Tag Archives: Dark Comedy

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 stories of their own and this made 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 ending of the film left me scratching my head a bit 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 of relevance that would help me understand people better as well as give me insight into what other people feel.

Oscar Nominations: Best Picture, Best Actor-Jeffrey Wright, Best Supporting Actor-Sterling K. Brown, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Original Score

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

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.

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

Triangle of Sadness-2022

Triangle of Sadness-2022

Director Ruben Östlund

Starring Harris Dickinson, Charlbi Dean Kriek, Woody Harrelson

Scott’s Review #1,374

Reviewed July 2, 2023

Grade: A

When I realized the director of Triangle of Sadness (2022) had directed Force Majeure (2014) and The Square (2017) I became very interested in seeing it. I’m not sure I ultimately ‘got’ The Square but Force Majeure was a thought-provoking slice of cinematic brilliance that I still think about now and then.

Sure, Triangle of Sadness was rewarded with three Academy Award nominations, deservedly so. Still, Ruben Östlund has a knack for challenging his audience to think outside the box, cinematically or otherwise with a robust look at social classes.

He crafts a subject matter about class systems and the haves and have-nots that has been explored before in film many, many times. But, in Triangle of Sadness, it feels fresh and fraught with many different possible directions.

The wicked dark comedy explores political talking points like capitalism, communism, and socialism and challenges standard ways of thinking.

It’s on par with the popular HBO series The White Lotus but on steroids.

I cannot recommend the film more heavily especially geared toward those desiring expressive and deep-textured films with some meaning.

Despite the dreary title, it’s far from a dour experience. There are quite a few laugh-out-loud moments, especially in scenes featuring severe vomiting amid sea sickness.

The rich and famous embark on a luxury cruise with fine dining and servants galore. But after a devastating storm leaves several passengers and staff stranded together on a deserted island the power exchange begins to shift and the social hierarchy is turned upside down.

Events mainly surround a celebrity model couple, Carl (Harris Dickinson) and Yaya (Charlbi Dean), who are invited on the luxury cruise for promotional purposes. Yaya is a social media influencer.

They are joined by a Russian oligarch Dimitry and his wife Vera, and an elderly couple Clementine and Winston, who have made their fortune manufacturing grenades and other weapons. Therese, a wheelchair user only capable of speaking a single phrase in German following a stroke; and Jarmo, a lonely tech millionaire who flirts with Yaya.

Besides possibly, Therese, there is not a sympathetic rich character to be found.

The yacht staff are more sympathetic although we don’t get to know all characters very well. Highlights are the head of staff, Paula, who demands the staff obey the guests’ without question, Abigail, a cleaning woman, and the yacht’s captain, Thomas Smith (Woody Harrelson), who spends his time drunk in his cabin, and despises the absurdity of the guests’ wealth.

The main events on the ship take a while to get to and the film is divided into chapters. Part 1: Carl and Yaya, Part 2: The Yacht, and Part 3: The Island.

I realized after the fact that the point of the slow build is to show the dynamic between Carl and Yaya, the main characters. Both models and living life based on their looks they are wildly insecure, bickering over money and gender roles.

While not likable nor complete assholes either, enjoyable is a chance to get a fleshed-out perspective on where they are coming from.

My adoration for the film largely stems from not knowing what is going to happen but knowing that at some point the shit is going to hit the fan.

The setup is perfect, especially the put-upon staff. While they are not abused, the relationship is clear. The passengers are in a position of power, the staff is not.

This will soon change.

Late in the game, I unexpectedly found myself rooting for a minor character who takes center stage in the last chapter turning events upside down.

Comparisons can also be found in the recent Best Picture winner Parasite (2019) and old-school international films Swept Away (1974) and L’Vventura (1960).

These are all brilliant films and my hunch is that Triangle of Sadness (2022) will hold up well perhaps achieving even greater acclaim as the years go by.

Oscar Nominations: Best Picture, Best Director-Ruben Östlund, Best Original Screenplay

The Hospital-1971

The Hospital-1971

Director Arthur Hiller

Starring George C. Scott, Diana Rigg

Scott’s Review #1,369

Reviewed June 11, 2023

Grade: A

An example of the freedom to craft one’s vision allowed in cinematic works during the first half of the1970s, The Hospital (1971) is a testament to the creativity and exceptional writing and what can happen when studios and producers leave the creatives alone to make the film they want to make.

One can dismiss any preconceived notions of the classic medical dramas that flooded television networks during the 1970s and 1980s. The Hospital is not formulaic or contrived.

No, The Hospital is a dark work drooling with satirical examples of the politics and shenanigans within the medical community. Oftentimes, secondary activities come at the cost of good care and quality medicines.

Before you imagine a doctor and nurse cavorting in a janitor’s closet, it’s a deeper film than it appears on the surface despite the inclusion of witty comedy. A lax patient care, staff deaths, and the dismissal of nearby residents because of a new drug rehabilitation project are explored in this fascinating film.

At a rundown Manhattan teaching hospital, chief of staff Herb Bock (George C. Scott) is riddled with multiple personal and professional problems after two doctors and one nurse are found dead almost simultaneously.

He assumes the rash of deaths is due to dimwitted staff who are overworked amid the chaos.

Suicidal, he meets the intelligent daughter of a patient who knocks him off his feet with her studious personality and reflections of the world. Barbara Drummond is played by Diana Rigg.

Immediately noticeable is the clever and well-paced screenplay while I was unknowledgeable of the fact that Paddy Chayefsky had won the Oscar for writing the film. Immediately, the chaos of a city hospital is exposed but not in a cliched way like a series like ER or Grey’s Anatomy might show.

Nobody is going into cardiac arrest on the operating table or having convulsions in the waiting room amid lame dramatic music.

The Hospital is more cerebral than that.

Unknown patients and little-known hospital staff go about their everyday business like clockwork until confusion with daily tasks causes events to go awry.

Like real-life.

The brilliance is how director Arthur Hiller casts regular-looking actors in almost all the roles. They look and act like everyday hospital staff so that the proper tone is set. This is even before we meet and get to know Herb and Barbara. They answer phones, walk around with charts, and hustle after emergencies.

Chayefsky and Hiller mirror director Robert Altman in many ways mostly in the dialogue and how seemingly unimportant scenes mean a whole lot.

In robust soliloquy-style scenes between Herb and Barbara the audience ‘gets them’. They are both desperate, wounded, and unhappy yet possess the sophistication and awareness to realize how similar they are.

They immediately connect, fall in love, and nearly run off together. It’s that simple. They are willing to flee their lives after meeting for five minutes. But will they ultimately take that plunge?

A key character is revealed to be Barbara’s father and a whodunit begins after it comes to light that the deaths are not accidents. Who is responsible and what their motivation is is the key to the story.

Scott does wonderful work with his character and rivals his excellent performance a year earlier in Patton (1970). Herb is more introspective with the world on his shoulders.

The Hospital has more than one daring scene. Herb, though impotent, basically throws Barbara down on the table and rapes her. The shocker is she makes light of it the next day and almost seems to have enjoyed it.

Barbara and Herb are both complex characters that the audience needs to ruminate over.

My favorite part of The Hospital (1971) is the setting. That Hiller puts you inside what a real urban hospital was like in 1971 is brilliance. The satire comes into play with the writing which questions decision-making and incompetence within the hospital walls.

Only, the result is a scathing look at hospital practices and will hit home to anyone terrified of entering a hospital only to never come out again.

Oscar Nominations: 1 win-Best Actor-George C. Scott, Best Original Screenplay (won)

Babylon-2022

Babylon-2022

Director Damien Chazelle

Starring Margot Robbie, Brad Pitt

Scott’s Review #1,365

Reviewed June 4, 2023

Grade: A-

Babylon (2022) is a film that will largely divide audiences. Slightly late to the table, I viewed the film after the awards season hoopla had ended and the film came up empty-handed. Sure, a few nominations were received but much more was expected from the epic Hollywood-themed venture.

I’m a fan of director Damien Chazelle, most famous for the similarly set Los Angeles film La La Land (2016), which I adore.

His direction style reminds me a great deal of Baz Luhrmann’s with the incorporation of intense musical numbers during many scenes and a strong chaotic and frenetic nature.

I realize this style is not for everyone so I’m not surprised Babylon is somewhat revered and somewhat reviled. This isn’t always a bad thing as a good film debate can be fun.

I adore Babylon mostly for the powerful and potent silent-era Hollywood story and the terror stars of the 1920s faced with the realization that sound had entered their pictures and they were expected to keep with the times.

Sadly, many careers ended in devastating fashion sinking one-time big stars into depression and despair.

The acting is superb and major props go especially to Margot Robbie as debaucherous film star Nellie LaRoy and newcomer (to me) Diego Calva as handsome Mexican immigrant Manny Torres. Both actors elicit superb performances that should have landed them Oscar nominations.

