Category Archives: 2006 Movie reviews

Half Nelson-2006

Half Nelson-2006

Director-Ryan Fleck

Starring-Ryan Gosling, Shareeka Epps

Scott’s Review #1,184

Reviewed October 8, 2021

Grade: B+

Half Nelson (2006) is an independent drama that showcases Ryan Gosling’s acting talent and forays into meatier, more mature roles. He was only twenty-five years old when he made the film but was growing into a mature actor which is part of the fun of watching it.

Its New York City locale presents a gritty and seedy essence appropriate for the subject matter. Speaking of, the seriousness and potential creep factor may turn some viewers off, but true cinema fans and admirers of good stories will appreciate the film.

The taboo dynamic of a thirteen-year-old student and her drug-addicted teacher is not for everyone and many will not even dare to go there. But, the payoff is worth the initial squirming.

Especially forewarned are those seeking a romantic or action film from Gosling as they will surely be disappointed. This is a more cerebral and artful effort.

The film garnered Gosling his first Academy Award nomination. A very deserved one.

Dan Dunne (Gosling) is a young history teacher at a Brooklyn, New York school. Though he is highly regarded and well-liked by his students and colleagues, he secretly spends his evenings hopping bars and getting high. He lives a double life.

One night a shy female student named Drey (Shareeka Epps) catches him in a drug-induced haze after a basketball game and the two strike up an unlikely friendship. As Dan struggles with his addiction, he tries to act as a mentor to the girl, whose brother is serving time for dealing drugs.

It’s easy to dismiss a film like Half Nelson because of the uneasy premise. But below that resides a sweet and kind story about two human beings bonding over their lives in crisis. Too much negativity exists these days among teachers so it is reassuring to see a film where the student and teacher bond amid the most unlikely circumstances.

Gosling and Epps are both spectacular. They give their all as an unlikely pair, he an idealistic and she a girl trapped in ghetto life. The connection between the characters is palpable especially given the role reversal that occurs. They slowly become forever bonded and the reaction is fresh, layered with genuine emotion. And who’s the teacher and who’s the student?

As terrific as they are together, they each have their own story. I loved learning more about Dan’s wrecked love life but I still wanted to know why he escaped to drugs in the first place.

Drey has enormous challenges of her own and is pressured to go down the same rabbit hole as many in similar circumstances have done. She is savvy enough to know if she does it will lead to an unhappy life but will she go there anyway?

Even if a viewer never sets foot into an undesirable area, they will nonetheless be able to put themselves there for the duration of the film.

I love the ending of the film.

Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, a filmmaking duo mostly known for independent features churn out terrific and subdued work. Half Nelson feels authentic with grainy and shakey filmmaking that makes the viewer feel as if he or she is an observer in the lives of Dan and Drey and part of their world.

A serene but not a simple film, Half Nelson (2006) teaches many valuable lessons. Perseverance, unlikely friendships, mixed with two separate character studies, the film has a lot going on but never overcomplicated itself. I longed for more about Dan’s descent into drug use but the rest of the experience is fantastic.

Oscar Nominations: Best Actor-Ryan Gosling

Independent Spirit Award Nominations: Best Feature, Best Director-Ryan Fleck, Best Male Lead-Ryan Gosling (won), Best Female Lead-Shareeka Epps, Best First Screenplay

Pan’s Labyrinth-2006

Pan’s Labyrinth-2006

Director-Guillermo del Toro

Starring-Ivana Baquero, Sergi López

Scott’s Review #1,156

Reviewed June 25, 2021

Grade: A

Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) is a treasure of a film. In fact, I would classify it as a masterpiece for creativity alone. It is not for children! The fact that it has some fantasy trimmings and tells its story from a child’s perspective is misleading. The film deals with some heady and heavy stuff that will both frighten and be lost on the younger crowd.

A clue is that Guillermo del Tor directs the film, he of well-known note for creating films such as Hell Boy (2004), Hell Boy II: The Golden Army (2008), and The Shape of Water (2017) the latter winning the coveted Best Picture Oscar Award.

I adore that Pan’s Labyrinth is Spanish-Mexican. Somehow that makes the experience a bit mysterious and exotic right off the bat. The frightening time period of 1944, directly post World War II is also key to the good story since war and mayhem are themes. The main character, Ofelia, meets several strange and magical creatures who become central to her story, leading her through the trials of the old labyrinth garden.

