Category Archives: Independent Thriller

Reservoir Dogs-1992

Reservoir Dogs-1992

Director Quentin Tarantino

Starring Tim Roth, Harvey Keitel, Steve Buscemi

Scott’s Review #1,332

Reviewed January 9, 2023

Grade: A

Reservoir Dogs (1992) is the film that began an essential transition in cinema history. The 1980s saw way too many watered-down or oversaturated films with enough sappy or melodramatic thematics to make a seasoned cinema lover want to gag and run for a good television series.

The 1990s were different. It’s impossible to think of the decade in film and not speak the name Quentin Tarantino, an iconoclast who took the crime thriller genre and riddled it with violence, dark humor, comic book-style characters, and dozens of other eccentricities and spun the world on its heads.

It was needed.

But before anyone begins to assume Reservoir Dogs is the most fantastic Tarantino film, it’s not. Many list it as his weakest catalog entry. That’s open to the opinion of course but in my view, the influence of the film accounts for much of my enjoyment of it.

It’s not as developed and stylized as Django Unchained (2012) or as powerfully fucked up or odd as Pulp Fiction (1995), but the rawness, the gore, and the go-for-broke scenes that are shot like a play, and the small-budget make watching Reservoir Dogs a reminder of the genius that is Tarantino.

Countless scenes mirror sequences to come in his later films so much so that a game can be played to discover where something played out in another Tarantino film.

The film gave new recognition and merit to the independent film genre which was huge and provided doors flying open to young filmmakers everywhere who had ideas and just needed to get their films known.

The influence of Reservoir Dogs is unmeasured and a double feature of Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction is suggested. Even though the latter was released later, most people saw Pulp Fiction first and then discovered Reservoir Dogs.

A group of unsavory thieves assemble to pull off the perfect diamond heist. It turns into a bloody shit show when one of the men turns out to be a police informer. But which one is it and who is responsible for the ambush?

As the group begins to question each other’s guilt, the tensions and suspicions threaten to blow up the situation before the police step in and save the day. But how many will die first?

Tarantino cleverly casts himself in a small role as Mr. Brown and names all the men using the same formal title. There is Mr. White (Harvey Keitel), Mr. Orange (Tim Roth), Mr. Blonde (Michael Madsen), Mr. Blue (Edward Bunker), and finally Mr. Pink (Steve Buscemi) who is my favorite of all.

In 1992, many scenes were shocking. When sinister Mr. Blonde cuts off the ear of a cop and prepares to set him on fire the brutality and sadism are hard to watch.

The blood-soaked Mr. Orange lies in a pool of blood through nearly the entire film. As his skin turns whiter and whiter and his clothes redder and redder it’s an example of masterful cinema and creativity.

The few exterior shots are in Los Angeles which gives the film a low-budget, raw look.  It’s to be celebrated as the potent sun and grizzled veneer of the city of angels are on display.

I’m not a fan of the lack of female representation but this only enhances the muscle and masculinity of the characters. As they sit in a diner mulling over whether tipping is necessary we could easily be in a men’s locker room witnessing banter about getting laid, or watching an episode of Seinfeld.

There are no romantic entanglements to mess up the plot or no rescuing the girl from criminals to contend with. The closest we come is a couple of homoerotic moments of men embracing men amongst bullets and blood.

Reservoir Dogs succeeds as a whodunit, a heist film, and a vile look at the inhumanity of some of the characters.

The influence and relevance of Reservoir Dogs in 2023 are as abundant as they were in 1992. Cinema is like fine wine and sometimes the more time that goes by the more appreciation is warranted for a film.

It’s not perfect and is unpolished and sometimes underdeveloped but it’s been emulated so many times that it’s become a blueprint of the crime thriller.

Independent Spirit Awards: 1 win-Best Supporting Male-Steve Buscemi (won)

Promising Young Woman-2020

Promising Young Woman-2020

Director-Emerald Fennell

Starring-Carey Mulligan, Bo Burnham

Scott’s Review #1,132

Reviewed April 13, 2021

Grade: A

Emerald Fennell, making her film directorial debut, kicks her viewers in the ass with major help from star Carey Mulligan, with Promising Young Woman (2020). The actress gives the best performance of her career. The film is a sexy and haunting experience mixing black comedy and witty dialogue with an important and timely subject matter- the abuse and victimization of young women by men.

Both men and women can be held responsible as Fennell makes abundantly clear. Predators often have a share of people who choose to “look the other way” and thereby enable. This is a constant theme throughout the film involving many characters who are called out for their passivity.

Fennell makes this point during two of the best scenes of the film as she calls out a high-powered dean and attorney for their betrayals. The scenes are so powerful that I wanted the characters to suffer as much as the revenge seeker does.

There is also a wackiness in the pacing and dialogue that reminds me quite a bit of the 1999 masterpiece, American Beauty.

The film is depravity, bizarreness, and brilliance all rolled into one. I felt this film in my bones.

Almost every scene is a treat in the mysterious and unexpected and the film features peculiar characters and creative musical score renditions and includes a scene and music from the underappreciated masterpiece The Night of the Hunter (1955). Fennell knows her classic cinema.

Mulligan stars as a woman named Cassie who seeks to avenge the death of her best friend, who was a victim of rape when they were in medical school and their young lives had potential and such possibility lay ahead of them. Cleverly, we never see her friend, named Nina Fisher, but she is of vital importance and nearly a major character herself despite her absence.

Everyone said Cassie was a “promising young woman” until a mysterious event abruptly derailed her future. But now at age thirty and still living at home, her parents suggest via a giant suitcase for her birthday, it may be time for her to move on.

Cassie is tough to figure out since she’s wickedly clever, sometimes wisecracking, and tantalizingly cunning, and she’s living a secret double life by night. She goes to nightclubs looking drop-dead gorgeous and lures men to her rescue pretending to be inebriated.

What happens when they go back to their pad is shocking, dark, and justified. The men will never see this coming.

Before the presumption is that Cassie is nothing more than a bad-ass, her intentions are not only admirable, but she has a heart and desires love. Promising Young Woman is a dark character study.

