Category Archives: 2021 Movie Reviews

Malignant-2021

Malignant-2021

Director-James Wan

Starring Annabelle Wallis, George Young

Scott’s Review #1,294

Reviewed August 30, 2022

Grade: B

James Wan is a fantastic director responsible for co-creating the Saw (2003-2017) and Insidious (2010-2018) franchises. Anyone familiar with those films will enjoy Malignant (2021) since it borrows from them and is peppered with trimmings from those films.

In particular, it taps into supernatural elements of Insidious and the mood and score from Saw. Malignant even copies the gruff and robotic phone caller’s voice that was Jigsaw’s trademark and used in Saw. It’s not as threatening but it brings back those memories.

The result of Malignant is mixed but mostly good. It’s not one bit scary like Insidious was but not gratuitously gory like the Saw films though it has its moments of butchering.

Though utterly ridiculous, the conclusion of Malignant contains a terrific twist and a weird supernatural CGI contortionist choreography extravaganza that somehow reminded me of The Matrix (1999).

The storyline twist must have been influenced by Sisters (1973), an early effort by director Brian DePalma. It could be deemed as silly but somehow it’s my favorite part of the film.

Wan reaches into his magical bag of tricks and pulls out some wins. He also demands suspension of disbelief, which is okay in supernatural horror films but many points of the story do not add up.

Malignant begins in 1993 when Dr. Florence Weaver (Jacqueline MacKenzie) and her colleagues treat a violent, disturbed patient named Gabriel at Simion Research Hospital. Gabriel can control electricity and broadcast his thoughts via speakers. He kills several staff members but Weaver survives and deems him untreatable.

Years later, Madison Lake (Annabelle Wallis) becomes paralyzed by fear from shocking visions. She slowly realizes that when a murder victim dies she is in the room with them witnessing their gruesome death.

Gabriel is on the loose and intent on killing Dr. Weaver and her colleagues for calling him cancer, and Madison is somehow involved.  She and her sister, Sydney (Maddie Hasson) must sleuth along with the police to get to the bottom of the mystery.

Malignant does well with the mood and tone of the filming. It has a dark grey quality plentiful in modern horror films and fans of Insidious and Saw will enjoy this familiar style of filmmaking. It’s set in Seattle which is a wise choice though all we get are some aerial views of the city, specifically the Space Needle.

Because it’s directed by Wan, it’s professional and contains the horror elements to be expected. There’s even a giant window fan that I swear I’ve seen in a Saw film. Wan knows what he is doing and the name recognition alone was enough to get me to see the film.

It’s not an ‘A’ but it does what a modern horror film is supposed to do and that’s to entertain. Malignant is not groundbreaking but it’s sound.

The plot holes are not worth dissecting beyond asking why there are no other patients in a large city hospital, a device that has existed since at least Halloween II in 1981, but that’s just the beginning.

Malignant annoyed me when it decided to add some humor. A sidekick character, Detective Regina Moss (Michole Briana White) bares an uncanny resemblance to funny lady Wanda Sykes. Unfortunately, her one-liners feel thrown in for kicks, and a blossoming romance between Sydney and Detective Kokoa (George Young) goes nowhere.

During these scenes, I felt like I was watching Chicago Med or Chicago Fire or any one of those other generic network television shows.

Fortunately, the scenes were brief and Wan returned to the point of the film- blood, killing, and chaos.

Lead actress Wallis is a fine casting choice. Pretty but relatable, she carries the film as the victim especially as more to her backstory is revealed.

Films like Malignant (2021) require putting the breaks on any deep analysis and merely going along for the ride. It’s entertaining and that’s good enough for me. With Wan at the helm, I anticipated a particular type of horror film and was ultimately satisfied with what I was served.

Zola-2021

Zola-2021

Director-Janicza Bravo

Starring Taylour Paige, Riley Keough, Colman Domingo

Scott’s Review #1,290

Reviewed August 16, 2022

Grade: A-

I’ve said this before when speaking about cinema but it bears repeating. I treasure the independent film genre and the creativity it allows. Usually, it’s a small group or sometimes even only one person with a vision and the ability to bring it to the big screen.

Budgets are almost always tight but that’s a good thing. Remember how 1978’s Halloween was made on a shoestring budget and took over the world?

Zola (2021) is a wonderful example of the freedom allowed in independent filmmaking.

The film is not for everyone and I think it knows this. Marketed as a black comedy it’s a mixture of drama and comedy and a dark story sometimes difficult to watch. Comic moments are contained within but sometimes it’s unclear whether we are supposed to laugh or cringe.

I was enthralled by the film not only for the story but for instances of visual magnificence like the dazzling opening shot of lead character Zola (Taylour Paige) in multiple forms of bubbles and sparkles surrounded by quick editing shots.

She boldly asks the audience “Y’all wanna hear a story about why me and this bitch here fell out? It’s kind of long but full of suspense.”

From the moment the first line is uttered we know we are in for something sassy, salty, and dangerous.

Gorgeous and technically superior cinematography mixed with sex, drugs, and foul language would resurface throughout the film.

The story is loosely based on a viral Twitter thread from 2015 by Aziah “Zola” King and the resulting Rolling Stone article “Zola Tells All: The Real Story Behind the Greatest Stripper Saga Ever Tweeted” by David Kushner.

Eventually, portions of the tale would prove to be embellished.

Zola (Paige) is a Detroit waitress who strikes up a new friendship with a customer, Stefani (Riley Keough), who convinces her to join a road trip weekend of dancing and partying in Florida.

What at first seems like a fun trip quickly turns into a deadly journey involving a pimp, Stefani’s clueless boyfriend, some Tampa gangsters, and other unexpected adventures.

Director, Janicza Bravo, a New York University graduate, is someone to watch out for. Zola is her first full-length feature and reminds me quite a bit of Tangerine (2015) and American Honey (2016), two superior independent films.

At other times, the film contains a sprinkling of the underappreciated 2019 film Hustlers starring Jennifer Lopez.

Bravo is not afraid to delve into the down and dirty lives of characters that most people would quickly dismiss or avoid altogether. Stories about strippers, prostitutes, and pimps can be a tough sell. The sex work industry is not always pretty.

Zola contains the raunchiest scene I have ever seen. As Zola and Stefani sit on the toilet going to the bathroom the camera pans from overhead, revealing not only their naked bums but also the waste excreted into the toilet.

The setting of Florida where much of the action takes place hits home to me, remembering several boozy vacations in various parts of the state. A somber gloominess enshrouds the characters as they traverse an otherwise bright and sunny landscape.

I love the detail and mixture of pretty and poisonous but was left knowing very little about the personal lives of the characters. I wanted to know how Zola and Stefani ended up where they did.

Considering the subject matter, Bravo thankfully doesn’t make the film violent or abusive. Instead, she peppers the dark comedy and over-the-top turns with her characters, especially the pimp (Domingo) and Stefani.

When Zola (2021) ends, there is an unsettling feeling of uncertainty and a lack of conclusion that I wish were different. Still, the creativity and the ability to create desperate characters willing to do anything to make some cash is fascinating.

Independent Spirit Award Nominations: Best Film, Best Director-Janicza Bravo, Best Female Lead-Taylour Paige (won), Best Supporting Male-Colman Domingo, Best Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Editing

Dune-2021

Dune-2021

Director-Denis Villenueve

Starring Timothee Chalamet, Rebecca Ferguson, Oscar Isaac

Scott’s Review #1,282

Reviewed July 29, 2022

Grade: B

Dune (2021) is a film that under normal circumstances I would not have seen. I’m not a huge blockbuster, fantasy film kind of guy. If not for the slew of Oscar nominations the film received, ten to be precise, Dune probably would have flown under my radar.

I needed to see what all the fuss was all about.

Paul Atreides (Timothee Chalamet), a brilliant and gifted young man born into a destiny that he doesn’t completely understand, must travel to the most dangerous planet in the universe to ensure the future of his family and his people.

As malevolent forces explode into conflict over the planet’s exclusive supply of the most precious resource in existence, only those who can conquer their own fear will survive.

My assessment of the film before even viewing it proved correct. It’s an epic-length, science-fiction, fantasy type of adventure film all rolled into one. I liken it to the unwieldy Lord of the Rings (2001-2003) trilogy in tone and content and a peculiar reminiscence to the popular television series Game of Thrones (2011-2019).

For most of Dune, my attention was squarely glued to the story as well as the astounding cinematic grandiose trimmings. I knew if I didn’t pay close attention I would quickly be out in a left field (I’ve made this mistake before).

Overall, I admired Dune and struggled to grade it either a B or a B+ finally deciding on the latter. The visuals are astounding and cleverly show off what can be done with enough CGI to make a film a marvelous spectacle.

But, for me, there needs to be more and I struggled after a while with the plot.

The story is too confusing. Why does every fantasy, or epic film need to be so deep in the plot with too many characters to keep track of? It started off okay and I was clear who Paul’s family is, and more or less who the good guys are. But then other groups like the Fremen (who I think are good) and House Harkonnen (who are all bald and I think are bad) are introduced, and a battle over valuable spice ensues.

To complicate matters, Paul suffers from strange dreams/visions mostly involving a young girl and some battle scenes involving Paul’s connection to a mysterious sword. He can also command without speaking, somehow.

I had no prior history to draw from which in retrospect did me a disservice. Dune began as a novel in 1965 written by Frank Herbert and was turned into a 1985 film directed by David Lynch which was deemed a disaster.

I probably should have read the book.

To be fair, the acting is quite good, especially by Chalamet and Isaac, completely believable as father and son. Their connection and chemistry are pliable but there is not enough of it. Instead, the main focus is Paul’s relationship with his mother, played by Rebecca Ferguson.

Chalamet, already an Oscar-nominated actor for Call Me By Your Name (2017), has the chops to carry a film.

Other worthy turns are by legendary British actress Charlotte Rampling as a Reverend Mother, and Javier Bardem as Stilgar, leader of the Fremen tribe.

