Category Archives: Biography Films

Blonde-2022

Blonde-2022

Director-Andrew Dominik

Starring-Ana de Armas, Adrien Brody, Bobby Cannavale

Scott’s Review #1,305

Reviewed October 7, 2022

Grade: A

Blonde (2022) is not the kind of film that I expected.

When I became aware there would be a new film vehicle showcasing the legendary film icon Marilyn Monroe I guessed that it would be a biography-style effort. After all, this is hardly the first time the star’s life would be explored.

Throw in bits about her struggles, her love life, her famous screen roles, and her rise to fame and there you’d have it.

My only real thought was who would be playing her?

Films about Marilyn have been done before including the most recent effort I can recollect, My Week With Marilyn (2011) starring Michelle Williams, a superior film but hardly groundbreaking or that well remembered ten years later.

Released via the Netflix streaming service, director Andrew Dominik kicks the shit out of any preconceived notions about glamorous, happy, and rich Marilyn.

He creates a story focused on the dark side of the star. Her failures, her insecurities, her forced abortions, and her humiliations. The result is a film that is tragic and profound and should be well remembered.

Blonde delves into facts and some of the deeper thoughts of the legend herself, creating a muddy and dreamlike quality that makes the viewer apprehensive about what’s going on.

Since it’s based on the 2000 fictional memoir written by Joyce Carol Oates which is her own interpretation of events, it makes truth, and imagination all the muddier.

It’s not happy days watching Blonde, which left me wondering if Marilyn had a happy day in her life. From her abortions to sexual harassment, drug addiction, and physical abuse by her husband, she excitedly scampers off to a date with President Kennedy, only to be forced to give him oral service.

Ana de Armas, known for Knives Out (2019) and No Time to Die (2021) is brilliant as Marilyn. Her mannerisms, speech patterns, and facial expressions reveal a genuine, layered, portrayal rather than a carbon copy imitation of her.

Blonde boldly reimagines the life of one of Hollywood’s most enduring icons in two hours and forty-seven minutes of storytelling. Advisable is to not watch the film in one sitting but rather spread it over three nights to let things marinate.

Events begin with her volatile childhood as Norma Jeane, an abusive mother and absent father, and her rise to stardom and romantic entanglements. Blonde blurs the lines of fact and fiction to explore the widening split between her public and private selves.

In a way, Marilyn suffered from a split personality, longing to be Norma Jeane and despising Marilyn.

Enhancing the ambiguity Dominik elects to use cinematography that is sometimes blurry as if in a sleepy haze and sprinkles color with the mostly black and white filming. He even films one abortion scene from the perspective of Marilyn’s vagina.

These creative details cause me to classify Blonde as an art film and highly interpretive.

While not a crowd-pleaser Blonde is not all doom and gloom either.

Tidbits about her most famous films, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953) and Some Like it Hot (1959) are featured as one or two neat camera tricks so it appears that de Armas is acting opposite Tony Curtis.

I worry that poor reviews for Blonde may hinder de Armas’s chances of receiving an Academy Award nomination. Positive reviews usually help secure Oscar recognition.

Thankfully, despite many critics and viewers having issues with the film, de Armas has received worldwide acclaim.

Bobby Cannavale and Adrien Brody are very good as Marilyn’s husbands, controlling Joe DiMaggio and insecure artist Arthur Miller. Both actors fuse good acting with distinguished portrayals so that the audience sees the appeal of both men.

Other interesting sub-plots involve Monroe’s ‘throuple’ romance with bisexual actors Cass and Eddy, and a haunting exposure of the abuse suffered by Marilyn at the hands of her mother Gladys, wonderfully played by Julianne Nicholson.

There is little doubt that Blonde (2022) is an odd film that is not for everyone. But, its down-and-dirty texture and tour de force portrayal of Monroe won me over.

It chilled me to the bone in the best possible way.

Elvis-2022

Elvis-2022

Director-Baz Luhrmann

Starring Austin Butler, Tom Hanks

Scott’s Review #1,299

Reviewed September 16, 2022

Grade: B+

Once I knew that Australia’s own Baz Luhrmann was directing the new film Elvis (2022) I immediately formulated an expectation of what the film-watching experience would be like. I anticipated a certain type of filmmaking, an auteur artist merging fast-paced music videos with a dramatic biopic into a film.

Other Luhrmann offerings like Moulin Rouge (2001) and The Great Gatsby (2013) infuse contemporary musical elements and are highly visual and stylistic. I knew what I was going to get and was prepared for it.

Elvis is no different and Luhrmann’s style is an unconventional risk not for everybody.

I mostly enjoyed the film but did not quite love it either, seeing both the good and the not-as-good.

At two hours and thirty-nine minutes, it goes on way too long.

Perhaps contradicting this point is that Elvis does get better as it goes along, at first feeling jarring, overwhelming, and all over the place with rapid editing and very quick camera work.

A Dramamine is suggested until one is comfortable with the sudden bursts of turbulence. I semi-joke but there is a period of sinking into Luhrmann’s style that is necessary especially if never having seen one of them.

The film explores the life and music of Elvis Presley (Austin Butler), and his complicated relationship with his opportunist manager, Colonel Tom Parker (Tom Hanks), and his wife Priscilla (Oliva De Jonge). The story delves into the singer’s rise to fame and the evolving cultural landscape in the United States during the 1950s and 1960s.

Like many films, the events start much later than the main story, in this case, 1997. Parker is on his deathbed and ruminates how he first met Elvis and made him into a legendary icon.

Much of the film takes place in glitzy Las Vegas where Elvis had a long-term residency though it’s worth noting that the star’s working-class roots and an impoverished upbringing in a mostly black neighborhood were a tremendous influence on his music.

The Vegas setting applies a sparkling veneer mixed with a downtrodden feeling of isolation, especially in scenes that show Elvis’s million-dollar penthouse view of Sin City. The star frequently pulls all the black curtains to reside in solitude.

Butler starts slow but ends up doing a fabulous job of portraying the iconic star, no easy feat. At first, I had difficulty buying the actor as Elvis but as time went on he becomes more immersed in the role.

The best scenes hands down occur during the performances. The sheer rawness of his act and the famous wiggle that left fans dizzy with eroticism are compelling and authentic to say nothing of titillating.

The young actor exudes charisma much as the real-life star does and this is most evident on the stage. The dramatic scenes don’t work as well and Luhrmann strangely skims over the controversial weight gain years, the 1970s, that Elvis experienced.

I expected Butler to don a fat suit but there was none of this.

This miss can almost be forgiven when a heart-wrenching final performance of ‘Unchained Melody’ by the real Elvis is showcased. The number is fraught with emotion and tenderness that left me feeling sympathy.

Hanks is good as the slimy and curmudgeonly manager but I never felt sympathy for the character. If the film can be believed, he ruined Elvis as much as brought him success, but Hanks never made me forgive the man. I also wasn’t interested in his backstory.

It will be hard-pressed to ever make me enjoy Hanks more than in his Oscar-winning back-to-back turns in Philadelphia (1993) and Forrest Gump (1994), his two best roles.

Elvis, the film, does better when it serves as a musical performance rather than a biography. Sure, the drug use and the disputes with family and manager are dramatic but it’s the performances of ‘All Shook Up, ‘Unchained Melody’, and ‘Can’t Help Falling Into Love’ that win me over.

In pure Luhrmann form, many of the familiar songs are done in different tempos and interpretations but that’s part of the fun.

Comparisons to recent musical biographies like Bohemian Rhapsody (2018) and Rocketman (2019) are fair.

Elvis (2022) is not as good as those films but it’s above average and succeeds when it entertains and shows how the star’s determination and grit pulled through over outside influences.

Walk the Line-2005

Walk the Line-2005

Director-James Mangold

Starring Joaquin Phoenix, Reese Witherspoon

Scott’s Review #1,264

Reviewed June 8, 2022

Grade: A-

An example of exceptional casting, Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon, flawlessly depict country music stars Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash, respectively. Both embody the real-life troubled stars, he more than she, and bring to life the biopic Walk the Line (2005).

Perturbing only slightly is Witherspoon’s win for Best Actress and Phoenix’s lack of a win for Best Actor. He deserved the win, up against the stiff competition, and she perhaps won because of a soft year in the Best Actress category.

I also think her performance teeters on a supporting turn but the decision was made to include her in the lead actress category. But one could argue Oscar’s imbalances or missteps all day long.

Nonetheless, they both shine especially during any scenes they appear in together especially music-related. The chemistry is the main reason for the film’s success and recognition of the figures they portray.

Walk the Line begins with the examination of the rise of country music legend Johnny Cash (Phoenix) beginning with his humble days as a boy growing up on the family farm in rural Arkansas, where he struggles with his father’s (Robert Patrick) anger and bullying.

As the years quickly go by, Cash ends up in Memphis, Tennessee., with his wife, Vivian (the underrated Ginnifer Goodwin), and breaks into the music scene after finding his successful country sound.

While on tour, Cash meets the love of his life, singer June Carter (Witherspoon), but Cash’s volatile lifestyle threatens to keep them apart.

The risk of rock star biographies is that they can suffer from relying too heavily on cliches or become a one-trick pony with a predictable ending. Towing the standard line is fine but a truly great film needs something to blow the viewers away.

The story is rather standard since we know the Cash’s get together, and face rough times, but the sweet spot is Phoenix and Witherspoon. They make the audience believe every nook and cranny of their relationship, warts and all.

Both actors reportedly sang, played their instruments, and seemed to live the lives of the country stars, all without help, giving Walk the Line much credibility. Since Phoenix is a method actor this is unsurprising.

My only disappointment of the film is Witherspoon winding up with Oscar gold and Phoenix not. Thankfully, this would change with his win for the brutal portrayal of The Joker in Joker (2019).

I love how the beginning of Walk the Line starts with a legendary performance in Folsom State Prison in 1968. Events then backtrack to 1944 before finally culminating with present times again.

Director, James Mangold plays the safe route with the finale. Cash unsurprisingly performs “Ring of Fire” on stage and after the song, Cash invites June to a duet and stops in the middle and proposes.

June accepts and they share a passionate embrace on stage. Johnny and his father reconcile their relationship.

