Thursday, October 11, 2018

THE OLD MAN & THE GUN

Robert Redford     Casey Affleck     Sissy Spacek     Danny Glover
Tom Waits     Keith Carradine     Tika Sumpter     Elizabeth Moss


     Charming, but incorrigible, Forrest Tucker’s sociopathic personality comes through when he meets a woman in a diner, and quickly wins her trust.  The woman is Jewel (Spacek), a lover of the simple life, horses, and the rolling fields surrounding her property.  He is evasive when she asks his name and what he does for a living, and he gives her his real name, which, at this point, is not broadcast in the stories about him, and finally lets her know that instead of “makin’ a livin’”, he believes in “livin’”.  It’s obvious that he has an admirable way of blending together truth and fiction into a believable story.  And like many who encounter Forrest, many suspect he is lying, but it doesn’t seem to bother them…because he’s so nice!
     The truth is that Forrest is a bank robber who has been imprisoned and escaped 16 times, beginning when he was just a kid.  It’s noteworthy that all the tellers who get robbed describe him as “such a gentleman”, “very polite”, a “nice-enough fellow”, and “happy.” He’s always well dressed and charming, encouraging them, and thanking them for accommodating him.  He and his pals, Teddy (Glover) and Waller (Waits), manage to get away with thousands of dollars.  They’re in the news, and even the police shake their heads, finding it preposterous that these old men are so capable.  
     Detective John Hunt (Affleck) is the beleaguered policeman charged with apprehending Tucker.  Although he seems to be as obsessed with being a good policeman as Tucker is about being a good robber, he is different in his self-doubts and struggles with his occupation.  His wife and superiors give him room to quit the force, but he determinedly stays on.  Even when the FBI intrudes itself into the case and he has a chance to step back, he doesn’t. Then he gets a tip that tells him exactly who Forrest Tucker is.
     Robert Redford pulls off this role in his usual expert fashion; probably no one else would be up to his personal aptness and level of skill.  It’s rewarding to see Sissy Spacek again in a role that suits her to a T as well.  Finally, Casey Affleck likewise performs as the kind of brooding character he has done so well in other films.  Danny Glover and Tom Waits make great sidekicks for the Redford character.  I was a bit disappointed there is not one of Tom Waits’ songs in the music.  Elizabeth Moss has a wonderful cameo at the end.  In a way, this film reminded me of David Mackenzie and Taylor Sheridan’s Hell or High Water in the nobility of the robber, but it kept up a level of excitement and humor a little more than is the case for this film.
     The script for The Old Man & the Gunis based on a true story, which was written up for The New Yorker Magazine by David Grann, who subsequently penned the script for this film.  Grann has a way of capturing his audience’s interest and maintaining suspense in his writing, just as he did for The Lost City of Z, The Devil and Sherlock Holmes, and Killers of the Flower Moon:  The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI.  In Director David Lowery’s capable hands, the movie becomes worthy of Robert Redford’s distinguished reputation in filmmaking, and a fitting tribute if it is indeed his last acting role.  Daniel Hart’s lyrical, moving score puts finishing touches on this fine production.

Charm is the name of the game in this engaging, suspenseful story.

Grade:  B+                                              By Donna R. Copeland

Thursday, October 4, 2018

LOVING PABLO

Javier Bardem     Penelope Cruz     Peter Sarsgaard


    Despite its title, this film is not essentially about Pablo Escobar; based on the TV anchorwoman Virginia Vallejo’s memoir about her love affair with him, it covers her gradual realization of who he actually was and the ways in which their relationship affected her life.  In the beginning, she is so charmed by him and impressed with his philanthropic goals, she says to herself she doesn’t care how he makes his money.  But after his dangerous operations become more and more obvious, disillusion sets in.
     My understanding of the public’s continual fascination with Escobar through the years (as shown by the popularity of movies and TV series about him—such as El Patron, Paradise Lost, The Infiltrator, and Narcos, as well as more than 15 books—has more to do with interest in the risky business of selling drugs—especially in a cartel—rather than in the man himself.  Penelope Cruz as Virginia narrates much of the film in a voice-over, so it is clearly from her point of view.
     In this sense, Loving Pablo falls far short of previous renditions of the famed drug lord because it really is about the romance, and doesn’t get much into Pablo’s business dealings.  There are definitely very violent scenes (and one notable distribution scene that takes place on a blocked highway) meant primarily to illustrate what made Virginia Vallejo anxious, but these scenes are not explained very well, and Pablo (Bardem) is shown much of the time as a passionate lover and family man and his brief flirtation with politics.   
     The affair lasted for five years, but the movie omits some events and insights that could have made it more compelling.  For instance, there was the impression that Escobar was using Vallejo’s television popularity to advance his standing in the country and provide him with a philanthropic cover to conceal his drug dealing.  Second, one reason for their break-up was his becoming so incensed when he learned that she had other lovers, he refused to see her again despite her wish to reunite.  Finally, little is made of the fact that Escobar was married, although there are a couple of scenes where his wife expresses her discontent with the situation.
     As an account of an extra-marital romance, there is little of interest here, so viewers expecting more of the Pablo Escobar story will be disappointed.  As fine actors, Bardem and Cruz elevate the film to make it a little more entertaining, but there is not much of a reason to see the film. 

