Thursday, April 2, 2020

NEVER RARELY SOMETIMES ALWAYS

Sidney Flanagan     Talia Ryder     Ryan Eggold     Theodore Pellerin


     The title?  It comes from a questionnaire the 17 year-old Autumn (Flanagan) is asked to respond to when she goes to New York for a medical procedure.  The questions are probing, and since she is not inclined to talk about her experience at all, they throw her for a loop.  
     This documentary-like drama written and directed by Elizabeth Hittman tells about a few days in the life of Autumn.  It’s up close and extremely personal; yet, paradoxically, we’re not given much information through dialog.  It’s a bit like watching a silent film and needing to infer what is transpiring visually.  Hittman has the unusual skill of giving the viewer just enough information about the characters and the setting to pique curiosity and keep you majorly invested in what happens.
     We meet Autumn right away as she is performing as a singer/guitar player at a small night spot.  Simply brief glimpses of this, her family situation, and her daily life previews for us the poignant, story that will unfold.  Autumn is extremely reticent, not even being forthcoming with her cousin and best friend Skylar (Ryder), who provides constant support and requires little explanation.  Somehow, the decision is made to go to New York from a community in Pennsylvania, neither girl apparently ever having been there before.  But they have a mission and go by bus to the city.
     In eliminating dialog for the most part, I suppose that Hittman is making a commentary about young people today who communicate primarily through their devices, and otherwise do not have extended, heart-to-heart discussions that most people of previous generations seem to do automatically.  It is somewhat of a relief to see medical professionals patiently asking Autumn questions, ones which require answers (ah…communication!).  Most of the time, though, Autumn and Skylar undergo and work through major dilemmas with little discussion.  One young man does engage them (primarily Skylar) on the bus to New York, which only serves to increase our concern for the girls.
     Another issue Hittman comments about is the absence of family support and government services available to teenagers with few resources.  We’re not actually told about Autumn’s family, but are given enough views of it to surmise what it is like.  Left to her own devices, Autumn seeks help from social services, but of course receives little that is useful.  Interestingly, she does get some empathy and some services in New York City (going against its reputation), but these are limited, and the girls have to be clever, brave, and assertive not to be abandoned altogether.
     I think this film is laden with social-psychological meanings and commentary, not only about families, but also about society’s insufficient readiness to meet the challenges that are presented by a new generation in a rapidly changing technological environment.  Are families (however constituted), society, and government prepared?  Food for thought.
     This glimpse of a few days in the life of a teenager left on her own (by her own choice) says so much about the current state of affairs viz a viz family complexities and limited social services available.  

A gripping film capturing a few days in the life of a teenage girl left on her own (by her own choice) but with the help of a steadfast friend.

Grade:  A                                    By Donna R. Copeland


Thursday, March 12, 2020

THE HUNT

Hilary Swank     Betty Gilpin     Ike Barinholtz     Wayne Duvall     Amy Madigan     Reed Birney     Emma Roberts


     A perfect allegory for the times.  The Hunt is a 20thcentury take on George Orwell’s novel Animal Farm, in which the animals rebel against their masters.  Only in this rendition, it’s the “Elite Liberals” against “The Deplorables.”  Its plot is not a straightforward telling of a story.  It starts out with a group chat on the telephone, then goes backward and forward in time.  (So keep track of the names, even though it will still be confusing because identities are frequently shifting.)
     Before (almost) everything becomes clear, we witness characters being restrained on a plane and later hunted with guns, arrows, and hand grenades in an open field or roadside station.  These are people from different parts of the country who have been kidnapped, anesthetized, and brought to…they don’t know what state they’re in.  They only hear references to “Manorgate” (parallel to Orwell’s “Manor Farm”), and two pigs wearing human clothes appear from time to time—clues for those familiar with Orwell’s work.)
     That’s enough of the plot; it will be more entertaining and engrossing the less you know about it.  
     Writers Nick Cuse and Damon Lindelof are to be congratulated for their creativity in adapting a novel published in 1945 about Russia and the Soviet Union and cleverly making it relevant to our country today.  Director Craig Zobel expertly films their script, making it come alive in ways that are simultaneously entertaining and appalling.  I always have a problem with movies shifting back and forth in time, and in this film, it’s especially challenging when characters disappear and reappear, and identities often shift (e.g., it is not always clear whether a character is one of the good guys or the bad guys)—all of which contributes to its formulation as an intriguing intellectual puzzle.  
     Betty Gilpin exquisitely plays a somewhat mysterious figure who seems at first to be a deadpan young woman from Mississippi.  But she is a formidable fighter and always seems two steps ahead of whomever she meets.  Gilpin deserves a nomination for this role.  She easily carries the story as a lead figure.  Hilary Swank is perfectly cast in her role, although she is not present in most scenes.  Supporting cast is likewise a talented group of actors who move the story forward with ease.
     My only criticisms are in too much shifting back and forth in time (a current fad in filmmakers’ trying to make their movie more exciting) and in the length of the final battle (as unbelievable as it is humorous).
     This is one of those films that come along every so often to remind us of the artistic, intellectual talent at filmmakers’ disposal.  When you see a work like this, you wonder again why this talent is not tapped more often, and we are offered remakes and sequels ad nauseam.  Oh, yeah…once again, it’s all about the money.