This is a warm and satisfying ending and rather refreshing after having to squirm through various scenes of Johnny’s drug abuse and scrapes with the law. Mangold also prominently features dark storylines like the loss of Johnny’s brother and his father’s abuse.

Hats off by the way to Robert Patrick for a powerful performance as Ray Cash.

Walk the Line (2005) is a Hollywood film but one made well and pleasing to the eyes and ears. It pays tribute to the legendary stars because of dynamic acting performances and duets that make one fall in love with the songs all over again.

Oscar Nominations: Best Actor-Joaphin Phoenix, Best Actress-Reese Witherspoon (won), Best Costume Design, Best Film Editing, Best Sound Mixing

Raging Bull-1980

Raging Bull-1980

Director-Martin Scorsese

Starring Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci

Scott’s Review #1,256

Reviewed May 14, 2022

Grade: A

Raging Bull (1980) might be director Martin Scorsese’s most personal film and certainly his most character-driven. His other films contain great characters, rich with life, but with the focus firmly planted on controversial real-life boxer Jake LaMotta (Robert De Niro) there is much to explore.

His descent into madness is hard to watch but also impossible to look away from.

It’s tough to top the De Niro/Scorsese pairing featured in Taxi Driver (1976) when the actor simply kicked the audience’s ass with his ferocious portrayal of maniacal Travis Bickle. LaMotta arguably surpasses that portrayal because the boxer experiences the highest of the highs with the lowest of the lows.

And the audience is whisked away with him on the journey from heaven to hell. Arguably director and actor’s finest film, Raging Bull is often painful to watch, but it’s a searing, powerful work about an unsympathetic hero who we can’t help but explore.

A double-pairing film extravaganza of watching Taxi Driver and Raging Bull is a fabulous idea though the viewer may need a Valium to combat the resulting anxiety after experiencing these films.

I love the title that is Raging Bull because it is so apt and central to the film. Fueled with machismo, testosterone, and anger, Jake LaMotta certainly is a raging bull.

Screenwriters Paul Schrader and Mardik Martin, frequent collaborators of Scorsese’s, adapt the story from Raging Bull: My Story, a 1970 memoir written by LaMotta.

Raging Bull tells the story of an Italian-American middleweight boxer as he struggles through the ranks to earn his first shot at the middleweight crown. He possesses a self-destructive and obsessive rage, jealousy, and animalistic appetite that destroys his relationship with his wife and family.

Wonderfully cast as his wife Vickie is Cathy Moriarity who is a gorgeous girl from the Bronx who falls head over heels in love with Jake. Joe Pesci plays his well-intentioned brother and managerJoey, who unsuccessfully tries to help Jake battle his inner demons.

Jake’s inability to express his feelings enters the ring and eventually takes over his life. He is sent into a downward spiral that costs him everything.

Comparisons to the exceptional Rocky (1976) are cute and perhaps contain some merit on paper but whereas the former is heroic and compelling, the main characters are nothing alike except that they are both struggling boxers who achieve success.

Both are sports films but Raging Bull is much, much darker and purely a character study.

The cinematography by Michael Chapman and the Film Editing by Thelma Schoonmaker are deserving of accolades and make the picture as flawless as it is.

Scorsese adds enough boxing scenes to showcase the fantastic editing that is required for these difficult scenes. The editing is lightning quick and the thunderous bombast makes the viewer feel each blow of the glove on the skin. The blood and sweat are legendary components of these scenes.

The black and white cinematography is jaw-dropping especially powerful during the kitchen fight scene between Jake and Joey. The brutal buildup is hard to stomach as Jake’s dementia becomes evident.

Despite the other qualities of the film that bring it all together, my favorite aspect is the performance that De Niro delivers, winning him a much deserved Best Actor Oscar.

He is powerful and animalistic playing both subtle rage and explosive anger. His tragic final act as a much older and fat man is shrouded in heartbreak and pain for both the character and the viewer to experience.

All the pieces of Raging Bull (1980) add up perfectly into a masterpiece. The violence and pain are enshrouded in poetic dialogue and beautiful illuminating camera work exploring one man’s battles and struggles both inside the squared circle and internally.

Oscar Nominations: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor-Robert De Niro (won), Best Supporting Actor-Joe Pesci, Best Supporting Actress-Cathy Moriarty, Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing (won), Best Sound

The Queen-2006

The Queen-2006

Director-Stephen Frears

Starring Helen Mirren, Michael Sheen

Scott’s Review #1,253

Reviewed May 8, 2022

Grade: A

Before the Netflix series, The Crown (2016-2023), loudly stomped into existence and took the world on a historical journey through the trials and tribulations of British royalty there was The Queen (2006).

Starring Helen Mirren, the film is a quiet telling of the life and times of Queen Elizabeth II, especially immediately after the death of Princess Diana and the conflict and contention that took place.

Ironically, The Crown is created and primarily written by Peter Morgan, who also wrote The Queen. He created The Crown because of The Queen so there is an instant correlation between the two brilliant projects and the handwriting is very similar.

Stephen Frears, who also directed Judi Dench to an Oscar nomination for Philomena (2013) is at the helm and won himself an Oscar nomination for directing as well as scoring a win for Mirren.

The Queen is a terrific film across the board and Mirren is phenomenal in her portrayal of the grand dame. She cleverly fuses a stiffness and stoicism with subtle warmth and humanity few see from the queen, at least publicly. Layers of complexity are provided to an already mysterious public figure.

Following the death of Princess Diana in a fiery auto accident, Great Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II (Mirren) and Prime Minister Tony Blair (Michael Sheen) struggle to reach a compromise on how the royal family should publicly respond to the tragedy.

In the balance is the family’s need for privacy and the public’s demand for an outward show of mourning. This causes mayhem and drama behind the sacred walls of Buckingham Palace.

The acting of Mirren and the direction are what make The Queen pure magic and a standout among the many royalty-themed films to emerge since the beginning of motion pictures.

First of all, Mirren looks like the part of Queen Elizabeth II and this goes way beyond wearing glasses and a sweater or having the same hairdo. She encompasses the role and this is no small feat.

The mannerisms, the speech patterns, and the lowkey attitude are the amazing nuances that the actress is somehow able to channel.

It feels more than simply Mirren dressing up like royalty and showing up scene after scene. She does something much more with the unspoken looks and inner workings of the queen that become apparent to the viewer.

Frears chooses to include many closeups of characters, mainly of Mirren, which only encircle what each character is thinking and pondering.

The film is very subdued with a lovely musical score adding texture and appeal to each frame. The inclusion of archival footage is powerful realism.

Merely nine years after the real-life death of the uber-popular Diana the event was still so fresh in the minds of viewers that releasing The Queen at this time was a stroke of genius.

It’s no secret that while Queen Elizabeth II is respected she is worlds away from wildly popular Diana and emits a coolness that baffles the public.

Thanks to Mirren, the public gets a glimpse into the heart and soul of a mysterious person and that’s a good feeling indeed.

However, Mirren couldn’t have delivered fully if not for the talents of Michael Sheen as Prime Minister Tony Blair. Generations apart and with differing views they spar and respect each other, slowly forging a friendship of sorts.

The Queen (2006) hardly needs bombs, bombast, or quick editing to get its point across, though speaking of editing, a fantastic job of it with family scenes of Diana. The film lures the viewer into its web and makes them feel like an insider amongst the walls of royalty.

Oscar Nominations: Best Picture, Best Director-Stephen Frears, Best Actress-Helen Mirren (won), Best Original Screenplay, Best Costume Design, Best Original Score

La Bamba-1987

La Bamba-1987

Director-Luis Valdez

Starring Lou Diamond Phillips, Esai Morales, Rosanna DeSoto

Scott’s Review #1,242

Reviewed April 3, 2022

Grade: A-

The brief musical career of Mexican rock ‘n’ roll star Richie Valens is showcased in a lovely little film called La Bamba (1987).

The film spawned a massive United States number one hit, the title track, for the band Los Lobos, that filled the summer with rich culture and a hummable beat. The song is a recreation of Valen’s earlier hit from 1958.

I’m humming it as a write this review!

The film itself is flavorful and tinged with Latino colors and traditions such as the importance of family. It provides a much-needed look at diversity and recognition of a young talent taken way too soon.

His rise to stardom is the main focus but not forgotten is his influence on his family, most notably his younger brother in which love, respect, jealousy, and conflict engulf their relationship.

Valens, a Los Angeles teenager played by Lou Diamond Phillips, becomes an overnight rock ‘n’ roll success in 1958, thanks to a love ballad called “Donna” that he wrote for his girlfriend (Danielle von Zerneck) whose parents didn’t want her to date a Latino boy.

But as his star rises, Valens has conflicts with his jealous brother, Bob (Esai Morales), and becomes haunted by a recurring nightmare of a plane crash, in which he is terrified of flying, just as he begins his first national tour alongside Buddy Holly (Marshall Crenshaw).

Foreshadowing indeed. It’s common knowledge that Valens tragically died in a plane crash over Iowa, alongside Holly and other prominent musicians.

Lou Diamond Phillips is fantastic in the lead role of Ritchie. The actor can entertain the audience while staying true to the life of the Mexican star. Not merely resembling him physically, Phillips brings Ritche’s famous life and energy to the table. Not lasting long in this world, the actor infuses as much soul as he can into the ill-fated singer successfully creating a dedication to his life.

The supporting actors are all terrific. Highly talented is Morales, his character of Bob is conflicted by his brother’s success but also closely bonded to him as well. As mama Connie, Rosanna DeSoto is fiercely protective of her cub while championing his career path and natural talent. Finally, Elizabeth Pena deserves praise for playing Rosie, the victimized girlfriend of Bob.

The interracial romance between Ritchie and Donna is also a strong area of La Bamba. Many decades after their short romance differing races coming together is commonplace but there are still those who object. The chemistry between Phillips and von Zerneck is palpable but mostly I imagined how nice it was between the real-life figures and the endless possibilities had the singer not perished.

Director and writer, Luis Valdez deserve credit for giving meaning to this relationship by making it obvious that other marginalized minority communities can be assured that most people support their unions.

La Bamba (1987) is a film where all the parts come together in perfect form. The music, the culture, the characters, all brim with life and meaning, ironically since the biography could have easily been a downer. Instead, it inspires and teaches unity and the forever-lasting power of music.

Yes, there are occasional cliches but I enjoyed the film immensely.

