Cold War-2018

Cold War-2018

Director-Pawel Pawlikowski

Starring-Joanna Kulig, Tomasz Kot

Scott’s Review #861

Reviewed January 29, 2019

Grade: A

Every once in a long while a modern film set in a different time- period comes along that embodies that era with such authenticity and grace that we forget that it was not shot in the time the story is told.

Cold War (2018) is one such film that dares to whisk the viewer to another world with genuine timelessness emboldened by the torturous romantic entanglements of its main characters.

Reminiscent of an Ingmar Bergman film and shot in black and white the film is lovely, tragic, and fraught with historical references. One can dissect both character nuances and atmospheric qualities encompassing the entire experience.

The film is a sum of its parts with a painful layer of veneer immersed in all the various tidbits. Cold War contains almost no humor but rather doom and gloom.

Amid the ruins of post-World War II Poland, repressed and self-destructive musicians Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) and Zula (Joanna Kulig) forge into an obsessive love affair and cannot stay away from each other despite the European cities and countries that stand in their way.

Spanning over a decade they battle alcohol abuse, rage, and imprisonment as they traverse Poland, France, Berlin, and Yugoslavia.

Zula does obtain a level of success with her musicianship but at a steep cost. She is forced to marry a hated man whom she does not love and many years away from Wiktor. Still, their romance perseveres over time until the duo makes a fateful decision that leads to a profound climax.

The conclusion of the film is powerful, macabre, and emotional.

To state that Cold War is a tragedy is almost an understatement though viewers will probably not realize this going into the film.

When Zula auditions at a Polish house for the musically gifted and Wiktor accompanies her on the piano sparks fly between the two as they meet for the first time.

Zula appears to be a simple farm girl and sings a mountain song in duet with another girl. Spirited, Zula flirts with men but is forever drawn to Wiktor and their chemistry runs rampant.

The direction, art direction, and cinematography are superb offering a magnificent look to the film. The use of black and white filming gives the piece an immeasurably timeless quality especially as streets and avenues in Paris emerge from time to time.

They could easily be 1950’s France. The lovely halls that the pair perform in add ambiance and effect and musical treasures such as the melancholy main song performed in multiple languages and tones sparkle with culture.

With a run-time of only eighty-nine brief minutes Cold War never feels rushed and compartmentalizes all that it needs to tell in this time.

The story contents run from 1949 until the early 1960s and the film’s title is no mere accident. The historical reference is plain and obvious the film also contains a bleak and frigid quality in both its surroundings and its characters.

One worth mentioning is a rigid government man who complains that one girl in the chorus is “too dark”, the connotation is one of nationalism.

Multiple comparisons to Pawlikowski’s masterpiece Ida (2014) can be drawn one of which is that Kulig stars in both films.

In addition to the black and white shooting, both films feature a central female character that is tortured, a Nazi occupation of Poland or the after-effects of such an occupation, and the effects of repression or otherwise obsessive behavior featured in both films.

Pawlikowski is superb at crafting these types of damaged and conflicted characters in his films.

Director Pawlikowski successfully achieves a second Polish film offering that challenges his audiences with remarkable story-telling, a dark mood, and a reminder of the terrible effects of the aftermath of World War II and those left in its wake.

Psychological scars can wound as much as physical scars as Pawlikowski proves in the characters he draws from and their doomed lives.

Cold War (2018) is an achievement in many ways and makes for thoughtful conversation after the credits roll.

Oscar Nominations: Best Director-Pawel Pawlikowski, Best Foreign Language Film, Best Cinematography

Crazy Rich Asians-2018

Crazy Rich Asians-2018

Director-Jon M. Hu

Starring-Constance Wu, Henry Golding

Scott’s Review #860

Reviewed January 26, 2019

Grade: B+

Crazy Rich Asians (2018), the romantic comedy smash of 2018 is a fun romp that is memorable because it centers on the Asian population, shamefully underrepresented in mainstream American cinema.

For this point alone, the film is recommended and worthy of praise but otherwise is a standard genre film with gimmicks and stock characters galore and a predictable conclusion.

A mention must be made for the numerous cultural tidbits included which rises the film above mediocrity.

Rachel Chu (Constance Wu) and Nick Young (Henry Golding) are a happily dating New York City couple, she is a New York University college professor, and he is an entrepreneur.

They fly to Singapore to attend Nick’s best friend’s wedding resulting in antics and anguish.  Rachel realizes that Nick comes from an extremely wealthy family and is Chinese royalty owning a multitude of lavish hotels and real estate.

Most of Nick’s family, especially his traditional mother Eleanor (Michelle Yeoh), disapprove of the pairing viewing Rachel as a typical American placing passion over family.

Nick is a sought-after commodity among the single women of Singapore as Rachel is forced to endure harassment and mockery at every turn. Her allies are Nick’s kind sister Astrid (Gemma Chan) and Rachel’s outrageous college pal Peik Lin (Awkwafina) and her equally garish family.

The plot thickens when Nick’s scheming mother does a background check on Rachel and discovers a family secret.

Crazy Rich Asians is a formulaic romantic comedy with the standard types of situations and characters expected of a genre film. The rivalry between the good girl and her boyfriend’s domineering mother, the comic relief of the gay sidekicks as Peik Lin and another friend of Rachel’s provide.

The caricatures of Peik Lin’s wild family, her unattractive brother fond of taking secret photos of Rachel, and Eleanor’s snooty judgmental circle of female friends are all well cast yet one-dimensional.

