Tag Archives: Drama films

Belfast-2021

Belfast-2021

Director-Kenneth Branagh

Starring-Jamie Dornan, Caitríona Balfe, Jude Hill

Scott’s Review #1,202

Reviewed November 28, 2021

Grade: A-

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

This is nothing but strategic marketing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He is a progressive man trapped in a traditional world.

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

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

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

The Power of the Dog-2021

The Power of the Dog-2021

Director-Jane Campion

Starring-Benedict Cumberbatch, Kirsten Dunst, Jesse Plemons

Scott’s Review #1,199

Reviewed November 21, 2021

Grade: A

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gandhi-1982

Gandhi-1982

Director-Richard Attenborough

Starring Ben Kingsley

Scott’s Review #1,189

Reviewed October 30, 2021

Grade: A

Ben Kingsley delivers an astonishing performance as Mahatma Gandhi,  the steady-handed lawyer who stood up against British rule in India and became an international symbol of nonviolence and peaceful understanding until his tragic assassination in 1948.

Entitled simply Gandhi (1982) the film is directed by Richard Attenborough who has created masculine offerings such as The Great Escape (1963) and The Sand Pebbles (1966) before. Calmly, the director creates a grandiose epic but one that is thought-provoking and introspective in its humility.

I was incredibly affected by this picture.

As beautiful as the cinematography and other such trimmings are the message is what stands out to me most. One man’s spirit and thirst for fairness and human equality are beyond inspiring decades after the film was made. Thanks to Kingsley, the biography infuses an infectious channeling of what being a human being is all about and how human decency is the desired goal.

The film belongs to Kingsley. Despite hosting a cast of literally thousands he is the only name worth mentioning. He is that superior.

Attenborough, who teams with screenwriter John Briley presents major events in the life of Mohandas Gandhi (Kingsley). The film starts suddenly in January 1948, when an elderly Gandhi is on his way to an evening prayer service and shot point-blank in the chest in front of a large number of dumbfounded greeters and admirers. His state funeral is shown, the procession attended by millions of people from all walks of life, with a radio reporter speaking beautifully about Gandhi’s world-changing life and projects.

The film then returns to decades earlier when Gandhi, a young man, has a violent and racist experience. He vows to dedicate himself to the concept of nonviolent resistance. Initially dismissed, Gandhi is eventually internationally renowned, and his gatherings of passive protest move India towards independence.

Gandhi has been criticized for its extraordinary length with a running time of three hours and ten minutes. A suggestion is to watch the film in multiple sittings though the best-recommended approach would be to see it on the big screen. Unfortunately, I didn’t but fantasize about the massive sequences and how gorgeous they would appear at the cinema.

The story, acting, production, and pretty much everything else about Gandhi is a ravishing spectacle.

It’s worth its weight to sit back and watch Kingsley completely immerse himself in the role. The actor deservedly won the Best Actor Academy Award and despite his oodles of other film roles are best remembered for this one. I’m half surprised that it didn’t typecast him since he is so identifiable in the role.

I’d like to mention two aspects that some might not notice as much as others but that is simply astounding. The cinematography of the deserts, towns, and cities of India is plush with detail and accuracy. If one cannot go on a trip to India the next best thing is to watch this film instead. You’ll get a good dose of realism.

South Africa is also featured.

The costumes brilliantly showcase Indian flair and culture so well that I felt that I had been to the interesting country at the time that the film portrayed the events and felt nestled amid the luxurious colors and good taste.

Post-1982, the film genre of the epic exists rarely if ever anymore. Long gone are the days of brilliance like Gone With the Wind (1939) or Lawrence of Arabia (1962) which are truly a delight to simply lay one’s eyes on. Gandhi deserves to be appreciated as much as those other films despite being released in less than an artistic decade in cinema.

Gandhi (1982) is a wonderfully tragic film and leaves the viewer feeling sad but also inspired to carry the torch picked up by one brave man. A history lesson it’s also as much a lesson in humanity and the courageous fight that one man fought. Military power is not the way to achieve changing the world.

