The Cincinnati Kid-1965

The Cincinnati Kid-1965

Director-Norman Jewison

Starring- Steve McQueen, Karl Malden

Scott’s Review #1,138

Reviewed April 29, 2021

Grade: B

I suppose anyone that is really into poker playing or similar casino games might be partial to The Cincinnati Kid (1965) especially if they are a die-hard Steve McQueen fan. But for those with no interest in the ‘sport’ and think that McQueen is a royal douche who received a modicum of film success the film is a marginally decent effort.

For those who don’t know, Steve McQueen, the actor and not the British filmmaker, was nicknamed the “King of Cool” and played the anti-hero in most of his films. His heyday was the mid-1960’s through the early 1970s and he garnered success for playing the same role over and over again. He was notorious for insisting his hair was just perfect and for being selfish and a royal prick. He died of cancer in 1980.

An earlier film of his, The Cincinnati Kid (1965) is set in Depression-era New Orleans, though it’s almost impossible to determine it’s not the 1960s since the film has a severe 1960s look. Eric Stoner (Steve McQueen) is a cocky poker player nicknamed the Cincinnati Kid who challenges longtime champ Lancey “The Man” Howard (Edward G. Robinson) to a showdown at the table, where a war of persistence and luck ensues.

To add energy, Rip Torn is cast as Slade, a villainous man who seeks revenge against Howard and tries to help Stoner best him.

In addition to the inevitable final poker game, Stoner is immersed in a romance with good girl Christian Rudd (Tuesday Weld) as he tries unsuccessfully to fend off the seductive advances of his best friend Shooter’s (Karl Malden) girlfriend (Ann-Margret) who is also a close friend of Christian. Romance and double-dealing are in the air.

The main draw is McQueen because he is charismatic and carries the by the numbers film. The story point appears to be a battle between youth (Stoner) and seasoned wisdom (Howard) but other than the fantastic finale involving (what else!) a tense game of cards I didn’t find the main story experience all too interesting.

There are other impressive aspects, however, as the trimmings. How the actors handle the playing cards, speak the game terminology, and smoke a fat cigar is realistic and adds some good authenticity to the film. The New Orleans flavor provides some culture and many black actors appear in small roles that at least provide some representation of the real southern city.

Despite the talented cast only McQueen really shines. Weld and Ann-Margret are extremely one-note characters and opposites (good girl and bad girl) with little development. Malden is the moral compass of the film but otherwise has little of importance to do.

Interestingly, Norman Jewison replaced original director Sam Peckinpah shortly after filming began. He described The Cincinnati Kid as his “ugly duckling” film that enabled him to transition from the light films he had previously been making and take on more serious films and subjects. Cinema lovers know that he directed the 1971 masterpiece Fiddler on the Roof, a completely different film altogether.

I wonder if Jewison’s heart was in this film or if he simply did the best he could with a subject that was not close to his heart.

I also wonder, knowing Peckinpah’s brilliant work, if he would have made The Cincinnati Kid darker and more violent.

One scene that turns my stomach is a gruesome and violent cock-fighting scene. Any sort of animal cruelty makes my blood boil so I turned my head and refused to watch the scene or the group of merrymakers sitting around cheering the bloodbath.

For poker lovers or fans of Steve McQueen The Cincinnati Kid (1965) is an enjoyable watch and not bad either for the casual fan. Though I have not seen it my understanding is that The Hustler (1961) is a similar themed and better-made film.

Femme Fatale-2002

Femme Fatale-2002

Director-Brian De Palma

Starring-Rebecca Romijn-Stamos, Antonio Banderas

Scott’s Review #1,137

Reviewed April 28, 2021

Grade: B+

The plot of Femme Fatale (2002) is muddy, to say the least, and I was left perplexed by the details by the time the film concluded. I even needed to review a synopsis to figure out what the hell went on but I was willing to do so. But, let’s remember that it’s directed by Brian De Palma so the beauty is in the visuals’ style and stimulation, which makes the film pay off in spades.

Probably more similar to a modern De Palma film like 2012’s underrated and underappreciated Passion than more familiar turf like Carrie (1976) or Dressed to Kill (1980), Femme Fatale has juicy trademarks that only fans of the director will immediately notice and revile in.

