Sunday, March 18, 2018


     It’s rare to find an artist of Itzhak Perlman’s caliber who is remarkable in so many different ways.  Alice Chernick’s documentary impresses with its comprehensive picture of who the man is--where he came from, highlights of his world, and significant people in his life.  One gets the impression of how so much his achievement has to do with his raw talent, but along with that, the kind of (not necessarily kind) encouragement and support he received along the way.  Out of these myriad experiences, he is shown to be an unusual man who, for all the accolades, remains a mensch to his family and to his students.  And…he has a golden sense of humor, which seems to underlie his whole being.
     Standing beside Itzhak as a true partner is his wife Toby, whom he met in his student days in New York City.  She is a classically trained violinist, but their relationship seems to be based as much on mutual interests (along with music) and shared values.  Chernick focuses on their conversations and interactions in a way that shows how simpatico they are.  She articulates her respect for him as a musician and as a man throughout the film.  When they address the issue of how important the arts are to children’s development [decrying its vulnerability in the public school system], Toby underscores this importance by saying, “Music gives us permission to dream, to steal, to be human.”
     A superb plus in the documentary is the emphasis on Perlman’s playing his violin, either on his own or in presentations with others, allowing the viewer to savor the life-pulsing lyricism that Perlman brings out in his music.  We hear his discussions with violin experts about features and history of the violin itself, and why it was always so important to Jewish people, especially during the Holocaust.
     There is a beautiful segment about Perlman expressing his enthusiasm for teaching, how, “when you teach others, you are teaching yourself.”  Having grown up, in his words, in a “triangle of hell” with his parents, his Israeli teacher, and himself, he endured constant charges that he did not have enough ambition.  This charge was disproven when he was enrolled in the Julliard School of Music and came under the tutelage of Dorothy DeLay, who he hated at first, but who made sure he was exposed to a broad education in the arts.  He came to believe that the way he overcame life’s challenges was by “the ability to evolve.”  He now has come to a place where he is sensitive enough to wonder, “How do you critique someone [who is out of tune] without hurting their feelings or sounding arrogant?” 
     The film ends with a celebration with his extended family, showing how extraordinary and inspiring it is for someone nowadays in his position to have retained in his everyday life a fair degree of modesty and all the people who are important to him. 
     Alice Chernick has created a fine portrait of a remarkable man who seems to have been born with an unbelievable talent, which, she shows, was honed by both others in his life and his own experience to exemplify a true hero of the arts and humanities.

Itzhak is an artist to inspire us beyond music to life itself.

Grade:  A                                    By Donna R. Copeland

Thursday, March 15, 2018


Rosamund Pike     Daniel Bruhl     Eddie Marsan     Lior Ashkenazi

     This is a fine account of an event that actually took place in 1976, in which Palestinian revolutionaries hi-jacked an Air France plane with the aim of getting Israel to negotiate with them.  They wanted back Palestinian prisoners that Israel had captured and held, in exchange for the release of Israeli hostages.  The movie illustrates very well the dilemmas that arise from policies about negotiating with terrorists.  There are good arguments on both sides of the issue.  The film goes back and forth between the Palestinian front revolutionaries (two of the main ones are Germans) and the Israeli government officials and—since they ended up in Uganda, Idi Amin finds himself in a position of choosing sides.  Also inserted from time to time is an Israeli dance group performing a number simply to reflect the writhing emotional experiences of all the characters.
     Rosamund Pike and Daniel Bruhl give sensitive performances of the two German Palestinian sympathizers, showing their angst—which goes back and forth between them.  She is more hard-nosed and committed than he is most of the time, but toward the end has second thoughts.  In this respect and in their relationships with others, we get a good idea of the terrorist experience and how differently they think and feel from one another, depending on what is happening at the time, and how they both waver between the two sides of their ambivalence.
     On the Israeli side Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin (Ashkenazi) is in conflict with his defense minister, Shimon Peres (Marsan), the former leaning more toward negotiation and the latter decidedly favoring a military operation to rescue the hostages.  Eventually, the vote is put before the cabinet, all favoring the military plan.
     Director Jose Padilha and writer Gregory Burke present an engaging story in which I stayed engrossed, and one that seems to maintain good balance between strategy and emotion and human concerns.  The policy of negotiation/non-negotiation is topical—along with the Israeli-Palestinian dispute—both conundrums about which no one seems to have a really good answer.  The filmmakers stayed even-keel on these issues, allowing the viewers to see both sides and make their own judgments.
     Very educational!  For me, at least.  I understand a number of previous films have covered this high-jacking incident, (e.g., Victory at Entebbe, Raid on Entebbe, and Operation Thunderbolt), but none was very highly praised.   The criticism of 7 Days in Entebbe as just another remake that didn’t need to be done is likely justified.

