academy awards, but she no doubt has many years and films ahead of her. She is a “regular girl” type and reminds me a bit of actress Lena Dunham in her looks and her rich delivery.

Kristen Wiig is fantastic and is evolving into a great dramatic actress. As Charlotte, Wiig is wonderfully insecure and an offbeat mother. She does not discipline, but rather befriends her daughters, showering them with hugs and kisses and gives a vulnerable neediness to the character. Wiig, dynamite in the comedy/drama The Skeleton Twins, has embraced small, but important indie films and kudos to her for this.

Lastly, Skarsgard, mainly known as HBO’s villainous Eric on True Blood, is inspiring as Monroe. Providing his character with sympathy and humanity (tough when having an affair with a teenage girl who also happens to be your girlfriends daughter), Skarsgard evokes so much emotion into the role that you almost root for Monroe and Minnie before remembering that she is too emotionally fragile. Skarsgard is brilliant in Monroe’s breakdown scene. I hope audiences see him in more of these complex roles as he is far more than a hunky actor.

Diary of a Teenage Girl intersperses graphic novel/animated elements into the story told from the perspective of Minnie and the character narratives parts of the film. An authentic, interesting story not only for teenagers, but for smart thinkers and anyone who has ever been over their heads in the emotions of love.

20th Century Women-2016

20th Century Women-2016

Director-Mike Mills

Starring-Annette Benning, Greta Gerwig, Elle Fanning

Scott’s Review #611

Reviewed January 22, 2017

Grade: A-

Annette Benning gets to shine in her leading role in 20th Century Women, a film directed by formidable independent director, Mike Mills, whose credits include 2010’s Beginners, and 2005’s Thumbsucker. In 20th Century Women, Mills serves as both director and writer, so the film truly is his vision. All of the five principal characters are quirky and well-written, though Benning’s is the most nuanced and fascinating to me.

The time is 1979 Santa Barbara. Despite the image of Santa Barbara being  a wealthy, grand town, dripping with the wealthy and powerful (perhaps due to the sweeping 1980’s daytime soap opera of the same name), Mills does not present this film as such. He presents Santa Barbara as a more artsy town as least where his characters are concerned.

Benning plays Dorothea Fields, a fifty-five year old divorced mother of a fifteen year old boy, Jaimie. She is a free-spirit and allows two boarders to live with her-Abbie (Greta Gerwig), a twenty-five year old aspiring photographer with fuchsia-colored hair, recovering from cervical cancer, and William (Billy Crudup), a handyman. They are joined by Jaimie’s good friend, Julie (Elle Fanning), a depressed neighbor.

The film nicely dives into the trials and tribulations of each character as well as their interactions with each other, in a highly quirky manner, and we fall in love with each of them. Dorothea enlists the help of Abbie and Julie to assist in having a positive influence over Jaimie after he nearly dies after a foolish teenage prank.

Mills successfully gives a slice of life feel to the time period as punk rock and the political climate of the times are heavily used in the film. Bands such as Talking Heads and Black Flag are focused as Dorothea strives to learn what young people like, herself striving to remain youthful and in touch with her charges. Dorothea is a chain-smoker and many scenes of her pondering a situation while taking long drags, are featured. I love this aspect of the film as it showcases Benning’s cerebral performance. She is a thoughtful woman, only wanting her son to grow up sane and productive since his father is absent.

Sex and feminism are big parts of the film. Abbie loans Jaimie two books by female feminist authors to allow him a better understanding of women. When he begins to discuss orgasms and a strange conversation about sex and virginity ensues during a dinner party Dorothea is hosting, the graphic detail is a bit too much for Dorothea. She is a conflicted character- open minded and caring, when it comes to her son, she has a more conservative edge, while trying to remain open to his new experiences as a teen.

20th Century Women is strictly a character driven film, which is an enormous strength. Each character is in a different place in their lives and I adore how the film gives a conclusion to each of the character’s lives in the years to come. Certainly, the film does go the “happily ever after” route, but this does not bother me. Rather, the film is so well composed that I was enraptured by the characters lives. Admittedly, the film is slow moving at times, but this is due to the richness of the dialogue- nothing is rushed along.

Kudos to the cast- specifically Gerwig and Fanning are wonderful. Fanning’s Julie is a unique character- her mother is a psychiatrist who forces her to attend group sessions that she holds. Julie has a step-sister with cerebral palsy, so Julie frequently sleeps at Dorothea’s house as a way to escape her life. Sexual active, Julie has a pregnancy scare during the story.

A coming of age type film set in an interesting period of time, 20th Century Women showcases the talents of a stellar cast, led by Benning, and takes its audience into a wonderful, character themed world and discusses the lives of its intriguing characters with a clear portrayal of life in the late 1970’s.

