Tag Archives: Drama films

The Sand Pebbles-1966

The Sand Pebbles-1966

Director-Robert Wise

Starring Steve McQueen, Candice Bergen, Richard Attenborough

Scott’s Review #1,257

Reviewed May 18, 2022

Grade: A-

The 1950s and 1960s can collectively be defined as the two decades representing the grandiose film epic, which are instantly recognizable cinematic sprawling, lengthy efforts and frequently encompassing a time.

The Sand Pebbles (1966) safely falls into this category especially because it’s a war film and one minute shy of a three-hour extravaganza.

The film was a critical and commercial success at the time of release and received several Academy Award nominations (see more below) but is not remembered as well as one might expect despite being a fantastic watch.

There is something that makes the film fly somewhere under the radar and I’m not sure why that is. It might be that an anti-war message film was not as common as it would become. In 1966 there had only just begun to be a United States movement questioning the government and war in general.

It wasn’t cool nor acceptable yet.

Robert Anderson adapted the screenplay from the 1962 novel of the same name by Richard McKenna which I understand is very similar.

Robert Wise, famous for directing the very memorable The Sound of Music just one year prior in 1965 and the legendary West Side Story in 1961 is at the helm resulting in a superior direction, especially in the exterior sequences and the lush, oceanic sequences.

Star, Steve McQueen was at the height of popularity when this film was made which undoubtedly helped get butts in the seats to drool over the blue-eyed actor in his Navy attire.

The Sand Pebbles has a heavier touch and promotes an anti-war viewpoint from its main character. Therefore, it has a good solid message to go with the expected aspects of a war film. It’s not dissimilar to The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) made nearly a decade earlier.

Not lost on the viewer will be the Asian locales and the parallels with the controversial Vietnam conflict happening at the time.

We go back to 1926 when the USS San Pablo was patrolling the Yangtze River during the clashes between Chiang Kai-shek’s communists and Chinese warlords.

Eight-year veteran machinist Jake Holman (McQueen), new to the self-named “sand pebbles” crew, immediately draws deep suspicion due to his independent streak.

Ordered to protect Americans, including schoolteacher Shirley Eckhart (Candice Bergen), Jake and the gunboat crew is unwittingly drawn into a bitter nationalistic feud that holds grim consequences.

Besides his unforgettable turn in The Getaway in 1972, the role is McQueen’s finest and I’m not the biggest fan of his nor feel he is the greatest actor.

But, in The Sand Pebbles, he has tremendous material to work with and hits all cylinders throughout. The character is rootable and relatable to the audience.

The film also presents a fascinating look at Navy life with the camaraderie and depth of the supporting characters. There is comedy and drama and the additions of Richard Attenborough and Richard Crenna are stellar.

Naturally, Bergen is the romantic love interest for McQueen as Shirley and Jake have fledging feelings for each other.

Though the film ends abruptly there is enough pain, death, and confusion to leave the viewer thinking afterward and that is always an aspect of the film that I champion.

The Sand Pebbles (1966) is an underrated production that simmers beneath some other classics from the same decade but is a terrific watch for many reasons. It has an old-world feel despite being extremely timely representing a forage into the dangerous early 1970s history still to come.

Oscar Nominations: Best Picture, Best Actor-Steve McQueen, Best Supporting Actor-Mako, Best Art Direction-Color, Best Cinematography-Color, Best Film Editing, Best Original Music Score, Best Sound

The Queen-2006

The Queen-2006

Director-Stephen Frears

Starring Helen Mirren, Michael Sheen

Scott’s Review #1,253

Reviewed May 8, 2022

Grade: A

Before the Netflix series, The Crown (2016-2023), loudly stomped into existence and took the world on a historical journey through the trials and tribulations of British royalty there was The Queen (2006).

Starring Helen Mirren, the film is a quiet telling of the life and times of Queen Elizabeth II, especially immediately after the death of Princess Diana and the conflict and contention that took place.

Ironically, The Crown is created and primarily written by Peter Morgan, who also wrote The Queen. He created The Crown because of The Queen so there is an instant correlation between the two brilliant projects and the handwriting is very similar.

Stephen Frears, who also directed Judi Dench to an Oscar nomination for Philomena (2013) is at the helm and won himself an Oscar nomination for directing as well as scoring a win for Mirren.