The major overtones that Chazelle incorporates into Babylon are those of ambition and outrageous excess, but also belonging and acceptance. The rise and fall of multiple characters during an era of unbridled decadence and depravity in early Hollywood are explored.

As Hollywood makes the transition from silent films to talkies, ambitious up-and-coming actress Nellie and aging superstar Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt) each struggle to adapt to the new medium as well as a rapidly changing world.

And Manny just wants a seat at the table.

Another reason I love the film is the dedication and exposure given to pre-sound Hollywood movies which nobody remembers. I struggle to recall ever viewing a film from that era with my earliest film being the 1930 film All Quiet on the Western Front.

The hit film The Artist (2011) may have paid tribute but it’s not the same and Babylon goes for the jugular in showcasing an entire movement that is now largely forgotten.

Cinema fans will respect Babylon.

Besides the film’s characters, there is so much movie stuff to appreciate. A Hollywood movie set, repeated takes, scripts, dialogue, lighting equipment, and rehearsals, make for a feast of riches for any cinephile.

The weak point is the behemoth length of the film. At three hours and nine minutes, an epic length, the erratic structure is a challenge to get through. A piecemeal approach can sometimes affect the continuity and it did detract a bit in this case for me.

If one can sit still long enough the final thirty minutes is superb. A tidy wrap-up and truthful storytelling give several characters a proper sendoff. The film ends in 1952 so a great conclusion befits.

Before we get to this point though, a nailbiting sequence involving Manny and a fiendish Los Angeles gangster played by Toby MacGuire is second to none. Fake money, a rat-eating entertainer, and pornographic dwarfs make for an odd adventure that one can’t look away from.

A fascinating and bombastic experience, Babylon (2022) loudly delves into the silent film world and gives a proper head nod to a long-forgotten period.

The film successfully makes me appreciate Hollywood and its history more than I already do.

Oscar Nominations: Best Musical Score, Best Production Design, Best Costume Design

Shampoo-1975

Shampoo-1975

Director Hal Ashby

Starring Warren Beatty, Julie Christie, Goldie Hawn

Scott’s Review #1,362

Reviewed May 19, 2023

Grade: A-

Shampoo (1975) is a drama and comedy hybrid that reminds me greatly of a Robert Altman film without the customary overlapping dialogue common in his works.

The political environment against the posh Los Angeles backdrop emotes the vibes of The Long Goodbye (1973) and Nashville (1975) with enough sly satire and humor to generate a comparison.

Of course, the film, nestled in mid-1970s cinema greatness is in the right decade. Further, the 1968 setting is perfect for the Los Angeles mood where the Manson killings, hippies, sex, drugs, and rock n roll were all commonplace.

Listening to the soundtrack of The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, Jefferson Airplane and other familiar bands of the late 1960s makes Shampoo a grand slam of authenticity and richness.

Director, Hal Ashby, who created the dark comic genius Harold and Maude in 1971, hits it out of the park again with Shampoo, a study of love and loneliness and a sense of belonging and fulfillment.

I wasn’t won over right away and the film took me a while to warm up to if I’m being honest but by the end, I was a big fan, especially of the writing. But, some of the slow-build films are the best.

The film takes place against the backdrop of Election night in 1968 when eventually shamed former president Richard Nixon won the presidency. The characters bounce from one election party to the next but barely notice the outcome choosing booze and lust over politics.

Beverly Hills hairdresser and notorious cad George Roundy (Warren Beatty) runs into trouble when his bedroom antics interfere with a possible business deal with the influential Lester (Jack Warden). George is sleeping with Lester’s wife Felicia (Lee Grant) and his best friend and ex-girlfriend, Jackie (Julie Christie), in addition to his current girlfriend, Jill Haynes, played by Goldie Hawn.

Part of why Shampoo sneaks up on the viewer is that it’s not a laugh-out-loud comedy in a physical way. Instead, the intelligent dialogue and the development of its characters are the winning formula.

We first meet George in bed with his older mistress, Felicia, who we assume might be his girlfriend. When he makes an excuse to check on Jill, we realize he is playing the field, but with no ill intent. He genuinely likes the women he beds and despite his antics is feeling empty and mindlessly trudging along.

A wonderful scene atop the Hollywood Hills brings George’s peril to a climax when he professes his love for one of the women but is it too late?

Beatty, who co-wrote the screenplay, fleshes his character’s motivations out well. He really only wants happiness and a successful business. Some of the action takes place in his salon where he meets his conquests.

The scenes between Beatty and Warden work particularly well especially when Lester discovers George in a precarious situation or three assuming he is gay.

Let’s not forget the ladies. The triple bill of Christie, Hawn, and Grant is a force to be reckoned with. Grant is an interesting character since she has all the wealth she wants but instead loves the financially struggling George. Should we feel sympathy for her?

Jill presumably will find happiness with a director smitten with her. They seem like a quality pair and Christie’s Jackie also makes out well at the conclusion of the film.

Surprisingly and effectively, the presidential election is more of a background effect and is largely ignored by the characters who have better things to worry about.

Ashby mostly has the news telecasts and election returns blurred intentionally. The point made is that Nixon’s cheating is a reflection of the self-obsession affecting the United States during that time.

Despite his flaws, the audience nonetheless roots for George. This is a testament to the writing of Beatty and Robert Towne and the rich slow build that Ashby provides to Shampoo (1975) amid a shiny yet tarnished Los Angeles veneer.

Oscar Nominations: 1 win-Best Supporting Actor-Jack Warden, Best Supporting Actress-Lee Grant (won), Best Original Screenplay, Best Art Direction

Violent Night-2022

Violent Night-2022

Director Tommy Wirkola

Starring David Harbour, John Leguizamo

Scott’s Review #1,355

Reviewed April 9, 2023

Grade: B

Violent Night (2022) isn’t the straight-ahead slasher flick with a holiday theme that I thought it might be. Part magic, part action, and part dark comedy make the film a peculiar yet strangely satisfying experience.

In a warped way, of course.

I’m not sure what director Tommy Wirkola was specifically going for but Violent Night is an entertaining one-hour-and-fifty-two-minute experience. Best watched around the Christmas holidays I watched the film on a cross-country flight from Los Angeles to New York City in April and still enjoyed it.

It’s a cool concept with lots of gore, a ritzy mansion as the main set, and a pleasing interracial element providing diversity. The film is also a strange take on a jovial Christmas message production like a Lifetime television movie.

A lot is going on in Violent Night and it openly patterns itself after Home Alone (1990) which one character has just watched for the first time.

David Harbour plays a not-so-jolly Santa Clause who guzzles beer in a London pub on Christmas Eve just before he is set to traverse the world distributing toys to children.

Depressed at the state of the world and the overwhelming amount of naughty people on his list Santa arrives in upper-crust Greenwich, Connecticut, and witnesses a team of mercenaries breaking into a wealthy family compound and taking everyone inside hostage.

Led by Scrooge (John Leguizamo) the bad guys dressed as Christmas characters take the family hostage demanding money they know is hidden in the estate. St. Nick must save the day and kick some ass to maintain the spirit of Christmas.

The characters, though mostly over the top, are my favorite part of Violent Night.

The audience is meant to like seven-year-old Trudy (Leah Brady) a darling innocent with interracial parents who are separated. Jason (Alex Hassell) is part of a rich family and his wife, Linda (Alexis Louder) is a kind woman who has her daughter’s best interests at heart.

All Trudy wants for Christmas is her parents back together.

The other characters are played for laughs especially grand dame Gertrude, deliciously played by Beverly D’Angelo. She’s terrific as the queen rich bitch whose family kisses her ass at every turn hoping to keep in her good graces.

Leguizamo pairs well against Harbour’s Santa who is effective as the beefy and boozy man. He is a good fellow but has lost his belief in the magic of Christmas. The relationship between Santa and Trudy also works well.

A couple of belly chuckles exist which is always a good thing. As Santa takes off on his reindeer-led sleigh to deliver toys he promptly vomits on the pub bartender’s head. Soaked with barf she proudly exclaims ‘He is Santa!’

Violent Night is good fun though severely unrealistic. The film gets a bit too hammy towards the conclusion when the bad guys get their comeuppance on the spacious mansion’s snowy exterior. One character’s decision to burn money to keep warm is too far-fetched and the villains quickly disintegrate into caricatures.

The happily ever after conclusion and the resurrection of a character are underwhelming and worthy of a Hallmark television movie send-off.

The Connecticut mansion is a cool set and the trimmings of Christmas make the set flourish with strong design. The plentiful rooms and secret attics are fun to watch.

I’ve never seen the film Bad Santa (2003) but from what I know of it Violent Night (2022) seems on par. Be forewarned, the ‘violent’ in the title is true to form and the violence is fast and furious at times with a snug message wrapped within.

