Category Archives: 2020 Movie reviews

Soul-2020

Soul-2020

Director-Pete Docter

Voices-Jamie Foxx, Tina Fey

Scott’s Review #1,172

Reviewed August 18, 2021

Grade: B+

It’s quite reassuring when a magical animated feature comes down the pike. Too often, the mainstream multiplex summer offerings are trite or too ‘kiddish’ for my tastes. Soul (2020) is creative, colorful, sentimental, with a terrific musical score composed by Trent Reznor (Nine Inch Nails).

The writing is fresh and inventive with gorgeous animation that feels magical. I did not see the film on the big screen and bet it would have made the experience even more delightful.

Soul is not too dark nor is it too trivial. It contains the perfect balance of humanism, darkness, and hope. In fact, the title can be construed with a double meaning. Based on the musical angle, the lead character is a piano player, the soul could mean rhythm, but I’m only half right. An out-of-body or celestial experience and the essence of a living being are also part of his soul.

While watching the film I kept ruminating over how lovely and inspirational a film like Soul is during a crushing pandemic. It has heart and magic.

Unfulfilled music teacher Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx) finally lands the gig of a lifetime at the best jazz club in town supporting legendary Dorothea Williams (Angela Bassett). But his excitement gets the best of him and he stumbles into a manhole on a New York City street.

Lying comatose, Joe enters a fantastical place: The Great Before. There, he teams up with soul 22 (Tina Fey), and together they find the answers to some of life’s biggest questions while embarking on a journey in the switched bodies of Joe and a therapy cat.

Set in the massive Big Apple itself the film offers so much hustle, bustle, and life. I adored the setting. The smokey jazz club with sultry set design and creative music made me immersed in the wonderful surroundings.

The story itself slightly confused me when Joe arrives in the “Great Beyond” as a soul. Assuming this meant death I was relieved when he backtracked to the “Great Before” and met with counselors all named Jerry. The counselors, I realized, prepare unborn souls for life with the help of mentor souls. This didn’t grip me as much as other characteristics of the film.

Foxx and Fey are fine doing the voices for Joe and 22 respectively but they are not the highlight either. I never really thought of either of them throughout the duration. There were better aspects to focus on.

Disney/Pixar featuring a black central character is worthy of mention and it is about time. Obviously, Joe’s family is black adding a wonderful mother figure and supporting characters of ethnicity to the fold.

The music, the music, the music! This makes Soul as good a film as it is. Trent Reznor’s collaboration alone made me eager to see it. His creative use of keyboards and partnership with fellow Nine Inch Nails bandmate Atticus Ross provides proper ambiance to the metaphysical sequences. A hallucinogenic trance-like musical beat is unique and trippy.

Younger children may be perplexed or bewildered by much of the activity so I’m not sure I’d recommend that demographic but music fans and admirers of rich stories with a subtext of life will enjoy the experience and subsequent message that Soul (2020) provides.

Oscar Nominations: Best Animated Feature Film (won), Best Original Score (won), Best Sound

The Wolf of Snow Hollow-2020

The Wolf of Snow Hollow-2020

Director-Jim Cummings

Starring-Jim Cummings, Riki Lindhome

Scott’s Review #1,166

Reviewed July 28, 2021

Grade: B

Jim Cummings, who writes, directs, and stars in his self created horror-comedy offering about a killer werewolf, delivers a film named The Wolf of Snow Hollow (2020) which has sprinklings of both Fargo (1996) and The Silence of the Lambs (1991) mixed in with an appropriate amount of comic moments to offset the stark horror.

While the film can be watched and enjoyed any time of year, the snowy drifts and the Christmas and New Year’s seasons are well-positioned for a holiday horror feast. Especially clever is the inclusion of the song Auld Lang Syne during the finale of the film.

The film excels at offering a compelling locale and set trimmings.

To further the point and emphasize the Fargo comparisons, the setting is wintery Utah and many of the characters resemble those found in the Coen brothers film. The kooky police force, the odd characters, and the snowy plains are a nice nod to the film.

A small-town cop, John Marshall (Jim Cummings) struggling with a failed marriage, alcoholism, a rebellious daughter, and an inept team of officers, is assigned with solving a series of brutal murders that are occurring only during a full moon. As he’s consumed by the hunt for the killer, he struggles to deal with his sick father, played by Robert Forster, who is also the acting sheriff.

Are the murders being committed by a werewolf or someone donning a disguise? Part of the fun for the audience is the guesswork. Just the premise alone of a werewolf on the loose in a small town is compelling.

The film is a bit all over the place from a plot perspective. Besides the main plot of the murders and the subsequent whodunit, that should be enough to satisfy a quick one hour and twenty-three-minute running time. The relationship between father and son is touching and is a win. Since Forster died shortly after the film was made this adds even more poignancy.

There are some loose ends however that either doesn’t add up or are too predictable. The frequent shots of an unnamed townsperson suspected of the killings, who lives with a wolf and takes drugs are way too obvious a red herring. Spoiler alert- he’s not the killer. And Marshall’s daughter sneaking out to a car to have sex with a boyfriend is an obvious plot ploy for her to be attacked.

I’m not sure why so many films present police officers as either being incompetent, unintelligent, or corrupt but The Wolf of Snow Hollow is guilty as charged with some clear cliches meant to be humorous.

The film is still enjoyable and never boring. Lots of dark comedic elements lighten things up like when John flies into rages or banters with his father or female police officer and sidekick Officer Julia, played by Riki Lindhome.

The mystery of the killer is compelling and the final sequence is enthralling. I was immediately engrossed with the first scene when a  young pair visit the snowy town and dine in a local eatery preparing to embark on a romantic weekend. The assumption is these two are the main characters but when the girl is murdered things charter in a different direction.

On a quick inclusion note when a townsperson utters an anti- LGBTQ+ slur he is railed at by a character though no gay characters actually appear.

The Wolf of Snow Hollow (2020) is an entertaining affair. It borrows from some other films but resurrects the werewolf storyline which is intriguing in itself. Since Cummings took on the bulk of this film himself I’m curious what else he will bring to the cinematic table, in the horror genre or otherwise.

Onward-2020

Onward-2020

Director-Dan Scanlon

Starring Tom Holland, Chris Pratt

Scott’s Review #1,164

Reviewed July 23, 2021

Grade: B+

An emotionally satisfying adventure film that the whole family can enjoy Onward (2020) feels fresh and inventive while still employing some standard plot points. Pixar/Disney sure knows how to churn out animated features with a nice message and a family unit sensibility.

There is also plenty of diversity that delivers an inclusive feeling so hugely important in the modern age. Kids are impressionable and learn so much from the films they watch so this quality brought a smile to my face in an otherwise enjoyable experience.

The film also celebrates non-traditional families and shows that not having a traditional mother and father and pet dog doesn’t make you strange or unworthy of love and understanding.

Onward is not completely outside the box, however, and is careful to lure in the mainstream middle America audience but some progressive treats mix well with a robust brotherly adventure tale.

Though the title, Onward, doesn’t stick in my mind very long the film itself does.

I may have even shed a tear or two during the heartfelt finale.

Teenage elf brothers Ian and Barley (voiced by Tom Holland and Chris Pratt) embark on a magical quest to spend one more day with their deceased father who loved magic. Their journey is filled with cryptic maps, overwhelming obstacles, and discoveries like any good adventure.

But when their Mom (voiced by Julia Louis-Dreyfus) finds out her sons are missing, she goes into mother lion mode and teams up with the legendary manticore (voiced by Octavia Spencer) to bring her beloved boys back home.

The lead character, Ian, is a sixteen-year-old boy with growing pains and vulnerabilities that immediately make him likable. He is eager to make friends but awkward about doing so. It is suggested that he has no friends coming to his birthday party but it’s unclear why not. Ian is also a nervous driver, terrified of traversing a busy freeway.