Young Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) and her pregnant and sick mother Carmen (Ariadna Gil) arrive at the post of her mother’s new husband (Sergi López), a sadistic army officer who is trying to prevent a guerrilla uprising. Lonely and feeling lost, Ofelia explores an ancient maze, encountering the faun Pan, who tells her that she is a legendary lost princess and must complete three dangerous tasks to claim immortality.

She is completely and utterly spellbound and intrigued all at once. Finally, she can escape the ravages of real life and immerse herself in a fantasy world all her own. She hates her stepfather, worries for her mother, and can’t wait to traverse her new world. If only life were that simple.

In a fairy tale, Princess Moanna, who Ofelia becomes, visits the human world, where the sunlight blinds her and erases her memory. She becomes mortal and eventually dies. The king believes that eventually, her spirit will return to the underworld, so he builds labyrinths, which act as portals, around the world in preparation for her return. Enter Ofelia.

About that creativity, I mentioned earlier. Pan’s Labyrinth is Alice in Wonderland for adults, taking some similar points and adding the horrors of both reality and fantasy blended into an extraordinary, spellbinding fable. The darkness of the forest is the best and most memorable part.

The art direction is astonishing to see. Bewildering forest trimmings and haunting lighting make their appearance as Ofelia immerses herself in her new world. The viewer sees her new world through her eyes, that is through the eyes of a child. So authentic are the sets and ruins that it is impossible not to be thrust full-throttle into the fantasy sequences.

The story can be downright horrifying at times. Carmen eventually dies and Ofelia is taken under the wing of Mercedes (Maribel Verdú), Ofelia’s stepfather’s housekeeper, and also a revolutionary harboring dangerous secrets. Ofelia and Mercedes team up to save Ofelia’s baby brother from the hands of the dastardly.

The strange fantasy world may confuse some viewers. It’s simply not the imagination of Ofelia (or is it?) because Vidal, Mercedes, and the baby all play a part in the eerie labyrinth.

Guillermo del Toro creates a world so imaginative and magnificent that we see this world through the eyes of a child but also the clear glasses of the adults. Scenes of torture mix with scenes of innocence so well that it is impossible not to be transported to a magical world where reality often disrupts the pleasurable fairy tale.

Pan’s Labyrinth (2008) is a visionary film and must be experienced to be believed.

Oscar Nominations: Best Original Screenplay, Best Foreign Language Film, Best Art Direction (won), Best Cinematography (won), Best Makeup (won), Best Original Score

A Prairie Home Companion-2006

A Prairie Home Companion-2006

Director-Robert Altman

Starring-Meryl Streep, Kevin Kline, Woody Harrelson, Lily Tomlin

Scott’s Review #1,033

Reviewed June 16, 2020

Grade: B

The final film by legendary and influential director Robert Altman is not his greatest work. If I were to compare A Prairie Home Companion (2006) to another of Altman’s pictures it would be Nashville (1975) both having grassroots entertainment similarities.

The latter combines satire amid a political rally in a southern city while the former celebrates behind-the-scenes events at a long-running radio show in Minneapolis.

Difficult to criticize anything a genius does, my expectation was much more than was given. The film plods along with little excitement or juiciness ever happening so the experience is to enjoy the standard Altman fixtures like a huge cast, overlapping dialogue, and witty chatter. A melancholy effort since no new material will ever be released by the cinema great, but a chance to celebrate his achievements all the same.

Set in present times, events take place in Saint Paul, Minnesota, a chilly city in the United States mid-west. A long-running live radio variety show, A Prairie Home Companion, prepares for its final broadcast. The radio station’s new parent company has scheduled the show’s home, the storied Fitzgerald Theater, for demolition and dispatched “the Axeman” (Tommy Lee Jones) to judge whether to save the show. Prospects are grim as radio shows are deemed a thing of the past and irrelevant.

The many radio stars revel and reminisce in memories as they prepare for cancellation. Led by the singing Johnson Girls, Yolanda (Meryl Streep) and sister Rhonda (Lily Tomlin), and daughter Lola (Lindsay Lohan) who are most prominent, other characters include cowboy duo Dusty (Woody Harrelson) and Lefty (John C. Reilly); pregnant PA Molly (Maya Rudolph) and the show’s creator and host, Garrison Keillor. A spirit is known as “Dangerous Woman” (Virginia Madsen) also joins the group.