The Queen is a terrific film across the board and Mirren is phenomenal in her portrayal of the grand dame. She cleverly fuses a stiffness and stoicism with subtle warmth and humanity few see from the queen, at least publicly. Layers of complexity are provided to an already mysterious public figure.

Following the death of Princess Diana in a fiery auto accident, Great Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II (Mirren) and Prime Minister Tony Blair (Michael Sheen) struggle to reach a compromise on how the royal family should publicly respond to the tragedy.

In the balance is the family’s need for privacy and the public’s demand for an outward show of mourning. This causes mayhem and drama behind the sacred walls of Buckingham Palace.

The acting of Mirren and the direction are what make The Queen pure magic and a standout among the many royalty-themed films to emerge since the beginning of motion pictures.

First of all, Mirren looks like the part of Queen Elizabeth II and this goes way beyond wearing glasses and a sweater or having the same hairdo. She encompasses the role and this is no small feat.

The mannerisms, the speech patterns, and the lowkey attitude are the amazing nuances that the actress is somehow able to channel.

It feels more than simply Mirren dressing up like royalty and showing up scene after scene. She does something much more with the unspoken looks and inner workings of the queen that become apparent to the viewer.

Frears chooses to include many closeups of characters, mainly of Mirren, which only encircle what each character is thinking and pondering.

The film is very subdued with a lovely musical score adding texture and appeal to each frame. The inclusion of archival footage is powerful realism.

Merely nine years after the real-life death of the uber-popular Diana the event was still so fresh in the minds of viewers that releasing The Queen at this time was a stroke of genius.

It’s no secret that while Queen Elizabeth II is respected she is worlds away from wildly popular Diana and emits a coolness that baffles the public.

Thanks to Mirren, the public gets a glimpse into the heart and soul of a mysterious person and that’s a good feeling indeed.

However, Mirren couldn’t have delivered fully if not for the talents of Michael Sheen as Prime Minister Tony Blair. Generations apart and with differing views they spar and respect each other, slowly forging a friendship of sorts.

The Queen (2006) hardly needs bombs, bombast, or quick editing to get its point across, though speaking of editing, a fantastic job of it with family scenes of Diana. The film lures the viewer into its web and makes them feel like an insider amongst the walls of royalty.

Oscar Nominations: Best Picture, Best Director-Stephen Frears, Best Actress-Helen Mirren (won), Best Original Screenplay, Best Costume Design, Best Original Score

Spartacus-1960

Spartacus-1960

Director-Stanley Kubrick

Starring Kirk Douglas, Laurence Olivier, Jean Simmons

Scott’s Review #1,250

Reviewed April 30, 2022

Grade: A

Typically, when influential director Stanley Kubrick’s name is uttered, films such as The Shining (1980), 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), and Barry Lyndon (1975) are immediately thought of, and for obvious reasons.

The haunting, moody musical score, the long camera shots, the dark humor, and the clever camera tricks are easy to pinpoint.

Rewinding to 1960, the director was brought in to grab the reigns and direct the gorgeous epic, Spartacus, after Hollywood star Kirk Russell had unceremoniously fired the first director.

None of the previously mentioned elements are easy for me to notice and are more or less absent, but a grand battle scene in a luscious green field is very reminiscent of Barry Lyndon. This is likely because Spartacus was not Kubrick’s film entirely instead belonging to others with more clout.

Throwing out the director issues, Spartacus is a brilliant film for many reasons. Some epics suffer from a hokey, cliched feel and can be overwrought, predictable, and tired.

The rebellious Thracian Spartacus (Russell), born and raised a slave, is sold to Gladiator trainer Batiatus (Ustinov). After training to kill for the arena, Spartacus turns on his owners and leads the other slaves in rebellion.

As the rebels move from town to town, their numbers increase as escaped slaves join their ranks. Under the leadership of Spartacus, they make their way to southern Italy, where they intend to cross the sea and return to their homes.

Spartacus is grand, sweeping, cinematically great, and everything else you’d expect from a 1960s Hollywood epic with enormous stars of its day. Looking beneath the surface, the film is riddled with interesting tidbits like bisexuality, homoeroticism, and violence more in tune with an art film or modern war film than the safety of a film made during this time.