Perplexing is why the filmmakers decided to make Nick only half Chinese rather than authentically Asian. Sadly, this may have been a reassurance of making the film more marketable to mass audiences.

The film is presented as an Asian film, but it is an American film.

The storyline justification is that Nick’s father (surprisingly never seen) is British and that he and Eleanor met in college- only she being Chinese. Nick and Astrid’s English accents gnawed at me throughout the film.

Despite the myriad of cliches and manipulations Crazy Rich Asians have a nice flow and offer a fun two hours. The film is flavorful with bright colors and visual spectacles of the stylish and sophisticated Singapore and its modern and sleek nuances.

I adored the locales featuring the skyline and a rich overview of the robust and relevant city/country.

Fantastic is how the filmmakers add spices of traditional Chinese culture throughout the telling of the film quickly becoming more of an ode to the good history. Nick’s grandmother Su-Yi (Lisa Lu) takes pride in her wonderful and artistic flowers and Rachel is introduced to the art of dumpling making.

Crazy Rich Asians introduce a history lesson for those unfamiliar with ancient Chinese customs.

Flavorful inclusions of Mandarin Chinese language versions of American pop hits are also nice additions, so the film has some tidbits to revel in other than the story.

Most of the songs offer a reference to money such as “Money Honey” by Lady Gaga and “Rich Girl” by Hall & Oates.

The pacing of the film is nice with never a boring or dragging moment and a nice balance of comedy and drama results. Humorous is when Peik Lin provides Rachel with a costume makeover ensuring she looks dynamic for the grand wedding as she convinces her to fight Eleanor with fire.

Drama ensues when someone casts a dead fish on Rachel’s bed and Eleanor spits that Rachel will never be enough for her son.

Predictable is the film’s conclusion resulting in a marriage proposal aboard a jet heading from Singapore to New York City. With a film like Crazy Rich Asians, it is guaranteed that the couple lives happily ever after riding off into the sunset in great defiance of Nick’s roots.

Due to the success of the film a sequel is a solid bet though I am also not betting the follow-up will be any good. Are romantic comedy sequels ever decent?

Filled with cliches, but satisfying most mainstream film-goers, Crazy Rich Asians (2018) creates a film with enough shards of Asian culture to at least get the Asian population on the map with a Hollywood production.

Containing a polished look and some stereotypes the film breaks no new ground other than good inclusion and that is a start.

Au Revoir Les Enfants-1987

Au Revoir Les Enfants-1987

Director-Louis Malle

Starring-Gaspard Manesse, Raphael Fejto

Scott’s Review #859

Reviewed January 21, 2019

Grade: A

Au Revoir Les Enfants (1987), the English translation Goodbye, Children is a powerful story of youth and friendship amid a French boarding school during the Nazi occupation of France. As World War II rages on Director Louis Malle crafts a tragic and poignant film that resonates on many levels featuring both good and evil and the forever loss of childhood innocence.

The film is based on actual events that Malle experienced as a child when he attended a Roman Catholic boarding school. At age eleven he witnessed a Gestapo raid in which three Jewish children and a Jewish teacher were savagely rounded up and taken to Auschwitz concentration camps and presumably to their deaths. What a powerful and tragic event he faced, and he brilliantly transplants this to his film.

We meet young Julien Quentin (Gaspard Manesse) as he bids his mother farewell and takes a train to his boarding school after a lengthy vacation. The headmaster introduces three new students one of which is Julien’s age. Jean Bonnet (Raphael Fejto) is socially awkward but excels at mathematics and piano. The boys initially dislike one another but slowly forge a powerful bond when they are immersed in playing a game of treasure hunt together. Julien soon discovers that Bonnet is Jewish, and the school is protecting him from capture.

The film is divided into two main stories, the troubled relationship and subsequent friendship between Julien and Bonnet and the revelation that Bonnet is Jewish, and the benevolence of the school officials to the plight of Jews. The latter gives Au Revoir Les Enfantes a socially relevant angle as the audience begins to care deeply about Bonnet and the other Jewish boys yearning for education and freedom. Their innocence and confusion over being hated are effective and painful to watch.

The tyranny of the Gestapo is matched by the kindness and courage of the teachers who defy the anti-Semitic policies and admit Jewish students into the school under assumed names. The teachers are the heroes of the story and largely unsung as they yearn to give children of any religion a good education and a chance at happiness and fulfillment. I would love to see schools feature Au Revoir Les Enfantes to their students as a lesson in bravery.

Any viewer who has visited France will assimilate nicely with the good culture and sophistication the country envelopes. Most scenes occur at the boarding school with lessons being learned and the growth of many of the students, but a favorite scene takes place at a gourmet restaurant. As Julien and his mother lunch with Bonnet and others the meals, staff, and ambiance exude French style and goodness, but among these luxuries also lies the constant threat of the Nazis as they bombard the restaurant and attempt to kick a Jewish man out of the establishment.

Malle wisely affixes the camera closely on the faces of Manesse and Fejto with a glowing quality that is both beautiful and haunting. This results in many scenes featuring the expressions of the boys including wonderment, shock, intensity, and fear. The young actors rise to the occasion and perform their roles flawlessly with a natural quality.

The boys learn a myriad of valuable lessons most notably that the world is unjust and filled with unfairness. Malle gives the finale more than enough power and angst to leave the viewer pondering the fates of the Jewish characters. Their fates are undoubtedly sealed by the Nazis the how’s and the whys are left ambiguous eliciting powerful emotions.

Au Revoir Les Enfantes (1987) is a superb and relevant offering depicting the pain and fear experienced by Jewish people in a tragic period of history. Told through the eyes of children the film hits home as innocence is discovered and then lost. The film was nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar but was defeated by Babette’s Feast.