Prepare to be entertained (likely) while being appalled (almost certainly) in this well-informed allegory reckoning back to George Orwell’s Animal Farm.

Grade:  B                                    By Donna R. Copeland


Saturday, March 7, 2020

ONWARD

Chris Pratt     Julia Louis-Dreyfus    Octavia Spencer    Tom Holland    Mel Rodriguez


     This is a fun animated movie that kids are likely to love (and some adults too, based on the guffaws I heard at the screening), with a couple of good messages.  Two brothers live with their solicitous mother, getting along fairly well (except maybe for the older one’s bossiness toward the younger, and his chaotic way of dealing with life).  Ian the younger (Holland) is imminently responsible and sincere, but painfully shy and woefully lacking in self-confidence.  His older brother Barley (Pratt) is just the opposite, never fearing where angels fear to tread, knocking things over and getting into trouble everywhere he turns.  But he is good-hearted, and thinks he is doing a yeoman’s job in helping Ian in the father’s absence.  Their mother Laurel (Louis-Dreyfus) does a heroic job in running interference and trying to bolster Ian’s self-image and tame Barley’s dominating bluster.  Just a typical American family, right?
     On Ian’s 16thbirthday, Laurel presents the boys with a gift from their father he wanted them to have when they’ve both reached age 16.  Come to find out, their father believed in magic, and gave them something that would pass on his love of the craft. Barley is a bit ahead, being familiar with the Quests of Yore fantasy game, so he coaches Ian every step of the way, even through the “Path of Peril”, with many adventures in between. Their quest is to find the Phoenix Gem that will allow their father to visit them for one day.  The quest constitutes the bulk of the movie, which is complicated by Laurel’s need to keep her boys from harm, and in doing so, she enlists the aid of Manticore (Spencer), a good witch.
     There are a number of clever—even funny twists—in the plot, such as a spell that gets interrupted brings only the bottom half of the father back, but still, he is able to impress the boys with his dance steps and witty communication.  Manticore is a hoot in her blustery problem-solving, grand sweeps, and funky dialog.
     Many symbols of magic are sprinkled throughout the story—as in a fantasy game—with the underlying thrust of helping the brothers come of age, Barley in learning the value of wisdom and thoughtfulness and Ian in developing self-confidence. Storytelling is done in such a way that I think kids will get the messages while still being entertained by the animated production.  
     This is typical Pixar, with stunning graphics and a decent story to go with.  It should be popular, but is not likely to make a big splash.

A tale about two brothers and how magic can bring them together and foster their development, overseen by their parents.

Grade:  C+                                    By Donna R. Copeland

Thursday, February 20, 2020

THE CALL OF THE WILD

Harrison Ford     Omar Sy     Cara Gee     Bradley Whitford
Karen Gillan     Dan Stevens     Colin Woodell