King Richard-2021

King Richard-2021

Director-Reinaldo Marcus Green

Starring Will Smith, Aunjanue Ellis

Scott’s Review #1,238

Reviewed March 13, 2022

Grade: B+

King Richard (2021) is an inspirational, feel-good, Hollywood film with a strong message. It champions the little guy rising beyond expectations to achieve greatness. Audiences will be left with a warm feeling of possibility and that nearly anything can be achieved with hard work and determination.

The story of the world-famous tennis stars, the Williams sisters, and their parents, just happens to be true, lending the necessary credibility to make this film quite enjoyable. It’s a conventional film and contains many cliches but is a heartwarming family drama.

Richard Williams (Will Smith) is determined to write his daughters, Venus and Serena, into the tennis history books while also keeping them educated and away from the drug-infested streets of Compton, California where they reside. Along with his wife Brandy (Aunjanue Ellis), they defy all odds in their meteoric rise to fame and fortune just as Richard had planned.

The Williams family story is told in an uplifting fashion as they face trials and tribulations along the way like gang violence and racism. The sisters would soon become two of the world’s greatest sports legends.

The film is led by an excellent performance by Smith though I’m careful to make the bold statement that it’s his best role ever. I haven’t seen Ali (2001) but have heard he brings down the house in that role, again playing a real-life figure.

Time will tell.

The lesson learned about Smith is that when he skirts away from his usual summer popcorn blockbuster action roles in which there are many, he is truly a great actor. Plenty of backstories is given to Richard and the violence and marginalization he has faced in his past, living as a child in Louisiana. His occasional shrewdness and feistiness can be forgiven as the character is explored very well.

Aunjanue Ellis, unknown to me before this film, is a revelation. As Brandy and the assumed second-in-command supportive wife role, she does way more than one might have expected. In one tense scene, she lays down the law with Richard and refuses to play the second fiddle. Ellis brings a subdued toughness and quiet to the role that not all actresses can bring.

The casting all around is strong. Saniyya Sidney and Demi Singleton as Venus and Serena are believable though they are not given the material that Smith and Ellis are afforded. Delightful is Jon Bernthal and Tony Goldwyn in supporting roles as coaches.

Director, Reinaldo Marcus Green, sticks to a straight-ahead approach and achieves what his intention seems to be. He forges into R-rated territory with some of the gang relationships and an occasional racist remark but the effect is soft-touch only and the main message is how a struggling black family can succeed.

I enjoyed the depictions of California and then sunny Florida throughout the 1980s and the 1990s and finally into more recent times. It felt realistic and appropriate to the film especially when real-life incidents like the Rodney King police beatings were shown.

The editing team is flawless, especially in the multiple tennis match sequences which are very difficult to shoot and make seem real. The continuity is exceptional and a massive undertaking.

A safe passage and not a film to be watched a second time or dissected much with post-credit discussions, King Richard (2021) is nonetheless a winner. It provides enough positive vibes to leave its viewer smiling and determined to beat any odds.

Oscar Nominations: Best Picture, Best Actor-Will Smith (won), Best Supporting Actress-Aunjanue Ellis, Best Original Screenplay, Best Film Editing, Best Original Song-“Be Alive”

I Love You Phillip Morris-2009

I Love You Phillip Morris-2009

Director-John Requa, Glenn Ficarra

Starring Jim Carey, Ewan McGregor

Scott’s Review #1,235

Reviewed March 5, 2022

Grade: A-

Easily the most daring and arguably the best film role of Jim Carey’s career, I Love You Phillip Morris (2009) is a delightful romantic comedy featuring same-sex characters in the central roles. At the risk of being too fluffy, there is a sardonic and wry wittiness that I fell in love with.

Those criticizing the film as ‘gay porn’ are silly since there is hardly a sex scene to be critical of or anything more than would appear in a traditional male/female romantic comedy. Prudes wouldn’t see a film as I Love You Phillip Morris anyway.

It is based on the 1980s and 1990s real-life story of Texas con artist, impostor, and multiple prison fugitive Steven Jay Russell who was clever beyond belief and successful at outwitting his opponents.

I Love You, Phillip Morris, is the directorial debut by John Requa and Glenn Ficarra who received a nomination from the Writers Guild of America Award for Best Adapted Screenplay.

Steven Russell  (Carrey) becomes a cop, gets married, and starts a family, but after a terrible car accident, he vows to be true to himself. Thus far in his life, he has played by the rules and done what is expected of him and because of the crash, he pivots to an emotional bloodletting.

The key irony is that Steven is telling the audience his story from his deathbed so most of the activity is in the past. This is the hook because it made me wonder how and why he dies. But is there a twist?

He comes out of the closet, moves to Florida, and finances a luxurious lifestyle with bad checks and credit cards. Arrested and now in prison, Steven meets Phillip (Ewan McGregor), a mild-mannered inmate who becomes the love of his life. Determined to build a beautiful life with his partner, Steven embarks on another crime spree.

The film caters to the LGBTQ+ audience but has crossover appeal so that all audiences can enjoy it. This is in large part in thanks to the screenwriters and whoever had Carey and McGregor in mind for the film.

Too often films centering around gay characters are deemed second fiddle and not profitable but with bigger stars, the audiences will come.

I Love You Phillip Morris is an independent film but builds momentum when the message is that big stars are comfortable in gay roles, something Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal taught us a few years earlier in Brokeback Mountain (2005).

Jim Carey, fabulous in The Mask from 1994, and having his share of hits and misses over the years, is perfect in the role of Steven. It’s the most interesting role he has portrayed since he gets to provide his usual physical humor in a role that matters. LGBTQ+ audiences see a character who makes them laugh without the typical gay stereotypes.

Straight audiences will see a character whose sexual identity doesn’t matter to them.

Props go to McGregor as well who makes a perfect counterpart for Carey as the calm, cool, and collected ‘straight man’. The film could not have worked without him. He meshes so well with Carey that the audience instantly roots for Steven and Phillip to ride off into the sunset despite being criminals.

The stereotypes are limited but the subject matter of AIDS, especially given the time in which the film is set, is given notice. This is a win and Requa and Ficarra are very careful not to teeter too close to the edge of doom and gloom while respecting the disease.

At its core, I Love You Phillip Morris (2009) is a romantic comedy, and the trials and tribulations of Steven and Phillip are told. I immediately fell in love with them and viewers will too. It’s a film that feels fresh and alive with the exploration of character richness that is not easy to come by.

The Eyes of Tammy Faye-2021

The Eyes of Tammy Faye-2021

Director-Michael Showalter

Starring Jessica Chastain, Andrew Garfield

Scott’s Review #1,233

Reviewed February 26, 2022

Grade: A-

When thinking of the name Tammy Faye Baker, usually images of outlandish pancake makeup and ridiculous evangelical spewings are conjured up. Alongside her husband Jim Baker, the duo was prominent and highly visible throughout the 1970s and the 1980s as fixtures of Christian broadcasting.

Naturally, scandals ensued resulting in prison time for Jim and shame and career ruin for Tammy.

The Eyes of Tammy Faye (2021) delves into the thoughts and experiences of Tammy, hence the title. It’s sympathetic material and made me learn much more about the celebrity than I knew of. Other characters like husband Jim and sullen evangelists like Jerry Fallwell and Pat Robertson are explored but Tammy is the main draw.

I love the depiction of Tammy Faye Baker and hats off to a dynamite performance by Jessica Chastain, especially in the final act. Nearly unrecognizable, the actress unleashes a flurry of brilliant scenes and a depiction of a tacky woman winning over an audience.

It is Chastain’s best role yet.

Tammy’s LGBTQ+ community appreciation and thoughtfulness during the A.I.D.S crisis in the 1980s when very few others, especially in her inner circle, wanted anything to do with them is especially powerful and heart-wrenching.

She saw them as human beings when others saw them as lepers. She continued to support the LGBTQ+ community until she died in 2007.

The Eyes of Tammy Faye is an intimate look at the extraordinary rise, fall, and redemption of televangelist Tammy Faye Bakker. The film begins with her humble beginnings in frigid Minnesota and her closeness with her very religious mother, Rachel (Cherry Jones), and her kind stepfather who accepted her as his own.

An innocent college romance with Jim Baker (Garfield) results in marriage and the rise to success in creating the world’s largest religious broadcasting network and theme park, promoting a message of love whilst skimming from the top to enjoy their lavish lifestyle.

Tammy Faye was legendary for her indelible eyelashes, her idiosyncratic singing, and her eagerness to embrace people from all walks of life. However, it wasn’t long before financial improprieties and scandal toppled their carefully constructed empire.

This is the point where the film takes off.

Chastain had me at the very first scene when an extreme closeup of her face, now aging, is featured. Though wacky, she infuses a humanism and kindness into Tammy that immediately made me champion her.

Through trials and tribulations like nearly cheating on her husband to looking the other way amid the financial scandals surrounding her, she always keeps her head held high and fills any room she enters with love and sincerity.

The best scene by Chastain is at the end of the film when Tammy makes a triumphant yet humble return to the stage. As she nervously takes the stage at Oral Roberts University she imagines a stage filled with glamour and pomp rather than the meek one it is. It helps her get through and I wanted to give her a big hug.

All the awards attention has gone to Chastain but Andrew Garfield is nearly as flawless. Complex and struggling with Tammy’s brazen approach, his sexuality, and playing nice with the other major players, he gets his comeuppance but Garfield makes him sympathetic and a fine study.

Directed by Michael Showalter, I feel he could have gone much darker with this film. Sure, there is some sadness like when Tammy overhears a bunch of kids whispering that she is a freak or colleagues mocking her as a clown, but it’s soft touch. The woman battled cancer for years before dying from it but the film ends before any of that even happens.

The Eyes of Tammy Faye (2021) belongs to Chastain and Garfield. It’s a bit glossy and skates over some hard-punching attributes it could have showcased but it balances the camp with endearment and champions acceptance and compassion for one another.

Oscar Nominations: Best Actress-Jessica Chastain (won), Best Makeup and Hairstyling (won)

Respect-2021

Respect-2021

Director-Liesl Tommy

Starring Jennifer Hudson, Forest Whitaker, Marlon Wayans

Scott’s Review #1,208

Reviewed December 17, 2021

Grade: B-

I had high hopes when I heard that a new biopic based on the life and times of the Queen of Soul Aretha Franklin was in the works. My elation was solidified when Jennifer Hudson was cast in the iconic role. It seemed just perfect for her.