Oscar Nominations: Best Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen, Best Foreign Language Film

Independent Spirit Award Nominations: Best International Film

The Best Years of Our Lives-1946

The Best Years of Our Lives-1946

Director-William Wyler

Starring-Frederic March, Myrna Loy

Scott’s Review #858

Reviewed January 20, 2019

Grade: A

Many films emerged during the 1940s that depicted horrific events occurring during the violence of World War II. The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) is the first film to focus on the aftermath of the war and the lasting psychological effects placed upon soldiers and their loved ones. The film may teeter towards the soap-opera territory, but is powerful and dramatic, tender, and heartfelt, allowing its audience to experience the challenges of those who serve their country following their service.

Director William Wyler, who also created the similarly themed Mrs. Miniver (1942) again treads into the family drama genre, but this time stages the drama in small-town America rather than outside of London. While Mrs. Miniver focuses on the ravages of the existing war he chooses to delve into the after-effects which offer more range and complicated situations to delve into. The result is a heftier and more cerebral experience.

The story revolves around three United States servicemen attempting to readjust to civilian life upon their return home from the battlegrounds of World War II. Homer (Harrold Russell), Al (Frederic March), and Fred (Dana Andrews) all reside in the same small town of Boone City, USA. The men are acquaintances but did not serve together in the war as each had a different rank and duties.

Al has the most going for him with a loving wife Milly (Myrna Loy) and two children in tow and a stable household. He is promoted to Vice President of a local bank, but despite this achievement drinks heavily and is prone to anger. He is enraged at the poor treatment of veterans trying to obtain bank loans and in the United States for hindering veteran’s attempts at rebuilding their lives. His adult daughter Peggy (Teresa Wright) is a prominent character as she begins a flirtation with Fred.

Fred is unskilled and must return to his menial job as a drugstore soda jerk much to his selfish wife Marie’s (Virginia Mayo) chagrin. Homer has lost both hands in the war and wears mechanical hooks for hands rendering him insecure and troubled. His days as a respected high school football quarterback have sadly ended though he has unflinching support from his fiance, Wilma (Cathy O’Donnell).

The trials and tribulations of many of the characters begin to mount as a character fights with another over a dispute about the meaning of the war. Another character plots to ruin a marriage and embark on a plan to rescue a character from another. The plots run the risk of being too daytime drama-like except that the underlying point of the troubled veterans is always at the forefront and their challenges to be taken seriously.

A poignant moment is a crucial scene when one character admits that they have “given up the best years of my life”, a frustrated testimonial and proof that war can ravage not only the lives of the veterans but of their loved ones. Wyler pulls no punches in harboring a clear message to the film. The viewer will undoubtedly ponder the film’s title, “The Best Years of Our Lives” and realize that this is open to different interpretations and not only a positive connotation.

The most powerful aspect of The Best Years of Our Lives is that actor Harold Russell, playing a military veteran really was a disabled military veteran. This realism of a man portraying himself and the terrible effects that the war had on him makes his character my favorite and highly empathetic. His Academy Award win for Best Supporting Actor is emotional and deserving as a win for Best Picture and seven other wins.

Featuring a topic just beginning to gain awareness post World War II, The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) is a grand Hollywood film containing all the trimmings of good classic drama. Under the surface, the film is dripping with relevance, social commentary, and the psychological trauma that veterans face upon returning home and how some are damaged beyond repair. The rich American style film remains a worthy watch on the cusp of nearly a century since production wrapped.

Oscar Nominations: Best Motion Picture (won), Best Director-William Wyler (won), Best Actor-Fredric March (won), Best Supporting Actor- Harold Russell (won), Best Screenplay (won), Best Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture (won), Best Sound Recording, Best Film Editing (won)

Atomic Blonde-2017

Atomic Blonde-2017

Director-David Leitch

Starring Charlize Theron, James McAvoy

Scott’s Review #857

Reviewed January 19, 2019

Grade: B+

Atomic Blonde (2017) is a female-empowering action/spy film directed by David Leitch, a former stuntman. The film plays similarly to a James Bond film only with the genders reversed.

Featuring dynamic music and cold, crisp location sequences of Europe, the film is visually stylish. The story is not the main appeal and cannot always be followed, but thanks to a great performance by Charlize Theron in the title role the film is pleasant and recommended for fans of either the spy or the action genres.

Based on the 2012 graphic novel The Coldest City, the film is set in Berlin during 1989 and its major theme is the collapse of the Berlin Wall amid a spy story and the Cold War backdrop.

A grizzled female MI6 agent, Lorraine Broughton (Charlize Theron), is quizzed about events that occurred during her recent time spent in the German city investigating the death of a fellow spy.

She recounts her mission via flashbacks and the whereabouts of a mysterious list that reveals the names of MI6 and KGB Russian agents. Lorraine deals frequently with David Percival (James McAvoy), an odd colleague who may or may not be trusted.

The plot and subsequent story are hardly the finer points of Atomic Blonde and the title- a play on words of “atomic bomb” is too cute to take seriously.

Given that the novice director is a former stuntman one should not expect high art or exceptional writing material. The largest issue besides the plot holes and implausibility of the story is that it is not that engaging. After thirty minutes of trying to ascertain who had “the list” I gave up and tried not to follow too closely instead enjoying the other qualities the film offers.

Theron is well cast as bleached blonde vixen Lorraine- tough as nails and bad-ass to the core. With icy eyes and a sneer to make the toughest opponents cringe the actress contains the charisma to make the role her own.