Star-power is not the issue here and it pleasing is to witness a bevy of A-list Hollywood stars duke it out for screen-time. Anyone possessing knowledge of Altman knows that he was an actor’s director, meaning he let his actors truly shine and interpret what the motivations of the characters were. Garrison Keillor, who wrote the piece, follows Altman’s lead in this area letting the cast try and bring to life what is on the written page. Unfortunately, they fail.

While meandering greatly, A Prairie Home Companion has an earthy and humanistic theater troupe quality. The stars of the radio show are like family and cling to each other for moral support during uncertainty. This feels nice to the viewer as common compassion is endearing, many of the individuals have spent decades together. Their stories and experiences resonate warmly, and one can’t help but be sucked into their lives.

The problem with this is that the stories go on and on and quickly seem pointless. There is little doubt whether the show will close. While the people are enamoring nothing much really happens in the film and it becomes a bore. The character interactions lack any energy and do not carry the film in any direction. They merely are what they are.

I can appreciate a slow build if there eventually is a pay-off. A Prairie Home Companion (2006) never achieves full-throttle or hits the gas pedal so that the film exists but doesn’t shine. With masterpieces such as The Long Goodbye (1973), Nashville (1975), and 3 Women (1977) my expectations were soaring so that may be a part of my letdown. Prairie Home is not included in my go-to catalog of Altman greats and would teeter at the bottom of a master ranking of his films.

Independent Spirit Award Nominations: Best Director-Robert Altman

Hostel-2006

Hostel-2006

Director-Eli Roth

Starring-Jay Hernandez, Derek Richardson

Scott’s Review #951

Reviewed October 24, 2019

Grade: A-

During the early 2000’s the traditional horror genre catapulted into a sub-genre commonly referred to as “torture porn” led by the Saw franchise, debuting in 2004. Hostel (2006) takes a note and creates a terrifying production that holds up arguably the best in the bunch.

With Quentin Tarantino serving as producer and Eli Roth (Cabin Fever-2002) in the writer and director chair, one knows something memorable is in store. The film is hardly everyone’s cup of tea but a delight for horror fanatics.

American college students Paxton (Jay Hernandez) and Josh (Derek Richardson) travel across Europe seeking adventure and dalliances. They are advised to visit Slovakia, where they are told the women are beautiful, picking up a new Icelandic acquaintance, Oli, along the way. They encounter a strange Dutch businessman, a pack of rebellious street kids, two Asian girls, and two gorgeous European women, Natalya and Svetlana, as they travel.

When Oli disappears, and Paxton and Josh are drugged by the girls, events turn gruesome as the young men find themselves in a horrific remote dungeon facility where tourists are accosted and sold to willing buyers who brutalize and experiment on the victims. Paxton must figure out a way to escape his peril and try to save any of the others before it is too late.

Hostel portrays the loneliness and insecurity of traveling abroad successfully as confusion and disorientation are commonalities that anyone who has traveled to a foreign country can relate to. The country of Slovenia (as an aside the film was shot in the Czech Republic) looks eerie and desolate with a quiet and cold tone. As the group is preyed upon by a mysterious organization that tortures and kills kidnapped tourists, the thought and realism this conjures up to add to the fright.

In unique measure, Roth turns the traditional gender stereotypes upside down. Based on an unbalanced scale females are killed much more often in horror films than males are. A refreshing point is the three principles are males not females and we wonder which ones will “get theirs” and how.

Similarities thereby abound with Halloween (1978) when the trio were females and audiences watched their daytime adventures while salivating at the thought of the antics that would transpire when darkness finally falls.

Hostel kicks into high gear during the final thirty minutes once the blood-letting begins to take place. The dark and dingy dungeon is laden with corpses, severed limbs, and blood.

A melancholy scene occurs when one character, alive yet pretending to be dead, is affixed in a position where he must stare into the dead eyes of his friend. In another scene, one character must cut off the dangling eyeball of another so that they can escape the dungeon. The scenes have equal power in different ways.

A slight irritant to Hostel is the prevalence of homophobia throughout the film. When the guys get into a scuffle with a long-haired bar patron and use a homophobic slur or a scene in which Paxton states “that’s so gay” as a negative seems unnecessary. Is this to make the main characters less sympathetic or for the viewer to hope that they suffer a horrible fate? Or is Roth just known for homophobia?

