Thursday, August 17, 2017

THE HITMAN'S BODYGUARD

Ryan Reynolds   Samuel L. Jackson   Salma Hayek   Elodie Yung   Gary Oldham


     The title of this film should have been “Sound and Special Effects”, or “Videogames Onscreen”, because the sounds are so eardrum shattering and the special effects so pronounced, they drown out what little dialog there is.  There is a bit of respite(?) in Michael Bryce’s (Reynolds) and Darius Kincaid’s (Jackson) repartee/arguments, and some of these are actually funny, but they get repetitious fast.  Really, the only value in seeing this film is to witness Salma Hayek as Mrs. Kincaid showing what she is made of.  No shrinking violet she!  And her tirades are more entertaining than anything else in The Hitman’s Bodyguard.
     The skeleton of the story is that Kincaid has evidence against Vladislav Dukhovich (Oldham), a ruthless Eastern European dictator, for crimes against humanity in the International Court of Justice in The Hague.  Now, Kincaid is a hitman, but the court is desperate for good evidence, so they have offered a deal to Kincaid that if he will testify against Dukhovich, his incarcerated wife (Hayek) will be freed.  [There’s a bit of romantic schlock thrown into the story:  Kincaid dearly loves his wife and will do anything to get her out of prison, even go to prison himself.  Bryce has bumbled his relationship with Amelia Roussel (Yung), and needs to make amends.]
     Amelia knows that the only way to get Kincaid safely to The Hague to testify is to hire a bodyguard, namely Bryce, to get him there.  That constitutes most of the story—getting Kincaid to The Hague without Dukhovich’s goons killing him first.  Along the way, helicopters, trains, and cars will be involved in deadly explosions, impossible car races, and blasting gunfire.  Magically, when Bryce and Kincaid get separated, they always know how to find each other and show up in the nick of time to save the other.  (Of course, there is always an argument about whether each needed the other or not.)
     The Hitman's Bodyguard is not bad because it’s not a good film; it’s bad because it’s a videogame (not a movie) that we’re not playing (someone else is).  At best, it is a parody of action films.  There is little character development, substantive issues addressed, or even plot.  Atli Orvarsson’s music could have been a witty commentary on the action, but it had to compete with the special effects and sound, which cancelled it out.  Plus, the music and sound effects were so intrusive at times, they drowned out dialog.
     This movie had potential, but when we see that there were 30+ producers, it may be that too many hands/interests were in the mix. 

If you love videogames and are more interested in action over plot and character development, you will be one to like this film.

Grade:  D+                      By Donna R. Copeland

LOGAN LUCKY

Channing Tatum   Adam Driver   Riley Keogh   Seth MacFarlane   Katherine Waterston
Daniel Craig   Katie Holmes   Farrah Mackenzie   Hilary Swank   Brian Gleeson   Jack Quaid   Dwight Yoakum


