Tag Archives: 2021 Movie reviews

Dear Evan Hansen-2021

Dear Evan Hansen-2021

Director-Stephen Chbosky

Starring Ben Platt, Kaitlyn Dever, Amy Adams

Scott’s Review #1,258

Reviewed May 25, 2022

Grade: A-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sometimes a suspension of disbelief is required.

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

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

Both are fabulous.

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

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

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

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

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

Antlers-2021

Antlers-2021

Director-Scott Cooper

Starring Keri Russell, Jesse Plemons

Scott’s Review #1,255

Reviewed May 13, 2022

Grade: B+

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

House of Gucci-2021

House of Gucci-2021

Director-Ridley Scott

Starring Lady Gaga, Adam Driver, Jared Leto

Scott’s Review #1,244

Reviewed April 10, 2022

Grade: B+

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oscar Nominations: Best Makeup and Hairstyling

King Richard-2021

King Richard-2021

Director-Reinaldo Marcus Green

Starring Will Smith, Aunjanue Ellis

Scott’s Review #1,238

Reviewed March 13, 2022

Grade: B+

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

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

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

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

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

Time will tell.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No Time to Die-2021

No Time to Die-2021

Director-Cary Fukunaga

Starring Daniel Craig, Léa Seydoux, Rami Malek

Scott’s Review #1,236

Reviewed March 6, 2022

Grade: A-

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

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

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

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

It’s a serious affair.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May both appear in the future?

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

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

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

The Eyes of Tammy Faye-2021

The Eyes of Tammy Faye-2021

Director-Michael Showalter

Starring Jessica Chastain, Andrew Garfield

Scott’s Review #1,233

Reviewed February 26, 2022

Grade: A-

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

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

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

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

It is Chastain’s best role yet.

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

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

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

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

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

This is the point where the film takes off.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Lost Daughter-2021

The Lost Daughter-2021

Director-Maggie Gyllenhaal

Starring-Olivia Colman, Dakota Johnson

Scott’s Review #1,232

Reviewed February 21, 2022

Grade: A

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nightmare Alley-2021

Nightmare Alley-2021

Director-Guillermo del Toro

Starring-Bradley Cooper, Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mara

Scott’s Review #1,229

Reviewed February 13, 2022

Grade: B+

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Passing-2021

Passing-2021

Director-Rebecca Hall

Starring-Tessa Thompson, Ruth Negga

Scott’s Review #1,222

Reviewed January 22, 2022

Grade: A

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

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

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

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

Passing is a film about race but so much more.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s a scary realization.

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

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

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

Don’t Look Up-2021

Don’t Look Up-2021

Director-Adam McKay

Starring-Leonardo DiCaprio, Jennifer Lawrence, Meryl Streep

Scott’s Review #1,220

Reviewed January 16, 2022

Grade: A

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

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

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

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

As they are.

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

But, perhaps learn a thing or two?

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

McKay also writes and produces.

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

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

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

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

As the title states, just look up?!

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

Hysterically and satisfying, they each get their proper comeuppance.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Candyman-2021

Candyman-2021

Director-Nia DaCosta

Starring-Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Teyonah Parris

Scott’s Review #1,217

Reviewed January 8, 2022

Grade: B

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Licorice Pizza-2021

Licorice Pizza-2021

Director-Paul Thomas Anderson

Starring-Alana Haim, Cooper Hoffman

Scott’s Review #1,213

Reviewed December 27, 2021

Grade: A

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I wish more films of this ilk were made.

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

The Forever Purge-2021

The Forever Purge-2021

Director-Everardo Gout

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

Scott’s Review #1,209

Reviewed December 18, 2021

Grade: B+

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

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

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

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

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

It’s a somber message worth taking seriously.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Respect-2021

Respect-2021

Director-Liesl Tommy

Starring Jennifer Hudson, Forest Whitaker, Marlon Wayans

Scott’s Review #1,208

Reviewed December 17, 2021

Grade: B-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

West Side Story-2021

West Side Story-2021

Director-Steven Spielberg

Starring-Ansel Elgort, Rachel Zegler, Ariana DeBose

Scott’s Review #1,207

Reviewed December 12, 2021

Grade: A

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

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

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

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

Hooray!

