Tag Archives: Drama films

In the Name of-2013

In the Name of-2013

Director-Malgorzata Szumowska, Mateusz Kościukiewicz

Starring-Andrzej Chyra

Scott’s Review #1,159

Reviewed July 8, 2021

Grade: B+

In the Name of (2013), not to be confused with In the Name of the Father, a 1993 film starring Daniel Day-Lewis, is a Polish independent LGBTQ+ genre film directed by a female, Malgorzata Szumowska. I point out the gender only because the subject matter skews heavily towards male homosexuality which is an interesting one for a female to tackle.

Szumowska does so with gusto providing wonderful cinematography and quiet dialogue.

She casts her own husband, Mateusz Kościukiewicz, in the central role of an outsider who stirs up the sexual feelings of a priest struggling with his long-repressed sexuality.

If one looks carefully, each character struggles with conflict and self-acceptance in some way, restless and hungry for peace of mind and satisfaction. We wonder if any of the characters will ever find this.

The priest in question is played by Andrzej Chyra. It’s revealed that Adam joined the House of God at age twenty-one to escape issues he wrestled with concerning his own sexuality. He has spent his life basically running away from his true self.

Now in his forties, he currently leads a rural parish having been transferred from the lively city of Warsaw, and is still tormented by desire. To make matters even more difficult he mentors troubled young men with lots of testosterone.

When Adam attempts to help troubled teen Lukasz (Kościukiewicz), long-suppressed feelings begin to surface as the men grow closer. A townsperson catches wind of possible shenanigans and Adam is transferred yet again to another location. This has happened before. But, will Adam and Lukasz have a chance at happiness if they play their cards right?

The obvious comparison of In the Name of is to Brokeback Mountain (2005) which set the standard and paved the way for many LGBTQ+ films to be made. All of Adam’s and Lukasz’s dalliances, and there are romantic suggestions, but nothing animalistic is secretive. Both men are repressed but are at different stages of life.

I can’t say In the Name of hits the mark in this regard because the film is less about a male romance than about the characters being unhappy. In fact, it’s not until the end of the film that any blossoming develops between Adam and Lukasz. I wanted more meat between the characters, pun intended but was left knowing almost nothing about Lukasz specifically.

I also yearned for more backstory from three supporting characters. Ewa (Maja Ostaszewska), an attractive local woman, flirts with Adam and the coach on occasion and drinks too much, later regretting her actions. How does she happen to be in the town and why is she without a man already? Is the coach gay or straight? It is suggested he is gay but this remains unclear. Finally, Blondi is a bleached blonde troubled boy played by Tomasz Schuchardt. He beds another boy and senses Adam’s sexuality filling Blondi with venom. I wanted to know more about Blondi.

Despite these slight yearnings for more the film is very good. Chyra does a terrific acting job in the main role of Adam and easily wins over the audience who will root for his happiness. During a great scene, the typically reserved Adam explodes with self-deprecating rage while on a video call with his sympathetic sister. He struggles for self-acceptance that many of the LGBTQ+ community can relate to.

I sense that having seen In the Name of when it was originally released in 2013 would have made the experience even more powerful. By 2021 the cinema world has been saturated with films containing similar story points and religious conflict issues so that appears a commonality rather than originality.

But I’ll never complain about too many LGBTQ+ films being made.

Nonetheless, I thoroughly enjoyed the film and recommend it to anyone seeking a quality character-driven experience.

Rachel Getting Married-2008

Rachel Getting Married-2008

Director-Jonathan Demme

Starring-Anne Hathaway, Rosemarie DeWitt

Scott’s Review #1,153

Reviewed June 17, 2021

Grade: A-

Rachel Getting Married (2008) is the film that really put Anne Hathaway on the map as a powerful and respected actress. Deserving the heaps of praise put upon her she was congratulated with an Oscar nomination for the role and would win a few years later for Les Miserables (2012). Hathaway proves that good nuts and bolts acting never goes out of style.

Director Jonathan Demme goes for simplicity with his project. The film is a quiet family drama with members gathered for a specific event. As the film progresses we witness deep-seated emotions and history bubble to the surface through terrific scenes exposing quality acting chops by the entire cast. Pain, truth, and wry humor are explored as a naturalistic approach is possessed. Not all the characters are likable and debatable is if any of them are.

Thankfully, humorous moments are added to lighten the mood.

The screenplay was written by Jenny Lumet, the daughter of famed director Sidney Lumet and granddaughter of Lena Horne. Filming took place in Stamford, Connecticut, a small city outside of New York City.

The Buchman’s, an affluent New England family, prepares for the wedding of their daughter, Rachel (Rosemarie DeWitt). Their other daughter, Kym (Anne Hathaway), is permitted to attend the wedding despite being in the middle of a stint at rehab- she’s been there before. As Kym causes upheaval and drama, Rachel resents her sister causing family tensions to resurface.

Parents Paul and Abby, played by Bill Irwin and Debra Winger do their best to calm the flames created by the bickering siblings. Unfortunately, tensions begin to erupt between Rachel and Abby and away from Rachel.

Obviously, events come to a head-on Rachel’s wedding day, hence the title.

Under different circumstances, Rachel Getting Married could have been a standard lifetime television film. A girl with a drug addiction returning to the fold to stir up family drama is hardly a novel idea and has been told many times before in almost every medium. I cringed at first when I read the premise.

But, the film feels as fresh and energetic as a new idea. The pacing is the first notice as it moves at a brisk pace and the running time is under two hours. Kym is frenetic acting at times which also helps the allusion of a faster pace.

A dark secret is quickly revealed. Due to drunkenness, Kym caused the car she was driving in to careen off a bridge, killing her younger brother. She has harbored guilt ever since and endured the wrath of her family. It has made her struggle with addiction even worse.

I don’t think enough praise can be given to Hathaway for quite simply kicking the film’s ass. Nearly destined for wimpy romantic comedies, Kym gives the actress a role she can not only sink her teeth into but infuse with emotion and empathy.

At times the audience will hate Kym and other times will sob along with her.

DeWitt and especially Winger, returning to the cinematic spotlight after a long absence, have plenty to infuse their characters with. Anger, jealousy, and unbridled sympathy are just a few of the emotions their characters experience.

Demme creates an independent film that feels raw and is filled with naturalistic settings and emotions. He takes a basic story and ravages it completely with great acting, handheld cameras that provide a real-life approach, and a story that will leave audiences thinking about the events and perhaps their own lives after the credits roll.

Oscar Nominations: Best Actress-Anne Hathaway

Independent Spirit Award Nominations: Best Film, Best Director-Jonathan Demme, Best Female Lead-Anne Hathaway, Best First Screenplay, Best Supporting Female-Rosemarie DeWitt, Debra Winger

Take Shelter-2011

Take Shelter-2011

Director-Jeff Nichols

Starring-Michael Shannon, Jessica Chastain

Scott’s Review #1,150

Reviewed June 9, 2021

Grade: B+

Michael Shannon is a great actor. Appearing mostly in supporting roles and breaking out big time in 2008’s Revolutionary Road he gets the lead in Take Shelter (2011) and is more than up to the task of creating a great character. The ambivalence and uncertainty his character feels are monumental to the enjoyment of the film.

It’s a slow burn and an unsatisfying payoff but I mean that with positive praise.

The plot is set in a small rural town in Ohio. Curtis LaForche (Shannon) is a working-class husband and father and provider to his wife Samantha (Jessica Chastain) and young daughter Hannah. Curtis begins to have scary apocalyptic dreams which he keeps from his family.

He decides to build a storm shelter in his backyard which raises concerns for Samantha. His strange behavior creates a strain on his family. As he builds the shelter, Curtis is afraid of his dreams, or rather, afraid that they are a premonition and will come true. Is he going crazy, or will his dreams become a devastating reality?

Curtis, Samantha, and the entire audience will ponder this note throughout the course of the film.

An interesting add-on is that Hannah is deaf so the way her parents embrace and accept her disability is a nice nod to the inclusiveness of people with disabilities.

Take Shelter is delightful to revisit and discuss ten years following its release. In 2011, both Shannon and Chastain were up and coming stars and only barely on the cusp of A-list status so it’s fun to see them in an independent film that showcases their acting chops. They would grow to be big stars and flourish their talents in many other roles so it’s fun to see them in early-career performances.

Shannon is careful not to outshine Chastain, but Curtis’s focal point is what is going on internally. His conflict is palpable and written all over his face in quiet scene after quiet scene after quiet scene of his gazing at the luminous skies. He wonders what is coming next.

His dreams and hallucinations and auditory experiences involving swarms of blackbirds are creepy and well-made on a small budget. A clue is when it is revealed that Curtis’s mother suffered from paranoid schizophrenia at roughly the same age that Curtis is.

A drained Curtis seeks counseling but still cannot shake his feelings of impending doom. I felt completely empathetic to his plight and never saw Curtis as crazy or out of control. He possesses controlled restrain.