After all, the singer has pipes for miles and is now far removed from her appearance as a chubby but loveable young upstart on televisions American Idol. She has already won an Oscar for portraying a singer, Effie White, in Dreamgirls (2006) and is firmly in the big leagues.

Sadly, Respect (2021) underwhelms through no fault of Hudson’s. Almost every aspect of the film is standard and by the numbers and the word, ‘safe’ comes to mind multiple times throughout the viewing. On par with a television movie instead of a big-screen spectacle, the feature can largely be skipped save for Hudson’s performance scenes.

To be fair, Hudson’s finale of ‘Amazing Grace’ is astonishing as well as the real-life performance by Aretha Franklin for President Obama and wife Michelle that appears over the closing credits.

I would recommend this film only for the die-hard Aretha fans. If novice South African director, Liesl Tommy, had visions of mirroring the recent successes of Bohemian Rhapsody (2018) or Rocket Man (2019), she sadly missed the mark completely.

For a similar experience, watch the superior What’s Love Got to Do with It (1993) starring Angela Bassett as Tina Turner.

Respect follows the rise of Aretha Franklin’s career, from a privileged child singing in her father’s church choir to her international superstardom and her journey to find her voice. She battles her ‘demons’ like overindulging in alcohol and dating abusive men as she struggles with the rigors of touring and recording hit singles becoming a difficult diva along the way.

The film contains nearly every cliche in the book and I have my doubts that all of the plots are even factual. Expected is that Franklin falls for a charismatic yet abusive man and returns home with a black eye to her controlling father, played by Forest Whitaker.

The tremendous actor has little to do besides what you would expect your typical controlling movie father to do.

She struggles with her career, battles the bottle, collapses on stage, fights with her family, scolds a housekeeper, reunites with her sisters, returns to the stage a star, and just about every other experience that the rise and fall and rise again of a superstar would behold.

Strangely, the film’s timeline is largely from 1962-1972 during the singer’s rise to fame. Completely skipped is her return to the top of the charts in 1985 with ‘Freeway of Love’ or any of her other 1980s hits. She died in 2018 so much of her life is not featured at all.

Laughably, Aretha is never seen as overweight despite being overweight most of her life. The fact that Hudson, once overweight herself and now svelt, is in the lead role, the conclusion is that either Hudson or the filmmakers (or both) didn’t want her to be perceived as fat.

While understandable, missed is an important trademark of the Queen of Soul.

The best parts of Respect are when Hudson performs. Besides her brilliant rendition of ‘Amazing Grace’ other treats are ‘Think’, ‘I Say a Little Prayer’, and naturally, ‘Respect’. Hudson rises to the occasion with every number.

Jennifer Hudson does her best in a role that she is perfectly cast for. She successfully channels her inner Aretha Franklin and soars when she is allowed to let loose and give a brilliant performance.

Unfortunately, the rest of the material is lackluster dialogue and generic situations, and a gnawing feeling of watching Jennifer Hudson perform Aretha Franklin’s songs cannot be shaken.

I expected greatness out of Respect (2021) but all I got was mediocrity.

Gandhi-1982

Gandhi-1982

Director-Richard Attenborough

Starring Ben Kingsley

Scott’s Review #1,189

Reviewed October 30, 2021

Grade: A

Ben Kingsley delivers an astonishing performance as Mahatma Gandhi,  the steady-handed lawyer who stood up against British rule in India and became an international symbol of nonviolence and peaceful understanding until his tragic assassination in 1948.

Entitled simply Gandhi (1982) the film is directed by Richard Attenborough who has created masculine offerings such as The Great Escape (1963) and The Sand Pebbles (1966) before. Calmly, the director creates a grandiose epic but one that is thought-provoking and introspective in its humility.

I was incredibly affected by this picture.

As beautiful as the cinematography and other such trimmings are the message is what stands out to me most. One man’s spirit and thirst for fairness and human equality are beyond inspiring decades after the film was made. Thanks to Kingsley, the biography infuses an infectious channeling of what being a human being is all about and how human decency is the desired goal.

The film belongs to Kingsley. Despite hosting a cast of literally thousands he is the only name worth mentioning. He is that superior.

Attenborough, who teams with screenwriter John Briley presents major events in the life of Mohandas Gandhi (Kingsley). The film starts suddenly in January 1948, when an elderly Gandhi is on his way to an evening prayer service and shot point-blank in the chest in front of a large number of dumbfounded greeters and admirers. His state funeral is shown, the procession attended by millions of people from all walks of life, with a radio reporter speaking beautifully about Gandhi’s world-changing life and projects.

The film then returns to decades earlier when Gandhi, a young man, has a violent and racist experience. He vows to dedicate himself to the concept of nonviolent resistance. Initially dismissed, Gandhi is eventually internationally renowned, and his gatherings of passive protest move India towards independence.

Gandhi has been criticized for its extraordinary length with a running time of three hours and ten minutes. A suggestion is to watch the film in multiple sittings though the best-recommended approach would be to see it on the big screen. Unfortunately, I didn’t but fantasize about the massive sequences and how gorgeous they would appear at the cinema.

The story, acting, production, and pretty much everything else about Gandhi is a ravishing spectacle.

It’s worth its weight to sit back and watch Kingsley completely immerse himself in the role. The actor deservedly won the Best Actor Academy Award and despite his oodles of other film roles are best remembered for this one. I’m half surprised that it didn’t typecast him since he is so identifiable in the role.

I’d like to mention two aspects that some might not notice as much as others but that is simply astounding. The cinematography of the deserts, towns, and cities of India is plush with detail and accuracy. If one cannot go on a trip to India the next best thing is to watch this film instead. You’ll get a good dose of realism.

South Africa is also featured.

The costumes brilliantly showcase Indian flair and culture so well that I felt that I had been to the interesting country at the time that the film portrayed the events and felt nestled amid the luxurious colors and good taste.

Post-1982, the film genre of the epic exists rarely if ever anymore. Long gone are the days of brilliance like Gone With the Wind (1939) or Lawrence of Arabia (1962) which are truly a delight to simply lay one’s eyes on. Gandhi deserves to be appreciated as much as those other films despite being released in less than an artistic decade in cinema.

Gandhi (1982) is a wonderfully tragic film and leaves the viewer feeling sad but also inspired to carry the torch picked up by one brave man. A history lesson it’s also as much a lesson in humanity and the courageous fight that one man fought. Military power is not the way to achieve changing the world.

Oscar Nominations: Best Picture (won), Best Director-Richard Attenborough (won), Best Actor-Ben Kingsley (won), Best Screenplay-Written Directly for the Screen (won), Best Art Direction, Best Cinematography (won), Best Costume Design (won), Best Film Editing (won), Best Makeup, Best Original Score, Best Sound

Judas and the Black Messiah-2021

Judas and the Black Messiah-2021

Director-Shaka King

Starring-Daniel Kaluuya, Lakeith Stanfield, Jesse Plemons

Scott’s Review #1,176

Reviewed September 9, 2021

Grade: B+

I wanted to love Judas and the Black Messiah (2021). I still champion the importance of the story, however, and the timeliness of its release. The film has some moments of glory where a bombastic scene occurs that immediately reigns the viewer back into the fold. But other parts drag and feel fragmented or otherwise confusing so much so that the film bored me sometimes and I hate admitting that.

I teetered back and forth between a B+ grade and a B grade and, perhaps channeling my political side, I finally settled on a very generous B+ determination. Before I watched the film I would have bet on an A or an A-. Alas, it was not to be.

That the film was made and exposed a mass audience to the trials and tribulations of the late 1960s Chicago racial tensions that helped create the Black Panthers organization is of course a huge win.

But, I wanted more. Much more.

A major gripe is that the song from the film and winner of the Best Original Song Oscar only appears over the end credits and has nothing to do with the film. Having a tacked-on feel, the song, performed by H.E.R. and others is not particularly memorable either.

The title is “Fight for You”, possessing images of battle and courage which fits the theme of the film but the song itself is quite lackluster.

The plotline is a challenge to follow but goes something like this. The FBI ropes small-time Chicago thief Bill O’Neal (LaKeith Stanfield) into infiltrating the Illinois Black Panther Party and is tasked with keeping tabs on their charismatic leader, Chairman Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya).

At first, O’Neal enjoys the danger of manipulating both his comrades and his FBI main contact, Special Agent Roy Mitchell (Plemons). Hampton’s political power grows as he falls in love with fellow revolutionary Deborah Johnson (Dominique Fishback). To complicate matters she becomes pregnant.

Meanwhile, O’Neal becomes conflicted. Does he align with The Panthers and where his heart lies or thwart Hampton’s efforts by any means necessary, as FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover (Martin Sheen) commands?

The acting is fantastic and along with the message is the best part of the film. Justified controversy ensued over the placement of Kaluuya and Stanfield in the Supporting Actor category at the Oscars- both received nominations and Kaluuya was victorious.

It’s obvious to me that Stanfield is the lead character so it’s a shame he wasn’t awarded a Best Actor nomination. With Chadwick Boseman positioned to be the clear winner for Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (2020) and shockingly losing to Anthony Hopkins for The Father (2020) was the thought that another black actor in the category might ruin Boseman’s chances?

We’ll probably never know.

Kaluuya and Stanfield are both mesmerizing and I am looking forward to their subsequent projects, especially Kaluuya who I fell in love with after his turn in Get Out (2017).

A heavily made-up Martin Sheen is a treat to see in a woefully too-small role as J. Edgar Hoover.

The rest of the film is pretty good. The climax is thrilling and almost bumped the film up a grade for me. Without giving too much away it involves a bloody shoot-out and real-life interview and highlight footage. I love the reality the latter provides.

But then I remembered the snail’s pace it took to get to this point and how the other good scenes paled in comparison with a plodding pace.

I adored the characters and fell in love with the sweet though the doomed romance between Hampton and Deborah. I yearned for them to live happily ever even after my hunch told me this was not in the cards for them. My hunch was right.

The intent was to make the audience outraged at the unfairness people of color endured in the late 1960s.  I was angrier still at the realization that they are still being treated unfairly in the time of George Floyd and others.