     In giving children a dose of nature without so much of the cruelty and violence to dogs that are in the novel, this movie succeeds.  The dogs and wolves are beautiful and the Alaskan scenery is gorgeous. (Kudos to cinematographer Janusz Kaminski for the photographic beauty as well as filming maneuvers.)  The dog Buck’s experiences are models of behavior that can be beneficial to kids, such as the kindness he shows even to strangers, and a logical separation towards the end of the story.  Adults may not take to the film as much as children because of the overly human-like appearance and behaviors of the animals, especially Buck, and the lack of suspense in figuring out what will happen.
     In the beginning, Buck is shown to be rambunctious, not suitable for the genteel life of his owner on plantation-sized property.  This is patient Judge Miller (Whitford) who gently chides him for charging through the house and town and knocking things over—including the mailman.  After one hectic day, the judge makes him sleep on the porch at night “to think over” what he has done.  This gives a local thief the opportunity to dog-nap Buck and sell him. 
     From there, Buck’s adventures are with various masters, the first one cruel and Buck manages to run away, then he is bought by a couple with a dog sled delivering mail, then by another couple with an outsized hunger for gold (this is during 19thcentury gold rush times) the husband (Stevens) being not only selfish and cruel but stupid as well.  Harrison Ford as John Thornton narrates the story and appears from time to time in Buck’s life as someone with normal sympathies for the oppressed.  Thornton and Buck end up together and prove to be good pals, despite Thornton’s reluctance in the beginning, and each must rescue the other on critical occasions.
     Based on Jack London’s continuing successful novel of the same name, The Call of the Wild movie in 2020 is the seventh film rendition of the story, not including a TV series.  Complaints about it center mostly around the computer-generated dog Buck, which the viewer may find a little creepy, especially when he reacts and communicates so much like a human figure and very un-dog-like. Another criticism is about this being simply another repeat of the story on film.  How filmmakers can justify it is beyond me.  How much better it would be for them to use their resources to create something new.  After all, the film industry is replete with talented people.

A coming-of-age story for the dog Buck who travels from a genteel southern plantation to the snow covered Alaskan Yukon with life-changing events along the way.

Grade:  C                                    By Donna R. Copeland

EMMA

Anya Taylor-Joy     Tanya Reynolds     Josh O’Connor     Bill Nighy     Johnny Flynn
Mia Goth     Miranda Hart     Gemma Whelan     Rupert Graves     Amber Anderson     Callum Turner


     Based on a novel by Jane Austen and set in the nineteenth century in England, Emma. is a view mostly of the upper class. The character Emma (Taylor-Joy) embodies the period as a highly admired lady of the town who has been so indulged she comes across as superficial and vain.  Yet she fancies herself such a good judge of others’ character, she rushes into matching her friends up with one another.  Not only does she introduce them, but takes an active role in furthering their romantic relationships.  
     As one would expect, Emma makes some fateful mistakes along the way, misjudging who will be with whom.  Much of the story plays out like an English country dance with constantly changing partners.  That is, we see presumed partners through Emma’s eyes—until reality overcomes fantasy and all is settled in the end.  The one most surprised will be Emma herself.
     Emma. is so well cast, it becomes the film’s strongest asset, helping keep such a mannered story from becoming rather boring to the modern eye.  Taylor-Joy is beautiful and captures Emma’s personality in its mixture of well-intentioned kindness and condescension that stems from over-protection and indulgence.  Still, she maintains an aura of authority in her role as mistress of her father’s house.  
     Co-starring with Taylor-Joy is Johnny Flynn (as George Knightley), the epitome of a gentleman.  Knightley owns a manor brimming with fine art, but is sensitive and always kind and merciful. A neighbor and in-law of Emma and her father, he sees them daily and is Emma’s only critic.  Flynn is perfect for the role in his looks (not so handsome he becomes suspect) and his low-key, personable manner.
     Other prominent roles are carried by Mia Goth as Harriet, a naïve young woman Emma has decided to take under her wing to “make a lady” of her; Rupert Graves (as Mr. Weston) is an appealing “Mr. Nice Guy”, who is social and charming; Bill Nighy as Emma’s hypochondriacal father proves again his effectiveness in being a character actor; and Amber Anderson as the mysterious Jane Fairfax attracts the eye and plays the piano with flourish (Anderson is an accomplished pianist as well as an actor).
     For me, the music provided by David Schweitzer and Isobel Waller-Bridge (composer for “Fleabag” and sister of Phoebe Waller-Bridge) is a high point, coming in unexpectedly at times, religious choral music at other times, and lyrically sweet songs, such as the duet by Jane Fairfax and Johnny Flynn, “The Last Rose of Summer.”  
     I don’t think we really needed another remake of Emma, but director Autumn de Wilde and screenwriter Eleanor Catton have produced a worthy rendition of the Jane Austen classic.  Lovers of Austen’s work will likely be pleased with this update.  Others will not be so impressed.

Emma. is worthy of your attention if you are drawn to period pieces.

