Tag Archives: Independent films

Frayed-2009

Frayed-2009

Director-Rob Portmann, Norbert Caoili

Starring Aaron Blakely, Alena Dashiell, Tony Doupe

Scott’s Review #1,270

Reviewed June 24, 2022

Grade: A

As I began to watch Frayed (2009) the last thing I expected was to be as riveted as I was. I was enthralled, glued to my seat, frightened, and left completely floored by what I had experienced.

In the best of ways possible.

Things didn’t bode well at first since the previews on our rented DVD screamed low-budget and cheesy with sub-standard acting and ridiculously cheap production.

I expected a by-the-numbers, cliche-riddled Halloween (1978) style rip-off. Some thirty years after that film was made didn’t exactly scream relevant.

Maybe somebody’s experimental film school project?

I’ll add that with an astounding five credited screenwriters (rarely a good sign) the outcome could have easily been a muddled mess.

Expectations were shot through the ceiling only increasing with pleasure as the film went along. There are a couple of slow pockets here and there but the last fifteen minutes or so spiral Frayed out of control and into a fantastic new dimension in twists and turns.

Just when I thought I had things figured out and was satisfied with the surprise twist that wasn’t too hard to figure out, there appeared another twist, and yet another, and finally another twist!

I felt like I had done a series of summer saults and was breath taken by the film and left to ponder, consider, and reconstruct the storyline.

Sheriff Pat Baker (Tony Doupe) has led a life of tragedy. When his young son Kurt brutally murders his mother at sister Sara’s (Alena Dashiell) fifth birthday party the boy is left catatonic in a mental asylum.

Thirteen years later, Kurt escapes during a transfer and wanders the nearby woods dressed as a masked clown, chasing a security guard and stalking Sara and her friends. Baker and the team must capture the escapee before he wreaks more havoc.

But since the killer is his son is Pat too invested?

In ways, Frayed is a classic slasher film and a throwback to the 1980s. Sara and her best friend sneak out of the house to meet their boyfriends for beer and sex in the middle of the woods amid a campfire. Sara and her father and stepmother live in a small, remote town.

What better setting for a crazed killer on the loose with bloodletting on his mind?

These are standard setups for dire events.

But Sara, played well by Alena Dashiell isn’t your typical ‘final girl. She drinks a bit and has sex on her mind while remaining strong and careful.

The opening scene is a doozy.

In a flashback, we see Kurt’s mother enter his bedroom and scold him for teasing the birthday girl. She forgets she has a camcorder on and is quickly bashed to death with a baseball bat. The camera viewpoint is from the floor so all we see is the mother’s head repeatedly beaten.

It’s gory and sickening and led to the film being banned in more than one country.

Director, Rob Portmann, who co-wrote the film will not appeal to the faint of heart with this scene though the gore is left to a minimum throughout the rest.

There is so much more to this film than gore.

In retrospect, aspects of Frayed are like a puzzle. Why is the security guard the focus as much as Sara? Why does Pat’s new wife look like his dead wife? Why is a team softball photo constantly shown?

Frayed might warrant a second or third viewing to see how well it holds up.

Surprisingly, the acting is quite good by most of the cast and made on a small budget. Professionalism is laid out, especially by Blakely and Doupe and all the players give compelling performances and are given rich character development.

It’s a shame that Frayed did not garner more notice because the film is fiendish, terrific, and satisfying. Given it’s 2022 and it was made in 2007, and released in 2009 its time may have passed.

Frayed (2009) will please fans who love good old-fashioned slasher flicks and who love a good twist or three or four.

Borrowing from previous films but with an identity as fine as The Sixth Sense (1999) it’s to be remembered in the best of ways.

Young Adult-2011

Young Adult-2011

Director-Jason Reitman 

Starring Charlize Theron, Patrick Wilson, Patton Oswalt

Scott’s Review #1,267

Reviewed June 17, 2022

Grade: A-

I am a big fan of Jason Reitman films.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I Love You Phillip Morris-2009

I Love You Phillip Morris-2009

Director-John Requa, Glenn Ficarra

Starring Jim Carey, Ewan McGregor

Scott’s Review #1,235

Reviewed March 5, 2022

Grade: A-

Easily the most daring and arguably the best film role of Jim Carey’s career, I Love You Phillip Morris (2009) is a delightful romantic comedy featuring same-sex characters in the central roles. At the risk of being too fluffy, there is a sardonic and wry wittiness that I fell in love with.

