Friday, October 21, 2016


Laura Dern   James Le Gros   Jared Harris   Kristen Stewart   Rene Auberjonois   Michelle Williams   Sally Rodier   Lily Gladstone

          Imagine an airport in which everyone is missing their connecting flights; there are some who think they have gotten on one, only to be denied, something that seems like an accidental connection that doesn’t hold.  They’ve invested in hope and are heartbroken by the outcome. This is the picture I get from Kelly Reichardt’s Certain Women.  It gives us snippets of the characters’ lives without much explanation about how they got where they are or why they do what they do.  No one is particularly happy or successful, and it looks like their lives are filled only with the routines of existence.  We don’t see much passion in their lukewarm relationships, and the breakdown of one is responded to with a “Meh…” 
          The film is similar in structure and tone to Reichardt’s previous films, Wendy and Lucy and Meek’s Cutoff.  The plot moves slowly with sensory information striking (e.g., beautiful landscapes and the crunching of horse hooves on the snow) but character development less so.  Relationships are weak and restrained.  Many like this leisurely, cool approach, but I get impatient.
          Based on Maile Meloy’s short stories, Certain Women gives vignettes from the lives of three women.  Laura (Dern) is plagued by a client who won’t take no for an answer, and keeps popping up unannounced at her office.  He eventually gets so desperate he takes a hostage and has a standoff with the police.  Even after he is in prison, he is begging her to write him, “just anything.”
       Gina (Williams) is married to Ryan (Le Gros), and they have a moody teenage daughter.  Ryan has just ended an affair, but is not about to leave his wife, because he “doesn’t do very well without her.”  Gina desperately wants a new house with her own specifications, including sandstone, but one wonders whether the marriage will survive such a project.
          The strangest tale is about Beth (Stewart), a lawyer from a lower middle class family who has made good, and has a job.  But for some reason, she agrees to teach a class two nights a week on a subject of which she knows little, and has to drive four hours each way to get to the classroom and back home to show up for work the next day.  Lily (Gladstone), a ranch hand, follows students into her classroom the first night, stays out of curiosity (and perhaps a crush on the teacher), and tries to establish a friendship between them. 
          I think in some ways, this film could be entitled “Looking for [a] Mommie” because the stories have characters who seem desperate and look to a female for attention and nurturance.  The sadness is that each is disappointed—even broken-hearted—by the lack of response from the other.  Certain Women is meant to be by women, about women, and for women, but it gives a distorted view of our lives.  Surely, most women do not have such soulless lives as these characters.  Few of the women I know or have known are as disconsolate and impassive as the three women in this film.
         The performances of Dern, Stewart, Williams and Gladstone are reason enough to see this film; they evoke our sympathy and we wonder how things will turn out for them; unfortunately, we never do find out. 

A film about lonely, lonely women who seem to get no satisfaction.

Grade:  C-                           By Donna R. Copeland

Wednesday, October 19, 2016


Frank Langella   Mary Kay Place   Billy Crudup   Christina Applegate   Josh Lucas   Alex Shaffer   Nicola Peltz

          Ray Engersol (Langella) has received bad news from his doctor and as a retired physician and friend of his pals who have passed on, he knows what is ahead, and decides on his own to make the trip to Oregon where euthanasia is legal.  One of the film’s primary assets is the portrayal of family members’ reactions to his announcement, and how the crisis interplays with other disturbing life events going on at the time.  Ray’s daughter Kate (Applegate) is the one experiencing the strongest negative reaction, and she is hysterical in arguing against her father’s decision.  Ray’s wife Estelle (Place) reflects the weariness of a long-term caregiver (Ray has a history of heart disease) who has spent most of her life deferring to her husband.  Kate’s husband Brian (Crudup) is often caught in the middle between his wife and others in a conflict, and he does make the sensible decision to drive Ray from New York to Oregon for an appointment he has made.  Kate is at first bound and determined to do it herself, but her daughter has precipitated a crisis, so it’s best for her to stay home.
          It’s a relief for the viewer when en route to Oregon, Ray, Brian, and Estelle decide to stop and see the Engersols’ estranged son Danny (Lucas) and Brian’s college-age son Nick (Shaffer).  Both sons are loathe to see their family, but when they learn all the facts about the reason for the trip, they help mitigate conflicts and join the caravan.  A big mistake of Ray is his withholding medical information from his family that would help them understand and empathize with his position.  When he finally confides in Danny, it makes a huge difference in his attitude.  I hope families viewing Youth in Oregon will take note in case they’re ever in this situation.  Knowing about the seriousness of illness is essential to being able to accept such a momentous decision.
          This is Joel David Moore’s first time directing a feature-length film on his own, and the script is Andrew Eisen’s first screenplay, so the quality of the filmmaking is impressive, including Joel P. West’s mood-capturing music and Ross Riege’s inventive and beautifully colored cinematography.  The story and depiction of the characters are realistically presented with the complexities often found in modern-day families.   When I worked at a cancer center, I was often struck by the number of instances in which families have additional crises in their lives that they have to deal with—cancer is only one of other crises, such as alcoholism drug dependency, house fires, and acting-out children.  The filmmakers here seem to know that well enough to include it.
          Frank Langella’s astute portrayal of an older man who has always been in control of his life and his dogged pursuit of his goals steers the movement of the story and keeps its focus in the face of tremendous emotional resistance.  Billy Crudup reflects well the miseries of his character torn by various pressures and trying to accommodate his wife’s frequent instruction to “Do something!”  Christina Applegate is adept in modulating her performance across different roles—nurturing, supportive mother and horrified, scolding mother; loving wife and goading wife and daughter.  Josh Lucas’ subtle portrait of an estranged son with long-standing conflicts with his father instantly moving to an understanding, supportive stance toward him is very well done.  The young actors Nicola Peltz and Alex Shaffer depict the essence of normal teenage efforts to separate from their parents.  Mary Kay Place’s character is one that seems beaten down and turning to crutches to help her along, and Place accomplishes that to a tee.
      The title of the film puzzled me, but I read that “Youth” is a play on the word ‘euthanasia’—rather lame, if that’s the case.
       Youth in Oregon is especially helpful in demonstrating the steps in an actual euthanasia in a neutral setting with characters we haven’t become emotionally attached to—presumably to help us be more objective in confronting such a sensitive topic.  The filmmakers keep the viewer guessing as to exactly how the story will conclude until the very end. 