The number of fight scenes that the tall and fit woman endures is too plentiful to count, but her pizzazz and wherewithal make the character believable. Her toned and physicality is not dissimilar from her character in Mad Max: Fury Road (2015).

Bisexual, Lorraine has a brief romantic escapade with Delphine Lasalle (Sofia Boutella), a young French agent, until the woman is murdered.

Any adventurer of Europe will be enamored from a logistical perspective with the exciting locales featured heartily in Atomic Blonde.

Sleek and modern, the photography and cinematography departments do a fantastic job of giving the film authenticity and audacity daring to reveal the terrific nooks and crannies the best cities have to offer.

Given the number of high-speed car chase scenes and a fantastic underwater sequence, London, Paris, and Berlin are all given their just due.

The feminist overview that Atomic Blonde possesses is worthy of praise. Able to tangle with the best of them, Lorraine takes no prisoners and is determined to battle until the end or until she is too bloody to battle back. She is tough yet sensitive and puts up with no-nonsense.

Still, she has a heart as evidenced by not only the violent death of her girlfriend and her subsequent reaction but her calm despair at being unable to save a drowning man’s life. Lorraine’s calm and resilience instead of over-dramatic emotional outrage make her a character developed very well and a role model for young women everywhere.

McAvoy is cute as a button as David adds comic relief and sly witticisms to many scenes. He often appears shirtless exposing his lean and muscular physique. As a fan of sexual dalliances, he is both combative and flirtatious with Lorraine though he never beds her.

A yin to her yang and sparring partners throughout, David is a nice addition to a cast containing mostly serious characters.

The 1980’s themed musical score features a helping of nostalgic songs peppered throughout the film seemingly every few moments.

Atomic Blonde plays like a bold music video with intelligently penned songs, not disposable crap. The inclusion adds a genuine celebration of the decade of decadence crafted thoughtfully.

Treats such as the masterful “Voices Carry” by ‘Til Tuesday, “London Calling” by The Clash, and “Der Kommissar” by After the Fire is placed perfectly during relevant scenes.

With a ballsy lead character and enough action to envelope a nearly two-hour action thriller Atomic Blonde (2017) is a gift in the atmosphere and great ambiance. Forget bothering to deep-dive into the complex story too much- it isn’t worth it.

Admittedly coveting style over substance can be forgiven because the nice elements overshadow the negatives.

Atomic Blonde is best served as a kick-back and enjoy the ride experience.

The Lost Weekend-1945

The Lost Weekend-1945

Director-Billy Wilder

Starring-Ray Milland, Jane Wyman

Scott’s Review #856

Reviewed January 10, 2019

Grade: A

Billy Wilder, considered one of the most influential directors to emerge from the Hollywood Golden Age of cinema (the 1940s), creates a masterpiece tackling a social issues storyline until this time never explored before. The Lost Weekend (1945) tells a tale of alcoholism and the desperation and degradation of an addict. Wilder bravely goes where no film had dared to go with astounding results. The film was awarded several Academy Awards including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actor.

Don Birnam (Ray Milland) plays a New York writer left alone for the weekend one hot summer. His brother Wick (Philip Terry) and girlfriend Helen (Jane Wyman) is aware of Don’s drinking problem but leave for the weekend anyway when Don goes on a bender. He spends each subsequent day desperate for liquor and in need of for cash to purchase it. He resorts to theft and selling personal items out of desperation and the need for booze.  The story features flashbacks of past events when he first met Helen and an embarrassing attempt to meet her parents for lunch.

The film is adapted from the novel of the same name written by Charles R. Jackson in 1944. Assuredly a dark story that can be categorized as a downer the film does not paint a glamorous picture of the pains an alcoholic will go through or the lengths he will take out of desperation. Before, The Lost Weekend was made drunkard characters in the film were largely portrayed as either bumbling or as comic relief, so this character study is a welcome departure from tradition.

Milland is perfectly cast and effectively relays the troubled and desperate Don. Handsome, well-dressed, and professional, he is not the stereotypical image of a drunk. Dressed in a suit and tie by all measures he does not fit the bill of a desperate man, but slowly begins his descent and spirals out of control. This makes Wilder’s message more powerful as he shows that alcoholism can afflict anyone even professional, intelligent men. Milland, who resembles actor Jimmy Stewart is supposed to be liked by the audience eliciting a rooting factor even when he treats Helen badly. We want him to face his problems and recover.

Many glimpses of Manhattan are shown, and exterior shots are used plentifully. Wilder shoots the scenes as largely bleak and lonely which aligns with the overall feel of the film. Third Avenue looks desolate and isolated as we watch a desperate Don wander around and attempt to sell his typewriter for booze money. He is grief-stricken when he realizes it is Yom Kippur weekend and therefore the pawnshops are closed. The camera remains firmly fixed on Milland showcasing a range of powerful emotions over the course of the film.

The Lost Weekend (1945) was a groundbreaking film at the time of release with a serious and detailed tale of the life and times of an alcoholic. With a wonderful acting performance by Milland, Wilder can portray the world of an addict darkly and frighteningly. Decades later the film is still mentioned as inspirational to other filmmakers creating works about alcohol abuse.