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

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

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

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

How timely and how much needed this film is.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It certainly reminded me.

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

Belfast-2021

Belfast-2021

Director-Kenneth Branagh

Starring-Jamie Dornan, Caitríona Balfe, Jude Hill

Scott’s Review #1,202

Reviewed November 28, 2021

Grade: A-

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

This is nothing but strategic marketing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He is a progressive man trapped in a traditional world.

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

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

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

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

The Power of the Dog-2021

The Power of the Dog-2021

Director-Jane Campion

Starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Kirsten Dunst, Jesse Plemons

Scott’s Review #1,199

Reviewed November 21, 2021

Grade: A

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cruella-2021

Cruella-2021

Director-Craig Gillespie

Starring Emma Stone, Emma Thompson

Scott’s Review #1,197

Reviewed November 19, 2021

Grade: A-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The actresses make magic together.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Old-2021

Old-2021

Director-M. Night Shyamalan

Starring-Gael García Bernal, Vicky Krieps

Scott’s Review #1,195

Reviewed November 13, 2021

Grade: B

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Spencer-2021

Spencer-2021

Director-Pablo Larraín

Starring-Kristen Stewart, Timothy Spall

Scott’s Review #1,193

Reviewed November 7, 2021

Grade: A

In the 2020s there has been a sudden flurry of depictions of and attention given to Princess Diana, a tragic figure in British royalty who came to an untimely death in 1997.  The Netflix series The Crown and a documentary immediately come to mind. While tremendous offerings they often stay the mainstream or historic course.

But Director Pablo Larraín presents a daring and rather unpleasant telling of a miserable Christmas weekend the Princess spent among the royal family in 1991, a time when her marriage to Prince Charles had been decimated and reached the point of no return.

Spencer (2021) is a brilliant art film focused on the troubled young woman’s dealings with her children, her eating disorder, her loneliness and despair, and of course relationships with the royal family.

Kristen Stewart delivers a career-defining performance as Diana and bravely puts on full naked display the shocking reality of the real-life figure’s most inner thoughts and demons.

Larraín prefaces the film with the sentence ‘a fable about a real-life tragedy’ or something to that effect.

The crumbling marriage of Princess Diana (Spencer) and Prince Charles (Jack Farthing) has led to rumors of affairs and an impending divorce but peace is demanded during the Christmas festivities at the Queen’s Sandringham Estate. The lavish spread of magnificent food, pheasant hunting, and family photos would be the dream of many but Diana is counting down the minutes until she can escape the dreary experience.

Restless, Diana imagines her life without the royal family and yearns to escape her trapped life. She fantasizes, binges and purges, and spends time with her children, while clinging to her friend and Royal Dresser, Maggie (Sally Hawkins), and befriending the kindly Equerry Major Alistair Gregory (Timothy Spall). He leaves a book about Anne Boleyn, the tragic wife of Henry VIII, which Diana becomes obsessed with.

My two biggest takeaways are Stewart’s performance and the musical score.

Stewart has long attempted to separate herself from her household name-making performances as Bella Swan in the Twilight Saga film series (2008-2012). Several supporting roles in independent features like Still Alice (2014) and Cafe Society (2016) followed but with Spencer, she hits the jackpot.

Her vulnerability and insecurity infuse themselves into Diana with ferocity and power so much so that I became immersed with her mannerisms as much as the words she spoke. A long and painful dinner scene (my favorite scene) with no dialogue features a closeup of Stewart as she angrily glares at several members of the dinner party. Her disgust at both them and the life she now leads is apparent.

Stewart displays how much Diana desired to escape from her cage where she felt as trapped as an animal would.

