Tag Archives: 2023 Films

Eismayer-2023

Eismayer-2023

Director David Wagner

Starring Gerhard Liebmann, Luka Dimic

Scott’s Review #1,427

Reviewed May 31, 2024

Grade: A-

Eismayer (2023) may be the first Austrian-language film I’ve ever and is the first Austrian LGBTQ+ film. Similar to German cinema there is a cold and stark naturalistic veneer to the filmmaking making it feel moody and foreboding.

I’ve said this many times before but the statement still has merit. The LGBTQ+ cinema genre has been saturated with offerings since the late 1990s, especially into the 2000s and it can be difficult not to tell the same story continuously.

As proof of the above, our Prime subscription contains numerous LGBTQ+ films to showcase so we decided on Eismayer which sounded interesting.

It focuses on the military, is Austrian, and focuses on a love story between two soldiers. The fact that it is based on a true story held special intrigue.

Sergeant Major Eismayer (Gerhard Liebmann) is known and feared as the toughest training officer in the Austrian Armed Forces. He is ruthless and unfeeling with recruits and a staunch disciplinarian, with order and macho toughness.

Unsurprisingly, the new batch of recruits despises him.

Surprisingly, in his personal life, he is a loving father to his son whom he adores and treats his wife respectfully.

But when he starts to fall in love with Falak (Luka Dimic), a recruit who is unashamedly out and proud as a gay man Eismayer must decide if his closeted existence is worth it.

The director, David Wagner, paints a lovely canvas of the love between two men that slowly takes shape. He wisely makes the running time less than an hour and a half so the film doesn’t drag.

It’s not a shock what develops between Eismayer and Falak because their embrace appears on the cover art but that doesn’t detract from the enjoyment.

I like the direction Wagner takes with this story. Eismayer being the title character the focus is on his character not the couple as a whole. The plot centers on his plight to come to terms with his sexuality and also make it publicly known.

He doesn’t have to come out naturally but if he wants to have an open and honest romance with Falak he must do this genuinely.

It’s unexplained why Eismayer is the way he is but one can easily guess why. His father was probably stoic and military-like he is and the expectation was to be macho and tough at all costs, showing no vulnerability.

To satisfy his urges he is reduced to having hot sex with willing recruits in the back seat of a car but it’s hardly candlelit dinners and romance nor satisfying.

In addition to being in love with Falak, he admires his courage to be out and proud in a traditionally masculine environment.

We know virtually nothing about Falak’s backstory. What made him come out? What was his father like?

While there has been a clear shift in acceptance of gays in the military a story like this hasn’t been told in film to my knowledge.

Gone hopefully are the days when LGBTQ+ filmmakers told stories of mere resistance to a gay character’s happiness as an obstacle to their joy and acceptance.

There is a raised eyebrow or two when Falak makes his homosexuality evident in the shower and one grizzled senior officer complains that ‘fags don’t belong in the military’ but the younger officers have little issue.

They even applaud at the end when Eismayer and Falak kiss and embrace, cementing their open and blossoming romance.

A fantasy? Possibly, but Wagner gives the likely predominately gay male audience something to admire and cheer for.

Understated, but packs an emotional punch and an uplifting and inspiring message, Eismayer (2023) is an Austrian film I hope will inspire more American filmmakers.

Strange Way of Life-2023

Strange Way of Life-2023

Director Pedro Almodóvar

Starring Ethan Hawke, Pedro Pascal

Scott’s Review #1,425

Reviewed April 22, 2024

Grade: A-

Pedro Almodóvar is a unique film director. Spanish, his films are flavorful, saucy, and unpredictable. He tends to mix melodrama, wacky humor, and a colorful landscape frequently sprinkling LGBTQ+ elements even if they are not classified with that specific genre.

I adore his films though they frequently blur together for me.

Though a Spanish film, Strange Way of Life (2023) is only Almodóvar’s second English language film and to my knowledge his first short feature film.

Watching the brief thirty-one-minute offering I fantasized about a full-length feature or even a television series based on the story and characters.

Since it’s short we get right down to business quickly.

One day Silva (Pedro Pascal) rides a horse across the desert to Bitter Creek to visit Sheriff Jake (Ethan Hawke). It is quickly revealed that twenty-five years earlier, the sheriff and Silva, worked together as hired gunmen.

They fell in love during a passionate encounter with three whores and barrels of wine who ditched the men when they realized they were not valued.

Silva provides Jake with the excuse that the reason for his trip is not to go down the memory lane of their old friendship but rather to rescue his son Joe (George Steane) from persecution for being suspected of killing Jake’s late brother’s wife, also a whore.

After Jake and Silva sip wine and enjoy a lovely meal they quickly engage in animalistic sex and reignite their long-dormant passion.

While Silva is gung-ho about reuniting Jake has reservations.

Pascal, who is everywhere due to the success of his television series The Last of Us is fabulous to watch. His sexy machismo pairs well with his passion for his soulmate. Because his character of Silva intends for him and Jake to live out their days running a ranch he is a more inspiring character than Jake.

This point is a nod to the groundbreaking Brokeback Mountain (2006) whose characters also flirted with running a ranch together during a time when any gay relations were forbidden territory.

Hawke is quite good too though I’m partial to Pascal. Buttoned up and law-abiding he rebuffs Silva’s advances, at first.

It’s nice to see Hawke in a gay role. Both characters are masculine thereby dismissing silly LGBTQ+ stereotypes that too often appear in cinema.

It also doesn’t hurt to get a glimpse of Pascal’s bare butt or Hawke’s buff physique as they while away time in the bedroom.

I love the sweaty and muscular Western genre being the backdrop of an LGBTQ+ film and tipped upside down. Not to reduce it to a tepid John Wayne film cliche there exists a gorgeous and melodic fado singer throughout the film.

It is performed by Manu Ríos.

This counterbalances the Quentin Tarantino-ish blood and violence with lovely music.

The film is titled after a 1960s Portuguese fado song by Amália Rodrigues

Since Strange Way of Life is a brief experience many facets could have been explored. Why did Silva leave Jake in the first place? What made him suddenly have a realization after twenty-five years? Were there other men at that time?

Being critical that the film is short and deserves full-length feature status it nonetheless deserves to be towards the top of Almodóvar’s catalog a testament to its power.

Strange Way of Life (2023) successfully takes a macho genre like the Western and lights it on fire proving that two men can be tough and tenderly love each other.

The Color Purple-2023

The Color Purple-2023

Director Blitz Bazawule

Starring Fantasia Barrino, Danielle Brooks, Taraji P. Henson

Scott’s Review #1,423

Reviewed March 16, 2024

Grade: B+

In 2023, director Blitz Bazawule recreated the famous 1985 cinematic version of The Color Purple by Steven Spielberg with mostly good results though it won’t be remembered like Spielberg’s is.

Bazawule is also a visual artist, rapper, singer-songwriter, and record producer so his version differs greatly from Spielberg’s in style and production design.

The ‘new’ version feels closer to what a feel-good Broadway stage version might feel like with incorporated musical numbers breaking up the drama and sometimes the comedy.

The Color Purple was a stage version and before that a much bleaker novel by Alice Walker so I’m not averse to comparing the 2023 version to all that preceded it.

Since we are talking cinema, although I’m more partial to the 1985 version mostly because that one packed a much greater emotional punch I think the numbers are a wise move and are choreographed well.

My favorite by far is ‘Hell No!’ an aggressive and anthemic stomp performed by a defiant Sofia (Danielle Brooks) and later reprised when mousy Celie (Fantasia Barrino) finds a set of balls.

We all probably know the story but here is a brief synopsis for those unfamiliar with the plot.

Set in the Deep South (Georgia) from the early 1900s until the 1940s, the main story follows the shy and put-upon Celie. She is raped and forced to bear the children of her father who then sells the babies. She is sent to marry and live with ‘Mister’ (Colman Domingo) who beats her and sets his sights on Celie’s sister Nettie (Halle Bailey).

Nettie and Celie are the best of friends but through circumstance lose touch for years.

The decades march on as Celie finds her voice and independence thanks to Sofia, jazz singer Shug Avery (Taraji P. Henson), and other kind folks.

The Color Purple is a lovely look at perseverance, extraordinary strength, and hope in the unbreakable bonds of sisterhood during a difficult time in history.

Black women especially were not always treated well.

The casting is uneven. I wasn’t completely won over by Barrino as Celie. The one-time ‘American Idol winner can sing and was Celie on Broadway in 2007 but I kept musing how exceptional Whoopi Goldberg was in the part in 1985.

Speaking of Goldberg, she appears in a cameo role early on as a midwife.

Henson, as Shug, has a tremendous voice and confidence providing the glamour and outrageousness needed for the role. However, she is supposed to be a drop-dead gorgeous woman who Celie is madly in love with and Henson doesn’t have the looks.

As my apt husband announced, Beyonce Knowles would have been a brilliant casting choice.

The standout is Brooks as Sofia, justifiably receiving the sole Academy Award nomination. The instant she appears on screen bullying her meek husband Harpo she has the audience wrapped around her finger giving as good a performance as Oprah Winfrey did in 1985.