Those criticizing the film as ‘gay porn’ are silly since there is hardly a sex scene to be critical of or anything more than would appear in a traditional male/female romantic comedy. Prudes wouldn’t see a film as I Love You Phillip Morris anyway.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jim Carey, fabulous in The Mask from 1994, and having his share of hits and misses over the years, is perfect in the role of Steven. It’s the most interesting role he has portrayed since he gets to provide his usual physical humor in a role that matters. LGBTQ+ audiences see a character who makes them laugh without the typical gay stereotypes.

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

Props go to McGregor as well who makes a perfect counterpart for Carey as the calm, cool, and collected ‘straight man’. The film could not have worked without him. He meshes so well with Carey that the audience instantly roots for Steven and Phillip to ride off into the sunset despite being criminals.

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

At its core, I Love You Phillip Morris (2009) is a romantic comedy, and the trials and tribulations of Steven and Phillip are told. I immediately fell in love with them and viewers will too. It’s a film that feels fresh and alive with the exploration of character richness that is not easy to come by.

Election-1999

Election-1999

Director-Alexander Payne

Starring-Reese Witherspoon, Matthew Broderick

Scott’s Review #1,225

Reviewed January 30, 2022

Grade: A

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

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

And Election ranks among his finest works.

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

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

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

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

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

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

When Tracy decides to run for school president, Jim feels that she will be a horrible influence on the student body. He convinces Paul (Chris Klein), a dull but popular student-athlete, to run against Tracy. When she becomes aware of Jim’s secret involvement in the race, a bitter feud develops between teacher and student as they try to outsmart the other.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Satire never looked finer with both films.

Made in 1999, how dubious the realization is that Election continues to have relevance as time goes by. In the current state of United States politics where lying, cheating, and a blatant refusal to accept election results unless one side is the victor is running rampant, and shockingly tolerated by some, Payne’s message has never been more powerful.

Oscar Nominations: Best Adapted Screenplay

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

Spencer-2021

Spencer-2021

Director-Pablo Larraín

Starring-Kristen Stewart, Timothy Spall

Scott’s Review #1,193

Reviewed November 7, 2021

Grade: A

In the 2020s there has been a sudden flurry of depictions of and attention given to Princess Diana, a tragic figure in British royalty who came to an untimely death in 1997.  The Netflix series The Crown and a documentary immediately come to mind. While tremendous offerings they often stay the mainstream or historic course.

But Director Pablo Larraín presents a daring and rather unpleasant telling of a miserable Christmas weekend the Princess spent among the royal family in 1991, a time when her marriage to Prince Charles had been decimated and reached the point of no return.

Spencer (2021) is a brilliant art film focused on the troubled young woman’s dealings with her children, her eating disorder, her loneliness and despair, and of course relationships with the royal family.

Kristen Stewart delivers a career-defining performance as Diana and bravely puts on full naked display the shocking reality of the real-life figure’s most inner thoughts and demons.

Larraín prefaces the film with the sentence ‘a fable about a real-life tragedy’ or something to that effect.

The crumbling marriage of Princess Diana (Spencer) and Prince Charles (Jack Farthing) has led to rumors of affairs and an impending divorce but peace is demanded during the Christmas festivities at the Queen’s Sandringham Estate. The lavish spread of magnificent food, pheasant hunting, and family photos would be the dream of many but Diana is counting down the minutes until she can escape the dreary experience.

Restless, Diana imagines her life without the royal family and yearns to escape her trapped life. She fantasizes, binges and purges, and spends time with her children, while clinging to her friend and Royal Dresser, Maggie (Sally Hawkins), and befriending the kindly Equerry Major Alistair Gregory (Timothy Spall). He leaves a book about Anne Boleyn, the tragic wife of Henry VIII, which Diana becomes obsessed with.

My two biggest takeaways are Stewart’s performance and the musical score.

Stewart has long attempted to separate herself from her household name-making performances as Bella Swan in the Twilight Saga film series (2008-2012). Several supporting roles in independent features like Still Alice (2014) and Cafe Society (2016) followed but with Spencer, she hits the jackpot.

Her vulnerability and insecurity infuse themselves into Diana with ferocity and power so much so that I became immersed with her mannerisms as much as the words she spoke. A long and painful dinner scene (my favorite scene) with no dialogue features a closeup of Stewart as she angrily glares at several members of the dinner party. Her disgust at both them and the life she now leads is apparent.

Stewart displays how much Diana desired to escape from her cage where she felt as trapped as an animal would.

Jonny Greenwood creates a fantastic musical score that is haunting and powerful. He is the lead guitarist of the alternative rock band Radiohead and has scored numerous film scores. In the sequence listed above, he offers bombastic and eerie stringed instruments and a powerful drum beat. Later, as Diana wanders the grand halls he expresses her frustration with his music.