Grade:  C                                    By Donna R. Copeland


Nick Robinson     Josh Duhamel     Jennifer Garner     Talitha Bateman
Katherine Langford     Alexandra Shipp     Logan Miller     Kelynan Lonsdale     Jorge Lendeborg, Jr.

    Unlike many films about teens, Love, Simon is mostly a realistic portrayal, with occasional gems of wisdom about how people in general think, act, and feel.  Simon (Robinson) is an appealing teenager with good friends, a wholesome family life, and enough talent to stand out in a crowd.  He has been brought up well, and only occasionally displays the sulk American adolescents are known for.  But, he is coming to the realization that he is attracted to boys and doesn’t quite know what to do about it.
   Enter a clueless wannabe Martin (Miller), who gains access to Simon’s personal information and proceeds to blackmail Simon, manipulating him to get a girl for Martin.  This will be matchmaking hell for Simon, but he is naïve and thinks he can pull it off—just to keep his secret, secret.
     Added to this scenario, are pictures of high school in general—hallway encounters, the cafeteria, the school play, and parties.  Based on a book by Becky Albertalli, a clinical psychologist whose experience includes a specialty in children and teens and work in a high school, it comes across as plausible and a perceptive understanding of life in that realm.  Screenwriters Elizabeth Berger and Isaac Aptaker seem to have preserved many of the basic ideas, although I have a hunch that some scenes/characters were add-ons, such as the goofus vice principal (parody of a fool) and the sweet reveal and tie-up-with-a-bow ending.
     The director, Greg Berlanti, and screenwriters have a background in producing and writing for television, and in some ways, Love, Simon resembles a television program or series more than a feature film.  That is a way of saying that the story is delightfully entertaining, although it has “bite” as well in its observations about teens and high school life and the profound experience of facing/establishing one’s identity.  A special treat is seeing Simon trying to identify his anonymous correspondent on social media.  He makes the same mistakes that many of us have in trying to decide whether an acquaintance or friend is gay.
     Nick Robinson is well cast as Simon, with just the right balance of naïveté, trust, skepticism, and doubt in a coming-of-age teenager.  With his success in The Kings of Summer, he should have a bright future.  Other standouts among the teens are Katherine Langford as Leah, Simon’s life-long friend; Alexandra Shipp, the precocious sex symbol; and Logan Miller as the cringe-worthy budding sociopath.  Jennifer Garner and Josh Duhamel handle the not particularly challenging roles of mother and father to Simon.
     This is a film that will appeal to those interested in expanding their tolerance and understanding of alternative identities that go beyond simply male and female. 

A budding romance a little outside the norm.

Grade:  B+                        By Donna R. Copeland


Alicia Vikander     Dominic West     Walton Goggins     Daniel Yu     Kristin Scott Thomas     Derek Jacobi

     This Tomb Raider movie is based on a videogame series, which it tries to emulate and serve as a kind of prequel to the 2001/2003 Tomb Raider series starring Angelina Jolie.  Here, we get a few scenes of Lara’s (Vikander) childhood with her father (West), in which he is teaching her things about life she should know and saying goodbye as he takes off on an adventure.  Years go by; it appears he is not returning, and Lara has become a risk-taking bicycle courier and aspiring boxer (which she is not very good at).
     Multiple times when she is asked to sign documents related to her father’s company, she shows little interest, but when shown a puzzle cylinder left to her by her father, she is fascinated.  She easily solves the puzzle and finds a message from him.  That sets her off on a daring journey (she is her father’s child) that will take her to faraway exotic locations in an attempt to continue her father’s life-long odyssey.
     The film does have the look of a video game made into a movie.  The production design is artistic and somewhat enticing; however, the story comes across as completely improbable with a rather clunky script so that it keeps the viewer from becoming fully engaged.  Seeing Lara getting tossed about on raging seas, beaten and battered by evil men, and surviving a tomb that is disintegrating around her on a video game is very different from seeing such events in a movie.  After a while, the reaction is “Oh, c’mon!”
     Alicia Vikander is a gifted actress, but her fine, nuanced, dramatic talents are lost in this action movie that is all about brawn and physical feats (most of which turn out to be unbelievable, really).  I don’t know how many of the stunts were done by her or someone else (if by her, they’re impressive!), but look at her work in Ex Machina, The Danish Girl, Anna Karenina, A Royal Affair, and The Light between Oceans, for instance, if you want to see award-worthy acting.  Other actors like Dominic West, Walton Goggins, and Daniel Yu likewise have diminishing roles that don’t serve their talents.  The only supporting actor given a juicy tidbit is Kristin Scott Thomas, who plays it up admirably.  She is always good, and the script serves her well here.
     This is a film for video game fans, but for the rest of us—no.

