Thursday, July 8, 2021

BLACK WIDOW

Scarlett Johansson     Florence Pugh     Rachel Weisz     David Harbour     William Hurt

 


            Noteworthy in this Marvel action film is the “woman’s touch” in directing.  We get a spoof on families, along with its dark side, the bonds of sisterly affection, and loyalty among females in general, even though the female characters are just as ferocious as the men.  The Australian writer and film director Cate Shortland has a short resume of films she has written/directed, but they are well represented in the awards world (c.f., Somersault, Lore, Berlin Syndrome) at this stage of her career.

            Black Widow 2021 is a prequel, showing Natasha Romanoff (Johansson) and Yelena Belova (Pugh) as children of Melina Vostokoff (Weisz) and Alexei Shostakov (Harbous) living as a happy family in Ohio.  When Alexei arrives home one evening, he tells Melina they must flee within the hour.  That’s when the girls learn that they have major roles to play in a world drama.

            Jump ahead twenty-one years, after the family has been broken up.  Natasha is on her own and literally bumps into (read major skirmish) Yelena, whom she recruits to join her in fighting a dangerous conspiracy afoot directed by Dreykov (Winstone).  In their efforts, they reconnect with Alexei (the Red Guardian), springing him from prison, and Melina who now has a pig farm, but is still intimately connected to the Red Room and Dreykov.

            What follows are numerous scenes of death-defying battles, some fought from airplanes and helicopters, which constitute a marvel (pun intended) of CGI and other special effects, with characters from Natasha’s past continuing to pop up.  Warmly amusing in all these scenes, Natasha expresses concern and apologizes or tries to restore their health and well-being.  For whatever reason, the filmmakers want to portray her as caring in the end, particularly as a “big sister” to Belova.

            We get to see the real villain in the course of Natasha’s efforts to stem the conspiracy.  It’s truly horrific, as scene after scene unfolds showing the most inhumane actions, and of course a push for world-dominance.

            The two female actors, Johansson and Pugh, are clearly up to the job of starring in an action film, not only in their ability to portray the ultimate in toughness and brawn, but also in their gift for verbal jabs and playfulness in even the most harrowing scenes.  Rachel Weisz admirably embodies a nurturing figure and technical genius all in the same person (another strong point of the film).  Noticeable too is David Harbour as protective father, Incredibly strong man, and lovable dufus in his many manifestations.

            I enjoyed this more than most action films for its cleverness, underlying ethics, and filmmaking skill in general. Although I tire of the repeated and seemingly endless preposterous battles, I still enjoyed this film.

 

The back story of the Black Widows—and a side of Natasha—we haven’t seen before.

 

Grade:  B                                 By Donna R. Copeland


Thursday, July 1, 2021

I CARRY YOU WITH ME

 Armando Espitia     Christian Vazquez     Michelle Rodriguez


            A tender reminiscence about a Mexican man trying to fulfill his dreams in America after he suffers prejudice and heartbreak in his hometown of Puebla.  Of course, he discovers through the years that he must deal with something similar in the U.S., but it is different enough that he is able to accommodate and make his way toward fulfilling his dreams.  It’s hard to say if his life would have turned out another way if he hadn’t gotten one of the best surprises of his life after years of being here, but the film has a greater interest in helping us learn about and identify with the immigrant’s experience, and the tremendous pulls toward staying in the new country versus moving back to the old one.

            Flashbacks are used effectively to show us Ivan’s (Espitia) and Gerardo’s (Vazquez) memories of the past, both in Mexico and in the US.  Just as in real life, these memories pop up at unexpected moments, illuminating whatever is going on at the time.  Rather surprisingly, this is the first feature for director Heidi Ewing, whose past work is in documentaries about people needing to adjust to changing circumstances (The Boys of Baraka, Jesus Camp, Detropia).  She has a keen eye for points in a story that have universal as well as personal appeal, which makes this transition logical and impactful.  