In fact, director Jeff Nichols does an exceptional job of making the film largely quiet and peaceful with a gnawing and foreboding dread just as the expected apocalypse might come upon the lonely town.

Take Shelter is the debut by Nichols who followed up this gem with two other low-key but critically acclaimed films Mud (2012) and Loving (2016). He knows how to get to the core of his character’s deepest thoughts and feelings. Unexpectedly, he wrote each of these works and received praise for fine writing.

The film is really about the relationship between the characters and the possibility that Curtis is going insane. I’m not sure Take Shelter provides a neatly wrapped conclusion but boy is it an edge-of-your-seat thrill. And why does it need to?

Shannon’s best scene occurs at a Lions Club community event. With most of the town gathered in the hall for a delicious dinner of pot luck dishes things go bad when Curtis loses his temper and verbally berates the townspeople. He warns them that they are unprepared for the doom. They look at him as if he belongs in a padded cell. Shannon’s explosion is frightening and frighteningly good.

As good as Shannon is, Chastain must not be dismissed. She barely holds it together as a woman with a special needs child and an unbalanced husband. When they lose their health insurance she nearly comes apart at the seams.

I love the ending because Nichols leaves the truth of reality a mystery to the audience. This may dissatisfy some but I thought it’s how Take Shelter should be. Unclear, just like the thoughts of its main character.

Take Shelter (2011) succeeds with a powerhouse performance by its star Michael Shannon and wonderful direction and a refined imbalance. The quiet and thoughtful cinema fan will endear the most to this film.

Ugetsu-1953

Ugetsu-1953

Director-Kenji Mizoguchi

Starring-Masayuki Mori, Machiko Kyo

Scott’s Review #1,147

Reviewed May 31, 2021

Grade: A

Kenji Mizoguchi, who directs the brave Japanese masterpiece, Ugetsu (1953), successfully brought eastern cinema to western audiences at the time the film was discovered. The result is a groundbreaking ghost story that fuses reality with the supernatural in the most gorgeous ways.

It’s not always clear what is going on but in only the best of ways. It’s like being inside a dream.

The notice is a long time coming since Mizoguchi had been making films since the 1920s! But his forever stamp on cinema is worth the wait and Ugetsu is a timeless treasure.

Ugetsu is not the easiest plot to follow but that is just fine because its brilliance lies in other areas. Like, every area to be clear. The cinematography, the mix of reality and supernatural, the tone, and the questioning messages and character conflict all add muscle.

It’s cinema to be experienced and mesmerized by. Haunting, sad, and stoic, it explores themes such as war, family, and forbidden relationships.

Its cultural exploration is important and teaches Japanese customs. This film taught me what great cinema is- not necessarily linear or explained, but drenched with brilliance, thoughtfulness, and art. I was able to escape the confines of traditionally constructed films and it was an awakening in pleasure and creativity.

The lesson learned is great cinema knows no boundaries and the film was helpful to open my eyes to types and styles of films that may be deemed difficult.

Drawing its plot particularly from Ueda’s tales “The House in the Thicket” and “The Lust of the White Serpent”, the film is set in Azuchi–Momoyama period Japan (1573–1600). Mizoguchi was fascinated and inspired by these fables and the supernatural style from the long-ago stories are powerful and classic.

A peasant farmer and potter, Genjūrō (Masayuki Mori) leaves his wife and young son behind during the civil war and is seduced by a spirit that threatens his life. He finds himself at a Kutsuki mansion in the hopes of selling his pottery. The mansion is run by the fabulous Lady Wakasa (Machiko Kyo) who seduces him and requests he marry her.

But is Lady Wakasa real or a ghost from the past? She harbors a horrific secret.

A subplot involves Genjūrō’s friend, Tōbei (Eitaro Ozawa), who dreams of becoming a great samurai and chases this goal at the unintended expense of his wife. He steals the head of a well-known general and is rewarded with shiny armor. Eager to tell his wife he instead finds her working at a local brothel.

The costumes specifically deserve a shout-out. Drenched in Japanese drawings and colors they are exquisite to the eye despite Ugetsu being a black and white film. The obvious art actually looks better without color adding mystique.

My favorite visual is when two couples drift along in a boat on a tremendous lake. Amid fog and haze, the scene is gloomy yet magnificent offering the lushness of Japanese geography. It’s a breathtaking visual with a fabulous texture and tone that, once again, is aided by black and white filmmaking.

The ghost story also is aided by the black and white cinematography. Isn’t everything? The scenes seem to scroll by in a fusion of live-action and gorgeous landscapes. What is reality and what is not is up for debate? This adds to the confusion and overall beauty.

The humanity and moral conflict the two main characters face is hearty and worthy of a discussion. They strive for great success and riches but live in a cruel world with challenges. I found the men to be heroes. Ugetsu is as much a character study as it is an art film.

Ugetsu (1953) is a must-see for film lovers and those intrigued by other cultures. It should definitely appear on lists of superior films shown at film schools if it is not already.

Oscar Nominations: Best Costume Design, Black and White

Yentl-1983

Yentl-1983

Director-Barbra Streisand

Starring-Barbra Streisand, Mandy Patinkin

Scott’s Review #1,144

Reviewed May 20, 2021

Grade: B+

Feeling slightly dated nowadays, perhaps for the year it was made, Yentl (1983) is nonetheless a very good watch if only for Barbra’s performance, in multiple ways, alone. Who else could I be talking about other than superstar Barbra Streisand?

Astounding is that she also directed the film, rare as hen’s teeth for a female to direct in those days. Even circa 2021, there have only been two women to win the coveted Best Director Oscar prize. Mind-blowing. Streisand was snubbed in this category and was understandably miffed.

But I’ll get down from my soapbox.

Streisand plays the title role. Yentl is a bookish girl and daughter of a respected Talmud teacher who instructs her although she is female and not male. This is forbidden in their culture. Her father dies leaving Yentl to her own devices and determinations. She disguises herself as a boy to gain entry to a yeshiva and meets Avigdor (Mandy Patinkin), who she becomes fascinated by. But he only has eyes for Hadass (Amy Irving) who he is supposed to marry.

This results in a triangle of sorts but not in the traditional sense. Hadass develops feelings for Anshel (really Streisand as Yentl in drag). After they marry (unconsummated) Anshel falls in love with Avigdor. This may sound like a comedy rather than drama and it does contain a bit of each but the romantic interludes, misunderstandings, and misinterpretations are not really the best parts of the film.

The main themes of faith and romance are center stage. Streisand may have had feminism on her mind with the film but I didn’t find this a major point except for Yentl refusing to marry a man.

She pretends to be a boy because females are repressed in the religion. A real win would have been Yentl embracing faith as she really is, but for 1983 the message isn’t a bad one.

Still, we are supposed to want Yentl and Avigdor to live happily ever after but I never felt very much of a connection to the couple.

The best parts of Yentl are the musical score and the songs the audience is treated to. The highlight for me is the emotionally charged “Papa, Can You Hear Me?” which is a gorgeous moment for Yentl. Yentl leaves Europe on a boat bound for the United States, where she hopes to lead a life with more freedom. With a smile on her face, she rises above and into a new day.

It’s a dynamic singing performance and rises the film above where it would have been without the number. It’s like the perfect culminating Streisand moment.

The romantic moments are unfulfilling and predictable, but the film is about Streisand and Streisand alone. As good as Patinkin and Irving are they take a backseat to the illustrious star. We never even get to see Patinkin sing.

I’m okay with this. I watched Yentl (1983) for the enormous talents of its star. Her singing, acting and directing all make the film a worthwhile and engaging experience. It’s not a great film and other Streisand films are better- I’m thinking of Funny Girl (1968) and Hello, Dolly (1969), but it’s way above average.

Oscar Nominations: Best Supporting Actress-Amy Irving, Best Art Direction, Best Original Score (won), Best Original Song-“Papa, Can You Hear Me?”, “The Way He Makes Me Feel”

Fame-1980

Fame-1980

Director-Alan Parker

Starring-Irene Cara, Paul McCrane, Maureen Teefy

Scott’s Review #1,143

Reviewed May 18, 2021

Grade: A-

Fame (1980) is a teen high school musical drama centering around the trials and tribulations of gifted New York City kids. Anyone with musical, theatrical, or dance talent can relate to the film. The rest of us can merely live vicariously through these kids and the potential careers that lie ahead of them wishing we had half of their talent and drive.

This is not your standard musical from the 1950s or 1960s and the pace is quite frenetic. Fasten your seatbelts because there is a lot packed in.

The film oozes with an upbeat musical score and the flavor of New York City, quite gritty and dangerous circa 1980. The now-legendary musical numbers where the cast dances together with faculty and strangers alike atop Manhattan taxi cabs is silly beyond belief but the title song by star Irene Cara is a danceable and hummable classic.