Despite the over two and a half hour running time Dune does not drag. The bright sweeping desert scenes featuring a pulsating underground worm, mixed well with darker scenes in the Harkonnen’s lair.

Dune (2021) is made incredibly well and is a clear spectacle. I found it too similar to other genre films to give it a thumbs up unless you are already a fan of the novel, but this style of cinema may not really be my cup of tea.

Villeneuve, who directed Blade Runner 2049 in 2017 knows his way around the fantasy genre and is perfectly capable. He is directing Dune: Part II to be released in 2023 so I’d expect more of the same.

Oscar Nominations: Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Original Score (won), Best Costume Design, Best Sound (won), Best Film Editing (won), Best Makeup and Hairstyling, Best Cinematography (won), Best Production Design (won), Best Visual Effects (won),

Red Rocket-2021

Red Rocket-2021

Director-Sean Baker

Starring Simon Rex, Suzanna Son

Scott’s Review #1,277

Reviewed July 15, 2022

Grade: A-

Sean Baker has become a director I am intrigued by. Firmly planted in the independent circuit, recent films like Tangerine (2015), and The Florida Project (2017) offer a slice of life look at troubled or otherwise forgotten or discarded groups of people.

His works are fascinating and humanistic, admittedly skewing darker or daring avenues like the transgender community, the homeless, or in the case of Red Rocket (2021), a former male porn star.

And while his characters may not always be likable, they are complex, requiring exploration and consideration.

There are also enough butts, boobs, and fornicating to remind us what the subject matter at hand is.

Baker has an incredible way of providing depth to the people considered dregs of society, and a voice with a story to tell. He treats them like human beings oftentimes using real people who are non-actors in pivotal roles.

This lofts the authenticity and realism off the charts and successfully gets his audience to empathize with the characters and see them as living beings with fears, thoughts, and emotions.

Mikey Saber (Simon Rex) is a charismatic con man and washed-up porn star who returns to rural southeast Texas to shack up with his depressed and estranged wife, Lexi (Bree Elrod).

He plots his triumphant return to Los Angeles and the porn industry after meeting a teenager named Strawberry (Suzanna Son) who works at the local donut shop. They connect and plot ways to flee their depressing small-town existence into the adult film world.

Like other Baker films, the city of Los Angeles is considered one of grandeur or where the characters’ lives will be better than they currently are. Mikey and Strawberry feel their destiny lies outside of the daily doldrums of their surroundings and they are convinced their lives will change.

Red Rocket is a film about longing for a better life and being frustrated with the present. That’s a message many audiences can connect with.

Even though Rex and Son are successful with their lead roles it’s the supporting characters who I found even more interesting. I liked Mikey and Strawberry but never loved them together. Interesting to me were Mikey’s relationships with other characters.

Lexi and her mother are fascinating characters. It’s mentioned that before Mikey returned to town, Lexi would meet men on craigslist to pay the rent. Along with her mother, Lil (Brenda Deiss), who smokes pot to ease some health pain, they exist in a dilapidated house.

Their neighbors, a black family, sell drugs to make ends meet and appear to do alright for themselves, respected around town.

I love how there is small-town harmony and the neighbors seem fond of each other, united with pleasantries. There’s a sense of having one’s back, and there is no mention of racism.

I adore these surface characters and longed to know more about their stories. Of course, since Mikey and Strawberry are the core characters there is not enough time to go into much detail.

Baker provides political overtones about American life which are both noticeable and depressing. News clips of former President Donald Trump boasting and pandering to his blue-collar base are included in various scenes.

A ‘Make America Great’ fixture covers the side of a building.

These points are oxymorons of what the characters’ lives are and always will be. They are poor and stuck and cling to some false hope hammered into their heads by a crooked salesman gone politician that he will make their lives great.

It’s heartbreaking and scary in its realism and Baker makes his point clear without having to hammer it over the heads of the audience.

Red Rocket (2021) makes it a solid trifecta for Baker and his earlier works. With a sometimes brutal depiction of small-town life in poverty, he shows there is always hope and heart despite the many obstacles many people continue to face.

Independent Spirit Award Nominations: Best Male Lead-Simon Rex (won), Best Supporting Female-Suzanna Son

Flee-2021

Flee-2021

Director-Jonas Poher Rasmussen

Scott’s Review #1,274

Reviewed July 7, 2022

Grade: A-

Flee (2021) has the distinction of being the first film that is a documentary, an animated movie, and also classified as international since it was made in Denmark. It was nominated in all three categories for icing on the cake at the Academy Awards.

It’s a unique telling of one man’s journey out of war-torn Afghanistan as a refugee and his eventual safe destination of Denmark. He eventually goes to Princeton University in the United States.

This is pretty impressive for a man who could have easily died in Afghanistan before he even had a fair shot.

The film also depicts stories of his family and his realization that he is gay is made further complicated because of the country he is born in.

Flee contains beautiful graphics and art design and shifts focus from the present-day to the past and back again and includes real-life footage of various soldiers and battles (hence the documentary status).

It’s one of a kind and a tremendous effort, though I longed for a bit more of the LGBTQ+ storyline, and was curious for a glimpse of what the real-life figures looked like, which usually comes at the end of a biography-type film.

In this case, it never did.

But the gripe is small potatoes when stacked against the meaning and inspiration that Flee provides.

The focus of the story is on Amin Nawabi who wrestles with a painful secret he has kept hidden for over twenty years, one that threatens to ruin the life he has built for himself and his soon-to-be husband, Kasper.

Recounted mostly through animation by director Jonas Poher Rasmussen, he tells the story of his extraordinary journey as a child refugee from Afghanistan.

Because of the animation, I was at first thrown by Flee since it starts with the interviewer and interviewee having a conversation. In a traditional documentary, we would see the two people face to face but instead, we hear their voices in animated characters.

I quickly got used to this and it’s the way the film is throughout. The real-life characters like Amin’s family and future husband are all animated and real human beings never appear except for the newsreel-type footage.

Surprising, and also a deepening of the story is when Amin admits that he initially lied about his family all being dead. The reason he does this is out of instinct and a survival technique (for both him and his family).

Flee is perfectly paced at one hour and thirty minutes. There is ample time to discuss and showcase Amin’s decision to leave Afghanistan and the terrible journey his mother and sisters were forced to endure.

They traveled by boat from Russia to the safety of Sweden as human traffickers.

What a horrific way to escape a country especially as many stories of deaths due to suffocation follow human traffickers.

Amin is a man of secrets and anyone who has ever harbored some out of desperation will assuredly relate to Amin’s plight.

He keeps many even from his husband to be and the viewer can understand his secrecy and deep-seated fear of a return to Afghanistan and certain execution.

His story is tragic and courageous but I yearned to know more about his life with Kasper. How did they meet? Did Amin have trouble realizing his homosexuality? He mentions that he was a ‘different’ child and openly wore girls’ dresses but how else did he deal? What obstacles did they or do they continue to face?

There is a beautiful scene where he comes out to his understanding brother and sisters but I guess I wanted more.

Visually, the graphics are modern and edgy. The different countries of Afghanistan, Russia, Sweden, and Denmark all take on distinctive identities and the animation during the boat sequences is quite nerve-racking.

If a standard documentary can provide adequate emotion and storytelling, the way the filmmakers decided to make Flee (2021) is remarkable and worthy of praise.

For those desiring a humanistic story of one man’s valiant plight, Flee will leave you very satisfied.

Oscar Nominations: Best Animated Feature, Best Documentary Feature, Best International Feature Film

The Many Saints of Newark-2021

The Many Saints of Newark-2021

Director-Alan Taylor

Starring Michael Gandolfini, Alessandro Nivola, Vera Farmiga

Scott’s Review #1,272

Reviewed July 4, 2022

Grade: B

Fans of the iconic HBO series The Sopranos which ran from 1999 to 2007 have been chomping at the bit since the announcement of the soon-to-be-released The Many Saints of Newark (2021).

The film is a prequel to the series centering on a young Tony Soprano. The kicker is that the actor who portrays Tony in the movie (Michael Gandolfini) is the real-life son of James Gandolfini who played Tony in the series.

To add mustard to the on-paper perfect setup is that the film is written by David Chase, the writer, and creator of The Sopranos. This ensures rich character development and dedication to the rich history.

What could go wrong?

The answer is that nothing is ‘wrong’ with The Many Saints of Newark. It’s just not brilliant like the series was and rather unnecessary to have been made in the first place, especially after such a long gap.

While the film meanders at times this gave me time to thoughtfully ruminate that perhaps The Many Saints of Newark would have been better as a limited series.

There are so many characters and too few of them are familiar to audiences of The Sopranos. The two-hour and change running time couldn’t possibly provide enough time to get to know many of them and I longed to.

On the upside, the film is shot quite well and the costumes, sets, and design of the 1960s and 1970s are remarkably beautiful with superior accuracy.

It succeeds in transplanting the audience to what Newark, New Jersey was like during that time. Additionally, the film looks quite a bit like The Sopranos and is influenced by the legendary 1991 offering Goodfellas and other mafia-laden films.

Young Anthony Soprano (Gandolfini) is growing up in one of the most tumultuous eras in Newark’s history, as rival gangsters begin to challenge and desecrate the powerful DiMeo crime family.

As the year 1967 emerges and Newark is now an increasingly race-torn city events take on a violent and historical time.

Conflicted by the changing times is Tony’s Uncle Dickie (Alessandro Nivola) whom he idolizes much more than his own father Johnny (Jon Bernthal) or domineering mother Livia (Vera Farmiga).

The Many Saints of Newark depicts how Tony will eventually become whom the audience knows as mob figure Tony Soprano!

Besides looking like his father, Gandolfini is not the best actor in the world but he does his best with a small role billed as the lead. He hardly appears until thirty minutes before the film concludes and he never carries the film like one would expect the character to.

The real star of the film is Dickie (Nivola) who is terrific. The storyline follows his conflict and a damaged relationship with his father, wonderfully played by Ray Liotta, and his father’s horny wife Giuseppina, who later becomes his mistress.