The entire experience that De Palma creates is titillating, erotic, fetishist, and thrilling. It’s an enrapturing piece. Unfortunately, Femme Fatale was a box-office dud but has subsequently amassed a cult following status likely by the legions of De Palma fans who appreciate the good stylistic film.

Rebecca Romijn-Stamos, with legs for miles and an abdomen to fry eggs off of, stars as Laure Ash, a master manipulator, who takes part in one last jewel theft intending to leave behind her life of crime. Her intention predictably doesn’t turn out so well but Laura sure does look great in her leather-clad outfits and affair with a female supermodel.

Later, Romijn-Stamos also plays an odd character named Lily, who is suicidal.

Reinvented under the presumption of a respectable married woman, Laura captures the attention of eager photographer Nicolas (Antonio Banderas). He becomes mesmerized by the elusive woman amid the gorgeous locales of Paris and accidentally shatters her carefully crafted world by way of his photo taking.

The steamy women’s bathroom love scene between Laura, who is bisexual, and Veronica, a model with a diamond gold ensemble top, is not just a male chauvinistic turn-on, but hugely important to the storyline. Laura is supposedly in cahoots with thugs “Black Tie” and Racine who aggressively wait outside the restroom, but is Laura double-crossing them both? Is she partnered in crime with Veronica or is she just a mark?

The riddles of the plot are both positive and negative especially when one scene plays out twice, midstream and during the finale. There is a mystique that forces the viewer to give up on any comprehension and plausibility over Laura and her motivations and modus Operandi. I chose to immerse myself in the bevy of trimmings that De Palma tosses our way like a hungry dog salivating over a bone.

He borrows a bit from the best of Alfred Hitchcock films (when doesn’t he?)and his own, neither a bad thing. The most obvious is from the 1954 masterpiece, Rear Window, an orgy of fetishism, which appears throughout, mostly concerning Nicolas as he spies on Laura again and again, almost obsessively.

Romijn-Stamos isn’t the best actress in the biz and Banderas would grow as an actor after this film but Femme Fatale is about style, not Academy Award acting and the beauty is trying to figure out a puzzle and being startled by a twist ending and a replay of the events to provide some sort of explanation.

The twist is quite a doozy and had me rethink the entire film. Plot holes be-damned it was a very good reveal but also made most of the rest of the film a bit worthless.

Femme Fatale (2002) will never reach the upper echelons of the best of Brian De Palma films but it’s hardly a waste of time to give it a spin either. Forgetting the steaminess altogether, pleasing will a European appreciating viewer be with the astounding and plentiful sequences in and around Paris.

The Trial of the Chicago 7-2020

The Trial of the Chicago 7-2020

Director-Aaron Sorkin

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

Scott’s Review #1,136

Reviewed April 26, 2021

Grade: B+

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

It’s a crowdpleaser first and foremost.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oscar-Nominated Animated Short Films-2020

Oscar-Nominated Animated Short Films-2020

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

Scott’s Review #1,135

Grade: A-

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

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

Below is a review of each of the shorts.

Burrow-2020 (USA)

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

Genius Loci-2020 (France)

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

Opera-2020 (USA)

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

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

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

Yes-People-2020 (Iceland)

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

Zodiac-2007

Zodiac-2007

Director-David Fincher

Starring-Jake Gyllenhaal, Mark Ruffalo, Robert Downey Jr. 

Scott’s Review #1,134

Reviewed April 16, 2021

Grade: A

Zodiac (2007) is a great film in its mood alone. The attention to detail circa the 1960s and 1970s is spot on and adds to the flavor of the entire experience. The locale of San Francisco is moody and lurking with the antics of the self-professed zodiac killer. With excellent acting, the sum of its parts adds up to a wonderful film experience.

The film is incredibly well-paced, character-driven, and layered in rich texture. What more can be asked of a cinematic production? It simply has it all and will engage any viewer craving mystery and intrigue.

David Fincher, at the director’s chair, creates a world unto itself with carefully crafted sets, artistic nuances, and of course a superb story. A lesson learned is that sometimes evil exists and cannot be caught despite best efforts and the ramifications are endless. Painfully, the characters in Zodiac slowly realize this.

Zodiac is based on the best-selling non-fiction book by Robert Graysmith, a pivotal character in the film. The novel is very similar to James Elroy’s 1987 novel The Black Dahlia, another unsolved case set in California.