            Crime capers are always fun when they’re cleverly worked out, smack of basic human truths, and have colorful characters.  Steven Soderburgh’s Logan Lucky is just such a film, keeping you guessing and chuckling throughout.  He is clearly the director, cinematographer, and editor, but the first-time writer named Rebecca Blunt is a mystery about whom Soderburgh’s lips are sealed.  But it doesn’t really matter, because the film is so playful, warmly human, and so well executed from the writing to the production, we don’t really care.
            In Charlotte, North Carolina, the Logan family has the reputation for being cursed, what with so many things happening to them through the years.  Jimmy Logan is having an especially hard time these days with a football promise coming to nothing, a failed marriage, loss of his job, a bum leg, and he can’t even pay his phone bill.  His brother Clyde seems to be doing reasonably well in his bar, even with part of his arm and hand missing because of a war injury.  They have a sister, Mellie (Keogh), who seems to be able to assist and manage any storm.
            Jimmy is desperate.  His ex-wife (Holmes) is getting ready to move out of town with her husband, taking his cherished daughter Sadie (Mackenzie) with her.  (Sadie is an amusing insertion into the story with her knowledge of tools to hand to her car mechanic daddy and her penchant for all things girly like fashion shows and the “culinary arts.”)
            What follows is Jimmy’s intricate plan to siphon off some of the Charlotte Motor Speedway’s  questionable betting practices, pulling in his brother Clyde (Driver), his sister Mellie (Keogh), prisoner Joe Bang (dynamite expert) (Craig) and Bang’s two brothers (Gleeson and Quaid), and other inmates.  To make matters even more entertaining and clever, some people are used unwittingly (but never exploited without compensation).  That is, no one is really harmed in this caper, making the crime go down as all part of the fun.
            The main characters are all warmly sympathetic—despite the film’s making fun of them in a loving way, absent of cruelty.  The actors should be congratulated on their southern accents, even British Daniel Craig.  The plot is set up to get back at “The Man”, which has a satisfying effect on the viewer and works to excuse the crime.  It roasts common defenses, such as firing a person for “liability issues”, a prison warden (Yoakam) swearing that X (fires, riots, escapes) “just does not happen here”, and a racetrack administrator claiming ignorance about an insurance claim.  I got a kick out of the last scenes showing pairs of characters getting together sometime later after the mysterious disappearance of a considerable amount of money.
            Channing Tatum is a star in evincing a character who is simple on the outside but enormously complex and intelligent on the inside.  Adam Driver is well versed in playing so many different types, and he comes across believably here as a younger brother looking up to his older sibling and really wanting to please everyone.  The actor Daniel Craig is almost unrecognizable as the bleached-blonde, hair-cropped felon he is.  I appreciated seeing the character of Sadie (Mackenzie) presented as a many-sided girl with diversified interests exploring the world. 
            I’m glad Soderburgh is back after a “retirement” from movie making.  He has a way of producing engaging films that have a social message, without detracting from their entertainment value.
           
Hee-haw heroes put one over on the powers that be:  a crime caper that’s an entertaining romp.

Grade:  A                                    By Donna R. Copeland



Thursday, August 10, 2017

BRIGSBY BEAR

Kyle Mooney     Mark Hamill   Greg Kinnear   Matt Walsh   Michaela Watkins   Jorge Lendeborg   Claire Danes


     This film comes at you out of left field.  The basic story is interesting, in that a childless couple kidnapped a baby from birth, rearing it as their own.  However, they’re a bit off their rockers and keep the child fearful about the outdoors and other people, and locked in a basement, which begins the weirdness of the tale.  The next eerie part is that the father, a professor at a college, “produces” a children’s show for James (Mooney) called Brigsby.  James doesn’t know his father is producing it; he only sees the videotapes.  It goes on for years until James is a young adult, who is completely enamored of the show.  The parents even create an audience that makes it seem like the show is a major hit.
     This goes on until the astute detective Vogel (Kinnear) becomes suspicious of some of the father’s actions, and discovers James’ true parents before he was kidnapped by the Mitchums.  He breaks this news to James gently and then connects him with Greg (Walsh) and Louise (Watkins) Pope.  This will be a difficult transition because James has not been out in the world before and appears to be much younger than his age, the Popes are nervously trying their best to make him feel welcome—not their daughter, who shows understandable ambivalence toward him—and James’ primary interest is in the Brigsby Bear saga.  When he finds out from his new friend Spencer (Lendeborg) that anyone can make movies, he becomes obsessed with continuing the saga on his own.  The problem with the latter is that all the props are being held by the police as evidence in the prosecution of the Mitchums.
     The rest of the film is about James’ continuing orientation to the real world and his new family’s getting used to him; his and Spencer’s and their friends’ efforts to get actors and props, resulting in James’ incarceration in a mental hospital; and how all this gets worked out.
     Many of the filmmakers (director Dave McCary, writers Kyle Mooney and Kevin Costello) have been associated with the television show “Saturday Night Live”, and this movie seems like an extended version of one of their skits with its fancifulness, its raw humor, and thinness in substance.  For example, the idea that someone with James’ history could suddenly become a moviemaker with a hit is fanciful.  Raw humor occurs when a young woman (maybe even a high school student) seduces him at a party, which does not end well, partly because someone gave him a drug.  Real substance is lacking, in that it’s not clear what the point of the film is (no underlying principle or thought), and there are obvious omissions, such as James—who had a very positive relationship and bonding with the Mitchums—experiences no grief in being separated from them.  It happens quickly, and he is informed by a police detective instead of someone skilled in that type of work.  There was some promise in the Popes’ engaging a therapist (Danes) to help James, but she wasn’t skilled either; she’s a typical Hollywood invention of a therapist.