A shocking scene occurs when Dickie beats a major character to death by repeatedly slamming their head against a steering wheel. The death will hold forever repercussions for Dickie, emotionally and otherwise.

The problem is that even though Dickie is a great character the audience doesn’t know him and this is a problem.

Despite flaws with the marginally adequate casting, the uneven writing, and the focus on unfamiliar characters, there are other small treats to enjoy.

The film is peppered with familiar characters like Paulie, Big Pussy, and Carmella as younger people. Even though they don’t have much to do with the story their mere presence feels like an old home week.

The racial tensions are another win and actor Leslie Odon Jr. adds a winning formula to his character of Harold McBrayer, a black associate of Dickie’s.

I haven’t watched an episode of The Sopranos since it ended in 2007 and it may be advantageous to watch The Many Saints of Newark immediately after. Situations, history, and characters will be fresher in one’s mind and it may result in more cohesiveness.

Or maybe the film shouldn’t have been made fourteen years after the series ended.

Regardless, The Many Saints of Newark (2021) is a pretty solid effort but completely underwhelming especially when compared with such a groundbreaking television series.

Dear Evan Hansen-2021

Dear Evan Hansen-2021

Director-Stephen Chbosky

Starring Ben Platt, Kaitlyn Dever, Amy Adams

Scott’s Review #1,258

Reviewed May 25, 2022

Grade: A-

From the very first scene, Dear Evan Hansen (2021) grabbed me by the collar and never let me go. Providing an emotional wallop that mixes perfectly with meaningful and catchy pop songs the film is one that nearly everyone can relate to.

The oftentimes painful world of teenage angst is the central storyline and the dangerous and unfortunately too timely pandemic of mental illness is examined in heartwrenching form.

Dear Evan Hansen has a relevance that I found to be powerful and profound leaving me not soon forgetful of the experience.

I had never seen the hugely popular Broadway stage version so I only had a limited understanding of what the story was about going in. Still, as much as the subject matter is of great importance the film’s follow-through is what is tremendous and emotional with superb acting all around.

Tony, Grammy, and Emmy Award winner Ben Platt reprises his stage role as the anxious, isolated high schooler named Evan Hansen who craves companionship and understanding. He suffers the same quandary that many fellow teenagers face in a world rendered impersonal and heartless. He tries to survive the pressures and the chaos of the social-media age.

Lonely, he meets a young man named Connor Murphy (Colton Ryan) who is as wounded as Evan is. They have an odd first (and only) exchange after which Connor steals a therapy assignment of Evan’s, a letter to himself. Soon after, Connor commits suicide and his parents, played by Amy Adams and Danny Pino assume the boys were best friends.

Evan lies about the events to spare Connor’s parents which ultimately leads to events spiraling out of control.

I’m well aware of the outpouring of negative reviews that have been hurled at the film and I don’t understand nor agree with any of them.

My hunch is that the stage version may have been even more powerful because it’s a live production and the raw emotion is right there but the film does right by it.

Sure, Platt looks older than a teenager. The actor was twenty-seven years old when he filmed Dear Evan Hansen and a mere twenty-two or so when it appeared on Broadway but so what? With talent as superior as he is why cast a movie star?

I didn’t hear anyone complain when Olivia Newton-John played the iconic role of Sandy, a seventeen-year-old in Grease (1978) at the ripe old age of thirty.

Sometimes a suspension of disbelief is required.

Platt is a terrific casting choice and encompasses the role of Evan completely. He is shockingly good in dramatic scenes or when he comically fumbles over his words. His dramatic voice perfectly infuses the production’s most recognizable number You Will Be Found.

Besides, there are big stars in Dear Evan Hansen. Amy Adams plays the emotionally drained but hopeful Cynthia Murphy, blessed with affluence at the price of losing a son. Julianne Moore plays the haggard nurse and financially struggling mother of Evan.

Both are fabulous.

The film is directed by Stephen Chbosky who is responsible for the terrific and sorely underappreciated film adaptation of the novel The Perks of Being a Wallflower (2012) which he also wrote. He knows how to tell a coming-of-age story.

There are a couple of foul balls to be aware of but the emotion to be felt far exceeds these pesky matters.

The film occasionally overplays its casting with the inclusion of a few stock characters like the Indian technology wizard and the perky, straight-A student with the same problems as everyone else, but the characters don’t have enough to do to make them bothersome.

The chemistry between Platt and Kaitlyn Dever as the romantic interest is only tepid but I didn’t watch this film for the teen romance.

I could not disagree with the torrent of negative reviews for Dear Evan Hansen (2021) more and urge anyone reading this review to take in the film and be prepared for a tearjerker that feels authentic and justified in its existence.

Antlers-2021

Antlers-2021

Director-Scott Cooper

Starring Keri Russell, Jesse Plemons

Scott’s Review #1,255

Reviewed May 13, 2022

Grade: B+

Antlers (2021) is a film co-produced by Guillermo del Toro who is famous for dark, humanistic treasures like Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) and the Oscar-winning The Shape of Water (2017).

His name attached to the project conjures images of supernatural and otherworldly creations and some murky elements. While the film does contain his influence if looked at carefully it’s in a tepid way and I wouldn’t call it a del Toro type film.

But, it’s not as if he directed it either, he only helped fund it. Scott Cooper, known for Crazy Heart (2009) and Black Mass (2015), two very good films, does a fantastic job of adding horror elements and impressive cinematography that create a bleak and grey atmosphere that is perfect for horror.

The plot is the weak point in an otherwise exceptional offering. The story has a standard setup and unsatisfying ending save for an attempt to push the wheels in motion for a potential sequel.

Because of the Covid-19 pandemic, Antler’s release date was postponed twice and flew under the radar as many films did in the early 2020s.

Plus, star Jesse Plemons received an Oscar nomination for The Power of the Dog (2021) by the time the film hit the screens so it’s doubtful he’d make a return appearance.

I’m not sure the film is good enough to warrant a follow-up but I did thoroughly enjoy the perfect trimmings and quality acting even though the story didn’t completely satisfy me.

The film is based on the short story The Quiet Boy by Nick Antosca.

The action is set in a rural, isolated Oregon town where a middle-school teacher (Keri Russell) and her sheriff brother (Plemons) become entangled with her taciturn student Lucas (Jeremy T. Thomas) whose dark family secrets lead to terrifying encounters with a legendary ancestral creature known for creating debauchery.

The dazzling cinematography by Florian Hoffmeister perfectly encapsulates the setting of the Pacific Northwest making it appear grim and constantly cloudy. The foreboding presence is only helped by adding a dark mine as the main set where the dire events occur.

Russell does a fine job with carrying the film and Cooper and the team provides a character-driven approach to the story. Julia has returned to her hometown after the suicide of her father, who we quickly learn was abusing her as a little girl.

She bonds with Lucas who is also abused and this portion of the story works well. We get the bond and they connect well. He’s got a different set of daddy issues though since his wolf-like papa salivates at the sight of him and is diseased from an incident in the mine.

But, the Julia/Lucas relationship ultimately has very little to do with a wild creature running around killing a student and a principal. A quick scene involving a local townsperson explaining an ancient curse is uninspired even if he is played by Graham Greene from Dances With Wolves fame (1990).

I was more invested in the Julia and Paul raising Lucas angle and what comes next over the silly folklore curse that we’ve seen countless times in films.

The texture of Antlers easily awards it a solid B+ rating because it’s spooky and scary in some sequences. When Julia and Principal Ellen (Amy Madigan) separately approach the run-down Weaver house the camera follows the characters making the audience feel like they are the ones entering the house.

We know bad things will soon happen and that makes it fun.

Because of the great camera work and use of lighting, I’d never want to set foot in Cispus Falls.

As an aside for every film writer out there, it’s time to discard the anti-LGBTQ slurs once and for all. Aren’t we beyond this? Can’t we write one character calling another a ‘loser’ and leave it at that?

The visceral style of Antlers (2021) is more than enough reason to recommend it. A straight-ahead supernatural horror film with a grim veneer is the reason to see it. The ho-hum story is rather secondary.

House of Gucci-2021

House of Gucci-2021

Director-Ridley Scott

Starring Lady Gaga, Adam Driver, Jared Leto

Scott’s Review #1,244

Reviewed April 10, 2022

Grade: B+

Upon the release of 2021’s House of Gucci, much Awards buzz surrounded the film, especially for Lady Gaga’s performance. A story of a once lofty Italian fashion family of the 1970s, 80s, and 90s seemed a prime winner on many levels.

Sadly, reviews quickly turned mediocre or downright lethal as more and more people saw the film reducing it to a meager one lonely Oscar nomination in a category viewed as minor.

The accolades were expected to be much loftier but the buzz was tarnished very quickly. Critics largely dismissed the work as too campy and melodramatic for its good but did praise the acting. Some ripped it to shreds entirely.

Mainstream audiences were a bit kinder than your average critic was.

While I recognize the criticisms and even agree with some, mostly its uneven pacing, I find House of Gucci a resounding guilty pleasure. The main appeal is Lady Gaga who takes charge, playing an unlikable manipulator who you shouldn’t root for but will anyway.

Here is a brief synopsis for those not familiar with the real-life story of the rise and crumble of the Gucci empire.

The film is inspired by the shocking true story of the family behind the Italian fashion empire. When Patrizia Reggiani (Lady Gaga), an outsider from humble beginnings, marries Maurizio Gucci and all his wealth, her unbridled ambition and manipulations tear the once close-knit family apart.

The family legacy quickly unravels and triggers a domino effect of betrayal, decadence, revenge, and murder.

With a cast including heavyweights such as Al Pacino, Jeremy Irons, Salma Hayek, and Jared Leto there is much to focus on in the acting department. Besides Hayek who plays a psychic, all contain Gucci blood. All are terrific except Leto who suffers from overreaching for the stars in terms of the emphasis he puts on being a red-blooded Italian man. He overacts.