The film tells the story of the manhunt for the Zodiac Killer, a serial killer who terrorized the foggy San Francisco Bay Area during the late 1960s and early 1970s. Investigators (Mark Ruffalo, Anthony Edwards) and reporters (Jake Gyllenhaal, Robert Downey Jr.) become obsessed with learning the killer’s identity and bringing him to justice.

Meanwhile, Zodiac claims victim after victim and taunts the authorities with endless and specifically graphic letters, bloodstained clothing, and cryptic messages shrouded in menacing phone calls. The case remains one of the United States’ most infamous unsolved crimes.

Much of the acclaim must go to the three actors cast in the central roles and Gyllenhaal is top of his game in the leading role. As cartoonist Robert Graysmith he is the main hero and the person who spearheads the investigation, prompting disbelievers to listen to him. Gyllenhaal is sensitive, sympathetic, and obsessed and at first, perceived to be a laughing stock, but audiences will immediately get behind the man and this is thanks to Gyllenhaal’s powerful acting.

The character-driven approach continues as Mark Ruffalo gives a wonderful portrayal of Inspector David Toschi. The tough-as-nails and no-nonsense approach led Toschi into obsession and fudging evidence.

Finally, Robert Downey Jr. provides energetic gusto as Paul Avery, a journalist who turns to drugs and alcohol because of the intensity and emotional investment in the case.

Plenty of red herrings make the film fun and the prime suspect of Arthur Leigh Allen, played by character actor John Carroll Lynch may or may not be the assailant. It’s breathtaking watching all the twists and turns in this ferociously complex film.

Zodiac is based on real events and reportedly is extremely historically accurate. In fact,  Fincher and others spent eighteen months conducting their own investigation and research into the Zodiac murders. So, authenticity is everywhere in this film.

Watching a film beginning in 1969 and ending in 1983 is a joy for someone who grew up in that era. Fincher drizzles the film with timely automobiles, clothes, and other sets so it appears to be walking into a time capsule. I’m sure this only will add to the viewer’s enjoyment.

For fans of films based on the zodiac killers, the 1971 film Dirty Harry, starring Clint Eastwood delivers an exceptional experience based on the real-life case. But Fincher’s Zodiac is just as good.

Despite the behemoth running time- two hours and thirty-seven minutes, Zodiac (2007) is an edge of your seat thriller. The pulsating yet prowling pace is worth several viewings to appreciate the juiciness of all of the elements David Fincher offers.

A hefty round of applause is deserved.

Zero Dark Thirty-2012

Zero Dark Thirty-2012

Director-Kathryn Bigelow

Starring-Jessica Chastain

Scott’s Review #1,133

Reviewed April 14, 2021

Grade: A-

Director Kathryn Bigelow, not far removed from her Oscar win for The Hurt Locker (2008), returns with a similar style film centering around war and more specifically about the emotional tolls and psychological effects from not just the battlefields but from dangerous missions. The main character suffers from many conflicts and inevitably the viewer will as well.

Zero Dark Thirty (2012) is unique for the genre by having a female in the lead role and star Jessica Chastain is front and center and just terrific. She is calm, restrained, and in control. She is tough to rattle and a powerful and inspirational character to be admired. Chastain exudes cool in the face of danger.

Chastain does have a brilliant emotional scene at the end of the film. Her character, Maya, boards a military transport back to the U.S., the sole passenger. She is asked where she wants to go and begins to cry. The emotion finally gets the better of her as it would to anyone.

The film is not all Chastain’s to brag about. In fact, there is little wrong with the film. Beautifully directed, Bigelow layers her film with enough tension and magnificence to enshroud the moral questions viewers will ask, specifically about torture. It’s somewhat fictionalized, to be sure, and in fact, Chastain’s character is made up, but Zero Dark Thirty is a gem nonetheless.

But we also know the events really happened.

The film starts incredibly well and immediately grabs the viewer’s attention with a brilliant first scene. Amidst a dark screen and soundtrack of actual calls made to the 911 operator from inside the World Trade Center Towers on 9/11, the scene is about as powerful an opening a film can have and bravely sets the stage for what follows.

These include many scenes of Arab detainees being interrogated (that is, tortured) for information about Al Qaeda. Is this justified or unnecessary abuse?

The viewer is immediately saddened and in tears and conflicted about whether the torture is justified having just heard the 911 calls. I know I was.