Do you really want to see another Tomb Raider movie?

Grade:  C-                                     By Donna R. Copeland

Thursday, March 8, 2018


Joel Edgerton     Charlize Theron     David Oyelowo     Thandie Newton     Amanda Seyfried     Sharlto Copley

     Ugly Americans and Mexican cartels go head to head in this crime story that also wants to be a comedy.  Richard Rusk (Edgerton) and Elaine Markinson (Theron) co-lead a company that is not averse to doing extra-curricular deals.  They have a product being sold in Mexico for them, but when it looks like U.S. states are going to legalize marijuana, they want to market Cannabax (ha-ha--Get it?) in the U.S. and hugely increase their profits.  That will leave no product for the Mexican trade.  Their middle manager Harold (Oyelowo) has been working with the Mexicans for a long time, establishing confidence and gaining their trust, but suddenly Richard and Elaine want to accompany him on the trip to explain to the Mexicans why they are going to stop selling to them.  Harold is left out of all these plans—and many others as the plot proceeds, all while Richard keeps calling him his best friend and making promises of untold wealth.  Call him a dupe.  Go ahead.

     The plot by writers Anthony Tambakis and Matthew Stone gets heavily convoluted by incorporating multiple betrayals, Mexican cartels, an amateur American trying to smuggle dope into the US from Mexico (no connection to the other operation), and the DEA into the story.  Oh, yes, and at one point, Richard’s brother Mitch (Copley), is called upon to abandon his altruistic activities in Haiti to help his brother reclaim the kidnapped Harold.  (This is not the only kidnapping that will take place.)
     The movie, directed by Nash Edgerton (Joel’s brother), attempts to be slick, funny, and entertaining.  And I think it does achieve the latter, but I was not impressed with the intricacies of plans and subterfuges; and the “funny” is successful in drawing chuckles at times, but it borders on stereotypical portrayal of blacks.  This is Oyelowo really trying to show his comedic chops, and he is funny until you stop and think…
     The acting is top-notch by Edgerton, Theron, and Oyelowo, with Edgerton being the profligate with a swagger, Theron with a cold, hard perspective using her sexuality and attractiveness to get what she wants, and Oyelowo with high ideals passed down from his father trying to be noble.  The supporting cast is noteworthy, particularly Amanda Seyfried (Les Miserables) and Sharlto Copley (Chappie), who are two of the only genuine figures in this production. 
     It’s puzzling why the amateurish drama of a reluctant, naïve drug carrier (Harry Treadaway) and his girlfriend (Seyfried) were included in the mix.  Their paths cross with Harold’s in a sometimes touching way, but they don’t really fit into this story.

For a lightly entertaining romp, Gringo might be your movie choice—just don’t plan to take it too seriously.

Grade:  C                                    By Donna R. Copeland


Anya Taylor-Joy     Olivia Cooke     Anton Yelchin     Paul Sparks     Francie Swift

     I wouldn’t call the movie “thoroughbred”, but it is entertaining, and a good show for young writer/director Cory Finley.  It will be criticized for being slow, but I thought that pace worked well for contemplating the two teen misfits, Lily (Taylor-Joy) and Amanda (Cooke), and building up the suspense.  Amanda is particularly well drawn as a psychopath-in-the-making, denying she ever has feelings, yet being expert in the perception of others’. 
     Finley is clever in the way he introduces the two main characters, illustrating their upper class upbringing, one presented as prim and proper and the other as a much more interesting character who surprises with every response.  We are given a heavy-handed tour multiple times of Lily’s house, a richly furnished mansion, to show her upper-class status as well as draw us into the allure of a proposition the two girls make to the local drug dealer, Tim (engagingly played by the late Anton Yelchin in his last filmed movie).  This tour and other scenes are enhanced in the talented hands of cinematographer Lyle Vincent (A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night).
     In the beginning, Lily is presented as a good student who has been engaged to tutor Amanda, although this is made ambiguous as to whether there are tutoring sessions or just “hanging out.”  The girls are antagonistic to one another, but something in the other also attracts them.  (We find out later how this is not a good thing.)  Lily appears to be prim and inhibited, and Amanda draws her out by surmising her underlying negative feelings, making Lily uncomfortable, yet realizing that Amanda is astute.  Apparently, Amanda is onto something in Lily’s relationship with her stepfather Mark (Sparks). 
     The girls do develop a bond, and engage Tim in a devious plan.  After rather abusive negotiations and a tempting offer, Tim agrees to help them.  Thereafter, nothing much occurs as expected, at least by the girls.  Finley as the writer develops a clever way for all of this to play out, but can be faulted for throwing in a red herring.  Although he does an excellent job in showing how two people can egg one another on, the twist at the end does not ring true/plausible. 
     The acting jobs of Taylor-Joy and especially Cooke are spot-on.  Seldom is an actor asked to be so deadpan for her character as Cooke is, yet she pulls it off with eloquent charm.  Much of the change in Taylor-Joy’s character is shown on the actress’ face and in her eyes.  We see it, but don’t want to believe in what we see.  Paul Sparks is a talented actor, and shows the stepfather to be an a-hole, but he’s more rude than evil.  I think the script should have called for him to more than just rude.  As the film stands, it implies that the girls are “born evil”, instead of responding to their upbringing.