Pablo Escobar’s five-year romance with a popular television personality and what came of it.

Grade:  D+                                    By Donna R. Copeland

Thursday, September 27, 2018

THE SISTERS BROTHERS

John C. Reilly     Joaquin Phoenix     Jake Gyllenhaal     Riz Ahmed     Rutgar Hauer     Carol Kane


     Intelligent western may be an oxymoron to some, but in this case, I think it fits. Director Jacques Adiard directed and co-wrote the screenplay with Thomas Bidegain, based on a novel by Patrick DeWitt.  That Adiard is French, and this is his first English language film, makes it even more impressive, because much of the content has wry humor, references, and interesting emotional connections that ring true for the American setting.
     The film begins with a darkened picture that becomes punctuated with gunfire bursts seen in the dark, the galloping of horses, and finally a house coming into view, with gunmen killing everyone they see, apparently cold-heartedly (cinematographer Benoit Debie created this striking opening scene.)  The two gunmen doing the damage are Eli Sisters (Reilly) and his younger brother Charlie (Phoenix).  They work for The Commodore, whom we only get two glimpses of, who has vast international business operations he has to protect. At one point, there is a pertinent argument between the brothers as to whether the people they shot are victims vs. bad guys who have stolen from The Commodore.  This is just one example of the philosophical/social issues subtly discussed among characters.
     Two other characters that will come in contact with the Sisters Brothers are an unlikely pair, in that one, Hermann Kermit Warm (Ahmed), is a chemist (who has a formula for extracting gold from California streams) and the other The Commodore’s effete detective, John Morris (Gyllenhaal), from an upper class background.  The latter has been charged with joining up with the Sisters Brothers to get the formula from the chemist—whatever it takes.  How he got into the job will come out later.
     In introducing these four characters, Adiard plays with the well-known contrasts between the educated and people like the frontier-hardened, skilled sharp shooters.  Tidbits about their backgrounds are inserted from time to time, allowing a more detailed picture of them, in terms of who they are and how they got to where they are. Further information is gleaned from incidents and conversations that occur throughout the film so that, by the end, a plausible account of how this group of four men got together, their backgrounds and personal stories, and how they end up is made clear.  
     The four main actors are stunning in their portrayals of brothers and unlikely connections that are formed for expediencies of the moment.  John C. Reilly, Joaquin Phoenix, and Jake Gyllenhaal can always be relied upon to bring potency and flair to their characters.  Riz Ahmed meshes perfectly with these well-seasoned actors to, likely, assure him of a bright future.
     The film was shot in Spain, but clearly looks like the American northwest. Debie’s cinematography transports the scenes to this country beautifully and convincingly.  Renowned Alexandre Desplat lives up to his reputation for capturing the essence of every scene with his music, and for his first western, he drew on strains of Charlie Mingus’ jazz and Nicholas Cage-type music.  I especially love his quiet piano accompaniment in emotionally charged segments; for instance, in a mother’s home.
     This film has many strengths beyond those mentioned.  Elaborating further, the interactions between the two brothers bring into play sibling rivalry, father issues, family loyalty, and the roles the two have come to own, such as the older Eli feeling and taking responsibility for the younger Charlie, who is more impulsive, more outgoing, more assertive.  But true to life, caretaking roles are switched now and then.  John Morris and Hermann Kermit Warm come together in a conventional way, in the spark created in their first meeting, and then through conversations in which they discover they have shared views about the world and how they might achieve a common goal.
     Another feature of the film that I appreciate is the way violence is portrayed in appealing to more artistic, sensitive tastes rather than eliciting shock through gore.  We are spared one shot and only see the body with a pool of blood on the floor.  Or it’s done in a kind of humorous way, such as an insect crawling inside a mouth and reproducing(!).  