Oscar Nominations: Best Picture (won), Best Director-Richard Attenborough (won), Best Actor-Ben Kingsley (won), Best Screenplay-Written Directly for the Screen (won), Best Art Direction, Best Cinematography (won), Best Costume Design (won), Best Film Editing (won), Best Makeup, Best Original Score, Best Sound

Half Nelson-2006

Half Nelson-2006

Director-Ryan Fleck

Starring-Ryan Gosling, Shareeka Epps

Scott’s Review #1,184

Reviewed October 8, 2021

Grade: B+

Half Nelson (2006) is an independent drama that showcases Ryan Gosling’s acting talent and forays into meatier, more mature roles. He was only twenty-five years old when he made the film but was growing into a mature actor which is part of the fun of watching it.

Its New York City locale presents a gritty and seedy essence appropriate for the subject matter. Speaking of, the seriousness and potential creep factor may turn some viewers off, but true cinema fans and admirers of good stories will appreciate the film.

The taboo dynamic of a thirteen-year-old student and her drug-addicted teacher is not for everyone and many will not even dare to go there. But, the payoff is worth the initial squirming.

Especially forewarned are those seeking a romantic or action film from Gosling as they will surely be disappointed. This is a more cerebral and artful effort.

The film garnered Gosling his first Academy Award nomination. A very deserved one.

Dan Dunne (Gosling) is a young history teacher at a Brooklyn, New York school. Though he is highly regarded and well-liked by his students and colleagues, he secretly spends his evenings hopping bars and getting high. He lives a double life.

One night a shy female student named Drey (Shareeka Epps) catches him in a drug-induced haze after a basketball game and the two strike up an unlikely friendship. As Dan struggles with his addiction, he tries to act as a mentor to the girl, whose brother is serving time for dealing drugs.

It’s easy to dismiss a film like Half Nelson because of the uneasy premise. But below that resides a sweet and kind story about two human beings bonding over their lives in crisis. Too much negativity exists these days among teachers so it is reassuring to see a film where the student and teacher bond amid the most unlikely circumstances.

Gosling and Epps are both spectacular. They give their all as an unlikely pair, he an idealistic and she a girl trapped in ghetto life. The connection between the characters is palpable especially given the role reversal that occurs. They slowly become forever bonded and the reaction is fresh, layered with genuine emotion. And who’s the teacher and who’s the student?

As terrific as they are together, they each have their own story. I loved learning more about Dan’s wrecked love life but I still wanted to know why he escaped to drugs in the first place.

Drey has enormous challenges of her own and is pressured to go down the same rabbit hole as many in similar circumstances have done. She is savvy enough to know if she does it will lead to an unhappy life but will she go there anyway?

Even if a viewer never sets foot into an undesirable area, they will nonetheless be able to put themselves there for the duration of the film.

I love the ending of the film.

Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, a filmmaking duo mostly known for independent features churn out terrific and subdued work. Half Nelson feels authentic with grainy and shakey filmmaking that makes the viewer feel as if he or she is an observer in the lives of Dan and Drey and part of their world.

A serene but not a simple film, Half Nelson (2006) teaches many valuable lessons. Perseverance, unlikely friendships, mixed with two separate character studies, the film has a lot going on but never overcomplicated itself. I longed for more about Dan’s descent into drug use but the rest of the experience is fantastic.

Oscar Nominations: Best Actor-Ryan Gosling

Independent Spirit Award Nominations: Best Feature, Best Director-Ryan Fleck, Best Male Lead-Ryan Gosling (won), Best Female Lead-Shareeka Epps, Best First Screenplay

Minari-2020

Minari-2020

Director-Lee Isaac Chung

Starring-Steven Yeun, Han Ye-ri, Youn-Yuh Jung

Scott’s Review #1,181

Reviewed September 24, 2021

Grade: A-

I proudly champion a film like Minari (2020) for further bringing Asian actors and directors into the Hollywood mainstream with a truthful story. They have slowly (and it’s about time!) begun to reap the riches from the Academy Awards and other such honors. Parasite (2019) and to a lesser degree Crazy Rich Asians (2018) helped propel respectability to the Asian film community.