In 2006 the LGBT community was becoming prominent in the film, so the inclusion is off-putting and out of line.

Hostel (2006) remains a superlative horror film that is a shock-fest and is still one of the best of its decade. The gruesome scenes still resonate well and watching the film more than a decade later it feels as fresh as when released with only the homophobic slurs needing to be removed. Influence by Tarantino is always a fine element and his stamp is all over the film. Followed by two sub-par sequels that tread the same blueprint of European travels gone deadly.

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 spin a delicious tale in the mysterious and sinister.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The mysterious identities of the 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. Certainly not quite as oddball as the former, but definitely more of a downer, The Dead Girl shows elements by way of unusual characters and a melancholy vibe. The latter focuses more on a serial killer subject matter.

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

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

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

Notes on a Scandal-2006

Notes on a Scandal-2006

Director-Richard Eyre

Starring-Judi Dench, Cate Blanchett

Scott’s Review #793

Reviewed July 23, 2018

Grade: A

A British drama centering on the world of teachers, illicit affairs, and sexuality, Notes on a Scandal (2006) is a superlative effort with thrills and drama galore.

Featuring heavyweights like Judi Dench and Cate Blanchett there is no way this film could be a dud based on the acting alone. The chemistry between the women and the carefully crafted thrills created by director, Richard Eyre, make the film a compelling joy to view- perhaps multiple times for additional entertainment.

The story is told mainly from the perspective of Barbara Covett (Dench), a rigid and bored schoolteacher nearing retirement at a comprehensive school in London, where she teaches. Barbara is a spinster and a closeted lesbian, constantly writing in her journal for comfort- this is the main narrative of the story and tremendously effective.

When a young and attractive art teacher, Sheba Hart (Blanchett), arrives on the scene, Barbara fancies her and is determined to get closer. After Sheba begins an illicit affair with a male student, Barbara discovers the shenanigans and uses the situation to her advantage. The scandal results in both women’s careers being at risk as well as Sheba’s troubled home life coming to fruition.

Notes on a Scandal is a good, solid, psychological thriller/drama with enough twists and turns to compel the viewer. The film is not very long- at one hour and thirty-two minutes, there is hardly time for lagging.

The best achievements, however, are with the superior acting by the two leads. With other lesser talents, this film might have suffered from too much melodrama and not enough meat. With great acting chops, Dench and Blanchett do not let this happen and instead treat the audience to a riveting affair.

As fantastic as Blanchett is, Dench’s Barbara is the standout and takes center stage throughout the film. Interestingly, despite both actresses being leads, Dench received an Oscar nomination for Best Actress, while Blanchett went supporting. But there is no question that both actresses deserved the praises they reaped- and then some.

Dench turns in such a delicious performance that she makes the film arguably the reason to watch it. Wearing no makeup and dressed as conservatively as imaginable, an icy stare or thoughtful gaze will run shivers up and down the viewer’s spine.

As conflict and drama unfold, Barbara proves she is nobody to be messed with. Still, the character has an underlying vulnerable quality, simply yearning for affection and love from another woman. One wonders if she has ever really had the love she deserves. Dench is brilliant at revealing all of Barbara’s underlying nuances.

The film poses an interesting moral question that will leave some viewers undoubtedly not a fan of Sheba’s. The fact that she lusts after an underage male, Steven Connolly (Andrew Simpson), and has relations with him, while having a husband and handicapped child at home may be too much for some.

Surely, the character will not be championed by many, but I found Sheba complex and difficult to grasp. This complexity is to the filmmaker’s credit and allows for a more layered character study of both Sheba and Barbara- neither is cut and dry.

An interesting aside of the film is what if the genders of the roles were reversed? Would the film have the same effect if Sheba were a male character and Steven was a teenage girl? What if Barbara were a straight woman? What if Barbara was a gay male character? These other possibilities left me wondering as I watched the film. Wisely, I think director Eyre got things just right.

Notes on a Scandal (2006) is a film that reminds me of a British version of Fatal Attraction (1987) meets Single White Female (1992). The story holds elements of each and was adapted from a 2003 novel of the same name. With frightfully good performances by both Dench and Blanchett, this film is a memorable thriller not to be missed.