            Ewing has some advantage in helping the film achieve a real-life quality.  The two figures on whom the story is based are her personal friends with story-worthy lives.  But Ewing went further in being rather daring; she filmed the real people as the two friends in their present-day ages/lives.  This will not be noticeable to most viewers, although some will catch it when the credits come onscreen.  

            The actors seen for most of the movie are well cast, showing major differences in the personalities and backgrounds of the characters.  Ivan is the most sentimental of the three, Gerardo the most practical, and Sandra (Rodriguez) a cross between the two in her capacity for sympathy and understanding, although lacking foresight in making major life decisions.  The pulls back and forth between the U.S. and Mexico are very different for each of them.

            This is a welcome addition to the genre of immigration experiences, and is likely applicable to people from any country who have come to the U.S. undercover.  I doubt that many of us think much about all the people who serve us when we go to restaurants, and all the stories they could tell if we asked them.

 

A captivating story about two immigrants who find the strategies required for subterfuge bear similarities in both countries.

 

Grade:  A                                          By Donna R. Copeland

Thursday, June 24, 2021

FATHOM

 


            Two researchers have found their calling in attempting to track the sounds of whales—Dr. Michelle Fournet off the coast of Australia and Dr. Ellen Garland off the coast of Scotland.  The documentary demonstrates how they are going about tracking and recording the whales’ sounds and their attempts to communicate with them.  Specifically, they want to have “a conversation with a whale.”  

            We are shown some of the elaborate equipment that has been designed to do the work at the Cornell University Bioacoustics Laboratory.  There are innumerable “calls” they’ve already recorded, especially for this film the sound of a “Whup”, which seems to be used to say ‘hello’ and introduce themselves.  Dr. Garland has been able to sound out and name the whale sounds she has identified.  She can reproduce them in a most convincing way.

            The film is directed by Drew Xanthopoulos, with editing done by Robin Schwartz.  It leaves much to be desired in that the subject of the songs of whales is so much more intriguing than what the director actually shows us.  Part of the problem is the editing, which is so choppy it breaks up any hope of a narrative.  The filming jumps back and forth between Fournet’s and Garland’s field work, often concentrating on what I think is unnecessary information, such as the difficulties in doing this kind of research, the drain on personal relationships, etc.  I can appreciate that it must be hard—the researchers are out in the field for weeks at a time in a very nature-tensive environment than what they are used to back home.  And things like a break-down of a boat motor causes frustrating delays.  

            It seems like a more apt description of Fathom by the way it is filmed should be something about how this type of research is so hard, not just in the technical aspects but as well in the toll it may take on the researcher’s personal life.  Much more intereating would be elaboration on facts such as that the whales’ communication have evolved over millions of years and that they constitute a global cultural network that we know so very little of.

            As a film by women about women’s work, I was disappointed; they seem wimpy as compared to men, and I’m sure that is decidedly not true.  The researchers must have tons of material they could have used to describe in more detail how they “read” and listen to the sounds of whales as captured by their recordings.  It’s only in the last ten minutes of the movie that we get a taste of that.

 

Fathom is much more about the difficulties in conducting research on whale communication than it is about describing the findings so far.

 

Grade:  D                              By Donna R. Copeland

F9: THE FAST SAGA

 Vin Diesel     Michelle Rodriguez     Jordana Brewster     Tyrese Gibson     Ludacris

Nathalie Emmanuel     Thue Ersted Rasmussen     Helen Mirren     Kurt Russell

 


If car racing, heists, and spying—with all the special effects that one can think of—is your thing, and you don’t mind absurdity, then F9 is the movie for you.  This is the 10th full-length version of the theme since it first appeared in 2001.  Another theme puts great emphasis on family, a motif repeated across the series, with the star Vin Diesel as Dominic always implying that family is sacred and of the utmost importance.  (“Family” includes all the people one is close to as well as those biologically related.)  The problem in this newest iteration is that Dominic’s estranged brother Jakob (Cena) has suddenly appeared on the scene. 