With that said, I expected Minari to be a masterpiece, and instead, it is simply a very good film. That’s a tough statement for me to make. Undoubtedly, it was heavily helped by the progress I have mentioned above.

This is to take nothing away from its cast and wonderful director, Lee Isaac Chung.

I found the film sentimental and heartwarming but only during one scene did it ever feel dangerous or edgy.

Of strong interest to me is the fact that the film is a semi-autobiographical take on Chung’s upbringing, but is it a fantasized version?

The plot follows a family of South Korean immigrants who try to make it in the rural United States during the 1980s. Specifically, the year is 1983 in the southern state of Arkansas where the family sticks out like sore thumbs amid the suffocating summer heat.

Chung, who writes and directs the piece, provides a tender look at the ties that bind- family. The Yi’s are a Korean-American family that moves from California to invest in a crummy plot of land and their own American Dream. Jacob and Monica (Yeun and Han) are reduced to taking even crummier jobs sexing chicks at a local factory.

The family home changes completely with the arrival of their scheming, foul-mouthed, but incredibly loving grandmother Soon-Ja played by Yuh-Jung.

Amidst the instability and challenges of this new life in the rugged Ozarks, Minari shows the undeniable resilience of family and what really makes a home. The Yi’s are resilient through the constant bickering of Jacob and Monica, Soon-JA’s stroke, bad water, and the burning of their shed which stores their goods.

The story is all well and good, and it is good, but I desired more. I blame this on the heaps of praise put on Minari and the number of Top 10 lists it appeared on.

For example, hearing the premise I couldn’t help but wonder what discrimination the Yi’s would inevitably face down in the deep south. But they faced none. In one soft scene, the young Yi boy, David, played exceptionally by Alan Kim is asked by a local kid why his face is flat. They quickly become best friends.

Another ally and Jacob’s farming partner is played by Will Patton. He is a Korean War veteran and a bit nutty yet he adores Jacob and the rest of the Yi’s and harbors no ill-will towards them. I expected him to despise them because of the war. This would have been more realistic.

The southern characters are written as nice as pie and always ready to lend a helping hand. This is all fine and good but is it realistic?

The casting is outstanding and brings the dialogue to reality. Yeun and Han bring their A-games in more than one vicious fight scene where their words crackle with intensity leaving them teetering on the verge of divorce. Yeun was recognized during awards season but Han was sadly overlooked.

Soon-Ja mixes humor with drama and will leave many viewers bawling with her facial expressions and terrific acting during the final sequence. Her performance deservedly led her to a Supporting Actress Oscar win.

In fact, the finale felt so incredibly raw and real to me whereas the rest felt sentimental that based on this alone it caused me to raise its grade from a B+ to an A-.

Beautiful landscape and brilliant acting make Minari (2020) a fine experience. It teeters too close to formula at times but offers freshness and representation for a group only starting to receive their recognition.

Oscar Nominations: Best Picture, Best Director-Lee Isaac Chung, Best Actor-Steven Yeung, Best Supporting Actress-Youn Yuh-Jung (won), Best Original Screenplay, Best Original Score

Independent Spirit Award Nominations: Best Feature, Best Director-Lee Isaac Chung, Best Male Lead-Steven Yeung, Best Supporting Female-Youn Yuh-Jung (won), Han Ye-ri, Best Screenplay

First Cow-2020

First Cow-2020

Director-Kelly Reichardt

Starring-John Magaro, Orion Lee

Scott’s Review # 1,180

Reviewed September 22, 2021

Grade: A

Despite the slow-moving pace First Cow (2020) is a tremendous effort by director Kelly Reichardt in which she also co-writes along with her usual writing partner, Jonathan Raymond.

To merely say the film is slow-moving is criminal. I mean it is slow-moving, so much so that I confess to guiltily sneaking a few peeks at my phone and I try to never do that. But the time invested results in a moving and engaging experience with patience.

Brimming with geographical authenticity (most of Reichardt’s films and Raymond’s novels are set in the Pacific Northwest, USA) the outdoors and forest scenes are aplenty.