Besides the powerful story, Promising Young Woman is riddled with interesting cinematic techniques. Cassie’s parent’s lounge in their afternoon one afternoon watching The Night of the Hunter, a dark fairy tale for adults. Later, a haunting version of Britney Spear’s “I’m a Slave 4 U” complete with a string arrangement is featured most uniquely.

All the supporting players add pizzazz and strength, some in odd or unclear ways until certain revelations bubble to the surface. Jennifer Coolidge as Cassie’s strange mother, Bo Burnham as the smitten Ryan Cooper, and Alison Brie as Cassie’s college friend Madison McPhee are the best examples.

Bo and Madison have the most to hide but will they or won’t they face Cassie’s wrath is the question. Not much is worse than a woman scorned.

But the main draw is Mulligan. Startlingly good, with an astonishingly powerful, deeply layered performance by her. She showcases a remarkable acting range, where she effortlessly alternates from brash to darkly humorous and at times, emotionally vulnerable in her best performance to date.

Two scenes stand out to me. The first is a delicious scene between Cassie and the female dean of her school, played by Connie Britton. At first dismissive and annoyed by Cassie’s accusations, Dean Elizabeth Walker finally takes notice when she believes that Cassie had kidnapped her teenage daughter and left her with a group of drunken frat boys. What comes around goes around!

The second is the finale wedding scene, interestingly not featuring Cassie other than by text messages. As the happy young couple says their vows a parade of police cars ruins the moment and the audience cheers victory. It’s a satisfying moment.

The screenplay is original, fresh, and timely. In the “Me Too” movement the timing is vital and makes the subject matter relevant. Fennell wrote the screenplay- is there anything she can’t do?

Promising Young Woman (2020) is an exceptional film. It’s a controversial revenge film but it’s so much more. Taking a powerful subject matter and examining the hypocrisy, of men and women, is telling and eye-opening. That is why this film is very important to see and brings awareness to a situation society still too often deems as okay.

Oscar Nominations: Best Picture, Best Director-Emerald Fennell, Best Actress-Carey Mulligan, Best Original Screenplay (won), Best Film Editing

Independent Spirit Award Nominations: Best Director-Emerald Fennell, Best Female Lead- Carey Mulligan (won), Best Screenplay (won)



Director-Julius Onah

Starring-Naomi Watts, Octavia Spencer, Kelvin Harrison, Jr. 

Scott’s Review #1,122

Reviewed March 16, 2021

Grade: B+

Oftentimes unpleasant with shifting character allegiances, Luce (2019) is a painful look at race relations. The clever nuance is the relationships between people of the same race. Superior acting rises the film above just simply a nice idea as heavyweights like Octavia Spencer and Naomi Watts lend credibility to a small indie film.

The result is sometimes muddied waters and an unclear direction but the effort is exceptional and a worthy subject matter in modern times.

The film is down and dirty and makes no apologies for what it’s dissecting. The co-writer and director, Julius Onah, a Nigerian-American man, offers glimpses of grandeur, and impossible to guess how it will end. We wonder if he bases the story on his own very real experiences and I am eager to see what projects he comes up with in the future.

Some aspects of the film I found implausible if not logically impossible and not every point adds up or is successfully outlined. But the effort and the balance of drama, thrills, and social issues are there for the taking.

I realized I was rooting throughout for one character and then suddenly I was disappointed in their actions and my allegiance shifted to another of the principal characters. This is key and a positive to a good character-driven film. At times though the character’s actions are questionable and more than one mighty shake of the head in disbelief will be experienced.

Liberal-minded parents Amy (Watts) and Peter Edgar (Eli Roth) have adopted Luce (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), a child of refuge and a dangerous third-world country. It is referenced that they have spent years in therapy to repair the damage he has suffered as a child. It is implied he learned to shoot and possibly kill at a young age. Now a teenager, and Americanized, Luce is popular in high school and a star scholar and track star.

Life is good. Or is it?

The film, based on the play of the same name by J.C. Lee, is shot nothing like a play and is conventionally shot.

Luce writes and submits an extremely disturbing essay that forces the Edgars to reconsider their marriage and their family after it is brought to their attention by his teacher.

He challenges and makes an enemy of this teacher, Harriet Wilson (Spencer) who is extremely tough on students of color, being black herself. She snoops through one student’s locker and finds drugs, ratting on him and blowing his chances for a scholarship. When she finds fireworks in Luce’s locker she is appalled and makes it her mission to entangle his parents but could she have planted them herself?

Is she out to get Luce, jealous of his success when she has had to struggle for hers? Tensions mount between Harriet and Luce as the story unfolds.

The acting is powerful all around the canvas but Harrison and Spencer deliver the standout performances- nearly brilliant. Watts and Roth are good too but with more standard portrayals.

Excellent is how we get to know each of the four principles in detail. Harriet at first appears a tough shrew, but her personal life makes her sympathetic. She attempts to care for her mentally ill sister herself but after a humiliating scene at school is forced to return her to a home.

Suddenly, I was a fan of Harriet, Later, I was disappointed in Luce and Amy, who I thought I was intended to root for. The film is topsy turvy and I enjoyed this juicy infusion of not knowing what was to come next.

When a female classmate of Luce’s who harbors an enormous secret takes center stage the roller-coaster ride becomes even bumpier.

I wish there were more films of a similar nature as Luce (2019) to hit mainstream theaters. It provokes thought and opinion while featuring social problems, pre-conceived notions, and trusting one’s merits. I just wish the puzzle had been solved in a more satisfying way than it was.

Independent Spirit Award Nominations: Best Director-Julius Onah, Best Male Lead-Kelvin Harrison, Jr., Best Supporting Female-Octavia Spencer

Uncut Gems-2019

Uncut Gems-2019

Director-Ben Safdie, Joshua Safdie

Starring-Adam Sandler, Idina Menzel

Scott’s Review #1,049

Reviewed August 5, 2020

Grade: A-

The Safdie brothers have quickly emerged as a directing force to be reckoned with, producing two “gems” in only three years. Co-writing the screenplay with Ronald Bronstein, the final product is jagged, fast-paced, and frighteningly intense.