It’s an essential part of the film.

To lighten the mood, the 1986 hit song “All I Need Is A Miracle” by Mike and the Mechanics is played while Diana and her boys drive in their car on a sunny day singing along.

Spall and Hawkins play vital supporting roles as Diana’s only true allies. Spall is quiet and reserved but reveals so much with his facial expressions as his sympathy for Diana is apparent. In a surprise twist, Hawkins’s Maggie admits both her sexuality and her love for Diana as the two grow even closer.

Diana was quite the powerful ally to the LGBTQ+ community during a time when precious few were and the film gives a good reminder of her open-mindedness and her open heart.

Spencer (2021) is not the crowdpleaser some, including myself, would have expected and may even turn some viewers off with its depressing and embroiled cinematic fury. But it’s so much better than a popcorn feature with deeper emotion and exceptional psychological appeal that takes us into an imaginative state.

Oscar Nominations: Best Actress-Kristen Spencer

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

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

Deathdream-1972

Deathdream-1972

Director-Bob Clark

Starring-Richard Backus, John Marley, Lynn Carlin

Scott’s Review #1,175

Reviewed September 3, 2021

Grade: B+

Deathdream (also known in some circles as Dead of Night) is a 1972 horror offering directed by Bob Clark and written by Alan Ormsby that plays out like a very good science-fiction meets gruesome horror type of The Twilight Zone episode.

This is not to say it’s amateurish though in certain ways it is and mostly just it’s that the dialogue is spotty. Rather, it has the feel of an episodic adventure more than an actual film. This makes perfect sense since it was inspired by the W. W. Jacobs short story “The Monkey’s Paw”.

The film was shot in a town named Brooksville, Florida which is unusual in itself and provides a genuine southern quality like when the family sits down for a hearty meal.

Usually, horror films stick to Hollywood studio locales or cheaper areas like Canada to film.

Deathdream stars Richard Backus, John Marley, and Lynn Carlin.

The premise immediately intrigues me. A middle-aged married couple, Charles and Christine,  (Marley and Carlin) receives the devastating news that their son Andy (Backus) has died in the line of duty during the Vietnam War. They’re overcome with grief, to say the least. Before the news, Christine seems overly chatty and a bit peculiar while Charles is much older than his wife.

Soon after, Andy, very much alive, hitches a ride with a truck driver whom he then murders. He arrives home and is clearly not the same, seeming to be zombie-like and in a trance, not the same boy who left for Vietnam a year earlier.

As a classic film lover, I was immediately tickled pink by actor John Marley’s appearance onscreen. Associated with Love Story (1970) and The Godfather (1972) with the latter forever etched in my memory as the film director who is made “an offer he can’t refuse” by way of his gorgeous horse Khartoum, it was a treat to see him in a horror film.

I noticed facets of Deathdream that reminded me of one of my favorite horror films, Black Christmas (1974) not realizing that they were both directed by Bob Clark himself. Deathdream serves as the perfect opening act to that most influential horror film.

An organ/synthesizer effect immediately caught my ear with more than a tad of fright. I instantly recognized it as the spooky noise emitting from the Black Christmas musical score. And both use a rocking chair prop with fantastic results. The creaking sound brought chills up and down my spine.

Can you believe this guy also made Porky’s (1981) and A Christmas Story (1983)? Talk about versatility.

It’s clear the film was made on a shoestring budget but proves in a mighty form that, similar to British Hammer horror pictures, creativity can ooze out of a small budget. Terrific is what the crew does with the special effects. Instead of cheesy or campy they are thrilling.

The story could be construed as silly or ridiculous. Andy is some kind of vampire or zombie who needs the blood of others to reinvigorate his decaying body which on paper makes little sense. The only reason he comes back from the dead (we see him killed in combat on-screen) is because he promised his mother he’d return home.

Beyond that, under the surface is a message about the war that I found powerful and that usurped the horror genre where the film lies. It’s not just another horror film- it has deeper subtext.

Though Clark is never overt about it, Andy obviously suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, something not yet realized in the early 1970s and certainly not talked about. Clark’s message is clear.  Andy is a young man whose life has been ruined unnecessarily.

Despite being a film aficionado I had not heard of Deathdream (1972) until quite recently. It’s an overlooked gem like so many others in the horror genre, but this one can be appreciated by horror fans, fans of message films, and those looking for a good scare.

It deserves some love.