The Banshees of Inisherin-2022

The Banshees of Inisherin-2022

Director Martin McDonagh

Starring Colin Farrell, Brendan Gleeson, Kerry Condon

Scott’s Review #1,348

Reviewed March 2, 2023

Grade: A

Martin McDonagh, who directs The Banshees of Inisherin (2022), is known for films like In Bruges (2008) and Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri (2017). His films usually include dark humor stories of humanity and unpleasantness and require some afterthought to ruminate about the characters’ true nature.

This film stars Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson who reunite from their collaboration in In Bruges for another turn playing men dealing with depression and other feelings of loneliness and friendship.

McDonagh is British/Irish so the period and surroundings likely resonate well with him. The gorgeous islands off coastal Ireland are used and key to the story and counterbalance the troubles and tribulations of the characters.

Pádraic (Farrell) and Colm (Gleeson), are lifelong friends and inhabitants of an island off of mainland Ireland. They find themselves embroiled in a feud after Colm one day announces he is ending their friendship. This confuses Pádraic who vows to mend the relationship at all costs.

Their reunion is thwarted by severed fingers, a fire, and the mysterious death of Pádraic’s beloved pet donkey, Jenny.

Mixed into the events are Pádraic’s sister Siobhán (Kerry Condon) and troubled young islander Dominic (Barry Keoghan), who have their problems to face.

The Banshees of Inisherin is slow-paced and cerebral and many questions will be pondered but left unanswered. This will tick off those viewers who prefer a clear conclusion to the characters’ lives.

But, this is a key part of the beauty of the film. Sure, I might have liked one big no-holds-barred argument scene between Pádraic and Colm or more closure in Dominic’s or Siobhán’s stories. Instead, McDonagh challenges the audience to feel perplexed or unsure and use their interpretations.

For example, I wonder if Dominic was being sexually abused by his policeman father who has a penchant for sitting naked in the living room chair and masturbating.

Or, what does Siobhán leave the island for and will she ever return?

On a separate note, I wonder if McDonagh was influenced by the epic 1970 gem Ryan’s Daughter, directed by David Lean. The flowing Irish landscapes and unpleasant, embittered townspeople have key similarities.

The winning formula is ambiguity. The audience is served terrific acting all around, particularly amongst the four principals (Farrell, Gleeson, Condon, and Keoghan) all of whom were awarded Academy Award nominations.

Each provides subdued performances dripping with contained emotion and complexities buried beneath the surface.

Audiences can draw their conclusions but my takeaways were loneliness, longing for new adventures, depression, and begrudgingly accepting meager existence amid the most lavish countryside one can find.

The 1920s Irish Civil War is the backdrop though those events are not central to the plot.

Since Colm’s desire to create music is a central part of the story the accompanying music is crucial to the film. The use of fiddles is incorporated rather than traditional Irish music except in the sprinkling of pub scenes.

A hearty round of applause is due to McDonagh and company for crafting and performing a thinking man’s film. The comic bits are not syrupy but tragic in their honesty and cadence.

The Banshees of Inisherin (2022) separate cinematic thinkers from passive viewers with a quiet story about the friendship between two men and the layers that exist beneath the surface.

Oscar Nominations: Best Picture, Best Director-Martin McDonagh, Best Actor-Colin Farrell, Best Supporting Actor-Brendan Gleeson, Barry Keoghan, Best Supporting Actress-Kerry Condon, Best Original Screenplay, Best Film Editing, Best Original Score

The Menu-2022

The Menu-2022

Director Mark Mylod

Starring Ralph Fiennes, Anya Taylor-Joy

Scott’s Review #1,345

Reviewed February 20, 2023

Grade: B+

The premise of The Menu (2022) immediately elicited my utmost pleasure. A self-proclaimed ‘foodie’ with a long way to go in being an expert, a film about a high-caliber restaurant with an extravagant and sophisticated tasting menu was impossible to ignore.

Throw in the horror and dark humor genres and you’ve got the icing on the cake.

After all, being fortunate enough to have experienced fine dining like in the film makes me repeatedly reminisce about those adventures. Those enchanted by such tasting menus rich with flavor and style must see The Menu.

Cinematically, the film reminds me of part Saw (2004), part Knives Out (2018), with a dash of novelist Agatha Christie’s Ten Little Indians story and a sprinkling of a Jordan Peele project for the social commentary.

A young couple Margot (Anya Taylor-Joy) and Tyler (Nicholas Hoult) travels to a sunny coastal island to eat at an exclusive restaurant named Hawthorn, where the chef (Ralph Fiennes) has prepared a lavish menu.

They are joined by other guests including a food critic, her editor, wealthy regulars, three businessmen, a washed-up movie star and his assistant, and the chef’s alcoholic mother.

As the evening commences and the dishes are served the chef has some diabolical surprises in store for the guests. Secrets are soon revealed as it becomes apparent they have been summoned to the island for a reason.

Mark Mylod, a new director to me, peppers the film with dark, macabre humor, mostly related to the food, which is slyly placed and pairs well. Those who savor fine dining and tasty ingredients will smirk with delight.

The title and ingredients of each course are named and by the third course, the sins of the diners are revealed on tortilla shells for all to see. The audience knows they are not innocent people and the chef and his team are intent on punishing them a la carte style.

The revelation that Margot is not supposed to be there is satisfying because so far the chef, his assistant, and a guest have been eying her mysteriously. Tyler was originally scheduled to bring another woman with him.

Instead of limiting the story this only enhances it. Could Margot be convinced to align with the chef or does she hate him? Jealousy among the staff and guests quickly spirals out of control.

Another win for The Menu is the incorporation of class distinction. The haves and the have-nots and how they feel about each other is an important sidebar and easy to understand the motivations of the characters.

The Menu loses its way during the final thirty minutes with an unsatisfying and perplexing ending that hardly wraps the story up for the audience in a doggy bag.

I was left with more questions than answers regarding the plot.

The analysis can be somewhat forgiven with a deathly serving of s’mores for dessert with the bodies of the guests as the marshmallows and their heads mirroring the chocolate tops.

A laugh-out-loud moment occurs when a spoiled guest does not understand the difference in quality between cod and halibut. Every foodie should be aware of the superiority of halibut.

It’s not all polish and high cuisine as the preparation and consumption of a good old-fashioned greasy cheeseburger are made with such precision that I could nearly smell the wonderful indulgence.

The sizzling meat combined with the heavenly melted American cheese made me want to reach for the phone and order Grubhub.

Fiennes and Taylor-Joy are the standouts as their complex relationship and chemistry are palpable. Special notice must be given to Hung Chau, Judith Light, Janet McTeer, and John Leguizamo who make the ensemble quite good.

With a terrific idea and enough tastes and smells that almost emerge from the screen The Menu (2022) is a winner. It’s unsatisfying at the conclusion but the experience is enjoyable and the creativity is championed.

I felt like a restaurant guest myself.

Cinderella-1977

Cinderella-1977

Director Michael Pataki

Starring Cheryl Smith

Scott’s Review #1,333

Reviewed January 14, 2023

Grade: B

This telling of the legendary fairy tale Cinderella (1977) differs significantly from the sentimental and wholesome story of a rags-to-riches Disney princess that we all know and love.

It’s for adults only; even many adults will scurry to grab the remote and turn it off before their significant other or, god forbid, children, catch them slyly peeking at what emerges from the screen.

The film is pornographic. This fact doesn’t offend me or influence my critique and in reality, piques my interest tremendously in how the filmmakers turn Cinderella into a porn film.

It’s 1970s-style pornography with the bulk of the nudity going to the female characters with barely any male flesh to view though there is some. During the fleshy numbers, there is music and dancing to be had usually with the female performers singing while topless.

The familiar story involves a lonely prince (Brett Smiley) who tries several young women in his kingdom in his search for the one he met at a royal ball. Naturally, it’s Cinderella (Cheryl Smith) the gorgeous yet abused waif who sings and dances while doing her chores, longing for a better life.

The prince is jaded and feels no satisfaction from traditional sex as he boldly reveals in the musical number ‘My Kingdom Won’t Come’. His sex-crazed father the King (Boris Moris) decides to host a lavish ball so that his son can find what he wants.

You see, the weapon that Cinderella possesses is a special snapping female genitalia that the prince experiences at the ball while blindfolded and in an orgy. This quality is irresistible to him and he must find and be with the woman who is the one who has the magic vagina.

The film is naughtily personified and the fun is seeing how far out director Michael Pataki and screenwriter Frank Ray Perilli will go for a shock. Pataki was mostly an actor who dabbled in directing which makes sense since Cinderella feels widely experimental.

Events get off to a perfectly indecent start when the royal chamberlain played by Kirk Scott wanders the forest encountering nude females who coquettishly make out with each other for fun and the affection of the handsome man.

There is more than the sex scenes to keep one thrilled. The costumes and the makeup, specifically the disgraceful pancake colors applied to Cinderella’s devilish stepsisters are in your face and gratifying. The gowns at the ball are professional and stylish.