Of note is that all of the principal cast is American, not Italian, so the fact that I bought the language, culture, and mannerisms as authentic is another testament to their talent.

The fact that House of Gucci is directed by the legendary Ridley Scott is a surprise. Known for either science-fiction or different sorts of offerings like Alien (1979), Blade Runner (1982), and Gladiator (2001), House of Gucci feels like a stretch for the seasoned director by way of subject matter.

Perhaps he phoned it in? There is little that is a cinematic spectacle in House of Gucci and its straight-ahead drama. Some argue it’s shot like a television movie. While I disagree that it’s as dismal as all that I do get the point.

From the camera lens, the film is saved tremendously by the juicy and lavish sequences that transpire in Milan, Italy. The decadence of the 1980s is never more apparent than amid the fashion capital of the world. With lavish estates, nightclubs, and enough exterior scenes to satisfy anyone who has been to Milan (I have!), it’s enough to save most viewers from the ho-hum story.

I’ve mentioned early how House of Gucci feels uneven. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly but there’s a feeling of a gaping hole or something missing from the film. Sure, there is enough drama and schemes to make television’s The Bachelor proud but there is a glaring misfire throughout.

I would have assured that Lady Gaga made the Best Actress Oscar list but sadly this was not to be. This is too bad because she gives it her all as badass Patrizia. She is a woman not to be fucked with and when she turns the tables on her husband and the love of her life he better watch out.

It’s a shame that all the dots didn’t connect for House of Gucci (2021). With such a terrific cast, juicy locales, and a respected director, the film could have been a contender. Instead, it’s a pretty good film that needs not be watched a second time.

Oscar Nominations: Best Makeup and Hairstyling

King Richard-2021

King Richard-2021

Director-Reinaldo Marcus Green

Starring Will Smith, Aunjanue Ellis

Scott’s Review #1,238

Reviewed March 13, 2022

Grade: B+

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

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

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

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

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

Time will tell.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No Time to Die-2021

No Time to Die-2021

Director-Cary Fukunaga

Starring Daniel Craig, Léa Seydoux, Rami Malek

Scott’s Review #1,236

Reviewed March 6, 2022

Grade: A-

Celebrating the twenty-fifth in the iconic James Bond film franchise, No Time to Die (2021) is Daniel Craig’s fifth and final appearance as the British MI6 agent. As of this writing, it is yet to be determined who will next step into the shoes of the legendary character but Craig was able to make the character his own since his debut in Casino Royale (2006).

He retains his hunky and muscular portrayal with a sullen and serious tone.

No Time to Die is visually and stylistically similar to the recent handful of films to come before it with a slick and modern look and feel. The difference is that the film is about relationships and has a shocking conclusion that nearly rivals Mrs. James Bond’s, death in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service way back in 1969.

There are few quips or one-liners uttered by James Bond and we can agree that Craig does not play the character in the same way that Roger Moore did. But, there exists a dark and dreary tone throughout and more than one surprising death.

It’s a serious affair.

I love the parallels to On Her Majesty’s Secret Service that emerge mostly in the beginning and end of the film. The inclusion of the famous Louis Armstrong song ‘We Have All the Time in the World’ recalls both love and loss experienced by Bond and is played in full during the closing credits.

This is a special treat for fans of that film, myself included. I felt emotionally connected to No Time to Die which was a major score for it.

In a long opening sequence, a young girl named Madeleine witnesses the murder of her mother by terrorist Lyutsifer Safin in a failed attempt to murder her father Mr. White (appearing in Casino Royale). Madeleine shoots Safin (Rami Malek), but he survives and rescues her after she falls into a frozen lake. This connects them for life.

In the present, after the capture of villain Blofeld, Madeleine (Léa Seydoux) is vacationing in Southern Italy with Bond when Spectre’s assassins ambush him. He incorrectly assumes Madelaine has betrayed him and he ends their relationship after they escape death.

Depressed, Bond retires to Jamaica but returns to action after his friend Felix Leiter (Jeffrey Wright) from the CIA turns up asking for help. The mission to rescue a kidnapped scientist turns out to be far more treacherous than expected, leading Bond onto the trail of a mysterious villain armed with dangerous new technology.

With the emotional and relationship investments successfully sealed any worthy Bond film should have great action with interesting locales, stellar villains, and relevant Bond girls. In this regard, the film gets a solid B+ with the aforementioned bumping it up a notch.

The chase throughout southern Italy is fabulous with delicious scenery of the culturally lavish country getting the film off to a fast start. Other sequences in Chile and Cuba show the sophistication and investment in quality locales. Naturally, London is heavily featured and I adore the grand and frequent aerial views that allow prominent landmarks to be discovered.

As creepy as actor Malek can be in his roles and as dastardly a villain as he plays, I wasn’t completed satisfied with the character of Safin. Not appearing in an obvious fashion until midway through his screen time is limited and his motivations murky- I wanted more.

The casting is terrific but the character is underwhelming and not explored to his potential.

Christoph Waltz’s limited appearance as an imprisoned Blofeld is great, and double agent Logan Ash (Billy Magnussen), and scientist Obruchev (David Dencik) prove quality secondary villains. The storyline with Felix and the returns of Moneypenny, Q, and M (now played by Ralph Fiennes) is solid.

Main Bond girl Madelaine did not win me over at first but by the end, I was heavily invested, especially since she is a powerful female character and a true romantic partner to Bond. A new female 007, played by Lashana Lynch is a progressive inclusion that breathes new life into MI6.

May both appear in the future?

Time, and perhaps another viewing, will determine how No Time to Die (2021) ranks compared to other Bond films. At a hefty two hours and forty-three minutes, the film drags in the middle section, and some characters receive limited exploration.

The nods to history and the heavy emotional investment kept me glued to my seat.

Oscar Nominations: Best Original Song-“No Time to Die” (won), Best Sound, Best Visual Effects

The Eyes of Tammy Faye-2021

The Eyes of Tammy Faye-2021

Director-Michael Showalter

Starring Jessica Chastain, Andrew Garfield

Scott’s Review #1,233

Reviewed February 26, 2022

Grade: A-

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

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

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

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

It is Chastain’s best role yet.

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

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

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

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

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

This is the point where the film takes off.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Lost Daughter-2021

The Lost Daughter-2021

Director-Maggie Gyllenhaal

Starring-Olivia Colman, Dakota Johnson

Scott’s Review #1,232

Reviewed February 21, 2022

Grade: A

Throughout The Lost Daughter (2021), there is a constant feeling of dread that may result in viewer anxiety. We know that bad things are coming but we do not know how or when. This makes for good drama done exceptionally well by director Maggie Gyllenhaal in her astounding debut.

She has acted for years and has made the transition to writer/director.

Gyllenhaal adapts her film from a novel written by Italian author, Elena Ferrante. The experience is extremely female-centered and having a female pen both book and film makes it a rich and authentic project. The result is a brilliant depiction of motherhood and choices but everyone must see and appreciate this film.

However, the film is not for everyone nor will it please those seeking a conventional work about mother and daughter love and moments of happily skipping through the field of daisies. It has feel-good moments but is much, much darker than some would imagine.

For me, those aspects are what make The Lost Daughter so damned amazing.

We meet middle-aged Leda (Olivia Colman) when the woman embarks on a seaside vacation in Greece. She begins to observe a young mother, Nina, played by Dakota Johnson, and her daughter, Elena, on the beach and becomes obsessed with them. Leda unwisely butts heads with the mother’s menacing extended family who may be mafia related.

Leda begins to have memories of her early motherhood when she struggled to raise two young girls while balancing her career as a professor. When she spontaneously steals Elena’s doll she becomes increasingly more obsessive while battling moments of rage and emotion.

Colman is a perfect choice for the central character. From the first moment, she appears on the screen we know there is conflict surrounding her. She is angry and consumed with either guilt or tension. The actress is wonderful at portraying Leda’s complexities through her eyes and facial expressions. Many shots of Leda quietly observing events or sitting on the beach deep in thought are powerful.

Though a quiet film, The Lost Daughter never drags or lags as Gyllenhaal is perfect at providing a doom and gloom feeling. I was dying to know Leda’s secrets and the interspersing flashbacks to a young Leda, wonderfully played by Jessie Buckley, finally provide resolution.

But that’s just the beginning of the fun. Once Leda’s backstory is revealed, and Gyllenhaal makes us wait quite a while for the reveal, there are more places for the film to go, like what about the stolen doll?

The viewer will not only wonder why Leda stole the doll but why won’t she return it, especially when it’s known how desperately the family wants it back. Will they kill her when they find out she has it?

Beneath all the drama there is a lingering question that is asked of the viewers. Do I want to be a parent? The film is not only for women but men can certainly ask themselves the same question.

The inclusion of a male character played by Ed Harris is evidence of this. Older now, in his youth he struggled with being a father.

The film has a sense of purpose and meaning that many films lack. A film that poses questions and makes the viewer squirm a bit is top-notch for me. The basic story of a lone woman on vacation grows into intensity and psychological warfare among oneself and their feelings.

The Lost Daughter (2021) is a difficult watch but a lesson in great acting, directing, writing, and what atmosphere and mood can do to a story layered with intrigue. As shocking and unsettling as moments are I was left feeling satisfied that I had seen something of worth and merit.

I can’t wait to see what Gyllenhaal does next.

Oscar Nominations: Best Actress-Olivia Colman, Best Supporting Actress-Jessie Buckley, Best Adapted Screenplay

Independent Spirit Award Nominations: Best Feature (won), Best Director-Maggie Gyllenhaal (won), Best Screenplay (won), Best Supporting Female-Jessie Buckley

Nightmare Alley-2021

Nightmare Alley-2021

Director-Guillermo del Toro

Starring-Bradley Cooper, Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mara

Scott’s Review #1,229

Reviewed February 13, 2022

Grade: B+

I have not seen the original Nightmare Alley made in 1947 so can make no comparisons to how the film noir remake in 2021 compares but I am a fan of respected filmmaker Guillermo del Toro. His knack for creating such dark treats containing fantastical elements like Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) and The Shape of Water (2017) have similar tones.