Judas and the Black Messiah (2021) get hands down major praise for the intent and acting but disappoints as far as delivery and final product. It is not equal to the sum of all its parts.

Oscar Nominations: Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor-Daniel Kaluuya (won), Lakeith Stanfield, Best Original Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Original Song-“Fight for You” (won)

W.-2008

W.-2008

Director-Oliver Stone

Starring- Josh Brolin, Elizabeth Banks

Scott’s Review #1,130

Reviewed April 7, 2021

Grade: B+

I’ve said it once and I’ll say it again- the United States political landscape forever changed with the dastardly 2016 presidential election. Presidents pre and post-2016 are held to a completely different standard. We didn’t see this coming.

That said, the film W. (2008) is a biography and satire of George W. Bush, the 43rd president of the United States, who held office during the deadly 9/11 attacks. Thought by some to be a moron, director Oliver Stone is careful to ease up on the obvious mockery and barbs that are usually thrown at Bush. There is some of that but surprisingly the film contains some sympathetic moments.

For example, a clever addition is a complex relationship between father and son, something shadowed from the spotlight. At least I was never aware there was any friction between Dad and son.

Fans who lean or are conservative may not like the film. It’s not exactly pro-Bush but neither is it anti. It simply tells a good and accurate story.

Stone wisely features an all-star cast and offers a retrospective chronicling the life and political career of George W. Bush, from his troubles as a young adult through his governorship of Texas and all the way to the Oval Office. It’s well-made because it provides the uninformed viewer with an important history lesson.

The lineup is juicy featuring an array of elite Hollywood stars. Josh Brolin sinks his teeth into the title role while Elizabeth Banks is more low-key as former First Lady Laura Bush. In support, James Cromwell and Ellen Burstyn play George H.W. Bush and Barbara, while Richard Dreyfuss is fantastic as Dick Cheney. Finally, Thandie Newton is delicious as Condoleeza Rice.

Flashbacks are key to his life events revealing the rise of George W. Bush from ne’er-do-well party boy and son of privilege to president of the United States. After giving up booze for religion, George mends his restless ways and sets his sights first on the Texas governorship, which he achieves, then on the presidency. By a fluke, he achieved this too but lost the popular vote, forever a bee in his bonnet.

But the country’s involvement in the Iraq war affects his reign and decreases his approval rating.

Critics are damned the historical accuracy appears to be valid and most details are taken from the non-fiction books. That’s why the film is perfect for those who wish to brush up on their history or who are intrigued about the life and times of a modern president. Just be prepared for a bit of comedy.

To be fair, there are moments in W. when it feels like a long Saturday Night Live sketch and the characters are caricatures. It’s not exactly a parody nor is it a documentary either. Sort of a hybrid.

The heart of the film belongs to Josh Brolin (reportedly he stepped in for Christian Bale at the last minute). Major props go to Brolin for a nuanced, spot-on characterization of the former president. He’s got the mannerisms down and turns of the head, his walk, and speech patterns. He is careful to take a controversial public persona and portray him with both humor and humanity. Never completely silly but not as a straight man either. The real Bush always had a bit of a devilish aww shucks persona.

Post 2016 it’s tough to care much about W. (2008) though. It’s sort of an “of its time” film.  Too much has happened since the Bush years, or even since 2008 when the film was made. Donald Trump made so many things irrelevant. I can’t wait until a satire emerges about him. You know one is coming.

Mank-2020

Mank-2020

Director-David Fincher

Starring Gary Oldman, Amanda Seyfried, Tom Pelphrey

Scott’s Review #1,110

Reviewed February 9, 2021

Grade: A

Everyone knows that Citizen Kane (1941) is one of the greatest films ever made. Well, I hope so anyway. Almost always appearing at the top of ‘best of’ lists its merits are justified and creativity astounding. In a word it’s groundbreaking. The visual beauty, tone, and lighting are exceptional, to say the least. But this review is not meant to kiss the ass of that treasured masterpiece.

Mank (2020) is a film that is a love letter to the Golden Age of Hollywood. For those unfamiliar with Citizen Kane, please see the film immediately or the beauty of Mank will be missed.

The film celebrates the brilliance of Citizen Kane by offering new fans a glimpse into the creation of the film while breathing life into the 1930s and 1940s film for new and younger fans to experience. It also gives classic film fans something to sink their teeth into and reaffirmation of their passion for the cinema. Film lovers will adore Mank.

The project stems back to the 1990s when director David Fincher’s father, Jack, began work on the film. It never came to fruition, and Jack Fincher died in 2003. Eventually, the project was officially announced, and filming took place around Los Angeles from November 2019 to February 2020.

The film is about Citizen Kane specifically but is so much more than that. It’s part biography about alcoholic screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman) as he scrambles to finish writing Citizen Kane given a tight deadline while also trying to recover from a broken leg. He is hired by the famous Orson Welles (director and star of Citizen Kane) to pen the script without any credit.

As terrific as Oldman is, as he always is, Mank also explores and dissects the politics of California of that time, the impending Nazi regime that soon led to World War II, and the rich and powerful producers. It harkens back to the 1930s so genuinely that I felt I was living this important decade through my cinematic eyes. How different Hollywood was then!

Oldman is the star of a large cast with many actors being given small yet important roles. Nearly unrecognizable with a bloated beer belly and stringy hair, Herman is a lifelong boozer. Mank spans ten years, from 1930 to 1940, and goes back in forth between the years. Mankiewicz dictated dialogue to his secretary, Rita (Lily Collins) in one scene while visiting the set of films made in the early 1930s.

Fun fact- Collins is the daughter of British pop artist Phil Collins and is on the cusp of a big career.

With his wit and humor, never afraid to call a spade a spade, or insult billionaire American businessman William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance), he offends glamorous starlets over an extravagant dinner, forcing them to depart one by one as he gets drunker and drunker.

Never a big fan of Amanda Seyfried’s, the actress impresses with a fabulous performance, the best of her career. Playing Marion Davies, the inspiration for a character in Citizen Kane, she befriends Mankiewicz platonically, and the pair become close. Seyfried nails it with a giving performance. Tom Pelphrey plays Herman’s handsome brother, Joseph, on the cusp of becoming a famous writer and director and the actor is terrific.

The look of Mank is delicious. The black and white cinematography offers an homage to Citizen Kane with the stark use of dark and light contrasting each other in gorgeous form. Two great scenes come to mind- In 1933 Herman and Marion go for a stroll in a lavish courtyard, where they bond over discussions on politics and the film industry. It’s a benevolent and sweet scene where many topics are explored and embraced and is a definite ode to Hollywood.

The other takes place within the Hearst Mansion, directly before the aforementioned scene, where a drunken Herman lets loose on some of the Hollywood elite. He insults Louis B. Mayer, founder of the famous MGM studios, the most famous and influential of all studios.

A gem is the addition of so many historic Hollywood figures, a treasure chest for fans of old cinema. Joan Crawford, Great Garbo, and Bette Davis are featured, although if you blink you’ll miss them.

A wonderful suggestion is to work double-time and follow-up a viewing of Mank with Citizen Kane (I did!) for further appreciation of the film. A gift is realizing how the characters who appear in the classic film are based on real-life characters in Mankiewicz’s world.

Mank (2020) should be appreciated and revered for its lovely hybrid of crisp dialogue and wry comedy based on a real-life Hollywood director, and its cinematography and visual appreciation of a long-ago era of cinema. I hope this inspires some to appreciate and salivate over films created almost a hundred years ago.

Oscar Nominations: Best Picture, Best Director-David Fincher, Best Actor-Gary Oldman, Best Supporting Actress-Amanda Seyfried, Best Production Design (won), Best Cinematography (won), Best Costume Design, Best Makeup and Hairstyling, Best Original Score, Best Sound

J. Edgar-2011

J. Edgar-2011

Director-Clint Eastwood

Starring-Leonardo DiCaprio, Armie Hammer, Naomi Watts

Scott’s Review #1,099

Reviewed January 12, 2021

Grade: A

When director Clint Eastwood and actor Leonardo DiCaprio align, exceptional things can happen. This is evidenced by J. Edgar (2011), a compelling and well-constructed drama with a biographical and character-driven focus.

One gets inside the head and psyche of the title character, J. Edgar Hoover, the head of the Federal Bureau of Investigations, with DiCaprio playing him flawlessly.

The film is left-of-center, surprising for the mainstream director, though his film-making style is familiar. Eastwood does what he does best by constructing a slick and “Hollywood” experience. There are not daring camera angles or unique uses of light that Kubrick might use.  He creates a steady affair that will appeal to the American heartland, getting viewer’s butts to the movie theater on his name alone.

The film opens in 1919 when a young Hoover (DiCaprio) is tasked with purging radicals from the United States and obtaining their secrets, something he’d carry with him for decades. He meets a new Secretary, Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts), who he makes an awkward pass at, and an even more awkward marriage proposal. She refuses, and they become professional and personal allies.

The story then plods along with historical stops through the decades like the Lindbergh baby kidnapping, Martin Luther King Jr., and Richard Nixon. Hoover is always involved in these escapades.

Hoover, who served as the head of the bureau from 1924 until he died in 1972, was a powerful and ruthless man. Eastwood carefully dissects him, professionally and personally. He never married, lived with his mother, traveled, and enjoyed dinners with one man who in death, bequeathed his estate to. You do the math. He was a gay man when one couldn’t be an openly gay man. Thus, he is conflicted, and Eastwood does a great job at showing the demons he wrestled with.

The relationship between Hoover and lawyer, Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer) is my favorite part of J. Edgar because it is interesting and humanistic. DiCaprio and Hammer give outstanding performances with flawless chemistry and charisma.

When Hoover professes his love for Tolson and quickly recants his statement then professes love for an actress, we view his turmoil. He loves Tolson but cannot bear to accept it even though it would free him from his chains.

Despite the tender nature of the sequence above or that his mother was a traditional, no-nonsense, shrew, Hoover is not portrayed as a hero. He was a complicated and damaged man and Eastwood hits this point home. He blackmailed Martin Luther King Jr., kept sexual secrets on several Hollywood stars, and participated in various abuses of power. The film does admit that the director also instituted fingerprinting and forensic measures that reduced crime.

