Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again-2018

Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again-2018

Director-Ol Parker

Starring-Lily James, Amanda Seyfried

Scott’s Review #797

Reviewed July 31, 2018

Grade: B+

My expectations for Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again (2018) was not lofty was I anticipating drivel. I expected (and was in the mood for) a summer popcorn musical flick with fun, dancing, and little in the way of analysis or requiring too much thought.

I can proudly say that my expectations were fulfilled with this film- it delivers what the intent is and sometimes that is exactly what the doctor ordered.

The film is enthusiastic and lively, with the musical numbers serving as the standouts.

In an immediate plot twist, it is revealed that the main character Donna (Meryl Streep) has died a year earlier and her daughter Sophie (Amanda Seyfried) is planning a lavish reopening of her hotel on the beaches of Greece.

The film serves as both a sequel and a prequel as events also go back to 1979 when a young Donna (Lily James) graduates from college and embarks on a journey to “find herself”. She travels extensively and meets her three beaus (anyone who saw the 2008 original will be familiar with this plot) and the film is great at connecting the events of both films in a pleasing way.

Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again is hardly high art and not intended to be. It is a bit sub-par to the original if truth be told as some of the musical numbers are “secondary” ABBA songs. The biggest hits were used in the 2008 film.

The overall plot feels a bit forced and not exactly compelling drama either- especially since we know what the eventual result of Donna’s relationships will be. The story seems geared towards a bombastic finish.

But the sheer fact that the song and dances are interspersed throughout the film makes it enjoyable enough.

The film plays more like someone’s fantasy than a real-life sequence and liberties must certainly be taken.  Everything always seems to go Donna’s way and events merely fall into place- if only real life were that way!

The introduction of Donna’s mother (Sophie’s grandmother) – explained to be a rich and famous singer residing in Las Vegas, is a way to add the legendary Cher to the story. Disappointing, the star does not appear until the end of the film, more like a cameo appearance.

This leads me to the best parts of the film, which occur during the final thirty minutes. As Sophie’s grand hotel reopening party comes to fruition (a devastating storm thrown into the story is purely for dramatic effect), all details fall into place in magical form.

Hundreds of party guests show up, Donna’s beaus reunite, and the aforementioned absentee grandmother (Ruby) makes a grand entrance via helicopter (in stiletto heels naturally). In this way, the grand finale is superior to the rest of the film.

Cher, still looking gorgeous at age seventy-two, is the pure highlight of the film and it kicks into high gear when she appears. Considering all of the hype and press surrounding a film reunion between Cher and Meryl Streep- they starred together in 1983’s Silkwood- it should come as no real surprise that Streep’s deceased Donna makes an appearance.

The two best scenes come at the end of Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again! As much as the lavish Cher demands the grand finale in terms of glamour and song, it is Streep’s touching duet with Sophie that will bring tears to the viewer’s eyes and capture the emotional element of the film.

As Streep and Seyfried churn out a gorgeous rendition of “My Love, My Life”, the mother/daughter relationship between the actresses is lovely and will fondly remind audiences of the chemistry in the 2008 film.

In regards to Cher, the revelation that Ruby is a long-lost lover of the hotel manager, Fernando (Andy Garcia), is sweet and romantic. Despite limited screen time, the duo shares wonderful on-screen chemistry, so much so that I yearned to know the back story of their relationship.

Do we only know that they were madly in love in 1959? Why did it not work out?  Regardless, Cher’s version of the song “Fernando” is both appropriate and enchanting.

Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again (2018) is a summer film sure to please audiences eager for a fluffy musical.

With bright and cheerful Greek island locales, lavish oceans, and bombastic feel-good pop sensibilities, this film was marketed well and shares enough connection with 2008’s Mamma Mia! to enrapture and please audiences who enjoyed the first version.

Babette’s Feast-1987

Babette’s Feast-1987

Director-Gabriel Axel

Starring-Stephane Audran

Scott’s Review #796

Reviewed July 27, 2018

Grade: A

Babette’s Feast (1987) is a pure delight for any viewer who is a foodie, and particularly of stylish French cuisine. In fact, during the final thirty minutes or so I was salivating with pleasure as a final multiple-course meal was presented before me. The film is rich with “flavor” and tells a wonderful tale of self-sacrifice, benevolence, and good human nature. The film won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film- the very first Danish film to do so.

Adapted from a 1958 short story, Babette’s Feast tells of two elderly and deeply religious Protestant sisters, Martine (Birgitte Federspiel) and Phillipa (Bodil Kjer), who exist in a small village in Denmark. The sisters have lived there all their lives and, through flashbacks, it is revealed that each had an opportunity for romance with men decades earlier, as young and fresh young ladies. Each resisted the temptation due to the deeply religious beliefs of their disapproving father.

When a delightful French woman, Babette (Stephane Audran), appears on their doorstep with a note from Phillipa’s potential beau, the kindly women take her in. Babette is a refugee fleeing Paris and offers to serve as the sister’s housekeeper. Babette is filled with life and a passion for cooking and art- largely contrasting the townspeople, who frequently shun pleasures and harbor reserved and repressed feelings for joy. When Babette wins the lottery and is assumed to depart back to Paris, she instead offers to make the town a lavish, classic french meal.

The film is a pure treat, especially in the final act when Babette decides to prepare an exquisite meal. This is the true highlight of the film and the menu simply must be listed below to wholly appreciate the film. As each course is served, the film depicts the cooking process, as spices, salts, wines, and reductions are featured, so much so that we wonder, who really made such a gorgeous meal when filming transpired? Audran, known to be a gourmet, must have adored this fabulous and creative role!

In order, Babette’s delicious feast consists of turtle soup served with Amontillado sherry, buckwheat pancakes with caviar and sour cream served with Veuve Cliquot Champagne, quail in a puff pastry shell with foie gras and truffle sauce served with Clos de Vougeot Pinot Noir, an endive salad, rum sponge cake with figs and candied cherries served with Champagne, assorted cheeses and fruits served with Sauternes, coffee with Vieux marc Grande Champagne Cognac.