While the musical numbers incorporate more of the Broadway-style they also contain a musical rock video vibe that takes away a bit of the cinematic production.  The dance moves are so perfect that they make the film feel ‘fun’ when it should feel ‘tragic’.

Even though Spielberg’s version was accused of excessive sappiness, it’s downright raw compared to the 2023 version. The finale is overly sentimental and the reunion of Celie and Mister, Mister now suddenly converted to a saint, is unrealistic.

Everything ends up so perfect for Celie and that’s all well and good but the fairy tale ending offsets some of the anguish she goes through early in the film.

Finally, Sofia’s big scene when she punches the mayor and other white townsmen lack the emotional heartbreak that the 1985 version did.

Held on its own merits, the film is a success. The Color Purple (2023) never drags and entertains from the first scene to the last. It’s a crowd-pleaser so those looking for a gooey experience will enjoy this version.

It’s safe waters without languishing towards dull or ineffectual.

Oscar Nominations: Best Supporting Actress-Danielle Brooks

Anatomy of a Fall-2023

Anatomy of a Fall 2023

Director Justine Triet

Starring Sandra Hüller, Milo Machado-Graner

Scott’s Review #1,422

Reviewed March 4, 2024

Grade: B+

The taut legal thriller, Anatomy of a Fall (2023) is rich with mystery and almost immediately offers the viewer a character’s surprising death. The rest of the film is spent trying to figure out how the death occurred as a trial surfaces.

The mountainous puzzle made me as the viewer anticipate a shocking conclusion or at least a cemented ending leaving nothing to the imagination.

In plain terms, I wanted to know why the character died, at whose hand, and how the act was done.

As good as the film is the ending underwhelmed me. I was left wanting more than I was offered. This is undoubtedly a result of the enormous buildup.

However, the effort is spectacular, and some of the year’s best acting is showcased by Sandra Hüller and Milo Machado-Graner, who give rich and dramatic performances. They stay believable and nuanced in challenging, teary scenes. 

Sandra (Sandra Hüller), her husband Samuel (Samuel Theis), and their eleven-year-old son Daniel ( Milo Machado-Graner) live a secluded life in a remote town in the French Alps.

Tension develops when Sandra, who is a writer, is interviewed by a reporter at home as they sip and enjoy wine. Samuel ruins the moment by blasting an obnoxious song loop causing the interview to be aborted.

Suddenly, Samuel is found dead in the snow by Daniel! The police question whether he was murdered or possibly committed suicide. Samuel’s suspicious death is ultimately presumed murder, and Sandra becomes the prime suspect.

As the trial begins, the events of Samuel’s death are uncovered while the complexities increase. A disturbing journey into Sandra and Samuel’s troubled relationship is explored with Daniel being at the center of the drama.

Anatomy of a Fall is a slow-moving vehicle but that’s a large part of its appeal for me. After Samuel’s death, the film features quiet scene after quiet scene of Sandra and Daniel being interviewed by either their lawyers or others involved in the case.

While not action scenes, the dialogue reveals an incredible amount of backstory. An incident that occurred years earlier is key and the remnants of that unfortunate activity are vital to the entire reveal.

With tremendous acting the film is also significant in scoring Justine Triet an Oscar nomination for Best Director when shamefully few female directors have ever been given this distinct honor.

Unfortunately, Triet’s nomination comes at the expense of Greta Gerwig NOT being nominated for the ginormous blockbuster hit Barbie. I’d give the nomination to Gerwig but why couldn’t they both be nominated?

Triet also wrote the screenplay and wisely crafted an unpredictable vehicle. Since Sandra is on trial the writing could have felt forced or generic but it doesn’t. There are also no silly television drama moments of unnecessary legal jargon or canned shocking tense moments.

What Triet serves up is genuine and humanistic.

The cold and snowy atmosphere reminds me of a Swedish film from 2014 called Force Majeure with a similar story of uncovered secrets and backstory. They are both set in the French Alps ironically enough.

I expected more from the ending but Anatomy of a Fall (2023) mesmerizes and keeps one guessing never feeling boring like some legal dramas can.

While Triet’s Oscar nomination may be questionable, Hüller’s is not and I’d even argue she deserves to win.

Oscar Nominations: 1 win-Best Picture, Best Director-Justine Triet, Best Actress-Sandra Hüller, Best Original Screenplay (won), Best Editing

Independent Spirit Award Nominations: 1 win-Best International Film (won)

American Fiction-2023

American Fiction-2023

Director Cord Jefferson

Starring Jeffrey Wright, Issa Rae, Sterling K. Brown

Scott’s Review #1,421

Reviewed February 11, 2024

Grade: A

American Fiction (2023) is an intelligently written expose of black culture and a poignant family drama mixed as one. Cord Jefferson makes his feature directorial debut with the satirical comedy-drama which he also wrote.

The film explores how perceptions of black people, mostly by white people but even amongst themselves, are categorized into neat little boxes.

Usually, the negative stereotypes are assumptions of bad grammar, poverty, and hardships in ghetto situations.

While some may be sympathetic these beliefs are either conscious or subconscious and they are propelled by the media. In the case of the film, through literary works.

Are white people intimidated by intelligent black people, the film questions. How do the intelligent black people feel about themselves?

American Fiction is a witty, smart, funny, and poignant film that will make you laugh as often as it makes you think about the perspectives offered.

Jefferson brilliantly offers up both an education and powerfully drawn black characters. In the middle is a sentimental family storyline that had me enraptured by almost all the characters.

The writer/director bases his film on the 2001 novel Erasure by Percival Everett. Thelonious “Monk” Ellison (Jeffrey Wright) is a highly intelligent African-American upper-class writer and professor living in Los Angeles.

He is a frustrated novelist-professor who doesn’t make much money or sales from his serious works.

Needing money after moving back to Massachusets on a leave of absence, he decides to write an outlandish satire of stereotypical “black” books, only for it to succeed by mistakenly thought of as serious literature and published to both high sales and critical praise.

He struggles with keeping his alter ego a secret while questioning the lack of intelligence with people assumed to be the liberal elite and the general public.

Wright is great and leads the charge of a dynamic cast. He makes his characters believable and their motivations clear while still showing Monk’s conflict. Monk has lived a privileged life with education, social status, and success.

His experience as a black man is different than other black men and he is smart enough to know this while still wrestling with his feelings.

Wright is dynamic at showing many emotions.

To make the film even better, the supporting characters are delightful with their own stories, making me fall in love with them. Special call-outs are for Sterling K. Brown and Erika Alexander who plays Monk’s brother and girlfriend, respectively.

Brown as Cliff is a successful surgeon but lives a conflicted life as a newly ‘out’ middle-aged gay man. He dabbles in drugs and promiscuous behavior but all he wants is approval by his family.

Alexander is a successful public defender and neighbor of the Ellison’s going through a divorce. She relates to Monk while challenging him on his bullshit and is a richly carved character.

Also, Leslie Uggams Monk’s mother suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, Ellison’s housekeeper Lorraine (Myra Lucretia Taylor), and Issa Rae as Sintara Golden are weaved into the canvas seamlessly and with purpose.

The film’s ending left me scratching my head and caught me off guard. While clever, it made me wonder if what I had just seen was reality or fantasy. Providing three different endings as adapted film options it’s tough to know which if any actually happened but maybe that’s the point.

I left the movie theater having laughed out loud, thought, and been entertained.

American Fiction (2023) made me feel like I had seen something relevant that would help me understand people better and give me insight into what other people feel.

Oscar Nominations: 1 win-Best Picture, Best Actor-Jeffrey Wright, Best Supporting Actor-Sterling K. Brown, Best Adapted Screenplay (won), Best Original Score

Independent Spirit Awards Nominations: 2 wins-Best Film, Best Lead Performance-Jeffrey Wright (won), Best Supporting Performance-Erika Alexander Sterling K. Brown, Best Screenplay (won)

The Zone of Interest-2023

The Zone of Interest-2023

Director Jonathan Glazer

Starring Christian Friedel, Sandra Hüller

Scott’s Review #1,419

Reviewed February 2, 2024

Grade: A

The Zone of Interest (2023) offers a unique experience for its audience. It’s one of a distant observer to unthinkable horrors and events that took place during the 1940s occupied Poland.

A lovely estate rife with flourishing flowers and plush gardens surrounds the haunting setting of the Auschwitz concentration camp.

Exterminations and unspeakable acts of human suffering occur daily whilst a German family enjoys their dream home hardly unnerved by what’s going on steps away.

The father is the mastermind behind the suffering.

The macabre film is extraordinary, and powerful, and will haunt you long after it ends.

The subject matter of the Holocaust in cinema is usually told with a visual examination of the victims. In The Zone of Interest, though, what you don’t see is worse than what you do.

The commandant of Auschwitz, Rudolf Höss (Christian Friedel), and his wife Hedwig (Sandra Hüller) live a seemingly idyllic life with their five children. They fish, swim, and frolic among the confines of their house and garden next to the camp.

Höss is a high-ranking and respected member of the Third Reich. Servants handle chores around the house, while the prisoners’ belongings are given to the family.