Brigsby Bear is an extended Saturday Night Live skit not ready to be a feature length movie.

Grade:  D+                                    By Donna R. Copeland

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

STEP


     “Stepping” or step-dancing is one in which the dancer’s body is used like an instrument to make complex sounds and rhythms with footsteps, spoken words, and clapping.  This award-winning documentary by Amanda Lipitz was filmed at the Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women (BLSYW), a charter school founded by Lipitz’s mother, Brenda Brown Rever, for girls in middle and high school.  It focuses on leadership, college preparation, strong academics, and best practices for girls, with the motto, “Transform Baltimore one young woman at a time.”  Once, when Lipitz was visiting the school, the girls, knowing she was a filmmaker and Broadway producer, begged her to bring her camera and film them step-dancing.  Subsequently, she was asked to make a short film to raise money for the school.  She decided to make it about the Step Team, and focus on the lives of three of the students.  In 2017, the film was shown at the Sundance Film Festival and won a special jury prize for inspirational filmmaking, with Lipitz being nominated for a grand jury prize for directing.
     The theme of this truly inspirational film could be “It’s never too late to change.”  As the film follows the team, focusing on the lives of three of its dancers, the challenges they can face becomes very clear, including poverty, unstable family life, distractions, and consistent motivation to persist and succeed.  Many students have no models to go by, and that is where the teachers, counselors, and principal play key roles.  They have to love their jobs and these girls to give what it requires.
     The Lethal Ladies of BLSYW are working toward competing at the step competition in Bowie, where they’ve tried three times before, but never received a prize.  Teacher Gari McIntyre, Counselor Paula Dofat, and Principal Hall with their colleagues knock themselves out, pressing the girls to keep up their academics, come to practice, work as a team, and think positive.  They will do the same when it is time to apply to colleges.
     We see Blessin, a strikingly beautiful, charismatic teen and co-founder of the step team having more trouble than most.  Her interest in academics, and even the team, waxes and wanes.  Her mother is someone she resembles in temperament, but is not always a good role model for her.  Tayla, on the other hand, also comes from poverty, but has a mother who takes a fierce interest in her daughter and is proud of her achievement in becoming a correctional officer.  Tayla is quieter than most, but consistently makes good grades.  Cori is another dedicated student whose stepfather lost his job, putting the family’s finances in peril.
     All these accounts document the importance of an organization for teens where they can get inspiration and motivation; but it underscores as well the critical need for school officials (teachers, counselors, principals) to supplement the emotional and achievement support they get from the activity with real interest and strategic guidance.  My hope is that the film will be an inspiration for girls in high school, as well as school officials who are in a position to establish similar endeavors in their own schools. 
     In addition to its serious purpose, STEP is entertaining for the viewer in getting to know the girls and in learning about step dancing.  It’s exciting to see them compete in the Bowie State Step competition, an unpredictable process, that is touch-and-go at times, and uncertain as to whether the team can all pull together and make it there.
     Director Lipitz is skilled in drawing the audience into the girls’ lives and their stories that pull for just the right degree of sympathy and understanding of the circumstances they and their families face every day.  Music by Laura Karpman and Raphael Saadiq is energetic, tuneful, and soulful, while cinematographer Casey Regan’s camera guides us in watching the dancers and alternating with intimate portraits of the players’ lives, including the girls, their parents, and their teachers, counselors, and principal.