From there, the viewer also is told a summary story putting the pieces of the first scene together. After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Osama bin Laden becomes one of the most-wanted men on the planet. The worldwide manhunt for the terrorist leader occupies the resources and attention of two U.S. presidential administrations.

This is the crux of the film and the story told.

Ultimately, it is the work of a dedicated female operative  (Chastain) that proves instrumental in finally locating bin Laden. In May 2011, Navy SEALs launch a nighttime strike, killing bin Laden in his compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan.

We all know this but troubling is the use of torture. I keep coming back to this point.

I think what I like most about the film besides the riveting pacing, action sequences, and psychological appeal is the controversy that surrounded it. The fact that it ruffled feathers at the CIA and in Congress about whether the info was leaked to the filmmakers makes me think that at least some of it is based on facts, despite what other reviewers (likely with a strong political bias) might claim to the contrary.

But as a political junkie that’s just my belief.

The film’s reproduction of enhanced interrogation techniques is brutal. Some critics, in light of the interrogations being depicted as gaining reliable, useful, and accurate information, considered the scenes pro-torture propaganda. Acting CIA director Michael Morell felt the film created the false impression that torture was key to finding bin, Laden. Others described it as an anti-torture exposure of interrogation practices.

I guess we may never know the truth. But the film compels and provokes feeling.

Bigelow is at the top of her game with Zero Dark Thirty (2012) crafting a genre film (the war one) way too often told from only a masculine “us versus them” mentality and leaving behind the fascinating nuances that can make the genre a more interesting and less one-note one. The masterful director does just that and makes us think, ponder, and squirm uneasily.

Oscar Nominations: Best Picture, Best Actress-Jessica Chastain, Best Original Screenplay, Best Sound Editing (won), Best Film Editing

Promising Young Woman-2020

Promising Young Woman-2020

Director-Emerald Fennell

Starring-Carey Mulligan, Bo Burnham

Scott’s Review #1,132

Reviewed April 13, 2021

Grade: A

Emerald Fennell, making her film directorial debut, kicks her viewers in the ass with major help from star Carey Mulligan, with Promising Young Woman (2020). The actress gives the best performance of her career. The film is a sexy and haunting experience mixing black comedy and witty dialogue with an important and timely subject matter- the abuse and victimization of young women by men.

Both men and women can be held responsible as Fennell make abundantly clear. Predators often have a share of people who choose to “look the other way” and thereby enable. This is a constant theme throughout the film involving many characters who are called out for their passivity.

Fennell makes this point during two of the best scenes of the film as she calls out a high-powered dean and attorney for their betrayals. The scenes are so powerful that I wanted the characters to suffer as much as the revenge seeker does.

There is also a wackiness in the pacing and dialogue that reminds me quite a bit of the 1999 masterpiece, American Beauty.

The film is depravity, bizarreness, and brilliance all rolled into one. I felt this film in my bones.

Almost every scene is a treat in the mysterious and unexpected and the film features peculiar characters and creative musical score renditions and includes a scene and music from the underappreciated masterpiece The Night of the Hunter (1955). Fennell knows her classic cinema.

Mulligan stars as a woman named Cassie who seeks to avenge the death of her best friend, who was a victim of rape when they were in medical school and their young lives had potential and such possibility lay ahead of them. Cleverly, we never see her friend, named Nina Fisher, but she is of vital importance and nearly a major character herself despite her absence.

Everyone said Cassie was a “promising young woman” until a mysterious event abruptly derailed her future. But now at age thirty and still living at home, her parents suggest via a giant suitcase for her birthday, it may be time for her to move on.

Cassie is tough to figure out since she’s wickedly clever, sometimes wisecracking, and tantalizingly cunning, and she’s living a secret double life by night. She goes to nightclubs looking drop-dead gorgeous and lures men to her rescue pretending to be inebriated.

What happens when they go back to their pad is shocking, dark, and justified. The men will never see this coming.

Before the presumption is that Cassie is nothing more than a bad-ass, her intentions are not only admirable, but she has a heart and desires love. Promising Young Woman is a dark character study.

Besides the powerful story, Promising Young Woman is riddled with interesting cinematic techniques. Cassie’s parents lounge in their afternoon one afternoon watching The Night of the Hunter, a dark fairy tale for adults. Later, a haunting version of Britney Spear’s “I’m a Slave 4 U” complete with a string arrangement is featured most uniquely.