As a viewer, I first thought to myself what a happy family they seem to be. I was quickly sickened when I realized what was going on over the top of their high walls and their role in it.

Director, Jonathan Glazer, brought us disturbing films such as Birth (2004) and Under the Skin (2015) and revolts even more with The Zone of Interest. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a film quite like it.

Usually, what happens in a film happens on screen. Seeing the Jews gassed or shot or tortured is horrific enough. Spielberg’s Schindler’s List (1993) was a masterpiece by visually featuring the nature of the Holocaust in an inventive black-and-white way.

We see the victims.

In The Zone of Interest, it’s the sound that is effective. Beyond the garden wall, gunshots, shouting, and sounds of trains and furnaces are constantly heard.

The nights are even worse.

A quick glimpse of flames and smoke roaring to the sky are the visuals key to the events taking place next door.

We only very quickly see a parade of prisoners march through the grass……once.

Höss approves the design of a new crematorium, which soon becomes operational. With horror, it is confirmed that thousands of Jews are gassed and burned.

Glazer keeps the viewer at a distance with more than just experiencing the unseen. The cameras are set far back from events so the audience observes the family instead of being alongside.

There are no closeups.

The lighting is superior. Muted tones portray the starkness of the period. Effective is how everything appears grey except the flowers in the garden.

Some peculiarities exist that are hard to figure out. In two sequences, a Polish girl who lives nearby sneaks out every night, hiding food at the prisoners’ work sites for them to find and eat.

The film is a clay animation style similar to what Glazer used in parts of Under the Skin. It’s weird, stylistic, and fascinating.

Late in the film, Höss descends a staircase and retches. He does so again. I’m not sure why he does. Is he subconsciously sickened by the death he causes? He has been tasked with a new initiative to transport hundreds of thousands of Hungarian Jews to Auschwitz to be killed.

The mission has been named after him.

Is it too much for him to deal with?

The film ends with a modern scene of a group of janitors cleaning the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum before it opens.

I was dying to know what happened to Höss and Hedwig.

It’s a searing film, unforgettable and uncomfortable. It plods and sickens but is pure art. It’s troublesome and a unique entry for Holocaust films. Glazer finds a new way to examine material told in cinema for decades.

The Zone of Interest (2023) is a painful masterpiece and a thinking man’s film.

Oscar Nominations: 2 wins-Best Picture, Best Director-Jonathan Glazer, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best International Feature Film (won), Best Sound (won)

Independent Spirit Award Nominations: Best International Film

Saltburn-2023

Saltburn-2023

Director Emerald Fennell

Starring Barry Keoghan, Jacob Elordi, Rosamund Pike

Scott’s Review #1,417

Reviewed January 19, 2024

Grade: A

Emerald Fennell, as a director (she also acts) is someone to keep a close eye on.  With only her second film, Saltburn (2023), she has quickly drawn comparisons to Darren Aronofsky and Yorgos Lanthimos by creating wickedly daring comedies rife with sharp dialogue and peculiar tastes.

Okay, I’m drawing those comparisons on my own.

The point is that she creates films that are not necessarily for mainstream audiences but will satisfy the peculiar cravings of those seeking left-of-center and hard-to-predict films.

She also wrote the screenplay.

Those wary of hard-to-digest scenes involving blood, sex, nudity, and other depravities, be forewarned.

Her first film was the revenge-themed and Academy Award-winning Promising Young Woman (2020) starring Carey Mulligan who makes a return appearance in Saltburn.

This time out Fennell offers us a beautifully daring story centering around privilege, jealousy, and desire. The film offers unlikable characters with enough twists and turns to keep the audience off guard and confused as to who to root for or against.

Will the characters we hate stay hated? If this sounds vague it’s because the film is filled with mystery.

Oliver Quick (Barry Keoghan) is an awkward young man struggling to find his place at Oxford University the recipient of a scholarship for those with financial hardships. His mother is a recovering drug addict and his father is dead.

Unpopular, he finds himself drawn to the charming and handsome Felix Catton (Jacob Elordi), who also happens to be filthy rich. Felix is the envy of almost everyone as they strive to be his friend or bedfellow.

After Oliver does Felix a favor, they become buddies, and Felix unexpectedly invites him to Saltburn, his eccentric family’s sprawling estate, for a summer vacation.

The lavish Oxford University is grandiose and scholarly with lots of preppy and wealthy intellectuals. As the snobs partake in parties and wild games Oliver is looked down on by everyone but Felix. The spoiled students are not meant for the audience to like.

I love how Fennell incorporates legions of insecurities suffered by the have-nots struggling to fit in which is a common theme of hers. The only kid willing to give Oliver the time of day is a creepy Jeffrey Dahmer type.

Anyone familiar with cliques on college campuses will be firmly in Oliver’s corner. He’s a good kid after all, who has been dealt a struggling hand at life, what with his parent’s issues and all.

The shit hits the fan when Oliver arrives at Saltburn which makes Oxford seem minimal in comparison. Manicured and sprawling lawns complete with a center maze are overwhelming to Oliver to say nothing of the group of oddballs that make up the family and staff.

Suddenly though, everything becomes weird, and the tone of the film shifts.

The final forty-five minutes are riveting with unexpected events transpiring after a wild party to celebrate Oliver’s birthday. Felix, his sister, and their parents are involved in shenanigans that make the viewers question everything they’ve seen thus far.

Mulligan doesn’t have much to do in Saltburn. Her role amounts to little more than a cameo which would be more irritating if the other characters weren’t so richly written.

Rosamund Pike and Richard E. Grant sizzle as aristocratic types oblivious to everyone else and their wealthy surroundings. It’s almost as if they assume everyone lives this well.

The sexual scenes of desire are breathtaking and startlingly explicit. In one scene, two characters make out with bloody mouths and in another, one character masturbates in a bathtub while another character spies on him and lustfully licks the faucet a few minutes later.

The best acting performance belongs to Keoghan who delivers a complex and spirited character who we’re not sure what will do next or sometimes why. He possesses an innocent yet creepy veneer which is tough to figure out.

His naked dance sequence is one of the wildest in cinema history.

Fennell hits another grand slam with the eerie yet fascinating Saltburn (2023), a delicious examination of the class system. The mixture of the groveling poor with the callous rich makes for a brilliant story.

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

The Iron Claw-2023

The Iron Claw-2023

Director Sean Durkin

Starring Zac Efron, Jeremy Allen White, Harris Dickinson

Scott’s Review #1,416

Reviewed January 15, 2024

Grade: A

I was pleasantly surprised by how compelling and character-driven The Iron Claw (2023) is. Being a sports drama there is always a risk of cliches and little in the way of surprises but director Sean Durkin who also wrote the screenplay, delivers the goods.

Powerfully acted by all of the actors involved The Iron Claw is also profoundly sad and very hard-hitting emotionally which caught me off guard.

The trials and tribulations of the Von Erich family are explored in a fact-based story that honors the family ties with compassion and heart making the audience fall in love with and understand the feelings of the family.

There are triumphs but also much heartbreak with some outstanding acting in support of a very sad real-life story.

Efron who plays Kevin Von Erich gives the best performance of his career as a reasonable, stable young man living in a world of chaos.

It is perplexing, especially given the December release why the film received no awards mention especially for Efron.

One miss, most notable with Kevin, is the inclusion of a ridiculous wig and jacked-up body making him look more like a cartoonish Incredible Hulk than the clean-cut all-American young man that the real Kevin looked like.

Being a huge fan of professional wrestling as a youngster in junior high school the Von Erich family was somewhat familiar to me. However, I had to search my memory for long-forgotten specifics.

The family, led by former wrestler Fritz (Holt McCallany) was well-known throughout the 1970s-1990s in local Texas circles and then nationally as professional wrestling gained popularity. His sons Kevin (Efron), Kerry (Jeremy Allen White), David (Harris Dickinson), and Mike (Stanley Simons) are the focal points.

The true story of the inseparable brothers, who made history in the intensely competitive world of professional wrestling is recounted. Through tragedy and triumph, under the shadow of their domineering father and coach, the brothers seek larger-than-life immortality on the biggest stage in sports.

The family, similar perhaps to the Kennedys, were known for a widespread myth about a family curse, called the ‘Von Erich curse’.

The film has some narration from Kevin who immediately informs the audience of this curse which sets the tone for the chain of events the film explores.

Durkin is careful to present the film so masterfully as a cautionary tale about parental influence, sibling rivalry, and the various dangers of the professional wrestling business.

The Iron Claw begins with a black-and-white sequence from probably the 1950s when Fritz was a struggling local wrestler. His famous ‘finishing maneuver’ was called the ‘iron claw’ meant to make his opponent submit to the wrestling match.

From there the story is largely told from the point of view of Kevin wonderfully played by Efron. Kevin, now the oldest sibling following the tragic death of his older brother at age five, serves as the brother’s leader.

While he yearns for a title belt largely to satisfy the demands of his father, he is usurped by brothers Kerry and David in different ways. He meets a local girl, Pam (Lily James), who is an intellectual and supports him emotionally.