Jakob is clearly less principled than Dom, and is easily drawn in by nefarious schemes, this time with Otto (Rasmussen), with whom he plans on getting his hands on an object that will allow him and Otto to rule the world.  They have captured Dom’s nemesis Cipher (Theron) and put her in a glass box so she can assist them, but she shows only disdain for Jakob.

The movie will take us on a world tour (London, Tokyo, Central America, Edinburgh, Azerbaijan, Tbilisi in Georgia, even outer space) as a way I presume of making the story more exciting.

The biggest problem with the movie as I see it is that practically all of it takes place on streets in big cities with cars and people getting hit and scattered every which way, punctuated with fist fight free-for-alls.  A little dialogue will transpire, but soon it’s back to car chases and fist fights.  It is a tiny bit to their credit in my book that the women are just as ferocious and active as the men; not one hesitates to blast with a gun, her body, or fist…AND with a computer.

All of the movies in the franchise have been big box office draws, although critics tend to be much less enthusiastic.  That has to do with the numerous implausibilities (e.g., cars being shot out over large bodies of water and an actual trip into space) and contradictions (characters seemingly rising from the dead) replete in the series.  But promoters of the film advise viewers just to sit back, suspend realistic considerations, and just enjoy the movie with your popcorn.

Director Justin Lin—who has previously directed three Fast films—is also scheduled to direct the final(?) two adventures.  He knows exactly how to please enthusiastic fans of the franchise, helped along by the special effects crew, cinematographer Stephen F. Windon, and composer Brian Tyler.  

 

F9 remains true to the franchise in its daring thrills and main characters, with the cast cast headed by Vin Diesel as usual.

 

Grade:  C-                             By Donna R. Copeland

Thursday, June 17, 2021

RAYA AND THE LAST DRAGON

 Voices of:  Kelly Marie Tran     Awkwafina     Isaac Wang     Daniel Dae Kim

Gemma Chan     Benedict Wong     Sandra Oh     Alan Tadyk



            This is straight Disney from the Americanized dialog to the characters dressed like Asians but bearing little resemblance to them.  If you don’t mind that—and many don’t—it’s an engaging story about a fractured people getting separated into factions and coming back together on the basis of trust.  Although the creators didn’t have it in mind, they realize now that it has resonance today in the need for trust and a pandemic characterized as “Druun” in the movie.

             It begins with Raya’s (Tran) close relationship with her father, Benja (Kim), but with differences of opinion between the two about the world.  Benja has maintained a hope that the people of Kumandra could reunite into a trusting, peaceful state once again like it was when dragons existed and before the Druun destroyed all of them.  But there is one dragon left, Sisu (Awkwafina) which has survived with the charge of destroying the Druun and reuniting all the factions of Kumandra:  Spine, Heart, Talon, Fang, and Tail.

            Adventures follow, with Raya leading a charge forging battles with the other factions.  She has enlisted Sisu, the one existent dragon, into their cause.  Sisu is not as one would expect; she is witty, good-hearted, and entirely a peace-making figure.  It will take a while for Raya to begin to understand her way of thinking. 

            Strengths of the movie include primarily female protagonists in an action movie with emphasis on friendship between women, ending the story with some ambiguity for the viewer to fill in the blanks, and a theme that is topical for our time.

            The movie is colorful with Disney-quality graphics and sure to captivate the middle age to teen age crowd.  I doubt that younger children will enjoy it beyond the color and the intriguing figures.  It does have a message about trust, but one that is rather na├»ve and simplistic to my way of thinking.  

 

Good female models in an action movie that is topical for today.

 

Grade:  A                              By Donna R. Copeland




LES NOTRES

 Emilie Bierre     Marianne Farley     Judith Barlbeau     Paul Doucet


            This story will put a chill in any mother’s heart.  It shows a reality that is hard to believe, even though we all recognize that it springs from truth.  I’m not sure, but I figure that the 13 year-old girl shows a kind of heroism and strong character that is uncommon in one so young.  This is not to say that I think the choices she makes are the best ones from my point of view, but I do admire her strength in following her own instincts about her own life.