Uncut Gems (2019) follows up the similar themed Good Time (2017) giving star Adam Sandler his greatest role yet. Yes, his performance even rivals the brilliant Punch-Drunk Love (2002) persona leading him to his first Independent Spirit Award win for Best Male Lead.

He was robbed of an Oscar nomination. We can’t have everything.

Playing a loud-mouthed Jew is hardly new territory for the actor. Think-most of his screwball comedies from the 1990s and 2000s before he delved into serious actor territory. In the dreadful Jack and Jill (2011) he played two of them!

But a trip down memory lane is surely not what the actor prefers, instead undoubtedly preferring to veer off course to more mature movies for the latter part of his film career. Uncut Gems made money so let’s hope so.

We meet Howard Ratner (Sandler) following his first-ever colonoscopy which leaves him anxious and irritable. On better days he is needier, and a somewhat lovable teddy bear as he carries on an affair with his employee, Julia (Julia Fox), and his estranged wife Dinah (Idina Menzel) who has agreed to a divorce after Passover.

Howard runs KMH, an upscale jewelry store in the Diamond District section of New York City. How he lands and carries on with both gorgeous ladies is a mystery, but Dinah is a kept woman and Julia’s father is in the jewelry industry, thus explaining why Howard is.

There is something particularly charismatic about Howard that draws other characters and the viewers to him.

As revealed at the beginning of the film, and the main storyline, Howard has made a deal with Ethiopian Jewish miners somewhere in Africa to obtain a valuable black opal and sell it to him for cheap presumably so that he can make a ton of money from it in the States.

It is also quickly established that Howard is a mess, owing $100,000 to his brother-in-law and loan shark. To complicate matters, his shady business associate brings basketball star Kevin Garnett into Howard’s shop.

After spotting the opal, he asks to borrow it for one night with his NBA Championship ring as collateral. This cannot end well, and it doesn’t.

The subsequent activity in Uncut Gems is crude, foul-mouthed, and off-putting to some. I have friends who watched eight or twelve minutes of it and either turned it off or left the theater in a huff. If you are expecting a comedy rife with potty jokes or other juvenile humor look elsewhere.

This is the real deal with a deadly ending impossible to imagine. I loved the settings of Manhattan, Long Island, and Mohegan Sun in Connecticut the best.

The Safdie brothers have two major knacks. They can craft tense, edge-of-your-seat crime thrillers like nobody’s business with a pulsating backdrop and a herky-jerky editing style. They can also catapult A-list actors teetering on the verge of being typecast for specific roles into the deep waters of creativity and sink or swim risk.

No better example than Robert Pattinson’s risky turn as a grizzled bank robber in Good Time (2017), shedding his sterile pretty-boy image that The Twilight (2008-2013) films brought him. This led to his wonderful turn in The Lighthouse (2019).

The soon-to-be household name directing team does not deserve all the credit though even though the men serve in a variety of key positions including acting, editing, shooting, mixing sound, and producing their films.

Sandler has become an interesting and versatile actor as he forges into the drama vein. Happy to roll up his sleeves and do an indie film for little money (like he needs it!) he proves that an unlikeable character can have hints of likability, black humor, and pizzazz.

He completely embodies Howard and makes the audience love/hate him. He balances two women, schemes to get rich, and neglects his kid’s school play, yet he is appealing.

Let’s ceremoniously proclaim 2019 as the year that stars previously known for generic films determined to break out with challenging and fantastic roles were shunned by the Academy.

Jennifer Lopez, shockingly snubbed for Hustlers (2019), is being punished for years of drivel such as Maid in Manhattan (2002) and Monster-in-Law (2005) joins her compadre Sandler in two of the biggest snubs of the decade with Uncut Gems (2019).

Perhaps an Oscar will be in their future if they stay the course and remain true to the work.

Independent Spirit Award Nominations: Best Feature, Best Male Lead-Adam Sandler (won), Best Director-Benny Safdie and Josh Safdie (won), Best Screenplay, Best Editing (won)

A Prophet-2009

A Prophet-2009

Director Jacques Audiard

Starring Tahar Rahim

Scott’s Review #1,034

Reviewed June 18, 2020

Grade: A-

A Prophet (2009), known as Un prophète in the French language, is a prison drama/crime thriller made exceptionally well and told from a character perspective rather than a plot angle.

Skirting any traditional genre prison characteristics, the film instead crafts a character study with the conflicting emotions of its main character taking center stage.

The result is a layered, complex experience led by a brilliant acting turn by actor Tahar Rahim.

Malik (Rahim) is a nineteen-year-old French youth of Algerian descent imprisoned for six years for attacking police officers. Friendless and unable to read, he is vulnerable and coaxed into murdering a witness involved in a crucial trial.

He becomes embroiled in tensions between the Corsicans and Muslims who populate much of the prison.

Malik cannot forget his participation in a murder, tortures himself, and has frequent nightmares of the incident. He slowly rises to the ranks of power within the prison community becoming involved in dangerous events and pivoting from meek to fear.

Largely avoided are overused prison elements common in many films of similar ilk. In other films, humor or standard dramatic situations occur that make a watered-down experience. A Prophet breathes fresh life into the prison film, albeit grisly and violent life.

The film is not for everyone and is extremely dark, even brutal at times.

During murder scenes, blood and guts are spilled at an alarming rate, and there ceases to exist many characters to sympathize with.

Malik is the main character but is an opportunist, readily doing what he must to gain power and control. Can we blame him? No.

Malik is a complex and nuanced character who is a joy to watch and dissect. He starts his prison tenure as a naive and timid boy, illiterate and easily manipulated. Over time, he grows into a seasoned gangster becoming involved in intricate plots and messy situations.

Actor Tahar Rahim successfully makes the character both likable and detestable, fleshing him out so the audience will love and hate him. This is the mark of a wonderful actor who can give complicated dynamics to the character.