They make a fabulous couple because they are equals. Conversely, the Von Erich mother is a traditional housewife and the entire family is taught to show no emotion.

In a wonderful scene late in the film, Kevin’s son teaches him that it’s okay to cry and show love through emotion. Kevin sobs with relief and it’s a beautiful and pivotal lesson the film teaches.

The other actors are outstanding, especially kudos to Jeremy Allen White (Kerry), and the parents (Maura Tierney and McCallany) but there is not a weak performance to be found.

It is unnecessary to be a professional wrestling fan though it is a treat to see long-ago stars like Ric Flair, Harley Race, and Bruiser Brody represented.

The Iron Claw (2023) like Boogie Nights (1997) did for the porn industry shows the flaws, the hopes and dreams, and the pain of a category of people (professional wrestlers) too often dismissed and discarded.

As Durkin examines wonderfully, these people also have a story to tell.

Magic Mike’s Last Dance-2023

Magic Mike’s Last Dance-2023

Director Steven Soderbergh

Starring Channing Tatum, Salma Hayek

Scott’s Review #1,415

Reviewed January 14, 2024

Grade: C-

Magic Mike’s Last Dance (2023) is the third and final installment in the Magic Mike trilogy, following the successful Magic Mike (2012) and the dismal Magic Mike XXL (2015).

Billed as ‘The Final Tease’ the sub-title of the last release is rather appropriate since there is nary a bare bum to be found much less any other nudity. Since the film is about the male stripper industry there is laughingly more female flesh than male.

While there are a couple of titillating sequences containing thrusting and gyrating the tone is watered down and extremely safe. Nothing warrants the R-rating that Magic Mike’s Last Dance received.

After my horrific review of Magic Mike XXL in which I awarded it a solid ‘F’ I will keep my manners in check and be mindful that Magic Mike’s Last Dance is intended to entertain on a late night.

I have rated it a generous ‘C-‘.

The film is pretty bad with no character development whatsoever, poorly written dialogue, and little chemistry between stars Channing Tatum and Salma Hayek. Mike is the only likable principal character in the bunch.

I’m very surprised that respected director Steven Soderbergh who received an Oscar nomination in 2000 for the terrific Traffic would have anything to do with this film.

His style is unnoticeable except for a setting of wealth and a brief and mediocre mention of capitalism and the rich manipulating the poor which the director sometimes includes in his films.

“Magic” Mike Lane (Tatum) has suffered a bad business deal that has left him bartending at parties in Florida. He meets a rich businesswoman, Max, played by Salma Hayek, who pays him for one of his legendary dances.

Smitten, Max immediately offers him a job directing a show at a famous theatre in London.  The show will include a smoldering feast of hot new dancers that Mike will choreograph.

The storyline, admittedly secondary in this type of film, has so many holes I wouldn’t know where to start, but the weakest point is expecting the audience to buy Mike and Max as having fallen in love after one dance.

Romance is a hard-swallow made worse by Max’s demanding personality and insecurities over her ex-husband. She’s a bit of a tyrant made more noticeable by Mike’s even-keeled nature.

While not worldly, Mike is kind and I desired to see him paired with nearly any other character other than Max.

Tatum is a much better actor than most assume based on his pinup beefcake good looks. Has anyone seen him in Foxcatcher (2015)? Sadly, the actor is given weak material to work with that does nothing to challenge him.

Furthermore, we are cheated and only see him twice in his underwear. Some stripper.

Supporting characters like Max’s brooding daughter, Zadie, and opinionated manservant, Victor, are stock and given uneven dialogue to work with. They are presumably added for comic moments that never come.

To be fair, the film is set in London in addition to Miami, and a few decent exterior shots of both locales are added which helps the film.

A ridiculous Zoom call cameo sequence meant to include Mike’s ‘bros’ from the other films (Matt Bomer, Adam Rodriguez, and Joe Manganiello) is a treat but has an ill-effect since that’s all we get from the handsome fellas.

Magic Mike’s Last Dance would have been saved if a scantily clad reunion dance had commenced with the ‘bros’ but sadly none was to be found.

The first film, Magic Mike (2012) is the only one of the three worth spending any time on. Pure juicy entertainment mixed with polished machismo is what was offered and Magic Mike’s Last Dance (2023) loses the ‘magic’ and instead offers a shriveled pickle of what used to be a commanding phallic symbol.

Wonka-2023

Wonka-2023

Director Paul King

Starring Timothée Chalamet, Calah Lane, Olivia Colman

Scott’s Review #1,414 

Reviewed January 3, 2024

Grade: B+

Wonka (2023) is only the third live-action film based on Roald Dahl’s iconic 1964 novel Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, following Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory (1971) and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005).

The latter was an inadequate and unnecessarily dark film starring Johnny Depp that threatened to ruin the trademark fantasy of the original.

Fortunately, director Paul King mostly known for directing the Paddington films opts for a warm and even gooey experience that does perfect justice to the original starring Gene Wilder with many connections to that film, especially costumes, characters, and locale.

It’s saccharine sweet but not sickeningly sweet instead feeling both fresh and genuine.

The wonderful and familiar featured song ‘Pure Imagination’ appears instantly as the film begins which does wonders to capture and captivate the nostalgic audience—mixed with other new gems like ‘A World of Your Own’ hooks newer and younger viewers.

The effort works well as a kindly old friend dusted off the shelf for a new waltz across the dance floor and a dizzying chocolate delight crowd-pleaser is the result of Wonka.

Wonka is released in December amid the sugary Christmas holiday season. A marketing win what parents could refuse a delicious trip to the cinema?

The wondrous story of how the world’s greatest inventor, magician, and chocolate maker became the beloved Willy Wonka (Timothée Chalamet) we know today begins with the young actor brazenly wearing a similar garb as Wilder did in the 1971 effort.

I adore this feat and pointed display because it makes crystal clear the attempt to leverage history instead of upheaval.

Chalamet is perfectly cast as Willy in large part because he resembles Wilder with his wiry build and waifish face. There exists a kindness and trustworthiness that transfers well from the big screen to the audience member.

Throughout the film, there is light peril that Wonka faces like a crooked debt owed to the even more crooked Mrs. Scrubitt’s (Olivia Colman) boardinghouse or the vengeful competitor Arthur Slugworth (Paterson Joseph) but it’s nothing he can’t handle with a grin and shrug of the shoulders.

His feathers are not ruffled easily because he believes in the magic of chocolate. In a dear flashback scene featuring his mother, played by Sally Hawkins, she inspires him to always believe in himself and be a good person.

This is at the heart of the film.

Along for the ride are new friends orphan Noodle (Calah Lane), Abacus Crunch (Jim Carter), and others trapped within Scrubbit’s and henchman Bleacher, played by Tom Davis.

There’s even a connection with the fan favorite Oompa-Loompa’s led by Lofty (Hugh Grant) who becomes a close ally in the end. As historical viewers will know the pair reunites in business.

Despite all these terrific additions the main attraction is the chocolate naturally. Highlights are a lavish chocolate attempted drowning, a chocolate store, and more than enough chocolate colorful flowers to whet one’s appetite.

The film is weird and zany without being too far out there and retains its touchy-feely approach.

Wonka (2023) successfully builds a multi-generational bridge between audiences with a powerful human connection. Grandparents, parents, and children alike can all see the film together with a common love of chocolate and magic.

The dangers are light-hearted and the filmmakers keep age-appropriate sensibilities and the result is family-friendly material with a kindhearted approach.

We all need this sometimes.

Poor Things-2023

Poor Things-2023

Director Yorgos Lanthimos

Starring Emma Stone, Mark Ruffalo, Willem Dafoe

Scott’s Review #1,413

Reviewed December 27, 2023

Grade: A

Yorgos Lanthimos is a peculiar director and the suggestion is for potential viewers to be familiar with his work before seeing his latest film release, Poor Things (2023).

I’ve said recently that other directors like Alexander Payne, Todd Haynes, Quentin Tarantino, and Martin Scorcese can easily be added to this list with a style not for everyone but that Cinemaphiles will salivate for style and texture alone.

Anyone who has seen Lanthimos’s Dogtooth (2009) or The Lobster (2016) will know exactly what I mean.

With Poor Things, he hits a grand slam home run that might garner him some Academy Awards in what can be arguably classified as his most progressive film.

Mentions like the art direction, cinematography, set design, and fantastic performance by Emma Stone must be immediately celebrated and called out as highlights.

The film is hardly mainstream or conventional and way out there channeling a parallel to Frankenstein with frightening and gothic sets and sequences galore.

All with a twisted and refreshing feminist quality.

Ultimately, I was satisfied with the knowledge that I had witnessed a cinematic marvel that encourages repeated viewings.

During the nineteenth century in London, England, Bella Baxter (Stone), is a young woman brought back to life by the brilliant and unorthodox scientist Dr. Godwin Baxter (Willem Dafoe) who is referred to as ‘god’.

He inserts the tender brain of the baby she was carrying when she leaped from a bridge to her death suicide style.