In the Name of-2013

In the Name of-2013

Director-Malgorzata Szumowska, Mateusz Kościukiewicz

Starring-Andrzej Chyra

Scott’s Review #1,159

Reviewed July 8, 2021

Grade: B+

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rachel Getting Married-2008

Rachel Getting Married-2008

Director-Jonathan Demme

Starring-Anne Hathaway, Rosemarie DeWitt

Scott’s Review #1,153

Reviewed June 17, 2021

Grade: A-

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

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

Thankfully, humorous moments are added to lighten the mood.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oscar Nominations: Best Actress-Anne Hathaway

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

Take Shelter-2011

Take Shelter-2011

Director-Jeff Nichols

Starring-Michael Shannon, Jessica Chastain

Scott’s Review #1,150

Reviewed June 9, 2021

Grade: B+

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Waiting for Guffman-1996

Waiting for Guffman-1996

Director-Christopher Guest

Starring-Christopher Guest, Eugene Levy, Catherine O’Hara

Scott’s Review #1,145

Reviewed May 24, 2021

Grade: B+

Somehow mocking local community theater troupes with questionable talent couldn’t be funnier with the right premise and an outstanding cast. The added fun of midwestern traditions like barbeques and good manners and spot-on imitations put on display for humor works well. They should be celebrated and appreciated in Waiting for Guffman (1996).

The hysterical Best in Show (2000) is probably my favorite Christopher Guest film but Waiting for Guffman is a hoot and hollering good time. The ‘B+’ rating comes largely because Guffman is an opening act to the fab Best in Show. They can easily be watched back to back and perhaps should for further cherishing.

When the town of Blaine, Missouri approaches its sesquicentennial, the residents decide to celebrate by performing a musical revue called “Red, White, and Blaine.” Flamboyant director Corky St. Clair (Christopher Guest) is determined to return to Broadway success by casting untalented but passionate individuals to perform. Eugene Levy, Fred Willard, Catherine O’Hara play the main cast members.

When Corky reveals that influential theater agent Mort Guffman will attend the opening, the cast is convinced that they will be rewarded with accolades and appearances on the Broadway stage if they perform successfully. They become titillated, flustered, and manic as the pressure of opening night approaches.

I daresay, some folks from the midwest United States or those faithful to the local theater may not enjoy Wating for Guffman but I sure did. Most of the characters are written as buffoons and lacking any talent. The hysterics come because they think that they actually possess what they lack.

The aforementioned Guest, Levy, Willard, and O’Hara work so well together they are the reason Waiting for Guffman is so damned funny! The comic timing between the actors is flawless and timed perfectly.

Levy and O’Hara appeared together in the Canadian television sketch comedy series SCTV in the 1970s and 1980s before hitting the jackpot with the television series Schitt’s Creek in later years so a fun thing to do is watch them in whatever they appear in together.

They are that good!

There abound many stereotypes in Waiting for Guffman since Corky is written as a walking gay stereotype with mascara and flamboyancy. The irony is that he reportedly has a wife who is never seen so the audience can draw their own conclusions.

Given the casting and the director, Christopher Guest takes on acting and directing duties, the experience is the largely improvisational and witty result.  Guest treats his actors, and himself, to famous Director Robert Altman’s mantra of letting his actors release and act on their own terms, presumably knowing the characters better than anyone else.

The tactic works. Too often comedies are stagey and situations forced in an attempt to make the viewer laugh because he or she thinks they are supposed to laugh. My favorite characters unsurprisingly are Ron and Sheila Albertson (Willard and O’Hara) as travel agents/amateur performers. They are zany and unpredictable and their antics cannot be superseded by anyone else.

Recommended mostly for the artistic and the improv comedy crowd. The spoofs are all over the place and fans of documentaries and talent shows can appreciate the gags.

Waiting for Guffman (1996) targets an intelligent audience craving fresh and original comedy. Being a cinema fan largely immersed in drama and horror, I was won over nonetheless. The only drawback is the film pales in comparison to the brilliant Best in Show (2000) with largely the same cast and tone, but still should be watched.

Never Rarely Sometimes Always-2020

Never Rarely Sometimes Always-2020

Director-Eliza Hittman

Starring-Sidney Flanigan, Talia Ryder

Scott’s Review #1,142

Reviewed May 14, 2021

Grade: A

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

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

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

I was enamored from scene one.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Promising Young Woman-2020

Promising Young Woman-2020

Director-Emerald Fennell

Starring-Carey Mulligan, Bo Burnham

Scott’s Review #1,132

Reviewed April 13, 2021

Grade: A

Emerald Fennell, making her film directorial debut, kicks her viewers in the ass with major help from star Carey Mulligan, with Promising Young Woman (2020). The actress gives the best performance of her career. The film is a sexy and haunting experience mixing black comedy and witty dialogue with an important and timely subject matter- the abuse and victimization of young women by men.