Prison life is portrayed exceptionally well by director Jacques Audiard, who relays an authentic representation. It was good enough to make me never want to be imprisoned anyway. He wisely hired former convicts as both extras and advisors to flesh out the experience.

Life in prison, Audiard style, is not a rosy picture, but one filled with pain, fright, and violence. The Arab population, woefully underrepresented in cinema, is given a voice.

Another subject matter, homosexuality, a popular addition in prison films is not explored. Mostly played either for laughs or providing a conveniently situational plot device, A Prophet does not need the inclusion, too much else is going on.

Although a titillating prospect for many, the subject may have added a sexual or romantic angle taking away from the main point of the film, which is one man’s journey within the prison system.

Told from one man’s viewpoint, A Prophet (2009) is a triumphant French film that deservedly received accolades for its courage and realistic feel.

Starring a young actor with great potential and a brave director unafraid to develop logical storytelling and avoid typical traits, one wonders what their next project will be.

Violent gangs, corrupt guards, and impressionable prisoners would be a good way to continue.

Oscar Nominations: Best Foreign Language Film

Independent Spirit Award Nominations: Best Foreign Film



Director-Christina Coe

Starring-Andrea Riseborough

Scott’s Review #941

Reviewed October 1, 2019

Grade: B+

Part of why I love independent cinema so much is the freedom given the director to simply tell a good story of his or her choosing, usually with little studio interference or opinions.

Nancy (2018) is a good example of this as Christina Choe writes and directs a film that is simply hers to share. A quiet film about loneliness, the need to belong, and connect with others are the main elements in a compelling and unpredictable story.

Existing in a barren small town in upstate New York, Nancy (Andrea Riseborough) bears weather that is cold, damp, and bleak. Working a temporary office job where the staff barely remembers her from her previous stint, Nancy spends her downtime caring for her ill mother (Ann Dowd) and playing with her cat, Pete.

When an occurrence leaves her vulnerable, she sees a news report featuring a couple whose daughter disappeared thirty years ago, and looks exactly like Nancy, given the sometimes-dishonest woman an idea.

Riseborough carries the film with a strong performance, but not a character the audience easily roots for. Nancy is not unkind, dutifully tending to her mother’s needs when she is not being pleasant. She pretends to be pregnant to meet an internet support group man who lost a child and seeks comfort in Nancy.

Hoping for a romance or at least a human connection, the two run into each other, and when the man realizes her scheme, he calls her psycho. We witness a range of subtle facial expressions revealing the complicated character which Riseborough provides brilliantly.

Choe tells a very humanistic story that is peppered with deep feelings and emotions easy for the audience to relate to.

Conflicted views will resound between the three principal characters; Nancy, Leo Lynch (Steve Buscemi), and wife Ellen (J. Smith-Cameron). The Lynch’s, especially Ellen, are vulnerable, yearning for a glimmer of hope that their long-lost daughter, surely dead, is alive.

So, the complexities that the director provides work exceptionally well with keeping the emotional level very high.

All three principal actors do a fine job, Smith-Cameron being rewarded with a Film Independent award nomination. She is the most conflicted of the three and the character audiences will ultimately fall in love with and feel much empathy for.

Has Buscemi ever played a nicer man? I think not as the actor so often plays villainous or grizzled so well. With Leo, he is rational, thoughtful, and skeptical of the story Nancy spins. He adores Ellen and does not want to see her disappointed yet again, the pain apparent on both their faces.

Many quiet and palpable subtleties are possessed by the cast.

The locale in the film is also a high point. Presumably, in January or February, the cold and angry air fills the screen, adding a measure of hopelessness that each character suffers from differently.

Numerous scenes of the outdoors are featured, and compelling moments are provided. When a pretty snowfall coats the land, this is a tease, as one character’s hopes are ultimately dashed. A cheery landscape such as California or Florida would not have worked as well in this film.

Nancy (2018) is a film that risks turning some viewers off with its unhappy nature and slow pace, but isn’t this much better than a fast-paced Hollywood popcorn film?

To me the answer is obvious, and Nancy is a prime example of why little films should be celebrated and revered by the film industry and its enthusiasts.

Lies and truths cross a fine line and the potent psychological thriller will leave viewers mesmerized as events progress.

Independent Spirit Award Nominations: Best Supporting Female-J. Smith-Cameron, Best First Screenplay

You Were Never Really Here-2018

You Were Never Really Here-2018

Director-Lynne Ramsay

Starring-Joaquin Phoenix

Scott’s Review #932

Reviewed August 19, 2019

Grade: A-

You Were Never Really Here (2018) is an independent psychological thriller most reminiscent in tone and texture to the legendary Scorsese film, Taxi Driver (1976).

The main characters are worlds apart, but the plot and the trimmings are influenced by the classic, just amid a different period (the present).

A terrific and brooding performance by star Joaquin Phoenix leads the charge, as does fantastic direction by Lynne Ramsay, and the editing team, as the dark film is an unusual and impressive choice for a female director.

Snippets of cinematic genius exist during a film that, with a more complete package, might have been a masterpiece.

We first meet Joe (Phoenix) somewhere in Ohio as, we learn, he is a hired gun sent to rescue underage girls from sex trafficking rings. He is brutal in his methods of rescue, resorting to gruesome murders to complete his assignments, and is paid handsomely.

Back in New York City, he cares for his elderly mother whom he adores and is contacted to rescue Nina, the daughter of a New York State Senator, Albert Votto for an enormous sum of money.

When Joe rescues Nina and waits for Votto, events quickly spin out of control and a sinister web of deception is revealed.

When you look at the story that You Were Never Really There tells, it has been told many times before, typically in slick Hollywood conventional standards.

Angry ex-military unleashes brutality on devious criminals, rescues the girl, and returns her safely to the open arms of her awaiting parents.

Fortunately, the film is more thoughtful than that, adding complexity to the Joe and Nina relationship, and a stylistic, poetic quality featuring Joe’s relationship with his mother.

The plot is paced very well so that the events occur only over a day or two, and the film is highly unconventional and dark.