All the supporting players add pizzazz and strength, some in odd or unclear ways until certain revelations bubble to the surface. Jennifer Coolidge as Cassie’s strange mother, Bo Burnham as the smitten Ryan Cooper, and Alison Brie as Cassie’s college friend Madison McPhee are the best examples.

Bo and Madison have the most to hide but will they or won’t they face Cassie’s wrath is the question. Not much is worse than a woman scorned.

But the main draw is Mulligan. Startlingly good, with an astonishingly powerful, deeply layered performance by her. She showcases a remarkable acting range, where she effortlessly alternates from brash to darkly humorous and at times, emotionally vulnerable in her best performance to date.

Two scenes stand out to me. The first is a delicious scene between Cassie and the female dean of her school, played by Connie Britton. At first dismissive and annoyed by Cassie’s accusations, Dean Elizabeth Walker finally takes notice when she believes that Cassie had kidnapped her teenage daughter and left her with a group of drunken frat boys. What comes around goes around!

The second is the finale wedding scene, interestingly not featuring Cassie other than by text messages. As the happy young couple says their vows a parade of police cars ruins the moment and the audience cheers victory. It’s a satisfying moment.

The screenplay is original, fresh, and timely. In the “Me Too” movement the timing is vital and makes the subject matter relevant. Fennell wrote the screenplay- is there anything she can’t do?

Promising Young Woman (2020) is an exceptional film. It’s a controversial revenge film but it’s so much more. Taking a powerful subject matter and examining the hypocrisy, from men and women, is telling and eye-opening. That is why this film is very important to see and brings awareness to a situation society still too often deems as okay.

Oscar Nominations: Best Picture, Best Director-Emerald Fennell, Best Actress-Carey Mulligan, Best Original Screenplay (won), Best Film Editing

Independent Spirit Award Nominations: Best Director-Emerald Fennell, Best Female Lead- Carey Mulligan (won), Best Screenplay (won)

Year of the Dog-2007

Year of the Dog-2007

Director-Mike White

Starring-Molly Shannon, John C. Reilly

Scott’s Review #1,131

Reviewed April 9, 2021

Grade: B-

Comedienne, Molly Shannon stars in Year of the Dog (2007), a quirky independent film that can be classified as a hybrid of the comedy and drama genres. It’s peculiar, sometimes being very creative and nuanced while other times feeling generic and clichéd. Somehow it’s not predictable either- a plus.

Certainly, it’s not the cute, sentimental film the premise might lead one to believe and at times it’s downright dark and depressing.

A story centering around dogs seems pretty cool but it usually conjures up a pitifully dreary family-style affair with a husband, wife, two cookie-cutter kids (a boy and girl naturally), and some story and drama involving the family pet. And, of course, a happy ending. Thankfully, Year of the Dog bears little resemblance to that type of film.

While it could have been more cohesive and less messy, the film deals with pet death in the most interesting ways and the effort is there. While it’s not a downer it’s not cheery either.

After her beloved beagle, Pencil dies unexpectedly when she lets it stay outside all night, an administrative assistant named Peggy (Shannon) strives to find ways to fill the void in her life while blaming herself for his death.

She becomes lonely and despondent, finally bringing in treats for her co-workers and fussing over other people’s kids. An ill-advised love affair with a gun fanatic (John C. Reilly) leads to more misery causing Peggy to go off the deep end and change her life completely.

Shannon, unsurprisingly, is the best part of the film, though she doesn’t quite cut it as the lead. She is cast perfectly as the odd-ball secretary with no life outside of her pet dog, but isn’t she better as the interesting sidekick?  It’s tough to imagine another actress being as believable in the part and her comic timing is on fire. The dramatic parts are a bit of a stretch and I like her in comedic situations better.

The supporting characters are where Year of the Dog really lacks. None of them are very interesting. Laura Dern and Regina King are reduced to caricature types as the loyal best friend, Layla, and the cold sister-in-law, Bret, respectively. Layla is only interested in finding romance for lonely Peggy while Bret barely notices Peggy’s suffering. Yawn!

Characters like these occur so often in stock comedies I can hardly keep count. Talents like Dern and King deserve better than one-note characters.

Reilly, as the intended love interest has no chemistry with Shannon and it’s obvious from the start that Al is written as the foil and opposite in every way from Peggy. It’s just another standard cliché screaming from a mile away. Peggy dates Newt (Peter Sarsgaard) but the romance isn’t there either.