In a way, these scenes offset the muscular dramatic scenes with lightness and comedy, but in another way, they diminish the credibility of the serious moments.

Events get off to a chaotic start as we witness a mass of teenagers frenetically scrambling to remember audition lyrics and dance numbers as they vie for entry into the High School of Performing Arts, with free admission for only the cream of the crop.

The film chronicles the lucky lives from their auditions to their freshman, sophomore, junior, and senior years.

The main group features Montgomery MacNeil (Paul McCrane), a closeted gay male; Doris Finsecker (Maureen Teefy), a shy Jewish girl; Ralph Garci (Barry Miller), and Bruno Martelli (Lee Curreri) an aspiring keyboardist whose electronic equipment horrifies the conservative music teachers. They align with Lisa Monroe (Laura Dean), Coco Hernandez (Irene Cara), and Leroy Johnson (Gene Anthony Ray) a gifted dancer who cannot read.

All have interesting backstories or problems to work through during their four years in school and this is the main appeal of the film. The dance numbers, of course, are fabulous too.

I immediately became enamored with sensitive Doris, whose mother’s (Tresa Hughes) emotions elicit viewer emotion simply with her own emotions. Her passion for her daughter and her talent is infectious.

Alan Parker, who directs Fame, offers extremely heavy topics that the students must face. It’s not all fun and dance. The youngsters grapple with issues such as homosexuality, abortion, interracial dating, class systems, attempted suicide, and illiteracy. Their pain is readily offered to audiences who become entangled in their worlds.

A negative is that as much as the issues are brought to the forefront, the sheer number of them result in few resolutions.

On top of their unique struggles, the students must deal with the mundane pressures of adolescence like homework, heartbreak, and rejection. Their talent doesn’t make them any more special than anyone else in the growing-up department.

My favorite moments in Fame are the quiet ones. When Doris and Montgomery share a chat on the stairs that skirts around the talk of his absent mother I thought what a delightful couple they would make. Montgomery’s repressed sexuality slowly surfaces while Doris develops a crush on an older popular boy.

As if the heavy topics eventually subside, they don’t. As the students age and start to plan careers, Coco is lured by a man claiming to be a director only to realize he is a porn film “director”. He coaxes her into taking off her shirt and photographs her sobbing. The scene is heartbreaking in its power.

The atmosphere of Fame also works well. There is a strong and suffocating feeling of heat and humidity. Anyone who has spent time in New York City during the summer months knows the stench and thickness of the stuffy weather. I got the impression the school had no air conditioning as the running perspiration of the music teacher is evidence of.

A coming of age film that delivers hard-hitting messages only offset by the climactic dance-celebration numbers, Fame (1980) is a winner and gives teen angst its due.

This film ages well and stands the test of time.

Oscar Nominations: Best Original Screenplay, Best Original Score (won), Best Original Song-“Fame” (won), Out Here on My Own”, Best Film Editing, Best Sound

Never Rarely Sometimes Always-2020

Never Rarely Sometimes Always-2020

Director-Eliza Hittman

Starring-Sidney Flanigan, Talia Ryder

Scott’s Review #1,142

Reviewed May 14, 2021

Grade: A

I’ll confess that a teen drama centered on abortion involving conflicted female characters wouldn’t be the first film I’d sit down and watch. Done before and not my demographic I assumed little in common with the characters. Never Rarely Sometimes Always (2020) blew me away and taught me a valuable lesson- never judge a film by its synopsis.

The film only entered my radar because of positive buzz and a handful of independent film awards. Hopefully, this recognition catapults the director and actresses to other excellent projects.

It’s not that director, Eliza Hittman does anything particularly different with the vehicle on the surface. I jest slightly because she takes a standard story and hits it out of the ballpark so that even us middle-aged folks with no kids can remain engaged. The film can be watched by anyone as it compels completely.

I was enamored from scene one.

Before anyone gets their knickers in a twist, Never Rarely Sometimes Always doesn’t get on a soapbox about whether abortion is right or wrong. It’s not about that though I can guess Hittman’s likely position on the topic. Rather, it gives a fresh, raw, and realistic depiction of what it’s like for a seventeen-year-old girl to be scared and pregnant and, in some parts of the United States, unable to get proper guidance or treatment. This could shape her whole life.

The kicker is that one doesn’t necessarily need to live in the middle of nowhere for this to occur. This note shocked me and quite frankly frightened me.

Faced with an unintended pregnancy and a lack of local support, Autumn (Sidney Flanigan) and her cousin, Skylar (Talia Ryder), travel from suburban Pennsylvania across state lines to New York City on a challenging journey of friendship, compassion, and a bit of adventure.

Autumn is brooding and upset yet holds it mostly together. She performs beautifully at a high school pep rally despite being snickered at by a rude boy in the audience. Afterward, her family goes for pizza and soda to celebrate where her stepfather is unable to praise Autumn.

The tension between Autumn and her stepfather is very ambiguous. Could he be the father or the boy she presumably dated and now wants nothing to do with her?

We realize that the males in Autumn’s life pretty much suck after her boss disgustingly kisses her hand as a daily ritual.

She goes to a discreet mom-and-pop clinic where she learns she is pregnant. The woman in charge callously shows Autumn horrific abortion videos when she suspects Autumn might be flirting with the idea of getting one.

Autumn and Skylar realize they must flee their one-horse town for the hustle and bustle, and better medical care, provided by New York City. They steal cash from their job and make the jaunt on a bus.

This is the point where the film really takes off. As the girls arrive at the chaotic Port of Authority bus terminal I felt like I was on the journey with them. They arrive at a clinic and meet a kind receptionist and technician who tell her she is actually sixteen weeks pregnant instead of the ten weeks she thought she was. Her procedure will take two days.

Where will they stay? What will they eat? The procedure is costly so how will they pay for the bus fare home? A boy they meet on the bus reappears and maybe their savior but at what price?

These are some of the questions I as the viewer was thinking throughout the experience just as Autumn and Skylar were.

The most powerful scene occurs when Autumn receives question after question from the technician which is the crux of the title of the film. We sadly realize that Autumn has faced some sort of sexual abuse before. The film does not reveal exactly what happened which is clever and makes the scene more powerful.

Never Rarely Sometimes Never is a slow-moving vehicle but because of the outstanding acting talents of Flanigan and Ryder, I was completely engaged, hooked, and suckered. I fell in love with these characters and the entirety of the film feels incredibly authentic.

A film that grapples with despair, hope, fear, journey, friendship, and much much more than its main storyline offers, Never Rarely Sometimes Always (2020) is a brave film that hits a home run.

Independent Spirit Award Nominations: Best Feature, Best Director-Eliza Hittman, Best Female Lead-Sidney Flanigan, Best Supporting Female-Talia Ryder, Best Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Editing

Bernice Bobs Her Hair-1976

Bernice Bobs Her Hair-1976

Director-Joan Micklin Silver

Starring-Shelley DuVall, Veronica Cartwright 

Scott’s Review #1,141

Reviewed May 12, 2021

Grade: B+

Much transpires within Bernice Bobs Her Hair (1976), a short film based on a short story by famed author F. Scott Fitzgerald. For the non-literary crowd, Fitzgerald penned the worldly The Great Gatsby, a treasured story from the 1920’s Long Island, New York setting.

The story was made into television production in 1976 for PBS for The American Short Story.

Bernice Bobs Her Hair is a quieter story than Gatsby, and more peculiar, resulting in a fabulous tale of revenge with a similar time period of 1920, the cusp of the American Jazz Age. The setting is presumed to be Long Island or Westchester County, New York though that’s never confirmed. Regardless, our main character, Bernice (Shelley DuVall) hails from Wisconsin and comes to visit family.

The visit isn’t exactly peaches and cream as you can imagine.

The bitchy and sophisticated Marjorie (Veronica Cartwright), Bernice’s cousin, pities her for being awkward and unlikable, far inferior to the elitist company that Marjorie keeps. She rolls up her sleeves and becomes determined to shape Bernice into a sophisticated vixen, molding her into a girl who gets what she wants.

The idea ends up biting her in the ass.

Bernice, mocked for being quiet and dull, blossoms into a brave young woman, titillated by the attention of the society boys. She delights in having her pick of the litter and daringly proclaims to have her hair bobbed in a few days, to the shock and chagrin of the rich group of friends.

Would a young woman ever dare to do something so drastic for attention? Hell, she’ll have to go to a barber and be sheared!

Marjorie’s jealousy increases as Bernice’s confidences soar leading to a dramatic and satisfying conclusion.

DuVall is delightful in the role. The actress, very unconventional looking, appears the prettiest I’ve ever seen her, even when she plays dowdy. Telling so much with her wide-eyed and expression-filled eyes, she seduced me into her world of mystique and wonderment. DuVall has a charisma all her own and fascinates in any film she appears in.

Not to be overlooked, Veronica Cartwright, possesses Marjorie with fury and pizazz, also doing so much with her trademark blue eyes. The actresses work so well together as they eventually play a seductive game of will and wit.