Frequent flashbacks give the film mystique as we see both Joe and his mother abused by Joe’s father, as a young Joe hides in a closet and hyperventilates. Now an adult, Joe is suicidal, frequently fantasizing or practicing his death until he is interrupted.

As grisly as the film can be, beautiful and tender moments are laden throughout as Ramsay provides gorgeous style and humanity. A homoerotic moment occurs when Joe lies next to the man who has killed his mother.

As the man is close to death at the hands of Joe, they hold hands as Joe provides comfort to the man in death. Joe then buries his mother in a pond in upstate New York, providing her with a peaceful final resting place. These are unique scenes that feel almost like an art film.

The conclusion is open-ended leaving lots of questions; Joe and Nina appear to ride off into the sunset together, but what will they do? What is to become of them? Surely, not a romantic element can be found, but where will they go from here?

Both characters appear to have nothing left to hang on to other than each other, but is this sustainable?

The film is not the type that is poised for a sequel, but I would be very curious about what Ramsay has planned for her characters.

Joe is not portrayed as wicked, he is too complex for that. Phoenix, a tremendous actor, perfectly infuses the character with brutality and anger, but also tenderness and warmth.

The aspects between You Were Never Really Here and Taxi Driver: the grizzled New York portrayals, the political backdrop, and the main characters saving a woeful young girl from the depths of despair, make the two film’s comparable.

However, Joe and Travis Bickle are opposites, the latter having frenetic humor that the former lacks.

Ramsay has been around for a while with We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011) her most prominent film. She is successful at telling stories about deeply troubled individuals who are good people handed awful circumstances.

With a tremendous actor like Phoenix on board, she crafts a solid work that has provided You Were Never Really Here (2018) with accolades, at least among the indie critics. Ramsay seems poised to break out in a big way and shake up the film industry with future works.

Independent Spirit Award Nominations: Best Feature, Best Director-Lynne Ramsay, Best Male Lead-Joaquin Phoenix, Best Editing (won)



Director-Craig Macneill

Starring-Chloe Sevigny, Kristen Stewart

Scott’s Review #925

Reviewed July 31, 2019

Grade: B+

Lizzie (2018) is an odd and macabre interpretation of the life and times of the infamous Lizzie Borden, who was accused and acquitted of hacking her father and stepmother to bits with a deadly ax.

This offering is shrouded in a bit of controversy for inaccuracies and interpretations of the events, specifically Borden’s sexuality called into question. The film is quiet and a tad too slow but thunders to a grand climax more than making up for any negatives.

The casting of its leads is perfect and key to success.

Thirty-two-year-old Lizzie (Chloe Sevigny) lives with her domineering and affluent father Andrew, (Jamey Sheridan), and rigid stepmother, Abby (Fiona Shaw).

Despising both, she lives out a lonely and depressing existence with her only outlet being occasional evenings out at the theater. When an Irish immigrant, Bridget Sullivan (Kristen Stewart), moves into the Borden residence to work as a servant the women form a strong bond especially after she is abused by Andrew.

Sevigny, one of my favorite modern actresses, possesses a range that is astounding in the myriad of characters she has played in her long career.

Debuting to the masses in the critically acclaimed and depressing Boys Don’t Cry (1999) she has churned out a numerous array of independent features portraying one oddball character after another and deserves the strong influence she has achieved over the years.

Director, Craig Macneill makes interesting choices with his film which may or may not please audiences expecting a number’s horror offering. He dives into psychological thriller territory with more of a character study approach that provides layers to the finished product.

Sevigny is center stage and plenty of camera close-up shots offer an introspective analysis of what her feelings are rather than from her parents’ perspective. Instead of a crazed killer spontaneously committing the crime she is careful and calculating in her plan. Macneill presents Lizzie as the victim and Andrew and Abby as the villains.

This is to assume that Borden committed the crimes, which the film never doubts.

Historically, people assume that this is the truth, but Lizzie was set free by a jury refusing to believe a woman of such means would commit such a heinous crime. I wonder if Macneill directed the film with a bit of a smirk at this ridiculous decision of the times when the woman enjoyed the murders.

At the end of the film, it is explained what happened to Lizzie and Bridget which is a good decision and wraps the film into a nice tidy bow.

Powerful is the quiet subtext that gives a moody and foreboding quality. I adore slow-moving films provided the reward is worth the wait and Lizzie sucker punches once the events begin rolling along.

Another positive is the gnawing feeling of terrible things about to happen but unsure of when or how the attacks will occur. Most viewers choosing to watch this film will be aware of the context and the reported murders committed.

The atmospheric additions succeed as the late eighteenth-century costumes and daily living are believable. The lavish Borden house is well-kept and brightly lit offering a nice New England feel.

Finally, the creaks and noises throughout the house perfectly encompass the danger lurking behind corners and the fun is in wondering when Lizzie will strike.

Since the film moves back and forth through its time we know that strike she will.

Where the film offers its best work is through the relationship between Lizzie and Bridget. Sevigny and Stewart dazzle together with unleashed chemistry nearly rivaling a similar dynamic seen in 2003’s Monster.

As with Aline Wuornos and Selby, Wall Lizzie is the dominant one and Bridget is submissive following her lead. Both sets of women share a lesbian relationship and neither pair achieves any happiness after the film.

A film sure to fly under the radar and likely to be forgotten before long, Lizzie (2018) is worth the effort. A spooky and controversial interpretation of the events leading up to, during, and after one of the most notorious crimes in United States history is dissected and analyzed from a human perspective.

Macneill makes Borden less maniacal and more sympathetic than some may prefer. I think he does a fine job and deserves praise for a rich telling.

The Dead Girl-2006

The Dead Girl-2006

Director Karen Moncrieff

Starring Brittany Murphy, Toni Collette

Scott’s Review #794

Reviewed July 24, 2018

Grade: A

The Dead Girl (2006) is a unique independent drama with a moody, gloomy underbelly, and is quite the downer, however is also a masterpiece.