Under Baxter’s protection and supervision, Bella is eager to learn but acts like a toddler with limited speech and motor skills. She teeters around smashing plates with gleeful joy as she discovers her surroundings.

With superior intelligence and a hunger for the worldliness she is lacking, Bella runs off with Duncan Wedderburn (Mark Ruffalo), a slick and horny lawyer, on a whirlwind adventure across the continents from Lisbon, Portugal to Paris, France, and back to London.

Free from the knowledge and the prejudices women of her time were forced to endure, Bella grows steadfast in her purpose to stand for equality and liberation. She challenges societal norms with her vision and determination.

I can’t think of anyone else to play the role of Bella other than Stone. With wide eyes filled with wonder, she infuses her character with comedy and wit as she asks questions many women have but never dare to utter aloud.

Especially in Victorian London.

Ruffalo is outrageous and Dafoe is hideously stoic. Both actors bring star quality and wacky performances in different ways.

The look of the film is to die for as Lanthimos offers a looming fairy tale set design led by cinematographer Robbie Ryan.

The European cities of Lisbon, Paris, and London are given their chapters in the film and their focus. The waterfront in Lisbon in particular resembles the real city in a gothic and foreboding way.

The hotel in Paris where Bella becomes a prostitute is regal and polished. Bella wonders aloud why the male customers get to decide which woman they want to spend time with instead of the reverse.

It’s a fair question.

Her friend and fellow prostitute introduces her to socialism while Madame Swiney (Kathryn Hunter) explains capitalism.

Finally, the musical score by Jerskin Fendrix offers shrieking classical strings mixed with haunting pizazz and perfectly timed arrangements. They promote tension and drama at just the right moments.

2023 was a fabulous year for women in cinematic terms but not so much by the United States Supreme Court but that’s another story. The bombast and box office enormity of Greta Gerwig’s Barbie is followed by Lanthimos’s celebration of the thought-provoking Poor Things.

Both elicit insightfully quirkiness that successfully bulldozes over traditional gender norms with messages that women can do whatever they set out to do which is a vital quality for young minds to be exposed to.

Oscar Nominations: 4 wins-Best Picture, Best Director-Yorgos Lanthimos, Best Actress-Emma Stone (won), Best Supporting Actor-Mark Ruffalo, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Film Editing, Best Cinematography, Best Costume Design (won), Best Production Design (won), Best Original Score, Best Makeup and Hairstyling (won)

May December-2023

May December-2023

Director Todd Haynes

Starring Natalie Portman, Julianne Moore, Charles Melton

Scott’s Review #1,412

Reviewed December 13, 2023

Grade: A-

Throughout May-December (2023) there exists a quiet gloominess and a sense of foreboding dread during nearly every scene that as a viewer I could not shake. The unsettling nature is what makes the film so fascinating to watch.

Making it even more peculiar is the feeling seeps through a mirage of cheeriness, small-town humility, and the Southern politeness of Savannah, Georgia, United States amongst a lofty helping of cakes, parties, and sunshine.

All is not as it seems.

As a fan of director Todd Haynes and his brilliant films Far From Heaven (2002) and Carol (2015), I had an idea of his style and tone from the get-go.

As excellent as May-December is I was left wanting perhaps one more potato chip than I was offered.  I was slightly unsatisfied only because I had Haynes’s other films as a comparison and May-December is not quite on par with those masterpieces despite being exceptionally well made.

But we can’t always expect a classic like Led Zeppelin IV.

Twenty years after their notorious tabloid romance gripped the nation, Gracie Atherton-Yu (Julianne Moore) and her husband Joe (Charles Melton) who is twenty-three years her junior are happily preparing for their twins to graduate from high school.

When Hollywood actress Elizabeth Berry (Natalie Portman) arrives in town to study the family to better understand Gracie and prepare for the role the family dynamics crack under the pressure of the spotlight.

Joe, in particular, who never got a chance to deal with his feelings and emotions as a teenager, begins to face the reality of having grown-up children. At the age of thirty-six, he confronts the rest of his life.

Meanwhile, Elizabeth and Gracie study each other, and the similarities and differences between the two women begin to surface causing friction.

Drama develops between Elizabeth, Gracie, Joe, and various family members as long-buried emotions and new scandals erupt in the small town.

I felt snippets of Persona, a 1966 avante-garde psychological thriller by Ingmar Bergman, and even the theatrical posters of the two women looking into the camera and facing side by side are identical in both films.

There’s also a teasing Single White Female (1992) similarity to a lesser degree.

The point is that May-December produces a haunting merging of two female characters in a creepy way.

Identity and obsession are also explored.

Portman and Moore play against and with each other deliciously. It’s not so much a rivalry but an obsession. Portman’s Elizabeth refers while speaking to a class of aspiring actors about becoming a character and we know she means Gracie.

When Gracie helps put Elizabeth’s makeup on just the right way resembling her more and more they look at the camera and see themselves in a mirror. It’s a haunting realization that both women are neurotic and have issues.

Does Gracie want to become Elizabeth as much as Elizabeth wants to become Gracie? Is it real or pretend because of the film?

At different points, I felt sympathy for both characters but at other times I didn’t. Elizabeth seems kind, then not so kind, then dismissive, then demanding.

Gracie seems kind, then neurotic, then sympathetic, then catty. Did she give her daughter’s scales as a graduation present? Did she intentionally point out her daughter’s unflattering arms?

Portman and Moore are successful at portraying these emotions in the subtlest of ways making the characters complex and tough to figure out.

The standout is Melton though. As Joe, the actor made me wonder how astonishingly quick the teenager had to grow up. He never had a childhood and is subsequently childlike, unable to make himself be heard until he broils over with rage.

Melton is on the map as an up-and-coming actor.

At the end of the film, when Elizabeth heads off to the airport I was left disappointed. I wanted more and felt there was more to uncover. What’s to become of Joe and Gracie? Could the three be friends if Elizabeth lived in the town?

What Haynes does so well is create tension even when there is none on the surface. The guttural feelings I was left with made May-December (2023) a quiet and powerful experience.

Oscar Nominations: Best Original Screenplay

Independent Spirit Awards Nominations: 1 win-Best Film, Best Director-Todd Haynes, Best Lead Performance-Natalie Portman, Best Supporting Performance-Charles Melton, Best First Screenplay (won)

Maestro-2023

Maestro-2023

Director Bradley Cooper

Starring Bradley Cooper, Carey Mulligan

Scott’s Review #1,411

Reviewed December 3, 2023

Grade: A

Brilliance personified defines Maestro (2023), a film directed by and starring Bradley Cooper. As if that isn’t enough Cooper co-wrote the screenplay with Josh Singer and co-produced the project with Martin Scorcese and Steven Spielberg.

With riches such as these players involved equates to adequate muscle to make the film a necessary watch brimming with creativity and good storytelling.

There is no disappointment whatsoever in the buildup. Maestro expresses powerful acting, creative direction, and a musical score encompassing the works of the man being examined, Bernstein.

At the conclusion, I found myself feeling like I’d been hit by a Mack truck. The epic portrayal of one family’s love for one another was overwhelming.

Combined with the art appreciation left me astounded with culture and further knowledge of the composer.

The story is not as much of a straightforward biography as one might imagine though when the film begins in the 1940s the famous composer is just on the cusp of his first big break. By sheer luck, he is asked to fill in for an ailing conductor, Bruno Walter, one evening.

But at its core Maestro is a torrential and fearless love story chronicling the lifelong relationship between Leonard Bernstein (Bradley Cooper) and Felicia Montealegre Cohn Bernstein (Carey Mulligan) who was a well-known theater actress.

They meet at a party and fall madly in love spending most of their time together. The intrigue is that Leonard is gay and quite openly so before he meets Felicia and becomes famous.

His boyfriend is David Oppenheim, played by Matt Bomer.

This sat well with me and I was impressed by their openness well before the LGBT movement. Unfortunately, we see little of David or Bomer after the early days and Leonard becomes enamored with several young aspiring composers. He then took to doing lines of cocaine into the 1970s and 1980s.

What the film does well is reveal that Felicia is aware of Leonard’s sexuality and loves him despite his appetite for men. This is not always easy for her. They share a love that is stoic and unadulterated and they become one in their bond making it unbreakable.

Maestro gets very dark in the later stages when Felicia is diagnosed with terminal cancer but this gives Cooper and Mulligan a chance to shine, and dazzle the audience with mesmerizing acting performances.

It’s tough to showcase one because both are so good.

Cooper has given the best performance of his career.

Enveloping himself into the role so much that it’s staggering how he gets the mannerisms of Bernstein.  The composer’s energetic style of expressive body movements and gestures which he was noted for as a conductor are done to perfection by Cooper.

Mulligan doesn’t play the wife role. She has her own story and makes the audience empathize with Felicia’s struggles to deal with her husband’s sexuality especially when rumors come to light affecting her children.

Mulligan gives a genuineness and heart to Felicia’s battle with cancer.

Cooper’s direction is excellent. The first part is shot in black and white giving an artistic, old Hollywood-style feel making the cigarette smoking look glamorous and sophisticated. The lush art direction merges into blurry shadows and angular lighting that fits the mood.