For the boys, there are a few love interests to note. I loved seeing Bud Cort, struggling for work after his groundbreaking role in 1971’s Harold & Maude, appear in the short film. Insecure, he is nonetheless smitten with Bernice, just as Draycott Deyo (Patrick Byrne) is. Other handsome suitors like Mark La Mura, of daytime television fame, appear.

The costumes and sets are lavish and fitting to the 1920s which enhanced my enjoyment. The hot summer setting also infuses the film with smoldering and rigid tension enhancing the experience. There is nothing like escaping into the past in style and enchantment.

The final revenge is extremely fulfilling as the classes clash. The socially awkward Bernice conquers the WASP’y Marjorie like a plain Jane would a beautiful evil princess. It’s quite satisfying.

The entire experience of Bernice Bobs Her Hair (1976) is pleasing and compelling. The kicker is when Bernice does indeed ‘bob her hair’ she looks amazing and trendy for the decade to follow. She gets her just desserts in more ways than one and the audience cheers her to victory!

The Bible: In the Beginning-1966

The Bible: In the Beginning-1966

Director-John Huston

Starring-George C. Scott, Ava Gardner

Scott’s Review #1,139

Reviewed May 5, 2021

Grade: A-

An epic of grand proportions that nearly rivals the magic cinematography of Lawrence of Arabia (1963), The Bible: In The Beginning (1966) embraces its own definition of majestic, magnificent, and sweeping. The story follows the chronological telling of The Bible book, beginning with Adam & Eve.

Important to remember is that one need not be of Catholic, Christian, or any religious persuasion to enjoy the rapturous beauty encompassing the film.  The pious and the non-believers alike can enjoy the experience though there is a hint of the unbelievable and suspension of disbelief in some of the stories gracing the “good book” by director John Huston. He also narrates some of the stories and appears as Noah.

Nobody is mocked for their beliefs and the film is a straight-ahead interpretation of the first twenty-two chapters of the Book of Genesis, covering the stories from The Creation and Adam and Eve to the binding of Isaac. Abraham (George C. Scott) and Sarah (Ava Gardner) are heavily featured.

The film strongly focuses on five main sections: The Creation, Garden of Eden, Cain, and Abel, Noah’s Ark, and the story of Abraham. Some other stories are given less screen time and attention but are featured.

Speaking of Adam & Eve (Michael Parks & Ulla Bergyrd), they kick off the action with the fateful decision to pick and taste the luscious fruits dangling in front of their eyes as the Serpent fiendishly looks on. God punishes Adam & Eve for their temptations setting off a common theme amidst the film, and certainly of the good book, of resisting pleasures of the flesh and of being punished for caving into desires.

Apparently, God is happy when people are unfulfilled and joyless. Sadly, some have taken this too much to heart.

We could debate religion until the cows come home, and many have, but I became aware of a hint of ridicule or at least strong questioning on the part of Huston. He creates scenes that most would deem ridiculous if not written in the words of the Bible. Again, Huston is careful not to mock anyone, shrouding any antics in good, stylized 1960’s film, but a woman being turned into a pillar of salt for looking at the sky could be found amusing.

Admittedly, some chapters are better than others.

The trials and tribulations of Abraham & Sarah get off to a slow start as Abraham and company traverse miles and miles of the lonely desert so much so that I was left wondering if they were on the road to nowhere. Finally, the action takes off as Sarah realizing she is barren, makes her maid conceive a child with Abraham. I never knew this saga had so much in common with the Hulu hit The Handmaid’s Tale but the similarities are eerie and uncanny.

Noah and his Ark is also a very good sequence and brings more humor than might be necessary but I guess this is to counterbalance more serious stories. Noah adores animals, especially cats, and lions and he treated them beautifully choosing to save and live in harmony with the creatures. They love him. The flooding scenes related to this chapter are exquisite and adventurous.

The film depicts God as a bit of a son of a bitch as he calls to Abraham to lead his only son to a high mountain and sacrifice him. This tests Abraham’s will and is somber and thoughtful.

If one notices many of the actors look Italian it’s because they are. Noah’s wife for example is played by Pupella Maggio, famous for her role in Fellini’s Amarcord (1973). Much of the film was shot in and around the Italian city of Rome.

Huston not only narrates some of the sections but appears as Noah himself!

The Bible: In the Beginning (1966) is exquisite to look at and pleasing cinematically. Many fans of religious cinema will prefer the more conventional The Ten Commandments (1956) to this one and, while slow at times, by the conclusion the film has aged like a fine wine and had me enthralled and appreciative of its achievements.

Oscar Nominations: Best Original Music Score

The Cincinnati Kid-1965

The Cincinnati Kid-1965

Director-Norman Jewison

Starring- Steve McQueen, Karl Malden

Scott’s Review #1,138

Reviewed April 29, 2021

Grade: B

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Trial of the Chicago 7-2020

The Trial of the Chicago 7-2020

Director-Aaron Sorkin

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

Scott’s Review #1,136

Reviewed April 26, 2021

Grade: B+

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

It’s a crowdpleaser first and foremost.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Zero Dark Thirty-2012

Zero Dark Thirty-2012

Director-Kathryn Bigelow

Starring-Jessica Chastain

Scott’s Review #1,133

Reviewed April 14, 2021

Grade: A-

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

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

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

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

But we also know the events really happened.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Year of the Dog-2007

Year of the Dog-2007

Director-Mike White

Starring-Molly Shannon, John C. Reilly

Scott’s Review #1,131

Reviewed April 9, 2021

Grade: B-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pieces of a Woman-2020

Pieces of a Woman-2020

Director-Kornél Mundruczó

Starring-Vanessa Kirby, Shia LaBeouf, Ellen Burstyn

Scott’s Review #1,129

Reviewed April 2, 2021

Grade: A-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The acting is amazing in Pieces of a Woman.

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

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

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

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

Oscar Nominations: Best Actress-Vanessa Kirby

Emma-2020

Emma-2020

Director-Autumn de Wilde

Starring-Anya Taylor-Joy, Johnny Flynn

Scott’s Review #1,128

Reviewed March 31, 2021

Grade: B

I haven’t read the classic Jane Austen novel written in 1815 nor have I seen the 1996 film version starring Gweneth Paltrow. Neither of these is a prerequisite to enjoy the 2020 version of Emma starring Anya Taylor-Joy in the lead role of Emma Woodhouse.

The film, while set in the early nineteenth century, feels incredibly contemporary and seemingly makes little attempt at a classic style save for the hair, makeup, and costumes. These items are splendid, and the high point, and make the film stylish and bright.

Beautiful, smart, and rich, Emma (Taylor-Joy) enjoys her matchmaking skills that sometimes lead to awkward or failed matches and romantic missteps. She claims to not be interested in her own romance or potential suitors though that changes with time.

She struggles with the challenges of growing up, though she is terribly pampered and has a habit of involving herself in other’s business. Emma is also mischievous and not always kind though deep down she is a good person and has regret when she hurts someone’s feelings with her antics.

In a good, coming of age way, she finally realizes that love for her and a proper match of her own has been there all along and staring her in the face.

The film begins with Emma’s governess, Miss Taylor (Gemma Whelan), marrying and becoming Mrs. Weston. She and Emma are best friends and Emma is saddened so she settles on Harriet Smith (Mia Goth), a younger girl whom Emma supposes is the unclaimed child of a gentleman; Harriet’s parents are unknown, but her education has been provided for. They become bonded and Emma’s influence is immeasured.

Taylor-Joy does a wonderful job in the title role and carefully makes Emma naughty and sometimes unlikable before carefully reeling her in with an act of kindness. She has no malice in mind but is often bored and looking for excitement. I found myself rooting for her to find romance with Mr. Knightley (Johnny Flynn), which she does but not without a hurdle or two on the way.

Other characters come and go with flirtations and romantic possibilities explored.

Speaking of Flynn, the actor is rumored to play rock icon David Bowie in a future theatrical feature. A real musician, Flynn should be the perfect casting for that important part. He is the only character to show some flesh, his bare bum, in Emma and one wonders if female director Autumn de Wilde did this purposefully. After all, traditionally in cinema, it’s been the female who is more commonly nude. Turnabout is fair play.

While Taylor-Joy is good she is nearly upstaged by the delightful Goth who is fabulous as the insecure and impressionable Harriet. With humor and innocence, she makes her character quite likable. I’d like to see more from this young actress. Bill Nighy is perfectly cast as the comical father of Emma while Miranda Hart as Miss Bates steamrolls over every scene she is in.

Apparently, some inconsistencies exist especially where Miss Bates is concerned. A quick mention that Miss Bates and her family had once been rich and are now struggling is not explored where it reportedly was in the novel.