Both men and women can be held responsible as Fennell makes abundantly clear. Predators often have a share of people who choose to “look the other way” and thereby enable. This is a constant theme throughout the film involving many characters who are called out for their passivity.

Fennell makes this point during two of the best scenes of the film as she calls out a high-powered dean and attorney for their betrayals. The scenes are so powerful that I wanted the characters to suffer as much as the revenge seeker does.

There is also a wackiness in the pacing and dialogue that reminds me quite a bit of the 1999 masterpiece, American Beauty.

The film is depravity, bizarreness, and brilliance all rolled into one. I felt this film in my bones.

Almost every scene is a treat in the mysterious and unexpected and the film features peculiar characters and creative musical score renditions and includes a scene and music from the underappreciated masterpiece The Night of the Hunter (1955). Fennell knows her classic cinema.

Mulligan stars as a woman named Cassie who seeks to avenge the death of her best friend, who was a victim of rape when they were in medical school and their young lives had potential and such possibility lay ahead of them. Cleverly, we never see her friend, named Nina Fisher, but she is of vital importance and nearly a major character herself despite her absence.

Everyone said Cassie was a “promising young woman” until a mysterious event abruptly derailed her future. But now at age thirty and still living at home, her parents suggest via a giant suitcase for her birthday, it may be time for her to move on.

Cassie is tough to figure out since she’s wickedly clever, sometimes wisecracking, and tantalizingly cunning, and she’s living a secret double life by night. She goes to nightclubs looking drop-dead gorgeous and lures men to her rescue pretending to be inebriated.

What happens when they go back to their pad is shocking, dark, and justified. The men will never see this coming.

Before the presumption is that Cassie is nothing more than a bad-ass, her intentions are not only admirable, but she has a heart and desires love. Promising Young Woman is a dark character study.

Besides the powerful story, Promising Young Woman is riddled with interesting cinematic techniques. Cassie’s parent’s lounge in their afternoon one afternoon watching The Night of the Hunter, a dark fairy tale for adults. Later, a haunting version of Britney Spear’s “I’m a Slave 4 U” complete with a string arrangement is featured most uniquely.

All the supporting players add pizzazz and strength, some in odd or unclear ways until certain revelations bubble to the surface. Jennifer Coolidge as Cassie’s strange mother, Bo Burnham as the smitten Ryan Cooper, and Alison Brie as Cassie’s college friend Madison McPhee are the best examples.

Bo and Madison have the most to hide but will they or won’t they face Cassie’s wrath is the question. Not much is worse than a woman scorned.

But the main draw is Mulligan. Startlingly good, with an astonishingly powerful, deeply layered performance by her. She showcases a remarkable acting range, where she effortlessly alternates from brash to darkly humorous and at times, emotionally vulnerable in her best performance to date.

Two scenes stand out to me. The first is a delicious scene between Cassie and the female dean of her school, played by Connie Britton. At first dismissive and annoyed by Cassie’s accusations, Dean Elizabeth Walker finally takes notice when she believes that Cassie had kidnapped her teenage daughter and left her with a group of drunken frat boys. What comes around goes around!

The second is the finale wedding scene, interestingly not featuring Cassie other than by text messages. As the happy young couple says their vows a parade of police cars ruins the moment and the audience cheers victory. It’s a satisfying moment.

The screenplay is original, fresh, and timely. In the “Me Too” movement the timing is vital and makes the subject matter relevant. Fennell wrote the screenplay- is there anything she can’t do?

Promising Young Woman (2020) is an exceptional film. It’s a controversial revenge film but it’s so much more. Taking a powerful subject matter and examining the hypocrisy, of men and women, is telling and eye-opening. That is why this film is very important to see and brings awareness to a situation society still too often deems as okay.

Oscar Nominations: Best Picture, Best Director-Emerald Fennell, Best Actress-Carey Mulligan, Best Original Screenplay (won), Best Film Editing

Independent Spirit Award Nominations: Best Director-Emerald Fennell, Best Female Lead- Carey Mulligan (won), Best Screenplay (won)

Year of the Dog-2007

Year of the Dog-2007

Director-Mike White

Starring-Molly Shannon, John C. Reilly

Scott’s Review #1,131

Reviewed April 9, 2021

Grade: B-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tadpole-2002

Tadpole-2002

Director-Gary Winick

Starring-Sigourney Weaver, Aaron Stanford, John Ritter

Scott’s Review #1,125

Reviewed March 23, 2021

Grade: B

Tadpole (2002) is an enjoyable coming of age effort that carefully, or too carefully for that matter, toes the line between being cute and exploring some morally questionable material. The film gets away with the naughty subject matter because there exists a wholesomeness that lands somewhere between fresh and a commodity.