Oscar Nominations: Best Motion Picture, Best Director-Billy Wilder (won), Best Actor-Ray Milland (won), Best Screenplay (won), Best Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture, Best Cinematography, Black-and-White, Best Film Editing

Night Train to Munich-1940

Night Train to Munich-1940

Director-Carol Reed

Starring-Margaret Lockwood, Rex Harrison

Scott’s Review #855

Reviewed January 9, 2019

Grade: B

Night Train to Munich (1940) is a taut war thriller unique in the subject matter of World War II made before the war became full-blown and all the horrors not known. The film has a measure of tie-in with The Lady Vanishes (1938), and Alfred Hitchcock projects with familiar crossover characters. The final thirty minutes of the film are spectacular in excitement and chase scenes, but the overly complex plot takes way too long to take-off, leaving me underwhelmed and bored through most of the experience.

In March 1939 a Czechoslovakian scientist, Axel (James Harcourt) is wanted for questioning by the German Gestapo. Residing in Britain, they accost his daughter Anna (Margaret Lockwood) and throw her in a concentration camp. She meets fellow prisoners and assumed ally Karl Marsen (Paul Henreid) who escapes with her to the safety of London. He is revealed to be a Gestapo agent assigned to gain her trust and question her father. Finally, Anna meets undercover British intelligence officer Dickie Randall (Rex Harrison) who poses as a Nazi officer to take Anna and her father to safety.

The first forty-five minutes to an hour of Night Train to Munich is slow-moving with a complicated and rather uninteresting plot. I am all for slow-moving films provided the setup is there and the elements align properly. I felt shammed since the cover art and title of the film suggest a more robust experience and I found myself continuing to ask, “Where is the train?” and “Where is the mountainous terrain and ski lift?” as pictured.  These elements finally do arrive, but the wait is longer than necessary.

The fact that Karl and Dickie are similar in physical appearance and are both undercovers makes the average viewer a bit confused. Plus, it takes a while to realize who is playing for whose team and since the film is related to The Lady Vanishes I expected a bit more of the suspense and intrigue commonplace with a Hitchcock telling. The core of the film is mediocre.

Yet the above criticisms can be almost forgiven when events kick into high gear and Night Train to Munich becomes an entirely different film. A riveting train ride brings enormous treats and intrigue as Dickie, Anna, and Axel attempt to outwit Karl and escape before their train arrives in Munich. The fun becomes the cat and mouse game between the group when a secret note is hidden under a doughnut as they sip tea together and feign pleasantries in one of the film’s best scenes.

The ravishing mountaintop finale is breathtaking when Dickie attempts to transport everyone via a ski lift from Germany to the safety of Switzerland over perilously high mountains.  The suspense reaches a boiling point when Karl and the Gestapo are hot on his heels. As a wild shootout commences we know not whether those on the lift will be saved. A potboiler reaches a shocking crescendo as the second’s tick by. For 1940 the sets and effects are remarkably impressive and believable rather than silly or staged.

Introduced in the final segment are humorous characters from another film, The Lady Vanishes. A late entry into the story, nonetheless they breathe life into the script making it as suspenseful as much as a yarn. British gentlemen Caldicott (Naunton Wayne) and Charters (Basil Radford) add humor and sophisticated wit as they aid the group’s successful escape. I wondered if the pair were gay since the men appeared in The Lady Vanishes and the esteemed director is known for slyly adding discreet LGBT characters into his pictures.

Slightly above a middling affair Night Train to Munich (1940) has impressive moments and a startlingly good ending worth the price of admission. The main portion of the film feels tired and overlong with not enough gravy to keep viewers caring for very long. An interesting double feature would be to watch this film side by side with The Lady Vanishes for similar concepts and themes.

Oscar Nominations: Best Original Story

If Beale Street Could Talk-2018

If Beale Street Could Talk-2018

Director-Barry Jenkins 

Starring-Kiki Layne, Stephan James

Scott’s Review #854

Reviewed January 8, 2019

Grade: A

2018 proved to be a year where filmmakers of color prided themselves in telling stories of diversity, inclusion, social injustice, and the never-ending challenges of minorities.

One of the best films of the year is If Beale Street Could Talk (2018), a lovely piece of storytelling by director Barry Jenkins. His other major work, Moonlight (2016) is a similarly poignant and melancholy experience.

The film is based on a novel by James Baldwin.

The title is explained in the first dialogue of the film. Beale Street exists in New Orleans, but thousands of streets exist in other cities and is a metaphor for discrimination and unnecessary struggles that black folks continue to endure. Right away the audience knows that an important story is to be told.

The wonderful part of If Beale Street Could Talk is all of the combined elements that lead to brilliance.

Tish Rivers (Kiki Layne) and Fonny Hunt (Stephan James) have known each other since childhood. Growing up in a Harlem neighborhood their families are interconnected and community-centered.

Events begin in 1973 as Tish realizes she is pregnant. Ordinarily a happy occasion, the situation contains a major challenge because Fonny is imprisoned for a crime he did not commit.

A woman has accused him of rape and a corrupt policeman has positively identified Fonny as the rapist despite this being a logistical impossibility. Tish is determined to prove his innocence before the baby arrives with the assistance of her family.

The story is non-linear as Jenkins begins the film in the present day with Tish breaking the news of her pregnancy to him then notifying her family.

As the film progresses more of the Fonny and Tish love story is explored. The couple falls in love has romantic dinners and nervously makes love for the first time. In this way, the film becomes a tender story of young love.

The social injustice and family drama situations are carefully mixed in amid the central romance.

The film impresses with warm touches and ingenious cinematography and musical score. These left me resounding with pleasure at the intricate and intimate details. The frequent use of jazz music over dinner or as the Rivers family sips celebratory wine adds sophistication to many scenes.

The texture of the film is muted and warm giving it a subdued look that is genuine to the quiet and timeless nature of the production.