Hell or High Water-2016

Hell or High Water-2016

Director-David Mackenzie

Starring-Jeff Bridges, Chris Pine, Ben Foster

Scott’s Review #609

Reviewed January 16, 2017

Grade: B+

Reminiscent of the Coen Brothers No Country for Old Men or a classic Sam Peckinpah film from the 1970’s, Hell or High Water is a splendid tale of bank robbers being chased by lawmen in rural, western Texas. The film provides good story with a tale of morality so the viewer is unsure who to root for- the good guys or the bad guys. This gives the film substance compared to the typical action, guy film, done to death. Odd, quirky, small characters are interspersed throughout the film which adds comedy and a unique feel. The film is directed by David Mackenzie- up until now an unknown to me.

Chris Pine and Ben Foster play Toby and Tanner, two brothers who embark on a series of small town bank robberies in order to save their recently deceased mother’s ranch. Tanner (Foster) is the more seasoned criminal of the two, having spent time in jail and being more volatile than his brother. Toby (Pine) is a family man with two kids, and is more intelligent and sensible than his brother. They are pursued by two Texas Rangers, Marcus Hamilton (Bridges), a grizzled man weeks away from retirement, and his partner, Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham).

What I enjoyed most about this film is the authenticity of the setting. The film was actually shot in New Mexico, but, meant to be west Texas, this is believable and the cinematography is gorgeous. The vastness of the land, the sticky desert heat are filmed very well. Small town Texas is portrayed as tiny characters are introduced as townspeople, given much credo to the film. My favorites are the diner waitress-smitten with the handsome Toby (and her $200 tip), and t-bone waitress- grizzled and rude after forty-four years in the same place- their sassy and abrasive behavior works and adds much to the film. Dale Dickey is a treat in any film and her turn as a bank employee is a joy.

How nice to see Chris Pine in a challenging role. His character is conflicted morally- not wanting to hurt anyone, he struggles with the robberies, and wants to do right by his kids and his mother. He is a decent man caught in uncertain circumstances and Pine does an excellent job at portraying him, proving the actor is becoming more than just a pretty face.

Bridges plays surly quite well and how nice to see the actor succeeding career-wise in his golden years. His Texas Ranger character is determined to uphold the law, but below the surface is more than a bit worried about his upcoming retirement, closing a chapter in his life that undoubtedly is important to him. His relationship with his partner is jovial, and buddy-like, but is there an underlying physical attraction between the men? The film does not go there, but perhaps on a subconscious level it is hinted at.

A fantastic scene laced with tension occurs near the end of the film, when two of the main characters are killed. It is a stand-off of sorts, atop a desert mountain ridge. One of the characters loses it, which results in a shoot-out and a shocking loss of life. The scene is great in that it is good, old-fashioned shoot ’em up done well.

Hell or High Water is a gritty action film that contains great elements, nice characterization, and good, clean fun. A throwback to a crime-western of long ago, without the standard stock characters. This film is more layered than the traditional sort of film and is intelligently written, thereby achieving something unique in its own right.

The Player-1992

The Player-1992

Director-Robert Altman

Starring-Tim Robbins, Peter Gallagher

Scott’s Review #601

Reviewed January 11, 2017

Grade: A

The Player ranks up there with other Robert Altman classics such as Gosford Park, Network, and Short Cuts. The film is an excellent piece of Hollywood satire and centers around a jaded movie executive, played by Tim Robbins, who does an incredible job with his role.

Robbins plays Griffin Mill, a man with no scruples. Feeling usurped by a younger executive, played by Peter Gallagher, as well as receiving death threats, he goes on the hunt for the person he feels responsible, which leads to murder.

The audience is unsure whether to love or hate Mill, thanks to Robbins performance. He is snarky, but also vulnerable and a tad sympathetic.

The film contains a slew of real Hollywood celebrities (Cher, Malcolm McDowell, Bruce Willis) playing themselves and is largely improvised (as many of Altman’s films are). Whoopi Goldberg and Lyle Lovett star as odd police detectives.

The plot is nothing that hasn’t been done before, but it’s the realness and the direction that make this movie a must see, especially for Robert Altman fans. A hidden gem.

Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire-2009

Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire-2009

Director-Lee Daniels

Starring-Gabourey Sidibe, Mo’nique

Scott’s Review #581

Reviewed January 2, 2017

Grade: A

Precious is an amazing film and certainly one of the best to come out of the year 2009. Due to the hype, I had high expectations entering the theater and I was not disappointed. The film is an in your face slug-fest with some of the most raw acting performed in recent years.