Take a spirited, soulful journey into the world of step dancing, its promoters, and its beneficiaries.

Grade:  A                        By Donna R. Copeland




WIND RIVER

Jeremy Renner     Elizabeth Olsen     Jon Bernthal     Martin Sensmeier     Julia Jones


      Taylor Sheridan (writer, director) is an artist who knows how to draw out the best from the other artists in his films—Cinematographer Ben Richardson, Musician Warren Ellis, Actors Jeremy Renner and Elizabeth Olsen and the rest of the cast, Production Designer Neil Spisak, Art Designer Lauren Slatten, and the other technical contributors.  Wind River represents a breathtaking example of the essence of accomplished filmmaking, from the sweeping snow-laden landscapes stained with blood, to the haunting musical score paired exactly with the dialog and action, to Renner’s wise old soul with extra sensory perception and gentle touch, and Olsen’s expert urban-trained FBI agent clearly not prepared for the different environment and population, but willing to learn.  There is even an exquisite/troubling blending of stunning beauty and unspeakable horror.
     I was especially impressed with cinematography that has the camera slink around with Cory tracking footprints in the snow, and guiding the eye upward or downward toward whatever it wants you to see.  A view to admire is one shot from an airplane over a snowy, mountainous landscape, showing lumbering trucks on the highway bearing heavy snowmobiles.  This prepares us for a showdown.
     One would like to imagine that the pristine snowscapes we admire on the screen (as we sit in our toasty, comfortable theater seats) would hold innocence and purity and be reflected in fit bodies and souls.  But alas, just as we hear about the brutal attack by a lion on a herd of cattle, we see a fallen human body in the snow with a head wound and blood coming out her mouth.  Tracker Cory (Renner) sadly knows who it is, which provokes memories of an earlier death that still tears at him.
     Cory is a good man, a respected local who, even without the memories, would willingly help FBI agent Banner (Olsen) who has been called in to solve the case.  These sequences constitute the few scenes tinged with humor, when the agent comes totally unprepared for the bone-chilling weather and has to borrow warm clothing from the sheriff’s stern wife.  (“Make sure you return it!”)  Later encounters with the locals are likewise amusing when Banner meets native Indians, unwittingly offending them, and roughnecks working on an oil drill.  Cory and the sheriff wryly get her up to speed from time to time, and she shows flashes of leadership and strength.  (I wish Sheridan had made her character much stronger, as many filmmakers are willing to do with females nowadays…but maybe this is happening only in action figures a la Wonder Woman, Atomic Blonde, and Valerian/City/Thousand/Planets?)
     This beautifully made film has substantive points to make as well as depth of character.  It’s about loss and death—especially of children—and the multifarious ways in which people cope with it; life on an Indian reservation (this part is not fiction); the nefarious effects of drugs on young people; the art of skillful, informed sleuthing and interrogation; and, finally, how satisfying justified retribution can be. 

Be prepared for an extravaganza of beauty in all its forms mixed with the realities of life lived.

Grade:  A                                    By Donna R. Copeland

THE NUT JOB 2: NUTTY BY NATURE

Voices of:  Will Arnett     Katherine Heigl     Maya Rudolph     Jackie Chan     Bobby Canavale     Bobby Moynihan