The color enhances the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s time as the characters age. The hairstyles and outfits gleam with sophisticated New York style and the Bernstein’s Long Island home is palatial.

Ironically, the darkest parts of the film are the most vivid and colorful.

Finally, the musical score features legendary Bernstein pieces that give truth to the production not only reminding viewers how talented he was but the choices made enhance each scene where a number appears.

I smiled when a number from West Side Story, perhaps his best-known work was featured.

A knock-out scene of Leonard conducting at a cathedral is lengthy and dramatic culminating with Felecia looking on from the side of the church. At this moment, I knew that the couple were true soulmates.

Maestro (2023) is an exceptional piece of filmmaking that easily secures Bradley Cooper his place in cinema history both in front of and behind the camera.

Oscar Nominations: Best Picture, Best Actor-Bradley Cooper, Best Actress-Carey Mulligan, Best Original Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Sound, Best Makeup and Hairstyling

The Holdovers-2023

The Holdovers-2023

Director Alexander Payne

Starring Paul Giamatti, Dominic Sessa, Da’Vine Joy Randolph

Scott’s Review #1,410

Reviewed November 22, 2023

Grade: A

The snowy New England setting is just one of many aspects of The Holdovers (2023), director Alexander Payne’s latest release gets right. There’s a stuffy prep school, the tumultuous 1970-1971 in world politics, and teenage angst in the mix.

The early 1970s-era set pieces and Americana comfort food are brilliantly and prominently placed to offer security in a world with tragedy and loneliness The jazzy soundtrack also features hits of the time, embracing the viewer in beautiful nostalgia.

Finally, the three lead characters are well-defined and their complexities are displayed in raw form making them rich relatable flawed thanks to strong acting performances.

Paul Giamatti leads the charge as a sarcastic teacher with his great acting and meshes well with newcomers Dominic Sessa as a rival student and Da’Vine Joy Randolph as a kind but wounded cook.

Anyone who has seen Payne’s films like Election (1999), Sideways (2004), The Descendents (2011), or others knows that he sprinkles satirical depictions of contemporary American society in his works.

There is frequently sadness and morosity to the content saved from depression by warmhearted and caring characters.

I savored the quiet moments of human connection that were crafted in The Holdovers.

Events occur over about two weeks beginning at Christmas break and culminating in early January so holiday cheer and sadness are themes.

Paul Hunham (Giamatti) is a classics instructor at Barton University, a prep school outside of Boston. He is forced to remain on campus during Christmas break to babysit the handful of students with nowhere to go.

At first, despising each other he eventually forms an unlikely bond with one of them, a damaged, but witty troublemaker named Angus Tully (Sessa).

He also connects with the school’s head cook, Mary (Randolph), who has just lost her son in the Vietnam War (Da’Vine Joy Randolph) and shows romantic interest in Lydia Crane (Carrie Preston), a Barton faculty member.

Giamatti is terrific and my favorite character. As a grumpy teacher, the character could have been a one-note standard or stock.  But as events go on we learn more about his past and despite being an authority figure he has demons and insecurities of his own.

During emotional moments he calmly offers a voice of reason which is a comfort. He’s stoic and rough around the edges but he genuinely cares about people making him likable.

Sessa and Randolph, despite being supporting characters each have their own stories.

There wasn’t much awareness about mental illness in 1970 compared to current times and Angus, who takes medication is fearful of spiraling down the same rabbit hole that cost his father his sanity.

Will he follow in his Dad’s footsteps?

A teary scene occurs when Angus visits his father in a facility. Hopeful of progress, Angus is quietly shattered when his father reveals paranoia about his food being poisoned by the staff.

Sessa provides a low-key performance that envelopes the character.

Randolph as Mary is kind yet depressed. She tries to find the good in people while realizing she’s been left out of the game in many instances. Her breakdown scene at a Christmas party allows Randolph to flex her mighty acting muscles.

I relished in the retro Christmas lights, the suburban houses with 1960s and 1970s living room and kitchen set pieces, the sweaters, the hairstyles, and the coffee mugs and plates.

The set designers flawlessly depict a time long ago.

I wanted to sit down and dine on Mary’s scrambled eggs and bacon or Lydia’s Christmas cookies. I yearned to sip a Miller Lite with Paul and Angus.

Finally, I smiled pleasantly at the movie theater scene featuring Dustin Hoffman in Little Big Man, an obscure American Western film from 1970.

With precision, Alexander Payne creates another outstanding film featuring the trials and tribulations of good characters dealt losing hands.

The Holdovers (2023) proves that a quality film with terrific writing, a moderate pace, and dramatic and comic moments, draws cinema fans to theaters as much as a cliched superhero film.

Oscar Nominations: 1 win-Best Picture, Best Actor-Paul Giamatti, Best Supporting Actress-Da’Vine Joy Randolph (won), Best Original Screenplay, Best Film Editing

Independent Spirit Awards Nominations: 3 wins-Best Screenplay, Best Supporting Performance-Da’Vine Joy Randolph (won), Best Breakthrough Performance-Dominic Sessa (won), Best Cinematography (won)

Killers of the Flower Moon-2023

Killers of the Flower Moon-2023

Director Martin Scorsese

Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Robert De Niro, Lily Gladstone

Scott’s Review #1,406

Reviewed October 22, 2023

Grade: A

One great thing about legendary director Martin Scorsese, and there are plenty I could mention, is that he continues to challenge his audience with his films well into his eighties.

Any aspiring filmmaker, or any cinephile, should study his films.

Before I knew too much about his new picture, Killers of the Flower Moon (2023) I knew I wanted to see it because I trust Scorsese as a director.

His most recent films, The Wolf of Wall Street (2013) and The Irishman (2019) are not easy watches but the payoff is tremendous.

Scorsese is not the kind of filmmaker to create feel-good fluff but leaves the audience pondering what they’ve seen long after leaving the theater.

Leonardo DiCaprio and Robert De Niro, two frequent Scorsese collaborators and great actors appear in Killers of the Flower Moon assuring something of quality.

Be forewarned that at an enormous running time of three hours and twenty-six minutes, the film is long! Like a fine wine, it took me about an hour or so to immerse myself in the texture and storytelling but this only defends the richness of the experience.

Based on David Grann’s broadly lauded best-selling book, “Killers of the Flower Moon” is set in 1920s Oklahoma and depicts the serial murder of members of the oil-wealthy Osage Nation, a string of brutal crimes that came to be known as the Reign of Terror.

In 1918, Ernest Burkhart (DiCaprio) returns from World War I to his uncle, rancher William “King” Hale (De Niro), who lives with Ernest’s brother Byron (Scott Sheperd) on the reservation. Hale pretends to be a friendly supporter of the Osage people, but he secretly schemes to murder them and steal their wealth.

Lily Gladstone who has starred mainly in independent films makes her breakthrough performance as Mollie Burkhart, a wealthy Native American woman who is the love interest of Ernest.

The cast is unwieldy and features stalwarts like Brendan Fraser and John Lithgow in small roles but the notable mentions are DiCaprio, De Niro, and Gladstone.

Each scene between the three crackles with phenomenal acting and attention to their craft. Gladstone quietly yet expressively emotes her character’s feelings and emotions. Mollie is a proud woman but not gullible as she presents a strong feminist quality.

Her scenes with DiCaprio resonate the most. His character of Ernest is complicated and possesses good and bad qualities. As Mollie professes early on he is handsome but not too smart.

Her statement comes further into play at the end of the film.

Amid the schemes and murders Killers of the Flower Moon embraces a sweet romantic story between Ernest and Mollie. They love each other and he adores her and their children but is it ultimately enough?

Any aspiring actors should hone in on scenes between DiCaprio and De Niro for inspiration. Each scene and line within the scene is delivered with naturalness. Carefully yet authentically executed their conversations are mesmerizing.

De Niro reportedly and unsurprisingly modeled his character after the callous and dastardly reality star turned-politician Donald Trump.  Pretending to be well-intentioned but instead bullying and scheming his way to fortune by bamboozling the weak, De Niro channels his inner asshole with precision.

I immediately recognized what the actor was going for concerning the hateful politician.

In what only enhances the film, Scorsese appears at the beginning and end with impassioned moments about the importance of telling this story.

Filmed in Oklahoma, many sequences of open land, fields, streams, and other natural elements appear. Scorsese often uses the same film crews which enhances the authenticity.

The cinematography is filled with early 1900s facets and real Native American people are featured. The colors and tribal outfits offer culture and a glimpse into their way of life.

Killers of the Flower Moon (2023) is an important film because it teaches and reminds the audience that oppression and tragedy have existed in the United States and still do today.

The telling of one group of people is sound and a stark reminder of how many more stories exist each needing the help of a great filmmaker to bring exposure.

Scorsese does it again.