Oscar Nominations: Best Actress-Judi Dench, Best Supporting Actress-Cate Blanchett, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Original Score

Dreamgirls-2006

Dreamgirls-2006

Director-Bill Condon

Starring-Beyonce, Jennifer Hudson

Scott’s Film Review #792

Reviewed July 20, 2018

Grade: A

Dreamgirls (2006) is a glossy show business-style drama with plenty of glitz and glamour. Adapted from the Broadway production of the same name, the story is loosely based on the trials and tribulations of The Supremes, a popular all-girl group from the 1960s.

Despite the film being heavily focused on the drama and tension between the characters, it boasts a wonderful soundtrack and fantastic acting- most notably newcomer Jennifer Hudson, who garnered a surprising Best Supporting Actress Oscar win for her role.

The film tells the story of the evolution of American R&B music during the 1960s and the 1970’s- the action mainly taking place in Detroit, Michigan, where the genre began. Taking center stage is the incarnation of a girl group called The Dreams, who are controlled by their manipulative record label executive.

A womanizer and creep, Curtis Taylor (Jamie Foxx), guides the girls to stardom, but beds both the beautiful Deena (Beyonce) and the talented yet overweight Effie White (Jennifer Hudson). This leads to conflict as Curtis decides that less talented Deena is more marketable and thus should be the central figure of the band.

With a stellar cast in tow, Dreamgirls contains a plethora of talent and a good history lesson to boot. The main draw in the acting department is the revelation of the talented Jennifer Hudson.

Winner of the talent show American Idol, many pooh pooed her film direction, apparently assuming she was a flash in the pan and a “reality television” star. The challenging role of Effie has perfectly suited for Hudson- brazen, pipes for days, and plenty of attitudes.

Her acting aside, Hudson scorches through an unforgettable rendition of “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going”, which is assuredly what won her the Oscar.

Otherwise, the supporting cast is worthwhile and impressive is Beyonce in a pivotal role. Surely, the singer/actress faced her share of detractors, along with Hudson, but their chemistry is amazing and she nails all of her songs. Eddie Murphy is a gem in the role mirrored after James Brown, James “Thunder” Early.  The role is perfect for Murphy- a far cry from his standard comedic roles that have grown stale over the years. This role rejuvenates the actor’s credibility.

Dreamgirls does at times falter a bit with the drama, almost soap opera-like situations. A triangle develops between Effie, Curtis, and Deena, which leads to tension, bad-blood, cattiness, and melodrama. If the film were a standard drama this would undoubtedly make the film suffer from a tired script or generic writing.

But the musical numbers are so riveting that these flaws can be overlooked completely. The ritzy glamour and sparkles that erupt during “Dreamgirls” and “One Night Only” are wonderful fun and the songs are memorable leaving audiences humming along as they dance in the aisles.

In fact, the story has been told many times before. A dream of rising to musical stardom and the many trials and tribulations that go along with these hopes and desires.

Comparisons can be made to Chicago (2002), Valley of the Dolls (1967), or even Gypsy (1962), but the mostly black cast and the 1960’s Motown theme is interesting, particularly as the Civil Rights movement of the time was upon us. The film does not invest much time with politics, sticking mainly with the drama and music, which may be a wise move to avoid too much of a message theme.

As the film concludes in 1975, Effie is reaffirmed as a meaningful member of The Dreams after her career has tanked and she has wound up on welfare. A paternity twist is also thrown in for good measure, but the film has a clear “happily after ever” vibe to it which softens the film and keeps it more on the PG-13 level instead of going for darker themes.

Dreamgirls (2006) is a musical that is highly memorable for me because it made Jennifer Hudson a household name and confirms the talent and glory that she is rightfully due. In subsequent years the star lost weight, softened her image a bit, and became, well, more generic. But thankfully we have a gorgeous performance to always appreciate her for.

Oscar Nominations: Best Supporting Actor-Eddie Murphy, Best Supporting Actress-Jennifer Hudson (won), Best Original Song-“Listen”, “Love You I Do”, “Patience”, Best Sound Mixing (won), Best Art Direction, Best Costume Design

Babel-2006

Babel-2006

Director-Alejandro Inarritu

Starring Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett

Scott’s Review #791

Reviewed July 19, 2018

Grade: A

Babel (2006) is part of director Alejandro Inarritu’s “Death Trilogy” films- Amores Perros (2000) and 21 Grams (2001) are the others. The director crafts a riveting drama involving intersecting stories that is a thrill-ride a minute and highly compelling.