It’s a fun romp but nothing terribly memorable either, borrowing from better films.

Aaron Stanford, the lead actor, makes the film better than it might have been and seamlessly matches wits and comic timing with heavyweight actors like Sigourney Weaver, John Ritter, and Bebe Neuwirth. He is charming just like his character and carries the film.

As Oscar Grubman (what a name!) he is compassionate and sophisticated, reciting Voltaire and speaking fluent French. When he arrives home for Thanksgiving weekend it is revealed that he has a major crush on his stepmother, Eve (Weaver). She and Oscar’s father, Stanley (Ritter) share a ritzy Manhattan apartment and entertain a girl they think would be perfect for Oscar but he only has eyes for Eve and rebuffs the poor girl.

Despondent at not having a chance with his stepmom but desiring her, Oscar visits a local bar and runs into Eve’s best friend, Diane (Neuwirth). He gets drunk and she takes him home winding up in bed together! Oscar is filled with remorse.

Oscar’s and Diane’s tryst is the caveat for the rest of the antics of the film. Oscar is terrified that Diane will tell his father and Eve especially as she is on the guestlist for dinner the next night!  An amusing game of footsie under the table ensues between Oscar and Diane.

Diane is clearly a Mrs. Robinson type character to Oscar’s Benjamin if we want to draw comparisons to The Graduate (1967) and how could we not? Eve is like Elaine, Mrs. Robinson’s daughter. Unsuspecting and slightly naive. It’s fun to reminisce about the classic film that director Gary Winick borrows from.

Speaking of Winick, he has a knack for creating coming of age stories featuring teenage characters with light angst and he commonly releases independent films. My hunch is that if Tadpole was a big-budget mainstream affair even more concessions might have been made for the brewing May/December romance.

The “dinner scene” is the best part of Tadpole and provides good physical comedy and a hilarious setup. It’s a stretch in plausibility and borrows from many slapstick comedies but somehow the scene works well and stands out.

The subject matter of a woman three times the age of Oscar is not as harsh as it sounds and is largely played for laughs and misunderstandings. This is where the film misses the mark and stays firmly in the safe lane. Imagine the juicy possibilities that would occur if Eve reciprocated Oscar’s advances? Now that is an interesting concept!

I shudder to think that if Oscar were a fifteen-year-old girl and Eve a forty-something-year-old man this film would never have been made. The double standard gnawed at me.

The ending is wholesome and predictable making the film satisfying for the character yet limiting for the viewer. Oscar more or less “snaps out of it” and realizes that girls his own age are actually okay after all. I half-wondered if the film would be revealed to have all been Oscar’s dream.

The cougar-Esque subject matter provides light entertainment never daring to go as far as it could have, or should have. In the end, we understand a young, pubescent boy’s dreams and desires and may fondly recall when we were his age and all the troublesome sexual feelings that bubbled under the surface.

Tadpole (2002) is a watchable independent comedy providing enough to digest thanks to the worthy actors among its cast.

Birth-2004

Birth-2004

Director-Jonathan Glazer

Starring-Nicole Kidman, Cameron Bright

Scott’s Review #1,124

Reviewed March 18, 2021

Grade: B+

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

The first hour or so is extremely provocative.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There lacks a good payoff.

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

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

Luce-2019

Luce-2019

Director-Julius Onah

Starring-Naomi Watts, Octavia Spencer, Kelvin Harrison, Jr. 

Scott’s Review #1,122

Reviewed March 16, 2021

Grade: B+

Oftentimes unpleasant with shifting character allegiances, Luce (2019) is a painful look at race relations. The clever nuance is the relationships between people of the same race. Superior acting rises the film above just simply a nice idea as heavyweights like Octavia Spencer and Naomi Watts lend credibility to a small indie film.

The result is sometimes muddied waters and an unclear direction but the effort is exceptional and a worthy subject matter in modern times.

The film is down and dirty and makes no apologies for what it’s dissecting. The co-writer and director, Julius Onah, a Nigerian-American man, offers glimpses of grandeur, and impossible to guess how it will end. We wonder if he bases the story on his own very real experiences and I am eager to see what projects he comes up with in the future.

Some aspects of the film I found implausible if not logically impossible and not every point adds up or is successfully outlined. But the effort and the balance of drama, thrills, and social issues are there for the taking.