The plume of cigarette smoke can be seen in nearly every scene as most of the characters smoke. Since the period is the 1970’s the authenticity is there, and a glamorous image is portrayed.

Smoking enhances the sophistication of the characters and adds to the tremendous cinematography.

Several scenes of simple dialogue crackle with authenticity and passion. In one of the best scenes Fonny’s friend Daniel, a recent parolee, stays for dinner and the friends share a conversation over beer and cigarettes.

The lengthy scene is poignant and tremendous with meaning. Daniel recounts his experience in prison and how black men are victims of the whims of white men and the terror involved in that. The scene is powerful in its thoughtfulness and a foreshadowing of Fonny’s impending trauma.

The supporting characters are stellar and add to the bravura acting troupe.

Regina King as Sharon Rivers gives a rave performance when she bravely travels to Puerto Rico and confronts Fonny’s accuser in hopes of getting her to modify her story. The scene is laden with emotion and honest dialogue.

The other notable actors are Colman Domingo and Teyonah Parris as Tish’s father and sister, respectively. Both do wonders with fleshing out the Rivers family as strong and kind people.

Jenkins is careful to add white characters who are benevolent to offset the other dastardly white characters. Examples are the kindly old woman who comes to the rescue of Fonny and Tish and berates the cop.

The Jewish landlord who agrees to rent a flat to the pair is portrayed as decent and helpful, and finally, the young lawyer who takes Fonny’s case is earnest and understanding.

If Beale Street Could Talk (2018) continues talented director Barry Jenkins plunge into the depths of being one of the modern greats. With a beautifully visual and narrative film, he creates an experience sure to win more and more fans.

The ending is moving yet unsatisfying as so many more miles are to go in the race for prison justice. Adapting an important story of race and repression based on skin color is a powerful and detailed affair.

I cannot wait to see what Jenkins comes up with next.

Oscar Nominations: Best Supporting Actress-Regina King (won), Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Original Score

Independent Spirit Award Nominations: Best Feature (won), Best Director-Barry Jenkins (won), Best Supporting Female-Regina King (won)

The Transfiguration-2017

The Transfiguration-2017

Director-Michael O’Shea

Starring-Eric Ruffin, Chloe Levine

Scott’s Review #853

Reviewed January 7, 2019

Grade: B+

The Transfiguration (2017) is a quiet horror film and resoundingly peculiar vampire tale borrowing elements of similar genre pieces but adding fresh nuances to its story.

Some may feel the film is too slow-paced, but with patience there comes a terrific payoff and tremendous conclusion. Of the independent horror field and with a limited budget, the underlying message of teen loneliness and alienation comes through loud and clear.

The film wisely adds tidbits of classic film history which is a special treat for horror buffs.

Fourteen-year-old Milo (Eric Ruffin) has been through much trauma in his young life. His father has died, and his mother has recently committed suicide. Milo resides in a crummy Brooklyn high-rise with his older brother Lewis (Aaron Clifton Moten), a depressed military veteran.

Milo has a horrific secret- he is convinced he is a vampire and habitually kills strangers drinking their blood. When he meets troubled teen Sophie (Chloe Levine), the pair are inseparable, but Milo’s secret is threatened to be uncovered.

The bevy of neighborhood Brooklyn exterior shots are pleasing for those familiar with New York City locales. Similar in style to Beach Rats (2017) another recent coming-of-age story shot in Brooklyn springs to mind.

Many scenes of Milo and Chloe wandering around their neighborhood or riding the subway are featured making the overall package feel authentic and not overly produced. The Brooklyn beaches and skylines make frequent appearances.

The most compelling, and frightening, aspect of The Transfiguration is how convinced Milo is of his being a vampire leading me to think the writer is providing mental health learning. The audience immediately knows he is delusional, but he truly believes.

Terrifying is this reality as via flashback we see Milo discovering his mother’s body, her wrists slit. As he gruesomely tastes her blood a sense of wonderment we wonder if this is his vampire discovery moment. Surely a defense mechanism, it is nonetheless extreme behavior.

The character of Sophie is also worthy of discussion. With both of her parents deceased she is sent to live with her abusive grandfather who lives in the same building as Milo. We never see the character but know that he is vile.

In one scene Sophie appears to be raped by a group of boys and she yearns for a friend in Milo. As she slowly realizes his secret but incorrectly assumes he is writing a book not killing people, she can look past this to belong. Milo and Sophie desperately need each other.

Despite the macabre characterizations outlined above the film is not quite a downer. In the middle of the vampire story is a sweet and likable young romance between the two leads.

There is a charisma and charm between the two that is genuine and heartfelt and even the simplest conversations sparkle with the appeal. The final sacrifice that one makes for the other is riddled with kindness.

Fans of classic horror will be delighted with clips of the 1922 film Nosferatu as well as other gory cult classic films that Milo is obsessed with.

Innocently, he attempts to broaden Sophie’s exposure to vampire films- she thinks the Twilight films are masterpieces much to Milo’s chagrin. This fun banter balances the dreadful main story plot.

Does Milo have rooting power? Despite a history of animal torture and human killings, he is a remarkably nice kid. He is tempted to kill both Sophie and a young boy in the park but resists this urge.

In the end, he also saves Sophie ensuring she will have a better fate than he. The character is complex and a large part of the success of The Transfiguration.

Writer and director Michael O’Shea cleverly use a side story of a gang of bullies to incorporate a dramatic and shocking conclusion with a wonderful twist. Milo, though tragic and flawed, proves himself a hero as he uses an opportunity to punish and exact revenge on enemies while saving the life of another character.