My mouth is watering and my stomach growling as I write this!

Wisely and poignantly, the film heralds the return of Martine’s longtime admirer, Swedish officer Lorens, who escorts his elderly aunt to the dinner. The other dozen or so dinner guests agree not to fuss or voice any reactions to the meal, but Lorens is different. With each serving, he comments in explicit detail the pleasures of the tastes and fondly recollects an experience with each course. In this way, he speaks for the rest of the guests as we see their reactions and the pleasures they exhibit non-verbally.

Tenderly, Lorens confessed that he has never forgotten Martine, and she the same for him. Despite not having seen nor heard from each other in decades, their connection has never wavered and thus have spent their lives as one. What a lovely and powerful scene this is and adds romanticism and elegance to the overall film.

The lighting is effective as many scenes seem to bask in an illuminating glow. The whimsical village is well lit with many soft or muted scenes exuding elegance and grace in the tiny living community. The costumes and styles are meaningful and make the time period of the 1800’s realistic. This adds a tremendous amount to the look and texture of Babette’s Feast.

The overall themes of Babette’s Feast (1987) are ones of kindness, forgiveness, enjoyment, and honesty. The characteristics are brought to life by the characters in the film, rich with flavor and taste, and all experienced through the importance and pleasures of food. What a magnificent piece of film making this work is and the enormity of riches through good dining.

Oscar Nominations: Best Foreign Language Film (won)



Director-Duncan Tucker

Starring-Felicity Huffman, Kevin Zegers

Scott’s Review #795

Reviewed July 25, 2018

Grade: A

Transamerica (2005) is a brave and topical independent drama effort. By 2005 the LGBT genre was in full force with a multitude of similarly themed films gracing silver screens everywhere.  One prominent mainstream production (Brokeback Mountain-2005) was in theaters everywhere. So in a year celebrating diversity, how wonderful and touching to witness a film focused on a transgender woman come into play.

Mixing drama with some needed humor, the film succeeds in large part because it does not take itself too seriously, never becoming too preachy, it merely tells a story. The film’s brilliant casting of Felicity Huffman in the role of a pre-op male to a female transsexual is a success as the decision to cast a female rather than a male in the important role pays off in spades.

The premise allows for a story of both adventure and humor as the film mixes an important issue.

A transgender woman, Bree (Huffman) decides to go on a road trip with her long-lost son, Toby (Kevin Zegers). The intrigue is that Toby is unaware that Bree is both transgender and his father, the fun coming by way of the relationship between the individuals. Adding to the setup is that a week before Bree’s scheduled operation, she has no idea who Toby is.

Encouraged by her therapist, Bree decides to throw caution to the wind and travel to pick up her son- however, does not realize that Bree (being transgender) is his real father. Talk about complicated material!

I love the overall message of the film; the theme clearly being one of self-discovery and a personal journey towards happiness. These qualities do not only apply to Bree, but also Toby. Being a teenage boy, abused and neglected, he has his share of issues, which the film does not skirt over. The areas of male prostitution and gay porn are featured and the film does its best not to shy away from these sensitive matters.

Therefore, even though the tone of the film is light and more of a coming-of-age story, there are underlying painful emotions suffered by the characters. This makes their bonding easier and more fulfilled.

Without a doubt, the film belongs to Huffman, who was honored with a Best Actress Oscar nomination. No offense to that year’s winner (Reese Witherspoon for Walk the Line (2005), but the rightful owner of the statuette should be Huffman.

The actress simply comes out of nowhere and slays this role. Known for playing a different type of role on the hit television series, ABC’s Desperate Housewives, Bree is in a different league entirely. Huffman possesses strength, vulnerability, and sarcasm, while physically undertaking a transformation that makes her both feminine and masculine while not becoming a “joke.” All of this she pours into the character.

Transamerica (2005) is an unconventional film that on the surface feels mainstream, like many other road trip films made over the years. With a twist and thus a breath of fresh air considering the importance and relevance for the time-released, the film should be championed. When combined with the tremendous performance by Huffman, the film is a heavyweight and should be viewed and celebrated for its influence.

Oscar Nominations: Best Actress-Felicity Huffman, Best Original Song-“Travelin’ Thru”

Independent Spirit Award Nominations: Best Female Lead-Felicity Huffman (won), Best First Screenplay (won), Best First Feature

The Dead Girl-2006

The Dead Girl-2006

Director-Karen Moncrieff

Starring-Brittany Murphy, Toni Collette

Scott’s Review #794

Reviewed July 24, 2018

Grade: A

The Dead Girl (2006) is a unique independent drama with a moody, gloomy underbelly, and is quite the downer, however is also a masterpiece. Reminiscent of David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive (2001), the remote and dark setting perfectly counter-balances the traditional image of sunny California as a young woman’s murder is discovered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The mysterious identities of the characters and the loneliness and lack of identity of some of the characters make me think Moncrieff was at least somewhat inspired by Lynch’s Mulholland Drive. Certainly not quite as oddball as the former, but definitely more of a downer, The Dead Girl shows elements by way of unusual characters and a melancholy vibe. The latter focuses more on a serial killer subject matter.

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

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

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

Notes on a Scandal-2006

Notes on a Scandal-2006

Director-Richard Eyre

Starring-Judi Dench, Cate Blanchett

Scott’s Review #793

Reviewed July 23, 2018

Grade: A

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Director-Bill Condon

Starring-Beyonce, Jennifer Hudson

Scott’s Film Review #792

Reviewed July 20, 2018

Grade: A

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Director-Alejandro Inarritu

Starring Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett

Scott’s Review #791

Reviewed July 19, 2018

Grade: A

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

La Vie en Rose-2007

La Vie en Rose-2007

Director-Olivier Dahan

Starring- Marion Cotillard

Scott’s Review #790

Reviewed July 18, 2018

Grade: A

As a true fan of French actress Marion Cotillard, La Vie en Rose (2007) is the tremendously talented lady’s finest role to date- and I would venture to say one of the best in film history. She immerses herself into the pivotal role of singer Edith Piaf and churns out a breathtaking performance. Besides the vehicle to showcase her acting chops, the film as a whole is lovely, offering the poignant life story of the troubled star, adding enough French zest to offer more than just a biography.