Those who desire a straightforward lesson in history may be slightly perturbed by the focus on Hoover’s personal life. Eastwood could have easily made Hoover’s career the only facet of the production-enough material that exists for this. But instead, we get to see the inner working of the man. Kudos for this.

Dustin Lance Black, who wrote Milk (2008), a portrait of a gay man, is back at the helm serving as a screenwriter. But the two films are not modeled after one another. They are very different animals. While Milk celebrates a man refusing to deny who he and others are, demanding their just civil rights, J. Edgar provides the narrative of a man fleeing from who he is.

Offering a rich and complex biography of a tortured man, the audience is exposed to a person wrestling with inner turmoil. Hoover was a famous man, but the film could easily represent those thousands of men who could not bring themselves to accept who they really were.

The largest praise goes to DiCaprio who makes us sympathize, pity, and admire the complexities of his character. J. Edgar (2011) hits a grand slam.

Richard Jewell-2019

Richard Jewell-2019

Director-Clint Eastwood

Starring-Paul Walter Hauser, Sam Rockwell, Kathy Bates

Scott’s Review #1,035

Reviewed June 19, 2020

Grade: B

With most Clint Eastwood films, especially in the latter part of his career, one should expect a mainstream story with a conservative edge. The man has lost his touch with age, unlike greats like Martin Scorsese. This may not always make for the most cutting-edge cinematic experience, but the results can still be compelling.

Richard Jewell (2019) was not on my radar but for the last minute, surprising Oscar nomination for Kathy Bates.

I am still smarting that she presumably took the last spot over the snubbed Jennifer Lopez (Hustlers-2019). But I digress.

As anticipated, the project has a predictable edge and a safe feel, Eastwood sending a nasty note to the media and the FBI shaming them for their corruption and ineptness.

The biography, centering around the Centennial Olympic Park bombing and its aftermath during the 1996 Summer Olympic Games in Atlanta, Georgia, tells the story in a nicely paced way but feels light, pulling too much of a right-wing slant.

Lead actor Paul Walter Hauser is the best part of the film, providing empathy and heroism to his character, the one, and only Richard Jewell.

Our title character is an overweight, average-looking man who lives with his mother in a modest apartment in Georgia. He works as a supply clerk in a small law firm where he meets arrogant attorney Watson Bryant (Rockwell). They bond over video games and become fast friends.

The time is 1986. Jewell, aspiring to become a police officer, lands a job as a security guard at Piedmont College, where he is subsequently fired for overstepping his grounds. Finally, he begins a job running security for a concert series near the Olympic games. He has a keen eye for law enforcement and is passionate about doing his job well.

Hauser, who had supporting roles in I, Tonya (2017), and in BlacKkKlansman (2018), has reached his breakout role.  Hauser makes the character likable and loyal. Law and order are his passions and he eats, sleeps, and breathes life.

The actor makes the audience know that Richard is not dumb. He is highly intelligent but has not been handed an easy life. The relationship with his mother is touching and he genuinely wants to protect those who he serves.

As far as the supporting roles go, Rockwell is fantastic as Watson, who ultimately defends Richard against the FBI. With wit, sarcasm, and outrage, his passion comes across on screen as a gruff but loyal friend.

Other big-name stars are not as lucky with their roles. Jon Hamm plays FBI Agent Tom Shaw, a made-up character who wants to railroad Richard at all costs. He tricks Richard into stating a confession that he records. Olivia Wilde is Kathy Scruggs, an unpleasant journalist who will trade sex for stories.

The character is unlikable, and rumors abound that the writing is sharply embellished. Both Hamm and Wilde suffer from one-note characters.

Let’s discuss Kathy Bates’s performance. Bates is a legendary actress and well-regarded. In the film, her best role is of the maniacal Annie Wilkes in Misery (1990). Throughout recent years she has brightened the small screen with daring and unique roles on American Horror Story. Her role as the sympathetic and kindly Bobi Jewell is not one of her best.

There is nothing wrong with her performance, but the character never has a big memorable scene.

Unclear is the historical accuracy of the story and my hunch is that liberties could offer good drama. Inexplicable is the omission of anything related to the real bomber, who is never mentioned. What were his motivations? Whatever happened to him? Viewers can do their research, but a real miss is to not include this.

The story only centers around Richard’s accusers and attempted railroading simply because he fits the profile of a bomber. The film could have gone further.

Also, viewers are left with no knowledge that Richard traditionally put a rose on one of the bombing victim’s graves or other niceties that could have been included.

Why did Eastwood need to hammer home the point that Richard was fretting about the perception that he may have been gay? True or false the point feels like a homophobic tidbit thrown in to appeal to a likely redneck audience.

Richard Jewell (2019) will not appear on Eastwood’s “greatest hits” of top films or even top 10 lists. Mystic River (2003) and Million Dollar Baby (2004) would get my votes for “best of”.

The film is only a slightly above-average biography of a falsely accused man eventually gaining justice. The spin is a politically conservative one of the main characters portrayed as a hero meeting unfortunate circumstances.

Oscar Nominations: Best Supporting Actress-Kathy Bates

Harriet-2019

Harriet-2019

Director-Kasi Lemmons

Starring-Cynthia Erivo

Scott’s Review #1,031

Reviewed June 10, 2020

Grade: B

The story of real-life American freedom fighter, Harriet Tubman, a woman who risked her life multiple times to rescue slaves from the United States of America South, pre-civil war, is a story of monumental importance to get right.

An escaped slave herself, Harriet was more than an Abolitionist, she was a political activist and hero to all whose lives she touched. She was a figure that all women and men should aspire to emulate with her message of freedom and civility.

The cinematic telling of Harriet’s story, simply titled Harriet (2019), is a mild success, mostly deserving of praise for being told at all.  At well over one-hundred and fifty years post-civil war, racism still runs rampant across the United States, so the release of the film is important.

A gutsy performance by Cynthia Erivo, a British singer turned actor, is the high point but unfortunately, the rest of the offering is lackluster, frighteningly modern in look and feel, with clear heroes and clear villains and nobody with muddied motivations to be found anywhere.

We first meet young Harriet (Erivo), then named “Minty” Ross, in 1840’s Maryland, then a slave state. She is to be married to her intended, John Tubman (Zackary Momoh), already a free man. Minty’s father, also free, asks her owner to release her as his grandfather had promised before his demise.

Refusing, his son, Gideon (Joe Alwyn) decides to sell Minty as punishment. Savvy, Minty flees for the northern states and settles in Philadelphia, a newly free woman with her life ahead of her.

She risks capture and death to return to Maryland, in disguise, to rescue her family from the horrors of slavery.

Her plight was so important and so heroic that I wanted to love this film.

To be fair, it is okay but does not do justice to the real-life Harriet, or succeed as a cinematic offering. The weakest point is the modern look that the film and the actors possess, and I think this was done intentionally.

Every single actor, black and white, looks like a present-day’s actor dressed in mid-nineteenth century garb and it does not work. My hunch is that filmmakers wanted this to add relevancy to the current racial problems and I am all for that, but the film suffers as a result.

I am all for feminism in cinema, but Harriet can be accurately accused of stomping that point into the ground.

During some of the numerous action sequences when Harriet becomes a flawless sharpshooter, she nearly rivals a Marvel superhero instead of a simple woman championing a cause. And why is Harriet psychic?

This is a silly addition that feels plot-driven. Director Kasi Lemmons, known for films like Eve’s Bayou (1997) and Black Nativity (2013) knows her way around a picture, but Harriet will not be known as her finest achievement.

There are some positives to mention. Erivo, not known for her acting as much as her singing ability, rises to the occasion. Viola Davis nearly ended up being cast, who would have been brilliant, but Erivo nonetheless impresses. She is pretty, yet plain which humanizes Harriet and makes her relatable to many.

Erivo provides both toughness and sympathy so that the audience will champion her cause without it feeling forced. Early in the year, thought to be a lock for the Best Actress Oscar, the film lost ground critically, and Erivo limped to an Oscar nod, and she was lucky to get that. She lost.

The cinematography is credible and another positive to the film. The green, lush landscapes are very southern and peaceful, roaring rapids, bridges, and spacious forests making for atmospheric niceties serving as backdrops for many sequences.

Casting Janelle Monae as the gorgeous (and free) Marie Buchanan is fine and adds a Color Purple (1985) comparison-think Celie/Shug Avery.

Ironically, the acting among the black actors is superior to the most over-the-top or cartoon-like white actors.

Best described as a formulaic Hollywood film with a good message, Harriet (2019) could be a launching pad for Erivos, a new name in Hollywood film.

She tackles a difficult role and is the best thing about the production. The sleekness and modernism make the resulting experience less than the grittiness that a film like Harriet needs.

Much better biographies of legendary figures exist, a shame since Harriet Tubman is one of the most prominent to have their stories told on the big screen.

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

A Dangerous Method-2011

A Dangerous Method-2011

Director-David Cronenberg

Starring-Keira Knightley, Viggo Mortensen, Michael Fassbender

Scott’s Review #1,009

Reviewed April 9, 2020

Grade: B+

A literal psychological-themed drama, if ever there was one, director David Cronenberg uses popular actors of the day to create a film based on a non-fiction book. Famous psychoanalysts, Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung share a tumultuous relationship when they catch the eye of the first female psychoanalyst, who was a patient of each.

Thanks to a talented cast and an independent feel, the result is a compelling piece and a history lesson in sexual titillation, jealousy, passion, and drama, among real-life elite sophisticates.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Beautiful Mind-2001

A Beautiful Mind-2001

Director-Ron Howard

Starring-Russell Crowe, Jennifer Connelly

Scott’s Review #1,003

Reviewed March 25, 2020

Grade: A-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Two Popes-2019

The Two Popes-2019

Director-Fernando Meirelles

Starring-Jonathan Pryce, Anthony Hopkins

Scott’s Review #994

Reviewed February 27, 2020

Grade: B+

The Two Popes (2019) is a biographical drama focusing on two real-life religious figures and the close friendship they forge while sharing different ideas and viewpoints. The two men hold the highest religious office and deep respect culminates over time while past secrets are uncovered.

The film carefully balances past and present but offers too few meaty scenes between the legendary actors for my taste.

Otherwise, a thought-provoking and historical effort, with brilliant sequences of Italy and Argentina.