Jonny Greenwood creates a fantastic musical score that is haunting and powerful. He is the lead guitarist of the alternative rock band Radiohead and has scored numerous film scores. In the sequence listed above, he offers bombastic and eerie stringed instruments and a powerful drum beat. Later, as Diana wanders the grand halls he expresses her frustration with his music.

It’s an essential part of the film.

To lighten the mood, the 1986 hit song “All I Need Is A Miracle” by Mike and the Mechanics is played while Diana and her boys drive in their car on a sunny day singing along.

Spall and Hawkins play vital supporting roles as Diana’s only true allies. Spall is quiet and reserved but reveals so much with his facial expressions as his sympathy for Diana is apparent. In a surprise twist, Hawkins’s Maggie admits both her sexuality and her love for Diana as the two grow even closer.

Diana was quite the powerful ally to the LGBTQ+ community during a time when precious few were and the film gives a good reminder of her open-mindedness and her open heart.

Spencer (2021) is not the crowdpleaser some, including myself, would have expected and may even turn some viewers off with its depressing and embroiled cinematic fury. But it’s so much better than a popcorn feature with deeper emotion and exceptional psychological appeal that takes us into an imaginative state.

Oscar Nominations: Best Actress-Kristen Spencer

The Little Things-2021

The Little Things-2021

Director-John Lee Hancock

Starring-Denzel Washington, Rami Malek, Jared Leto

Scott’s Review #1,191

Reviewed November 5, 2021

Grade: B

The serial killer genre in film always fascinates me. Gems like Dirty Harry (1971), The Silence of the Lambs (1991), Seven (1995), and Zodiac (2007) immediately spring to mind as top of the heap works. John Lee Hancock who directs The Little Things (2021) thinks so too because he borrows from those pictures throughout his film.

The film contains superior acting and a fantastic mood adding effective musical score bits and absorbing cinematography of Los Angeles and surrounding areas. The script must have read superior enough to get heavyweights like Washington, Malek, and Jeto to hop on board.

Despite these wins, The Little Things is lackluster and ultimately disappoints in the end. I was ready to award it a solid B+ if not for the confusing and unsatisfying conclusion which reminds me of a weak copy of the aforementioned Seven.

Deputy Sheriff Joe “Deke” Deacon (Washington) joins forces with Sgt. Jim Baxter (Malek) to search for a serial killer who’s terrorizing Los Angeles. The blueprint is similar to a case that Deacon worked on and ended with a deadly mistake and his resulting heart attack. As the pair track the suspected culprit, a loner named Albert Sparma (Leto), Baxter becomes aware of Deke’s inner demons and risks going down the same emotionally wrecked path.

A cat and mouse game ensues with Sparma continually toying with both Deke and Baxter.

The story is familiar territory and sets up the rest of the film. How many times in film have we seen a detective tortured over a case? Despite Sparma being the only real suspect and presumed serial killer we never do learn whether or not he did the deeds. One girl who escaped the killers’ clutches may recognize Sparmas boots but is dismissed after concluding that since he is in police custody he must be the killer.

The opening sequence is excellent despite using a direct rip-off of the scene in The Silence of the Lambs where the girl is cruising down an empty desert road at high speed singing a rock song without a care in the world. Thankfully, they had her crooning a different song but the scene mirrors the other. She is pursued by a killer in another car. The scene is a terrific way to start.

The ensemble does good work with the characters they play. Leto gets the showiest role while Washington plays yet another police detective, a role he now can probably play in his sleep, but always does well. Malek was cast based on the success of his Oscar-winning Freddie Mercury role in Bohemian Rhapsody (2018).

Leto received enough acclaim that he received a Screen Actors Guild Award nomination and a Golden Globe nomination. This prompted me and undoubtedly others to see The Little Things which suffered at the box office because of the Covid-19 pandemic.

I didn’t buy the period of 1990-1991 for a second regardless of how many shiny Chevy Impalas were used in the production. None of the characters looked of the time that it was supposed to be though I admired the now old-fashioned diners and storefronts they used.