In this way, he will undoubtedly gain sympathy from the audience.

The Transfiguration (2017) is a unique film that infuses character development and a romance with a blend of horrific blood-curdling moments, especially during “kill” scenes.

I hope that this very small film with no advertising budget receives enough word of mouth to gather a following or at the very least garner recognition for the up-and-coming director (O’Shea).

Independent Spirit Award Nominations: John Cassavetes Award

The Manchurian Candidate-1962

The Manchurian Candidate-1962

Director-John Frankenheimer

Starring-Frank Sinatra, Laurence Harvey

Scott’s Review #852

Reviewed January 3, 2019

Grade: A

The Manchurian Candidate (1962) is an enthralling film that perfectly captures the political landscape of the time and continues to be relevant in present-day politics. Taut, mysterious, and filled with great twists and turns, the film flows at a nice pace and climaxes with a shocking crescendo.

With compelling performances by all and a brilliant musical score, the film fires on all cylinders and can be watched and enjoyed repeatedly.

Events begin in 1952 during the bloody Korean war. A United States platoon consisting of several men is accosted by the Soviets and sent to communist China for experimentation.

Three days later the men return as if nothing happened and Sergeant Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey) is proclaimed a hero and awarded the Medal of Honor for saving the men’s lives. When the war ends the men return to the United States to resume normal lives.

Years later Captain Bennett Marco (Frank Sinatra) suffers from recurring nightmares in which Shaw murders two missing soldiers in front of a panel in a bizarre brainwashing demonstration. When another soldier in the platoon has the same nightmares Army Intelligence begins an investigation.

Further complicating the plot is Raymond’s ambitious mother Eleanor Iselin (Angela Lansbury) and her attempt to guide her husband Senator Iselin (James Gregory) to further power using any means necessary.

The Manchurian Candidate is a film that requires the utmost attention to fully appreciate and understand the events.

The plot is highly complex, but that is a testament to the composition of the film and hardly a complaint. The viewer must stay on course to appreciate the intricate details.

Director John Frankenheimer is fantastic at adding unique dramatic effects and imaginative film-making. A prime example is the brainwashing sequence as dialogue is interspersed between what the soldiers think is happening (a peaceful grandmotherly horticulture demonstration) and reality (a dastardly experiment involving murder and programming).

Despite Sinatra being billed as the lead in the film the most treasured props go to Lansbury as Eleanor and Harvey as Shaw. Raymond is the character most developed and we see several sides to him. Primarily a morose loner who appears cold and harsh, this is due to his being programmed to assassinate.

A sequence involving the love of his life, Jocelyn (Leslie Parrish), and a romantic summer they share is beautiful and innocent as it contrasts with the dismal and manufactured “new Raymond”.

Lansbury has never been cast in a more challenging role. Eleanor is determined to stop at nothing to ensure her husband will reach the presidency and connives and cheats her way to the top. Still, the part is written as such to avoid making her a complete one-note character despite her villainous ways.

In an eerie scene close to the finale she vows payback for what has been done to Raymond and then plants an incestuous kiss on his lips. An odd and disturbing moment, the scene also justifies in her mind the lengths she has gone to get what she wants.

The musical score is lovely and contradicts the dour backstabbing and espionage that takes place throughout. Romantic and sweet melodies abound and classic hymns like The Twelve Days of Christmas and The Star-Spangled Banner are included in the film.

As a result, The Manchurian Candidate’s score feels multi-faceted, patriotic as well as artistic with enchanting results.

The Manchurian Candidate (1962) is a stellar film with a perfect blend of thrills, deceit, politics, and creative film-making to make it a bold classic. The final sequence is jaw-dropping in its finality and brutality.

Remade in 2004 with a great cast yet a poor script, avoid that one at all costs and enjoy the power and lasting effects of the original.

Oscar Nominations: Best Supporting Actress-Angela Lansbury, Best Film Editing

Mary Queen of Scots-2018

Mary Queen of Scots-2018

Director-Josie Rourke

Starring-Saoirse Ronan, Margot Robbie

Scott’s Review #851

Reviewed January 2, 2019

Grade: B+

A period piece that has all the trimmings for brilliance (on paper anyway) Mary Queen of Scots (2018) is a very good film but misses the mark in the pacing department preventing it from being a truly great film.

Fantastic acting and wonderful photography are the high points of an otherwise uneven experience even if most of the components are intact. This is not so much a total knock as much as a light critique as the film is ultimately quite good and just missing the big oomph to take it over the top.

Saoirse Ronan stars as Mary Stuart, the likable Queen of France, who has returned to her native Scotland to reclaim the throne after her husband dies. Only eighteen years of age she initially refuses pressure to remarry, but conflict ultimately ensues with Queen Elizabeth I (Margot Robbie), who rules neighboring England and Ireland.

The women admire each other from afar but develop a rivalry in power and love. To complicate matters, religious conflict, scandals, and deceit are enveloped within the story.

The feminist theme is inspiring and makes the film better than merely a soap opera of two rival females sparring over men.

In the mid-sixteenth century women in control were hardly commonplace and quite resented by the men forced to serve the “whims of women” as one male character puts it.

Constantly showcased are males’ attempts at wooing the women in hopes of gaining power and ultimately the throne.

Still, director Josie Rourke (a woman) keeps the power firmly among the women showing they can be as tough as they are sympathetic.

Furthermore, Mary Queen of Scots continues its progressive agenda with a startling LGBT sub-plot, which largely enriches the image of Mary. One young androgynous male friend, presumably a bodyguard, frolics with Mary and other maids and confesses that he feels more like a sister than a brother to her. She accepts him wholeheartedly with an added message of “being your true nature”.