First Cow is also a feast for the foodie in all of us as rich and creamy aspects of cooking, baking, and tasting, are all featured in a delicious form. More about that later.

But the real victory is the chemistry between the two male leads, John Magaro and Orion Lee. The unlikely friends and subsequent business partners provide a rich exterior brimming with sub texture and questions about their sexuality.

Sadly, the film doesn’t go there at all and I’m not sure why, but my mind certainly did. I kept waiting for an answer to whether their union was strictly platonic or otherwise but alas my curiosity was never even remotely satisfied.

Despite this miss (in my opinion anyway), First Cow is a wonderful film rich in human emotion that provides a tale of kindness and connection that lasts until the conclusion. As is the trend in cinema these days, the beginning reveals the ending.

The year is 1820. Otis “Cookie” Figowitz (Magaro) is a lonely cook who has traveled west and joined a group of fur trappers in the Oregon Territory. He aspires to find his fortune in San Francisco, California. The trappers do not treat him particularly well.

One night he meets and saves the life of a Chinese immigrant named King-Lu (Lee) also seeking his fortune in California. They become fast friends and soon begin to collaborate on a successful business, although its longevity is dependent upon the participation of a wealthy British landowner’s prized milking cow unbeknownst to the landowner.

As the duo forge a successful and tasty local business their biscuits nearly have the local townspeople eating from Cookie’s and Lu’s hands. A blueberry French clafoutis takes center stage during one scene and deserves description. It is a baked French dessert of fruit, traditionally black cherries, arranged in a buttered dish and covered with a thick flan-like batter. The clafoutis is dusted with powdered sugar and served lukewarm, sometimes with cream.

Yum! I could almost taste it from the screen.

I hate to shatter the otherwise innocent texture of the film and the sweet image of two adult men having an inseparable connection but I simply cannot help myself! As the men lie in a tent together and glance over at each other they nearly have a Brokeback Mountain (2005) moment.

I half-expected Lu to flip Cookie over and ravage his body but this was not to be. Instead, the touching, tender, original, entrancing, and quiet relationship is never defined as anything other than two buddies with sincerity and mystique.

But, maybe that’s the point?

I adore that Reinhardt and Raymond do not pepper their characters with any false machismo or fake guy behavior to ensure the audience knows they are straight right away. Instead, both men are sensitive, thoughtful, and intellectual. How refreshing with masculine male characters.

Questions about the extent of their relationship continued to gnaw at me especially during the final scene when they lie down next to each other in the grass. And never was a mention of a woman ever muttered.

Otherwise, the gorgeous (4×3) cinematography is evident throughout the film as the men spend much of their time by the campfire or plowing their way through forest brush. Tremendous, peaceful scenes are non-stop. I was shocked that the film didn’t achieve an Oscar nomination in this category.

First Cow (2020) was met with tremendous support and accolades which will hopefully encourage those who are fans of thinking man’s films to see it. It sure made me see it.

Independent Spirit Award Nominations: Best Feature, Best Director-Kelly Reinhardt, Best Supporting Male-Orion Lee

On the Beach-1959

On the Beach-1959

Director-Stanley Kramer

Starring-Gregory Peck, Ava Gardner

Scott’s Review #1,179

Reviewed September 19, 2021

Grade: A-

On the Beach (1959) is a film that showcases a grim subject matter but remains relevant considering the period in which it was made. The Cold War-era kept most people on edge with the threat of nuclear war as they rolled into the 1960s. The lavishness of the 1950s turned into a more distrustful time as countries gained modern technological advances making nuclear weapons a real possibility.

At the time the film was not met with much praise or popularity. Certainly, people were content in their cinematic bubbles of nice and comforting films that largely emerged during the 1950s but On the Beach is a fantastic discovery decades later.

I suppose people expected a sweeping epic romantic adventure but what they received was a harsher tale. But, it’s not nearly as dark as it could have been.

The black and white cinematography is highly effective at relaying a cold and stark world that is left for the film’s characters. Another success is that the film is set in the future, 1964 to be exact while the film was made in 1959.