Youth in Oregon is a sensitive exploration of the controversial topic of euthanasia and one family’s variable reactions when confronted with it.

Grade:  B                           By Donna R. Copeland


Keanu Reeves     Renee Zellweger     Gugu Mbitha-Raw     Gabriel Basso     Jim Belushi

       The whole truth comes out in dribs and drabs in this courtroom drama directed by Courtney Hunt, writer/director of Frozen River.  Young Mike Lassiter (Basso) is being tried for murdering his father Boone (Belushi), who has a reputation for being abusive to his wife.  Ramsey (Reeves), a friend of the family is his defense lawyer, but the problem is that Mike will not talk to him or anyone.  Ramsey pulls in another attorney (Mbitha-Raw) simply for window dressing and a strong nose for sensing lying. 
         One of the cleverest devices in the film is having courtroom scenes contain flashbacks showing a picture of the person’s memory as he/she is testifying, often suggesting that the person talking is not telling the whole truth, is mistaken, or is frankly lying.  Interestingly, in a key piece of evidence, we see none of this device.
       The story states straight out that Mike confessed his guilt to the first officer on the scene, and his fingerprints are on the knife.  Ramsey at first takes the tack of showing Boone’s abusiveness toward his wife Loretta (Zellweger), as witnessed by many people, particularly those at a garden party six months before the murder.  When Mike insists on taking the stand, Ramsey and Loretta are horrified, but Mike does it anyway, revealing a major piece of evidence in the case.
        The Whole Truth is not especially compelling in its plot, in that many will figure it out before it is revealed.  Reeves is a typical lawyer-type (and does an effective voice-over reminiscent of Verbal in The Usual Suspects) and Zellweger is a typical self-effacing, bullied wife.  Neither is particularly challenged in their roles, and Basso, being mute, basically just stares.  The strongest and most interesting character is played beautifully by Mbitha-Raw playing a “stooge” who is questioning and sharply figuring out the case as she goes along, much of which we see in her facial expressions. 
        It has been eight years since Courtney Hunt’s major successful picture, Frozen River; and she has written a few scripts for television shows in the meantime; but I guess it will take a bit longer for her to get back into her groove.

The whole truth may occur to you early on in this film.