Set back in the 1930s and the 1940s when the United States of America suffered from the Depression and subsequently World War II, a midwestern carnival and then wintry Buffalo, New York are the chosen settings for his latest film.

Nightmare Alley feels like two different films and I prefer the first half by a small margin. del Toro is a major filmmaker and while he creates an experience that is gorgeously shot and simmering with effective elements it’s not one of his best films and certainly not on par with the above-mentioned gems.

The story stretches believability at times and feels like the film noir elements from the original might have been included just for the sake of making it fit a defined category. The twist at the end shocks and disturbs which cements the del Toro flavor.

To summarize, the look of the film is exceptional and the story is pretty good and the two halves, one in the midwest and the other in Buffalo, feel disjointed.

When handsome and very charismatic but down-on-his-luck Stanton Carlisle (Bradley Cooper) meets the clairvoyant Zeena (Toni Collette) and her aging mentalist husband Pete (David Strathairn) at a traveling carnival, he creates a powerful act utilizing his ability to manipulate townfolks.

He has fled from a dark past involving his father and fire but we don’t know the exact details.

Moving on to Buffalo, he enshrouds the wealthy elite of 1940s New York high society. With the virtuous Molly (Rooney Mara) by his side, Stanton plots to con a rich yet vulnerable tycoon (Richard Jenkins) with the aid of a mysterious and pouty psychiatrist (Cate Blanchett) who might have tricks up her sleeve.

Since I adore Blanchett I was eagerly awaiting her entrance which unfortunately doesn’t come until midway through the film. Nonetheless, she makes quite an impression as she smokes and drinks in stylish glamour befitting gorgeous women of the time. Moreover, her character of Lilith Ritter is cold and calculating as the audience knows she is toying with Stanton, we just don’t know how or why.

While not quite a romantic triangle, Cooper has good chemistry with Mara but tremendous chemistry with Blanchett. Both actresses reunite from their turn together in Carol (2015) but have very little screen time together.

Each of the three delivers a mighty performance with Cooper and Blanchett simply mesmerizing.

One can even forget the plot entirely and simply look at the film. It’s that good and polished. From the dusty and depressing midwestern ordinary towns to the architecturally fabulous Buffalo, del Toro and team construct a lavish production design. Each costume and set piece is perfectly staged.

I was more attuned to the strange and creepy carnival characters like the ‘geek’ and Cooper and Blanchett making on-screen magnificence than to care as much as I should have about the storyline plotholes or inconsistencies.

The unsatisfying reveal about the relationship between Stanton and his father or the backstory of the rich tycoon abusing young girls only gave me mild interest. The story as a whole becomes too complex and uncompelling for me to really care for a while.

The sweet spot of Nightmare Alley (2021) is the grand production design and the flawless acting. Besides an effective ‘oh, shit!’ moment at the conclusion which confirms Cooper as a great actor, the story mainly meanders.

It’s a very good effort but not one of del Toro’s best.

Oscar Nominations: Best Picture, Best Cinematography, Best Production Design, Best Costume Design

Passing-2021

Passing-2021

Director-Rebecca Hall

Starring-Tessa Thompson, Ruth Negga

Scott’s Review #1,222

Reviewed January 22, 2022

Grade: A

Passing (2021) is a quiet film brimming with importance. It’s the feature directorial debut of Rebecca Hall and she hits a home run with a film pleasing both visually and from a storytelling perspective.

The title of the film equates, the word ‘passing’ refers to three different meanings as the viewer will need to wait until the end to figure it out.  I was not able to deduce the third meaning until I read the synopsis and was left in a state of shock.

The setting is 1920s New York City, a polished time when status and sophistication meant everything. Unfortunately, despite the liberal-leaning metropolis racism is still alive and kicking.

The first scene shows a pair of well-dressed ladies entering a store commenting how thankful they feel that their children have only met ‘colored’ people who are members of their staff. The message is laid clear that they feel anyone of dark skin are lepers.

Passing is a film about race but so much more.

Tessa Thompson plays Irene Redfield, a well to do light-skinned black woman who is married to a successful doctor, Brian (André Holland). They reside in Harlem in a largely black neighborhood. Irene is respected and is also able to walk amongst cultured white people and ‘pass’ for white. She is treated differently when she does.

One day Irene stops for a sandwich at a posh hotel. She runs into her childhood friend Clare (Ruth Negga) who is also of mixed race. Clare completely passes for white and is married to a successful and handsome banker, John Bellew (Alexander Skarsgård). He makes no secret of despising black people.

As Irene and Clare reconnect, Clare begins to immerse herself in the black culture and specifically in Irene’s life. She flirts with many black men and grows close to Brian much to Irene’s chagrin. Irene becomes both jealous and enamored with Clare.

They both risk their established lives as they soul search for their truths.

Passing is not conventional and that’s what I admire and love about it. While watching I never knew what direction the film was going in and I missed one subtle, yet important, detail- Irene’s fascination with Clare. The complex relationship is shaken to the core in a jarring final sequence during a winter party in a luxury apartment.

Hall makes the monumental good decision to film in black and white cinematography thus making the racial subject and tones all the more powerful.

Visually, this is never more evident than when Clare stands beside a darker-skinned black character. The contrast is astounding and made me believe how everyone would be fooled into thinking she is a white woman.

The story of two cultured black women dealing with life in the early twentieth century is juicy enough but the stuff peeking out from beneath the surface heightens the meaning of Passing and adds layers and layers of emotional vigor.

The film reminds me of the 2002 masterpiece Far from Heaven. Visually brilliant and both offering stories about race, they are both also tragic. Nobody ends up happy or fulfilled and a terminal sense of loss is palpable in each. A tortured, well-manicured central character exists in both films.

Negga has received the lion’s share of praise for playing Clare but Thompson is also flawless. Both actresses are brilliant playing characters who are very much alike. They strive for perfection but are nonetheless living in fantasy worlds whether they realize it or not. It’s tough to convey this to audiences but they do in measured calmness.

The film shows that we all pretend just a little bit and pass it off sometimes, don’t we?

It’s a scary realization.

My standard modus operandi when I review a film is to think whether it stays with me after the credits roll or if it is quickly dismissed from my train of thought.

Passing (2021) has powerfully remained in my mind and caused me to ruminate and peel back the onion more and more in this tremendous and stylistic effort.

Independent Spirit Award Nominations: Best Supporting Female-Ruth Negga (won), Best Cinematography (won)

Don’t Look Up-2021

Don’t Look Up-2021

Director-Adam McKay

Starring-Leonardo DiCaprio, Jennifer Lawrence, Meryl Streep

Scott’s Review #1,220

Reviewed January 16, 2022

Grade: A

In the times of the Covid pandemic, ‘water cooler’ films have ceased to exist. Once, employees would gather around the water cooler to discuss a current film or television show. These days, with many working from home this activity has waned.

Too bad, because Don’t Look Up (2021) is one of those films.

It was not on my radar until a flurry of scuttlebutt and controversy brought the film to the forefront of my mind and many others. Super topical and mired in irony, everyone should see it, but those who need to won’t.

It’s a brazen and in-your-face look at how science and facts are dismissed by some who can’t see the forest for the trees, or in this case, a giant comet speeding towards planet Earth. In the year 2021, with controversy over Covid preventing mask-wearing and preventative vaccinations, Don’t Look Up portrays those as simply stupid.

As they are.

Those viewers who are conspiracy theorists, Trump supporters, or I daresay even too self-absorbed to look past their own lives are the ones who should see the film the most. You will be mocked and used as fodder for the entertainment of the more intelligent species of human beings.

But, perhaps learn a thing or two?

Led by director Adam McKay, famous for satirical works such as 2015’s The Big Short, he satirizes the current state of worldly affairs masterfully, using political comparisons and the world-weary science versus non-science approach.

McKay also writes and produces.

He enlists an all-star cast who were chomping at the bit to be part of his relevant and brilliant project. Leonardo DiCaprio, Jennifer Lawrence, Meryl Streep, Mark Ryland, and Cate Blanchett are just a handful of participating stars.

Kate Dibiasky (Jennifer Lawrence) is an astronomy graduate student who along with her professor Doctor Randall Mindy (Leonardo DiCaprio) makes a discovery of a comet on a collision course with Earth. It is expected to arrive within six months and destroy most of the planet.

They are shocked and dismayed when their attempts to get anyone to pay any attention are hijacked by the media and the President of the United States of America, President Orlean (Streep). Instead, folks in high power attempt to use the ‘story’ for either ratings or political gain.

With the help of Doctor Oglethorpe (Rob Morgan), Kate and Randall embark on a media tour that takes them to the airwaves of The Daily Rip, an upbeat morning show hosted by Brie (Cate Blanchett) and Jack (Tyler Perry). While Randall embarks on an affair with Brie, the scientists attempt to gain the attention of the social media-obsessed public before it’s too late.

As the title states, just look up?!

President Orlean and her psychopathic son and Chief of Staff, Jason (Jonah Hill), are patterned after former President Donald J. Trump and his son. Their nastiness and dismissive attitude, only thinking of personal gain are despicable.

Hysterically and satisfying, they each get their proper comeuppance.

Orlean’s demise at the end of the film is particularly satisfying. Stay post-credits for this treat.

Don’t Look Up is not a conventional film- it’s better than that. Its special sauce is its powerful message and reassurance for viewers to not take good old-fashioned common sense for granted. Despite the naysayers, the use of one’s brain is a valuable commodity.

The urgency of the matter is not meant to be taken for granted but there is enough comedy elements to classify it as such- a dark comedy.

DiCaprio is terrific in the lead role. Nervous and having difficulty expressing himself, his frustration is felt as he tries to warn the world of impending doom. The actor can play any character and it’s great seeing him add a sexy, middle-aged nerd to his repertoire.