The way that the plot is constructed is quite interesting as the story of Edith Piaf is told in a non-linear fashion. The highly complex singer’s biography is recounted first telling elements of her childhood and concluding with events occurring shortly before her death. Her childhood is difficult so she is raised by her grandmother in a bordello and discovered on the streets to begin her meteoric rise to acclaim. The events of the film are known to be fairly accurate making the song-stresses life story awe-inspiring.

The visual aspects and cinematography elements to La Vie en Rose are lovely.  With soft, muted tones, the film is rich with culture and has a wonderful French way about it. Since the story commences in 1918 the time period is fraught with a rich history including World War II and a lavish trip to New York City where Edit performs. To say nothing of the lavish Parisian settings, the “look” of the film is enough reason to watch in wonderment.

Enough praise cannot be reaped upon Cotillard as Piaf and as enjoyable and profound as the film itself is, the casting of the French actress is both perfect and unimaginable to think of anyone else in the role. As treasured a performance as Cotillard gives, the filmmakers wisely choose to leave Piaf’s actual voice in the musical numbers. Anyone else mimicking her would be unimaginable and frankly insulting. And an imitator would not have served the film well.

Regardless of the voice-overs, Cotillard delivers such a flawless and brave performance that it makes the film what it is. Piaf was known as a very difficult woman to deal with both personally and professionally, though there were many sympathetic qualities to her given her tough life.  Cotillard’s facial expressions and mannerisms perfectly mimic the star’s own qualities so much so that the actress seemingly becomes the singer. The actress deservedly won the Best Actress Academy Award for her layered performance.

The final scene of the film is both profound and ghastly. A very ill Edith, looking haggard, clown-like with heavy makeup, decides to take the stage for the final time, aware that she is dying. Refusing to cancel her show, she performs her well-known number, “Non, Je ne regrette rien”. She then exits the stage in a frail manner and dies shortly thereafter. She was the consummate professional and star until the moment of her death. This particular scene is a wonderful culmination of the film.

La Vie en Rose (2007) solely judged as a biopic is a very good piece of filmmaking that tells a graceful, sometimes moving story of incredible talent. With a performance such as Cotillard’s the film goes to another level and the performance becomes the main event. The emotions and the characteristics the actress undertakes are astounding and go down as one of the finest depictions in cinematic history.

Oscar Nominations: Best Actress-Marion Cotillard (won), Best Makeup (won), Best Costume Design

Love, Simon-2018

Love, Simon-2018

Director-Greg Berlanti

Starring-Nick Robinson

Scott’s Review #789

Reviewed July 17, 2018

Grade: B+

Love, Simon (2018) is a nice, mainstream, LGBT film focused on a likable central character. The film is quite refreshing given the myriad of dark films within this genre- usually ensconced in the independent genre.

Finally, a wholesome, family-oriented “coming out” story is upon us and the film succeeds in spades. Perhaps a shade too “happily ever after” with a couple of stereotypes among the supporting characters, Love. Simon is a film to be heralded and certainly recommended.

Popular high school senior, Simon (Nick Robinson), has a close circle of friends, has hip parents, and lives an affluent existence in the suburban USA. Seemingly “having it all”, he is nonetheless filled with angst and harbors a deep secret- he is gay. Closeted, he finds solace with a similarly closeted male student by way of the school website.

Determined to find out who his classmate is, he embarks on a way to discover his secret crush’s identity while being blackmailed by another schoolmate.

Young newcomer, Nick Robinson, is an absolute gem and carries the movie successfully. This is in stark contrast to another 2018 release starring a newcomer that failed (A Wrinkle in Time). Alas, Robinson has charm, charisma, wholesome looks, and an earnest persona, which are perfect traits for a coming of age film such as Love, Simon.

The audience will instantly root for the teen to find happiness and come to terms with the dreaded coming out to family and friends, which any gay person can relate to.

An enormous positive to the film is that Simon is okay with being gay- it’s the telling of other people that bothers him. He daydreams about starting fresh next year as an out and proud college freshman.

He worries that coming out will ruin his final year of high school and change his relationships with his circle of friends. But he is never ashamed or self-harming in his preference for men.

Lesser, but still important, high points to the film are the rich diversity among the supporting players.

Several of Simon’s friends are black, and his parents are liberal, open-minded, and well-rounded. Of course, they will be accepting of their son’s chosen lifestyle.

Love, Simon also features diversity among the teachers as the theater teacher is not only black, but she is a champion for LGBT fairness. These qualities are always a breath of fresh air in film, especially when the target audience undoubtedly is of a younger demographic.

The filmmakers succeed at breaking a key barrier with Love, Simon. As often is the case, LGBT-themed films target the LGBT audience, which makes sense.

In the case of Love, Simon, the film is an experience that the entire family can watch together, regardless of anyone’s sexual preferences. This detail is incredibly important as LGBT matters should be taken as everyday factors in life.

At the risk of pigeon-holing, the fact that Simon is masculine and popular and not the slightest bit effeminate or girly is undoubtedly a key to the film’s success.

On that note, the film does add in an extremely effeminate, and out, supporting character named Ethan. I am not sure this character is necessary other than to contrast with Simon.

Perhaps to drive the point home that Simon is a cool, macho guy and Ethan is not? In one scene it is assumed that Simon and Ethan are boyfriends and Simon seems mildly disgusted by this. I’m not sure this sub-plot works or serves the film’s overall message very well.

Otherwise, Love, Simon contains frequently seen supporting character types that bring us seasoned filmgoers back to the days of the 1980’s teen coming of age films like Pretty in Pink (1986) and Sixteen Candles (1984).

Several subplots involving characters having crushes on other characters while another character likes them are added to the mix for fun and a little drama.