Basically, he is an ordinary kid who the audience can see in themselves or a former self of years gone by.

His brother, Barley, is the opposite. He is afraid of nothing and cares not who he befriends or what people think of him. His outrageous vehicle, named Guinevere, is a rebuilt van. Think the mystery mobile from Scooby-Doo.

The crux of Onward is about relationships. At first, we assume that the big payoff will be between Ian/Barley and their father. While that sort of happens, a surprise blossoms along the way, and instead of a standard father/son dynamic we get a brother/brother one. This is a treat and manufactures a dual message. Never take for granted a loved one already in your life because one day they may be gone.

I enjoyed the adventures of Ian and Barley mostly because I just knew that some sort of reunion would occur between the boys and the father. Their gift of one day spent with their father was marred by only his bottom half being visible, but I suspected we would see all of the father eventually. Avoiding complete predictability, only one of the boys gets to interplay with his father as the other looks on longingly.

I enjoyed this element quite a bit as it avoided cliche and offered raw emotion.

Speaking of diversity, two gay female police officers appear in one scene and a suggestion that some of a motorcycle gang of pixies might be gay is also noticed. Again, this is important for child viewers to be exposed to.

Another win is the animation itself- just look at the cover art above for proof. With gorgeous purple and blue color, the nighttime scenes work especially well with a bright and luminous look that I adored.

A slight miss was that the boy’s mother never got to reunite with her dead husband and their relationship was treated as merely an afterthought. The featured plot was only that the brothers missed their Dad. A reunion between husband and wife would have been nice.

With a tender and emotionally satisfying conclusion, this cemented my appreciation for Onward (2020). There may be a tad too many car chase scenes and a couple of hokey plot ploys but the film has a lot of heart that shines through.

Oscar Nominations: Best Animated Feature

Tenet-2020

Tenet-2020

Director-Christopher Nolan

Starring-John David Washington, Robert Pattinson

Scott’s Review #1,149

Reviewed June 4, 2021

Grade: C

For those film lovers craving a plot that serves as a weaving puzzle that can never be figured out Tenet (2020) is highly recommended. Others who crave a more defined and linear story and character development will be disappointed by the film. Tenet is a visuals only experience as I tuned in and out of the actual plot points after realizing they intersect past present and future elements.

I really did try from the outset to understand but ended up falling flat.

One’s enjoyment will depend on your own cinematic desires and expectations.

I skew much more towards a good story with excellent acting and an emotional reaction to the project. I’m not as focused on brilliant CGI or dazzling visuals as some but I recognize that Tenet has these elements.

However, I’m not sure I agree with the film’s Oscar win for Best Visual Effects or nomination for Best Production design- thank goodness the terrific Mank (2020) won the latter award.

I’ll try to summarize the plot. A secret agent simply named the Protagonist (John David Washington) embarks on a dangerous, time-bending mission to prevent the start of World War III. The villainous Andrei Sator (Kenneth Branaugh) is a Russian oligarch who communicates with the future and is intent on destroying the world. His wife, Kat Barton (Elizabeth Debicki) despises her husband and aligns with the Protagonist to stop him. They fall in love.

Along for the ride are an arms dealer, Priya Singh (Dimple Kapadia), and Robert Pattinson plays the Protagonist’s handler who may or may not be trusted.

Let’s start with the positives. Tenet gets off to a terrific start with a scene at the Kyiv opera house in Ukraine. Though silly, the invasion of the theater and massive sleeping effect of the theater attendees and performers is like a domino effect. The scene is fast and exciting. Later, a daring car chase featuring a car speeding down a highway in reverse gear is pretty exciting. Add a character bound and tied in the passenger seat with no driver and no way to get out provides a cool James Bond moment.

Another positive are the luscious locales like Estonia, Oslo, Norway, London, and the Amalfi coast.

That’s where the fun ends.

I have to admit that I expected more from Christopher Nolan, who wrote and directed the project. The man has churned out superlative efforts like The Dark Knight (2008) and Dunkirk (2017), but Tenet will not rank among his finest moments.

To that end, it’s a Nolan film. Sound and visuals are his trademarks and the bombastic, booming score is tight and familiar. The mixing of loud, techy, thundering beats is commonplace but sadly does little for the film. They almost become annoying.

The cast is seasoned and capable. With Washington, Pattinson, Branaugh, and Debicki onboard there is a talent to be found. Even Michael Caine is cast in one wasteful scene. Nonetheless, the actors drift through their scenes looking perplexed and stiff. Probably because they didn’t know what the hell was going on in the scenes.

Just like the viewer.

The dialogue is an issue because it’s not written well. Why would Kat want to kill a man who is already dying of terminal cancer? Why not wait out his demise? And the time travel was lost on me from the first sequence. I simply didn’t care.

The most laugh-out-loud line occurs when Kat exclaims to the Protagonist, “I just knew you’d have a backup plan. Wait, you do have a backup plan, right?” With juicy dialogue like this, it’s a wonder Tenet didn’t receive a Best Screenplay nomination. I jest, of course.

Little nitpicky items like the Protagonist and Kat having zero chemistry even though an interracial romance had so much potential are disappointing.

I can’t say I’d recommend Tenet (2020), but I can provide details of what you can expect from the experience. Some cool visual moments can’t overcome the lack of any storyline and the viewer will become lost in the tired moments. By the final sequence, I thought I had watched a generic episode of a network television series like NCIS.

Ouch.

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

Never Rarely Sometimes Always-2020

Never Rarely Sometimes Always-2020

Director-Eliza Hittman

Starring-Sidney Flanigan, Talia Ryder

Scott’s Review #1,142

Reviewed May 14, 2021

Grade: A

I’ll confess that a teen drama centered on abortion involving conflicted female characters wouldn’t be the first film I’d sit down and watch. Done before and not my demographic I assumed little in common with the characters. Never Rarely Sometimes Always (2020) blew me away and taught me a valuable lesson- never judge a film by its synopsis.

The film only entered my radar because of positive buzz and a handful of independent film awards. Hopefully, this recognition catapults the director and actresses to other excellent projects.

It’s not that director, Eliza Hittman does anything particularly different with the vehicle on the surface. I jest slightly because she takes a standard story and hits it out of the ballpark so that even us middle-aged folks with no kids can remain engaged. The film can be watched by anyone as it compels completely.

I was enamored from scene one.

Before anyone gets their knickers in a twist, Never Rarely Sometimes Always doesn’t get on a soapbox about whether abortion is right or wrong. It’s not about that though I can guess Hittman’s likely position on the topic. Rather, it gives a fresh, raw, and realistic depiction of what it’s like for a seventeen-year-old girl to be scared and pregnant and, in some parts of the United States, unable to get proper guidance or treatment. This could shape her whole life.

The kicker is that one doesn’t necessarily need to live in the middle of nowhere for this to occur. This note shocked me and quite frankly frightened me.

Faced with an unintended pregnancy and a lack of local support, Autumn (Sidney Flanigan) and her cousin, Skylar (Talia Ryder), travel from suburban Pennsylvania across state lines to New York City on a challenging journey of friendship, compassion, and a bit of adventure.

Autumn is brooding and upset yet holds it mostly together. She performs beautifully at a high school pep rally despite being snickered at by a rude boy in the audience. Afterward, her family goes for pizza and soda to celebrate where her stepfather is unable to praise Autumn.

The tension between Autumn and her stepfather is very ambiguous. Could he be the father or the boy she presumably dated and now wants nothing to do with her?

We realize that the males in Autumn’s life pretty much suck after her boss disgustingly kisses her hand as a daily ritual.

She goes to a discreet mom-and-pop clinic where she learns she is pregnant. The woman in charge callously shows Autumn horrific abortion videos when she suspects Autumn might be flirting with the idea of getting one.

Autumn and Skylar realize they must flee their one-horse town for the hustle and bustle, and better medical care, provided by New York City. They steal cash from their job and make the jaunt on a bus.