Lawrence is a killer. Her character has no filter and is known to burst into rage making her lash-out scenes pleasing. Kate will call an idiot an idiot. Her outburst at the President is a particularly terrific scene.

Despite the laughter, Don’t Look Up (2021) sends a dire message. It mirrors the current times and what trouble we are in. The grim final sequence when Randall, Kate, and family sit around the dinner table enjoying a Thanksgiving-style meal is also a reminder to keep loved ones close and treasure every moment.

Oscar Nominations: Best Picture, Best Original Screenplay, Best Film Editing, Best Original Score

Candyman-2021

Candyman-2021

Director-Nia DaCosta

Starring-Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Teyonah Parris

Scott’s Review #1,217

Reviewed January 8, 2022

Grade: B

Not being such a fan of the original Candyman horror film from 1992 though admittedly not remembering it too well either I had mixed feelings when I heard that a reboot was in the works. I’ve learned that while most remakes, especially in the horror genre, are not masterpieces, there is some joy in seeing them resurface.

I was delighted when I realized that Jordan Peele, the magnificent modern director of gems like Get Out (2017) and Us (2019) had co-written the screenplay. Peele has a tendency of creating intelligent and well-written black characters, something that still needs more representation in film today.

I admire the creativity and visual aspects that the new Candyman (2021) offers and the characters, mostly black, are to be respected and emulated because they are the heroes of the film.

The social message is another win and Peele is not the only player deserving of credit. Newcomer director, Nia DaCosta treats the viewer to more than the story. An artsy and sophisticated downtown Chicago art gallery and the swanky apartment is the main setting.

With all these credos Candyman is not a complete win and is sometimes overcomplicated. The supernatural elements, paired with a socially relevant angle, are implausible and I yearned for a more direct and accountable approach rather than fantastical storytelling.

The film has a certain left-wing message which I champion but that others may not.

For as long as residents can remember, the urban housing projects of Chicago’s Cabrini-Green neighborhood have been terrorized by a word-of-mouth ghost story about a supernatural killer with a hook for a hand. He can easily be summoned by simply repeating his name five times into a mirror.

As a child, Anthony McCoy (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) who was a resident of the towers, met a man assumed to be the killer who was then unnecessarily killed by police.

Decades later, the Cabrini towers are long gone and Anthony is a struggling visual artist. He and his girlfriend, gallery director Brianna Cartwright (Teyonah Parris), move into a luxury loft condo in Cabrini, now gentrified and inhabited by affluent millennials.

Anthony has a chance encounter with a former Cabrini-Green resident named Billy Burke (Colman Domingo). Anthony begins to explore these macabre details in his paintings, unknowingly unleashing a supernatural beast and risking his own sanity.

The sophisticated visual style and especially the wonderful drawings featured at the start and end of Candyman are highly impressive. They provide a heavy and realistic portrayal of African American culture and the generations of unfairness and mistreatment they have suffered.

This parlays to the point of the film and is nuanced with why the supernatural force with the hook rises up in the first place and takes his vengeance out on people who conjure him.

The final sequence cements this detail as a slaughter erupts between Anthony, Brianna, and the police. The police are portrayed as unkind and corrupt but I get the point of the film. Oftentimes the police are no friends of poor black people.

Despite the social element, Candyman doesn’t feel preachy.

The lead actors are attractive and appealing and even the original Candyman, actor Tony Todd, makes an appearance, though extremely brief. Other characters from the original also make appearances.

The kill scenes, a must for a horror film, are delightful, especially a sequence in which a troupe of gossipy schoolgirls meets their maker in a bloody girl’s bathroom scene. Besides being fun, the scene features a camera visual through a makeup compactor that is highly effective.

It’s just that when the credits rolled I didn’t feel enough satisfaction from what I had just seen. I was more perplexed with how the legend intersected (or did he become?) with present times and with Anthony specifically.

Candyman (2021) delivers an entertaining and relevant themed resurfacing of a thirty-year-old film that I’m glad I watched. It sometimes delivers but the realistic and important racial message is sometimes overshadowed by an otherworldly spirit.

Licorice Pizza-2021

Licorice Pizza-2021

Director-Paul Thomas Anderson

Starring-Alana Haim, Cooper Hoffman

Scott’s Review #1,213

Reviewed December 27, 2021

Grade: A

Licorice Pizza (2021) is a Los Angeles-based coming-of-age drama by director Paul Thomas Anderson.  Anderson is one of my favorite directors and the film is a must-see for fans of his. Most fans of his yearn to see everything he creates and this one will not disappoint.

One may initially yawn at the tired coming-of-age drama genre and I did too but once I heard that Anderson was directing my curiosity was piqued and I felt secure in the knowledge that the film would be different.

Indeed, Licorice Pizza is special and has a charm all its own.

The expected killer musical soundtrack, prevalent in many Anderson films is there and befitting of the time of 1973. A bit of quirky black humor and general weirdness is also there and so are cameos by A-list superstars like Sean Penn and Bradley Cooper.

Speaking of the soundtrack, they may not be the expected top hits of the time but more obscure gems like ‘Life On Mars?” by David Bowie, “Walk Away” by Joe Walsh, or “But You’re Mine” by Sonny & Cher. I enjoyed the under-the-radar approach as it fits the central characters.

Besides these and other juicy trimmings, the story is a wonderful romantic comedy featuring up-and-coming Hollywood stars, Alana Haim and Cooper Hoffman. They carry the film and emit tremendous chemistry from their very first scene. Haim is in a rock band and Hoffman is the son of actor and frequent Anderson star Phillip Seymore Hoffman. I bet dad would be proud of his son.

For a very recent comparison, Licorice Pizza is similar in setting and tone to Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019) though the stories are quite dissimilar.

Alana Kane (Haim) and Gary Valentine (Hoffman) are twenty-five years old and fifteen years old, respectively.  They grow up, run around, and fall in love in California’s San Fernando Valley in the year of 1973. Gary is a child actor who also dabbles in his own public relations business while Alana is a struggling photographer’s assistant yearning to do something more important.

Immediately rebuffing the advances of a ‘child’ Alana slowly falls for Gary and the two forge an unbroken bond as they deal with successes, failures, heartbreaks, and longings.

The setting of sunny California in 1973 is pure genius as Anderson authentically takes us there with the cars, the clothing, and the hairstyles then considered trendy. The added pleasure of seeing stars of the day like Jack Holden (really William Holden), Lucy Doolittle (really Lucille Ball), and film producer John Peters is downright gleeful.

Not to be outdone, Sean Penn, Christine Ebersole, and Bradley Cooper portray these figures. Each actor is delightful in their respective roles with my favorite being Penn as the martini slugging Holden.

But the film is hardly about celebrity sightings in a long-ago era.

During the final act, Alana becomes enamored with a politician that she works for. Not a superfluous romantic entanglement, the figure is Joel Wachs, a real-life then closeted gay male who later would champion gay causes. The film showcases the pain of a closeted gay man and his secretive boyfriend as Alana helps them put up a front to avoid his career being ruined.

At the heart of Licorice Pizza though remains the romance of Gary and Alana. The fact that there is a ten-year age gap between them should be a big deal but somehow it’s not. Gary can be precocious and sometimes a little shit, and Alana is moody and temperamental but I fell in love with them anyway and other viewers will assuredly share my passion for the pair.

They try to get through their youth with some sort of plan or semblance of direction and the joy is to traverse along with them and enjoy the ride.

There is a freshness and honesty to Licorice Pizza (2021) that cannot be unshaken. Thanks in large part to Hoffman and Haim the film is one of those that exude magnificence and appeal that is hard to put into words. Viewers of any age will immediately be transported back to young adulthood and the feelings and inadequacies that come along with it.

I wish more films of this ilk were made.

Oscar Nominations: Best Picture, Best Director-Paul Thomas Anderson, Best Original Screenplay

The Forever Purge-2021

The Forever Purge-2021

Director-Everardo Gout

Starring-Tenoch Huerta, Josh Lucas, Ana de la Reguera

Scott’s Review #1,209

Reviewed December 18, 2021

Grade: B+

To date, I’ve seen two of the four installments of The Purge film franchise. The first one, The Purge (2013) was an edgy, creative concept that brought fresh energy to the horror genre. The sequel, The Purge: Anarchy (2014) was a decent follow-up but nothing to write home about either.

I skipped the next two: The Purge: Election Year (2016) and The First Purge (2018).

My expectations were low for the latest effort, The Forever Purge (2021). I’ve seen way too many ‘part five’ of various horror films to be tricked into thinking anything different will be offered to me.

I was pleasantly surprised. While the film doesn’t rewrite the rulebooks and sticks to a familiar formula for these types of films, there exists a timely political plot surrounding immigration that mirrors the deadly ‘Trump era’ that the United States is sadly still in the midst of ever since the 2016 presidential election.

After the film ended I first chuckled but then felt sad at the message that perhaps at some point citizens of the United States will flee to Mexico instead of the other way around.

It’s a somber message worth taking seriously.

In the first scene, we see Adela (Ana de la Reguera) and her husband Juan (Tenoch Huerta) come across the border from Mexico to live in Texas, where Juan is working as a ranch hand for the wealthy Tucker family. We presume they are illegal immigrants.

Juan impresses the Tucker patriarch, Caleb (Will Patton), but that fuels the jealous anger of Caleb’s son, Dylan (Josh Lucas). The residents of the small town prepare for lockdown because of the annual Purge, where all crime, including murder, is legal for one night only.

On the morning after The Purge, a masked gang of killers attacks the Tucker family including Dylan’s pregnant wife (Cassidy Freeman), and his sister (Leven Rambin), forcing both families to band together and fight back as the country spirals into chaos and the United States begins to crumble around them.

The insurrectionist movement continues committing crimes and murders nationwide after the Purge’s ending. The gang and their supporters spread throughout the United States as a Civil War eventually erupts causing many residents of Texas to flee to neighboring Mexico.

Unusual for horror films the premise and the screenplay are written quite well. The social message is a unique one and solidifies the importance of the action going on. Rather than feeling superfluous, I instead imagined that the events could occur in real-life current United States.