The film is hardly a downer and while the subject matter of nuclear disaster and devastation sounds heavy there is as much romance as there is social storytelling. The said romance between Peck and Gardner is effective and the best part of the film experience.

As the story begins, we learn that World War III has already occurred, leaving Australia as the only remaining safe place for survivors. However, wind currents carrying lingering radiation are headed their way condemning those on the continent to certain death.

When the survivors receive a strange signal from San Diego, California, Commander Dwight Towers (Peck) must undertake a mission with Lieutenant Peter Holmes (Anthony Perkins) to see if there is hope for humanity. They leave behind Moira (Gardner) and Mary (Donna Anderson), the women they love.

Director, Stanley Kramer knows his way around a message movie. He also directed the racially important Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner starring Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn in 1967.

The romances between Dwight, Moira, Peter, and Mary are my favorite aspects of the film. Dwight has lost his wife and two children so out of loneliness falls for Moira, who has never married and has no one. Their soon-to-be doomed romance is fraught with complications as they cling to each other ever so tenderly knowing their time is limited.

Peter and Mary, on the other hand, are married with an infant young daughter. A major conflict the couple deals with is whether to take suicide pills rather than get sick and die a slow and painful death.

There is enough chemistry between Peck and Gardner to keep the viewer engaged and it’s tough to watch Perkins, a known gay man, play a macho father figure with a newborn for some reason. It’s also hard not to see Norman Bates from Psycho (1960). I half-expected Peter to attack Mary in the shower with a butcher knife.

Still, the acting is very good.

On the Beach states a powerful message in its conclusion. Ultimately, within just a few days of the shifting winds bringing the toxins to Australia, the last pockets of humanity are dead. The empty, windblown streets of Melbourne are filled with dramatic, music over a single powerful image of a previously seen Salvation Army street banner that reads “There is still time .. Brother”.

Indeed, there is.

This leaves the viewer pondering his or her fate and the terrible dangers of nuclear war. Decades later, On the Beach (1959) still frightens and still teaches about the ravages of world conflict and the plea for a peaceful society.

Oscar Nominations: Best Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture, Best Film Editing

If…-1968

If…-1968

Director-Lindsay Anderson

Starring-Malcolm McDowell

Scott’s Review #1,178

Reviewed September 18, 2021

Grade: A

Malcolm McDowell fascinates me. The mere construction of his facial features astounds me, with his crystal blue eyes and sullen smirk it’s tough to tell what he is thinking. He stars in If… (1968), a satire of the student experience amid a strict upper-class English public school. It’s McDowell’s film debut which is worth noting.

McDowell, always associated with A Clockwork Orange (1971) first and foremost made several great films in just a few years.

The film follows a group of fed-up pupils, led by Mick Travis (McDowell) who ultimately stage a bloody insurrection at a boys’ boarding school. But is it real or imagined by Mick?

Mick is conflicted when he is caught between the sadistic older boys known as the Whips and the lowly first-year students, affectionately known as Scum, who are forced to do their bidding. He and his two henchmen, Johnny (David Wood) and Wallace (Richard Warwick) rebel by exhibiting thefts and defiant behavior causing the ire of both the Whips and the school’s out-of-touch administration.

This conflict leads to an unexpected and bloody showdown.

If… was the subject of controversy in 1968 at the time of its release, receiving an X rating for its depictions of violence against school administration and grown-ups. The specific year was a juicy one in cinema as the more edgy and creative fare was being produced in anticipation of the 1970s.

I champion the film and director Lindsay Anderson for having the balls to make a film of this nature sure to piss off and shock the education system and those who simply don’t get what the film is expressing.

One wonders if English rock band Pink Floyd found inspiration in If… while creating their legendary song ‘Another Brick in the Wall’ from 1979.

The Whips are clearly the villains and the school administrators are portrayed as complacent or incompetent so the finale is quite satisfying from a viewer’s perspective. One will never forget the image of Mick fiendishly standing on a rooftop brandishing a gun and firing determinedly. His other cohorts join in the action to celebrate graduation ceremonies. For them, it’s a delightful moment since all the parents and family members are in attendance.