This is the point where the film really takes off. As the girls arrive at the chaotic Port of Authority bus terminal I felt like I was on the journey with them. They arrive at a clinic and meet a kind receptionist and technician who tell her she is actually sixteen weeks pregnant instead of the ten weeks she thought she was. Her procedure will take two days.

Where will they stay? What will they eat? The procedure is costly so how will they pay for the bus fare home? A boy they meet on the bus reappears and maybe their savior but at what price?

These are some of the questions I as the viewer was thinking throughout the experience just as Autumn and Skylar were.

The most powerful scene occurs when Autumn receives question after question from the technician which is the crux of the title of the film. We sadly realize that Autumn has faced some sort of sexual abuse before. The film does not reveal exactly what happened which is clever and makes the scene more powerful.

Never Rarely Sometimes Never is a slow-moving vehicle but because of the outstanding acting talents of Flanigan and Ryder, I was completely engaged, hooked, and suckered. I fell in love with these characters and the entirety of the film feels incredibly authentic.

A film that grapples with despair, hope, fear, journey, friendship, and much much more than its main storyline offers, Never Rarely Sometimes Always (2020) is a brave film that hits a home run.

Independent Spirit Award Nominations: Best Feature, Best Director-Eliza Hittman, Best Female Lead-Sidney Flanigan, Best Supporting Female-Talia Ryder, Best Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Editing

The Trial of the Chicago 7-2020

The Trial of the Chicago 7-2020

Director-Aaron Sorkin

Starring-Sacha Baron Cohen, Eddie Redmayne, Joseph Gordon-Levitt

Scott’s Review #1,136

Reviewed April 26, 2021

Grade: B+

The Trial of the Chicago 7 (2020) is a Hollywood film with an important message. It’s conventional and explores a historic episode of great importance and the story is told well with many liberties taken for effect. Director, Aaron Sorkin sticks to a familiar formula, peppering humor with the standard heavy drama, and creates a film that will appeal to mainstream audiences. He was rewarded with several Oscar nominations for the film.

It’s a crowdpleaser first and foremost.

I would have been bothered more by the traditional approach had the subject matter not been so weighty or not presented in a left-leaning way, which it was. Solidly anti-war, this made the film more powerful and meaningful though some of the comedic elements seemed silly and trite and added on simply to lighten the mood.

The time period is 1969, though the main subject at hand occurs in 1968 so there is much back and forth. After antiwar activists clash with police and National Guardsmen at the important 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, violence erupts. Charged with conspiracy and inciting to riot, seven of the protestors are put on trial. The charges are controversial because a new president, Richard Nixon, has just been elected and a revenge-seeking Attorney General lusts for an example to be made of them.

The casting is tremendous. John Doman is fabulous in the quick role of the evil Attorney General John Mitchell (historians know that he was later a convicted criminal) and Frank Langella makes Judge Julius Hoffman into the asshole he really was. I’ve never been as impressed with Sacha Baron Coen (or rather, this is the first time I’ve been impressed) as he steamrolls into the role of Abbie Hoffman, a social and political activist. Eddie Redmayne, John Carroll Lynch, Mark Rylance, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt also deserve praise as either a member of the 7 or lawyers for either side.

Whether or not specific accuracy is achieved is not top of mind for me. The Trial of the Chicago 7 gives a history lesson of what occurred the night of the riots and what subsequently occurred in the courtroom the following year. I’m okay with a few exaggerations for cinema’s sake. The product is a safe and glossy affair and extremely slick to the eyes.

The editing is fantastic. Snippets of the real Chicago riots of 1968 are interspersed with the created scenes and have a good effect with the back and forth. But before this, real-life comments from Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy kick off the action. Both assassinated, their existence is important to witness before the point of the film is ever made. Justice is not always served. Sorkin’s point in including the sequences seems to hit home that there are good politicians out there fighting for truth and fairness.

My favorite scene is the final one. At the end of the trial, Hayden (Redmayne) is given a chance to make a case for a lenient sentence. However, over Judge Hoffman’s objections, Hayden uses his closing remarks to name the 4,752 soldiers who were killed in the Vietnam War since the trial began. This act prompts many in the court to stand and cheer. Viewers will as well.

The main problem that gnawed at me is the same concern I had when I realized that Sorkin was at the director’s helm. He is a dazzling screenwriter making the dialogue crisp and rich with intelligence. But, known for television successes such as The West Wing (1999-2006) and Sports Night (1998-2000), this causes The Trial of the Chicago 7 to look like a made-for-television production versus a raw film experience. I realize that Sorkin will likely never be a film auteur.

Sorkin is the reason that The Trial of the Chicago 7 is a B+ film and not an A film.

The late 1960s was a prominent and sometimes tragic time in United States history. The Trial of the Chicago 7 explores and deep-dives into a pivotal event in which several were railroaded and punished for something they did not do. The film makes sure that the railroaders get their just desserts and that’s fun to see.

Oscar Nominations: Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor-Sacha Baron Cohen, Best Original Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing, Best Original Song-“Hear My Voice”

Oscar-Nominated Animated Short Films-2020

Oscar-Nominated Animated Short Films-2020

Directors-Madeline Sharafian, Michael Capbarat, Adrien Merigeau, Amaury Ovise, Will McCormack, Michael Govier, Erick Oh, Gisli Darri Halldorsson, Arnar Gunnarsson

Scott’s Review #1,135

Grade: A-

Having the honor of being able to view the five short films nominated for the 2020 Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film at my local art theater was pretty amazing. Especially in the year of Covid! Far too often dismissed as either irrelevant or completely flying under the radar of animated offerings, it is time to champion these fine little pieces of artistic achievement.

On par with or even superseding the full-length animated features, each of the five offers a vastly different experience, but each offers either inspired or hopeful messages or dark, devious, and edgy stories. The commonality this year is that there really are no similarities. The overall tone is mostly dour in tone save for one cute short featuring a rabbit and a peculiar look at the everyday life of Icelandic people.

Below is a review of each of the shorts.

Burrow-2020 (USA)

A darling story, Burrow tells the tale of a young rabbit who tries to build the burrow of her dreams, becoming embarrassed each time she accidentally digs into a neighbor’s home. By far the safest of the five shorts, and the most hopeful, the experience is pleasant and comical as the rabbit’s exuberance and joys are infectious. I got a real sense of community and warmness seeing the rabbits and other creatures pull together and form a communal bond rather than living in separation. It’s an inspiring and wholesome story. Grade: B+

Genius Loci-2020 (France)

One night, Reine, a young loner, sees the urban chaos as a mystical oneness that seems alive, like some sort of guide. Genius Loci is dark and depressing and tough to understand but my takeaway was one of mental illness and struggle to face daily life. Reine appears to either live with someone or has a child but this is tough to determine. Reine sees the world through watercolors and muted shapes which is quite beautiful to experience but the plot is tough to exactly determine. I used my imagination. Grade: A-

Opera-2020 (USA)

Our society and history, which are filled with beauty and absurdity are experienced with Opera, the oddest of the bunch. At merely nine minutes, it’s a short piece, but intriguing nonetheless. It is one giant shot of all sorts of activity going on within a pyramid shape, meant to represent the history of the world and daily life. There are tons of windows showing different activities. Oddities like a brothel and someone being fed plate after plate of food are featured. This one is also open to much interpretation as so many events can be seen.  Grade: A-

If Anything Happens I Love You-2020 (USA) (Won)

If Anything Happens I Love You, produced by Laura Dern, describes the aftermath of tragedy, as two grieving parents journey through an emotional void as they mourn the loss of a child. This short will make the tears flow if not a downright sob and is my favorite of the group. The viewer is aware that the parents have lost their ten-year-old daughter but not how until close to the end. We wonder how death occurs. The timeliness makes it the most powerful in a time of school shootings and constant gun control battles. Yes, it’s depressing but necessary. Grade: A

Yes-People-2020 (Iceland)

As one who has an adoration for Iceland and has been lucky enough to visit the country, I was thrilled to see it represented. One morning an eclectic mix of people face the everyday battle – such as work, school, and dish-washing. As the day progresses, their relationships are tested and ultimately their capacity to cope. Besides Burrow, Yes-People is the only one to include some humor, and the boozy housewife and her fat working husband are my favorites. Joyous is also the couple who have loud sex for their neighbors to hear. Clever is how the word “yes” can be meant in so many tones and textures. It’s a slice of life short giving a glimpse into people’s ordinary lives.  Grade: A-

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 make 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 parents 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, from 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)

Pieces of a Woman-2020

Pieces of a Woman-2020

Director-Kornél Mundruczó

Starring-Vanessa Kirby, Shia LaBeouf, Ellen Burstyn

Scott’s Review #1,129

Reviewed April 2, 2021

Grade: A-

One of my favorite things is to watch an actor blossom into creative stardom by choosing the right film roles. We all know that many actors wind up choosing the wrong roles or accepting what is offered to them, so when a young actor is given a chance to shine it’s reaffirming.