Dividing the film into seasonal sections (Autumn, Winter, Spring, and Summer) is a good decision and makes it more like a novel. The winter snow and Christmas festivities along with a summer picnic do wonders to add fresh atmospheric tidbits. The many scenes of delicious spreads of food and drink laid out for hungry eyes to see offer a robust and colorful glimpse of the culture.

The vibrancy, the food, and the aforementioned clothing, all brimming with richness based on the seasons are the main draw. The castles and large houses featured surely small-town English style brim with vastness and atmosphere.

Emma (2020) is a fun film and the story is not the best part of it. Predictable, all characters wind up with romantically who they should wind up with and there is a happily ever after sensibility.

Adolescents can easily sit in comfort with their mother and father and enjoy the lightweight affair. Nobody will be offended and all will be satisfied. It’s a solid romantic period piece.

Oscar Nominations: Best Costume Design, Best Makeup & Hairstyling

Birth-2004

Birth-2004

Director-Jonathan Glazer

Starring-Nicole Kidman, Cameron Bright

Scott’s Review #1,124

Reviewed March 18, 2021

Grade: B+

Due to the difficult nature of the film’s storyline, Birth (2004) is a tough sell to most cinema lovers. A grown woman embarking on any sort of romance with a ten-year-old boy will turn off viewers, though can you even imagine if the genders were reversed? I was fascinated by the premise and the endless possibilities of a conclusion. I’m not quite sure what I expected to ultimately happen but I felt slightly underwhelmed by the ending. All in all, it is a daring effort that I wish had more payoff.

The first hour or so is extremely provocative.

Nicole Kidman excels at making the unbelievable material as believable as she can and the film is directed very well by Jonathan Glazer who gives it a haunting and mysterious Stanley Kubrick vibe. The director would really come into name recognition following his 2013 masterpiece Under the Skin.

The film opens with a voiceover of an unknown man, a professor, lecturing about his disbelief in reincarnation. The audience then sees the man jogging through New York City’s Central Park where he collapses and dies.

It takes Anna (Kidman) ten years to recover from the death of her husband, Sean, (the professor) but now she’s on the verge of marrying her boyfriend, Joseph (Danny Huston), and finally moving on. We suspect she may not be completely keen on marrying Joseph but most of their relationship is unclear. We know that she aches for Sean.

On the night of their lavish engagement party, a young boy named Sean (Cameron Bright) turns up, saying he is her dead husband reincarnated. At first, she ignores the child, thinking it’s a joke, but his knowledge of her former husband’s life is uncanny, leading her to slowly realize that he could be telling the truth.

Anna is conflicted to say the very least and Kidman effortlessly makes the audience believe that what is considered ridiculous might actually be true. Is there a supernatural element here?

Her family members, led by her mother Eleanor (Lauren Bacall) are disbelieving and antagonistic towards the boy for disrupting Anna’s life. An issue is that other than one supporting character, Clara (Anne Heche), who has a great opening sequence burying mysterious letters, the others have next to nothing to contribute to the story except to brood and get angry.

Bacall, in particular, is completely wasted in a role that could have been played by any other older actress.

Parallels to Rosemary’s Baby (1968) are hard not to make. Anna dons a similar pixie hair as Rosemary had. They both reside in swanky old-style New York City high-rises that have a ghostly, haunting feeling. The ambiance is positive.

My favorite camera shot that Glazer includes is a lengthy one of Kidman’s Anna. A close-up, the character’s reactions are on full display for what feels like several minutes. Kidman gets to show her tremendous range- tears, shock, realization. I’ve noticed a similar shot in a handful of modern films and it’s an actor’s delight- a viewer’s too!

The finale, without giving much away, is interesting to a point. The big reveal involving Clara is intriguing until the viewer backtracks and tries to add up all the events. The fact is they don’t add up and I longed for something more concrete or believable.

There lacks a good payoff.

Birth (2004) doesn’t always add up to satisfaction but it’s edgy, gloomy, and unpredictable and I enjoyed those facets enough to recommend it. This is not a mainstream film like Ghost (1990) with a similar theme- it’s much more cerebral and thought-provoking.

Kidman’s performance is the main draw here but it’s tough to find a film the actress is not great in.

The Father-2020

The Father-2020

Director-Florian Zeller

Starring-Anthony Hopkins, Olivia Colman 

Scott’s Review #1,123

Reviewed March 17, 2021

Grade: A

The Father is a heartbreaking 2020 drama film co-written and directed by Florian Zeller, based on his own 2012 play entitled Le Père. The piece is wonderfully written and superbly acted with incredible empathy for the characters involved.

Everyone should see this important film.

Anne (Olivia Colman) has always adored her intelligent and independent father, Anthony (Anthony Hopkins) who’s approaching the treacherous age of eighty. His mind is not what it used to be by any means and is in fact starting to fail. Stubborn, he rejects every caregiver she brings in to assist with his daily living. Anne finds herself in anguish about how to solve this crisis while striving to live her own life.

Zeller spins a brilliant story from the very first scene because it’s told from Anthony’s perspective rather than solely from Anne’s. Traditionally in films centering around Alzheimer’s disease or dementia, the perspective is from the family member and how they cope and handle a life-altering and painful situation. 2014’s Still Alice starring Julianne Moore is an exception.

Immediately, the viewer is forced into the same world as Anthony and suffers as much confusion as he does. This is tremendously effective. When Anthony rummages about his kitchen in his London flat and hears a door close, he is startled. Who can it be? He wanders to the living room to discover a man sitting reading the newspaper who claims to be Anne’s husband. Anthony has never laid eyes on the man before. Neither has the viewer.

Immediately Anthony and the viewer are confused. Who is the man? Is he a burglar playing tricks on an elderly man or is Anthony forgetting?

From this point in the film, it remains unclear what events are really happening and what Anthony is forgetting or misunderstanding. Sometimes the characters are unclear. Does Anthony think one person (Olivia Williams) is Anne but is she really his nurse? Is his caretaker his other daughter Lucy? Is the man his daughter or Anne’s husband?

Confusion. Disorientation. Just like anyone with Alzheimer’s disease or dementia feels regularly.

Towards the finale, the most heartwrenching part of the film, Anthony weeps at his memory loss, yearning to be a child again and safe in his mother’s arms. We feel his despair and desperation and it’s gutwrenching to witness. Anyone who has had to care for an elder will understand. Anyone else should be empathetic.

We suffer alongside Anne too. Help is becoming a necessity for her; she can’t make daily visits anymore and Anthony’s grip on reality is unraveling. She wants to move to Paris where her new boyfriend lives.

In a chilling scene, we watch Anthony sleeping peacefully while Anne gazes lovingly at him. She tucks him in and then begins to strangle him. We hope this is only a fleeting fantasy, toying with the idea of saving him from further suffering and giving her freedom back.

As we experience the changing tides of his memory, how much of his own identity and past can Anthony cling to? How does Anne cope as she grieves the loss of her father, while he still lives and breathes before her?

Hopkins and Colman are dynamic. Hard to imagine Hopkins usurping his unforgettable role as Hannibal Lechter in The Silence of the Lambs (1991), he nearly does. His character is humorous, dignified, and lovable. He is also angry, feisty, and frustrated. Hopkins channels nearly every emotion.

Colman is teary but strong. A woman sacrificing her own life and happiness for the burden of caring for her father. She is loyal and wouldn’t think twice about having it any other way.

The story is a downer but one that must be witnessed. The Father (2020) warmly embraces real life, through loving reflection upon the simple human condition; heart-breaking and uncompromisingly poignant, the film tells a simple yet complex tale about life, death, and loss.

Oscar Nominations: Best Picture, Best Actor-Anthony Hopkins (won), Best Supporting Actress-Olivia Colman, Best Adapted Screenplay (won), Best Production Design, Best Film Editing

Miss Juneteenth-2020

Miss Juneteenth-2020

Director-Channing Godfrey Peoples

Starring-Nicole Beharie, Alexis Chikaeze

Scott’s Review #1,119

Reviewed March 6, 2021

Grade: B+

I love when a topic of relevance is explored in film or when an interesting class of people is represented or given a story worth sharing. It enriches everyone. Black stories and actors are still woefully underutilized in cinema and there is so much more unchartered territory to explore.

Unless it’s a story about racism, slavery, or blacks being saved by whites it isn’t always a film that gets made.

Miss Juneteenth (2020) is a film about the black community and how they support, enrich, and have a conflict with each other but it’s a story about them and how they strive to live the best lives they can.

Turquoise Jones (Nicole Beharie) is a single mom from the vicinity of Fort Worth, Texas who leads a household, raises a blossoming teenager (Alexis Chikaeze), and works at a local watering hole. She’s also a former local beauty queen who once reigned as a “Miss Juneteenth” pageant. The title is meant to celebrate the Black culture and enrich the lives of the contestants with the winner receiving a prestigious scholarship.

Life didn’t turn out as beautifully as the title promised since Turquoise had to drop out when she got pregnant, but she is determined that her daughter, Kai, will become the new Miss Juneteenth, even if Kai wants something else.