The film teeters into art film territory at times like when Cinderella performs a musical number while soaping in the tub and while parading through the forest.

Her wacky Fairy Godmother is a black man played by Sy Richardson who is just a burglar intent on robbing Cinderella’s home but he does provide her with her special ‘gift’.

These many idiosyncrasies make the film Cinderella a cross between a lewd John Waters film and a bombastic Russ Meyers party film.

Cheryl Smith is excellent in the title role providing a gorgeous face and figure with a lovely voice. She perfectly delivers the numbers and carries the film.

Among all the many incarnations of Cinderella, circa 1977 is the most outrageous and courageous. How this film was even made and with an R rating baffles me. It’s nearly impossible to find on streaming or in stores and a mere spontaneous purchase was how I was even able to see it.

My suggestion is for cinematically creative film fans to give Cinderella (1977) a whirl but with extreme caution. Viewed with the wrong companions could be disastrous and a 3 am start time with adult nibbles is highly encouraged.

No kiddies allowed.

Bodies Bodies Bodies-2022

Bodies Bodies Bodies-2022

Director-Halina Reijn

Starring-Amandla Sternberg, Maria Bakalova

Scott’s Review #1,321

Reviewed December 11, 2022

Grade: B

Bodies Bodies Bodies (2022) is an admirable attempt at merging straight-ahead slasher whodunit with a good dose of dark comedy and camp. It doesn’t always hit the mark but provides entertainment and is thought-provoking.

The film is never boring and will keep the viewer guessing. There is plenty of diversity with a twist at the end which I’m still not sure is satisfying or not.

While watching the film, I wasn’t always sure if the dialogue was being played for laughs (it’s sometimes terrible). I’m still uncertain if the debut director Halina Reijn was poking fun at 1980s-style slasher flicks or paying homage to them.

The inclusion of Saturday Night Live alumni Pete Davidson provides a bit of humor and pushes the film toward comedy territory though his character is more of an asshole than comic relief. It’s other characters who deliver the funny lines.

Having not heard of the film at all, the premise was intriguing and made me flip it on during a long international flight. I needed to pass ninety minutes or so of time.

When a group of rich twenty-somethings plans a dubious hurricane party at a remote family mansion, they drink and use drugs. A party game goes awry.

I knew right away that an incident would occur that would see them knocked off unceremoniously one by one.

A hefty dose of cattiness between both the male and female characters will make the viewer smirk with pleasure. The backstabbing and fake friends angle is as delicious as the offing of several characters.

I love that Sophie (Amandla Sternberg) and Bee (Maria Bakalova), the central characters, are a lesbian couple. Bee is from eastern Europe while Sophie is of mixed race, and Sophie is affluent and Bee working class. So there are many differences to explore making for an insecure relationship.

It’s suggested that they are a new couple, early on in their relationship, and one of the other girls, Jordan (Myha’la Herrold), has previously had relations with Sophie. On top of all that, Sophie is a recovering drug addict.

I’m not sure the myriad of drama elements is all that necessary but it does reinforce the complexities of the characters. At the end of the day what the audience wants to see is violence and dripping blood and I felt a bit cheated in that department.

Don’t get me wrong, people do die but nobody is shown squealing or running for their life. Because they are playing a game, aptly titled ‘bodies bodies bodies’, the victims pretend to die but then wind up dead.

Besides Bree and Sophie, the other characters are unlikeable. I slowly realized that’s the fun of Bodies Bodies Bodies. Since the characters are whiny, rich, and spoiled rotten, we want them to get their just desserts.

My main criticism of Bodies Bodies Bodies is that it’s not always clear what the intention of the film is which confuses. Is it a message movie, a slasher flick, or an argument over a spoiled and clueless generation?

As the credits rolled I wasn’t even sure who the killer was or why. Turns out, my immediate hunch was right but I second-guessed myself.

In hindsight, I like the ultimate twist but there are so many aspects to Bodies Bodies Bodies. Generation Z hatred, societal clashes, love triangles, and a potential serial killer all rolled into one. That’s a bit much for a ninety-minute affair.

Comparisons to April Fool’s Day (1986) and Scream (1996) come to mind. And, Agatha Christie’s novels where a group of characters flocks to a remote locale for a good whodunit also occur.

As I absorb Bodies Bodies Bodies (2022) more and more I realize that Reijn brings a fresh perspective to a sorely oversaturated genre and that’s a good thing.

The film could have been fleshed out more.

Independent Spirit Award Nominations: Best Director-Halina Reijn, Best First Screenplay

Up the Sandbox-1972

Up the Sandbox-1972

Director Irvin Kershner

Starring Barbra Streisand, David Selby

Scott’s Review #1,308

Reviewed October 18, 2022

Grade: B

Up the Sandbox (1972) is likely the least successful film in the Barbra Streisand collection and more obscure than likely desired. The star performs no songs and the film is experimental but it’s unclear if it was intended to be or not.

Streisand takes a break from comedies and musicals and ventures into unknown territory, taking a risk that doesn’t always pay off.

On the flip side, she never looked more beautiful in a film.

The film has its moments. It’s shrouded in early progressive feminism which provides intrigue and it’s tough to go wrong with a bankable star like Streisand in a lead role.

Still, the fantasy sequences get too weird and sometimes unnecessary, and the film doesn’t always make a lot of sense.

The film gets taken down at least a notch for two anti-gay slurs that are shamefully unnecessary to any plot direction.

I award Up the Sandbox credit for thinking outside the box and being unconventional but all the parts don’t come together in a cohesive unit leaving me unfulfilled but recognizing the superior qualities.

The cover art (see above) is wacky and thought-provoking.

Margaret (Streisand) is a young wife and mother who is bored with her day-to-day life in New York City playing second fiddle to her successful and too-busy husband, Paul (David Selby).

He is a professor at Columbia University and they reside in a cramped yet fairly sophisticated apartment.

To combat boredom, she regularly escapes into increasingly outrageous fantasies: her mother breaking into the apartment, an explorer’s demonstration of tribal fertility music at a party causing strange transformations, and somehow joining terrorists to plant explosives in the Statue of Liberty.

Streisand is well cast and while other actresses could have given a fine performance she plays New York Jewish better than anyone. Her plight to break out of her life of doldrums is perfectly conveyed as she yearns to equal the balance between men and women.

She has resentment for going down the path of housewife, just like her mother did, and vowing to be nothing like her, as the women bicker and feud throughout the film.

The sequences involving her mother are the best in the film. Played by Jane Hoffman, Margaret’s mother provides all of the expected Jewish mother stereotypes like nagging and judging, hilariously.

The funniest mother/daughter sequence sees Margaret smash her mother’s head into a giant birthday cake. Naturally, it’s just her fantasy.

Up the Sandbox wins big by the lofty amount of location sequences showing early 1970s New York City, absolutely fascinating to view. One with an appreciation for Manhatten can be assured of a pleasant viewing experience.

The most heartfelt and sentimental moments occur during a long shot of the still-under-construction World Trade Center. Seeing the Twin Towers still being erected brings back teary memories of 9/11.

Lavish sequences are set in and around Columbia University in upper Manhattan and the campus can frequently be seen as Margaret and her friends trudge their baby strollers around the campus and surrounding areas.

Where the film fails is when it teeters too far out in fantasy land. It makes little sense why Margaret would join terrorists intent on blowing up Lady Liberty or what the group’s intentions are.

Perhaps it is a metaphor for something that went over my head.

Even when the screenplay is a dud Ms. Streisand holds her head high and plays the comedy or drama with sincerity and professionalism. With her well-known perfectionism, she would have been aware when things were not working.

A film not remembered well, Up the Sandbox (1972) scores some points with its locales, progressivism, and star power but stumbles off course too many times to recommend.

If only Streisand would have belted out a number or two amid her scripted fantasies the film might have worked better.

Stranger Than Fiction-2000

Stranger Than Fiction-2000

Director Eric Bross

Starring Mackenzie Astin, Todd Field, Dina Meyer

Scott’s Review #1,298

Reviewed September 14, 2022

Grade: B+

An interesting note about Stranger Than Fiction (2000) is that it stars director Todd Field in a dual-acting role. The director is not a household name, at least not yet, but is known for directing two gems-In the Bedroom (2001) and Little Children (2006). Rewarded with Oscar nominations for both, he acts too.

This is not a set-up to a joke that he should not act and stick to directing because he does a decent job.

The irony is that he doesn’t direct the featured film Stranger Than Fiction, Eric Bross does.

The film has its share of intrigue which carries through until the end when the plot gets messy and ridiculous. I mean messy and ridiculous.  I’m all for twists and turns in a good film but sometimes a speeding train can derail and that’s what ultimately happens with Stranger Than Fiction.

But for most of the running time, it’s solid entertainment, black humor, and thrills.