It’s only a film but I can’t help but wonder how differently the film is perceived by an audience in the post-Columbine era, a vicious school shooting that occurred in the United States, an incident that led to rashes of similar events.

To clarify, since Anderson made a follow-up film to If… with O Lucky Man! in 1973 and starring McDowell as the same character, we can rest easier in the knowledge that the events in If… are purely the imagination of Mick.

It’s a satire.

And what schoolboy or schoolgirl hasn’t fantasized at how delicious it would be to give bullies or other bastards their just deserts for making their lives miserable?

Another takeaway I got from If… is that it doesn’t have to draw the line at being about a prep school at all? Mick and his friends question conformity and rules. Why can’t the viewer do the same in the workplace or with life itself?

I’ve seen the film twice and can never account for the inexplicable changes from color to black and white in various scenes. Anderson claims that this was done for budget reasons but others have done a deeper dive and hypothesized that the color versus black and white has more to do with fantasy. Whatever the reason it successfully offers a surrealistic measure.

If… (1968) is a wonderful film that is open to interpretation and much open dialogue after viewing it. Isn’t that what cinema is all about? A discussion of the merits and conclusion of a particular film?

Show Boat-1951

Show Boat-1951

Director-George Sidney

Starring-Ava Gardner, Robert Sterling, Kathryn Grayson

Scott’s Review #1,177

Reviewed September 14, 2021

Grade: A-

Show Boat (1951) is a liberal-slanted musical centering around racism. It mixes comedy and drama well while remembering it is meant to entertain audiences. But it never loses sight of the important message it’s portraying.

Ava Gardner, who stars, never looked more beautiful.

The picture is based on the 1927 stage musical of the same name by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II, and the 1926 novel by Edna Ferber. The vibrant colors and sentimental songs combined with a very southern flair make it a winner.

In fact, Kern and Hammerstein provide the score for this adaptation of their Broadway hit which adds oodles of authenticity.

My favorite song is the devastatingly poignant and haunting tune, “Ol’ Man River” which is reprised at the end of Show Boat.

Julie LaVerne (Gardner) and Steve Baker (Sterling) are successfully married entertainers who are forced to leave the showboat Cotton Blossom when it becomes known that Julie is of mixed race. Meanwhile, the captain’s daughter Magnolia (Kathryn Grayson) and gambler Gaylord Ravenal (Howard Keel) take over the act, fall in love, marry and leave the boat for Chicago.

There, they live off his gambling earnings, which dry up fast. The ending of the film is not happy.

I love the tone of the film. It is a very big budget production and it shows. Each number is belted out with gusto at the risk of feeling too uptight or stagey but regardless I fell for it hook, line, and sinker. The grandness of the numbers was what got me and never so evident is it with Julie’s big number “Bill”, a very emotional song.

Her other famous number, “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man” isn’t so bad either.

In a perfect world the powers that be would have cast a black actress for authenticity’s sake. Someone like Dorothy Dandridge comes to mind and as wonderful as Gardner is this point gnawed at me throughout. The actress is clearly caucasian though it could almost be the belief that she is of mixed race.

Nonetheless, Gardner also doesn’t sing her own songs. Instead, they are sung by Annette Warren. I’m betting this is why she didn’t receive an Oscar nomination.

But, Show Boat isn’t all about Gardner. Showcasing a spectacular cast of black and white actors leads like Grayson and Keel are fabulous. I cared about their character’s trials and tribulations the most and ruminated how much I found Grayson to resemble legendary Judy Garland.

Supporting players like William Warfield as Joe simply must be mentioned. His rendition of “Ol’ Man River” moved me. A bass-baritone singer and actor he makes the number quite simply and by far the best moment, both musically and pictorially, in the film.

I could watch this scene on replay.

And Agnes Moorehead as Parthy Hawks or the resident bitch provides delicious comedy, intended or unintended.