            Emilie Bierre’s performance reflects unusual talent and training in her ability to convey what her character Magalie is thinking just with her eyes and facial expressions.  She plays a quietly rebellious figure who is nevertheless still only 13 and susceptible to some kinds of coercion, even though she is likely to thwart any adult trying to force her to do or say what they wish.  She responds much more readily, however, to gentle persuasion.  Unfortunately, her mother (played so convincingly by Marianne Farley) does what is probably typical of protective mothers, yelling at and trying to force an obstinate teenager into compliance.  Another mother—neighbor and close friend of Magalie’s family, Chantal, does a bit better with her son and with Magalie, but she still shows a tendency to tell a teenager she knows best even while conveying sympathy.  

            Another important figure is the mayor of the town, played by Paul Doucet, who is Chantal’s husband, and a mentor to Isabelle.  He seems to be someone who is always ready to lend a helping hand. He is highly respected in the small community, where everyone seems to know everyone else, and he is considered something of a hero after the town was inundated by a huge construction project that killed Emilie’s father.

            Directed and co-written by Jeanne Leblanc with Judith Baribeau, Les Notres (Our Own) has already started receiving awards for the production.  These two women beautifully convey heartfelt commentary on people in a small town in Canada (similar, I’m sure, to small-town America) who are flawed (sometimes seriously) but trying to do their best in the families they love while coping with a challenging social problem. Also typical of small towns is an unwelcoming stance toward people who look different from the residents and are likely to be scapegoats for things the community doesn’t want to face.  As with good movies, this one leaves the viewer with some unanswered questions that are worthy of discussion after seeing it.

            

A gripping story of small-town life, its good points and its flaws, told in a drama about one teenager, which reflects the community as a whole.

 

Grade:  A                              By Donna R. Copeland

RITA MORENO: JUST A GIRL WHO DECIDES TO GO FOR IT

 


            What a life Rita Moreno has had—and it’s still going on!  She got a Hollywood Star at age 64, and at 84 is working on a remake of “One Day at a Time”, a Broadway play.  Arriving with her mother in the 1930’s from Puerto Rico on the U.S. shores, Rosita (only later would she be called Rita) was struck by the lack of greenery and color on her approach and a statue of a woman holding what looked to her like an ice cream cone in her right hand.  Little did Moreno know what was ahead for her.

            She was a success right away (“I learned very early how to get attention”), having been spotted by an MGM agent at a New York nightclub when she was only 16 years old. After a brief meeting with Louis B. Mayer, she traveled to Hollywood with a contract in hand, where her mother’s sense of how to make her look as much as possible like Elizabeth Taylor, helped her get cast immediately.  Unfortunately, Hollywood filmmakers saw her solely as a Latina, so there followed countless roles as a beautiful young native girl with an accent.  (She began to realize that it didn’t matter which accent; the filmmakers didn’t distinguish between them.  She only needed to come across as a slightly kooky “other” girl.)

            Moreno hadn’t come across many people to guide her in in the new world she was in, so she stumbled into numerous situations/roles that were great initially, but weren’t the best for her ultimately.  But she was good at realizing what she was being asked to do.  This extended to her relationship with Marlon Brando who, despite all his narcissism, at least guided her into psychotherapy.  That would stand her in good stead as she continued to make her way through the Hollywood scene after she and he had parted.

            It was interesting to me that the filmmakers (Mariem Perez Riers, director) interspersed excerpts of the Brett Kavanaugh hearings into Moreno’s story.  It was a way to demonstrate the vulnerability of many women in the context of male authority/power, which indicated the intent of the makers of this documentary to use Rita Moreno’s life to illustrate the point.  And that is that generations of women are starting to learn how to manage and maneuver themselves through the male-dominated maelstrom of whatever business they are in.  It’s not just Hollywood; it’s almost every major business of today.

            This incredible woman has now achieved EGOT (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, Tony) status.  

 

A fine documentary about Rita Moreno’s remarkable life directed by Mariem Perez Riera

 

Grade:  A                              By Donna R. Copeland