Reminiscent of David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive (2001), the remote and dark setting perfectly counter-balances the traditional image of sunny California as a young woman’s murder is discovered.

Writer and director, Karen Moncrieff spins a delicious tale in the mysterious and sinister.

Moncrieff, (a former daytime television actress), wisely carves the film into five chapters- each focusing on a different character. The clever approach, since at first it seems as if the stories are independent of each other, is all intertwined.

The mystery of who the woman is, why she was killed, and other major questions come into play as the chapters unfold. To twist the drama even further, one of the chapters is revealed to be a complete red herring.

The five chapters are each compelling in their way.

Chapter one focuses on Arden (Toni Collette) and her relationship with her abusive mother- deliciously played by Piper Laurie. Arden has a love interest in Rudy (Giovanni Ribisi), who she confides in when she discovers the “Dead Girl”.

The film then moves to various other chapters entitled “The Sister”, “The Wife”, “The Mother”, and finally “The Dead Girl”, which is from the perspective of the murder victim when final clues are revealed.

The last chapter is the best and most heartbreaking in my opinion.

The casting is just wonderful as a myriad of top talents appear in the film. With low-budget independent films, especially before 2006, finding big stars willing to accept little pay was quite difficult.

Moncrieff, however, scores big with the actors cast in her film.

Mainly an all-female cast, talents like Collette, Laurie, Mary Beth Hurt, Brittany Murphy, and Marcia Gay Harden round out the all-star cast. Names like these could fill up a Hollywood marquee let alone a small indie like The Dead Girl.

Speaking of Murphy, this may be the very best role of her career. Sadly, meeting death shortly after this film, she gives a mesmerizing performance in the title role- also known as Krista.

With heavy, gothic-style makeup, her character is vulnerable, having had a difficult childhood and struggling to send an enormous teddy bear to her daughter on her birthday.

Tragically, events do not go as planned for Krista, but what a bravura performance by Murphy.

The overall tone of the film is a great achievement and key to its success.  The film is small and does not need explosions, car chases, or police banter to achieve the message it relays.

The Dead Girl is a quiet film about struggles, decisions, and wounded characters dealing with the life that they have been given the best they can.

The mysterious identities of the characters and the loneliness and lack of identity of some of the characters make me think Moncrieff was at least somewhat inspired by Lynch’s Mulholland Drive.

Not quite as oddball as the former, but more of a downer, The Dead Girl shows elements by way of unusual characters and a melancholy vibe.

The latter focuses more on a serial killer subject matter.

Being a huge proponent of the genre of independent film (think modern 1970s films with directors who have a clear vision), The Dead Girl is an enormous achievement.

Despite a handful of Independent Spirit Award nominations, I still feel the film is under-appreciated and a decade later is largely forgotten, if anyone knew about it, to begin with.

Let’s hope that enough young, aspiring filmmakers were inspired by Moncrieff and what she created with The Dead Girl (2006).

Independent Spirit Award Nominations: Best Feature, Best Director-Karen Moncrieff, Best Supporting Female-Mary Beth Hurt

The Killing of a Sacred Deer-2017

The Killing of a Sacred Deer-2017

Director-Yorgos Lanthimos

Starring-Colin Farrell, Nicole Kidman

Scott’s Review #774

Reviewed June 15, 2018

Grade: A

For fans of Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos, creator of such disturbing and bizarre films as 2009’s Dogtooth and 2015’s The Lobster, then The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017) will be a treasure.

As with those films, the odd story and the peculiar acting styles are prevalent making the film quite the experience.

I relish the film and its unusual nature, offering a cinematic experience that is insightful, mesmerizing, extreme, and quite frankly, brilliant.

Steven Murphy (Farrell) is an esteemed cardiac surgeon who “befriends” a troubled teenage boy named Martin (Barry Keoghan) whose father had died years earlier as a result of Steven’s negligence.

When Martin slowly insinuates himself into Steven’s family life, they begin to fall ill. Martin threatens to kill the entire family unless Steven kills either his wife Anna (Nicole Kidman) or one of his two children- the victim can be of his choosing.

The creepy premise is enormously intriguing as the conclusion cannot be foreseen.

A basic yet deep storyline is wonderfully spun with many possible directions for the plot to go in. After forty-five minutes or so of the audience wondering why Steven and Martin meet secretly in diners, hospital corridors, or other remote areas, the teen boy’s true motivations come to the surface as he rapidly and calmly puts his cards on the table for Steven.

Surprisingly, none of the characters are particularly sympathetic.

One would assume that the Murphy family- wholesome, affluent, and astute, would garner audience support, but we slowly peel back the onion on each character.

With a gorgeous house in a quiet Cincinnati neighborhood, Steven and Anna (a doctor herself) are sometimes harsh and physical with their kids, while the kids (Bob and Kim) develop a strange fascination toward Martin.

In this way, each character is peculiar and has his or her own dire motivations as the plot unfolds.

Lanthimos is quietly becoming one of my favorite new directors as he slowly churns out one disturbing film after the next. Particularly in The Killing of a Sacred Deer, his clear Stanley Kubrick influences bubble to the surface.

With plodding then sudden bombastic classical music pieces, the score is crisp with uniqueness, eliciting emotions like surprise and terror from the audience.

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

One particularly jarring nuance to the film is the speech patterns of most of the actors- clearly dictated by Lanthimos and also occurring in 2015’s The Lobster.

The character of Steven talks very quickly, but with monotone delivery and in a matter-of-fact style; Kim and Martin also speak this way. I didn’t notice the quality as much with Kidman’s Anna, but Farrell really went to town. I’m not sure this totally works throughout the entire film since the mannerisms give off almost a comical element.

To be sure, this uniqueness makes the film more quirky and decidedly non-mainstream, which is to be celebrated.

The climax of the film is brutal.

As Steven brandishes a loaded shotgun, the family gathers in their family room, Anna fussing over her new black dress. As the group dons pillowcases, Steven goes Russian roulette-style on the family, randomly firing a shot until one member is killed. When the remaining family members see Martin at the diner the next day, they provide him with icy, hateful looks.