The conclusion is sweet as the initial mystery of “who is the other gay student?” is finally revealed amid a nice scene of Simon waiting on a Ferris wheel for his online admirer to arrive.

In a purely inclusive moment, the entire school surrounds the newly united couple and beams with pride as the duo tenderly kisses. It’s a heartfelt moment and an enormous lesson in dignity and spirit that mass audience members are exposed to.

Director Greg Berlanti creates a lovely Hollywood film, rich with diversity, a powerful story, and a strong inclusive element.

Sure, the film is not heavy and either skim over or misses discussions of powerful emotions that many gay youngsters face, but is nonetheless a brave and necessary story in its own right.

Love, Simon (2018) is classy, tender, and quite a nice experience.

A Wrinkle in Time-2018

A Wrinkle in Time-2018

Director-Ava DuVernay

Starring-Storm Reid, Oprah Winfrey, Reese Witherspoon

Scott’s Review #788

Reviewed July 16, 2018

Grade: C

A Wrinkle in Time (2018) is a film that I had high hopes for given the enormous marketing push, first-rate cast, and especially the acclaimed female director involved with the project, Ava DuVernay (Selma, 13th).

Additionally, having admired the 1962 novel I expected a rich, earthy, and mysterious experience. Sadly, whether it be a “too many cooks in the kitchen” situation given the star power involved, or some other factors leading to disconnect, this film disappointed me.

It’s not terrible but suffers from miscasting way too much CGI, and a story that is not very compelling.

Thirteen-year-old Meg Murry (Storm Reid) is having a tough time of it in school. Smack dab in the “awkward phase”, she is picked on by schoolmates because her father (Chris Pine) has disappeared- presumably having ditched the family. In reality, he is a scientist who has been transported to another world after solving the question of humanity’s existence.

After Meg and her family are visited by a strange woman named Mrs. Whatsit (Reese Witherspoon), Meg, little brother Charles Wallace, and Meg’s crush, Calvin, time travel to find a way to save her father.

Fans who have read the wonderful novel written by Madeleine L’Engle will most certainly be disappointed since many details of the film are vastly different from the written page.

DuVernay certainly attempts to take the film out of the 1960s and into 2018 (I have no issue with that), but the film feels so slick and modern with the visual elements and heavy use of CGI, that the story suffers enormously.

To be clear, the film is gorgeous to look at, especially in the sweeping outdoors scenes, but in this case, too many bells and whistles spoil A Wrinkle in Time.

The three strange women characters: Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who (Mindy Kaling), and Mrs. Which (Oprah Winfrey) are completely butchered. In the novel, each is portrayed as peculiar, mysterious, and similar to witches: frumpy, awkward, yet lovable. In the film, however, they are colorful, glamorous, empowered, but lack any real uniqueness or intrigue.

I am all for female empowerment, but the characters just felt wrong.

Kaling is fine in the smallest role, but in the case of Witherspoon and Winfrey, appears a case of “we have big stars, let’s find roles for them.” A tough sell with Mrs. Which is to think of Oprah as anyone other than….well, Oprah! Witherspoon’s attempts to be goofy and the comic relief of the film do not work.

The casting of newcomer Storm Reid is lackluster. I have no issue with the character of Meg being changed to bi-racial I feel that’s a plus in the modern age. However, the actress is not the greatest, appearing both sullen and wooden in various scenes. Nor does she have any chemistry with her love interest, Calvin.

This is a shame since the theme of young love would have been a nice addition to the film and was a coming-of-age element in the novel.

At the risk of being overly critical, A Wrinkle in Time is not a total disaster either. The progressive and heroic message of the overall film is quite inspired. If kids watch the film (and since it is Disney produced and heavily advertised I can see no reason why they wouldn’t) they will be exposed to a nice message of good conquering evil.

And on a side note, the villain is safe and hardly conjures up much fright, so no worries by parents of the film being too scary.

With heaps of buzz and anticipation regarding A Wrinkle in Time (2018), the film seemed poised to become a blockbuster hit and a great spring flick. Instead, the film has largely been derided by critics and audiences alike.

With creative genius, star power, and a huge budget involved, something ran amiss as the final product is fair to middling.

Let’s hope director Ava DuVernay gets her groove back with her next project- I expected more.

Sorry, Haters-2005

Sorry, Haters-2005

Director-Jeff Stanzler

Starring-Robin Wright

Scott’s Review #787

Reviewed July 12, 2018

Grade: A

Sorry, Haters (2005) is a small, indie film that was not well received by audiences or necessarily by many film critics, but that I am a champion of.

The film is a little-known gem and a showcase piece for star Robin Wright, who has become quite the indie queen over the years. Thankfully, the film did receive some recognition via two independent film nominations, which is how I heard of it.

Regardless, Wright gives a fantastic performance as a troubled television executive who becomes involved with a Muslim taxi driver in New York City, in panic-stricken post 9/11.

Ashade (Abdel Kechiche), struggles with driving a cab and the myriad of family issues he faces, including legal troubles. When an upscale, white woman, Phoebe (Wright) enters his cab one night, she insists on forging a friendship, but what is her motivation? She immediately seems slightly unbalanced and tense.

Reluctant, but needing her help, Ashade’s life becomes entangled with hers as Phoebe offers Ashade assistance. But when her true motivations are revealed, the audience will never see the terrific and terrifying conclusion coming.

The film is very dark in tone and hardly a feel-good film. The best facet of Sorry, Haters is the complicated relationship between Phoebe and Ashade and how this plays out within the story. More accurate is the complex dynamic of Phoebe herself as her motivations are slowly revealed.

As great as Kechiche is, the standout is Wright, but both play well opposite each other. Her role is more developed and the centerpiece as the audience slowly becomes aware of her dark secrets and disturbing behaviors.

Phoebe immediately claims to be going through a divorce and hires Ashade to drive her to nearby New Jersey to observe her ex-husband. She talks his ear off, recounting how she has lost her family. This scene becomes the first clue that Phoebe may be unbalanced. As the film progresses, this becomes more obvious. As Phoebe dines with colleagues, she engages in reluctant conversation as she violently cuts her leg with a fork underneath the table for some relief.