This is a film for those who relish creative productions that can incorporate a modern take on a beloved genre, and still sketch out three-dimensional characters that resonate with most people today.

Grade:  A                                    By Donna R. Copeland


Sunday, September 23, 2018

THE WIFE

Glenn Close     Jonathan Pryce     Christian Slater     Max Irons     Elizabeth McGovern


     How many young wives have made the bargain of being a dutiful, adoring wife to their husbands with the tacit agreement that his career is top priority?  Countless, I would say, with most never realizing the long-term consequences of that bargain.  That’s Joan in the ‘50’s as a wide-eyed English student at Smith College taking a writing course from erudite Professor Castleman.  He praises her work—and asks her to babysit for him and his wife.  During that time, she is introduced to a female writer of some note—but not really famous—who advises her not to write, because publishers (who, at that time, are men) will not take women’s writing seriously.  Her books will end up only on university alumni shelves.
     It isn’t long before Joan and Joe are having an affair, and his divorce and their marriage come soon after.  But friction between them surfaces after she reads one of his manuscripts, which has been rejected by a publisher.  She critiques it honestly (and innocently), suggesting that the characters are “wooden” and the dialog “stilted”, and he goes into a narcissistic rage.  (Through the years, temper tantrums will continue to be one of his preferred methods for getting her to give into him.)  She responds by belittling herself and offering to “fix” the manuscript.  She is waiting tables at the time, and when she overhears men discounting writers who are women/Jewish, she runs home for “their” manuscript, gives it to the critical men, and sure enough, they agree to publish it.  Is there any mention of attaching her name as a co-author? No!  This is the fifties…
     The film opens on the cozy relationship between Joe Castleman (Pryce) and his wife Joan (Close), who have been married for years and have a daughter who’s pregnant with their first grandchild and a son, surly David (Irons), an aspiring writer. (Oedipal issues abound in the story, and are accounted for toward the end.)  Soon, jumping-on-the-bed rejoicing comes after an early morning call from Sweden informing Joe that he has won the Nobel Prize for literature. We get an “all is (almost) right with the world” vibe from the couple, and they head for Sweden along with their son David, who seems to be wishing he were anywhere else.  Clearly, Joan must constantly intervene in the men’s quarrels—which will make sense later on in the story.
     The rest of the film juxtaposes the luxurious Nobel surroundings and people with the Castleman family drama, one that realistically portrays the struggles families must undergo across time as new experiences and new events alter individuals in significant ways.  Everyone must adjust—some do so successfully, some not so admirably.  
     The Wife is based on a novel by Meg Wolitzer (screenplay by Jane Anderson) and skillfully directed by Bjorn Runge.  Although I usually don’t like films going back and forth in time, that arrangement works here in giving us some information in the present, then explaining it by showing past events.  The contrast between the Castleman couple’s coming together in the fifties and their experiences forty years later shows the turn of events that makes it seem topsy-turvy—but not if you pay attention to transitions.
     Humor, gut-wrenching interactions among characters, and apprehensions of all kinds keep the plot forging on while we sit transfixed, wondering how it will all turn out.  All this is beautifully dramatized by the actors.  Glenn Close is exemplary in her role as a woman of substance:  a delight, and a creative contributor, facilitator, arbiter, planner, and negotiator.  She is deserving of a major award.  As her foil, Jonathan Pryce is more than convincing as a self-obsessed dependent tyrant who has little insight in himself.  Max Irons is talented in portraying a range of characters, from FBI rogue agent (TV’s “Condor”) to disenchanted son with mountains of resentment; and Christian Slater is up to his usual portrayal of a formidable persona.

A family story outside the norm for “housewives.”

Grade:  A                                    By Donna R. Copeland


Friday, September 21, 2018

THE CHILDREN ACT

Emma Thompson     Stanley Tucci     Ben Chaplin     Fionn Whitehead     Rupert Vansittart