Vanessa Kirby, known for her supporting turn on the magnificent Netflix hit, The Crown, as the rebellious and restless Princess Margaret, gives a powerful and unrecognizable performance in Pieces of a Woman (2020).

Not only does she play a completely different character but she does so in brilliant fashion, in an emotionally exhausting performance. She plays a woman who experiences a devastating loss and must come to terms with her feelings and the effect on her partner and family. Pressure mounts at every turn especially while she is immersed in a trial based on the actions of another character.

A minor miss is the film doesn’t provide much background or explanation of the character set on trial. I yearned for more in this regard.

When her baby dies after a botched home birth, Martha (Kirby) faces unthinkable grief and soon faces a crisis in her relationship with the dead infant’s father, Sean (Shia LaBeouf). Alienated from him and her affluent family led by her difficult mother, Elizabeth (Ellen Burstyn) Martha must work through the tragedy’s painful aftermath on her own terms.

She wrestles with whether to donate the infant to science or have a traditional funeral ceremony and the impending trial of the midwife.

Director, Kornél Mundruczó creates an astounding first thirty minutes of film that makes the remainder of the experience quite tepid in comparison. The confines of the scene are in Martha and Sean’s apartment as they jovially prepare for the birth, call the mid-wife, discourage at the appearance of a substitute, and finally succumb to panic when all does not go well.

The scene appears to be shot in one take, is stifling, claustrophobic, and explicit, and oozes with authenticity. I truly believed Kirby was really giving birth and felt her discomfort. It’s some of the best filmmaking I’ve seen and then when you’ve suffered from exhaustion the title credit appears and you’re in shock. The film is just beginning!

Kirby, LaBeouf, and Burstyn knock it out of the park. Their characters are not always nice people and are flawed. Martha gets the most sympathy because she faces the biggest loss but Sean loses his baby too. It’s how they deal with the aftermath that is telling.

Martha is shattered and instead of settling into maternity leave she angrily returns to her corporate job. We get the sense she is either feared or unliked by her colleagues since nobody says a word to her and she scolds someone who has taken her office. Still, her loss is devastating and Kirby makes her pain relenting. The audience feels for her tremendously. In the final sequence, her act of kindness cements her character as “good”.

Sean is a different story. Excited to be a father and build a life with Martha he doesn’t handle the aftermath well. After being sober for seven years he begins using cocaine and embarks on an affair with Martha’s cousin. LaBeouf is terrific as the grizzled, angry blue-collar builder who reaches beyond his class level and is sadly paid off by Elizabeth to leave town and never return.

Elizabeth is the cringe-worthy mom. With good intentions, she instead makes things worse with a cutting remark masked as a helpful suggestion. When she says Martha looks “cute” and then asks why she isn’t more dressed up for dinner, her passive-aggressive nature takes hold. Despite these traits, Burstyn makes the audience feel her pain especially during a weepy scene where it is explained why she is the way she is, having nearly died as a baby.

The acting is amazing in Pieces of a Woman.

Pieces of a Woman on paper could have been little more than a lifetime television movie. Told from the female perspective, it’s a tried and true subject, not meaning to belittle the importance of it. But, the film is so much more than just the story. It’s very much character-driven in the detail and the intensity and emotions that the characters face.

Each has a side that is explored and their motivations understood.

From a local perspective, it’s fun watching the events unfold in Boston, Massachusetts. Beginning in September, with autumn in full bloom and much hope and anticipation for Martha and Dean, by January and February their emotions are as bleak as the driving snow, the grey atmosphere, and the frozen Charles River.

Pieces of a Woman (2020) will grip the viewer and explores a sad story that happens more than we want to admit.

Oscar Nominations: Best Actress-Vanessa Kirby

Emma-2020

Emma-2020

Director-Autumn de Wilde

Starring-Anya Taylor-Joy, Johnny Flynn

Scott’s Review #1,128

Reviewed March 31, 2021

Grade: B

I haven’t read the classic Jane Austen novel written in 1815 nor have I seen the 1996 film version starring Gweneth Paltrow. Neither of these is a prerequisite to enjoy the 2020 version of Emma starring Anya Taylor-Joy in the lead role of Emma Woodhouse.

The film, while set in the early nineteenth century, feels incredibly contemporary and seemingly makes little attempt at a classic style save for the hair, makeup, and costumes. These items are splendid, and the high point, and make the film stylish and bright.

Beautiful, smart, and rich, Emma (Taylor-Joy) enjoys her matchmaking skills that sometimes lead to awkward or failed matches and romantic missteps. She claims to not be interested in her own romance or potential suitors though that changes with time.

She struggles with the challenges of growing up, though she is terribly pampered and has a habit of involving herself in other’s business. Emma is also mischievous and not always kind though deep down she is a good person and has regret when she hurts someone’s feelings with her antics.

In a good, coming of age way, she finally realizes that love for her and a proper match of her own has been there all along and staring her in the face.

The film begins with Emma’s governess, Miss Taylor (Gemma Whelan), marrying and becoming Mrs. Weston. She and Emma are best friends and Emma is saddened so she settles on Harriet Smith (Mia Goth), a younger girl whom Emma supposes is the unclaimed child of a gentleman; Harriet’s parents are unknown, but her education has been provided for. They become bonded and Emma’s influence is immeasured.

Taylor-Joy does a wonderful job in the title role and carefully makes Emma naughty and sometimes unlikable before carefully reeling her in with an act of kindness. She has no malice in mind but is often bored and looking for excitement. I found myself rooting for her to find romance with Mr. Knightley (Johnny Flynn), which she does but not without a hurdle or two on the way.

Other characters come and go with flirtations and romantic possibilities explored.

Speaking of Flynn, the actor is rumored to play rock icon David Bowie in a future theatrical feature. A real musician, Flynn should be the perfect casting for that important part. He is the only character to show some flesh, his bare bum, in Emma and one wonders if female director Autumn de Wilde did this purposefully. After all, traditionally in cinema, it’s been the female who is more commonly nude. Turnabout is fair play.

While Taylor-Joy is good she is nearly upstaged by the delightful Goth who is fabulous as the insecure and impressionable Harriet. With humor and innocence, she makes her character quite likable. I’d like to see more from this young actress. Bill Nighy is perfectly cast as the comical father of Emma while Miranda Hart as Miss Bates steamrolls over every scene she is in.

Apparently, some inconsistencies exist especially where Miss Bates is concerned. A quick mention that Miss Bates and her family had once been rich and are now struggling is not explored where it reportedly was in the novel.

Dividing the film into seasonal sections (Autumn, Winter, Spring, and Summer) is a good decision and makes it more like a novel. The winter snow and Christmas festivities along with a summer picnic do wonders to add fresh atmospheric tidbits. The many scenes of delicious spreads of food and drink laid out for hungry eyes to see offer a robust and colorful glimpse of the culture.