Wright can do no wrong as an actress appearing in numerous films over the years. She is not a “box office” type of actress and this is to her credit.  She chooses independent films that allow her to sink her teeth into good, meaty, complex, female roles. The role of Phoebe is certainly of that ilk. The character is unstable and borders on madness and has rage bubbling under the surface. Wright portrays these emotions successfully.

Let’s not forget the other leading actor- Kechiche is purely dynamic in the male leading role. The audience will undoubtedly sympathize right away with this man and the character. Since the time period is so close to the events of 9/11, and the character is Muslim (some big clues to the climactic conclusion here), the man is a prime target for discrimination. Since his brother is imprisoned and needs a legal team, Ashade is quite vulnerable and ultimately at Phoebe’s mercy.

The interesting dynamic between Phoebe and Ashade is that they do not share a romantic relationship at all. Developing a friendship based on need, there is clearly something not right with the situation, and director Jeff Stanzler provides the appropriate mood with many scenes occurring either at night or in the confines of Ashade’s taxi. Dialogue frequently seems awkward between the two.

Despite not being an easy film to watch, Sorry, Haters (2005) is a film with a powerful message and great scenery of one of the most vibrant cities in the world. The film is dark, even dour, but above all contains a powerful message with a timely subject matter. Rich in character development between the leads and the maniacal motivations of some. I found the film to be topical, riveting, and disturbing.

Independent Spirit Award Nominations: Best Female Lead-Robin Wright Penn, Best Screenplay

Slumdog Millionaire-2008

Slumdog Millionaire-2008

Director-Danny Boyle

Starring-Dev Patel, Freida Pinto

Scott’s Review #786

Reviewed July 11, 2018

Grade: A-

Winner of the 2008 Best Picture Oscar (as well as seven other Academy Awards), Slumdog Millionaire (2008) arguably was the “feel good” film of the year. While I am not sure if all of those awards are ultimately deserved, the film is nonetheless very good, offering a mixture of good culture, a young man overcoming enormous odds, and a love story. Fans of the universal game show hit, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, will be pleased.

Young Dev Patel (critically acclaimed for 2016’s Lion) stars as a poor young Indian man, Jamal Malik. He is detained after being a contestant on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire after he comes one question away from winning the million dollars. The producers go to a commercial break and Jamal has whisked away to custody as suspicions are aroused and the young man is accused of cheating. Since he is a “slumdog” and poorly educated, it is assumed there is no way possible he could know all the answers. Jamal recounts, via flashbacks, through experience, how he came to know all of the correct answers.

Director, Danny Boyle does a fantastic job directing the film. Slumdog Millionaire is edited in a fast-paced fashion and the camera angles are quick and stylized, making for an excellent flow. The soundtrack to the film is very effective and enhances the plot. For example, the music is extremely diverse and features genres such as traditional Indian classical music, European house music, and America style hip hop. This is an ingenious way for Boyle to incorporate multiple cultures and he, therefore, creates a rousing crowd-pleasing experience.

Another successful aspect of the film is its use of knowledge and intelligence to tell a story. As we experience Jamal’s difficult life beginning as a five-year-old orphan, the unlikely success story and his adventures on the streets are engulfed in both life lessons and education. In this way, the audience is learning important details about the world while Jamal simultaneously is.

The romantic, love-story featured in Slumdog Millionaire is also a highlight and extremely well-crafted. Heartbreakingly, Jamal, his older brother Salim, and the lovely Latika (later played by the gorgeous Freida Pinto) are on the run when Latika vanishes. Her disappearance and later reappearance are vital aspects to the heart of the film and Patel and Pinto make a handsome and highly likable couple. Their reconciliation is heartfelt and beautiful and gives the film a nice emotional investment.

The incorporation of a relevant and acclaimed game show into the story is wonderful, though hopefully as the years go by, the film does not suffer from a dated feel if and when Who Wants to Be a Millionaire is long forgotten, but alas this is a risk and only time will tell. The glossy set and for American audiences, the Indian style version of the game show is great fun as are the Indian locales, which visually dazzle.

A slight detraction of Slumdog Millionaire is the film is unquestionably uplifting and light feeling. Even though the characters face peril and dangerous experiences, the film just “feels” safe. So much so that qualities such as slick and mainstream resound. Don’t get me wrong, the film is genuine and has heart and soul, but just slightly too cheery. Of course, since the film is made well and the story and the acting great, this can easily be overlooked.

Slumdog Millionaire (2008) is a wonderful piece of work and is quite simply a film that lots of people will champion.  All of the elements are perfectly in place, which is a main selling point and a prime reason for the film’s many accolades. The romance and adventure pieces are the best parts- with a quick flow and lots of fun, educational tools utilized. The film is a nice pleasure to experience.

Oscar Nominations: Best Picture (won), Best Director-Danny Boyle (won), Best Adapted Screenplay (won), Best Original Score (won), Best Original Song-“Jai Ho”, “O Saya”, Best Sound Editing, Best Sound Mixing (won), Best Cinematography (won), Best Film Editing (won)

We Need to Talk About Kevin-2011

We Need to Talk About Kevin-2011

Director-Lynne Ramsay

Starring-Tilda Swinton, Ezra Miller

Scott’s Review #785

Reviewed July 9, 2018

Grade: A

We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011) is a tremendously disturbing independent drama with eerie similarities to the infamous Columbine school shooting massacre.

The point of view of the film is from the perspective of Eva (Tilda Swinton), a haggard, troubled mother doubting her love for her violent teen son.

Swinton was shamefully overlooked for an Academy Award nomination despite her brilliant and breathtaking role. The overall film itself is equally astounding and powerful.

Adapted from a Lionel Shriver novel, the events of the film begin in present times after tragedy has occurred. Eva, once a successful, writer of affluent means, now lives alone in a rundown house near a prison where she frequently visits her son Kevin (Ezra Miller).