I realized I was rooting throughout for one character and then suddenly I was disappointed in their actions and my allegiance shifted to another of the principal characters. This is key and a positive to a good character-driven film. At times though the character’s actions are questionable and more than one mighty shake of the head in disbelief will be experienced.

Liberal-minded parents Amy (Watts) and Peter Edgar (Eli Roth) have adopted Luce (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), a child of refuge and a dangerous third-world country. It is referenced that they have spent years in therapy to repair the damage he has suffered as a child. It is implied he learned to shoot and possibly kill at a young age. Now a teenager, and Americanized, Luce is popular in high school and a star scholar and track star.

Life is good. Or is it?

The film, based on the play of the same name by J.C. Lee, is shot nothing like a play and is conventionally shot.

Luce writes and submits an extremely disturbing essay that forces the Edgars to reconsider their marriage and their family after it is brought to their attention by his teacher.

He challenges and makes an enemy of this teacher, Harriet Wilson (Spencer) who is extremely tough on students of color, being black herself. She snoops through one student’s locker and finds drugs, ratting on him and blowing his chances for a scholarship. When she finds fireworks in Luce’s locker she is appalled and makes it her mission to entangle his parents but could she have planted them herself?

Is she out to get Luce, jealous of his success when she has had to struggle for hers? Tensions mount between Harriet and Luce as the story unfolds.

The acting is powerful all around the canvas but Harrison and Spencer deliver the standout performances- nearly brilliant. Watts and Roth are good too but with more standard portrayals.

Excellent is how we get to know each of the four principles in detail. Harriet at first appears a tough shrew, but her personal life makes her sympathetic. She attempts to care for her mentally ill sister herself but after a humiliating scene at school is forced to return her to a home.

Suddenly, I was a fan of Harriet, Later, I was disappointed in Luce and Amy, who I thought I was intended to root for. The film is topsy turvy and I enjoyed this juicy infusion of not knowing what was to come next.

When a female classmate of Luce’s who harbors an enormous secret takes center stage the roller-coaster ride becomes even bumpier.

I wish there were more films of a similar nature as Luce (2019) to hit mainstream theaters. It provokes thought and opinion while featuring social problems, pre-conceived notions, and trusting one’s merits. I just wish the puzzle had been solved in a more satisfying way than it was.

Independent Spirit Award Nominations: Best Director-Julius Onah, Best Male Lead-Kelvin Harrison, Jr., Best Supporting Female-Octavia Spencer

Miss Juneteenth-2020

Miss Juneteenth-2020

Director-Channing Godfrey Peoples

Starring-Nicole Beharie, Alexis Chikaeze

Scott’s Review #1,119

Reviewed March 6, 2021

Grade: B+

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saint Ralph-2004

Saint Ralph-2004

Director-Michael McGowan

Starring-Adam Butcher, Campbell Scott

Scott’s Review #1,118

Reviewed March 3, 2021

Grade: C

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nomadland-2020

Nomadland-2020

Director-Chloé Zhao

Starring-Frances McDormand, David Strathairn, Swankie

Scott’s Review #1,116

Reviewed February 24, 2021

Grade: A

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

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

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

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

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

I admire her tremendously.

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

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

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

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

What a poignant statement.

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

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

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

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

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

Rabbit Hole-2010

Rabbit Hole-2010

Director-John Cameron Mitchell

Starring-Nicole Kidman, Aaron Eckhart

Scott’s Review #1,115

Reviewed February 23, 2021

Grade: A

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oscar Nominations: Best Actress-Nicole Kidman

Portrait of a Lady on Fire-2019

Portrait of a Lady on Fire-2019

Director-Céline Sciamma

Starring-Noémie Merlant, Adèle Haenel

Scott’s Review #1,114

Reviewed February 19, 2021

Grade: A-

A film with tremendous artistry and a cool LGBTQ+ vibe, gay director Céline Sciamma interestingly delivers the goods with Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019). She takes modern-looking actors and transplants them to the era of France during the late 18th century.

The film tells the story of a forbidden affair between an aristocrat and a painter commissioned to paint her portrait.

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

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

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

Painter, Marianne (Noémie Merlant) is summoned to a remote island inhabited by very few people. She is commissioned to paint the wedding portrait of Héloïse (Adèle Haene) who is destined to be married to a nobleman in Milan, Italy. Héloïse is depressed and despondent, wanting nothing to do with her intended whom she has not met.

The portrait is a gift to the never-seen husband-to-be. It is revealed that Héloïse’s sister leaped to her death from the cliffs on the family estate so it’s suggested throughout that she may suffer the same fate.