The marvelous aspect is that the film takes the viewer into a world that is probably not one’s own experience and makes them empathize with the characters. The film is very disturbing at times, raw, gritty, and violent, but also has some light, humorous moments and an oh so important film to see. There is a heartwarming charm that offsets the violence perfectly.

The story itself, and the direction are basic, but the wonderful acting is what sets this film on a high pedestal. Gabourey Sidibe, a relative unknown and novice actress, gives an astounding turn as an unloved, overweight, pregnant teen mom. She is abused by both of her parents in separate ways and seems to have a life of pain ahead of her.

Paula Patton, who has been in several fluff films, shines as a teacher who takes a shine to Precious. Mariah Carey is simply unrecognizable as a plain looking social worker, who is also a sympathetic character. However, actress and comedienne, Mo’nique plays an unfeeling, brutal, violent mother to the hilt and holds nothing back. Her Best Supporting Actress Oscar win was deserving.

Everyone should see this fantastic slice of life film.

3 Women-1977

3 Women-1977

Director-Robert Altman

Starring-Shelley Duvall, Sissy Spacek

Scott’s Review #578

Reviewed January 1, 2017

Grade: A

Robert Altman is one of my all-time favorite directors and what a pleasure it is to uncover additional gems that he has directed over the years. I have seen 3 Women before, certainly, but some films (the true greats) are like fine wines and get better and better over time, in addition to being appreciated more and more with each passing viewing. 3 Women is a prime example of this. The level of psychology and the changing personalities of the character’s make it a unique and brilliant experience.

3 Women is a psychological feast and the study of three complex characters, hence the title. How fantastic how Altman claimed to have dreamed the entire film, complete with Duvall and Spacek in the roles, and then attempted to recreate the dream on film- he has done a masterful job. The film is certainly dream-like with an interpretive element that will leave the viewer pondering not only the relationships between the three women, but who exactly each woman is- consciously and sub-consciously. Lots of questions will abound as the film concludes. The main relationship is between the characters portrayed by Duvall and Spacek.

Duvall plays Millie Lammoreaux, a chatty and confident woman, who works at a California health spa for elderly clientele. She is statuesque and gorgeous, but surprisingly not well-liked by her colleagues, two of whom are mysterious identical twins. New employee Pinky Rose is a shy and vulnerable mousy type, who takes an immediate liking to Millie, becoming somewhat obsessed with her. The pair eventually move in together and begin to engage  in a mysterious and sometimes volatile friendship dripping in jealousy and lust. Eventually, they switch personalities, only adding to the mystique of the film. They reside in the Purple Sage Apartments, run by Edgar and Willie Hart. Willie is the third woman referenced in the title and is a pregnant painter, creating unsettling murals marveled at by Pinky.

It has been argued that 3 Women was an influence on the David Lynch masterpiece, Mullholland Drive (1992), and the more I ponder this the more that I agree with it. The dream-like, surrealistic qualities are prevalent in both films. Peculiar, strong written women are the central characters in both films and psychology and amnesia are main themes. The southern California setting is identical as are the interpretive elements, and the fantastically odd characters- both lead and supporting. When Pinky’s elderly parents are introduced, this is uncanny to a pair of grandparents featured in Mullholland Drive. Both are superior films so the comparisons are a joy to think about and ponder the complexities.

Ingmar Bergman’s 1966 psychological film Persona is most certainly a large influence on 3 Women. That film dared to explore merging personalities among women.

The final scene of 3 Women is intense and thought provoking. The lives of the women carry on following a tragic event, but each take on a certain persona and role within the family unit that they have forged.

Among other qualities, I view 3 Women as a feminist film, despite being directed by a male. Altman was famous for allowing his actors free reign in dialogue and development and this most certainly had to be the case with 3 Women. One of Altman’s masterpieces.

Altman is certainly a genius in nearly every film that he creates, but 3 Women is probably his most cerebral, and the film that can be talked about and analyzed more than the others. What a pure treat for a complex film lover to explore. 3 Women is not for mainstream audiences nor is is meant to be.

A Single Man-2009

A Single Man-2009

Director-Tom Ford

Starring-Colin Firth, Julianne Moore

Scott’s Review #577

Reviewed January 1, 2017

Grade: B+

A Single Man is a dark film fraught with meaning and honesty-it is a very good movie. It is certainly a melancholy film and a bit surreal, but absolutely worth seeing. The acting, especially from star Colin Firth, is first rate. The subject matter involves being gay in the 1950’s and 1960’s and ramifications of living a forbidden and secretive life.The intelligent film is based on the novel of the same name, written by Christopher Isherwood.

The film is written as a sad tale of a day in the life of a gay man living in the 1960’s. Firth portrays George Falconer, a British college professor living in liberal minded Los Angeles. When his much younger lover (presumably a student) dies, George plans to commit suicide. Moore plays his best friend and confidante, Charley, who is dealing with her own demons.