Grade:  B                                    By Donna R. Copeland


Thursday, February 13, 2020

DOWNHILL

Julia Louis-Dreyfus     Will Ferrell


     Contrasts--some bordering on contradictions--are the hallmark of Downhill (captivating music and cinematography against marital conflict, Americans vs. Europeans, and the two main characters, Peter and Billie, individually across time.)  This is the American version of Force Majeure (2014) by the Swedish director, Ruben Östlund.  Writer Jesse Armstrong with writer-directors Nat Faxon and Jim Rash follow the original script quite closely, but have “Americanized” the family in its conflicts and in its relationships with Europeans.  But the ending in the European version is more ambiguous, less clear-cut.
     The story is that Billie (Louis-Dreyfus) and Peter (Ferrell) and their two boys are on a European skiing vacation, purportedly because Peter is grieving the recent loss of his father, and actually so they can boost up their relationship, which seems to be in a bit of a slump.  The couple is valiantly trying to maintain a cheerful togetherness when a “controlled” avalanche occurs while they are eating on the deck of a restaurant.  Billie’s and Peter’s versions of what happened next comprise another hallmark of the movie, contrast and contradiction.  How this is dealt with, interspersed with other events is the rest of the story.
     I was a bit intrigued by the filmmakers’ portraying Europeans and Americans in stereotypically obnoxious terms, such as Americans’ readiness to sue and their—to Europeans—Puritanical values, and caricatures of the sexually uninhibited Europeans.  But in the end was turned off by both.  Such European and American stereotypes in the American version of the film are intended to be funny, but I find them excruciating.  
     Julia Louis-Dreyfus brings her considerable talent to her role, which is in stark contrast with her famous television personas in television’s “Seinfeld” and “Veep.”  Here, she is “wifey”, although she is skilled in manipulation.  And in contrast to that, Will Ferrell is a good choice for a husband who is unintentionally comedic, impressionable, and lacks a gram of self-reflection.  
     I did especially like the music of Volker Bertelmann, which captures the mood of every scene so expertly it and the cinematography of Danny Cohen transport us trenchantly to the snow-covered alps setting and the drama unfolding in its midst.  
     It’s too bad when American filmmakers do not trust their own creativity and resort to remakes of fine European films.  Downhill is an example of just that.  Directors Nat Faxon and Jim Rash have made beautiful films of their own (The Way Way Back and The Descendants), and there is no reason for them to “borrow” European films for a remake.

Given a choice, you would be better off seeing Force Majeure, a 2014 French film.

Grade:  C+                                    By Donna R. Copeland

THE ASSISTANT

Julia Garner     Matthew Macfadyen     Jon Orsini     Noah Robbins


     In interviews, Kitty Green, the writer/director of The Assistant, states that her intent is to point out systemic issues within the entertainment industry where so many seem to turn a blind eye to abuse and exploitation.  She doesn’t focus on one perpetrator (for instance, we never see the boss; we only overhear him on the phone berating his employees), but instead shows the experience of a young college graduate (played by Julia Garner) hired to be a production assistant for a powerful executive. One way she illustrates her point, I think, is naming the woman a generic “Jane” and, as I recall, not having that name spoken once in the movie by other characters (primarily men). 
     Another way is to show in detail the assistant’s tasks for one day, which slows down the action considerably to the point of being rather boring.  For the first hour, we primarily see her typing, reading or listening to instructions, opening mail, tidying up, arranging for transportation and accommodations for her boss, and not much else.  Garner manages to keep the viewer interested with her ability to show depth of character nonverbally and portray a sense that something is about to happen.
     Although Green’s points come across very well, it’s hard to imagine a job in film production involving primarily secretarial and housekeeping chores. Especially since Jane is told numerous times that her work is good, that her boss is aware of how hard she works, and that she has a great future in the company.  But we never see her doing anything that is related to production training.  The other two assistants (male) seem to have more elevated tasks, although their work seems mostly to be on the telephone.  
     Another aspect of the film that lacked believability to me is that Jane is a graduate of Northwestern University with a 3.8 GPA.  She’s timid, doesn’t stand up for herself, and constantly apologizes.  It’s easy to see why she’s being eaten alive in a cutthroat industry.  But that surely is not typical of a female Northwestern graduate.  I adored Julia Garner’s cheeky, brash character in Netflix’s Ozark, and it’s a bit of a letdown to see her in this role as someone unable to speak her mind.  
     Overall, though, the film aptly portrays the “culture of silence” that typically exists in an abusive industry, and Green is quick to say it extends far beyond the business of entertainment.  She purposefully made a “quiet” film to illustrate her point; however, this became a drawback to me, and it would have helped the film to have a bit of drama inserted here and there.

An apt illustration of systemic characteristics in a production company dominated by an overly aggressive, entitled male.

Grade:  C-                                    By Donna R. Copeland