The entire scene is done without dialog and is tremendously macabre.

Rest assured, I am eagerly awaiting Lanthimos’s next project (reportedly already in the works) and hope against hope he continues to use the superb Colin Farrell, the brilliant Nicole Kidman, and newcomer Barry Keoghan again.

Thanks to tremendous acting, a riveting score, and enough thrills and creeps to last a lifetime, The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017) is at the top of its game.

Independent Spirit Award Nominations: Best Supporting Male-Barry Keoghan, Best Cinematography

Killer Joe-2011

Killer Joe-2011

Director William Friedkin

Starring Matthew McConaughey, Emile Hirsch

Scott’s Review #450


Reviewed July 14, 2016

Grade: A-

Killer Joe (2011) is a must-see for any fan of director Quentin Tarantino because this small, independent, gem of a feature is worth checking out.

Tarantino’s films influence the film in style, characters, and violence. The violence mixed with humor, wit, and great writing is stamped on the film.

Surprisingly, given the influence of another director, Killer Joe is directed by William Friedkin, who is a very acclaimed filmmaker in his own right. Classics such as The Exorcist (1973) and The French Connection (1971) were created by this talent.

Matthew McConaughey owns Killer Joe and he has thankfully graduated from silly, fluffy, romantic comedies to smart, delicious roles in independent films of late. He has come to be a respected Hollywood actor.

His lengthy nude scene is daring for such an A-list actor.

The film is satirical, without being too campy, and the setting of a suffocating, trailer-trash, Texas town is extremely well done.

I loved the violent and gruesome fried chicken dinner table scene the best.

I especially liked the overall food references throughout the film which adds even more macabre comedy to this dark (on the surface) film.

Independent Spirit Award Nominations: Best Male Lead-Matthew McConaughey



Director Craig Zobel

Starring Dreama Walker, Ann Dowd

Scott’s Review #435


Reviewed June 30, 2016

Grade: A

Compliance (2012) is a ninety-minute riveting experience that will leave you thinking, talking, and feeling for days or weeks after viewing it.

The film is that intense.

The fact that it is based on true events is even more startling. It is, at times, quite disturbing and unsettling to watch, and if one likes their movies happy and wrapped in a bow, this will not be for you, but for film fans who truly want an emotional experience check it out.

At times I wanted to scream at the characters, look away from the screen, and shake my head in disbelief.

A truly riveting experience.

Major props to actress Ann Dowd, who does a bang-up job as the restaurant manager, and main character. What an amazing talent this actress is.

My range of emotions toward this character (sympathy, confusion, anger, disbelief) blew me away.

Compliance (2012) is one of the best modern films of late.

Independent Spirit Award Nominations: Best Supporting Female-Ann Dowd

Blue Velvet-1986

Blue Velvet-1986

Director David Lynch

Starring Kyle MacLachlan, Laura Dern

Top 100 Films #62

Scott’s Review #343


Reviewed January 9, 2016

Grade: A

Taken from a 1963 Bobby Vinton tune of the same name, Blue Velvet (1986) is an independent thriller noir film directed by the master of the weird and the unusual, David Lynch.

It is surreal in look and so mysterious- almost a pre-cursor to Lynch’s fantastic television series, Twin Peaks. I adore the film and find new facets to it with each passing viewing.

Though it’s not an easy or mainstream watch- the payoff can be big and you know you are watching a deep, layered, film.

The story can be tough to completely understand with only one show, but it goes something like this- Under the guise of a cheerful, suburban surface, evil is lurking somewhere. College student, Jeffrey (MacLachlan) discovers a severed human ear lying in an abandoned lot delivers it to police detective John Williams, and reconnects with the detective’s daughter, Sandy (Dern).

Sandy, being privy to secret information about the case, reveals that a mysterious woman, Dorothy Valens (Isabella Rossellini) resides in an apartment key to the case. Jeffrey and Sandy decide to investigate further and get themselves in over their heads as the mystery deepens.

The dreamlike quality of the film is very compelling and intriguing. Layers upon layers come to the forefront as the story unfolds and very few answers are ever provided- this adds to the mystery and is really the point of the film.

Many aspects are open to interpretation.

The relationship between Jeffrey and the much older Dorothy is fascinating, but what about his chemistry with the innocent Sandy? And who is the Yellowman? When the youngsters see Dorothy perform “Blue Velvet” at her nightclub, it is a great moment in the film.

The character of Frank Booth, played by Dennis Hopper, must be one of the strangest in film history as the man is maniacal and bizarre beyond measure. With his unusual sexual tastes- he enjoys inhaling gas, and sadomasochism, he is a unique character. He is also quite abusive to Dorothy.

The film is a throwback to classic film noir from the 1950s and a clear femme fatale in Dorothy is central to the film.

I find the film so compelling since its subject matter is secrets. Many secrets and dark corruption or various forms of left-of-center dealings reside in this small North Carolina town- it is the audience’s challenge to put all the pieces of this puzzle together.

Oscar Nominations: Best Director-David Lynch

Independent Spirit Award Nominations: 1 win-Best Feature, Best Director-David Lynch, Best Male Lead-Dennis Hopper, Best Female Lead-Isabella Rossellini (won), Laura Dern, Best Screenplay, Best Cinematography



Director-Dan Gilroy

Starring-Jake Gyllenhaal, Rene Russo

Scott’s Review #225


Reviewed March 1, 2015

Grade: B+

Nightcrawler is best described as an intense crime-thriller set in Los Angeles featuring a wonderful performance by Jake Gyllenhaal as an unstable thief named Lou, who cons and manipulates his way to success videotaping accident scenes and selling them to news stations.

The film is the directorial debut of Dan Gilroy, who could become a household name in the future. Nightcrawler was deservedly awarded the Best Screenplay and the Best First Feature Independent Spirit award honors.

The film is set mainly at night as Lou courses the city in search of accidents, crimes, and violence- the bloodier the better. Later, he is told by Nina Romina, successfully played by Rene Russo that violent crimes in affluent neighborhoods are the best, as they garner the highest ratings.