Particularly noteworthy is that Dalton Trumbo wrote the screenplay. One of the Hollywood Ten, he refused to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1947 during the committee’s investigation of alleged Communist influences in the motion picture industry.

After the release of Spartacus, it marked the beginning of the end of the Hollywood Blacklist for Trumbo and other affected screenwriters.

Thank goodness.

In a famous scene, recaptured slaves are asked to identify Spartacus in exchange for leniency; instead, each slave proclaims himself to be Spartacus, thus sharing his fate.

The suggestion is that this scene was meant to dramatize the solidarity of those accused of being Communist sympathizers during the McCarthy era.

Besides the political importance, Spartacus also showcases a beautiful romance between Spartacus (Russell) and Varinia (Jean Simmons), a gorgeous slave girl. The tenderness and authenticity are palpable as many of their early scenes involve no dialogue but only longing and expression through both actors’ eyes.

I celebrated the connection between the actors who are at the forefront of much romance. Russell carries the film with a calm, masculinity that easily makes him heroic and likable.

He is the charismatic good guy who has been wronged and ill-fated.

A sequence oozing with machismo and homoeroticism occurs when evil Crassus (Olivier) is bathed by his slave boy Antoninus (Tony Curtis). He seductively explains that while sometimes he prefers snails, he also likes oysters too. The implication is that he is bisexual, brazenly so, and expects the youngster to become his sex slave.

The warmth of the bathtub and the luxurious atmosphere is juxtapositioned against the proximity and touch of both male characters.

In 1960, this scene was way ahead of its time.

The conclusion of Spartacus is melancholy and surprising. The expectation might have been to happily see Spartacus and Varinia ride off into the sunset having bested the cruelty of Rome.

This doesn’t happen and the film is all the richer for it. There is pain and despair as there were in real-life. Wisely sparing complete doom and gloom, the ending is satisfying as one major character is allowed to escape a deadly demise and conjure ahead with their life.

Spartacus (1960) is one of the greats. It has muscle, texture, and many below-the-surface nuances ripe for discussion. It’s a must-see for many reasons.

Oscar Nominations: Best Supporting Actor-Peter Ustinov (won), Best Art Direction-Color (won), Best Cinematography-Color (won), Best Costume Design-Color (won), Best Film Editing, Best Music Score of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture

Death on the Nile-2022

Death on the Nile-2022

Director-Kenneth Branagh

Starring Armie Hammer, Tom Bateman, Gal Gadot

Scott’s Review #1,245

Reviewed April 15, 2022

Grade: B+

Death on the Nile (2022) is a modern remake of the 1978 thriller of the same name which in turn is based on the famous 1937 novel by Agatha Christie, one of many stories the author wrote. I love a good whodunit and the fact that I already knew the outcome from seeing the original film did not lessen the entertainment and suspense that befell me.

It only made me salivate with anticipation about how the new incarnation would handle the inevitable big reveal during the final chapter of the film.

As the suspects are locked in a boat bar one character boldly announces that the murderer is in this room and will be unmasked.

Death on the Nile is a meat and potatoes offering peppered with glamour.

Similar to the remake of Murder on the Orient Express (2017) Hercule Poirot (Kenneth Branagh) is once again enshrouded by mysterious folks with money to burn and secrets to hide. One of them has murdered a wealthy young heiress with her own set of secrets and Poirot must quiz and entrap the perpetrators aboard a sailing vessel.

Or could there be more than one murderer?

The setting of mystical Egypt and the luminous Nile river in northern Africa puts the players amid gorgeous locales. This only enhances the juiciness and the appetite for a good, solid murder mystery.

Our hero’s lush Egyptian vacation aboard a glamorous river steamboat turns into a deadly search for a murderer when a picture-perfect couple’s idyllic honeymoon is cut short by killing one of them.

It turns out that almost everyone aboard has a reason to want her dead. Naturally.

Set against an epic landscape of sweeping desert vistas and the majestic Giza pyramids, Poirot peels back the onion of the lives of his fellow vacationers. He discovers jealousy and deceit as he gets to know the wealthy cosmopolitan travelers.