Through flashbacks we learn about George and lover Jim’s secret life together and challenges that ensued. George also had a strange relationship with a male prostitute. We learn the path of life George leads following Jim’s tragic death- we also see them happy at one time.

A Single Man is a bit of a downer and contains a definite dream-like feel and is heavy on the flashbacks, but this is intriguing to the picture and not a complaint. A very good, but not an uplifting, film.

Crazy Heart-2009

Crazy Heart-2009

Director-Scott Cooper

Starring-Jeff Bridges, Maggie Gyllenhaal

Scott’s Review #571

Reviewed December 29, 2016

Grade: A-

Crazy Heart is a film that is perfectly crafted for Jeff Bridge’s talents as an actor and the role seems written specifically for him. To that end, it is a showcase for the actor, and as proof, he was awarded the Best Actor Oscar. He plays surly, grizzled, and rode-hard to the hilt. His chemistry with co-star Maggie Gyllenhaal is fantastic- despite her character being much younger than his. First directorial effort by Scott Cooper, who does an outstanding job.

Gyllenhaal plays a reporter, Jean Craddock, who becomes attached and fascinated by Bad Blake (Bridges), a former country-western star turned alcoholic and now washed up old man. He has mentored an upstart played by Colin Farrell, who has since usurped Bad Blake in popularity, leading Blake to depression and alcohol to relieve his pain. he still performs, but in dirty hotels or bowling alleys, for peanuts.

Bridge’s character reminds me so much of Mickey Rourke’s character “Randy the Ram” in The Wrestler, from 2008, so anyone who enjoyed the latter will enjoy the former. In fact, one might watch the two exceptional films in tandem- and in both there appears a younger female character who meshes well in the stories.

The story portrayed in Crazy Heart is gritty and depressing, yet also heartwarming and sentimental. We root for Blake and Jean  to succeed, battling Blake’s many demons. Crazy Heart is very well acted and genuine. The film is nice as it is a character driven film instead of a story dictated one.

The Kids Are All Right-2010

The Kids Are All Right-2010

Director-Lisa Cholodenko

Starring-Julianne Moore, Annette Bening

Scott’s Review #560

Reviewed December 24, 2016

Grade: A

The Kids Are All Right is a fantastic film! In my opinion the film is one of the best of the year 2010 and was rewarded with a deserving Best Picture nomination. Annette Bening and Mark Ruffalo were also honored with acting nominations. Bening gives the best performance in the film.

Continuing the trend of more exposure to LGBT issues, The Kids Are All Right tells of a same sex centered family dealing with real issues. Though not dark, the film is not light or played strictly for laughs. It is a family drama that shows how same sex family units face problems like everyone else, and how they deal with them, never forgetting how much they love each other.

The writing is intelligent, deeply layered, and rich. The acting superb, and the characters complex.  The best scene is one where the entire family is eating dinner- suddenly the camera focuses on one person, goes in slow motion, the other voices become muffled and distance, and a painful emotion is portrayed on one of the character’s faces as a revelation comes to the surface. Brilliant.

Even the seemingly unimportant dialogue throughout the film is smart as it shows the bond of the family that cannot ultimately be broken. The Kids Are All Right is a worthwhile and compelling film.

Get Low-2009

Get Low-2009

Director-Aaron Schneider

Starring-Robert Duvall, Sissy Spacek, Bill Murray

Scott’s Review #557

Reviewed December 22, 2016

Grade: B+

Get Low is an understated, gentle, sweet story set in Tennessee in the late 1930’s. The film is greatly enhanced by the stellar cast consisting of Robert Duvall, Sissy Spacek, and Bill Murray.  I dislike the title of the film as, to me, it feels dull and boring. Despite the very slow pace, and the understated feel, the film is successful as one will become engaged with the characters lives.

It tells the story of an elderly man named Felix Bush (DuVall), who decides to plan his own living funeral for the small town to attend. Felix is a hermit who lives deep in the woods of Tennessee. He is despised, yet largely unknown by the townspeople, who only have past stories they have heard about him to formulate their opinions. He hides a long ago, dark secret, which predictably is eventually revealed.

DuVall is the standout in this movie, but Sissy Spacek and Bill Murray are also very good- unsurprising based on their string of acting credits.

Enjoyable are the exterior scenes of rural Tennessee, giving an authentic look into the lives of small town folks of that time period.

I could have gone for a quicker pace, despite the fact that I love slow moving stories, as long as a pay-off is to be received. The reveal served satisfactory, but I could have gone for some juicer scandals and revalations. Get Low is a simple, yet moving story about life, regret, secrets, and religion.