The film is at risk of being forgotten, however, largely due to Inarritu’s subsequent successes- Birdman (2014) and The Revenant (2015), but Babel is a fantastic companion piece to either Traffic (2000) or Crash (2006), as those films hold a similar style.

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

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

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

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

The connecting stories are only part of what makes Babel so fantastic, but an enormous aspect is a direction Inarritu has the characters go in. As the stories play out we care deeply for the characters which play a great role in adding meat to each story.

Sometimes the connections of the characters are immediately known, other times the audience can savor the inevitable big reveal. Not every story featured in Babel will have a happy ending, which makes the film all the more compelling and satisfying.

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

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

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

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

Oscar Nominations: Best Picture, Best Director-Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, Best Supporting Actress-Adriana Barraza, Rinko Kikuchi, Best Original Screenplay, Best Original Score (won), Best Film Editing

Little Miss Sunshine-2006

Little Miss Sunshine-2006

Director-Jonathan Dayton, Valerie Faris

Starring-Greg Kinnear, Steve Carell

Scott’s Review #697

Reviewed November 23, 2017

Grade: A

A film that became a sleeper hit at the time of release in 2006 and went on the achieve recognition with year-end award honors galore, Little Miss Sunshine holds up quite well after over ten years since its debut.

Combining family humor with heart, audiences will fall in love with the antics of the dysfunctional Hoover family, warts and all, as they strive to persevere endless obstacles to enable precociously, seven-year-old daughter, Olive, a chance at competing in a beauty pageant hundreds of miles away.

The film is a comedic treat with charm and contains uproarious fun.

Directors  (and husband and wife team) Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris start right to work kicking off the humor in style as the one hour and forty-one-minute film introduces depressed Uncle Frank (Steve Carell) to the rest of the Hoovers as he comes to live with the family after a failed suicide attempt. Frank, who is gay and has recently been dumped, is Sheryl Hoover’s (Toni Collette) brother and has a dry sense of humor.

He fits in well with the other peculiar members of the clan- Dad Richard (Greg Kinnear), a struggling motivational speaker, Grandpa Edwin, a vulgar, irritable man, brother Dwayne, angry and refusing to speak, and finally, pudgy faced, Olive.

The brightest spots in Little Miss Sunshine are the exceptional writing and the nuanced, non-one-dimensional characters. Each character is both good yet troubled in their own way and the overall message of the film is an important one.

The plot of the film encompasses a beauty queen pageant and the lifestyle this involves- the hypocrisy and plastic nature is a main theme. When the family stops at a roadside cafe for breakfast, Olive hungrily orders ice cream and is shamed by a member of the family- she must watch her figure, she is told.

Other members instead encourage Olive to be herself. In this way, Little Miss Sunshine poses an interesting dissection of the pressures very young people face to be perfect, especially in the beauty pageant business, and the message society sends. Shocking is a scene where many of the contestants, all under the age of ten, appear in sexy, glamorous makeup, and bikinis.

Little Miss Sunshine is a very funny film and this undoubtedly is due to the chemistry that exists among the cast of talented actors. Quite the ensemble, all five of the principal characters have an interesting relationship with each other.

Too many film comedies suffer immensely from forced jokes or typical “set-up” style humor, plot devices created to elicit a response from the audience- to which I call “dumbing down”.

Little Miss Sunshine, however, feels authentic and fresh- a situation becomes funny because there is an honest reaction by the characters. The film is a slice of the life experience of an average blue-collar family.

A standout scene to mention is the hysterical one in which the Hoovers are pulled over by a highway police officer. To say nothing of the fact that the Hoovers are “escorting” a corpse to their destination, along with pornographic magazines, their classic, beat-up, yellow Volkswagen bus barely runs and contains a malfunctioning horn that beeps at inopportune times.

These hilarious scenes work on all levels as the comic timing is palpable and leads to a laugh-out-loud response.

Furthermore, the climactic “beauty pageant” scene is fraught with physical humor. Olive, clearly the oddball in a group of hypersexualized, young starlets, takes inspiration from her grandfather to simply “be herself”. She does so in a hilarious version of “Super Freak” that is clearly R-rated, both shocking the audience and celebrated by others- specifically her entire family. Olive successfully proves that she can be herself and happily do so.