The trip includes the honeymooners, Simon and Linnet, played by Armie Hammer and Gal Gadot, Bouc (Tom Bateman), a long-time friend of Poirot’s, Euphemia (Anette Bening), a renowned painter and Bouc’s mother, Salome (Sophie Okonedo), a black jazz singer, and her niece Rosie (Letitia Wright), Linnet’s maid, Linnet’s godmother, and her companion, and a doctor who used to date Linnet.

It would seem as if all roads lead to Linnet, which it does since she is the character who suffers her fateful demise. What is key is that every character has a connection to her making the puzzle all the more intriguing and interesting to figure out.

Branagh, coming directly from his Oscar-winning film Belfast (2022) deserves the most credit because he not only stars in but directs the film as he did with Murder on the Orient Express. The screenplay is once again created by Michael Green. The consistency is very important and satisfying to the overall product and the two films can be watched back to back with ease.

There is trust that the anticipated enjoyment will be fulfilled and for me it was.

Death on the Nile is not high art but merely slick entertainment done quite well. There is much manipulation for the audience to endure and the setup of the potential suspects and the victim’s background are thrown directly into the viewer’s face.

This was welcomed.

I didn’t mind the implausibility of every character having reason to kill the heiress, nor did I mind a mystery character racing around the ship causing mayhem then changing into formal evening wear in less than thirty seconds flat.

The numerous plot devices are to be expected from a film like Death on the Nile and I happily and willingly fell for them hook, line, and sinker. The wealth of most of the characters is splendid intrigue and only adds to the enjoyment.

Considering the time is the 1930s a same-sex relationship and a brewing romance between the caucasian Poirot and the black Salome are fabulous additions.

Rumor has it, there will be another production of an Agatha Christie novel adaptation directed by and starring Branagh and I can’t wait for this. He has dusted off the old whodunit storyline and updated it with a spectacle about crimes of passion that feels fresh.

The result is a modernized Death on the Nile (2022) brimming with fun and pleasure while never taking itself too seriously.

House of Gucci-2021

House of Gucci-2021

Director-Ridley Scott

Starring Lady Gaga, Adam Driver, Jared Leto

Scott’s Review #1,244

Reviewed April 10, 2022

Grade: B+

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oscar Nominations: Best Makeup and Hairstyling

La Bamba-1987

La Bamba-1987

Director-Luis Valdez

Starring Lou Diamond Phillips, Esai Morales, Rosanna DeSoto

Scott’s Review #1,242

Reviewed April 3, 2022

Grade: A-

The brief musical career of Mexican rock ‘n’ roll star Richie Valens is showcased in a lovely little film called La Bamba (1987).

The film spawned a massive United States number one hit, the title track, for the band Los Lobos, that filled the summer with rich culture and a hummable beat. The song is a recreation of Valen’s earlier hit from 1958.

I’m humming it as a write this review!

The film itself is flavorful and tinged with Latino colors and traditions such as the importance of family. It provides a much-needed look at diversity and recognition of a young talent taken way too soon.

His rise to stardom is the main focus but not forgotten is his influence on his family, most notably his younger brother in which love, respect, jealousy, and conflict engulf their relationship.

Valens, a Los Angeles teenager played by Lou Diamond Phillips, becomes an overnight rock ‘n’ roll success in 1958, thanks to a love ballad called “Donna” that he wrote for his girlfriend (Danielle von Zerneck) whose parents didn’t want her to date a Latino boy.

But as his star rises, Valens has conflicts with his jealous brother, Bob (Esai Morales), and becomes haunted by a recurring nightmare of a plane crash, in which he is terrified of flying, just as he begins his first national tour alongside Buddy Holly (Marshall Crenshaw).

Foreshadowing indeed. It’s common knowledge that Valens tragically died in a plane crash over Iowa, alongside Holly and other prominent musicians.

Lou Diamond Phillips is fantastic in the lead role of Ritchie. The actor can entertain the audience while staying true to the life of the Mexican star. Not merely resembling him physically, Phillips brings Ritche’s famous life and energy to the table. Not lasting long in this world, the actor infuses as much soul as he can into the ill-fated singer successfully creating a dedication to his life.

The supporting actors are all terrific. Highly talented is Morales, his character of Bob is conflicted by his brother’s success but also closely bonded to him as well. As mama Connie, Rosanna DeSoto is fiercely protective of her cub while championing his career path and natural talent. Finally, Elizabeth Pena deserves praise for playing Rosie, the victimized girlfriend of Bob.