I was immediately interested in the story when an author named Donovan Miller, with hours to kill at an airport bar because of a delayed flight, explains the story of his novel, Stranger Than Fiction, to a curious patron.

As I drifted off to the world of Salt Lake City where the events of the book take place I anticipated juicy drama.

An interesting bit of advice is to pay very close attention to this first bar scene.

Four twenty-something friends, Jared (Mackenzie Astin), Austin (Todd Field), Emma (Dina Meyer), and Violet (Natasha Gregson Wagner) meet for drinks at the local bar. They pull a prank on Violet’s boss for fun and call it a night.

Later, Jared shows up at Austin’s place injured and covered in blood, declares he’s gay, and spews a strange story about a dead guy in his apartment. The foursome investigates and things get interesting.

The cinematography has a muted, dull style that feels sort of like an independent film but also looks amateurish and made for television. Even though it was made in 1999 it feels quite 1980s to me.

Unclear is if or why this style was used or if the budget was just low. I love independent filming but this didn’t do Stranger Than Fiction any favors.

None of the characters are fascinating, and writers Tim Garrick and Scott Russell unsuccessfully try to give the camaraderie between the four principals a sitcom feel. The constant bantering and bickering get tired fast.

It feels like NBC’s Will and Grace meets Friends.

Where Stranger Than Fiction excels is at the twists and this makes me forgive the other mistakes and forced chemistry between the actors. I salivated for the next plot reveal and couldn’t wait to see how the events would unfold.

Once the friends agreed and made the foolish decision to dispose of the dead guy instead of calling the police, I knew I was in for hijinks or a caper.

As the gang gets deeper and deeper into shit like hitting a homeless guy with their car and parking illegally and getting their car towed, more characters are introduced and threaten their plans.

This is all well and good until things spiral out of control with a dizzying explanation of events that involve blackmail, suicide, backstabbing, and jealousy. Since the author is explaining a fictitious novel this might have been okay until it’s revealed that the events might have occurred.

By that time I didn’t care anymore.

Nice effort for a while by Stranger Than Fiction (2000) and fans of black comedy should take notice. With a strong premise and mostly good build-up, the follow-through failed and I was left bewildered rather than completely satisfied.

Zola-2021

Zola-2021

Director-Janicza Bravo

Starring Taylour Paige, Riley Keough, Colman Domingo

Scott’s Review #1,290

Reviewed August 16, 2022

Grade: A-

I’ve said this before when speaking about cinema but it bears repeating. I treasure the independent film genre and the creativity it allows. Usually, it’s a small group or sometimes even only one person with a vision and the ability to bring it to the big screen.

Budgets are almost always tight but that’s a good thing. Remember how 1978’s Halloween was made on a shoestring budget and took over the world?

Zola (2021) is a wonderful example of the freedom allowed in independent filmmaking.

The film is not for everyone and I think it knows this. Marketed as a black comedy it’s a mixture of drama and comedy and a dark story sometimes difficult to watch. Comic moments are contained within but sometimes it’s unclear whether we are supposed to laugh or cringe.

I was enthralled by the film not only for the story but for instances of visual magnificence like the dazzling opening shot of lead character Zola (Taylour Paige) in multiple forms of bubbles and sparkles surrounded by quick editing shots.

She boldly asks the audience “Y’all wanna hear a story about why me and this bitch here fell out? It’s kind of long but full of suspense.”

From the moment the first line is uttered we know we are in for something sassy, salty, and dangerous.

Gorgeous and technically superior cinematography mixed with sex, drugs, and foul language would resurface throughout the film.

The story is loosely based on a viral Twitter thread from 2015 by Aziah “Zola” King and the resulting Rolling Stone article “Zola Tells All: The Real Story Behind the Greatest Stripper Saga Ever Tweeted” by David Kushner.

Eventually, portions of the tale would prove to be embellished.

Zola (Paige) is a Detroit waitress who strikes up a new friendship with a customer, Stefani (Riley Keough), who convinces her to join a road trip weekend of dancing and partying in Florida.

What at first seems like a fun trip quickly turns into a deadly journey involving a pimp, Stefani’s clueless boyfriend, some Tampa gangsters, and other unexpected adventures.

Director, Janicza Bravo, a New York University graduate, is someone to watch out for. Zola is her first full-length feature and reminds me quite a bit of Tangerine (2015) and American Honey (2016), two superior independent films.

At other times, the film contains a sprinkling of the underappreciated 2019 film Hustlers starring Jennifer Lopez.

Bravo is not afraid to delve into the down and dirty lives of characters that most people would quickly dismiss or avoid altogether. Stories about strippers, prostitutes, and pimps can be a tough sell. The sex work industry is not always pretty.

Zola contains the raunchiest scene I have ever seen. As Zola and Stefani sit on the toilet going to the bathroom the camera pans from overhead, revealing not only their naked bums but also the waste excreted into the toilet.

The setting of Florida where much of the action takes place hits home to me, remembering several boozy vacations in various parts of the state. A somber gloominess enshrouds the characters as they traverse an otherwise bright and sunny landscape.

I love the detail and mixture of pretty and poisonous but was left knowing very little about the personal lives of the characters. I wanted to know how Zola and Stefani ended up where they did.

Considering the subject matter, Bravo thankfully doesn’t make the film violent or abusive. Instead, she peppers the dark comedy and over-the-top turns with her characters, especially the pimp (Domingo) and Stefani.

When Zola (2021) ends, there is an unsettling feeling of uncertainty and a lack of conclusion that I wish were different. Still, the creativity and the ability to create desperate characters willing to do anything to make some cash is fascinating.

Independent Spirit Award Nominations: Best Film, Best Director-Janicza Bravo, Best Female Lead-Taylour Paige (won), Best Supporting Male-Colman Domingo, Best Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Editing

Raising Arizona-1987

Raising Arizona-1987

Director Joel Coen

Starring Nicholas Cage, Holly Hunter

Scott’s Review #1,286

Reviewed August 5, 2022

Grade: B+

Raising Arizona (1987) is the second film to be created by the Coen brothers (Joel and Ethan) with the independent offering, Blood Simple (1984) being the first.

The siblings would later become household names and trailblazers in the world of cinema.

It’s rough around the edges storytelling with the severe desire to create something different. Maybe too different since sometimes Raising Arizona works and sometimes it doesn’t.

The film is to be championed mostly for its creativity though it’s not on par at all with the Coen brothers’ best films, Fargo (1996) and No Country for Old Men (2007). However, it does serve as a blueprint for films to come, if one is to look at it in hindsight.

I’m not the biggest Nicholas Cage fan of all time so it doesn’t help that he stars in Raising Arizona. The actor was achieving enormous recognition the same year for his appearance in Moonstruck (1987) which won Cher the Best Actress Oscar.

The film mostly gets props for its original writing and quirkiness in the sets and visual effects, but the comedy is way out in the left field and difficult to make sense of.

As with many Coen Brothers films, the plot centers on a crime and people on the run desperately trying to evade capture.

Hi McDunnough (Cage) is a convenience store robber who meets and falls in love with an ex-cop named Edwina “Ed” (Holly Hunter) during a stint in prison. After they move to a mobile home in the middle of the desert they decide to kidnap a baby since they cannot have one of their own.

While keeping their secret, friends, co-workers, and a bounty hunter look to use the child for their purposes.

The setting works quite well and is an important part of the film like other Coen offerings. The blazing hot desert is a familiar sight and pivotal to the story events with sizzling highways and roadside dives a focal point throughout. Hi and Ed’s tacky mobile home is dusty and cracked which enhances the extreme heat.

Cage and Hunter have tremendous chemistry which kept me invested in their characters. Both quirky-looking, they act well against each other and invoke sympathy from the audience- at least I did. Despite being kidnappers, they have the best of intentions of keeping their stolen baby safe and cared for.

Delightful to see is actress Frances McDormand in an early role as Dot. She would become a frequent star and collaborator in later Coen Brothers films.

Forgetting the uneven storytelling for a minute, Raising Arizona’s finest moment comes at the very end. Through a series of prophetic dreams about the future, the fates of all the characters are determined.

It’s a trippy and magnificent sequence and quite well-known to fans.

A clever offering that at times spins out of control with ridiculousness, Raising Arizona (1987) is nonetheless recommended to view and absorb the zany characters that the Coen Brothers are famous for creating.

Red Rocket-2021

Red Rocket-2021

Director-Sean Baker

Starring Simon Rex, Suzanna Son

Scott’s Review #1,277

Reviewed July 15, 2022

Grade: A-

Sean Baker has become a director I am intrigued by. Firmly planted in the independent circuit, recent films like Tangerine (2015), and The Florida Project (2017) offer a slice of life look at troubled or otherwise forgotten or discarded groups of people.

His works are fascinating and humanistic, admittedly skewing darker or daring avenues like the transgender community, the homeless, or in the case of Red Rocket (2021), a former male porn star.

And while his characters may not always be likable, they are complex, requiring exploration and consideration.