Oscar Nominations: Best Picture, Best Director-Martin Scorsese, Best Actress-Lily Gladstone, Best Supporting Actor-Robert De Niro, Best Film Editing, Best Cinematography, Best Costume Design, Best Production Design, Best Original Score, Best Original Song-“Wahzhazhe (A Song For My People)

Oppenheimer-2023

Oppenheimer-2023

Director Christopher Nolan

Starring Cillian Murphy, Robert Downey Jr., Emily Blunt

Scott’s Review #1,384

Reviewed August 1, 2023

Grade: A

Knowing the films of Christopher Nolan who directed works like The Dark Knight Trilogy (2005-2012), Inception (2010), and Dunkirk (2017) I expected what I would be served with by his new film Oppenheimer (2023).

This would include a big booming soundtrack and an arguably more ‘guys’ genre film, but with intelligence, than other contemporary hits like Barbie (2023).

Dark and looming with complexities are usual for Nolan so I settled in for a three-hour epic journey centered on the atomic bomb and physics that has unexpectedly become a blockbuster.

Speaking of the pink phenomenon its simultaneous release with Oppenheimer led to the “Barbenheimer” phenomenon on social media, which encouraged audiences to see both films as a double feature.

This forever links the two vastly different films that were responsible for filling movie theaters once again.

I expected to enjoy Oppenheimer but was jarred (in a good way) by the sheer brilliance of its construction. Prepared for more mainstream fare that typically follows a biography or historical piece I was instead overly fascinated by the experimental elements enshrouding a more conventional film.

During World War II, Lieutenant Colonel Leslie Groves Jr. (Matt Damon) appoints physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy) to work on the top-secret Manhattan Project.

Oppenheimer and a team of scientists spend years developing and designing the atomic bomb. Their work came to fruition on July 16, 1945, as they witnessed the world’s first nuclear explosion, forever changing the course of history.

The film is constructed marvelously in every way and is authentic to the eye. The first notice is that it feels like it’s the 1940s 1920s or 1960s or anywhere in between depending on where the film goes.

The art design, costumes, and makeup feel natural rather than stagey which helps its audience escape into the scientific world.

Speaking of, Nolan constructs the film in a series of pockets and goes back and forth between periods. We see Oppenheimer many times as an aspiring upstart with visions, a confident, established physicist, and in 1963 when President Lyndon B. Johnson presented him with the Enrico Fermi Award as a gesture of political rehabilitation.

His personal life is also explored.

Many, many scenes shift back and forth involving different characters at different ages. Most of the scenes in the 1940s take place in the desert at Los Alamos, New Mexico while the later years are set in a stuffy conference room where Oppenheimer is grilled for his left-leaning and suspected Communist politics.

The cinematography led by Hoyte van Hoytema provides some edgy moments especially when Oppenheimer descends into frightening and psychedelic hallucinations of those suffering the aftereffects of the atomic bomb. Images of peeling and melting faces are terrifying.

Cillian Murphy successfully makes Oppenheimer sympathetic especially after he creates the bomb and is left forgotten by his government.

Various moments in the film showcase Murphy at his best. After relinquishing his deadly bomb after a test the government callously tells Oppenheimer that ‘they’ll take it from here’. The look of dread, regret, and sadness in Murphy’s crystal blue eyes speaks volumes.

Another great scene occurs when President Harry S. Truman (Gary Oldman) a left-leaning democrat calls Oppenheimer ‘a crybaby’ when he expresses interest in returning land to the American Indians.

The supporting cast is a bevy of riches with several top-caliber actors appearing in cameos. My standouts in larger roles are Robert Downey Jr. shredding his Iron Man superhero persona as a slighted and venomous Lewis Strauss, intent on revoking Oppenheimer’s security clearance, and Emily Blunt as the boozy biologist and former communist wife of Oppenheimer.

My biggest takeaway from Oppenheimer (2023) though is a powerful one. The difference between the United States of America during and post World War II and in present times, 2023.

Then, a patriotic infrequently questioned nation brimming with pride and glory, where nationalism was rampant and expected and those with foreign respect were cast aside as traitorous.

Now, a divided country half of whom support an ideology based on hate, racism, and cultlike dedication to a corrupt ex-president, and the other focused on diversity inclusion, and equality for all.

This film resonated so powerfully well and in so many different ways.

Oscar Nominations: 7 wins-Best Picture (won), Best Director-Christopher Nolan (won), Best Actor-Cillian Murphy (won), Best Supporting Actor-Robert Downey Jr. (won), Best Supporting Actress-Emily Blunt, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Film Editing (won), Best Cinematography (won), Best Costume Design, Best Production Design, Best Original Score (won), Best Sound, Best Makeup and Hairstyling

Barbie-2023

Barbie-2023

Director Greta Gerwig

Starring Margot Robbie, Ryan Gosling, America Ferrera

Scott’s Review #1,381

Reviewed July 23, 2023

Grade: A

Greta Gerwig is a tremendously talented director who is influencing Hollywood films. The gifted woman crafted Lady Bird in 2017 to critical acclaim and forges ahead with another feminist and progressive project.

With Barbie (2023) she takes a traditional and iconic ‘Barbie doll’ product by Mattel and explores the positives and negatives of the doll throughout its existence.

A cool opening sequence harkening to Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey explains the evolution of the doll.

Barbie incorporates gender balance, creativity, thought, satire, and slapstick comedy fraught with meaning. Not forgotten is heart and humanity and a look at how much progress has been achieved for women over the years and how much more is still needed.

As if that’s not enough, Barbie deserves praise for its direction, production design, costumes, music, and cast performances.

Well done.

The film stars Margot Robbie as Barbie and Ryan Gosling as Ken, who decide to go on a journey of self-discovery following an existential crisis Barbie faces. Deemed the ‘stereotypical’ Barbie she begins having peculiar and ‘un-Barbie’ thoughts of death and analytics and must return to the real world to find her doll’s owner.

She soon longs to return to Barbie Land which is a perfect place. Unless you’re a Ken who exists merely to pine after Barbie. But, do they secretly resent this?

There are a ton of positives to delve into regarding Barbie but one slight miss is proximity to silly comedy and goofiness. This is mostly offset by the meaning of the film but my fear is some audiences may be overwhelmed by gag jokes and lose the overall point of the story.

Let’s take a deep dive. The production design and art direction are dazzling and immediately noticed. Particularly, I’m referring to Barbie Land and its pink and pretty sets. Luxurious pools, streets, houses, and cars are rich with color and ooze a fun vibe.

I can’t imagine these teams being overlooked during the year-end awards season.

Robbie and Gosling looking blonde, buff, and tanned are wonderfully cast and not only look the part but quickly switch from physical comedy to heavy drama without looking foolish.

Robbie, for example, while the classic Barbie type has layers of emotion that she channels. And Gosling could have been looked the buffoon with over-the-top sequences if not for a startling good dramatic scene towards the film’s climax.

The supporting casting is brilliant and includes Kate McKinnon as ‘weird Barbie’ a perfect role for her to release her comic beast. How lovely to see Rhea Perlman again in the small but powerful role of Ruth Handler, co-founder of Mattel and creator of the Barbie doll.

Finally, America Ferrera and Will Ferrell add both comedy and meaningful spirit to their roles. And how could the inclusion of British stalwart Helen Mirren as the narrator not create credibility?

The main attraction though is the writing. Isn’t it always when intelligently done?

The dynamic duo of Gerwig and Noah Baumbach (famous for among other works the 2019 film Marriage Story) pair well giving equality messages to both Barbie and Ken. While easy to dismiss Ken his role is valued and respected within the overall context of showing that everyone deserves a seat at the table.

I was touched by the film in various moments more than I ever expected it to be. Wonderful sentiments about being a mother are powerfully stated by Ruth and Gloria (Ferrera) during various scenes and messages such as everyone deserving respect and serving a purpose are hard not to get choked up over.

Barbie wins points for diversity and inclusion with nearly every ethnic group represented and a transgender character, Dr. Barbie (Hari Nef) featured prominently.

Providing roaring entertainment, bubble gum sets and design, and a message that will break your heart while exuding intelligence Barbie (2023) is a win.

It’s a story about the wills of plastic and humanity making for a perfect harmonious blend. Who would have thought a film about Barbie would be so important?

Oscar Nominations: 1 win-Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor-Ryan Gosling, Best Supporting Actress-America Ferrera, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Costume Design, Best Production Design, Best Original Song-“I’m Just Ken”, “What Was I Made For?” (won)

Knock at the Cabin-2023

Knock at the Cabin-2023

Director M. Night Shyamalan

Starring Dave Bautista, Jonathan Groff, Ben Aldridge

Scott’s Review #1,361

Reviewed May 14, 2023

Grade: B+

Most M. Night Shyamalan films follow a pattern in which there is either a twist ending or a thought-provoking message to stew over during and following the film. They also include a supernatural element. That’s why his films intrigue and keep certain audiences coming back for more.

The director’s films are never boring and his fascination with the odd and macabre aspects of life is contagious.

Knock at the Cabin (2023) is just such a film with a suspenseful premise immediately eliciting intrigue if the trailers do it justice. An isolated cabin in the middle of nowhere is the perfect setting for a horror film as the character’s vulnerability is evident.

The film is based on a 2018 novel called The Cabin at the End of the World by Paul G. Tremblay.