The vibrancy, the food, and the aforementioned clothing, all brimming with richness based on the seasons are the main draw. The castles and large houses featured surely small-town English style brim with vastness and atmosphere.

Emma (2020) is a fun film and the story is not the best part of it. Predictable, all characters wind up with romantically who they should wind up with and there is a happily ever after sensibility.

Adolescents can easily sit in comfort with their mother and father and enjoy the lightweight affair. Nobody will be offended and all will be satisfied. It’s a solid romantic period piece.

Oscar Nominations: Best Costume Design, Best Makeup & Hairstyling

The Father-2020

The Father-2020

Director-Florian Zeller

Starring-Anthony Hopkins, Olivia Colman 

Scott’s Review #1,123

Reviewed March 17, 2021

Grade: A

The Father is a heartbreaking 2020 drama film co-written and directed by Florian Zeller, based on his own 2012 play entitled Le Père. The piece is wonderfully written and superbly acted with incredible empathy for the characters involved.

Everyone should see this important film.

Anne (Olivia Colman) has always adored her intelligent and independent father, Anthony (Anthony Hopkins) who’s approaching the treacherous age of eighty. His mind is not what it used to be by any means and is in fact starting to fail. Stubborn, he rejects every caregiver she brings in to assist with his daily living. Anne finds herself in anguish about how to solve this crisis while striving to live her own life.

Zeller spins a brilliant story from the very first scene because it’s told from Anthony’s perspective rather than solely from Anne’s. Traditionally in films centering around Alzheimer’s disease or dementia, the perspective is from the family member and how they cope and handle a life-altering and painful situation. 2014’s Still Alice starring Julianne Moore is an exception.

Immediately, the viewer is forced into the same world as Anthony and suffers as much confusion as he does. This is tremendously effective. When Anthony rummages about his kitchen in his London flat and hears a door close, he is startled. Who can it be? He wanders to the living room to discover a man sitting reading the newspaper who claims to be Anne’s husband. Anthony has never laid eyes on the man before. Neither has the viewer.

Immediately Anthony and the viewer are confused. Who is the man? Is he a burglar playing tricks on an elderly man or is Anthony forgetting?

From this point in the film, it remains unclear what events are really happening and what Anthony is forgetting or misunderstanding. Sometimes the characters are unclear. Does Anthony think one person (Olivia Williams) is Anne but is she really his nurse? Is his caretaker his other daughter Lucy? Is the man his daughter or Anne’s husband?

Confusion. Disorientation. Just like anyone with Alzheimer’s disease or dementia feels regularly.

Towards the finale, the most heartwrenching part of the film, Anthony weeps at his memory loss, yearning to be a child again and safe in his mother’s arms. We feel his despair and desperation and it’s gutwrenching to witness. Anyone who has had to care for an elder will understand. Anyone else should be empathetic.

We suffer alongside Anne too. Help is becoming a necessity for her; she can’t make daily visits anymore and Anthony’s grip on reality is unraveling. She wants to move to Paris where her new boyfriend lives.

In a chilling scene, we watch Anthony sleeping peacefully while Anne gazes lovingly at him. She tucks him in and then begins to strangle him. We hope this is only a fleeting fantasy, toying with the idea of saving him from further suffering and giving her freedom back.

As we experience the changing tides of his memory, how much of his own identity and past can Anthony cling to? How does Anne cope as she grieves the loss of her father, while he still lives and breathes before her?

Hopkins and Colman are dynamic. Hard to imagine Hopkins usurping his unforgettable role as Hannibal Lechter in The Silence of the Lambs (1991), he nearly does. His character is humorous, dignified, and lovable. He is also angry, feisty, and frustrated. Hopkins channels nearly every emotion.

Colman is teary but strong. A woman sacrificing her own life and happiness for the burden of caring for her father. She is loyal and wouldn’t think twice about having it any other way.

The story is a downer but one that must be witnessed. The Father (2020) warmly embraces real life, through loving reflection upon the simple human condition; heart-breaking and uncompromisingly poignant, the film tells a simple yet complex tale about life, death, and loss.

Oscar Nominations: Best Picture, Best Actor-Anthony Hopkins (won), Best Supporting Actress-Olivia Colman, Best Adapted Screenplay (won), Best Production Design, Best Film Editing

Miss Juneteenth-2020

Miss Juneteenth-2020

Director-Channing Godfrey Peoples

Starring-Nicole Beharie, Alexis Chikaeze

Scott’s Review #1,119

Reviewed March 6, 2021

Grade: B+

I love when a topic of relevance is explored in film or when an interesting class of people is represented or given a story worth sharing. It enriches everyone. Black stories and actors are still woefully underutilized in cinema and there is so much more unchartered territory to explore.

Unless it’s a story about racism, slavery, or blacks being saved by whites it isn’t always a film that gets made.

Miss Juneteenth (2020) is a film about the black community and how they support, enrich, and have a conflict with each other but it’s a story about them and how they strive to live the best lives they can.

Turquoise Jones (Nicole Beharie) is a single mom from the vicinity of Fort Worth, Texas who leads a household, raises a blossoming teenager (Alexis Chikaeze), and works at a local watering hole. She’s also a former local beauty queen who once reigned as a “Miss Juneteenth” pageant. The title is meant to celebrate the Black culture and enrich the lives of the contestants with the winner receiving a prestigious scholarship.

Life didn’t turn out as beautifully as the title promised since Turquoise had to drop out when she got pregnant, but she is determined that her daughter, Kai, will become the new Miss Juneteenth, even if Kai wants something else.

To complicate her life, Turquoise’s mother runs a local church and exudes grace and kindness on the surface but secretly battles booze and judges others. Turquoise is also embroiled in a love triangle with separated husband Ronnie (Kendrick Sampson), and local funeral home owner Bacon (Akron Watson). The girl has a lot going on!

I love the message that Miss Juneteenth sends and I hope many within the black community (or any community) see the film. It encourages and inspires those who may not have much money or prospects to be their better selves.

When the pageant contestants are taught which cutlery to use while dining or the difference between a red wine glass and a white wine glass I championed the teachers. These are life skills that teach sophistication, grace, and class despite how much money one has. It’s an important scene to view.

It’s worth noting that Miss Juneteenth doesn’t always hit a home run. I wondered why Turquoise didn’t date Bacon, a man perfectly suited for her. He adores her and is quite a catch. I was frustrated that she kept giving what little money she had to Ronnie. I understand she felt passion for him but after his many examples of unreliability why didn’t she move on?

I wanted her to do more for herself, which she eventually does but it’s also not completely satisfying.

Ideally, I wanted her to hit the road and run for Los Angeles or New York City. Beautiful, Torquoise could have made a better life for herself rather than choosing to stay in the town she had always lived and known.

Directed by Channing Godfried Peoples, I wondered how much of the story was autobiographical and personal to her? I also wondered why Turquoise’s mother was written as she was? Certainly a minor character, I wanted more explanation and discussion over their mother and daughter relationship not just Turquoise and Kai.

Turquoise does live in the past and her desire to spend a fortune (which she didn’t have) on a pageant dress seemed superfluous and overbearing. Understood is her determination though I started to find this aspect slightly irritating after a while. Why didn’t she use the money and leave town?

A character study of one woman’s attempts and struggles to improve her life while residing in her past, Miss Juneteenth (2020) shows the challenges a mother faces when wanting the most for her child. The story is a familiar one but Peoples writes and directs with heart and charm which supersedes the several questions and holes the film has.

The main win is that it will enrich the lives of those who choose to see it.