She is now reduced to working a mundane job in a travel agency while terrorized by neighbor’s who blame her for her son’s machinations. Chillingly, Eva ponders the warning signs Kevin exhibited throughout his childhood and tortures herself with thoughts of what she could have done differently to prevent the shootings and the death of her loved ones.

Uniquely, the film segues to before Kevin was even born. Eva and her husband Franklin (John C. Reilly), happily welcome their baby boy, but he is immediate “not right” and difficult and cold towards her.

This behavior continues over the years as Kevin is distant towards Eva, but warm and adoring towards his father, leading to mental games and the death of a pet. When Eva and Franklin have another child things get progressively worse leading to tragic events.

The film is a pure masterpiece with riveting acting performances all around (especially Swinton) and a slow, plodding pace. This is a perfect aspect of the film because there is a continuous gloomy and moody vibe.

Director, Lynne Ramsay reveals all in the beginning moments of the film so we know how events will transpire, but the pure enjoyment is the development of the characters. Dad, Franklin, and daughter, Celia, are around, but the film belongs to the characters of Eva and Kevin and their relationship with each other.

Many questions will be asked throughout the film (I know I asked myself these questions). Should any blame be cast upon Eva or is she purely innocent? How about on Franklin? Is Kevin just a “bad kid”? Was Eva wrong for breaking Kevin’s arm in anger or justified? Should Eva have never had kids because of her earlier doubts? Should she have been more proactive in getting treatment for Kevin?

Swinton delivers her career-best performance and while she was recognized with a Golden Globe nomination, the ultimate gold statuette (Oscar) alluded to her. I find this to be troubling especially since she won for 2007’s Michael Clayton, a performance that was very good, but certainly not on the level as Eva.

Swinton is one of the great modern actresses and hopefully great roles will continue to follow this treasured star.

Almost on par with Swinton is a young talent, Ezra Miller. A relative newcomer in 2011 he has appeared in the indie gem The Perks of a Wallflower (2012) and in later years traversed into more mainstream fare like Trainwreck (2015) and Suicide Squad (2016). We Need to Talk About Kevin remains his best and most challenging effort.

One of the best sequences occurs during the school massacre scene. Shot at night time (and in my hometown of Stamford, Connecticut!) the sequence involves flashing police lights and chaos as Eva approaches the school in horror. With no dialogue, we see Kevin enter the school and render the doors useless as an escape route.

Terrified students are murdered as Kevin erupts with maniacal rage. The scene is downright chilling and incredibly effective.

2017’s The Killing of a Sacred Deer reminds me quite a bit of We Need to Talk About Kevin in tone and style, so much so that I wonder if the latter was watched and studied before the former. Either way, the duo could be watched subsequently for a double-dose of teenage maniacs.

With a bleak and dark tone, We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011) offers a story that is a clear message. Never discussing the hot topic of gun control- in fact, guns are not used in the slaughter, a bow is, weapon restrictions will nevertheless be an obvious discussion point.

This film is one to be observed, savored, dissected, and thought about after the finale, and is one to be remembered as a great piece of cinema.



Director-Paul Feig

Starring-Kristen Wiig, Maya Rudolph

Scott’s Review #784

Reviewed July 6, 2018

Grade: A

Despite the raunchy romantic comedy genre not being my favorite, and despite not being such a fan of Judd Apatow (famed producer of several of these types of films), Bridesmaids (2011) is easily the best of its kind. Influential in a multitude of female empowerment-themed comedies that followed, this one is witty, genuine, and funny because of its star, Kristen Wiig, who also co-wrote the film.

It is one of the best comedies (if not the best) of the decade.

Apatow is largely known for producing comedy films that mix in the standard potty humor for cheap laughs. He is responsible for This Is 40 (2012) and Trainwreck (2015), both of which I found moderately funny, but needlessly gross-out and tired.

My point is that minus the talents of Wiig (both in front of and behind the camera), Bridesmaids would likely have been mediocre like these films. Instead, Bridesmaids is a wonderful, uproarious experience with a star who captures a moment.

My one gnawing gripe is that shouldn’t a film about women be directed by a woman?

Annie (Wiig) has been asked to serve as the maid of honor at her best friend, Lillian’s (Maya Rudolph), upcoming wedding. Rather than be thrilled, Annie is depressed due to an ongoing string of bad luck. Her bakery business fails, she loses her unfulfilling job at a jewelry store, she is dating a jerk (Jon Hamm), and her car is about to die. She has difficult roommates and is on the verge of having to move back in with her mother at age thirty-five.

The story hilariously follows Annie’s rivalry with Helen (Rose Byrne), Lillian’s soon-to-be husband’s boss’s controlling wife. Helen is intent on taking over the handling of the wedding events much to Annie’s chagrin. The ladies compete to one-up each other throughout the film- Rose is the perfect princess to Annie’s grit and cynicism.

Annie struggles through her personal issues, unhappy with the state of her love life, she meets police officer, Rhodes (Chris O’Dowd), and they begin a tender friendship. However, their attraction is tested because of Annie’s shenanigans. Annie must then fly to Las Vegas with the other bridesmaids despite being terrified of flying.

Despite the story being nothing not seen dozens of times before in romantic comedy history (the setups), the film is a laugh-out-loud riot. In addition to Wiig, Rudolph, and Byrne, the remaining cast of ladies all have tremendous chemistry with each other.

Special kudos go to Melissa McCarthy in her fearless role of Megan, a tomboy misfit who somehow is part of the wedding party. With her “tell it like it is” attitude the actress sinks her teeth into this fabulous role without taking her too far across the line into ridiculousness.

In rip-roaring fashion, multiple scenes are permanently etched in my mind. After Annie suggests a Brazilian steak restaurant for lunch followed by a fitting at a chic dress shop, the girls suffer from food poisoning. This results in torrents of diarrhea scenes and one unlucky character being reduced to going to the bathroom in the middle of the street. The scene while super raunchy is hilarious and fraught with perfect comic timing.