     In this version of the Nut Job stories, the animals have found that the nut store from the first story is abandoned and filled to the brim with nuts and nut products.  They are gorging to their hearts’ content, getting lazy and spoiled, according to Andie (Heigl); she realizes that the store has a real downside, whereas her friend Surly (Arnett) discounts her concerns and fails to get her point.  She tries valiantly to get the animals to forage for nuts, work hard, and save but they’re not really interested.  Their indolence actually results in the store burning to the ground after an explosion occurred when someone who was supposed to be minding the boiler forgot about it.  But it doesn’t really matter because what neither Surly nor Andie realizes is that the corrupt mayor of Oakton City (Moynihan) has plans to destroy Liberty Park and put in a dangerous (because he doesn’t want to bother with safety issues) amusement park with rides and all the junk foods that Andie abhors—cotton candy, peanuts, ice cream, popcorn, pizza. 
      Andie plays a kind of stereotypical female role in trying to convince the male Surly to step up, get the animals to pull together, exercise their instincts, and resist the humans.  His response is the male-like war cry. “You’re going to fight the humans?” says Andie incredulously.  He does get the animals to rally around, but they will go through many struggles, even trying to move to another park in the city, in fighting the humans.  Along the way, they run into hordes of mice with a cheeky leader, Mr. Don’t-call-me-cute! Feng (Chan), which constitute an additional threat as “a weapon of mouse destruction.”
    The film has good messages for children about working hard, being responsible, cooperating with one another, doing what is right rather than what is easy, and valuing the natural world and their own instinctual nature.  The mayor and his spoiled, mean daughter are shown to be truly evil forces that must be deterred somehow.  In the end, everybody seems to have learned something, or have suffered the consequences.
     The animation and visual effects are very good, but I noticed the picture was not bright, sharp, and colorful like most of these productions are.  It could have been the projector or other equipment at fault, and the version I was shown is not in 3D, which could also account for the problem; but this was a surprise for an animation and detracted from the film’s quality.

A film with some good points, but not a great improvement over the previous Nut Job.

Grade:  C-                                    By Donna R. Copeland

THE GLASS CASTLE

Brie Larson   Woody Harrelson   Naomi Watts   Max Greenfield


     Spending two hours with a majorly dysfunctional family is a real slog.  The Glass Castle is about a family headed by a man who was abused as a child and developed views about how the world should be, imposing a chaotic lifestyle on his family in search of a dream (glass castle) that will never come to fruition.  He can be a real a-hole.  But the kicker is that the viewer is never given any evidence that anyone is standing up to this man, Rex (Harrelson), there is no “come to Jesus” moment for him, and yet we’re supposed to forgive him in the very last minutes of the film when his family has only warm memories of him.  Really??!!
     The actors are the best part of The Glass Castle.  Brie Larson and the younger actresses playing her as Jeannette (Ella Anderson, Chandler Head) all perform admirably, being entirely convincing as the “parent child” who performs her parents’ jobs, is emotionally the closest to her father, and shows disillusionment every step of the way.  Woody Harrelson playing the father Rex can as an actor be riveting as a good guy (The Messenger), a bad guy (War for the Planet of the Apes), a complex guy (TV’s “True Detective”), or a comic (Wildcats); here, he is a chain-smoking alcoholic control freak with unconventional ideas about life and a violent temper to boot.  Naomi Watts as Rose Mary, the simpering mother of the family, helps us see very well the dilemma of an abused wife of an alcoholic, always excusing, and never able to assert herself and pursue her own dreams. 
     The Glass Castle is based on the memoir of Jeannette Walls, which was on the New York Times Best Seller List and received multiple awards.  It’s a complicated story of a girl who grew up in a family in which the parents were determinably unconventional, constantly moved around the country, kept their children close, and hadn’t the foggiest notion about good parenting.  The book should be ripe for a really fine movie rendition; unfortunately, the screenplay by director Destin Daniel Cretton and Andrew Lanham does not live up to that promise.
     Although the actors perform superbly, the screenplay lets them down in plodding through most of the two hours highlighting incompetence and poor judgment.  Yes, we get that in about a half hour.  How about using the rest of the time showing more about how the two older sisters were able to move on, more about Jeannette’s relationship with her husband, and—if it really happened—events that brought Rex and Rose Mary around so that the children could (convincingly) have a rewarding Thanksgiving celebration later?
     In other words, this film should have had a better last act that showed events proceeding logically (in terms of human behavior) from eccentricity and mistreatment of children to redemption.

Unless you suspend logic and realism, and don’t mind frustration, The Glass Castle is not likely to make sense.

Grade:  D                                    By Donna R. Copeland