Independent Spirit Award Nominations: Best First Feature, Best First Screenplay, Best Female Lead-Nicole Beharie, Best Supporting Female-Alexis Chikaeze

The Hunt-2020

The Hunt-2020

Director-Craig Zobel

Starring-Betty Gilpin, Hilary Swank

Scott’s Review #1,117

Reviewed February 26, 2021

Grade: B

A disturbing satirical effort presumably produced because of the volatile United States political climate circa the 2016-2020 time-period, The Hunt (2020) is timely and thought-provoking. The premise is admittedly intriguing and relevant.

Unfortunately, the film doesn’t always come together and has little character development. It is cartoon-like and mired in B-movie appeal. I wanted much more background from the characters to figure out what made them tick. It’s not always clear if the film’s intent is to provide dark comedy, provoke horror, or mock stereotypes. Perhaps a bit of each?

The Hunt is quite violent and bloody like a horror film should be but has tinges of cerebralism. Your political affiliation will dictate which characters you root for. Unclear is if the message evoked is a liberal slant or a conservative one and which side the filmmaker’s lean.

Who is the target audience, liberals or conservatives?

While the effort is praise-worthy and will undoubtedly leave the viewer pondering many, details some confusing elements aren’t worked through. There is also ridiculousness that doesn’t work.

On the plus side, The Hunt includes two-time Oscar winner Hilary Swank, one of my favorite modern actresses! She doesn’t appear until the finale but it was the high point for me.

Twelve strangers wake up in a forest clearing. They have no idea where they are or how they got there, or what country they are even in. A large box is in the middle of the field. When they pry it open a pig emerges along with a plethora of guns and ammunition. Confused, rapid gunfire erupts from the forest and the group realizes they have been kidnapped and are being hunted for their conservative beliefs.

With most of the group dead, Crystal (Betty Gilpin) and Don (Wayne Duvall) traverse the nearby locale which includes an Arkansas service station and other booby traps. To make matters worse, it is uncertain whether the people they encounter are enemies or allies. Finally, they realize they are really in Croatia.

It’s quickly revealed that a group of liberal corporate executives led by Athena Stone (Swank) anticipates an upcoming hunt of “deplorables” at a manor through a group text. Done as a joke, they are caught, fired, and decide to set out to really perform the hunt as revenge for their dismissals.

Let’s mention how each side is portrayed because it’s important. The liberals are portrayed as elitist, martini-sipping, kale-eating, judgemental “libtards” who mock conservatives at every turn. They are overly politically correct, live in a bubble, and are essentially pricks.

The conservatives are written as racist, dumb, simple-minded, poorly dressed people who love their guns and believe in conspiracy theories. Crystal is written to be a bad-ass tomboy from Mississippi who can shoot guns, blow things up, and fight. Her character is overdone and not my favorite, although the twist at the end and the references to George Orwell’s Animal Farm (1945) are pleasing.

The opening sequence and the final sequence are the best parts of The Hunt. As the liberals fly in luxury, sipping champagne and munching on caviar, a conservative wanders to the front of the plane and is killed. At this point, the premise isn’t yet revealed so the audience has no idea what is going on. This immediately made me engaged and intrigued.

I loved the final fight sequence between Crystal and Athena. Craig Zobel who directed The Hunt borrows heavily from Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill (2003-2004) during this scene and the result is a marvelous battle involving kitchen knives, glasses, blood, and bruises.

The Hunt (2020) is a brave and clever effort. I only wish the mechanics of the characters were better explored. My takeaway is the intent is not to take the film too seriously. But, I wanted to.

Nomadland-2020

Nomadland-2020

Director-Chloé Zhao

Starring-Frances McDormand, David Strathairn, Swankie

Scott’s Review #1,116

Reviewed February 24, 2021

Grade: A

Frances McDormand, an amazing actor in anything she is in, absolutely kills it in Nomadland (2020) an emotional film with startling realism and respect for strength and truth. Mostly a documentary lookalike the drama has heart while wisely incorporating real-life people versus actors in a story with enough weepy moments to go well with the dynamic cinematography.

It’s a character study in the highest regard and a lesson in what compassion is.

Chloé Zhao, who directs, also directed Songs My Brother Taught Me (2015), nominated for a couple of independent spirit awards, which nobody saw. Zhao has such zest and flavor for the western American landscape, which can be both isolating and beautiful. She incorporates plenty of sunrises, sunsets, and wide shots that go well with the theme of the story she tells. She’s well on her way to much-deserved stardom.

Following her husband’s death by cancer and her rural Nevada company town decimated, Fern (McDormand) packs up her van and starts driving having really no idea where she’s headed. Becoming a modern-day nomad, she scrounges for work doing odd jobs and experiencing adventure along the way as she travels across the West. She meets interesting individuals mostly who live as nomads and try to stay alive facing hardships.

McDormand may have delivered her best performance with Nomadland. Forever associated as Marge Gunderson in Fargo (1996) she is unafraid to get down and dirty in her role. As for Fern, she has a nude scene and a scene sitting on the toilet. She also has various close-up scenes appearing tired, worried, or otherwise bleak. She wears no makeup. It’s a testament to McDormand’s craft and artistic ability to appear this way.

I admire her tremendously.

While McDormand carries the film, others must be mentioned for their terrific work. David Strathairn who has been around forever is one of those character actors who always deliver great work. As a potential love interest for Fern, he is patient and admiring even offering to have her move in with him and his family. A gorgeous house awaits her but she prefers to be on the road and alone.

The non-actors make the film as rich and lovely as can be with their tales of truth, struggle, and desire. Swankie is a seventy-five-year-old woman dying of cancer. She wants nothing to do with hospitals or treatment but wants to live her remaining months in peace and tranquility among the wildlife in Alaska. She does just that, leaving the world on her own terms.

When Fern learns that Swankie has died, she and the other nomads pay tribute to her life. The greatness of Nomadland is that it shows a sense of community and family amongst a group of people who otherwise are dismissed or forgotten. It’s reminiscent of what the exceptional Boogie Nights (1997) did with the porn industry. It humanizes them when many dehumanize them, and it’s lovely to watch.

In a teary scene, Fern opens up to Bob, a nomad leader, about her loving relationship with her late husband, and Bob shares the story of his adult son’s recent suicide. Bob espouses the view that goodbyes are not final in the nomad community as its members always promise to see each other again down the road.

What a poignant statement.

Nomadland (2021) inspires those who just want to do their own thing and be independent spirits. The film says that it’s okay to be your own person and I take that to heart. Be true to yourself and good things will come. Well, at least you’ll have self-dignity and a soul.

The film contains exceptional acting, directing, editing, and cinematography. It could be perceived by some as a downer but I found it quite uplifting and inspirational.

I always say a great film will leave you thinking about it and I’m still thinking about Nomadland.

Oscar Nominations: Best Picture (won), Best Director-Chloé Zhao (won), Best Actress-Frances McDormand (won), Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Cinematography (won), Best Film Editing

Independent Spirit Award Nominations: Best Feature (won), Best Director-Chloé Zhao (won), Best Female Lead-Frances McDormand, Best Cinematography (won), Best Editing (won)

Mank-2020

Mank-2020

Director-David Fincher

Starring-Gary Oldman, Amanda Seyfried, Tom Pelphrey

Scott’s Review #1,110

Reviewed February 9, 2021

Grade: A

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom-2020

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom-2020

Director-George C. Wolfe

Starring-Viola Davis, Chadwick Boseman

Scott’s Review #1,107

Reviewed February 3, 2021

Grade: A-

Viola Davis and the late Chadwick Boseman lead tremendous performances in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (2020), a film fueled by exceptional acting. The production is shot like a play and is based on one written by August Wilson. He also wrote Fences, turned into a film in 2017, which also starred the terrific Davis.

As wonderful as Davis is amid a bruhaha of hype over how powerful her performance is, it’s an ensemble event that makes Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom a memorable experience.