The interracial romance between Ritchie and Donna is also a strong area of La Bamba. Many decades after their short romance differing races coming together is commonplace but there are still those who object. The chemistry between Phillips and von Zerneck is palpable but mostly I imagined how nice it was between the real-life figures and the endless possibilities had the singer not perished.

Director and writer, Luis Valdez deserve credit for giving meaning to this relationship by making it obvious that other marginalized minority communities can be assured that most people support their unions.

La Bamba (1987) is a film where all the parts come together in perfect form. The music, the culture, the characters, all brim with life and meaning, ironically since the biography could have easily been a downer. Instead, it inspires and teaches unity and the forever-lasting power of music.

Yes, there are occasional cliches but I enjoyed the film immensely.

The Karate Kid-1984

The Karate Kid-1984

Director-John G. Avildsen

Starring Ralph Macchio, Pat Morita

Scott’s Review #1,241

Reviewed April 2, 2022

Grade: B+

The Karate Kid (1984) is a wholesome and predictable film from the commercial entrails that were the 1980’s cinema. With a clever marketing pitch about a bullied boy overcoming obstacles, the film is utterly predictable. But the warm message and chemistry between the two leads make the film work marvelously.

It’s a truthful film that showcases the power of friendship.

The film was a smash at the box office becoming one of Hollywood’s biggest sleeper summer hits of 1984, making the lead actor Ralph Macchio an enormous star and household name. It also successfully brought karate to American households spanning a  new trend and appreciation for Asian sport.

The film was followed by three tired sequels before the franchise finally ran out of steam. A re-launch emerged in 2010 with mixed results.

Daniel (Macchio) moves to Southern California with his mother, Lucille (Randee Heller), but quickly finds himself the target of a group of bullies who study karate at the Cobra Kai dojo. This heightens in severity when he becomes smitten with the ex-girlfriend (Elisabeth Shue) of the lead bully, Zabka (Johnny Lawrence) who vows revenge on Daniel.

Fortunately, Daniel befriends Mr. Miyagi (Noriyuki “Pat” Morita), a kindly repairman who is a martial arts master himself. Miyagi takes Daniel under his wing, training him in a more compassionate form of karate, and prepares him to compete against the brutal Cobra Kai.

The Karate Kid is very sweet but never too saccharin-laced and is easy to compare to Rocky (1976). In a clear example of manipulation and copycatting, Robert Mark Kamen, who wrote the screenplay, was instructed to write something similar to Rocky which won the Academy Award for Best Picture. Avildsen also directed that critically acclaimed film.

The result is Rocky-lite. The Karate Kid would be a great warm-up film before the headliner Rocky takes the screen.

The mission is to tell a story about an underdog rising to glory while staying true to himself. The Karate Kid is a product but is extremely likable and a fist-pumping good time. It’s not the sort of film one necessarily needs to see repeatedly nor will it be studied in film school.

The main reason that The Karate Kid works is because of the chemistry and connection between Macchio and Morita. The latter is terrific casting since Morita was usually known for comedic roles but works against type in his memorable role. His character is kind and humble and impossible not to fall in love with. As a mentor, he coaches Daniel with valuable and truthful life lessons.

Macchio surprisingly carries the film. Handsome and charismatic, he also represents to the audience anyone who has ever felt like an outsider or different from everyone else. He’s the boy next door but with an ethnic overtone. He is clearly different and therefore unliked by some.

The elements that don’t work as well are the traditional love triangle, hardly a triangle because one of the three is the villain, and the stereotypical nature of the bully gang. Shue plays her part well but the romance between Ali and Daniel is the supporting act to the fight scenes which inevitably show up mostly towards the end of the film.

The finale is one very familiar in sports-type films because it’s all too obvious how events will play out. Surprisingly though, it’s a satisfying payoff as every character wins out, even the villainous Johnny. Though he is soundly defeated, he learns a lesson from Daniel and comes to respect him. So, he repents.

It’s a powerful message that stayed with me and made me appreciate the approach to valued storytelling.

Safe and sturdy for a PG audience, The Karate Kid (1984) may feel dated and flounder for modern audiences but the message remains poignant and fresh. Hard work, determination, and respect equal success and satisfaction.

This may be a point easy to ridicule and pick apart but the film works well.