To complicate her life, Turquoise’s mother runs a local church and exudes grace and kindness on the surface but secretly battles booze and judges others. Turquoise is also embroiled in a love triangle with separated husband Ronnie (Kendrick Sampson), and local funeral home owner Bacon (Akron Watson). The girl has a lot going on!

I love the message that Miss Juneteenth sends and I hope many within the black community (or any community) see the film. It encourages and inspires those who may not have much money or prospects to be their better selves.

When the pageant contestants are taught which cutlery to use while dining or the difference between a red wine glass and a white wine glass I championed the teachers. These are life skills that teach sophistication, grace, and class despite how much money one has. It’s an important scene to view.

It’s worth noting that Miss Juneteenth doesn’t always hit a home run. I wondered why Turquoise didn’t date Bacon, a man perfectly suited for her. He adores her and is quite a catch. I was frustrated that she kept giving what little money she had to Ronnie. I understand she felt passion for him but after his many examples of unreliability why didn’t she move on?

I wanted her to do more for herself, which she eventually does but it’s also not completely satisfying.

Ideally, I wanted her to hit the road and run for Los Angeles or New York City. Beautiful, Torquoise could have made a better life for herself rather than choosing to stay in the town she had always lived and known.

Directed by Channing Godfried Peoples, I wondered how much of the story was autobiographical and personal to her? I also wondered why Turquoise’s mother was written as she was? Certainly a minor character, I wanted more explanation and discussion over their mother and daughter relationship not just Turquoise and Kai.

Turquoise does live in the past and her desire to spend a fortune (which she didn’t have) on a pageant dress seemed superfluous and overbearing. Understood is her determination though I started to find this aspect slightly irritating after a while. Why didn’t she use the money and leave town?

A character study of one woman’s attempts and struggles to improve her life while residing in her past, Miss Juneteenth (2020) shows the challenges a mother faces when wanting the most for her child. The story is a familiar one but Peoples writes and directs with heart and charm which supersedes the several questions and holes the film has.

The main win is that it will enrich the lives of those who choose to see it.

Independent Spirit Award Nominations: Best First Feature, Best First Screenplay, Best Female Lead-Nicole Beharie, Best Supporting Female-Alexis Chikaeze

Saint Ralph-2004

Saint Ralph-2004

Director-Michael McGowan

Starring-Adam Butcher, Campbell Scott

Scott’s Review #1,118

Reviewed March 3, 2021

Grade: C

Saint Ralph (2004) is an indie drama that is overly sentimental with too many added standard plot points.  This makes the film ho-hum and extremely cliched. It feels like the attempt was to create a major studio film in independent clothes but without the grit afforded most indies. There is plenty of ordinary setups and by the numbers, follow-through over anything different or fresh.

The film is too charming and safe for my tastes and is too feel-good. Maybe there are just too many similar types of movies made that it doesn’t stand out very well. And since it’s an indie shouldn’t it strive for more edginess?

The message is meant to inspire and in a way it does but that only goes so far. Saint Ralph is a story of a young man triumphing over insurmountable odds- wonderful but unrealistic. The religious elements of faith, miracles, and the Catholic high school are lost on me but some may champion those elements better.

I did enjoy the 1950s time-period and its share of decade trimmings and set pieces yet too often they felt stagey and any authenticity doesn’t feel fresh. Rather, like actors clad in period clothing.

The lead kid who plays Ralph (Adam Butcher) isn’t impressive enough though Campbell Scott who plays a priest with more wisdom than he probably should have is the best thing about Saint Ralph.

If I’m being harsh it’s unintentional but Saint Ralph is a film I’ve forgotten about a day or so after seeing. I like a film that sticks with me and makes me think about and Saint Ralph just ain’t it. It’s classified as a tear-jerker and I didn’t shed one.

Ralph is a troubled kid. His father has died in World War II and his mother lies ill in a coma. He smokes and masturbates resulting in adult intervention by way of strict Father Fitzpatrick (Gordon Pinsent) and kindly Father Hibbert (Campbell Scott). He is encouraged to run in the upcoming Boston Marathon and he trains mightily with the right encouragement.

He feels if he trains hard and wins the marathon his mother will be granted a miracle by God, wake up from her coma, and live happily ever after. I won’t spoil the ending but the conclusion will satisfy pious audiences.

I embrace films that feature a character championing certain hardships and Saint Ralph does contain a youthful innocence and earnestness that holds some appeal. I felt myself rooting for him to overcome his problems. No kid deserves those hardships.

The weakness is that I felt manipulated. Since the intention was to root for Ralph it was clear what direction the film was going in and the predictability was at an all-time high.

The training sequences are reminiscent of any sports film. Think of a young Rocky Balboa training for an upcoming fight. And the saccharine ending is riddled in predictably.

Saint Ralph (2004) will ruffle no feathers and only appeal to mainstream audiences seeking safe cinema. Most people will not remember it very well.

Nomadland-2020

Nomadland-2020

Director-Chloé Zhao

Starring-Frances McDormand, David Strathairn, Swankie

Scott’s Review #1,116

Reviewed February 24, 2021

Grade: A

Frances McDormand, an amazing actor in anything she is in, absolutely kills it in Nomadland (2020) an emotional film with startling realism and respect for strength and truth. Mostly a documentary lookalike the drama has heart while wisely incorporating real-life people versus actors in a story with enough weepy moments to go well with the dynamic cinematography.

It’s a character study in the highest regard and a lesson in what compassion is.

Chloé Zhao, who directs, also directed Songs My Brother Taught Me (2015), nominated for a couple of independent spirit awards, which nobody saw. Zhao has such zest and flavor for the western American landscape, which can be both isolating and beautiful. She incorporates plenty of sunrises, sunsets, and wide shots that go well with the theme of the story she tells. She’s well on her way to much-deserved stardom.

Following her husband’s death by cancer and her rural Nevada company town decimated, Fern (McDormand) packs up her van and starts driving having really no idea where she’s headed. Becoming a modern-day nomad, she scrounges for work doing odd jobs and experiencing adventure along the way as she travels across the West. She meets interesting individuals mostly who live as nomads and try to stay alive facing hardships.

McDormand may have delivered her best performance with Nomadland. Forever associated as Marge Gunderson in Fargo (1996) she is unafraid to get down and dirty in her role. As for Fern, she has a nude scene and a scene sitting on the toilet. She also has various close-up scenes appearing tired, worried, or otherwise bleak. She wears no makeup. It’s a testament to McDormand’s craft and artistic ability to appear this way.

I admire her tremendously.

While McDormand carries the film, others must be mentioned for their terrific work. David Strathairn who has been around forever is one of those character actors who always deliver great work. As a potential love interest for Fern, he is patient and admiring even offering to have her move in with him and his family. A gorgeous house awaits her but she prefers to be on the road and alone.

The non-actors make the film as rich and lovely as can be with their tales of truth, struggle, and desire. Swankie is a seventy-five-year-old woman dying of cancer. She wants nothing to do with hospitals or treatment but wants to live her remaining months in peace and tranquility among the wildlife in Alaska. She does just that, leaving the world on her own terms.

When Fern learns that Swankie has died, she and the other nomads pay tribute to her life. The greatness of Nomadland is that it shows a sense of community and family amongst a group of people who otherwise are dismissed or forgotten. It’s reminiscent of what the exceptional Boogie Nights (1997) did with the porn industry. It humanizes them when many dehumanize them, and it’s lovely to watch.

In a teary scene, Fern opens up to Bob, a nomad leader, about her loving relationship with her late husband, and Bob shares the story of his adult son’s recent suicide. Bob espouses the view that goodbyes are not final in the nomad community as its members always promise to see each other again down the road.

What a poignant statement.

Nomadland (2021) inspires those who just want to do their own thing and be independent spirits. The film says that it’s okay to be your own person and I take that to heart. Be true to yourself and good things will come. Well, at least you’ll have self-dignity and a soul.

The film contains exceptional acting, directing, editing, and cinematography. It could be perceived by some as a downer but I found it quite uplifting and inspirational.

I always say a great film will leave you thinking about it and I’m still thinking about Nomadland.

Oscar Nominations: Best Picture (won), Best Director-Chloé Zhao (won), Best Actress-Frances McDormand (won), Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Cinematography (won), Best Film Editing

Independent Spirit Award Nominations: Best Feature (won), Best Director-Chloé Zhao (won), Best Female Lead-Frances McDormand, Best Cinematography (won), Best Editing (won)

Rabbit Hole-2010

Rabbit Hole-2010

Director-John Cameron Mitchell

Starring-Nicole Kidman, Aaron Eckhart

Scott’s Review #1,115

Reviewed February 23, 2021

Grade: A

Rabbit Hole (2010) is a raw and brutal film. I say that with major praise because it’s also a great film with much humanity and pathos. The dreariness of the film makes one relate to and empathize with the characters and perhaps recall a loved one who has died. It’s truly brilliant if the viewer can withstand the sadness. I was able to tolerate the tone and immerse myself in it.