Ruben Santiago-Hudson adapts a fast-paced screenplay with quick dialogue, long scenes, and a startling turn of events. The action takes place over the course of one day, similar to other Wilson works, which adds a robust and powerful strength as the situations unfold. The time period and the racial aspects are key to the crackling dialogue.

Most of the cast is black and it’s 1927 so how can the work not be about race? In clever and heartbreaking form, much of the racism is internalized pitting black versus black instead of the standard white versus black.

Despite the wonderful singing and acting this point hit home the most with me and was the most uniquely palpable. It’s bad enough when black people, or any other minority group, faces hatred and resentment from other people, but when it’s one of your own this is bitter and hard to watch.

The conflict and fury escalate to a vicious climax as one character lashes out in deadly form ruining more than just their own life. It has a spiraling effect that utilizes the claustrophobic rehearsal hall where these scenes take place as a backdrop.

There are two different stories taking place here and both are superb.

Ma Rainey (Davis) is a superstar, being female and black, her victory is achieving that success, to begin with, against insurmountable odds. We only imagine this because the film doesn’t go into her back story too much- they don’t need to. Her struggle is obvious and we can only imagine how she was able to manage to get so far in her career. Was she able to capitalize on her success with her voice alone?

Ma is immensely talented and angry. She is pouty and tough as nails with her white producers, who have invited her to Chicago to record an album. She knows they want one thing from her and that’s money-making profits from her talent.

She demands a Coke before she will perform. She smirks as the producers scurry to fulfill her request, not daring to show too much irritation that will cause her to cancel the session and return to the South. Is she a diva? Well, yes, but shouldn’t she be? If she were gracious people would walk all over her?

We learn she would easily be arrested for causing a stir in the streets if not for her manager, Irvin (Jeremy Shamos) schooling the police on who she is.

Davis, who can play any role handed to her is brilliant. Ma is brazen, tough, but releases emotion when she belts out her tunes.

Though Davis is the star, Ma is almost a supporting player against the robust and juicy other plot occurring among the male cast, one floor below. Boseman is flawless as the trumpeter in her band, Levee Green. His humor masks a wave of anger and cynicism lurking beneath that slowly builds as he feels jealous and cheated by the older members of Ma’s band.

Colman Domingo and Glynn Turmann are fantastic, adding stability and wisdom in supporting roles. Their characters try to teach the younger Levee that being a black man also represents stoicism, a calm demeanor, and wisdom.

From a diversity and inclusion perspective, the film features Ma’s bi-sexual girlfriend Dussie Mae (Taylour Paige), and nephew Sylvester (Dusan Brown) who stutters. This offers LGBTQ+ and disability inclusion.

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (2020) is a film that celebrates fearlessness, determination, and the ugliness and frustration of inner turmoil within one’s own race. It also features gorgeous and emotional songs from the roaring 1920s and top-notch acting performances.

Oscar Nominations: Best Actor-Chadwick Boseman, Best Actress-Viola Davis, Best Production Design, Best Costume Design (won), Best Makeup and Hairstyling (won)

Independent Spirit Award Nominations: Best Feature, Best Female Lead-Viola Davis, Best Male Lead-Chadwick Boseman, Best Supporting Male-Colman Domingo, Glynn Turmann

The Prom-2020

The Prom-2020

Director-Ryan Murphy 

Starring-Meryl Streep, James Corden, Nicole Kidman

Scott’s Review #1,101

Reviewed January 17, 2021

Grade: A

Hollywood legends Meryl Streep and Nicole Kidman take on singing and dancing roles in the lovely and timely film, The Prom (2020). James Corden joins them in a prominent role in a musical based on the popular and recent Broadway production of the same name. The LGBTQ+ storyline is important and powerful but doesn’t overshadow the colors and the fun. The message is perfectly incorporated in the delicious comedy romp.

The Prom reminds me of John Waters Hairspray from 1988 or even the fun remake from 2007. Instead of racism, the topic is now homophobia, with a few characters rebuffing the lifestyle. Most of the performances are over-the-top, but the film works on all levels. The one-liners are crackling and polished, especially by Streep and Corden.

As should be the case, the homophobic characters are written as fools and finally come to realize the error of their ways.

Director, Ryan Murphy, has become a favorite of mine for creating both extremely dark and light-hearted projects that usually slant towards LGBTQ+ recognition and inclusion. His treasured FX series American Horror Story (2011-present) and miniseries The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story are excellent examples of this. I drool with anticipation over what his next offering might be.

High school student, Emma Nolan (Jo Ellen Pellman), wants to bring a female date to the upcoming prom. Chaos has erupted after the head of the PTA (Parent-Teacher Association), Mrs. Green (Kerry Washington) has canceled the prom. The setting is Indiana and the same gender coupling conflicts with the town’s traditional beliefs and values. Little does she know that her daughter, Alyssa (Ariana DeBose) is Emma’s secret girlfriend. The school principal, Tom Hawkins (Keegan-Michael Key) supports Emma and has leaked the story to social media outlets.

Meanwhile, in sophisticated New York City, snooty broadway stars Dee Dee Allen (Streep) and Barry Glickman (Corden) are devastated when their new musical flops. They join forces with struggling performers Angie Dickinson (Kidman) and Trent Oliver (Andrew Rannells) and take a bus trip with the cast of Godspell to remote Indiana to champion Emma’s cause, and drum up sympathy from their fans and critics.

The rest of the film is as one might expect with bursts of song and dance combined with teaching the stuffy residents of small-town Indiana to accept and embrace Emma and her LGBTQ+ brethren. Amid a flurry of misunderstandings, mainly between newly dating Tom and Dee Dee, Emma and Alyssa, and Alyssa and her mother, a lavish prom is funded for the town, high school students straight and gay, to flock to and co-mingle in unity.

While The Prom is sheer fantasy and real-life doesn’t usually work out so perfectly, the sentiment is meaningful and the film takes a progressive stance.

I adore the song and dance numbers with my favorites being rapturous “It’s Time to Dance” and “Tonight Belongs to You”. They match well with the meaningful “The Acceptance Song”.

My curiosity wonders how residents of Indiana or other small towns might react to The Prom. While the film depicts a stuffy, close-minded viewpoint by many of the residents- besides the ones already mentioned, two male students, and two cheerleaders bully and ridicule Emma, other characters like Emma’s grandmother (Mary Kay Place) are kind and accepting. The bullying is a soft touch and Murphy keeps the plot light.

The contrasts of Dee Dee and Barry’s derision of Edgewater is comical and delightful, the main fun of the film. Dee Dee has never heard of the restaurant, Applebees, or knows not what it is. Barry and Dee Dee are horrified to have to stay in the local hotel because it is beneath their standards. The hotel is pretty nice.

A beautiful moment occurs towards the end of the film when Barry reunites with his mother, played by Tracey Ullman. Distant for years because of his parent’s inability to accept him as gay, the old woman comes to terms, and the two reunite with tears. A sad reality is that the dad still cannot come to terms with his son’s sexuality. This is surprising and hurtful that some parents still have a tough time with lifestyle choices in the year 2020.

The Prom has heart and the side story of the blossoming romance between Dee Dee and Tom, opposites, is charming and sweet.  Learning to curb her narcissism and doing for others as tough as that might be for her, Streep is a hoot and has tremendous chemistry with Key. The interracial match is a bonus for a film keen on promoting diversity and inclusion.

Related to this, one preposterous notice is the small Indiana town having oodles of Hispanic, black, and Asian townspeople. A real small town in Indiana would almost certainly be 99% white. But, the message is diversity so Murphy does what he sets out to do. I just don’t feel it’s accurate.

Those desiring a pulsating, riotous comedy musical with snippets of cutting humor are in for a treat with The Prom (2020). The musical numbers may fade and are not as memorable as instantly recognizable songs from classics like West Side Story (1961) or The Music Man (1962), but enough is on the table for pure enjoyment for the entire family. And the strong message is enough reason to tune in.