Lou sells his video footage of the crimes to the highest bidder and Nina becomes his main customer. Lou is eventually assisted by Rick Carey, a desperate accomplice in need of money, played by Riz Ahmed.

The interesting thing for me about Nightcrawler is its moody setting and dim lighting. It reminds me of the 2004 film Collateral, starring Jamie Foxx and Tom Cruise, also set in Los Angeles.

Mostly set at night time and heavily set on the actual streets of L.A., I found this mood excellent and a compelling aspect of the film.

It makes Nightcrawler look great.

Gyllenhaal deserves heaps of praise for his role of Lou and is largely responsible for the success of the film- he was co-producer.

From an acting standpoint, he is excellent and reminiscent of the frightening performance that Robert DeNiro gave in Taxi Driver. With an angular face and eyes that seemingly never blink, the character is intense and driven on every level- he is a sociopath.

When he quietly threatens Nina and Rick on separate occasions one can tell he means business. Why Lou has become a thief desperate for money is never explained- does he have a family? Is he a convict? He seems highly educated, but is he? How did he land in this predicament and resorts to the life that he does?

As Lou becomes more manipulative and resorts to adjusting crime scenes to make them all the more shocking, he seems to teeter over the edge of sanity. In one scene he sneaks into a victim’s home and videotapes photos of the victims from their refrigerator to promote an empathetic angle and therefore make more money from them.

This is a brilliant performance by Gyllenhaal.

Another fascinating performance I admired is that of Rene Russo- absent from films for what seems like years, Nightcrawler is a nice return for her. Her character also has a little backstory.

We know that she is a driven newswoman who has trouble maintaining success at individual news stations and moves around a lot. Nina is a cut-throat news director eager for violent stories and determined to keep her existing job. She also becomes begrudgingly fascinated and enamored with Lou. Does she like bad boys or does she admire his talent?

The third major character is Riz Ahmed’s Rick. Rick comes across as a sweet, yet gullible guy strapped for cash. Like Lou, we do not know why he is broke, but it is hinted at that he may do or have done some male prostitution- he is desperate.

As the film goes along the character develops tough skin and inquisitiveness takes over he is attracted to this new lifestyle and excitement, but will not be bullied by Lou.

On a social level, the film presents an interesting, albeit disturbing take on the relationship between the media and the viewers. What will news channels do for a good story? How bloodthirsty are news audiences? How often is a positive news story presented? It makes the audience reflect and ponder.

Nightcrawler is a dark thriller, independently made, which deservedly garnered an Oscar nomination for Best Screenplay and a slew of Independent Spirit Awards. Intense, rich, visually appealing, it is one of the success stories of 2014 cinema.

Oscar Nominations: Best Original Screenplay

Independent Spirit Award Nominations: Best Male Lead-Jake Gyllenhaal, Best Supporting Male-Riz Ahmed, Best Screenplay (won), Best First Feature (won), Best Editing

The Guest-2014

The Guest-2014

Director-Adam Wingard

Starring-Dan Stevens

Scott’s Review #220


Reviewed February 7, 2015

Grade: C-

The Guest is a thriller from 2014 that can, perhaps, be classified under the adage “it’s so bad that it’s good”, though as I pondered writing this review, that could be a bit of a stretch.

As poor as the film is, there is something that I slightly enjoyed about it.

The premise is simple- a Midwestern family- the Peterson’s, is suddenly visited by a veteran soldier, named David, who claims to be a friend of the parent’s deceased son Caleb. David easily insinuates himself into their lives and the Peterson’s extend an invitation for him to stay a few days to rehash details about Caleb.

The family is a middle-class one, yet struggling financially, and consisting of a mother and father, a college-aged daughter named Anna- the actress eerily resembling a young Gwen Stefani, and a bullied, timid, high school-aged son named Luke.

From the get-go, something is off with David, but his motives are unclear to the audience.

The issues with the film are aplenty.

For starters, the acting is rather poor. The most notable actors in the film are Dan Stevens (Downton Abbey) and Sheila Kelley (L.A. Law) and a collection of unknowns. Stevens and Kelley give better performances, and I particularly thought Stevens very believable in a role opposite of his Downton Abbey alter ego, but the rest of the cast is wooden and un-compelling.

The weakest parts of The Guest, though, are the inane plot points and the 1980’s style soundtrack- were the filmmakers going for a retro throwback? The film is set in present times so this aspect remains a mystery.

To be fair, the story does start as interesting- I wondered, Is it a Fatal Attraction type of film? What is David’s motive? What was his relationship with the deceased Caleb? Does he intend to help or harm the family?

The reveal towards the end of the film is as much implausible as it is ridiculous and an enormous disappointment. Without giving too much away, the government plays a large role in the meat of the film and it does little to provoke sympathy for any of the characters, but rather, only elicits further confusion.

The attempted (and botched) love story between David and Anna does not work. They have little chemistry and the rooting value is not there especially as he picks up her drunken best friend at a party. Is the audience supposed to root for David and Anna or is it merely a weak sub-plot to the thrill aspect of the film? I suspect the latter.

Despite all of these negatives, I did not find myself despising the film as it trucked along- rather, I found the film to be more of a muddled mess than anything else.

It is not a good film, but there is something slightly appealing about it. Some of the death scenes are well done and the budding friendship between David and the bullied son is rather sweet.

The son is enamored with the strong, masculine David, and David, in turn, serves as protector of the boy, humiliating the bullies who gave the kid a black eye. The film does not delve into a sexual angle regarding this, but rather it is a bond that is nice to see in the film. It has a nice, warm element.

Another impressive point to The Guest is that it ends with a surprise that leaves room for a sequel. However, due to the success that the film did not achieve, I doubt a sequel will ever see the light of day.

A poorly written, weak acted film, The Guest has moments of interest but fails miserably at providing a strong film viewing experience.

By the end of the film, I still had no idea of the main character’s motivations and that is a huge problem.

Confusing and convoluted are adjectives best to describe this film.

Independent Spirit Award Nominations: Best Editing