I don’t know much about Hancock, who both directs and writes The Little Things but looking at his filmography he has directed such works as The Blind Side (2009) and Saving Mr. Banks (2013). Since both of these films are safer works it’s unsurprising why much of the film looks and feels like watching an episode of CSI.

Hancock could do with a dose of rawness over sleekness in his next film.

The Little Things (2021) pales in comparison to other better-like genre films and will not be remembered well despite making a valiant effort to play with the big boys. Unfortunately, it’s a minor league experience that borrows too often from other films and therefore has no distinct identity.

I shudder to think of the result if not for the big stars who appear.

Halloween Kills-2021

Halloween Kills-2021

Director-David Gordon Green

Starring-Jamie Lee Curtis, Judy Greer, Anthony Michael Hall

Scott’s Review #1,190

Reviewed October 31, 2021

Grade: B+

The second in a planned revival trilogy of the iconic Halloween franchise that began in 1978, Halloween Kills (2021) is a frightfully effective “middle sibling”. Bridging the gap between Halloween (2018) and the highly anticipated Halloween Ends (2022) the film has enough gory kills and bloodletting to satisfy any horror fan.

The plot is furthered and the groundwork is laid for the next installment.

The nods to history and having several actors reprise their characters from the original film is an enormous treat for fans and a true pleasure to see. The writing in regards to history is great and weaves these characters in with newer characters. Jamie Lee Curtis, of course, stars as the terrorized Laurie Strode.

Picking up where Halloween-2018 left off on Halloween night (naturally), a wounded Laurie (Curtis) is whisked away to Haddonfield Hospital to recover while confident that she has finally killed her nemesis, Michael Meyers, by burning him to death. She is joined by her daughter Karen (Judy Greer) and granddaughter Allyson (Andi Matichak) since the trio left the masked maniac caged and burning in Laurie’s basement. Or so they thought.

Spoiler alert- Michael is far from dead.

Continuing his ritual bloodbath held on Halloween night, Michael roams the quiet streets of Haddonfield while the fed-up townspeople rise against their unstoppable monster and form a vigilante mob led by Tommy Doyle (Hall). They continue to chant “Evil dies tonight” in anticipation of Michael’s demise.

Kyle Richards (Lindsey Wallace), Nancy Stephens (Nurse Marion Chambers), and Charles Cyphers (Sheriff Brackett) return to the action with prominent supporting roles. Their additions are a major win for me and presumably any fan of the franchise. It’s on par with welcoming old friends back into one’s life with open arms after decades apart.

The fact that they provide historical background is icing on the cake. Brackett’s daughter, Annie, one of the first of Michael’s victims is celebrated and shown via flashbacks. Marion’s close friendship with Michael’s doctor, Sam Loomis (Donald Pleasance) is also mentioned. He is seen via computer-animated imagery when the events go back to 1978.

The decision by the director/writer David Gordon Green, along with co-writers Scott Teems and Danny McBride to frequently go back in time to the events of 1978 is uncompromised and relevant to remind old fans of the history of the story and teaching novice fans how the dots connect. It’s a brilliant decision.

The diversity offered in Halloween Kills is a breath of fresh air and progressive. An interracial couple, a same-sex couple, and a black couple are added with respect, dignity, and without stereotype. They are everyone’s neighbors and a true representation.

As residents of the cursed Meyers house, Big John and Little John are written as tough and intelligent, avoiding any comic relief that too often shadow gay characters.

A few death scenes are extended to show the victim’s pain and suffering instead of the usual quick and easy slice ’em and dice ’em style. This will make the squeamish a bit nervous but that’s half the fun of horror films, right?  The typical throat-slashings and eye gougings are included but many of the small characters are likable, witty, and smart, and not written as complete morons.