Oscar Nominations: Best Supporting Actor-Pat Morita

King Richard-2021

King Richard-2021

Director-Reinaldo Marcus Green

Starring Will Smith, Aunjanue Ellis

Scott’s Review #1,238

Reviewed March 13, 2022

Grade: B+

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

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

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

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

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

Time will tell.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Eyes of Tammy Faye-2021

The Eyes of Tammy Faye-2021

Director-Michael Showalter

Starring Jessica Chastain, Andrew Garfield

Scott’s Review #1,233

Reviewed February 26, 2022

Grade: A-

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

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

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

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

It is Chastain’s best role yet.

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

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

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

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

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

This is the point where the film takes off.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Lost Daughter-2021

The Lost Daughter-2021

Director-Maggie Gyllenhaal

Starring-Olivia Colman, Dakota Johnson

Scott’s Review #1,232

Reviewed February 21, 2022

Grade: A

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Splendor in the Grass-1961

Splendor in the Grass-1961

Director-Elia Kazan

Starring-Natalie Wood, Warren Beatty, Pat Hingle

Scott’s Review #1,231

Reviewed February 20, 2022

Grade: A-

Splendor in the Grass (1961) is mainly a film about teenage angst but the angst spills over to the adults as pressures are heaved on many characters. Fortunes are gained and lost following the Wall Street Crash of 1929 that handicapped some characters obsessed with money while the teenage characters battle emotions.

It offers poetic relics and references from English poet, William Wordsworth about life and longing for love that can be thought about.

The film is written by William Inge, who also wrote 1955’s Picnic, and is directed by Elia Kazan, famous for A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) and On The Waterfront (1954). Splendor in the Grass is an uneasy watch but provides slices of the brilliance that those other films have.

Isn’t the point of the superior film to make us think and ponder?

At the risk of feeling a tad dated some sixty years later how powerful a film it must have been in 1961 and sending inevitable shock waves to those audiences expecting a more wholesome show.

It’s also legendary Hollywood actor Warren Beatty’s film debut and showcases an emotionally superb performance from Natalie Wood.

Bud Stamper (Warren Beatty) and his high school sweetheart, Deanie Loomis (Natalie Wood) have an innocently blossoming relationship but if only they could be left alone. It is weighed down by their parents’ mutual oppressiveness.

Bud’s father, Ace (a terrific Pat Hingle), is hell-bent on Bud attending Yale University in the fall and is afraid of Deanie becoming pregnant and ruining the bright future expected from the affluent young man.

Deanie’s mother (Audrey Christie) cautions her daughter from engaging in sexual relations and remaining a ‘good girl’ because she is frightened of Bud not marrying a girl with questionable morals.

The meddling by both parents causes the teens emotional pressure and threatens not just to ruin their relationship but perhaps ruin their futures. Bud’s mother is complacent and Deanie’s father offers proper support to his daughter.

There is a lot of story going on in Splendor in the Grass and all of it is juicy and relevant from whomever’s perspective the viewer takes. This is part of the beauty of the film- told through the eyes of Bud and Deanie and the fragile feelings teenagers possess, their parents can be dissected as well and wanting the very best for their kids.

The romance is not just about Bud and Deanie. Other players and potential love interests are introduced and we begin to wonder if Bud and Deanie will ride off into the sunset together.

Inge and Kazan make us pose several questions. Do people who belong together make it? Do some people settle for different lives based on sacrifice? Can heartbreak lead to madness and a different perspective for some?

The terrific screenplay written by Inge is the film’s sweet spot. It’s complex and fraught with emotion and questions. The setting of remote Kansas in the late 1920s gave me a feeling of stifling predictability and one’s lives already planned for them rather than encouragement to reach for the stars.

This is dangerous territory in itself.

Bud is expected to get an education but all he really wants is to live on a simple ranch and be a family man. Deanie is trained to be sweet and kind and to resist the pleasures of the flesh like her mother did but is that enough for Deanie?

The great writing is brought to life by Kazan, a master at offering brutal yet realistic films. Based on knowledge of his other films I knew I was not in for a cheery experience but the rather harsh reality. That sits well with me as films that make one think are celebrated by me.