Thankfully, there are snippets of humor to offset the heavy drama.

Every film is not meant to be feel-good and enjoyable but they all should conjure emotions and Rabbit Hole succeeds in spades.

Yes, it’s a downer given the topic of the day is the loss of a four-year-old child but it’s a tragedy worth enduring to experience the powerful acting from its stars. It’s a gem because it shows how people deal with and recover from loss if there even is a way to cope with and live and feel again without destroying oneself.

Eight months after the accidental death of their son, Howie (Aaron Eckhart) and Becca (Nicole Kidman) struggle to overcome their grief. He wants to hold on to everything that reminds him of Danny, while she would rather sell their home, relocate, and make a fresh start. Trauma and conflict begin to appear in the relationship as Howie bonds with a member of his therapy group and Becca reaches out to a teenage boy with telling facial scars.

The drama is based on David Lindsay-Abaire’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play of the same name and the film version has the look and feel of a stage production.

Not much is shown before Danny’s death. I love this because it asks that I use imagination. The cleverness is that Danny was not killed by a drunk driver or a speeding car. It was an accident and this point feels genuine.

The pain is watching a once-loving couple crumble from the weight of the devastation they have been dealt. Neither parent is to blame but do they blame each other? Do they resent each other because each reminds the other of Danny’s death?

A pivotal and necessary story point is watching Becca and Howie become drawn to other people, some of them surprising. Becca bonds with the teenage driver of the car that killed Danny. Howie nearly is drawn into a lurid affair with Gabby (Sandra Oh) whom he connects with at group therapy. Is it healthier for Becca and Howie to go their separate ways? Do they stand a chance?

Most can ask themselves the same question as to their partners if faced with devastating qualities. How does one pick up the pieces alone let as part of a couple?

Kidman is breathtaking in her ability to generate the emotions she does. She was recognized with an Academy Award nomination. Terrific, but Aaron Eckhard, forever an underappreciated actor missed out on a nomination. This is a shame because he is just as good as Kidman. Together, they are flawless, building and playing off the emotions and feelings of the other.

A film about grief, Rabbit Hole (2010) bravely tells the story of how an incident can ravage not only a relationship but our inner being turning us into someone we don’t know. This is a terrifying thought and the stellar acting and pacing only make us feel the pain others can suffer.

Oscar Nominations: Best Actress-Nicole Kidman

Portrait of a Lady on Fire-2019

Portrait of a Lady on Fire-2019

Director-Céline Sciamma

Starring-Noémie Merlant, Adèle Haenel

Scott’s Review #1,114

Reviewed February 19, 2021

Grade: A-

A film with tremendous artistry and a cool LGBTQ+ vibe, gay director Céline Sciamma interestingly deliver the goods with Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019). She takes modern-looking actors and transplants them to the era of France during the late 18th century. The film tells the story of a forbidden affair between an aristocrat and a painter commissioned to paint her portrait.

The viewer will ask themselves the following questions. What would become of two young gay women in this long-ago age? How many people repressed their true feelings and desires because of the times they lived in? Would their different classes and backgrounds cause strife within their burgeoning relationship? I know I constantly asked myself these questions.

To those with limited cinematic patience be forewarned. A Portrait of a Lady on Fire is very slow and plodding. I didn’t mind this aspect but some might. The payoff is not bombastic in an act of violence or an explosion sort of way but it’s well worth the effort put in.

In a common approach in modern film that is feeling more standard than special, the first scene actually postdates the events in the rest of the film so that we sort of know-how events will turn out. But we do not know the how’s and the why’s. It is immediately assumed that one character has suffered some loss or misfortune related to a painting.

Painter, Marianne (Noémie Merlant) is summoned to a remote island inhabited by very few people. She is commissioned to paint the wedding portrait of Héloïse (Adèle Haene) who is destined to be married to a nobleman in Milan, Italy. Héloïse is depressed and despondent, wanting nothing to do with her intended whom she has not met. The portrait is a gift to the never-seen husband-to-be. It is revealed that Héloïse’s sister leaped to her death from the cliffs on the family estate so it’s suggested throughout that she may suffer the same fate.

Needless to say, Marianne and Héloïse fall madly in love.

Their love is hardly ever a question as the chemistry is immediately noticed. Sciamma, who wrote the screenplay, avoids stereotypes that would give away the sexuality of the main characters. They are not butch nor do they possess masculine qualities. In fact, we wonder if they are bisexual? They never struggle with their sexuality, a dramatic cliche in other LGBTQ+ films.

I adore this because it makes the love story more powerful rather than one character pursuing the conflicted other.

As brilliant and artistic as I found Portrait of a Lady on Fire to be there are a couple of unexplained or unclear aspects. I am not even sure how they relate to the main story.

Waifish housemaid Sophie has an abortion with assistance from Marianne and Héloïse. Later, the three go to a bonfire gathering where women sing, during which Héloïse’s dress briefly catches fire (just as shown in the painting featured in the beginning). When Sophie is having the abortion there is an infant and child nearby. Are they her children? Who are the women who sing?

I didn’t understand the point of these items.

Fortunately, these missteps can be forgiven for the grander piece is amazing filmmaking. The final shot of Héloïse sitting in a theater is phenomenal and clearly borrowed from Call Me By Your Name (2017) which featured an identical scene. The camera focuses on the face of actress Haene as she emits many emotions during the flawless scene. What a win for an actor!

Despite some side story flaws, I adored Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019). The film is exceptionally shot and almost all shots could be portraits in their own right. Especially lovely are the beach sequences as when Marianne and Héloïse first ignite the flames of their passion. My takeaway is that it tells the story of fate but doesn’t feel like a downer. Rather, it feels like life.

Independent Spirit Award Nominations: Best International Film

Wild Strawberries-1957

Wild Strawberries-1957

Director-Ingmar Bergman

Starring-Victor Sjostrom, Bibi Andersson

Scott’s Review #1,111

Reviewed February 10, 2021

Grade: A

A seventy-eight-year-old man (Victor Sjostrom) reflects on life, loss, and a million other emotions as he ponders his inevitable death in the Ingmar Bergman masterpiece Wild Strawberries (1957). The film has a melancholy tone and forces the viewer to put themselves in the shoes of the old man and wonder how senior citizens view death. One great point is it represents the geriatric demographic, which has traditionally been sorely lacking in cinema.

It’s cerebral and reminds me in a peculiar way of A Christmas Carol in the way an old man ruminates over his forgotten and sometimes misbegotten youth.

Bergman creates genius on par with his most famous work The Seventh Seal also released in 1957. I’d list these two films as his very best and most inspiring.

Do older people fear death?  Do they whimsically revisit their youth from time to time or do they live with regret and unfulfilled desire? My hunch is that it’s probably a bit of all. Wild Strawberries made me think like the old man and the effect was powerful, making me worry and fear my own death and relive my glory days.

Isak Borg (Sjostrom) begins to reflect on his life after he decides to take a road trip from his home in Stockholm to the distant town of Lund to receive a special award. Along the way, a string of encounters causes him to experience hallucinations that expose his insecurities and fears. He realizes that the choices he’s made have rendered his life meaningless, or so he perceives it.

He is accompanied by his daughter-in-law Marianne (Ingrid Thulin) who doesn’t like Isak too much, is pregnant, and plans to leave her husband. They meet a trio of friendly hitchhikers led by Sara (Bibi Andersson) who reminds Isak of the love of his youth. A bickering couple reminds him of his unhappy marriage, while his elderly mother reminds him of himself.

The best part of the film is when the group stops at Isak’s childhood seaside home and imagines his sweetheart Sara, with whom he remembered gathering strawberries, but who instead married his brother. Anyone who has returned to their own childhood home or neighborhood can easily relate to the powerful memories that are served. I pretended I was in Isak’s character and several emotions occurred.

Sjostrom is incredibly good and infuses a natural range of emotions. At first crotchety and distant I grew to admire his sentimentality as he fondly recalls innocently picking strawberries on a summer day. How glorious and innocent to reminisce in an act so mundane yet monumental. An old man, he was once young. How quickly the years go by. I took this as a lesson to appreciate each day and experience. Sjostrom had me mesmerized.

Some find Izak unsympathetic but I disagree. I found him incredibly likable.

Relationships are a strong element of Wild Strawberries. Izak muses over past loves, but also his mother, daughter-in-law, housekeeper, and hitchhikers. Peculiar is his relationship with his housekeeper, Agda, played stunningly well by Julian Kindahl. Are they secret lovers or platonic friends? They seem like husband and wife.

While the story is astounding, the visual qualities of Wild Strawberries are amazing. For starters, the video content is crisp and clear with very bright black and white photography. Each shot is mesmerizing and reminiscent of paintings.