In contrast to the original Halloween, the residents of Haddonfield now seem more blue-collar and red necks than upper-middle-class.  I chuckled when Laurie yelled “sheep” to the venomous residents who were chasing a man assumed to be Meyers (he wasn’t). I surmised that maybe the filmmakers were sticking it to the dolts that blindly follow political leaders in a cultish way and devoid of thought.

Before anyone thinks that Halloween Kills (2021) is a work of art, it isn’t. There exists enough silly dialogue to make anyone snicker but that’s what slasher films are all about. They are meant to be fun and this Halloween installment doesn’t disappoint.

The film is sheer entertainment done well and makes me anticipate the next and “final” Halloween chapter. But, as long as the films remain hits at the box office the killings will go on and on and on and on.

Lamb-2021

Lamb-2021

Director-Valdimar Johannsson

Starring-Noomi Rapace, Hilmir Snaer Guonason

Scott’s Review #1,187

Reviewed October 17, 2021

Grade: A-

Director, Valdimar Jóhannsson’s feature-length film directorial debut is a mixed recipe of eeriness and gorgeous cinematography sprinkled with horror and dread. The film is shot entirely in remote Iceland making the texture of the film ominous and haunting.

The creation, Lamb (2021), is highly effective in mood and dread as throughout most of the film the feeling that something awful will happen at any moment is unrelenting. During numerous sequences, I expected something to leap out from behind a door or suddenly peer through a window but the film contains no gimmicks.

It doesn’t need them. The low-key musical score is terrific.

After an extremely slow build, the shit finally hits the fan making the payoff well worth the wait.

On their remote farm, María (Rapace) and Ingvar (Guonason) share a peaceful and idyllic life raising sheep. They are deeply in love but miss having a child. After one of their sheep gives birth to a human/sheep hybrid, they are filled with love and decide to raise it as their own naming her Ada. The arrival of Ingvar’s troubled brother Pétur (Bjorn Hlynur Haraldsson) upends their calm family dynamic.

Providing an additional hurdle is the arrival of their “daughters” sheep mother who remains outside their house crying for her newborn. She is determined not to let María and Ingvar steal her baby. Does María go too far in a fit of rage?

Jóhannsson, who also co-wrote the screenplay, fills the film with mystery. The first scene is of a herd of horses terrified by some approaching force that arrives at María and Ingvar’s barn. Later, featured animals like the sheep, a cat, and a dog seem spooked and alert. What is this force and what’s in store for the characters?

On the surface, a sheep/human hybrid runs the risk of feeling ridiculous especially as Ada ages and is clad in bright sweaters and jackets. She cannot speak but can comprehend and is capable of feeling and emotion. She is quite human-like and filled with love. I, as audiences will, took to her and therefore rooted for her happiness.

I adore the characters of María and Ingvar. Preparing meals together, sipping wine, and playing cards, they take turns with the farmwork and make a wonderful romantic ideal. It’s never known if they once had a child who died or whether Ada is the first sheep/human hybrid they’ve ever seen. They don’t seem completely surprised at the birth.

When they visit a grave marked with the name Ada, we wonder who the deceased is?

I shuttered upon the arrival of Pétur. A heap of trouble he mooches off of our happy couple and despises Ada, almost shooting her with a shotgun. Thankfully, he has enough sense not to hurt her but the ever-present shotgun inevitably comes into play later on.

Rapace, Guonason, and Haroldsson provide exceptional acting which goes miles to ground a story that could easily be deemed as silly or superfluous.

Cinematographer, Eli Arenson, deserves major props for filming gorgeous Iceland location shots. Having visited this lush geographical paradise I immediately appreciated what I was being offered and was taken back to the sprawling farmlands and statuesque mountains.

Those who are squeamish about seeing an animal give birth may want to close their eyes during one scene which undoubtedly is a real birth of a lamb. I found it beautiful.

The final fifteen minutes of Lamb is violent and daring. Mixed with an obvious nightmare is a sweetness and sincerity that dripped from the screen. The folktale presentation creates a fairytale comparison and the fate of one character is shrouded in uncertainty.