There are also enough butts, boobs, and fornicating to remind us what the subject matter at hand is.

Baker has an incredible way of providing depth to the people considered dregs of society, and a voice with a story to tell. He treats them like human beings oftentimes using real people who are non-actors in pivotal roles.

This lofts the authenticity and realism off the charts and successfully gets his audience to empathize with the characters and see them as living beings with fears, thoughts, and emotions.

Mikey Saber (Simon Rex) is a charismatic con man and washed-up porn star who returns to rural southeast Texas to shack up with his depressed and estranged wife, Lexi (Bree Elrod).

He plots his triumphant return to Los Angeles and the porn industry after meeting a teenager named Strawberry (Suzanna Son) who works at the local donut shop. They connect and plot ways to flee their depressing small-town existence into the adult film world.

Like other Baker films, the city of Los Angeles is considered one of grandeur or where the characters’ lives will be better than they currently are. Mikey and Strawberry feel their destiny lies outside of the daily doldrums of their surroundings and they are convinced their lives will change.

Red Rocket is a film about longing for a better life and being frustrated with the present. That’s a message many audiences can connect with.

Even though Rex and Son are successful with their lead roles it’s the supporting characters who I found even more interesting. I liked Mikey and Strawberry but never loved them together. Interesting to me were Mikey’s relationships with other characters.

Lexi and her mother are fascinating characters. It’s mentioned that before Mikey returned to town, Lexi would meet men on craigslist to pay the rent. Along with her mother, Lil (Brenda Deiss), who smokes pot to ease some health pain, they exist in a dilapidated house.

Their neighbors, a black family, sell drugs to make ends meet and appear to do alright for themselves, respected around town.

I love how there is small-town harmony and the neighbors seem fond of each other, united with pleasantries. There’s a sense of having one’s back, and there is no mention of racism.

I adore these surface characters and longed to know more about their stories. Of course, since Mikey and Strawberry are the core characters there is not enough time to go into much detail.

Baker provides political overtones about American life which are both noticeable and depressing. News clips of former President Donald Trump boasting and pandering to his blue-collar base are included in various scenes.

A ‘Make America Great’ fixture covers the side of a building.

These points are oxymorons of what the characters’ lives are and always will be. They are poor and stuck and cling to some false hope hammered into their heads by a crooked salesman gone politician that he will make their lives great.

It’s heartbreaking and scary in its realism and Baker makes his point clear without having to hammer it over the heads of the audience.

Red Rocket (2021) makes it a solid trifecta for Baker and his earlier works. With a sometimes brutal depiction of small-town life in poverty, he shows there is always hope and heart despite the many obstacles many people continue to face.

Independent Spirit Award Nominations: Best Male Lead-Simon Rex (won), Best Supporting Female-Suzanna Son

Young Adult-2011

Young Adult-2011

Director Jason Reitman 

Starring Charlize Theron, Patrick Wilson, Patton Oswalt

Scott’s Review #1,267

Reviewed June 17, 2022

Grade: A-

I am a big fan of Jason Reitman films.

Though classified as comedies, they lack the qualities I most dislike in many mainstream comedies: slapstick, formulaic, gag setups, and potty jokes, that feel completely staged and redundant.

Instead, he incorporates wry, sardonic humor, cynicism, and intelligence into his films that enhance the writing and make the characters’ motivations clear.

Most of his characters are damaged and unhappy, suffering from inner conflict or instability, but the result is witty humor providing laughs to those able to think outside the box and immerse themselves into the character’s heads.

Thanks to a brilliant screenplay by Diablo Cody the thoughts and conflicts of a female character take center stage.

Reitman’s best films are Juno (2007), Up in the Air (2009), and Young Adult (2011) right up there with the others providing a darker tone than especially Juno contained.

Along with Reitman and Cody is a terrific performance by Charlize Theron who rightfully should have received an Oscar nomination. This is tough to achieve with a comedy performance and she had to settle for a Golden Globe nomination instead.

Just looking at the movie poster for Young Adult reveals a lot about her character. With an annoyed and flabbergasted look, wearing pajamas, she immediately gives off the vibe of being slovenly, fed up, and looking for a fight.

Theron is great at playing take-no-prisoners, tough characters with a bit of edge and a no-bullshit attitude.

Mavis Gary (Theron) is a successful but frustrated writer of teen literature who realizes that her high school sweetheart Buddy Slade (Patrick Wilson) has just become a father with his wife Beth (Elizabeth Reaser).

Mavis decides to return to her small hometown and cause trouble.

She feels her life is getting away from her and she’d love to steal Buddy away from Beth and ride off into the sunset for presumed happiness. She also knows that life usually doesn’t work this way.

Mavis forms an unusual bond with a former classmate Matt (Patton Oswalt), who has also found it difficult to move past high school.

The two connect in the unlikeliest of ways since they didn’t exactly travel in the same circles during high school. Matt has his own powerful story since he was gay-bashed causing him to be permanently disabled.

Matt and Mavis are both relatable characters to most of the audience. Who hasn’t ruminated over their past life in high school? For some high schools are glorious years filled with memories of pep rallies, parties, and graduation.

For others, the mere thought conjures up memories of insecurity, moodiness, and awkward experiences. There can also be some of both for most people.

Mavis, Matt, and Buddy have each not closed out their high school chapters in different ways so the fun is seeing the feelings of each character come to the surface shrouded in conflict. With Matt and Mavis turning to all-night drinking binges eases their pain.

The best scene that showcases Mavis’s anger and Theron’s exceptional acting skills occurs at an outdoor party in celebration of naming Buddy’s daughter.

As the entire town is gathered on the front lawn Beth spills punch on Mavis’s dress causing Mavis to fly into a rage, insulting Beth, and finally confessing that she was once pregnant with Buddy’s child but had a miscarriage.

The hateful Mavis, the hurt Beth, and the embarrassment of the townspeople are on full display. The scene is wonderful and shows the cohesive value of the events to the rest of the story.

Reitman brings complexity to his characters in Young Adult (2011) and proves that dark comedy, especially character-driven, provides emotional power amid the laughs.

I love that the ending is ambiguous rather than wrapped up in a nice bow like too many comedies.

Thanks to wonderful acting, insightful writing, and wise direction, the film is well-remembered and undoubtedly a source of inspiration for upcoming comedy writers and directors.

I Love You Phillip Morris-2009

I Love You Phillip Morris-2009

Director John Requa, Glenn Ficarra

Starring Jim Carey, Ewan McGregor

Scott’s Review #1,235

Reviewed March 5, 2022

Grade: A-

Easily the most daring and arguably the best film role of Jim Carey’s career, I Love You Phillip Morris (2009) is a delightful romantic comedy featuring same-sex characters in the central roles.

At the risk of being too fluffy, there is a sardonic and wry wittiness that I fell in love with.

Those criticizing the film as ‘gay porn’ are silly since there is hardly a sex scene to be critical of or anything more than would appear in a traditional male/female romantic comedy.

Prudes wouldn’t see a film as I Love You Phillip Morris anyway.

It is based on the 1980s and 1990s real-life story of Texas con artist, impostor, and multiple prison fugitive Steven Jay Russell who was clever beyond belief and successful at outwitting his opponents.

I Love You, Phillip Morris, is the directorial debut by John Requa and Glenn Ficarra who received a nomination from the Writers Guild of America Award for Best Adapted Screenplay.

Steven Russell  (Carrey) becomes a cop, gets married, and starts a family, but after a terrible car accident, he vows to be true to himself. Thus far in his life, he has played by the rules and done what is expected of him and because of the crash, he pivots to an emotional bloodletting.

The key irony is that Steven is telling the audience his story from his deathbed so most of the activity is in the past. This is the hook because it made me wonder how and why he died. But is there a twist?

He comes out of the closet, moves to Florida, and finances a luxurious lifestyle with bad checks and credit cards. Arrested and now in prison, Steven meets Phillip (Ewan McGregor), a mild-mannered inmate who becomes the love of his life.

Determined to build a beautiful life with his partner, Steven embarks on another crime spree.

The film caters to the LGBTQ+ audience but has a crossover appeal so that all audiences can enjoy it. This is in large part thanks to the screenwriters and whoever had Carey and McGregor in mind for the film.

Too often films centering around gay characters are deemed second fiddle and not profitable but with bigger stars, the audiences will come.

I Love You Phillip Morris is an independent film that builds momentum when the message is that big stars are comfortable in gay roles, something Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal taught us a few years earlier in Brokeback Mountain (2005).

Jim Carey, fabulous in The Mask from 1994, and having his share of hits and misses over the years, is perfect in the role of Steven. It’s the most interesting role he has portrayed since he gets to provide his usual physical humor in a role that matters.

LGBTQ+ audiences see a character who makes them laugh without the typical gay stereotypes.

Straight audiences will see a character whose sexual identity doesn’t matter to them.