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

Ratzinger has a stiff and more traditional approach to Christianity while Bergoglio is more modern thinking and open to new ideas.

Seven years later, the Catholic Church is embroiled in the Vatican leaks scandal, which tarnishes the very concept of religion. Benedict’s tenure has been tainted by public accusations regarding his role in the cover-up, which shocks the world.

Meanwhile, Bergoglio intends to retire and arrives in Rome to receive Benedict’s blessing. This is the point where the men slowly come to terms with each other and reach mutual respect and admiration.

The Two Popes is worth the price of admission for the acting alone. With heavyweights such as Hopkins and Pryce, one can rest easy in this regard and simply enjoy the experience. The scenes between the two actors are wonderful and fraught with energy.

As the religious figures confide in one another and secrets brim to the surface, the actors are believable as the real-life figures. Even good, old-fashioned small talk is fascinating to watch.

While the present-day sequences enthrall, the flashbacks of Bergoglio as a younger man and his journey into the church are explored a bit too much sometimes halting the flow.

He was once engaged to be married but instead joined the Jesuits. He was married in scandal when the perception was that he had collaborated with the Argentine military dictatorship, exiled to serve as an ordinary parish priest to the poor for the next ten years.

The balance between timelines is okay, but the flashbacks become too prevalent as the film moves along.

Director, Fernando Meirelles, seems more comfortable shooting scenes within Argentina since those are directed best using black and white filming to showcase both the ravages of a chaotic nation and the decades preceding the present.

Best known for the wonderful City of God (2003), he also intersperses real-life news sequences featuring the peril of the Argentinian people. The two time periods do not always flow naturally together, though.

A huge positive is the inclusion of the child abuse scandal that rocked the religious world and the brave decision that Meirelles made to focus on the revelation that Benedict knew about the accusations and dismissed them, clearly aiding in their continuation.

Both Popes deal with the struggle between tradition and progress, guilt and forgiveness, and confronting one’s pasts making it a character study.

The exterior and surrounding sequences are an absolute treat. Having visited Rome and particularly Vatican City makes the showcase of the Sistine Chapel wonderful to view on a personal level.

The chapel in the Apostolic Palace, the official residence of the pope, is both astounding with the lovely religious art, and the backdrop for many scenes between Benedict and the future Pope Francis (Bergoglio).

Any viewer fond of world history or religious history will enjoy The Two Popes (2019). With great acting, secrets revealed, conflict, and loyalty, the film is crafted well.

Some momentum is lost in the story back and forth, and the film is hardly one that warrants repeated viewings or study in film school, but it provides a realistic look at modern religion with all its arguments and discussions to delve into.

Oscar Nominations: Best Actor-Jonathan Pryce, Best Supporting Actor-Anthony Hopkins, Best Adapted Screenplay

127 Hours-2010

127 Hours-2010

Director-Danny Boyle

Starring-James Franco

Scott’s Review #967

Reviewed December 13, 2019

Grade: A

A biography of epic proportions, 127 Hours (2010) provides a stunning account of one man’s journey and near-tragic fate. If not for his resolve and determination this would surely have been the result.

Director, Danny Boyle casts the charismatic James Franco in the role of the hiker who was forced to amputate his own arm after becoming pinned by a rock. The effective title gives a non-stop active feel, a five-day in-life production if you will, and a pulsating ninety minutes of crafty filmmaking.

The film starts off a cheery story of an excited mountaineer, Aron Ralston, (Franco) who prepares to embark on a long-awaited adventure. The time is April 2003. His goal is to enjoy a few days of hiking, reveling in the freedom the fresh Utah air offers him. Somewhat of a daredevil, he happily anticipates adventure as he begins his journey. He meets two attractive young women, Kristi (Kate Mara) and Megan (Amber Tamblyn) and the trio swims in an underground pool before going their separate ways.

Had 127 Hours been a horror film there would be a sense of suspicion or dread surrounding the female hikers, but the scene is enchanting and pure innocence. Once again on his own, Aron suddenly slips and falls, knocking over a boulder that crushes his right hand and wrist against the wall. He calls for help but realizes that he is alone. Aron begins recording a video diary and reflects on his past, for example forgetting to leave a note of his whereabouts, while becoming more and more desperate to escape.

Most of 127 Hours is set within a state of claustrophobic peril in the tiny walls of the rocks that Ralston is trapped between. The film quickly becomes an emotional and personal experience as the camera is focused on Franco, mostly in the close-up form. At times the shots are too close for comfort, but this is a necessary way for the viewer to experience events the way that Aron did, the style tremendously effective.

At the risk of diminishing the amazing direction, editing, and cinematography offered, the film belongs to Franco. As Aron faces peril, growing frantic with each passing hour, but trying to remain calm and focused, Franco does a tremendous job of balancing and revealing the proper emotions. He whimsically recounts memories while forbidding himself to lose sight of escape, rationing what little food and water he has. The gruesome amputation scene is gory and powerful and may necessitate closing one’s eyes.

The remainder of the elements come together perfectly. The editing, cinematography, and pacing of the story are all spot on. The musical soundtrack is key to the pacing of the film. At first energetic and excitable, the music slowly becomes darker and more subdued, while at the end it is low-key. Aron is thankful to simply be alive as he walks a lonely walk to help as the film concludes.

Since the real-life figure is still very much alive, the historical accuracy of the experience is preserved, as confirmed by the hero. He only showed Kristi and Megan basic climbing moves and they never swam together, but the remainder is a brilliant documentary-style film experience. The real Ralston himself, along with his wife and son make cameo appearances at the end of the film, providing good authenticity.

127 Hours (2010) scores big, creating an experience that is breathtaking, disturbing, and real. Inspiration will be given to each viewer and a lesson in endurance and perseverance will resonate in their own life. The film deservedly received Oscar nominations for Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Original Score, Best Original Song, and Best Film Editing, but sadly coming up empty-handed.

Oscar Nominations: Best Picture, Best Actor-James Franco, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Original Score, Best Original Song-“If I Rise”, Best Film Editing

Independent Spirit Award Nominations: Best Feature, Best Director-Danny Boyle, Best Male Lead-James Franco (won)

Judy-2019

Judy-2019

Director-Rupert Goold

Starring-Renee Zellweger

Scott’s Review #946

Reviewed October 14, 2019

Grade: A

Creating a film about an iconic figure such as Judy Garland is assuredly a difficult task. Casting the role is an even tougher one.

Both points come together with perfect symmetry as director Rupert Goold provides Judy (2019) with heart, hope, and a sense of sadness. Rene Zellweger is astounding in the title role as she embodies the character.

The film is great and an accurate telling of the real-life person.

The period is 1967, and we meet the adult Judy Garland (Zellwegger) well after midnight, having performed with her two young children in tow. Haggard, they are told by the Los Angeles hotel staff that their room has been given up due to lack of payment.

The American singer and actress are broke due to bad marriages, drugs, and alcohol. The star is forced to return to her ex-husband for shelter. The two quibble about the children.

The film does not focus solely on the late 1960s and the final years of Garland’s life but also delves back to her debut as Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz (1939).

The pressures put upon the aspiring actress to perform, lose weight, and keep her energy up are shown in savage fury, so that the audience realizes how the young girl turned into a boozy, unreliable middle-aged woman. Hollywood ruined her innocence.

Zellweger is beyond brilliant. Having disappeared from the spotlight for several years, the actress is back with a vengeance having something to prove. Prove she does as she becomes Judy Garland.

From her small but expression-filled eyes to her nervous movements and pursing lips, she gives a flawless performance and has been rewarded with praise across the board. It is a remarkable portrayal that should go down in the history books.

Much of the film takes place in London as Garland is forced, for financial reasons, to agree to a series of concerts to bring in cash. This necessitates leaving her children behind.

A wonderful scene takes place in a phone booth as Judy comes to the heartbreaking conclusion that her children would prefer the stability of living with their father. Though she understands, the star crumbles in sadness and loneliness.

A treat is the showcasing of Garland’s compassion for others deemed outcasts, as she also was. Gravitating towards gay men she spots one gay couple in the audience night after night and befriends them as they eagerly await her exit from the theater one night.

She suggests dinner and the dumbfounded couple clumsily searches for a restaurant open that late, finally offering to make her scrambled eggs at their flat.

Things go awry but it hardly matters in a heartfelt scene that exposes the prejudices same-sex couples faced as recent as the 1960s and the champion Garland was to the LGBTQ community.

The iconic “Over the Rainbow” is featured late in the film and perfectly placed. Judy ends her touring engagement due to hecklers but returns for a final night on stage where she asks to perform one last song.

She breaks down while singing “Over the Rainbow” but recovers with the encouragement of supportive fans and can complete the performance.

Judy asks, “You won’t forget me, will you?” She does not live long thereafter and dies in the summer of 1969. The scene is painful and not a dry eye is left in the house.

Judy (2019) is a wonderful tribute to the life and times of a Hollywood legend. The film is not a complete downer nor is it cheerful.

What the filmmakers do is make clear that Garland always had hope and hope for a better life and for the happiness that alluded her. She was kind to most and loved her children beyond measure.

Zellweger will likely eat up a plethora of awards throughout the season, as she should.

Oscar Nominations: Best Actress-Renee Zellweger (won), Best Makeup and Hairstyling

Independent Spirit Award Nominations: Best Female Lead-Renee Zellweger (won)

At Eternity’s Gate-2018

At Eternity’s Gate-2018

Director-Julian Schnabel

Starring-Willem Dafoe

Scott’s Review #944

Reviewed October 9, 2019

Grade: B+

At Eternity’s Gate (2018) is a journey into the mind of one of the most tortured painters of all time- Vincent van Gogh.

The film focuses on only the final years of the artist’s life and the events leading up to his death. Inventive direction by visionary Julian Schnabel creates an isolated and majestic world amid a feeling of being inside Van Gogh’s mind.

Though slow-moving, Willem Dafoe gives a brilliant performance, eliciting pathos from its viewers.

The time is 1888 as Van Gogh travels to Paris to meet his good friend and fellow painter, Paul Gauguin (Oscar Isaac), an equally tortured individual. They share ideas and qualms about Paris life as Gauguin convinces Van Gogh to travel to the south of France and his brother Theo (Rupert Friend) resides in Paris.