Featuring the impressive inclusivity of a white male same-sex couple with a young adopted Asian daughter got my attention immediately. Much credit to those involved for straying from the tried and true and risking the label of a ‘gay movie’.

Married couple Eric (Jonathan Groff) and Andrew (Ben Aldridge) are happily vacationing at a remote cabin in rural Pennsylvania with their daughter Wen (Kristen Cui). One day, while collecting grasshoppers Wen is approached by a hulking man named Leonard (Dave Bautista) who befriends her.

When Leonard and his friends take the family hostage they demand that the family make an unthinkable choice to avert an apocalypse. At first, thinking the group is psychotic, the family slowly starts to question what is real and what is not while the clock rapidly ticks toward doomsday.

The win with Knock at the Cabin is there is not a dull moment during the one hour and forty minutes running time. Shyamalan uses lots of closeup camera work that keeps the level of peril at a maximum.

Within the first few minutes, a gleeful Wen goes from chattering with her grasshoppers to suspiciously eyeing the approaching Leonard. The audience sees him in the background and it’s a powerful moment of apprehension.

Who is this hulking behemoth and why is he coming to her family’s cabin? Wen and the audience ask the same questions.

Soon the perspective shifts to the other characters led by Andrew and Eric. Though armed, the strangers seem nice enough. There is a nurse named Sabrina (Nikki Amuka-Bird) and a young mother named Adriane (Abby Quinn). Sure, there is a convict named Redmond (Rupert Grint) but he seems reformed.

The couple ponders whether the strangers have innocently fallen into some weird message board cult or are completely nuts. Through the use of backstory scenes, the audience learns that Andrew and Eric have not always had it easy being shunned by Andrew’s parents and harassed in a bar.

Could the strangers be targeting them for their lifestyle and trying to cause them harm?

Leonard makes them watch footage of the apocalyptic destruction commencing but is the footage real or staged?

The thrilling aspect of Knock at the Cabin is the audience asks the same questions that Eric and Andrew do. As far-fetched as it seems should they believe the strangers? Would you have your significant other or child sacrificed to save the world?

I’m not sure if the conclusion paid off for me or if I completely understood the wrap-up but I adore the strong message of love and connection. I was anticipating more of an ‘aha’ moment or something more powerful.

While none of his subsequent films have matched his masterpiece breakthrough The Sixth Sense (1999) they each have enough mustard to warrant a viewing.

Knock at the Cabin (2023) offers a wonderful dose of diversity that makes the experience timely, relevant, and meaningful. A subpar ending only slightly hampers what is otherwise a thrill ride.

I’ll immediately think of this film if ever I am in a cabin in the middle of the woods.

Air-2023

Air-2023

Director Ben Affleck

Starring Matt Damon, Ben Affleck

Scott’s Review #1,358

Reviewed April 19, 2023

Grade: B+

Ben Affleck both directs and co-stars in Air (2023), a sports drama that is surprisingly neither cliched nor enshrouded in a big climactic showdown at the conclusion. This happens in way too many sports-centered films.

Other than basketball game clips occasionally playing in the background the action takes place within boardrooms rather than on the court.

Being a basketball fan is not required.

There is a measure of predictability in Air which I didn’t mind, again surprising. Anyone superficially familiar with National Basketball Association superstar Michael Jordan knows about his famous  Air Jordan sneakers. His colorful footwear overtook the nation during the 1980s and 1990s.

This film is based on the true story of its origin and the circumstances surrounding it.

Air is a crowd-pleaser in every sense of the word with energy and affection and not a slow moment to be found.

An unlikely partnership develops between a then-rookie Michael Jordan and Nike’s struggling basketball division revolutionizing the world of sports and contemporary culture with the Air Jordan brand.

A Nike basketball talent scout Sonny Vaccaro (Matt Damon) comes up with an unusual and risky offer to land Jordan, a rising college star who would become the most successful NBA player in history.

His parents, Deloris and James (Viola Davis and Julius Tennon) cleverly negotiate for their son to earn his share of the pie usually saved only for executives and business people rather than the sports star. Deloris knows the worth of her son’s immense talent and unmovingly sticks to her guns.

A treat for anyone who grew up in the 1984 era, countless pop songs and pop culture references are included. Every few minutes, snippets of upbeat tunes emote from the screen adding pleasure and nostalgia to the film.

Peppered throughout also include automobiles, office telephones, fax machines, and basic computers. There’s even an early car cell phone included.

Other famous sneaker brands of the time like Adidas and Converse are represented during a time when celebrities and the like were starting to align with sneakers to make large profits.

I’ve said this too many times but in films set during a different time it either looks authentic or it looks like modern actors dressed for the times.

Affleck as a director knows his stuff in this regard. He is a good actor but a very good director.

Damon is the film lead and does so convincingly. Either wearing a padded suit or chunking up to fit the character of Sonny, it’s unclear which, the actor appears as a ‘regular guy’ rather than a Hollywood movie star. This is tricky to pull off for a big star but here it works.

Sonny’s earnestness to save Nike and his connection to the Jordan family feels fresh and unassuming. He’s painted as a good guy and counterbalances other scheming and bloodthirsty sports agents like David Falk, impressively played by Chris Messina.

Jason Bateman also shines brightly as Sonny’s colleague, Robby Strasser, a man revealed to be lonely. In a touching moment, Sonny brings Robby a birthday cake on a working Sunday, when his special day would otherwise have been forgotten.

Davis can never do wrong but is the anchor of the film and the role of common sense.

Finally, the character of Michael Jordan is portrayed in the film, though his face is not seen, and has limited dialogue.

Thanks to a crackling screenplay and genuine sincerity, Ben Affleck’s Air (2023) has gotten butts back in movie theater seats. It proves that people do love the theater when served a satisfying offering.

M3GAN-2023

M3GAN-2023

Director Gerard Johnstone

Starring Allison Williams, Violet McGraw

Scott’s Review #1,338

Reviewed January 31, 2023

Grade: B+

M3GAN (2023) is the sleeper hit of the year, quickly becoming a ‘water-cooler’ topic (remember that phrase?) after getting stagnant cinema lovers back into theaters in droves.

Released in the traditionally dismal month of January when studios usually ‘dump’ film releases with little or no bang for their buck M3GAN is already set to spawn a sequel. The possibilities for a different story to correlate with the original are endless.

The poster (see above) and the movie trailer are instantly grabbing. We see a doll-like/robotic little girl with long flowing blonde hair and mesmerizing, sparkling eyes that are cat-like and creepy.

Almost life-like, it doesn’t take a genius to conjure images of the Chucky doll from the Child’s Play franchise (1988-2019). Seemingly lovable but turning sinister, the concepts are more or less the same.

When robotics engineer Gemma (Allison Williams) takes in her orphaned niece, Cady (Violet McGraw), she creates the perfect companion for her, a lifelike doll named M3GAN, who serves as a friend, confidante, and sensible role model.

Cady and M3GAN immediately bond and become inseparable pals.

M3GAN can listen, watch, and learn from other people and objects as they relate to Cady, using advanced Artificial Intelligence to store their idiosyncrasies.

As expected, things soon go awry when M3GAN uses her superior intelligence to destroy anyone whom she perceives as a threat to Cady.

I’m not one to suggest a film tone down the blood and gore in a horror film but in the case of M3GAN, it works to the film’s advantage as proven by tremendous box-office receipts.

Far from kid-friendly, one of the main characters is eight to ten years old which might encourage parents, especially parents who are horror fans, to take their youngsters to see the film. At first, Cady and M3GAN invoke an idealized pre-teen female relationship, and a bully intent on harming Cady gets his comeuppance.

Most of the other characters who suffer dire fates are unlikeable. A boorish neighbor, a vicious dog, Gemma’s obnoxious boss, and his conniving assistant all get their due one way or another at the hands of M3GAN.

She’s not exactly a ‘hero’ but the fun is watching hated characters suffer at her hands. The setup is perfected as each character reveals their obnoxiousness to the rabid audience thirsting for a slashed throat or two.

My point is that parents and kids alike can enjoy this film and simultaneously share a startle and a giggle.

The campy nature of the film is another win since the humor evens out the horror elements. There are enough funny lines, mostly delivered by the supporting players, to evoke laugh-out-loud moments.

The grand finale is inevitably predictable but enjoyable because it’s what the audience can’t wait for. M3GAN, once prim and proper in her little girl dress, shrieks and spits curses at her former friends as her now disfigured face and ravaged hair make her look disheveled and monstrous.

M3GAN’s true colors are revealed and the audience will hoot and holler with delight.

Unlike many films, M3GAN goes right for the jugular in the first scene with a deadly car accident and keeps the fast pace for the entire one hour and forty-two minute running time.

Williams, well-known for starring in Jordan Peele’s 2017 masterpiece Get Out scores another win in the central role. She capably plays a loving yet inexperienced surrogate parent and carries the film, along with M3GAN of course.

Incorporated is a relevant knock on mass consumption of technology gadgets and a robot replacing good parenting. This is more evidence that parents should see M3GAN.

I can’t wait to see what the writers next have in store for the little terror when the sequel drops.