How wonderful and refreshing to find a comedy with honest, ample humor and real integrity that can shine many years after its first release and retain the richness and zest that originally captured legions of viewers. As proven over time with many independent films, wonderful writing and directors sharing a vision, go a long way in achieving a quality piece of filmmaking.

Oscar Nominations: Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor-Alan Arkin (won), Best Supporting Actress-Abigail Breslin, Best Original Screenplay (won)

Independent Spirit Award Nominations: Best Feature (won), Best Director-Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (won), Best Supporting Male-Alan Arkin (won), Paul Dano, Best First Screenplay (won)

Snakes on a Plane-2006

Snakes On A Plane-2006

Director-David R. Ellis

Starring-Samuel L. Jackson

Scott’s Review #607

Reviewed January 11, 2017

Grade: B

Snakes on a Plane, the surprise internet bruhaha sensation of 2006 has much to criticize. The plot is inane, the acting way over the top, and the subject portrayed in such a dumb manner, I could the results being horrific, but there is just something I really enjoyed about the film too, as admittedly stupid as it is. I simply could not help but sit back and enjoy it.

I enjoyed the setting of an airplane- trapped at 35, 000 feet, in peril, has always enamored me (think Airport disaster films of the 1970s). The story involves a plot to release hundreds of deadly snakes on a passenger flight, to kill a witness to a murder trial.  Of course, innocent passengers are met with their dire fates as the cartoon-like characters are offed one by one, horror film style.

Sadly, the film did not live up to anticipated expectations, commercially or critically, and was considered somewhat of a dud after all of the hype, but I rather enjoyed it for what it was. Hardly high art, it entertained me.

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest-2006

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest-2006

Director-Gore Verbinski

Starring-Johnny Depp, Orlando Bloom

Scott’s Review #606

Reviewed January 11, 2017

Grade: B-

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest, the follow-up to the original Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, from 2003. The sequel is decent, but certainly inferior to Curse of the Black Pearl. The visual effects are spectacular, and the budget very high, but the story wasn’t really there. The film drags along at times as well as being a bit confusing.

Johnny Depp gives his all to his role of Jack Sparrow, performing with gusto and is clearly the highlight of the franchise. The supporting characters, Bloom as Will Turner, and Keira Knightley as Elizabeth Swann, are fine, but not on the level of Depp. Otherwise, the performances are all okay, but just a carbon copy of the first film.

Story-wise, Will and Elizabeth are arrested for aiding Jack Sparrow’s escape execution, and the plot involves the attempts at locating Sparrow along with the typical adventure aspects of a film like this and the stock character villains, with grimaces, heavy makeup, and over-acting, but I expected as much.

Not a bad sequel, certain to entertain the masses, and guaranteed to make a ton of money, inevitably ensuring another sequel will be made, with little doubt of being even less compelling.

Oscar Nominations: Best Sound Editing, Best Sound Mixing, Best Art Direction, Best Visual Effects (won)

Masters of Horror: Dario Argento: Pelts-2006

Masters of Horror: Dario Argento: Pelts-2006

Director-Dario Argento

Starring-Meat Loaf, John Saxon

Scott’s Review #600

Reviewed January 10, 2017

Grade: C+

For those unfamiliar with Masters of Horror, this was a spectacular horror series which aired during the mid-2000s featuring vignettes of superlative horror chapters- famed Italian horror maestro, Dario Argento directed two such chapters during the series run- Pelts is an okay story, but unspectacular, and really only for die-hard Argento fans.

The chapter is quite gory and extreme (this is the main positive)  and stars Meatloaf (the singer) and John Saxon (from Nightmare on Elm Street, and Black Christmas). The story centers around a fur trader named Jake Feldman, who encounters a fellow fur trader offering raccoon skin. Eager to make money and impress a stripper, Jake leaps at the chance, with dire results.

This episode of Masters of Horror is not for the squeamish. If you are a fan of raccoons this might be up your alley. My slight disappointment in this chapter merely comes from my utter love for some of the other chapters, and this one pales in comparison.

Little Children-2006

Little Children-2006

Director-Todd Field

Starring-Kate Winslet, Patrick Wilson

Top 100 Films-#52

Scott’s Review #334

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Reviewed January 9, 2016

Grade: A

Little Children is a subtle, dark drama from 2006 that reminds me a great deal of The Ice Storm and American Beauty- both equally quiet masterpieces. All are similar films about dysfunctional, interpersonal relationships that are damaged.