     The Children Act, based on the great British writer Ian McEwan’s book and screenplay, weaves a beautifully moving story told in a unique way, exploring the agony and the depths of differing perspectives involved in critical decision-making.  It could be the basis for one of the ethics workshops we’re all being required to attend these days.  Hopefully, in such events, it will be pointed out how helpful good psychotherapy could have been for the characters in this drama.
     The film stars the award-winning actress Emma Thompson as Milady (as female judges are referred to in Britain) Fiona Maye, a judge who must rule in difficult child cases using The Children Act, Britain’s guide for adjudicating in the interest of children.  We’re first told about a set of conjoined twins where the issue is to separate them or not.  Separation would mean that one would likely die, but not separating puts both lives in jeopardy.  I especially like that the film allows enough time for the audience to consider the arguments for and against in this and the following case.
     The next case we hear about is that of Adam Henry (Whitehead), a teenager (not yet 18 years old) whose Jehovah’s Witness adherent parents want to deny him treatment that would involve transfusion of blood, strictly forbidden in that religion.  Without it, he is not only likely to die, but it would be a painful death.  We see once again that Judge Maye is sincerely considering all the arguments in a fair and reasoned way, with the law firmly in her mind.  
     In this instance, however, in her commitment to making a reasoned decision, she breaks precedent and goes to visit Adam in the hospital to determine for herself that he is not being unduly influenced by his parents or church elders.  She is caught off-guard by the young man, who is obviously flattered by her visit and responds eagerly to her probing questions, clearly affirming his belief in the religion.  Beyond that, he is a budding guitar player (four lessons so far!) who insists on demonstrating his delight in what he has learned to the judge, who, unbeknownst to him, is an accomplished pianist.  She vocalizes the Yeats poem he has played the notes for, and he is clearly inspired by her presence and her knowledge.  
The visit is not entirely compliments and fun; when she asks Adam what he will think if she rules in the hospital’s favor, he quickly responds with “I would think Milady is an interfering busybody!” which brings a spontaneous, hearty laugh from her.
     Little does Milady realize how much she has touched Adam—and he, her—and what will ensue as a result.  It will hit chords in her that have remained long dormant.  The story is not just about her cases, Fiona is going through a trying time in her marriage to Jack (Tucci).  It seems her supreme dedication to her work is bringing up other considerations for him.  He has been patient (in a completely endearing way) with her total commitment to her work, but now, even though he still loves her dearly, he wants something in exchange.  In the interactions between them that we see, it is clear that her priority is her work, and she expects to continue on with their life as it is.  
     Through all this, it’s remarkable how closed Fiona is to emotional pulls from her husband or from her new admirer.  This, of course, makes her emotionally vulnerable, and the two relationships, juxtaposed as they are, will have profound effects on her.  Compliments to writer McEwan; all of what transpires is not only engaging, but reflects true human conditions and beliefs.
     Emma Thompson should be at the top of award lists this year for her performance in The Children Act; it’s demanding in its requirement for portraying a complex character with nuance and believability. Thompson hits every note and makes them vibrate in her hot and cold assessments of cases, her unexpected discovery of what ‘wild and free’ means, her genuine love for meaningful attachments, and her playfulness despite all the seriousness.  Stanley Tucci is a perfect foil for her character in his portrayal of a male who is loving but not useless (which some in the film complain about men in general, and might apply to some sentiments in today’s world), and one who is wise in matters of the heart.  Young Fionn Whitehead has earned some of his stripes in Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, and increases them here in his portrayal of a passionate teenager who knows his own mind. He made the character of Adam entirely believable and sympathetic.
     Richard Eyre’s direction of this masterpiece in blending so many elements is spot-on, including the perfect backdrop of Stephen Warbeck’s piano music and Andrew Dunn’s cinematography capturing expressiveness in human faces and a range of interior and exterior spaces in which the action takes place.

This is a perfect movie in which to see the human complexities professionals in law and healthcare face in their day-to-day work, but it’s also a thoroughly engaging story.

Grade:  A                                    By Donna R. Copeland

Thursday, September 20, 2018

BEL CANTO

Julianne Moore     Ken Watanabe     Sebastian Roch     Ryo Kase     Maria Mercedes Coroy    Christopher Lambert


     A well-known American opera singer, a wealthy Japanese businessman, and South American politics all get mixed up together in this tense drama when the singer, Roxane Cross (Moore) is invited to give a concert in an unspecified Latin American country in honor of businessman Katsumi Hosokawa (Watanabe).  They all arrive at Vice-President Ochoa’s mansion—Japanese translator Gen (Kase)—in tow, barely get settled in the ritzy hacienda, and Roxane is just beginning her concert, when they are rudely interrupted by a guerilla group aiming to kidnap President Masuda.  The problem is that the President preferred watching a telenovela at home, so he isn’t present.  In that case, the commandos say, they’ll just wait for the others to fetch him.  
     This begins a long stint of the hostages being trapped and in a panic, even if it is in an elegant mansion.  Not only are we privy to constant negotiations, but as happens in such situations, relationships begin to form.  Katsumi is an avid opera fan, particularly of Roxane, so much so that when he was invited to the country in the interest of his establishing a company there, he had the foresight (nerve?) to say he would come only if Roxane would agree to give a concert.  When the two meet, sparks fly, and he becomes fascinated by more than her art.  Another developing attraction emerges between translator Gen and one of the guerrillas, Carmen (Coroy), which is obviously risky for her.  
     My book club read Ann Patchett’s novel, Bel Canto, which we found to be an entertaining thriller, and I expected the movie to be just as appealing.  However, I found it to be lacking slightly in the thrill aspect.  Certainly the accidental killing of one of the hostages early on creates tension, and Roxane’s invitation to sing in order to calm down an escalating situation at one point is intriguing.  In addition, Moore and Watanabe are at their usual level of excellence, and the dubbing of the voice of Renee Fleming for Roxane was so good.  In addition, the romance between Gen and Carmen carries excitement and curiosity.  Yet, something was lacking.
     Somehow, in the direction of Paul Weitz and the adaptation (Weitz and Anthony Weintraub), the story loses some of the “grab” of the novel.  I would guess that focusing more on the “romances” than on the negotiations is at fault.  