Splendor in the Grass (1961) is similar to Rebel Without a Cause (1955) and also stars Wood. The film teaches me that although generations come and go the feelings and emotions felt by young people in the moments that they are young never change.

Oscar Nominations: Best Actress-Natalie Wood, Best Original Screenplay (won)

Carlito’s Way-1993

Carlito’s Way-1993

Director-Brian De Palma

Starring-Al Pacino, Sean Penn, Penelope Ann Miller

Scott’s Review #1,224

Reviewed January 29, 2022

Grade: B

Brian De Palma would be firmly planted in my Top 10 favorite directors of all time- maybe even the Top 5. His daring and juicy Dressed to Kill (1980), and horrific Carrie (1976) is still visually mesmerizing to me.

Carlito’s Way (1993) takes De Palma into New York mobster territory similar in vein to his 1983 disappointment Scarface (1983). Both star Al Pacino.

The latter is set in Miami while the former offers many reminders of its New York City setting like street signs and other exterior trimmings of the Big Apple, especially in Spanish Harlem. Sequences also occur on Long Island, New York, and Rikers Island prison.

The film is based on two like novels written in the 1970s when the events in the film are supposed to be set. This doesn’t work as well as you might think but more about that later.

Carlito’s Way itself is a solid mobster film that borrows from many others including Scarface, The Godfather (1972), and Goodfellas (1990). If I were to take ten mobster films it might get lost somewhere in the middle.

But it’s still an above-average watch and sprinkles pleasant De Palma familiarities like slow-motion dreamlike sequences and a terrific chase through the subway and Grand Central Station that will bring a smile to Dressed to Kill fans.

It’s just not one of the best Brian De Palma films nor one of the best mobster films.

Released on a technicality after years in prison, Carlito Brigante (Pacino) swears to give up his criminal ways, but it’s not long before the ex-con is sucked back into the New York City underworld thanks to his shady lawyer and friend Dave Kleinfeld (Sean Penn).

All he wants to do is save enough money to leave town and retire in paradise.

Carlito reconnects with his aspiring actress/dancer girlfriend, Gail (Penelope Ann Miller) while young and dangerous gangster Benny Blanco (John Leguizamo) plots revenge on Carlito and Kleinfeld after being slighted.

Kleinfeld has also stolen money from a dangerous convict so that’s an added stressor for both him and Carlito.

The time is very odd. It’s supposed to be the 1970s as the musical score suggests as disco party music blasts during club scenes. The clothes and hairstyles somewhat align but there is a strange 1980s feel which is even stranger given the film was shot in the 1990s.

The chemistry between Pacino and Miller is okay but nothing terrific either although it grows during the film. At first, I wondered what they saw in one another but was slowly won over by the pair. By the end, I was rooting for them to ride off into paradise together.

The best part of Carlito’s Way is the final thirty minutes or so. On the run from the bad guys, Carlito and Gail decide to meet on a late-night train bound for Florida. There, they will forget their troubles and live happily ever after on the beach.

Oh, and by the way, Gail is now pregnant.

De Palma, as he usually does, creates a dazzling climax. I was mesmerized by the cat and mouse chase scenes and what Grand Central looked like in the early 1990s when the film was shot. And there’s also the terrific running from subway car to subway car chase scene just like in Dressed to Kill.

As an aside, Pacino who is Italian is playing a Puerto Rican character. One character comments that Carlito could almost pass for an Italian. Given Pacino’s heritage in the very Italian Godfather films, this is an anecdote that made me chuckle.

Penn and Pacino give it their all and craft unusual characters, especially Penn, and it’s a delight seeing great actors play off of one another.

Carlito’s Way (1993) has some hits and some misses and borrows heavily from similar films including De Palma’s films. This too often makes it become a comparison film rather than containing its own identity.

Passing-2021

Passing-2021

Director-Rebecca Hall

Starring-Tessa Thompson, Ruth Negga

Scott’s Review #1,222

Reviewed January 22, 2022

Grade: A

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

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

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

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

Passing is a film about race but so much more.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s a scary realization.

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

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

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

The Accidental Tourist-1988

The Accidental Tourist-1988

Director-Lawrence Kasdan

Starring-William Hurt, Kathleen Turner, Geena Davis

Scott’s Review #1,215

Reviewed January 1, 2022

Grade: B+

Reuniting stars William Hurt and Kathleen Turner from 1981’s smoldering Body Heat, director Lawrence Kasdan creates a triangle of sorts with the addition of Geena Davis in The Accidental Tourist (1988). She brings a quirky character to the fold in a film about death, tragedy, and a disintegrating marriage.