For those wondering who or what Ada’s father is, daddy does finally make an appearance.

Lots of questions abound after the credits roll so might there be a sequel offered by Jóhannsson? Let’s hope so.

Lamb (2021) perfectly infuses the common reality of farm work and an attractive couple’s daily life with a horrific folklore story. I might have preferred a slightly faster pace but by no means did I ever feel robbed of a proper payoff.

Judas and the Black Messiah-2021

Judas and the Black Messiah-2021

Director-Shaka King

Starring-Daniel Kaluuya, Lakeith Stanfield, Jesse Plemons

Scott’s Review #1,176

Reviewed September 9, 2021

Grade: B+

I wanted to love Judas and the Black Messiah (2021). I still champion the importance of the story, however, and the timeliness of its release. The film has some moments of glory where a bombastic scene occurs that immediately reigns the viewer back into the fold. But other parts drag and feel fragmented or otherwise confusing so much so that the film bored me sometimes and I hate admitting that.

I teetered back and forth between a B+ grade and a B grade and, perhaps channeling my political side, I finally settled on a very generous B+ determination. Before I watched the film I would have bet on an A or an A-. Alas, it was not to be.

That the film was made and exposed a mass audience to the trials and tribulations of the late 1960s Chicago racial tensions that helped create the Black Panthers organization is of course a huge win.

But, I wanted more. Much more.

A major gripe is that the song from the film and winner of the Best Original Song Oscar only appears over the end credits and has nothing to do with the film. Having a tacked-on feel, the song, performed by H.E.R. and others is not particularly memorable either.

The title is “Fight for You”, possessing images of battle and courage which fits the theme of the film but the song itself is quite lackluster.

The plotline is a challenge to follow but goes something like this. The FBI ropes small-time Chicago thief Bill O’Neal (LaKeith Stanfield) into infiltrating the Illinois Black Panther Party and is tasked with keeping tabs on their charismatic leader, Chairman Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya).

At first, O’Neal enjoys the danger of manipulating both his comrades and his FBI main contact, Special Agent Roy Mitchell (Plemons). Hampton’s political power grows as he falls in love with fellow revolutionary Deborah Johnson (Dominique Fishback). To complicate matters she becomes pregnant.

Meanwhile, O’Neal becomes conflicted. Does he align with The Panthers and where his heart lies or thwart Hampton’s efforts by any means necessary, as FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover (Martin Sheen) commands?

The acting is fantastic and along with the message is the best part of the film. Justified controversy ensued over the placement of Kaluuya and Stanfield in the Supporting Actor category at the Oscars- both received nominations and Kaluuya was victorious.

It’s obvious to me that Stanfield is the lead character so it’s a shame he wasn’t awarded a Best Actor nomination. With Chadwick Boseman positioned to be the clear winner for Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (2020) and shockingly losing to Anthony Hopkins for The Father (2020) was the thought that another black actor in the category might ruin Boseman’s chances?

We’ll probably never know.

Kaluuya and Stanfield are both mesmerizing and I am looking forward to their subsequent projects, especially Kaluuya who I fell in love with after his turn in Get Out (2017).

A heavily made-up Martin Sheen is a treat to see in a woefully too-small role as J. Edgar Hoover.

The rest of the film is pretty good. The climax is thrilling and almost bumped the film up a grade for me. Without giving too much away it involves a bloody shoot-out and real-life interview and highlight footage. I love the reality the latter provides.

But then I remembered the snail’s pace it took to get to this point and how the other good scenes paled in comparison with a plodding pace.

I adored the characters and fell in love with the sweet though the doomed romance between Hampton and Deborah. I yearned for them to live happily ever even after my hunch told me this was not in the cards for them. My hunch was right.

The intent was to make the audience outraged at the unfairness people of color endured in the late 1960s.  I was angrier still at the realization that they are still being treated unfairly in the time of George Floyd and others.

Judas and the Black Messiah (2021) get hands down major praise for the intent and acting but disappoints as far as delivery and final product. It is not equal to the sum of all its parts.