Not to be outdone, the airplane scene is equally tremendous, however, the scene belongs to Wiig rather than the entire ensemble. Being forced to fly coach while everyone else is treated to first-class, Annie unwisely accepts a pill from Helen to calm her during the flight. Instead, Annie becomes belligerent and wild when she mixes the sedative with alcohol.

As good as the supporting cast is, Wiig owns the film through and through. Every scene she is in and each line she utters is perfectly timed. The fact that Wiig did some improvisation (think the scene in the jewelry store) is evident and only adds to the genuine feel of the film. Subsequently, to Wiig’s credit, she has been careful to choose more complicated roles to avoid the risk of being typecast. And a sequel was wisely never made- this would have ruined the appeal.

Bridesmaids (2011) is an authentic story rich with hilarity and crisp dialogue. The film is enhanced in that it’s a female-centered film written by women (though direction and producers too would have been better). Because of the tremendous cast led by Wiig, the film is blazing with humor and led a firestorm of similar “girl power” films (mostly bad) well into the decade.

Oscar Nominations: Best Supporting Actress-Melissa McCarthy, Best Original Screenplay

Won’t You Be My Neighbor?-2018

Won’t You Be My Neighbor? -2018

Director-Morgan Neville

Starring-Fred Rogers

Scott’s Review #783

Reviewed July 5, 2018

Grade: A

As much as I enjoy the documentary genre, it has somehow never been close to the top of my favorites list. Many films of this ilk are very good, providing some relevant facts about a subject matter perhaps taboo to me, but sometimes they are somewhat interesting, few are great.

Along comes a documentary that is emotional, inspiring, and lovely. Won’t You Be My Neighbor (2018), based on the life of Fred Rogers is simply great.

Won’t You Be My Neighbor? chronicles the life and rise to popularity of a kindly, mild-mannered man from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania with a simple message of kindness towards children.

Beginning as a local television personality, the show he created centered around children and producing positive messages for them.

Universally known as Mister Rogers, the documentary explains his determination, eventual fame, his ability to enrich lives, and his need to introduce heavy subject matters to children in order to expose them rather than shelter them from it.

In today’s tumultuous time’s boy is he missed!

Having fond memories of watching the PBS television show Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood as a child, the program offered a feast of creativity in every half hour.

Featuring the Neighborhood of Make-Believe, a magical trolley would transport the viewer to a world of puppets (voiced by Rogers). Other poignant moments occurred when Rogers would sing the catchy theme song at the top of every show. The episodes were filled with simple yet important messages of self-acceptance, diversity, and kindness towards others.

At the conclusion of each episode Rogers would sing the song “It’s Such a Good Feeling” in such a way that any child watching would feel secure, loved, and embraced.

Rogers sadly died in 2003- his wife, grown children, and various former cast members relay cherished memories and inspirational stories about the creative genius. Rumored to have had an insecure childhood, he was a champion at insuring children felt worthy and accepted for who they are.

The documentary also shows via news flashbacks how Rogers fought in court for necessary funding.

My emotional reaction surprised me quite frankly. I expected a nostalgic trip back to childhood with flashbacks from the show, some interviews and a jovial good time. Instead, I was utterly blown away by how touching and humanistic the documentary was in addition to the aforementioned expectations.

Sure, old clips (some black and white) brought a flood of memories as puppets Daniel Striped Tiger, Madame, and King Friday XIII, make appearances, but the flood of tears that accompanied the memories was unexpected.

Never at all preachy, the documentary holds the same level of genuine goodness as Rogers does. For audiences watching the film, the question of when someone will well up in tears is the wrong question- it’s how often?

Examples of the most touching scenes are when a young, gay actor is accepted by Rogers for who he is when his own family members do not. A handicapped child confined to a wheelchair sings a heart wrenching duet with Rogers.

Finally, as Rogers gives a commencement speech at a college university a teary graduate explains why he gave her a special preschool education.

Perhaps the most poignant moment occurs in the final moments of the documentary. When many of the film participants are asked to think for just a moment about someone who taught them kindness, whether they are alive or dead, the sequence is monumental in feeling.

A quick foray into the current political climate in the United States is only briefly skated around, carefully so as not to ruin the sweetness of the overall experience.

Director Morgan Neville perfectly paces his documentary so that it never drags.

At one hour and thirty-four minutes, the flow is perfectly structured. The first half is a bit lighter and more fun while the second half culminates with a more serious and introspective tone.

Won’t You Be My Neighbor? (2018) is a brilliant documentary film and one of the best I have ever seen.

Independent Spirit Award Nominations: Best Documentary Feature (won)



Director-Jonathan Demme

Starring- Tom Hanks, Denzel Washington

Scott’s Review #782

Reviewed July 3, 2018

Grade: A

Having the powerful distinction of being one of the first Hollywood LGBT films to deal with heavy issues such as HIV/AIDS and homophobia, Philadelphia (1993) is a film to champion.

The film does contain some less than positive stereotypes across the board, but was a tremendous box office success and more importantly introduced a large audience to a still (at that time) taboo subject. Hopefully, this had a tremendous effect on creating understanding towards a vicious disease and its ramifications.

Tom Hanks deservedly won the Best Actor Oscar for his lead performance of an AIDS and discrimination victim as did the heartbreaking theme song “Streets of Philadelphia”, penned by Bruce Springsteen, win for Best Original Song.

Director Jonathan Demme creates a world quite realistic in portrayal at the corporate level. Hotshot attorney Andrew Beckett (Hanks) has a promising future at one of the country’s largest law firms in Philadelphia.

Assigned a high-profile case, it is noticed that Andrew has developed lesions across his body and is subsequently fired from the firm. After deciding to sue the firm and having no luck finding an attorney to represent him, he finally meets struggling black attorney, Joe Miller (Denzel Washington), who begrudgingly takes the case to gain exposure.