The great film is one of my more modern all-time favorites.

On the surface, the small suburban Boston town in which the members of the film reside is whimsical, peaceful, and quiet. Spacious colonial and victorian houses line the sleepy streets in a similar fashion.

The small town (unnamed) is affluent and, we learn very early on, is rife with scandal. A child-molester, Ronnie, (Jackie Earle Haley), who is also a resident of the town, living with his mother, has recently been let loose to resume his life, which makes the neighborhood tense and angry. It is summertime, and the air is thick with heat and secrets.

Other than the child-molester story, the main drama involves Sarah Pierce (Kate Winslet), an intelligent, bored, stay-at-home housewife. She is angry and frustrated.  She cares for her three-year-old daughter Lucy, while her husband is addicted to porn and regularly sniffs panties that he purchases online, even risking his job to immerse himself in his addiction to porn. They have a sex-less marriage.

Soon, Sarah embarks on a relationship with the resident hunk, Brad (Patrick Wilson), a stay-at-home Dad to four-year-old Aaron. His wife, Katherine (Jennifer Connelly), a “knockout”, produces documentaries and is the breadwinner of the family.

Thrown in the mix is crazed ex-cop, Larry, obsessed with protecting the neighborhood from Ronnie, and a trio of suburban house-wives, who are friendly with Sarah and secretly lust after Brad.

Little Children is a film clearly about relationships, insecurities, and dreams remaining unfulfilled. How these relationships are damaged, filled with angst, or yearning for a resolution far out of reach, are explored and every character is sad in some way.

Each character is unfulfilled and in the middle of all of it is the torrid romance between Sarah and Brad. They while away the summer in romance that we just know will not last. They find some happy moments, but how will this continue?

Tragic is the situation with Ronnie- despite being a child molester he is portrayed as a sympathetic character. The entire town is against him- a sad scene involves the townspeople fleeing the community pool when Ronnie dares to go for a swim. When he tearfully tells the police that he just wanted to cool down, there is such sadness in his eyes.

Despite being supporting characters in the film, my favorite performances are by Haley and Phyllis Somerville, as Ronnie’s feisty yet haggard mother, May. Determined to make sure her son has a decent life, she lashes out at anyone who bullies her poor Ronnie. Somerville’s performance is heartbreaking and, in a perfect Hollywood world, she would have received an Oscar nomination. Happily, Haley did, as injecting any sort of sympathy in a character such as his is a difficult task, but Haley does so in spades.

The film is filled with narrative- in not dissimilar fashion to the classic Barry Lyndon- as the narrator explains the thoughts and inner turmoil of the characters in regular intervals. This adds layers and clarity to the film.

A masterful scene involves one centered around the dinner table, successfully done. Curious about husband Brad’s daytime life when she is away at work, Katherine invites Sarah and her daughter to join them for a cozy dinner. As everyone eats and converses, the light bulb suddenly goes on in Katherine’s head and she pieces together events, realizing Brad and Sarah’s true relationship.

All of those days when she knew not where Brad was now come flowing back to her. A similar scene was played out in 2008’s The Kids Are Alright, working successfully in that film too.

The stories eventually intersect and I love this point of the film, especially being that it takes place in a smothering small town.

Character-driven, cynical, tragic, and dark. Little Children is a humanistic masterpiece that I never tire of watching- one of my favorites.

Oscar Nominations: Best Actress-Kate Winslet, Best Supporting Actor-Jackie Earle Haley, Best Adapted Screenplay

All the Boys Love Mandy Lane-2006

All the Boys Love Mandy Lane-2006

Director-Jonathan Levine

Starring-Amber Heard

Scott’s Review #38

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Reviewed June 18, 2014

Grade: B-

Interesting, experimental type horror meets art film from 2006. On the surface, it appears to be a by-the-numbers horror throwback involving a group of teens spending a boozy weekend on a Texas farm, of course, in the middle of nowhere.

They are systematically offed one by one. This sounds standard, but there are some moody, artistic, beautiful scenes mixed in, hence the horror/art-house label.

There is a certain “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” charm to it as well.

The story, however, makes little sense and the protagonist’s motivations are confusing and never explained, so while adventurous in parts, the film ultimately fails based on the story’s inconsistencies.

The characters are also rather unlikable, perhaps intentionally so, as these are the characters the audience enjoys seeing hacked to bits.