Fluctuating scenes occur of Van Gogh’s relationship with a prostitute, a woman he meets on a country road and obsesses over, and his complex relationships with both Theo and Gauguin.

Dafoe, a legendary actor recognized for this role with an Oscar nomination for Best Actor, is one of the best components of At Eternity’s Gate.

He engulfs Van Gogh with a constant state of emotional exhaustion and dissatisfaction. As he becomes attached to Gauguin, who ends up leaving him, Dafoe so eloquently emits his quiet depression, seeming to have nobody left in his life. As he violently chops off his ear as a show of loyalty to Gauguin, the mental hospital awaits him.

All these complex emotions Dafoe carries with calm grace and dignity.

Schnabel, known mostly for groundbreaking Oscar-nominated work for The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (2007), has a beautiful technique. Providing even the darkest scenes with a lovely and sometimes dizzying camera effect, he adds frequent scenes of blurred focus with close-ups of his characters.

A painter himself, the result is a magical interpretation with colors and framed scenes. Many of his films focus on a real-life study and Van Gogh is a great choice by the director.

The French landscape is lovely and culturally significant to the experience. The busy and robust Parisian lifestyle juxtapositions nicely against scenes of the lavish countryside, presumably north and south of the City of Light.

When Van Gogh quietly sits and paints numerous canvases of still objects- a bush or a tree, the flavorful colors come through against the landscape and bursting with natural beauty.

The cinematography is excellent.

The main detraction to At Eternity’s Gate is slow, or should I say snail’s pace. At only one hour and fifty-three minutes, the entire length of the film feels much, much longer.

Viewing the film on an international flight may or may not have influenced this note, but the story seems to drag on endlessly, though the beautiful aspects outweigh the boring scenes.

The mental health aspect and the encouragement Van Gogh receives to get better and heal seem a bit too modern a method for the late nineteenth century.

This may have been incorporated as an add-on to current and relevant issues to be given exposure, but while inspiring it does not seem to fit the film either. This is a small criticism I noticed.

Bordering on the art film genre, At Eternity’s Gate (2018) is a sad depiction of a disturbed man’s lonely existence creating art that would not be recognized as a genius until after his death.

A slow film, it uses gorgeous camera shots and lovely snippets of Vincent van Gogh’s works to seem poetic.

The film is not for everyone and is not a mainstream Hollywood experience, but rather a quiet biography of one of the greats.

Oscar Nominations: Best Actor-Willem Dafoe

First Man-2018

First Man-2018

Director-Damian Chazelle

Starring-Ryan Gosling, Claire Foy

Scott’s Review #915

Reviewed July 4, 2019

Grade: B+

First Man (2018) is a re-teaming of efforts by director Damian Chazelle and actor Ryan Gosling, hot on the heels of the 2016 critical and commercial smash hit La La Land.

The former could not be more different from the latter and the direction is unrecognizable for those expecting a comparison. First Man is a mainstream Hollywood production with good camerawork and edgy quality.

The necessary full-throttle action approach is interspersed nicely with a personal family story and humanistic spin that is never too sappy nor forced.

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

The overall message is of the triumphs and the costs to families, the astronauts, and the country during an already tumultuous decade in history.

Events of the film began in 1961 as we see Armstrong as a young NASA test pilot suffering mishaps due to his problems and culminates in 1969 after the successful mission concludes.

Chazelle wisely balances human and personal scenes with the inevitable rocket take-offs and outer space problems that the astronauts face.  Both segments turn out well and keep the action moving, allowing for tender moments between the characters especially showcasing the relationship between Neil and his wife Janet (Claire Foy).

Lacking (thankfully) are the scenes of machismo or “guy talk” that sometimes accompany films in this genre.

During one of the first scenes, the audience quickly witnesses the couple’s two-and-a-half-year-old daughter Karen retching and suffering from learning disabilities only to quickly die from a brain tumor forever destroying the couple.

This important aspect reoccurs as Neil imagines his daughter playing with neighborhood kids and enjoying life.

In a wonderful moment, he tearfully drops Karen’s tiny bracelet into a giant crater in the hopes of always keeping her memory alive.

These additions give the film a character-driven quality.

Worthy of analysis before and after viewing the film is the decision of the young director to tackle such a project, heartily appealing to the mainstream audience undoubtedly in mind.

Legendary director Clint Eastwood was originally slated to direct and the historically rich story seems right up his alley.

Interesting to wonder is if during the 1990s Tom Hanks might have been cast in the role of Armstrong during his younger days, playing a similar role in Ron Howard’s 1995 film Apollo 13.

Well-known character actors appear in supporting roles fleshing out the production and further adding name and face recognition. Kyle Chandler, Jason Clarke, and Ciaran Hinds appear as astronauts or various NASA Chiefs. Viewers who may not be able to name the actors will certainly recognize them as actors seen in other features.

This only brings First Man to the big leagues with a hearty and talented central cast.

Gosling and Foy are the main draws and both actors were mentioned as possibilities for Oscar nominations throughout awards season, but a slot in the big race did not come to fruition.

While the film drew a couple of nominations for Best Editing and Best Score, a Best Picture nomination was not to be, probably due to the film not being as big a blockbuster success as expected.

The film is also more brooding and less patriotic than a Howard or Eastwood production would have been.

To expand on this, First Man came under attack by Senator Marco Rubio from Florida, and President Donald Trump for Chazelle’s decision to omit any mention of the famous planting of the American Flag on the moon by Armstrong and Aldrin.

Chazelle refused to admit this was any sort of political statement, instead insisting he chose to focus more on the lesser-known aspects of the moon landing rather than facts that everybody already knew.

Youngster Damian Chazelle proves a multi-faceted director by changing course and creating a historic biopic much different from a story of singing and dancing in Los Angeles.

He proves to be no one-trick pony and gets the job done, creating a brave and robust effort that does not limit action at the hands of humanity, successfully weaving a good dose of both.

First Man (2018) may not be a classic in the making but deserves to be seen.

Oscar Nominations: Best Sound Editing, Best Sound Mixing, Best Production Design, Best Visual Effects (won)

Rocketman-2019

Rocketman-2019

Director-Dexter Fletcher

Starring-Taron Egerton

Scott’s Review #906

Reviewed June 5, 2019

Grade: A

Following in the footsteps of the unexpected success of 2018’s rock biography Bohemian Rhapsody comes the similar-themed Rocketman (2019).

This time the subject at hand is Elton John rather than Freddie Mercury, but both storied figures contain unquestionable comparisons as their successes, failures, and struggles are well documented.

Both films take their name from popular title songs and both have the same director in the mix, Dexter Fletcher.

Freddie Mercury and Elton John are both larger than life onstage personas while both reportedly suffered from shyness, creating characters to portray to ease difficulties.

Rocketman gets the slight edge over Bohemian Rhapsody when comparing the two, with experimental and psychedelic sequences making the experience more left of center than the latter and lacking a hefty feel-good component.

I would venture to assess that Rocketman has darker overtones.

The film opens impressively as an adult, successful Elton John (Taron Egerton) is in rehab, begrudgingly attending a support group therapy session- this scene will reoccur throughout the film as John slowly reveals more to the group about his childhood, rise to fame, and struggles with numerous demons.

This is key to the enjoyment of the film as it backtracks in time frequently and we see John’s development as both a musician and on a personal level.

Many scenes play out like a Broadway play which is an ingenious approach, not only a treat for fans of John’s huge catalog of songs but immensely creative from a cinematic perspective. At the high point of the film, the scenes are not only showy but catapult the direction of the film instead of slowing down the events.

Fantastic are offerings of hit songs like “Tiny Dancer”, as shown during John’s first trip to Los Angeles, as he is forced to witness the then crush Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell) take up with a supermodel at an LSD infused Hollywood party.

The musical numbers offer glimpses into the mind and heart of Elton, and other characters, through song. A teary number occurs early on when a pained, boyish Elton is learning piano, facing struggles at home.

When the song begins it is Elton’s tune to carry but then his father sings a few lines, then his mother, then his grandmother. Each person offers his or her perspective based on the lyric they are singing. The beauty of this scene is powerful and sets the tone of the scenes to follow.

Rocketman is an emotional film, triggering laughter and tears throughout its duration. Thanks to Egerton who carries the film, the audience cares for him as a human being instead of a larger-than-life rock star.

We feel his pain, cry his tears, and smile during rare moments when he is content. He faces insecurity, sex addiction, drug and alcohol addiction, and an eating disorder. Through Egerton, we face the battles alongside him.

Elton John serves as Executive Producer of the film providing a measure of truth and honesty in storytelling, something Bohemian Rhapsody was accused of not containing. John’s parents are portrayed accurately and decidedly, and both mother and father are dastardly, nearly ruining Elton’s self-esteem for life.

Dallas Bryce-Howard as his mother is happy to capitalize financially on his fame but sticks a dagger in his heart when she professes he will never be loved since he is a gay man.

His father is nearly as bad. Abandoning his loveless marriage to Elton’s mother, he eventually finds happiness with another woman and produces two boys. He can never love his eldest son despite Elton’s efforts to reconnect.

To add insult to injury, his father asks him to cross out the words “to Dad” on an album autograph, instead requesting it go to a colleague. Elton is devastated.

Events are not all dire and dreary as with his parents and a major suicide attempt. Happier times are shown and his grandmother (wonderfully played by Gemma Jones) remains an ardent supporter.

His relationship with Taupin is one of the most benevolent and life-long causes of trust and respect, and once his act is cleaned up Elton can appreciate the finer things in life more completely.

Egerton performs beautifully in acting as well as singing capabilities but lacks the singing chops that Elton Jon has. The decision was made not to have Egerton lip-sync which deserves its measure of praise.

Interesting to wonder what the opposite choice would have resulted in, like with Bohemian Rhapsody, we are left with a brilliant portrayal of John by Egerton.

Watched in tandem with Bohemian Rhapsody, a great idea given the back-to-back releases is one recommendation for comparison sake. Offering a more creative experience- again the musical numbers are superb, and both switching through the back and forth timelines, Rocketman (2019) squeaks out the victory for me, and doesn’t the victor go the spoils?

If Rami Malek won the coveted Best Actor Oscar statuette what will that mean for the tremendous turn that Egerton gives?

Oscar Nominations: Best Original Song-“(I’m Gonna) Love Me Again (won)