Philadelphia is a film that is clearly a courtroom drama with a cause and is firmly ensconced in the “message movie” genre.  A lesser version, and perhaps one made even a decade or so after 1993, might be reduced to the Hallmark television movie category. Fortunately, the timing is perfect and Philadelphia can be remembered as a film championing LGBT rights.

Hanks’s performance is just dynamic- his character is meant to be empathetic, a victimized man unjustly suffering not only discrimination but a death sentence. The audience knows what is to come and as Andrew loses more weight and appears more sullen and haggard, the tale increases in sadness.

The final act of Andrew’s court victory is to be celebrated, but also is heartbreaking as a feeble and dying Andrew now lies close to death. Hank brilliantly infuses Andrew with courage, heart, and values, so much so that he becomes a hero to the audience even if their sexuality is different than his.

As much as the undying love for Hanks is deserved, the powerful supporting cast is a treasure. Washington is not as sympathetic a character as Andrew is, but learns a lesson and eventually leaves his machismo on the sidelines.

The heart-wrenching death scene culminating in the hospital room involves lover Miguel (Antonio Banderas), surrounded by Andrew’s family, all-embracing as one. There is beauty mixed with tragedy in this one scene alone. Even Mary Steenburgen as the tough defense lawyer shows some heart. And who can say more about the dynamic Joanne Woodward as Andrew’s mother?

Unfortunately, there are a few stereotypes to endure, and sadly many early LGBT films (and some still do!) include these for emphasis- or perhaps ignorance? Nonetheless, these make the film seem slightly dated given the LGBT progress made in the decades since the film was released.

Joe Miller is portrayed as a macho guy afraid to be viewed as gay- he even jokes around about being a “man” with his wife. Joe also grimaces when he shakes hands with Andrew and suddenly realizes Andrew has AIDS. Nearly all of Andrew and Miguel’s gay friends are effeminate- this hardly seems possible.

Such is a monumental achievement when a film breaks barriers by telling a story of critical importance. Philadelphia (1993) does just that by patiently asking its audience for tolerance, understanding, and heart. In return, the film educates, floods with emotion, and breaks hearts. Other LGBT films would come along that were arguably even better, but Philadelphia is a groundbreaking experience sure to be remembered as the first of its kind.

Oscar Nominations: Best Actor-Tom Hanks (won), Best Original Screenplay, Best Original Song-“Streets of Philadelphia” (won), “Philadelphia”, Best Makeup

The Disaster Artist-2017

The Disaster Artist-2017

Director-James Franco

Starring-James Franco, Dave Franco

Scott’s Review #781

Reviewed July 2, 2018

Grade: B

The Disaster Artist (2017) is a biography-comedy that I found to be middle of the road to mostly good if I’m judging in overall terms- most I liked with a little criticism.

Due to the many accolades, I confess to having anticipated a bit more from the finished product and hardly found it any sort of masterpiece.

Still, I was both impressed and unimpressed by the performance of James Franco in the lead role, awed at the emergence of the actor as a director, and the Los Angeles setting is great.

At times the film teeters almost into bad slapstick or shtick, and a bit silly, and as much as I respect his performance, this criticism is directed at Franco. Nobody can deny his acting talent if he chooses the right films.

His attempt at making his character peculiar is noticeable within seconds so it seems Franco also makes him a bit of a goof and I was not able to take the character seriously all of the time.

And the weird accent threw me.

This film is based on the non-fiction book called The Disaster Artist. The work chronicles the making of 2003’s The Room, not to be confused with the 2015 film, Room. The Room was considered amateurish and one of the worst movies to ever have been made.

Told repeatedly that his acting stinks, oddball Tommie Wiseau (James Franco), a European-American aspiring actor decide to screw Hollywood and produce, direct, and star in his own film.

Mysteriously, Wiseau has an endless amount of bank funds, which he uses towards the film. Roommate and friend, Greg Sestero (Dave Franco), stars in the film and thus gets his big break. The duo, and various others, pitch in to create the project, which suffers from a level of ineptness on the part of Wiseau.

The Los Angeles setting really resonates with me as did the recurring theme of struggle within the Hollywood scene. These are major pluses to the film as a whole.

Los Angeles can appear to be a sunny and glamorous town but always contains a gloomy dark underbelly beneath the shiny exterior.

The film realistically depicts struggle and success- from the central characters to the supporting players making the film resemble an ensemble.

Thousands struggle daily for a break with no respect or appreciation given and The Disaster Artist scores a win focusing on this.

When Tommie brazenly approaches a powerful producer in a restaurant, he is unceremoniously dismissed for having no talent and told he will never get anywhere. In addition to Tommie, several actors associated with the film struggle.

In a wonderful scene, an older actress states that being on a bad movie set beats any other job by miles. The message here is that people in Hollywood are there because they truly love it.

The sweet, empowering theme of friendship and empowerment are also to be celebrated, nice especially given the cut-throat backdrop. Tommie and Greg are best friends and have each other’s backs through thick and thin. Neither gives up on the other, even during the tortuous initial audience reaction to The Room premiere.

Could the film have been slightly darker? Yes, certainly, as very few scenes of drug destruction or the porn that many hopeful talents turn to are mentioned. But the film is not really about that, it’s an enchanting tale of hope and fun.

Interesting to note and not evident to me while watching the film is that brothers James and Dave Franco play opposite one another. While there is somewhat of a physical resemblance, the chemistry works between the two actors as best friends.

James delivers a worthy portrayal of an unusual character with a strange dialect and long, stringy brown hair, and seemingly cross-eyed. The role is comedic and perfectly suited for an unusual actor such as Franco- he must have had a ball with the part.

Movies about movie-making always fascinate me. What goes on behind the scenes?

The Disaster Artist (2017) provides enough good film meat to make it an overall good experience. Staying true to some fine Hollywood history- the famous James Dean is referenced and the spot where he died even visited- nice touch! Franco is both good and disappointing in the main role.

All-in-all, for those who enjoy film making, Hollywood, or L.A. set films, give this one a chance.

Oscar Nominations: Best Adapted Screenplay

Independent Spirit Award Nominations: Best Male Lead-James Franco