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

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

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

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

Waifish housemaid Sophie has an abortion with assistance from Marianne and Héloïse. Later, the three go to a bonfire gathering where women sing, during which Héloïse’s dress briefly catches fire (just as shown in the painting featured in the beginning).

When Sophie is having the abortion there is an infant and child nearby. Are they her children? Who are the women who sing?

I didn’t understand the point of these items.

Fortunately, these missteps can be forgiven for the grander piece is amazing filmmaking. The final shot of Héloïse sitting in a theater is phenomenal and borrowed from Call Me By Your Name (2017) which featured an identical scene.

The camera focuses on the face of actress Haene as she emits many emotions during the flawless scene. What a win for an actor!

Despite some side story flaws, I adored Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019). The film is exceptionally shot and almost all shots could be portraits in their own right. Especially lovely are the beach sequences as when Marianne and Héloïse first ignite the flames of their passion.

My takeaway is that it tells the story of fate but doesn’t feel like a downer. Rather, it feels like life.

Independent Spirit Award Nominations: Best International Film

Booksmart-2019

Booksmart-2019

Director-Olivia Wilde

Starring-Beanie Feldstein, Kaitlyn Dever

Scott’s Review #1,113

Reviewed February 17, 2021

Grade: A-

I usually avoid teenage coming-of-age comedies or more to the point, being not of that demographic, they are not usually even on my radar.

The only reason I saw Booksmart (2019) is for the Independent Spirit Award it won and the Golden Globe nomination it achieved. Still, I was skeptical of what the appeal of two female teenage bookworms who decide to become party animals would have on me.

Boy, was I wrong? The film is a fabulous and fast-paced experience that I enjoyed immensely.

Director, Olivia Wilde, in her very first effort, believe it or not, delivers the goods. She takes a genre told to death and knocks it on its keester offering a fresh and creative spin on a tried and true formula that feels anything but formulaic.

There is diversity, inclusiveness, and heart for miles without the feeling that these add-ons were done intentionally for a modern spin.

Before I get carried away too much Wilde carefully keeps the standard moments of teenage angst, rejection, breakups, and makeups, and there are one or two of the commonplace high school “types”- loner, jock, weirdo, etc. but evident is a strong LGBTQ+ stronghold including one of the main female characters. Booksmart sure feels authentic to me.

Molly (Beanie Feldstein) and Amy are forever friends. The girl’s study, they giggle, they hang out, and they tell each other about their problems, sexual and otherwise. The kicker is that Molly is straight and Amy is gay. Amy is happily “out” and nobody gives a damn.

Her parents, played in small but juicy parts by Will Forte and Lisa Kudrow are hilarious and progressive in their approach to understanding a gay child. They incorrectly assume that Molly and Amy are a couple which the girls use to their advantage.

Anyway, Amy and Molly are intelligent and anticipate graduation day and going off to great schools. Once they realize that their fellow students who in their minds slack off and party are also going off to Ivy League schools, they panic.

They realize they have wasted four years studying and decide to let finally let their hair down the night before graduation, intent on attending a popular boy’s (and Molly’s crush) party.

The situations the duo get themselves into are clever and witty and the most fun of the film. Feldstein and Dever have exceptional chemistry and I bought them as best friends from the moment of their first scene. When they have a knock-down, drag-out argument towards the end of the film it’s acting at its finest, which made me feel proud.

I admire young talent with great acting chops and pride in their craft and Feldstein and Dever both have it.

Wilde peppers much of the film with hip and trendy pop songs that surprisingly enhance rather than slow down or take away from the viewer’s enjoyment. The lyrics match the specific events of the particular scene.

The romanticism is pivotal as the crushes Molly and Amy have are not necessarily who they wind up with at the end of the film, which naturally culminates on graduation day. I love how their ceremony includes no parents.

The creativity within Booksmart is admirable. When Molly and Amy trip on a hallucinogenic they accidentally ingest they imagine they are barbie dolls. The scene is laden with hilarity as they bend and twist and turn. Later, Molly imagines a dance with Nick amid a colorful, slow-motion sequence that is beautiful, while Amy has an awkward unexpected sexual experience with a mean girl.

Booksmart (2019) is quite R-rated almost shockingly so, which is not a negative. It’s a positive. Too many films of this ilk try to soften how teenagers speak and the feelings they have which are usually sexual.

It’s raunchy and not for the younger teen set but mature audiences will reminiscence about their high school days.

Independent Spirit Award Nominations: Best First Feature (won)

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom-2020

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom-2020

Director-George C. Wolfe

Starring-Viola Davis, Chadwick Boseman

Scott’s Review #1,107

Reviewed February 3, 2021

Grade: A-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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