Some are critical that the 1936 film version is superior and provides a grittier feel and I am conscious of that. I’ve never seen it but the 1951 version does have that Technicolor grandness. Maybe I’ll check it out for a one-day comparison.

For now, for a slice of southern flavored showboatin’ check out Show Boat (1951). With a summery flavor, dancing, and superior photography, it is a good old time.

Oscar Nominations: Best Cinematography, Color, Best Music, Scoring of a Musical Picture

Judas and the Black Messiah-2021

Judas and the Black Messiah-2021

Director-Shaka King

Starring-Daniel Kaluuya, Lakeith Stanfield, Jesse Plemons

Scott’s Review #1,176

Reviewed September 9, 2021

Grade: B+

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

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

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

But, I wanted more. Much more.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We’ll probably never know.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

L’Avventura-1960

L’Avventura-1960

Director-Michelangelo Antonioni

Starring-Gabriele Ferzetti, Monica Vitti

Scott’s Review #1,167

Reviewed July 30, 2021

Grade: A

L’Avventura (1960) has a lot in common with the horror masterpiece Psycho (1960), released the same year, although they couldn’t be more opposite on the surface. One is an American horror film by an esteemed British director and the other an Italian art film. What could they possibly have in common?

Forgetting that the former is not at all a horror film, L’Avventura first introduces a character that the audience is certain to be the main character only to pull a switcheroo midstream and make other characters the central protagonists. Think what Janet Leighs Marion Crane was in Psycho to John Garvin and Vera Miles, Sam Loomis and Lila Crane.

Be that as it may, as an interesting if not completely odd comparison, L’Avventura is a brilliant film and not just for the story alone. Black and white cinematography of the grandest kind transplants the film viewer to a fabulous yet haunting island where a good portion of the events occur. Frequent shots of the gorgeous Mediterranean Sea and its roaring waves pepper the action.

In Michelangelo Antonioni’s classic of Italian cinema, two beautiful young women, Claudia (Monica Vitti) and Anna (Léa Massari) join Anna’s lover, Sandro (Gabriele Ferzetti), on a boat trip to a remote volcanic island. They plan to spend their time cruising, resting, and relaxing on the Mediterranean. The trio is all good-looking and resides on the outskirts of Rome. They join two wealthy couples and depart on their excursion,

When Anna suddenly goes missing on an island stop, an extensive search is launched. In the meantime, Sandro and Claudia become involved in a romance despite Anna’s disappearance, though the relationship suffers from the guilt and tension brought about by the looming mystery. Their relationship is intriguing based on the roller coaster emotions they face. Their burgeoning romance and Anna’s disappearance overlap.

Assumed to be the focal point of the film Anna eventually serves as more of a ghost character and quickly disappears from the screen. This though me for a loop.

Events do not remain on the island but return to the Italian mainland where Sandro and Claudia continue with their guilt finally becoming convinced Anna might have actually returned!

The brilliant and ambitious thing about L’Avventura is that the film changes course many times. On the surface, it appears a film about a missing girl and friends attempts to locate her. But Antonioni delves into a film about emotions and the meaning of life making the audience go deeper along with the characters.

Eventually, Sandro and Claudia chase a ghost of their own design and plod along unhappy and unfulfilled suffering paranoia.

L’Avventura is all about the characters and the cinematography and each immerses well with the other. Many characters exchange glances with each other that the audience can read into. What was the relationship between Sandro and Claudia before the cruise, if any? What is the back story of Anna and Sandro? And what’s become of Anna? Did she run off and drown or was she murdered?

The camerawork is just stunning, each shot a lovely escapade into another world. Particularly, the yacht cruise and the island sequences are astounding. I love how the characters explore different sections of the island instead of dully standing on the shore or otherwise similar types of shots.

As the title says the point of the film is of adventure and both physical and cerebral adventure.

L’Avventura (1960) is a film that will make you think, ponder, escape, and discuss the true meaning of the film. Isn’t that what great art cinema does? Antonioni also made me consider comparisons to another great art film creator- the Swedish director Ingmar Bergman.

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 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 sexuality. He has spent his life 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. 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 are 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