Despite the subject matter, it’s not a downer at all but rather a romantic drama brimming with rich characters and relatable situations. There are laugh-out-loud moments and there are tender moments all about the human spirit and choices we must make.

It’s an above-average flick that received several Oscar nominations and feels patterned after a Woody Allen-style film. I didn’t necessarily relate to any of the characters nor need to see the film a second time but I respect that Kasdan creates a picture not needing car chases or gratuitous violence or nudity.

The Accidental Tourist is a quiet film about life. It is based on the 1985 novel of the same name written by Anne Tyler.

When their young son is suddenly murdered, the marriage between Macon (Hurt) and his wife Sarah (Turner) flounders, and she moves out. After an accident puts him on crutches, Macon goes to stay with his quirky siblings at the family home, where he meets the high-spirited Muriel (Geena Davis).

She is a dog trainer with a young son of her own. Macon develops a slow friendship with them that surprisingly blossoms into more with Muriel. When Sarah learns about the situation, she attempts a reconciliation with Macon who is forced to make a painful decision.

The intention feels like we, the audience, are supposed to root for Macon and Muriel to get together and not feel much sympathy for Sarah but I did. After all, she is the one ultimately ditched and there is nothing like a woman scorned.

I didn’t feel like there was even much of a triangle because the film is centered around Hurt’s character and the choices Macon must face. It’s about how he deals with change and the unexpected turns of events that life can throw at anybody. Sarah and Muriel must also deal with the same choices and life circumstances but the focus is more on Macon.

The viewer will likely immerse themselves in these characters as they think about their own life and trials and tribulations that have occurred.

Though I never read the novel I suspect it is a tad better than the film which limits the amount of time to explore the characters. Novels always have more time to delve deeper.

With that said I got a fair share of backstory about Macon, Muriel, and Sarah but didn’t gravitate to any of them over the others.

Regarding the earlier note about The Accidental Tourist being like a Woody Allen film, it has an upbeat, quirky tone that masks much of the heartbreak Macon suffers from with some added comedy. When Muriel hops a flight to Paris to follow her heart and Macon it’s something a character in an Allen film would do.

Since Macon is a writer of travel guides the film contains rich flavor for culture and tourism which is pleasing. London and Paris are the central locales and Kadan does a great job at the international stuff.

A tad long and dragging at times The Accidental Tourist (1988) has enough juiciness to keep any viewer attracted to well-written screenplays about emotional characters and the ups and downs of life satisfied.

Oscar Nominations: Best Picture, Best Supporting Actress-Geena Davis (won), Best Screenplay-Based on Material from Another Medium, Best Original Score

Licorice Pizza-2021

Licorice Pizza-2021

Director-Paul Thomas Anderson

Starring-Alana Haim, Cooper Hoffman

Scott’s Review #1,213

Reviewed December 27, 2021

Grade: A

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I wish more films of this ilk were made.

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

Respect-2021

Respect-2021

Director-Liesl Tommy

Starring Jennifer Hudson, Forest Whitaker, Marlon Wayans

Scott’s Review #1,208

Reviewed December 17, 2021

Grade: B-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

West Side Story-2021

West Side Story-2021

Director-Steven Spielberg

Starring-Ansel Elgort, Rachel Zegler, Ariana DeBose

Scott’s Review #1,207

Reviewed December 12, 2021

Grade: A

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

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

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

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

Hooray!

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

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

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

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

How timely and how much needed this film is.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It certainly reminded me.

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

Belfast-2021

Belfast-2021

Director-Kenneth Branagh

Starring-Jamie Dornan, Caitríona Balfe, Jude Hill

Scott’s Review #1,202

Reviewed November 28, 2021

Grade: A-

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

This is nothing but strategic marketing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He is a progressive man trapped in a traditional world.

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

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

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

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

The Power of the Dog-2021

The Power of the Dog-2021

Director-Jane Campion

Starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Kirsten Dunst, Jesse Plemons

Scott’s Review #1,199

Reviewed November 21, 2021

Grade: A

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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 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?