Bel Canto the movie strives to match the power of the novel, but falls just a bit short.

Grade:  B                                    By Donna R. Copeland


THE HOUSE WITH A CLOCK IN ITS WALLS

Jack Black     Cate Blanchett     Owen Vaccaro
Kyle MacLachlan     Renee Elise Goldsberry     Sunny Suljic


     In 1955, in an old mansion in New Zebedee, Michigan, strange and eerie things are going to happen.  Ten year-old Lewis (Vaccaro) is going to be moving in with his Uncle Jonathan (Black) after his parents were killed in a car accident, and he has no idea his uncle is a warlock. The house is sumptuous with a large bedroom for him—impressive!--But he will soon learn that things go bump—or something else—in the night.  He is alarmed at times, but he is a brave child, and even goes to investigate at times with his flashlight.  
     Then, Lewis is alarmed one night to see his uncle hacking into the wall with an axe, and even though his uncle’s strange neighbor Mrs. Zimmerman (Blanchett) urges Jonathan to reveal “secrets” to Lewis, that doesn’t happen.  It’s a bit strange anyway to hear Mrs. Z and Jonathan exchange insults (hilarious name-calling), but not in anger, and they immediately get back to solving problems.  Well, there is one big one that they have been wrestling with for ages.  
     Lewis is a bookish child (loves dictionaries and learning words like indomitable, which causes him to sound like an effete child) with silly goggles on his head, and even so while he comes across at school as a nerd, he is able to make a friend (at least temporarily).  But this bookishness turns out to be just what he needs to follow in his uncle’s footsteps, something he sorely wishes for after Jonathan’s demonstration of magic in the garden when it comes alive in the most delightful way.
     Reluctantly, Jonathan agrees to help Lewis become a warlock.  There is just one rule in the house, which is not to open a certain cabinet.  Lewis is an obedient child and he fully intends to comply, but neither he nor his uncle anticipate what might happen when Lewis invites his one friend, skeptical Tarby (Suljic), over to the house to impress him with what he’s learned about magic.  
     What follows is a major struggle that is exciting for children and adults to watch, and, gratifyingly for me, carrying positive messages.  They will see children and adults persisting in the face of adversity, staying on the side of good, and seeing that children need to be informed about what is going on in their lives and, moreover, including them in solutions.  Yes, children should be more respected.  
     Another positive piece of good modeling in the film is the egalitarian relationship between Jonathan and Mrs. Z.  He openly acknowledges her value to him and the impressiveness of her skills. She is portrayed as skillful, motherly, and a wise sage.  Jonathan is open both to her as a female and to Lewis as a child.  He models for men the value of listening to women and children, and then being willing to make changes.
     With the aid of screenwriter Eric Kripke, director Eli Roth has done a good job in adapting John Bellairs’ novel to the screen.  Music (Nathan Barr), cinematography (Rogier Stoffers), and production design (John Hutman) are of similar quality.  Jack Black nails every role he plays, as does Cate Blanchett, and their inclusion in any cast will elevate the film.  Young Owen Vaccara pulls for attention, although I have to confess I kept wanting to see Jacob Tremblay (Room) in that role.  Kyle MacLachlan and Renee Elise Goldsberry were wonderfully effective as villains.
     House with a Clock is a bit silly at times—which is not unusual for this type of film—but general audiences will enjoy it; there was applause for it afterwards at the screening I attended.  The special effects are good, but parents might note that it could be scary for young children who are afraid of the dark. 

A good choice for those who like a mixture of fantasy, comedy, and a bit of horror.

Grade:  C+                                    By Donna R. Copeland