Props go to McGregor as well who makes a perfect counterpart for Carey as the calm, cool, and collected ‘straight man’. The film could not have worked without him.

He meshes so well with Carey that the audience instantly roots for Steven and Phillip to ride off into the sunset despite being criminals.

The stereotypes are limited but the subject matter of AIDS, especially given the time in which the film is set, is given notice. This is a win and Requa and Ficarra are very careful not to teeter too close to the edge of doom and gloom while respecting the disease.

At its core, I Love You Phillip Morris (2009) is a romantic comedy, and the trials and tribulations of Steven and Phillip are told. I immediately fell in love with them and viewers will too.

It’s a film that feels fresh and alive with the exploration of character richness that is not easy to come by.

Wild at Heart-1990

Wild at Heart-1990

Director David Lynch

Starring Nicolas Cage, Laura Dern

Scott’s Review #1,230

Reviewed February 19, 2022

Grade: B+

David Lynch has created some weird films. Blue Velvet (1986) and Mulholland Drive (1992) are masterpieces that skew the odd and peculiar facets of human behavior. But Wild at Heart (1990) takes the cake as the strangest in the lot.

Fascinatingly unhinged, yet hard to understand, it’s got the Lynch handprint from start to finish, but only a warm-up act as stacked against those other films.

Somehow the film is classified as a comedy. It’s got to be one of the darkest of dark comedies. Anyone who is not a Lynch fan will not appreciate or get this film- I am a Lynch fan and I’m not sure I even got it. I do appreciate it though.

It’s also the best role of Diane Ladd’s career in which she plays a fiendish, witchy mama. The graceful actress belts a home run in her storied performance.

A situation occurs during the opening sequence that sets the tone for the rest of the film. Sailor Ripley (Nicolas Cage) serves prison time for a self-defense killing and reunites with his girlfriend Lula Fortune (Laura Dern) when he is released.

Lula’s mother, Marietta (Diane Ladd), is desperate to keep them apart and hires a hitman to kill Sailor. But those are only the start of his troubles when he and Bobby Peru, played by Willem Dafoe, an old buddy who’s also out to get Sailor, try to rob a store.

When Sailor lands in jail again, he may be destined never to reunite with Lula ever again.

Wild at Heart is a love story about Sailor and Lula and the many obstacles they must overcome to live happily ever after.

Cage and Dern are terrific though I fantasized while watching how nice it would have been to see Kyle MacLachlan in the role of Sailor. A Blue Velvet reunion would have been splendid since his chemistry with Dern in that film was top-notch. Nonetheless, I enjoyed watching Cage and Dern as the romantic leads.

The many references to The Wizard of Oz are delightful like when an image of Marietta flying through the air on a haggard broomstick appears just like the Wicked Witch of the West. When Lula desperately clicks her red heels three times to no avail we strangely wonder where the home she wants to return to is.

The film is one of those that is hard to take seriously or focus on the plot too much. This is evidenced by the inclusion of Twin Peaks (1990-1991; 2017) alumni Sheryl Lee, Sherilyn Fenn, and Grace Zabriskie. They play The Good Witch, Girl in Accident, and Juana Durango, respectively.

Each character is indescribable in their strangeness.

The nuttiness continues with bizarre turns from Crispin Glover and Harry Dean Stanton.

Interesting is how Wild at Heart was released the same year as Twin Peaks was. The inclusion of a seedy bar named One-Eyed Jacks which appears in both productions is about all that is comparable with each other. The main events in Wild at Heart are in Texas and Washington for Twin Peaks.

Forgetting the storylines, the best part about Wild at Heart is the cinematography. Enough dark and dusty highway sequences emerge using glowing and moody lighting and foreboding cracks and crevices in other visceral scenes. Cigarette smoking has never looked as sexy or dangerous as it does in this film.

Despite there being admirable and perfectly Lynch-y elements to Wild at Heart (1990) the film is just too far overboard for me to fall in love with.

I’ll pull out my copies of Blue Velvet and Mulholland Drive any day before Wild at Heart.

Oscar Nominations: Best Supporting Actress-Diane Ladd

Independent Spirit Award Nominations: 1 win-Best Supporting Male-Willem Dafoe, Best Cinematography (won)

Election-1999

Election-1999

Director Alexander Payne

Starring Reese Witherspoon, Matthew Broderick

Scott’s Review #1,225

Reviewed January 30, 2022

Grade: A

Election is a 1999 black comedy film directed by Alexander Payne. He co-wrote the screenplay with Jim Taylor, and it’s based on Tom Perrotta’s 1998 novel of the same name.

Anyone film fan who knows Payne’s work can attest that they are noted for their dark humor and satirical depictions of contemporary American society. His best is About Schmidt (2002), Sideways (2004), and Nebraska (2013).

And Election ranks among his finest works.

The subject matter at hand this time out is politics and education with the familiar Payne setting of Omaha, Nebraska. Right smack in the middle of the American Heartland.

Only his second film, Election stars Reese Witherspoon in her breakthrough role that built momentum toward her becoming a superstar. She is utterly fantastic and this would rank as one of her best roles, if not the best.

And, no, that is not a slight against her iconic portrayal of Elle Woods in Legally Blonde (2001), which I love, but Tracy Flick gets my vote.

The film itself is a masterpiece and has become a cult classic. Payne takes a subject matter, a rivalry between a teacher and student, still considered somewhat taboo. He takes into question authority and tomfoolery and then spins everything around.

Jim McAllister (Matthew Broderick), is a straight-and-narrow, well-liked high school government teacher who notices that successful student Tracy Flick (Witherspoon) uses unethical tactics and manipulation to get exactly what she wants.

Since Jim believes that Tracy has ruined his friend’s marriage he already despises the girl. Though, could he also be in love with her?

When Tracy decides to run for school president, Jim feels that she will be a horrible influence on the student body. He convinces Paul (Chris Klein), a dull but popular student-athlete, to run against Tracy.

When she becomes aware of Jim’s secret involvement in the race, a bitter feud develops between teacher and student as they try to outsmart the other.

The writing in Election is brilliant. The audience may see Jim or Tracy as the villain or perhaps both. They resort to drastic machinations to get their way. Tracy wants to win at all costs while Jim becomes obsessed with ensuring that Tracy does not win.

I love the high school setting and the normal goodie two-shoes Jim resorting to ballot cheating and affairs to best his rival. Tracy is no better as she manipulates and conspires to win the election.

I also worry that the viewers who should see this film either won’t or won’t get the message that Payne is sending.

The editing is flawless and the quick cuts that allow each character a chance to narrate and share their perspective is a major win. We see each motivation and understand what makes each character tick-especially Jim and Tracy.

The acting is wonderful and enough praise cannot be reaped upon Witherspoon and Broderick for their sick and twisted performances. They each radiate desperation and dark comedy and delightful is the perkiness and drive that Witherspoon gives Tracy.

When she bakes cupcakes in the hopes of bribing her classmates for votes, this counterbalances Broderick’s angry and grizzled Jim. He is at war with a student and goes for the jugular instead of being the role model a teacher should be.

It’s delightfully fun though many high school teachers may not appreciate the deviousness.

There’s also a cool LGBTQ+ inclusion which is a positive.

I’d venture to compare Election to American Beauty (1999), made the same year and with a similar tone. Cynical and witty, they both question morality and ethics, especially with the sugar coating of a high school or small-town Americana.

Satire never looked finer in both films.

Made in 1999, how dubious the realization is that Election continues to have relevance as time goes by.

In the current state of United States politics where lying, cheating, and a blatant refusal to accept election results unless one side is the victor is running rampant, and shockingly tolerated by some, Payne’s message has never been more powerful.

Oscar Nominations: Best Adapted Screenplay

Independent Spirit Award Nominations: 3 wins-Best Feature (won), Best Direction-Alexander Payne (won), Best Screenplay (won), Best Female Lead-Reese Witherspoon, Best Debut Performance-Jessica Campbell

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

Dark Shadows-2012

Dark Shadows-2012

Director Tim Burton

Starring Johnny Depp, Michelle Pfeiffer, Helena Bonham Carter

Scott’s Review #1,203

Reviewed December 3, 2021

Grade: C+

Sometimes a great idea doesn’t pan out. On paper, relaunching the unique and gothic 1960s daytime television series Dark Shadows with a tribute on the big screen with even bigger stars sounds wonderful.

The endless possibilities and the inevitable nods to history are head-spinning.

Sadly, the film version of Dark Shadows (2012) directed by Tim Burton is miscategorized and misunderstood by all involved. It’s billed as a dark comedy rather than horror or even fantasy and comes across as more of a mockery than a real nod to the series.

It’s completely over-the-top and misses any of the wonder and the spookiness that made the long-ago black and white show a daily adventure.

I do not profess to have seen the entire series but I have watched much of the first season and understand the appeal. Fans will be disheartened by Burton’s botched attempts to recreate a great idea.