Where the film gets both interesting and lost, is when Peggy becomes an animal rights activist. It sets up Year of the Dog as a message film which never really works. Peggy ruins furs, attempts to show children a slaughterhouse, and spontaneously adopts fifteen dogs because another injured dog dies.

It just doesn’t flow together with the comedy stuff. Especially when the ending takes Peggy in yet another direction. It’s like the filmmakers decided to try and roll things up in a neat little bow but instead have a sloppily wrapped present with a nice bow on it.

Director, Mike White, also producer and writer, creates a great concept but Year of the Dog (2007) hardly lights the world on fire.  The finale is too sentimental and too many cliches surface as the action plays out. Shannon is the only interesting character and the supporting players are stock written. White also penned School of Rock (2003) which is a better film.

W.-2008

W.-2008

Director-Oliver Stone

Starring- Josh Brolin, Elizabeth Banks

Scott’s Review #1,130

Reviewed April 7, 2021

Grade: B+

I’ve said it once and I’ll say it again- the United States political landscape forever changed with the dastardly 2016 presidential election. Presidents pre and post-2016 are held to a completely different standard. We didn’t see this coming.

That said, the film W. (2008) is a biography and satire of George W. Bush, the 43rd president of the United States, who held office during the deadly 9/11 attacks. Thought by some to be a moron, director Oliver Stone is careful to ease up on the obvious mockery and barbs that are usually thrown at Bush. There is some of that but surprisingly the film contains some sympathetic moments.

For example, a clever addition is a complex relationship between father and son, something shadowed from the spotlight. At least I was never aware there was any friction between Dad and son.

Fans who lean or are conservative may not like the film. It’s not exactly pro-Bush but neither is it anti. It simply tells a good and accurate story.

Stone wisely features an all-star cast and offers a retrospective chronicling the life and political career of George W. Bush, from his troubles as a young adult through his governorship of Texas and all the way to the Oval Office. It’s well-made because it provides the uninformed viewer with an important history lesson.

The lineup is juicy featuring an array of elite Hollywood stars. Josh Brolin sinks his teeth into the title role while Elizabeth Banks is more low-key as former First Lady Laura Bush. In support, James Cromwell and Ellen Burstyn play George H.W. Bush and Barbara, while Richard Dreyfuss is fantastic as Dick Cheney. Finally, Thandie Newton is delicious as Condoleeza Rice.

Flashbacks are key to his life events revealing the rise of George W. Bush from ne’er-do-well party boy and son of privilege to president of the United States. After giving up booze for religion, George mends his restless ways and sets his sights first on the Texas governorship, which he achieves, then on the presidency. By a fluke, he achieved this too but lost the popular vote, forever a bee in his bonnet.

But the country’s involvement in the Iraq war affects his reign and decreases his approval rating.

Critics are damned the historical accuracy appears to be valid and most details are taken from the non-fiction books. That’s why the film is perfect for those who wish to brush up on their history or who are intrigued about the life and times of a modern president. Just be prepared for a bit of comedy.

To be fair, there are moments in W. when it feels like a long Saturday Night Live sketch and the characters are caricatures. It’s not exactly a parody nor is it a documentary either. Sort of a hybrid.

The heart of the film belongs to Josh Brolin (reportedly he stepped in for Christian Bale at the last minute). Major props go to Brolin for a nuanced, spot-on characterization of the former president. He’s got the mannerisms down and turns of the head, his walk, and speech patterns. He is careful to take a controversial public persona and portray him with both humor and humanity. Never completely silly but not as a straight man either. The real Bush always had a bit of a devilish aww shucks persona.

Post 2016 it’s tough to care much about W. (2008) though. It’s sort of an “of its time” film.  Too much has happened since the Bush years, or even since 2008 when the film was made. Donald Trump made so many things irrelevant. I can’t wait until a satire emerges about him. You know one is coming.

Pieces of a Woman-2020

Pieces of a Woman-2020

Director-Kornél Mundruczó

Starring-Vanessa Kirby, Shia LaBeouf, Ellen Burstyn

Scott’s Review #1,129

Reviewed April 2, 2021

Grade: A-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The acting is amazing in Pieces of a Woman.

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

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

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

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

Oscar Nominations: Best Actress-Vanessa Kirby