To that end, there is so much going on in Wild Strawberries if one looks closely enough. The closest adjectives to describe the experience are hallucinogenic and mesmerizing. The group of people gathered over a meal was young, fresh, and carefree. They all have a life ahead of them and almost every viewer can recount a time where he or she felt that way. It’s both nostalgic and sad to realize it doesn’t last as Bergman makes so painfully evident.

The scene where Isak witnesses a hearse approaching is terrifying. When he realizes it is himself lying in the casket it’s enough to give one a chill. It’s creepy and powerful in tone and affects.

Wild Strawberries (1957)  possesses many facets of the human experience. Sorrow, joy, depression, acceptance, frustration, and fulfillment. This is a work of genius and is highly recommended to anyone who appreciates great experiences in cinema.

Oscar Nominations: Best Original Screenplay

Mank-2020

Mank-2020

Director-David Fincher

Starring-Gary Oldman, Amanda Seyfried, Tom Pelphrey

Scott’s Review #1,110

Reviewed February 9, 2021

Grade: A

Everyone knows that Citizen Kane (1941) is one of the greatest films ever made. Well, I hope so anyway. Almost always appearing at the top of ‘best of’ lists its merits are justified and creativity astounding. In a word it’s groundbreaking. The visual beauty, tone, and lighting are exceptional, to say the least. But this review is not meant to kiss the ass of that treasured masterpiece.

Mank (2020) is a film that is a love letter to the Golden Age of Hollywood. For those unfamiliar with Citizen Kane, please see the film immediately or the beauty of Mank will be missed.

The film celebrates the brilliance of Citizen Kane by offering new fans a glimpse into the creation of the film while breathing life into the 1930s and 1940s film for new and younger fans to experience. It also gives classic film fans something to sink their teeth into and reaffirmation of their passion for the cinema. Film lovers will adore Mank.

The project stems back to the 1990s when director David Fincher’s father, Jack, began work on the film. It never came to fruition, and Jack Fincher died in 2003. Eventually, the project was officially announced, and filming took place around Los Angeles from November 2019 to February 2020.

The film is about Citizen Kane specifically but is so much more than that. It’s part biography about alcoholic screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman) as he scrambles to finish writing Citizen Kane given a tight deadline while also trying to recover from a broken leg. He is hired by the famous Orson Welles (director and star of Citizen Kane) to pen the script without any credit.

As terrific as Oldman is, as he always is, Mank also explores and dissects the politics of California of that time, the impending Nazi regime that soon led to World War II, and the rich and powerful producers. It harkens back to the 1930s so genuinely that I felt I was living this important decade through my cinematic eyes. How different Hollywood was then!

Oldman is the star of a large cast with many actors being given small yet important roles. Nearly unrecognizable with a bloated beer belly and stringy hair, Herman is a lifelong boozer. Mank spans ten years, from 1930 to 1940, and going back in forth between the years. Mankiewicz dictated dialogue to his secretary, Rita (Lily Collins) in one scene while visiting the set of films made in the early 1930s.

Fun fact- Collins is the daughter of British pop artist Phil Collins and is on the cusp of a big career.

With his wit and humor, never afraid to call a spade a spade, or insult billionaire American businessman William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance), he offends glamorous starlets over an extravagant dinner, forcing them to depart one by one as he gets drunker and drunker.

Never a big fan of Amanda Seyfried’s, the actress impresses with a fabulous performance, the best of her career. Playing Marion Davies, the inspiration for a character in Citizen Kane, she befriends Mankiewicz platonically, and the pair become close. Seyfried nails it with a giving performance. Tom Pelphrey plays Herman’s handsome brother, Joseph, on the cusp of becoming a famous writer and director and the actor is terrific.

The look of Mank is delicious. The black and white cinematography offers an homage to Citizen Kane with the stark use of dark and light contrasting each other in gorgeous form. Two great scenes come to mind- In 1933 Herman and Marion go for a stroll in a lavish courtyard, where they bond over discussions on politics and the film industry. It’s a benevolent and sweet scene where many topics are explored and embraced and is a definite ode to Hollywood.

The other takes place within the Hearst Mansion, directly before the aforementioned scene, where a drunken Herman lets loose on some of the Hollywood elite. He insults Louis B. Mayer, founder of the famous MGM studios, the most famous and influential of all studios.

A gem is the addition of so many historic Hollywood figures, a treasure chest for fans of old cinema. Joan Crawford, Great Garbo, and Bette Davis are featured, although if you blink you’ll miss them.

A wonderful suggestion is to work double-time and follow-up a viewing of Mank with Citizen Kane (I did!) for further appreciation of the film. A gift is realizing how the characters who appear in the classic film are based on real-life characters in Mankiewicz’s world.

Mank (2020) should be appreciated and revered for its lovely hybrid of crisp dialogue and wry comedy based on a real-life Hollywood director, and its cinematography and visual appreciation of a long-ago era of cinema. I hope this inspires some to appreciate and salivate over films created almost a hundred years ago.

Oscar Nominations: Best Picture, Best Director-David Fincher, Best Actor-Gary Oldman, Best Supporting Actress-Amanda Seyfried, Best Production Design (won), Best Cinematography (won), Best Costume Design, Best Makeup and Hairstyling, Best Original Score, Best Sound

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom-2020

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom-2020

Director-George C. Wolfe

Starring-Viola Davis, Chadwick Boseman

Scott’s Review #1,107

Reviewed February 3, 2021

Grade: A-

Viola Davis and the late Chadwick Boseman lead tremendous performances in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (2020), a film fueled by exceptional acting. The production is shot like a play and is based on one written by August Wilson. He also wrote Fences, turned into a film in 2017, which also starred the terrific Davis.

As wonderful as Davis is amid a bruhaha of hype over how powerful her performance is, it’s an ensemble event that makes Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom a memorable experience.

Ruben Santiago-Hudson adapts a fast-paced screenplay with quick dialogue, long scenes, and a startling turn of events. The action takes place over the course of one day, similar to other Wilson works, which adds a robust and powerful strength as the situations unfold. The time period and the racial aspects are key to the crackling dialogue.

Most of the cast is black and it’s 1927 so how can the work not be about race? In clever and heartbreaking form, much of the racism is internalized pitting black versus black instead of the standard white versus black.

Despite the wonderful singing and acting this point hit home the most with me and was the most uniquely palpable. It’s bad enough when black people, or any other minority group, faces hatred and resentment from other people, but when it’s one of your own this is bitter and hard to watch.

The conflict and fury escalate to a vicious climax as one character lashes out in deadly form ruining more than just their own life. It has a spiraling effect that utilizes the claustrophobic rehearsal hall where these scenes take place as a backdrop.

There are two different stories taking place here and both are superb.

Ma Rainey (Davis) is a superstar, being female and black, her victory is achieving that success, to begin with, against insurmountable odds. We only imagine this because the film doesn’t go into her back story too much- they don’t need to. Her struggle is obvious and we can only imagine how she was able to manage to get so far in her career. Was she able to capitalize on her success with her voice alone?

Ma is immensely talented and angry. She is pouty and tough as nails with her white producers, who have invited her to Chicago to record an album. She knows they want one thing from her and that’s money-making profits from her talent.

She demands a Coke before she will perform. She smirks as the producers scurry to fulfill her request, not daring to show too much irritation that will cause her to cancel the session and return to the South. Is she a diva? Well, yes, but shouldn’t she be? If she were gracious people would walk all over her?

We learn she would easily be arrested for causing a stir in the streets if not for her manager, Irvin (Jeremy Shamos) schooling the police on who she is.

Davis, who can play any role handed to her is brilliant. Ma is brazen, tough, but releases emotion when she belts out her tunes.

Though Davis is the star, Ma is almost a supporting player against the robust and juicy other plot occurring among the male cast, one floor below. Boseman is flawless as the trumpeter in her band, Levee Green. His humor masks a wave of anger and cynicism lurking beneath that slowly builds as he feels jealous and cheated by the older members of Ma’s band.

Colman Domingo and Glynn Turmann are fantastic, adding stability and wisdom in supporting roles. Their characters try to teach the younger Levee that being a black man also represents stoicism, a calm demeanor, and wisdom.

From a diversity and inclusion perspective, the film features Ma’s bi-sexual girlfriend Dussie Mae (Taylour Paige), and nephew Sylvester (Dusan Brown) who stutters. This offers LGBTQ+ and disability inclusion.

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (2020) is a film that celebrates fearlessness, determination, and the ugliness and frustration of inner turmoil within one’s own race. It also features gorgeous and emotional songs from the roaring 1920s and top-notch acting performances.

Oscar Nominations: Best Actor-Chadwick Boseman, Best Actress-Viola Davis, Best Production Design, Best Costume Design (won), Best Makeup and Hairstyling (won)

Independent Spirit Award Nominations: Best Feature, Best Female Lead-Viola Davis, Best Male Lead-Chadwick Boseman, Best Supporting Male-Colman Domingo, Glynn Turmann