It was an unsettling feeling that made me focus on the film even more than I likely would have.

I love that James DeMonaco (director of the first three and writer of all five) is so heavily involved with the franchise. This consistency brings continuity and a good flow to the series. A sixth film is already in the works.

Too often in horror films a new regime will come along and change everything we knew from the preceding films.

The progressive slant of DeMonaco and director Everardo Gout won me over and I champion that the Mexican characters are the heroes of the film. Not to be forgotten, the caucasian Tucker family are written as sympathizing with and supporting their Mexican friends, becoming strong allies.

Where The Forever Purge lags a bit is with the traditionally standard action sequences. Numerous occurrences of shootouts between the Tuckers and Mexican family (they are never given a last name) and the radical movement become tired and standard after a while.

I sometimes felt like I was watching an episode of The Walking Dead.

The insurrectionists are portrayed as your basic dumb rednecks with primitive ideals and racist viewpoints but you never hear the current government’s side of the story. It is explained that the New Founding Fathers of America (NFFA) have regained control of the U.S. government but the explanations are limited.

It is supposed to be 2048 but this point feels silly since it is present times as far as hairstyles, clothing, and automobiles go.

I credit the thoughtful and forward-thinking approach that DeMonaco provides to The Forever Purge (2021). The political commentary is a huge win in an otherwise entertaining yet standard dystopian action horror film.

The film may be dated in ten or twenty years but in 2021 the message is pretty damned frightening.

Respect-2021

Respect-2021

Director-Liesl Tommy

Starring Jennifer Hudson, Forest Whitaker, Marlon Wayans

Scott’s Review #1,208

Reviewed December 17, 2021

Grade: B-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

West Side Story-2021

West Side Story-2021

Director-Steven Spielberg

Starring-Ansel Elgort, Rachel Zegler, Ariana DeBose

Scott’s Review #1,207

Reviewed December 12, 2021

Grade: A

I salivated when the news broke that a reboot of the brilliant 1961 film West Side Story, itself based on a Broadway musical, was being planned. I was cautiously optimistic when I heard Steven Spielberg would direct the production. Nothing personal against Mr. Spielberg but there have been some misses with musical adaptations over the years.

Does anyone remember Cats (2019)? I know, we are all trying to forget it.

Nonetheless, my anticipation was sidelined temporarily due to the hated Covid-19 pandemic but art always perseveres and the release of the new West Side Story was changed from December 2020 to December 2021.

Finally, the moment had arrived and I was even fortunate enough to score members-only sneak preview tickets to an early screening at my local art theater.

Hooray!

West Side Story (2021) is a brilliant adaptation and does not disappoint in the least providing entertainment and authenticity for miles. It’s bombastic and enthralling mixing romance with some quite brutal fight scenes. The delightful songs “Maria”, “America”, “Tonight”, “I Feel Pretty”, and my personal favorite “Somewhere” are all included and are like new gifts for fans to greedily unwrap.

This may be the best effort yet by Spielberg (I never thought he’d top 1993’s Schindler’s List) as he recreates a musical spectacle that will surely entice viewers back to the cinemas.

The reboot has life, artistry, and expressionism breathing fresh energy into the production. In some ways, it’s superior to the 1961 version.

Despite being created in the late 1950s there is a timeliness to it. Racism sadly still exists in America and we have much work to do to unite as one if we ever do. This may feel hopeless but the message of the film is one of love and unity providing hints of hopefulness.

How timely and how much needed this film is.

The film has a deeper sentiment because of the recent death of Stephen Sondheim, the masterful composer, and lyricist who reinvented the American musical. He worked in tandem with Leonard Bernstein on most of these songs.

For those unfamiliar let me summarize the plot of the film.

Love, at first sight, strikes when young Tony (Ansel Elgort) spots Maria (Rachel Zegler) at a high school dance in 1957 New York City. Forbidden to have anything to do with each other except to hate each other, their immediate romance helps to fuel the fire between the warring Jets and Sharks- two rival gangs vying for control of the streets.

Things go from tense to terrible when street fights between the gangs lead to mayhem, misunderstandings, and death.

The film is crafted exceptionally well from a visual and cinematic perspective. From the opening sequence when the gangs stumble amongst the ruins of a decrepit west side lot there are intriguing shadows and shapes and high camera shots. These continue throughout the film when the flawless choreography of the dance scene takes center stage.

Speilberg corrects missteps that the 1961 version made which brought a wide smile to my face. The Puerto Rican characters that makeup half the cast are played by Hispanic actors. The big mistake the original film made was casting caucasian actors passing for Puerto Rican.

The chemistry between Richard Baymer (original Tony) and Natalie Wood (original Maria) was lacking but it explodes off the screen from the first moment that Elgort and Zegler appear together.

Rita Morena, familiar to West Side Story fans with her portrayal of Anita in the 1961 version returns in the role of Valentina who runs Doc’s general store and is assumed to be the widow of Doc. It is explained that Valentina, Puerto Rican, married a white man. Morena’s role is much bigger than I thought and she performs a magnificent and teary version of “Somewhere”.

The casting is flawless. Standouts are Elgort (Tony), Ziegler (Maria), Ariana DeBose (Anita), David Alvarez (Bernardo), and Mike Faist (Riff) but the entire company performs flawlessly and effortlessly.

The character of Anybodys, a tomboy in the original is cast with a transgender actor, Iris Menas, which provides rich diversity and inclusion.

West Side Story (2021) is an instant classic that I can’t wait to see again and again and again. I’ll never waver in my love and devotion to the original version but the new version is an exceptional achievement in authenticity, style, and pizazz that will assuredly remind viewers why they love the cinema so much.

It certainly reminded me.

Oscar Nominations: Best Picture, Best Director-Steven Spielberg, Best Supporting Actress-Ariana DeBose (won), Best Cinematography, Best Production Design, Best Costume Design, Best Sound

Belfast-2021

Belfast-2021

Director-Kenneth Branagh

Starring-Jamie Dornan, Caitríona Balfe, Jude Hill

Scott’s Review #1,202

Reviewed November 28, 2021

Grade: A-

Belfast (2021) is a film that I wanted to see based solely on the year-end awards buzz that the film is receiving as of this writing. The trailer would lead you to believe that the film is a sentimental and heartwarming journey through the lives of a group of people living in Belfast, Ireland.

This is nothing but strategic marketing.

The film is so much better than the trailer reveals with a dark and raw exploration of a family torn between their current lives in Belfast and an opportunity to leave the troubled city for new prospects in England.

But it’s not all doom and gloom and in fact, Belfast provides enough humor, entertainment, and drama to please mass audiences. There also exists a lesson in kindness, decency, and respect that is so needed in the world today.

Belfast is a movie laden with real experiences from director Kenneth Branagh’s own life and this successfully provides realism and honesty to the picture.

The film is told through the eyes of a nine-year-old boy named Buddy wonderfully played by Jude Hill. He struggles to forge a path from childhood to manhood in a world that has been turned upside down. It is 1969 and battles over religion have overtaken his neighborhood with radical Protestants wanting the Catholics out.

Buddy experiences young love, loss, joy, laughter, music, and the magic of the cinema. He is surrounded by his family- Ma (Caitríona Balfe), Pa (Jamie Dornan), Granny (Judi Dench), Pop (Ciarán Hinds), and a brother. They each fill Buddy’s life with kindness and fun.

The film starts off slow for me despite an immediate wonderfully compelling slow-motion sequence in which Buddy is surrounded by violence and terror as he walks home from school one pleasant afternoon.

As I ponder Belfast I realize that much of the film is slow but rich with texture and goodness. Every so often an emotional scene erupts but then a great deal of it is Buddy’s everyday experiences.

The black and white cinematography is crucial to show the bleakness of the city of Belfast and how the residents do their best to add some life. Most are born and die where they live.

Branagh adds an occasional glimpse of color which is effective to show a burst of delight in the characters’ lives. This is most powerful when the family goes to the cinema and enjoys an afternoon watching Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.

The lighting and extreme close-ups of some of the character’s faces reveal their emotions and the landscape shots are smokey and bright in the appropriate places. This fits the mood perfectly.

The film features music by Belfast native Van Morrison, including eight classic songs and a new song Morrison wrote for the film.

The acting is superb by all the principal cast and Dornan and Balfe provide the emotional core. Both actors are incredibly good-looking and their performance of ‘Everlasting Love’ is simply delightful. Providing proper role models for their children Dornan’s Pa nearly had me in tears when he tells Buddy that a person’s religious beliefs are unimportant but their kindness is what truly matters.

He is a progressive man trapped in a traditional world.

In the end, the family chooses to reach for the stars and the moment is fulfilling for both the characters and the viewers.

Belfast (2021) did not completely win me over until it ended when I realized that I had witnessed a superior film. Branagh fuses heart and decency into a tale of a family’s struggles and their trials and tribulations.

It’s a message film that doesn’t scream or preach that message but rather gives a quiet lesson in humanity.

Oscar Nominations: Best Picture, Best Director-Kenneth Branagh, Best Supporting Actor-Ciarán Hinds, Best Supporting Actress-Judi Dench, Best Original Screenplay (won), Best Original Score-“Down to Joy”, Best Sound

The Power of the Dog-2021

The Power of the Dog-2021

Director-Jane Campion

Starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Kirsten Dunst, Jesse Plemons

Scott’s Review #1,199

Reviewed November 21, 2021

Grade: A

Benedict Cumberbatch delivers a harrowing and brutally honest performance in The Power of the Dog (2021), a thought-provoking and layered film by Jane Campion. Parts western, gothic, and drama, Cumberbatch leads the charge but all players associated with the film knock it out of the park.

If the superior acting is not enough the eerie subtext and gorgeous cinematography put the viewer firmly in 1925 old Montana, where a vast and open range is the main setting. Characters are riddled with secrets and the fun is peeling back the onion on their motives and true desires.