A crime story with a bent different from most.

Grade:  C                                    By Donna R. Copeland

Wednesday, March 7, 2018


Storm Reid     Oprah Winfrey     Reese Witherspoon     Mindy Kaling
Chris Pine     Gugu Mbitha-Raw     Zach Galafianakis     Michael Pena     David Oyelowo

     This is a fabulous production through and through.  Based on a novel of the same name by Madeleine L’Engle, it packs an emotional punch in following the arc of transformation in an embittered girl trying to cope with perceived abandonment and possible death of her father.  She has cut herself off from friends, allowed her performance at school to slump, and of course then becomes the butt of cruel barbs from classmates.  Her self-esteem has bottomed out, and it seems as if no one can help her.
     But something miraculous happens that reunites her with her father’s dream and prods her to begin a painful, terrifying journey of self-discovery and acceptance.  This is where film comes into its own in telling a wondrous story, and the filmmakers responsible for cinematography, art and production design and visual and special effects create the magic for us to go on that journey with her.  It will be beautiful, but terrifying and emotional and exciting as well, as we travel through warped space and time.  An end goal of a search to find someone actually becomes a rescue mission (of more than one person).
     Three supernatural beings make their appearance in Meg’s (Reid) life in the forms of the three Mrs.:  Mrs. Whatsit (Witherspoon), Mrs. Who (Kaling), and Mrs. Which (Winfrey).  They are other-worldly, but present themselves as “warriors who serve the good and right in the universe.”  Whatsit is more human-like in her playfulness and in making errors in communication, and she represents the annoyance of Meg’s mother, her school principal, and friends who get exasperated with Meg.  Who talks in quotes from famous writers to get her points across, and represents intellectual curiosity and and warmth—which is a nice combination.  Which is a guiding force that seems best equipped to get through Meg’s defenses and guide her to a more realistic picture of herself, emphasizing the fundamental importance of faith in oneself and allies sticking together.
     The fantasy has a way of reminding us of current events with some of its principles, such as fear leads to rage, which leads to violence, which leads to darkness.  It has a message about the value of individuals’ being a source of light in dark times.
     The positive messages in A Wrinkle in Time make it more than just a thrill and fantasy; it has substance as well with respect to truthfulness (including to oneself), frankness (expressing thoughts/feeling that need to come out), and self-acceptance (including owning and accepting our faults.  We get to see all the main characters profit from their experiences and introspection. 
      Ava DuVernay can be so proud of her accomplishments in film; it’s mind-blowing to think about how she has ranged from Selma to A Wrinkle in Time, two vastly different genres and movie making.  The three “Mrs.’s” are entertaining and extremely helpful to Meg in their insight and encouragement.  Meg has two other fine supports on the journey; her brother (Deric McCabe) and friend Calvin (Levi Miller).  Her parents (Pine and Mbitha-Raw), both scientists, come across as realistic and loving but with flaws.  Their mixed-race family is inspiring in its inclusiveness; although I have to admit that I was a bit turned off by the “preciousness” of the opening scenes showing the family as more idealistic than real.
     A Wrinkle in Time has some very frightening scenes, so a caution to parents with sensitive children.  They will want to make sure to wait until their child is older, but above all be prepared to discuss the movie afterwards with their children, regardless.  As an adult, those scenes were thrilling to me, and add much to the quality of the film, so I’m glad they were left in. 

A marvelous fantasy based on a beloved book with outstanding visual and special effects and powerful messages for all kinds of children.

Grade:  A                                                By Donna R. Copeland