Oscar Nominations: Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor-Daniel Kaluuya (won), Lakeith Stanfield, Best Original Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Original Song-“Fight for You” (won)

A Quiet Place Part II-2021

A Quiet Place Part II-2021

Director-John Krasinski

Starring-Emily Blunt, John Krasinski

Scott’s Review #1,170

Reviewed August 12, 2021

Grade: B+

A Quiet Place Part II (2021) makes excellent use of sound, almost a character in itself, by featuring a deaf character and aliens who are blind and use only their acute sense of hearing to stalk and annihilate their prey.

The big sounds and the deafening silences keep the film fresh, capitalizing on its novel approach.

The film is both a sequel and a prequel that presumably allows director, writer, and actor John Krasinski the chance to reprise his ill-fated character offering a neat timeline to the events of the first film, A Quiet Place (2018).

Since that film was an enormous success a sequel was green-lit by the studio almost immediately. It offered Krasinski a great deal of freedom which he runs within this offering.

I can’t say the plot exactly comes together as tidy as I hoped and there is no explanation for the alien’s actions or motivations- what is it they want and where do they come from? The lack of explanation gnawed at me. After all, they must have been created from somewhere. The lack of motivation of a horror character like Michael Meyers is understandable but aliens?

The film is raised quite a bit above average thanks to a thrilling and fascinating opening sequence. This lengthy scene was astonishing with differing character points of view, meticulous filmmaking, and frights galore. Plus the appearance of Lee (Krasinski) killed in the first film immediately drowns us in intrigue.

I wish the rest of the film had remained as breathtaking but it’s not bad either. As a northeasterner, I was treated to some of the action taking place on a dilapidated metro-north railway train. Any commuter will appreciate this nod.

And who doesn’t enjoy numerous shots of Emily Blunt playing bad-ass with a loaded shotgun? The talented actress and wife of Krasinski add credibility to the horror genre.

I know someone who saw A Quiet Place Part II without seeing A Quiet Place and enjoyed it nonetheless but I think it’s helpful to know the material to appreciate the first scene.

We begin on Day one and the Abbott family-husband, wife, and three children, enjoy a little league game on a summer afternoon. When suddenly a cloud-like object plummets to Earth, all hell breaks loose and the town is in a terrified flee as aliens destroy all in their paths.

This plot point is interesting since viewers will know that two of the family members will not survive very long.

A year later the Abbott family-Evelyn (Blunt), Regan (Millicent Simmonds), Marcus (Noah Jupe), and a newborn must leave their farm with a calculated plan to reach safety. They realize through a never-ending song played on the radio that there is a sanctuary on a nearby island.

Clever Regan, who is deaf, can combine a microphone with her cochlear implant to kill the aliens.

Young actress Simmonds is quite a find and along with Jupe emerges as the star of the film. The teenagers spent much time on the run and battling the aliens. Setting events up for another sequel Kransinki and Blunt may want less to do with follow-ups.

Deaf in real life she is the standout and supports a female empowerment slant especially while possessing a disability. She is a unique character because she is unconventional-looking and authentic, lacking the typical characteristics that attempt to get moviegoers into theaters. She is my favorite character.

Geography is an issue here. Presumed to be upstate New York and shot in western New York, possibly the Utica area, the sanctuary is in Long Island Sound off the coast of Stamford, Connecticut. This would require the Abbots to travel hundreds of miles but the film makes it seem that both areas are neighboring. This mistake may not be noticed by most but since I live in the area it’s apparent.

A Quiet Place Part II feels reminiscent of the television series The Walking Dead. The additions of the family traversing the countryside, a sanctuary, and ravaging humans all support this comparison.

There are some predictable plot points to endure that prevent it from straying too far from the fray but A Quiet Place Part II (2021) also offers a film about the senses that still feels unique. By part III this may become redundant but John Krasinski proves he can make a compelling sequence with enough suspense to keep his viewers engaged.