Later, the character suffers a terrible fate that devastates Mary. Regardless of the accuracy, what a nice addition to include with an inspiring message.

The acting, particularly among leads Ronan and Robbie are fantastic. Both young “it” women in Hollywood, the roles of Mary and Elizabeth showcase their acting talents and chops for handling period piece roles.

Ronan, with flawless pale skin and authentic red locks, is beyond believable as Mary exudes strength yet kindness in the role she tackles. She can be stubborn, but also fun and light and Ronan has no trouble making the role her own.

Robbie, hot on the heels of playing the trailer trash character of Tonya Harding in I, Tonya (2017) hits it out of the park and does a one-eighty with the role of Elizabeth. Insecure and barren, afflicted with a skin disorder and a balding head of hair, the actress infuses the character with sensitivity and composure.

As she wears bawdy wigs and pancake makeup to hide her affliction, Robbie portrays her insecurity and yearning for unconditional love.

A mistake that Rourke makes is not including more scenes of Ronan and Robbie together save for one treasured scene at the very end of the film. This makes for a wasted opportunity as the treasured actresses could have played off of each other’s talents in innumerable ways.

A knock-down, drag-out fight scene would have been a treasure to view.

The male characters do not leave much impact other than perhaps Lord Darnley (Jack Lowden), Mary’s bisexual second husband. As he betrays her on her wedding night with another man, Mary sees little use for him other than to produce a child.

The handsome blonde actor adds some pizzazz but is ultimately unlikable as are the other similarly written men. Mary’s half-brother and Elizabeth’s advisor (Guy Pearce) are fine but ultimately underdeveloped.

Mary Queen of Scots (2018) is an effort to be commended for the female-driven and pro-LGBT stances its features. Perhaps unrealistic given the period and questions of historical accuracy looming over the entire film, problems with the production do exist.

The film ebbs and flows will some high moments and some looming blandness, but overall is to be respected and thereby recommended.

Oscar Nominations: Best Makeup and Hairstyling, Best Costume Design

The Ice Storm-1997

The Ice Storm-1997

Director-Ang Lee

Starring-Kevin Kline, Joan Allen, Sigourney Weaver

Scott’s Review #850

Reviewed January 1, 2019

Grade: A

The Ice Storm (1997) is a brilliant film directed by Ang Lee of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), and Brokeback Mountain (2005) fame. The film is based on a 1994 novel of the same name, written by Rick Moody. The brilliance lies in the rich way the characters are written with coldness, repression, and loneliness being central themes. The film is astonishingly genuine and fresh with an authenticity rarely felt so wholly in adult family dramas.

The time period is 1973 and the events take place in New Canaan, Connecticut, a wealthy suburban town. Two dysfunctional families, the Hoods and the Carvers co-exist during the Thanksgiving weekend as each deals with repression and escapism amid alcohol and sexual experimentation. Both the adult’s and the children’s lives are prominently featured in the story. Ben and Elena Hood (Kevin Kline and Joan Allen) and Jim and Janey Carver (Jamey Sheridan and Sigourney Weaver) head the families.

While Ben and Janey carry on a secret affair, Elena lives an unfulfilled existence, craving more from life but not knowing how to get more and reduced to consulting self-help books for support. Wendy Hood (Christina Ricci) enjoys sexual escapades with multiple boys while Paul Hood (Tobey Maguire), home from boarding school, takes the train into New York City to see a rich classmate Libbets Casey (Katie Holmes).

The most wonderful aspect of the film is that the story is a slice of life, but with clever nuances. Since the families are rich why should the viewer feel sympathy for any of the characters let alone root for them? Ben and Janey lounge in bed after sex, he chatty about nonsense, she was bored and depressed. During a holiday neighborhood gathering a kinky “key party” develops, where participants swap spouses for the night, resulting in titillation and excitement.

The bold and controversial writing is exactly why The Ice Storm scores so many points. The characters are cold and frozen, unlikable and selfish, but might that be the point? All seem unhappy and tired of their dull, small-town existence and craving what little excitement they can muster. Written similarly to American Beauty (1999) the films could be watched in tandem for evenings of Gothic and macabre story-telling.

My favorite character is Elena as she has the most sensibility. She is lonely and ignored by her husband dutifully going about her day with little emotion. She feels temporarily excited when she develops a romantic crush on a neighbor only to quickly realize the most she can ever hope for with this man is a fling. Her character is fleshed out as she yearns for more than she has. The other characters are largely selfish and pampered.

The film’s conclusion, however, is monumental as it changes the perceptions of some characters and softens them. A tragic death brings characters together in a powerful way. Again, the writing in The Ice Storm is the most interesting and compelling appeal. The acting among the entire cast is professional, heartfelt, and brazen, but the written dialogue and interesting situations make this film rise above others of a similar genre.

Lee’s direction is brilliant as the blustery winter atmosphere is central to the story- in more ways than we might originally think. The frozen power lines and slick windy country roads elicit a cozy feeling nestled between harboring family secrets and scandals. The bitter yet beautiful ambiance is a soothing and compelling aspect of the entire film and Lee portrays these elements with precision.

Of the independent drama genre, The Ice Storm (1997) has a low budget and big-name stars. The film could easily be performed as a play, but the cinematic elements and fantastic writing make it a memorable and storied piece of film-making. Ang Lee frequently incorporates astounding character development in his works and The Ice Storm has all the qualities to be considered a masterpiece.