Depp, a frequent guest star in Burton’s film works, strikes out as the iconic character Barnabas Collins, the eighteenth-century vampire who awakens in the twentieth century though he’s not as bad as he was when he feebly stepped into the Willy Wonka character in 2005.

Yikes.

The only saving grace is the creative and magical visual effects and set design which provides enough imagination and macabre fascination to at least partly save this otherwise messy experience.

The plot gives a brief explanation of the history.

In eighteenth-century Maine, Barnabas Collins (Depp) presides over the town of Collinsport. A rich and powerful playboy, Barnabas breaks the heart of a witch named Angelique (Eva Green) who deviously makes him pay.

Angelique turns Barnabas into a vampire and buries him alive.

Two centuries later, Barnabas escapes from his tomb when builders are erecting a Mcdonald’s and finds the current 1970s Collinsport a very different place. His once-grand estate has fallen into ruin, and the dysfunctional remnants of his family have fared no better.

His resurrection creates complications and drama for the entire family.

Burton knocks it out of the park with the visuals.

The gothic mansion, in particular, is right up his alley and he embraces the possibilities with gusto. Every creak or wind sound heard within the mansion co-aligns with the dark and dreary purples and brown colors.

Frequent candles mark the proper mood and investigating the vast number of rooms was something to look forward to.

Since the rest of the film sucked I had nothing better to do than fully embrace and focus on the art and set designs.

Heavyweights like Michelle Pfeiffer, Helena Bonham Carter, and Depp do their best but oddly overact in nearly every scene. Their direction must have been skewed toward comedy instead of adding any meat or emotional relevance to the characters.

The original series created something strangely dramatic and compelling on a shoestring budget. There was a delicious haunting and grabbing nature that made you anticipate the next episode and who might fall victim to the vampire.

The film veers into a vastly different territory.

Burton and Depp’s Barnabas struts around emitting one-liners for intended giggles. The other characters appear to be dressed for Halloween and are dumb and morose.

The feeling I got was that of a retread to a situation comedy like The Addams Family rather than a horror soap to be taken seriously.

The sexual references and the occasional bloody vampire effects are okay but seem peppered in to justify the dark comedy.

Even an uninspired cameo by shock rocker Alice Cooper is perceived as a weak attempt to add something frightening or dangerous.

Unsurprisingly, Dark Shadows (2012) performed poorly at the box office and was derided by true fans of the series and almost every other film critic.

This caused Barnabas and his family to slink back into their coffins possibly for good.

What a shame.

Falling Down-1993

Falling Down-1993

Director Joel Schumacher

Starring Michael Douglas, Robert Duvall

Scott’s Review #1,192

Reviewed November 6, 2021

Grade: B+

Falling Down (1993) is a film with a message or arguably several messages. It’s about one man who is fed up with almost everything and is on the brink of a full-throttle meltdown.

What the film does is mix entertainment with this message about socio-economic unfairness, inequality, etc.

Whether or not people take these elements as seriously as they should is at risk from the popcorn qualities. It’s almost like it doesn’t know what it is.

Is it a kick-ass thriller, a black comedy, or a fantasy?

The film certainly entertains.

This is unsurprising because director Joel Schumacher is at the helm as director. The man is a mainstream director churning out hits like The Client (1994), Batman Forever (1995), and Batman & Robin (1997) throughout the 1990s.

Some were more successful than others but Falling Down is his best work.

I am a big fan of Falling Down with the awareness that the messages peppered throughout may not be taken as seriously as they ought to be. And the reason is that there are too many of them. It’s almost as if they are boxes being checked off a list.

But it bears repeating that the entertainment factor is fabulous.

One scorching summer day in Los Angeles William Foster (Michael Douglas) an already frustrated middle-aged man who is unemployed and divorced is having a terrible day.

When his car breaks down on the freeway, he leaves his vehicle and begins a trek across the city to attend his daughter’s birthday party.

As he makes his way through urban neighborhoods, William’s frustration and bitterness are tested at every turn resulting in violent encounters with various people, including a vengeful gang and a pursuant veteran police sergeant Martin Prendergast (Robert Duvall).

Unfortunately for Prendergast, today is the day before his long-awaited retirement.

Douglas delivers an excellent performance as Foster. He makes the character relatable to every viewer who has ever felt so fed up they want to discharge the people responsible for the unfairness. He only takes his anger out on those who deserve it and that makes the character somewhat of a hero.

The white supremacist, the belligerent Korean grocery store owner, the gang members, and the lazy construction workers all deserve their just desserts.

Throughout the film, I cheered Foster mightily and chuckled at his wit.

My favorite sequence occurs at the fast-food joint named Whammy Burger. All Foster wants is his breakfast but he arrives one minute past the cut-off as the unsympathetic cashier smugly tells him.

He proceeds to ravage the restaurant in anger.

Despite the humor that Schumacher adds the message must be taken seriously. Minority characters are aptly shown as repressed or not treated well and that point sticks with me until the end.

The least interesting story point is the entanglement between Foster and his ex-wife Beth, played by a woefully underutilized Barbara Hershey.

The Oscar-nominated actress can do so much but her talents are wasted in a throwaway role as the underdeveloped wife character.

I never warmed to Robert Duvall’s police sergeant character either and while sympathetic to Foster’s cause because of a situation with his son, the plot point never develops fully. Prendergast’s overbearing wife and a young police officer he seems obsessed with are never explored well.

Despite great talent, the film belongs to Michael Douglas.

The mood and cinematography deserve accolades. The humidity is suffocating and the layers of smog overlooking Los Angeles hammer home the stuffy nature of the film. One can imagine the sweaty environment leading to explosions of anger.

What Schumacher does besides entertain the audience is show them that a once successful man who once had a great job and happy family life can lose it all and snap.

Falling Down (1993) shows that what happens to Foster can happen to anyone.

Let’s live each happy day to the fullest while we can.

French Exit-2020

French Exit-2020

Director-Azazel Jacobs

Starring-Michelle Pfeiffer, Lucas Hedges

Scott’s Review #1,188

Reviewed October 29, 2021

Grade: C+

French Exit (2020) is a mediocre effort that disappointed me. I expected to be dazzled by the eccentric French culture and sequences that I had anticipated. While there are some location shots in historic Paris, there are not enough to outpace the lackluster writing and unlikable characters the film offers.

Plot-wise, the intriguing premise teeters into the far-fetched, so much so that the result becomes banal and silly.

The film is a miss and should be skipped in favor of other films like Midnight in Paris (2011) and Last Tango in Paris (1972) which both offer better French flair and superior storytelling.

A widowed New York socialite named Frances (Pfeiffer) and her meandering son Malcolm (Hedges) move to Paris after she spends the last of her husband’s inheritance. Sixty years old and now penniless, she borrows a friend’s apartment where she plans to live out the rest of her days anonymously. Her husband, Franklin, has been dead for twelve years and all that’s left of him is a cat named Small Frank, who may or may not embody his spirit.

Based on the previews I anticipated an adventure involving cobblestone Parisian streets, delicious bakeries, and cultural french music. A glimpse of the famous Louve or Eifel Tower would have been a cherry on top. While there are a few sequences of Frances and Malcolm walking along Parisian streets and an apartment that provides good french flavor there is not enough to be considered an achievement.

The main character is played by Michelle Pfeiffer. As a fan of some of her more recent projects like Mother! (2017) a brilliant film directed by Darren Aronofsky, the character didn’t catch fire for me. She’s pretty snobbish throughout and never really gets her comeuppance or learns any lesson.  As the protagonist, I was baffled as to why I was expected to root for a woman who is a bitch.

Hedges, a fantastic actor, plays his part according to script but the morose, one-dimensional Malcolm, is uninteresting, and a so-so romantic plot involving his girlfriend Susan (Imogen Poots) even less so.

On the plus side, Valerie Mahaffey steals the show with her quirky, comedic performance as Reynard. A fan of Frances’s she befriends the woman who initially has no interest in her and coldly dismisses her. An eccentric, her odd demeanor and style are infectious, and she won me over immediately especially placed side by side with the other less flavorful characters.

She was deservedly rewarded with recognition and received a Spirit Award nomination. Hopefully, this leads to more juice roles from Mahaffey.

Azazel Jacobs, who has had modest success on the independent film circuit offers moderate impressive direction but loses me with the addition of not one but two tired seance sequences. A cat inhabiting a dead body and coming to life with the deceased person’s voice is drab and better suited for low-brow light comedy.

To make matters worse, the inclusion of a plump medium Madeleine (Danielle Macdonald) is about as cliched as you can get.

There is not enough substance to give French Exit (2020) higher than average marks. Pfeiffer, taking center stage and doing the best she can, deserves better roles as she charges into her senior years. She’s got gusto so let’s give her better material.

Independent Spirit Award Nominations: Best Supporting Female-Valerie Mahaffey