There are enough bare male butts to titillate most viewers and Cumberbatch himself did not use the aid of a body double. He stated he wanted to be as raw and vulnerable as his character, the dastardly and cruel Phil Burbank.

Campion who hasn’t made a film in over a decade is back with a vengeance and imposes a nod to Ang Lee and his film Brokeback Mountain (2006).

From the first moment on screen, we know something is mesmerizing about Phil. He is handsome and severe, an alpha male if there ever was one, and attributes his savvy to his deceased father figure, Bronco Henry. His relationship with this man is key to the whole story.

Along with his brother George (Jesse Plemons), the Burbank brothers are wealthy ranchers. One day, at the Red Mill restaurant on their way to market, the brothers meet Rose (Kirsten Dunst), the widowed proprietress, and her impressionable and effeminate son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee).

Phil behaves cruelly to Rose and Peter but George becomes enamored with Rose and they marry much to Phil’s chagrin. Now all living together, Phil taunts Peter and terrorizes Rose but slowly begins to take the boy under his wing. But what are his true intentions and what will Peter do to save his mother from a complete breakdown?

The acting is so brilliant that I immediately became immersed in their lives. Particularly fascinating is Phil but Rose, George, and Peter are all substantial characters. All the characters intertwine and have special relationships with each other and all the principal actors are central to our fascination with them.

Rose may be Dunst’s best role yet and Plemons is terrific as the kind and steady George. Smit-McPhee, unknown to me, is a revelation as the androgynous young intellectual.

There are enough homoerotic scenes to make the viewer question Phil’s sexuality. His secret stash of strong man magazines and his long gazes at nude male sunbathers may be enough to unlock the key but when he rubs a handkerchief belonging to Bronco all over his body the relationship between the two men oozes to the surface.

Campion has a lot of guts in taking on the male-driven western genre and she brilliantly succeeds. Forgetting the storyline for a minute the ravishing and oftentimes lonely landscape makes the film gorgeous to look at especially on the big screen. Plenty of long shots of the mountainous regions will inevitably grasp viewers and whisk them away to a long-ago time.

The Power of the Dog was shot in New Zealand but I was completely fooled into thinking Montana was the real filming location.

I adored seeing the costumes whether it be Rose in a housedress or more distinguished characters like the governor and his wife dressed for a dinner party. All costumes appear authentic and peppered with some glamour amidst the dirtiness of the range. Even the grubby ranch hands look great.

Discussions will certainly erupt once the film ends and isn’t that the point of great films? The Power of the Dog (2021) takes the tried and true western genre and infuses it with psychological layers. Thanks to Campion and the team she masterfully uses no gimmicks to bring the viewer into the world of the characters but instead offers authenticity and edge-of-your-seat drama.

Oscar Nominations: Best Picture, Best Director-Jane Campion (won), Best Actor-Benedict Cumberbatch, Best Supporting Actor-Kodi Smit-McPhee, Jesse Plemons, Best Supporting Actress-Kirsten Dunst, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Film Editing, Best Cinematography, Best Production Design, Best Original Score, Best Sound

Cruella-2021

Cruella-2021

Director-Craig Gillespie

Starring Emma Stone, Emma Thompson

Scott’s Review #1,197

Reviewed November 19, 2021

Grade: A-

One of the first red carpet premiers to emerge amid the deadly Covid-19 pandemic, Cruella (2021) is a wickedly funny delight and celebrates the return of cinema to the theaters. What a fabulous choice. The makeup, hairstyling, costumes, musical score, and the title character herself make this film loud, proud, and lots of fun.

It’s not too dark for the entire family to enjoy but far from fluff either. Suspension of disbelief is mandatory since it’s pure fantasy and not to be dissected for its numerous plot holes and ridiculous antics. Dogs, people, and costumes fly around in frantic motion to fulfill their every motivation.

The film is way better than anticipated which is always a treat. It’s not that I wasn’t expecting quality but I didn’t expect to be entertained and enthralled quite as much as I was. I was carried away by the experience.

The live-action force sheds light on the backstory of Cruella de Vil made famous of course as the dastardly villain in the animated Disney feature 101 Dalmations from 1961. Her life and intentions are explored ala a story similar to Oliver Twist, 1970s style. Orphaned young she must survive the mean streets of London during the punk rock evolution. She becomes an expert pickpocket and ingenious thief while doubling as the humble fashion upstart Estella.

Estella befriends a pair of young thieves who adore her appetite for mischief, and together they construct a cozy life for themselves and their furry friends. While working as a cleaning lady Estella is discovered by the ruthless and unkind Baroness von Hellman (Emma Thompson), a fashion legend. Their complex relationship sets in motion revelations that harken back to Estella’s deceased mother and causes her to embrace her wicked side and become the fashionable and revenge-bent Cruella.

Emma Stone basks in the spotlight as Cruella with ravaging fury and a twinkle in her eye. An incredible actress having played roles in Birdman (2014), La La Land (2016), and The Favourite (2018), Stone goes full-throttle in her duel role making them as opposite as possible. She’s terrific and carries the bombastic film with seeming ease.

Thompson is just as good as the Baroness, a woman with a heart of stone and most similar to Miranda in The Devil Wears Prada (2006). With a snap of her fingers or a glance, she expects to be served and pleased, happy to take credit for other people’s work. It’s a toss-up which character I hate more.

Stone and Thompson are delicious together and chew up the scenery especially when they spar and attack each other. These scenes are wickedly delightful and a key to their past may link them forever. The Baroness is tough to like since she twice tries to kill Estella/Cruella.

The actresses make magic together.

Besides the clear parallels to Oliver Twist, Cruella also mirrors Spider-Man with the alter-ego premise. I saw her as a superhero. Traditionally, Cruella is portrayed as evil and fiendish but here she is the rooting favorite. This may turn some off but I loved this facet and complexity of the character.

To go deeper, the Baroness is more like the animated Disney character Cruella than Cruella is!

I joyously anticipated which 1970s rock song would come next as nearly every sequence has this genre of music incorporated. Bands like Blondie, Queen, and Black Sabbath appear as well as interesting, modern takes on some of the best hits of the period. This adds oodles of depth and relevancy.

What about the costumes? Oh, how gorgeous they are! Numerous dresses, gowns, and other accessories are featured. The sheer number of outfits and designs in the film is astounding. My favorite appears as Cruella unfolds a flowing dress from a limousine that goes on for miles and miles sort of like a domino effect. It’s flashy and beautiful.

Rumors abound that Stone has signed on for a sequel to Cruella (2021). As long as a more thought-out story continues to be developed the character can continue to be as complex as she is entertaining. The style, locale, and time make the film a fantastical fantasy retelling.

Oscar Nominations: Best Costume Design (won), Best Makeup and Hairstyling

Old-2021

Old-2021

Director-M. Night Shyamalan

Starring-Gael García Bernal, Vicky Krieps

Scott’s Review #1,195

Reviewed November 13, 2021

Grade: B

I am always rather intrigued by any M. Night Shyamalan projects that come down the pike whether it be a television or film offering. He has a knack for creating twist endings with a supernatural component.

Sometimes, like with The Sixth Sense (1999) and The Village (2004) he knocks it out of the park. Others are more average.

Old (2021) contains a novel and tantalizing premise that sometimes delivers and sometimes lags. It’s a worthy effort that picks up speed in the final fifteen minutes or so with a predictable conclusion I guessed about midway through but is still really cool to see.

The film might have been better as a short film or shorter running episode- think Twilight Zone.

Nothing in Old is too shocking or scary and nothing that will make the hair on your neck stand up but it’s entertaining and provides a message worthy of dissection.

The visionary filmmaker unveils a chilling, mysterious premise that oozes with possibility.

A seemingly happy suburban family decides to treat themselves to a tropical holiday in paradise. Prisca (Vicky Krieps), the wife, stumbles upon the exciting vacation offer online and decides to go for it. This alone should have been a red flag. Her husband, Guy (Gael García Bernal) agrees, and their children, Trent and Maddox, are overjoyed.

What the children don’t realize is that Guy and Prisca plan to divorce after the vacation ends.

The family is lavished with hospitality, food, and drinks and whisked away to a secluded beach where they relax for a few hours with other members of the resort including a surgeon and his wife, an epileptic psychologist, and her husband, and various others. They realize that something is causing them to age rapidly…reducing their entire lives into a single day!

They panic and try to leave the island sometimes turning on each other in the process.

M. Night Shyamalan himself has a small role-playing resort employee who drives the group to the beach and monitors them.

Filmed mostly on the beaches of the Dominican Republic the cinematography is wonderful and quite scenic. The film doesn’t say where the action is supposed to be so I guessed it was Hawaii. The lavish mountains, roaring waves, and exquisite underwater coral sequences give the film a beautiful and calming vibe despite the drama going on.

I also ruminated to the comparisons with the popular television series Lost which ran on ABC from 2004-2010. A group of stranded individuals faces complex and startling situations while desperately trying to flee an island. When one character drowns and another falls to their death from a cliff while trying to leave I was reminded that maybe the island is a force in itself.

As the title gives away the characters start to age rapidly. The makeup effects aren’t as great as one might hope and some characters inexplicably age more than other characters making the whole idea feel a bit silly.

Some of the characters are written better than others and there are some stereotypes to overlook like the schizophrenic doctor who goes mad. His trophy wife is blonde and toned and obsessed with remaining young. As a positive, the wife of another couple is a doctor and the husband a nurse. Many would expect the opposite.

To that end, I never felt very connected to any of the characters, and most are written as a means to an end. Their backstories are explored but lack any depth.

The twist at the end, totally expected in a Shyamalan film is a discussion that can be had after the film ends. A question of medicine and playing god is the main focus and one character with a small role at the beginning of the film is pivotal with the final events.

Not one of his best but certainly worthy of a watch, M. Night Shyamalan continues to tickle my fancy for crafting good, twisty thrillers. Old (2021) doesn’t come close to rivaling his classics but provides good entertainment and perhaps a bit more.