Gretel & Hansel-2020

Gretel & Hansel-2020

Director-Oz Perkins

Starring-Sophia Lillis, Alice Krige, Sammy Leakey

Scott’s Review #1,088

Reviewed December 5, 2020

Grade: B+

Gretel & Hansel (2020) is not a film with a plot that makes complete sense, but in this instance that’s okay, making the experience creepier by the wonderful trimmings provided. A horror film released in the month of January has the cards stacked against it- most studios use quarter one as a dumping ground for films with little box-office hope or much fanfare. Predictably, the film flopped, but it’s a diamond in the rough.

For fans of horror post 2010, this film immediately reminded me of The Witch, the 2015 independent film, and the directorial debut by director and screenwriter Robert Eggers. The slow pacing and assumed seventeenth century remote village setting is an instant comparison. The dark sets and candle lit scenes grabbed me in their startlingly good ambience.

With exceptional cinematography, eerie lighting and the obvious Brothers Grimm fairy tale theme, always a plus in horror, who cares if the t’s are all crossed. The elements supersede the story, though with a witch and two children at play I was immediately hooked. The follow through is crooked and confusing, not the wrapped up in a bow variety. Expect to be perplexed by the ending.

We are provided a quick story of a little girl wearing a pink dress who frightens the village with her special powers. Because she nearly died as a baby and was taken to an enchantress who saved her life, she is odd. She makes her father commit suicide and causes other deaths, so she is taken to the middle of the forest to fend for herself or starve. She manages to find her own way and makes other children die. Pay close attention because this story will tie into the end of the film.

In present times we meet Gretel (Sophia Lillis) and Hansel (Sam Leakey). Gretel is sixteen years old while Hansel is eight. Their mother goes mad and they are forced to provide for themselves as they hit the road. Gretel is both drawn to and fascinated by the story of the girl in the pink dress. They eventually stumble upon a cabin with tons of lovely food, which they hungrily devour. A mysterious woman named Holda/The Witch (Alice Krige) takes them in, but is there a price the children must pay for the riches they enjoy?

Unclear is where the film is set. Is it Germany, where the folklore is derived? Is it supposed to be in the United States? The actors have American accents. It was shot in Ireland, but this hardly matters. It’s a village and a forest in an anywhere land though I fantasized the setting was a northern country like Norway or Finland. Maybe the ambiguity is a good thing.

I like how Gretel & Hansel has a feminist vibe and the perspective is from her point of view. That is why her character is older, hence the title. She is a coming-of-age teenager, so there is a more measured approach. Gretel even has a short pixie, almost boyish herself, giving the character a more modern look. This serves the film well adding an interesting take on the classic fairy tale.

There’s also a weird mommy theme played out in two different stories that end up connecting. Gretel and Hansel’s mother are psychotic while Holda is revealed to be a mother herself and harbors a deep secret about what she does with children who wonder into her house. Spoiler alert- it isn’t good.

The acting is very good especially on the part of Sophia Lillis as Gretel and Alice Krige as Holda. Lillis, an up and coming star after appearing in It (2017) and It: Chapter II (2019) is a talented commodity, while Krige gives Holda a ghastly and convincing persona. She is ambivalent and we mostly don’t know what to make of her, or what her intentions are. Lillis and Krige have delightful chemistry.

The cretins that the children meet along their journey to anywhere are worthy of any devilish story. A creepy gentleman who Gretel intends to cook and clean for to make money eyes her greedily and asks about her virginity. A bald wailing monster chases Gretel & Hansel but is shot by a stranger.

Anyone with a hankering for a good, old-fashioned, ghostly, gothic horror film, Gretel & Hansel (2020) is a recommended watch. The film has a hearty recipe of horror elements like eeriness, dark sets with illuminating lighting, and forbidding sequences in the forest featuring nice production design. It may leave you scratching your head but enjoy the ride.

The Boys in the Band-2020

The Boys in the Band-2020

Director-Joe Mantello

Starring-Jim Parsons, Zachary Quinto, Matt Bomer

Scott’s Review #1,073

Reviewed October 21, 2020

Grade: A-

One may ask themselves why bother checking out the 2020 version of the legendary (and dark!) 1970 stage turned cinematic rendition of the sniping and vicious gay drama The Boys in the Band? Mostly because of the wonderful cast- a cast featuring the troupe who starred in the recent 2018 stage revival. But more than that the film feels surprisingly modern and relevant and provides a message of hope that the original did not contain.

Crucial and historical to point out is that every principle actor is openly gay and their characters are gay, or bisexual. My, how much progress has been made for actors when not too long ago an “out” actor risked both reputation and career for the price of his truth. This is monumental.

The remake wisely keeps to the crucial time-period of 1968, and really, how could a modern setting work at all? Being gay in 1968 is nothing like being gay in 2020, I don’t care if it is the Upper East Side of Manhattan. To bring this film to any other time would diminish its power and importance. If anything, it makes one proud how far the LGBTQ+ community has come, though there are further advancements left to make.

Alas, the Vietnam era is safely intact, during a time when a strip of gay bars and a group of gay friends were the only thing to keep a gay man from going crazy regardless of how abusive they were. This will hopefully teach young gay viewers, or anyone else, what being a gay male was like over 50 years ago. When the rest of the world was deemed “normal” and you were cast aside as either a sexual deviant or a head case this is powerful. Self-hatred, denial, or the closet were commonalities.

The Boys in the Band has no females save for a blink and you’ll miss it moment featuring a snooty neighbor. Important to realize is that the film is pre A.I.D.S epidemic in a time of carefree love and endless hookups, where booze and drugs were a necessary escape and usual was to feel out of sorts on a regular basis.

A few characters are effeminate. One is presumably bisexual and closeted, and one is masculine and recently divorced from a woman, now cohabiting with a male lover, one is black, and one is an escort. Each character comes from a different walk of life but are bonded. The running of the gamut of unique types and personalities is part of why I love this story.

The events commence one evening when Michael (Jim Parsons) throws a birthday party for friend Harold (Zachary Quinto) at his apartment. They are joined by other friends Donald (Matt Bomer), Hank (Tuc Watkins), Larry (Andrew Rannalls), Bernard (Michael Benjamin Washington), Emory (Robin de Jesus).  Guests include Cowboy (Charlie Carver), a “birthday present” for Harold, and Alan (Brian Hutchison), a college friend of Michael’s. As the booze flows talk gets vicious and the claws come out.

The men, prompted by a drunken Michael, play a daring game of “telephone”. Each guest is dared to call the one person he truly believes he has loved. With each call, past scars and present anxieties are revealed in tortuous fashion. This is when the film really gets interesting. Bernard and Emory bear the brunt the hardest as their phone calls take a tremendous toll on each.

Parsons and Quinto are the standouts. As the lead, the character of Michael seems stable at first. He is stylish, well-dressed, and lives in a reputable apartment. Though unemployed, he once traveled the world. Parsons slowly unleashes the vicious fury contained within Michael the more he drinks. He enjoys hurting others just as he has been hurt. The catalyst to his character is Alan. Are they in love? Is Michael in love with Alan? Alan takes a fancy to masculine Hank.

Quinto, as Harold the self-professed “ugly, pock-marked Jew fairy”, is becoming increasingly morose about losing his youthful looks and his ability to attract cute young men. The catalyst to his character is Cowboy, who has those qualities that Harold lacks. Strangely, Harold and Michael are best friends, both loving and hating each other. After brutalizing each other with words, Harold exits the apartment announcing he will call Michael tomorrow. They’ve been through this before and probably will again.

No, The Boys in the Band circa 2020 is not quite on par with The Boys in the Band circa 1970, but this is merely because brilliance is a tough act to replicate. The modern telling is an absolute joy and will hopefully recruit fresh audiences to the perils and brutality is was to be gay in another time.

Thanks to Ryan Murphy for adapting this project to Netflix as part of his United States $300 million deal with the streaming platform.