Grade:  D+                    By Donna R. Copeland


Dev Patel     Nicole Kidman   Rooney Mara   David Wenham   Sunny Pawar

          This is may be one of the most complicated adoption stories you will ever hear about, and it is based upon a true one.  Saroo (Pawar) is an incredibly industrious Indian child of about five who adores his older brother and wants to go everywhere with him for jobs.  (Their mother is single, supporting three children by gathering rocks.)  They do things like hop on a coal train and take some of the coal to sell in the city.  When Saroo insists on accompanying his brother on a job during the nighttime, Guduu tries as hard as he can to dissuade him.  Finally, the older boy relents, and takes Saroo with him.  When they arrive at their destination on the train, Saroo has fallen asleep and refuses to wake up, so Guduu goes on without him, instructing him to wait on a bench in the train station, and he’ll be back for him.  Time passes, Saroo awakens many times, but no Guduu.  He starts wandering, and realizes too late he is on a train that is moving.
          Saroo ends up in Calcutta where they speak Bengali, but fortunately, many know Hindi, his language.  He wanders the streets for two months, gets picked up by a seemingly kind woman, but manages to escape when he realizes she has bad intentions.  Finally, he is picked up by officials who are charged with getting homeless children off the streets, and put in a kind of orphanage. 
          By something of a miracle—but probably also because of his positive qualities—an Australian couple has asked to adopt Saroo, and he is on the plane to Tanzania.  The rest of the story is about his life there with his new parents, Sue (Kidman) and John (Wenham), and eventually another adopted Indian child who becomes his brother.  Twenty years go by and the story continues with Dev Patel in the role of Saroo. 
         Despite being very happy in his new home, Saroo’s wish to recapture his Indian identity grows to the point he becomes obsessed with it.  He studies maps and train schedules, using Google Earth and his memory of places to figure out where his family might be.  He is sure they have wondered and worried about him all these years, but his separation from them prompts questions about his own identity:  “I’m from Calcutta…no, I’m not from Calcutta; I’m lost.”  His search is made more complicated by the fact that the child mispronounced the name of his hometown and didn’t realize his real name was Indian for ‘Lion.’
          Lion is based on Saroo Brierley’s novel about his life in the 1980’s-90’s, and at the end of the film we are treated to footage of the actual people in the real-life drama.  The film is truly artistic in its presentation by Australian Director Garth Davis (Mini-series “Top of the Lake”) and the cast and crew.  Davis’ directorial work has been nominated for numerous international awards, including coming in second this year for the People’s Choice Award at the Toronto Film Festival for Lion.  Casting for Lion is strong, with Dev Patel and Nicole Kidman already being mentioned as possibilities for Oscar nominations.  The child actor for Saroo, Sunny Pawar, is enchanting in his portrayal of the feisty, smart, industrious boy who combines these qualities with thoughtfulness and caring. 
          Music by Volker Bertelman and Dustin O’Halloran forms a significant component in the film, particularly since there is little dialog in long sequences (e.g., when Saroo is alone and trying to find his brother), and its beauty in mood and tunefulness makes its presence known in every scene.  Cinematographer Greig Fraser likewise makes his work an integral part of the story, with the camera guiding us through mazes in cities and then sweeping through the teeming millions in the city or the breathtaking landscapes of Tanzania.

An intriguing and inspiring “lost and found” story.

Grade:  A                                    By Donna R. Copeland

Tuesday, October 18, 2016


Hailee Steinfeld     Blake Jenner     Kyra Sedgwick     Woody Harrelson     Haley Lu Richardson     Hayden Szeto     Alexander Calvert    

          The Edge of Seventeen put my nerves on edge, partly because I’m a psychologist.  [If ever a group of people needed therapy, this family does, but—unrealistically—it’s never mentioned to any of them.]  Secondly, I’m bothered by so many of the current films meant for teens glorifying or minimizing the bad effects of alcohol.  When the protagonist here, Nadine (Steinfeld), drinks so much she’s hanging over the toilet the next morning with her friend mopping her brow, I’m curious about what the filmmakers’ intend and what adolescent viewers will think of it.  Are they likely to admire it or get the impression that “everybody does it” or “no big deal”?  Might filmmakers come up with better ways to rebel and protest as models for young people?  (Yes, I know it’s not about that; it’s about the money to be made in making people laugh, even if what they laugh at is inappropriate.) 
       Nadine has a hard life for someone in her circle (middle/upper class suburban), primarily because she is annoying.  She is not an “easy” child in her rebelliousness—physical manifestations in her younger years and sarcastic, put-down remarks in her teens.  Grade school is torture until she finds one friend, Krista (Richardson), who appears to be the only one (besides her father) who is nice to her.  The film can be credited for its portrayal of a mother who might spawn such a child, Mona (Sedgwick), who idolizes her older son Darian (Jenner) and always regards Nadine as less than, or worse.
        When a family tragedy occurs, Mona increasingly turns to Darian, and Nadine becomes more and more of a problem.  Nadine ups the ante to force her mother to pay attention to her, becoming more and more distressed and acting out, while desperately seeking help from other sources.  But when her best friend Krista begins taking up with Nadine’s brother Darian, she loses the only real support she has ever known (besides her father, who is no longer available), not because of Krista rejecting Nadine, but the anticipation of Krista rejecting her.
         The comedy in The Edge of Seventeen is in the people she turns to for help.  One is her teacher, a wry Mr. Bruner (Harrelson), who has some of the funniest come-back lines in response to a range of her tragedies (loss of father, suicide thoughts, miss-sent text) and her bombastic accusations.  The best thing for her (and the movie) is that he is never shocked by what she says, but responds in a way that makes us laugh and bewilders her.  Only Harrelson could pull this off in the way that he did—quintessential Harrelson.
     Another person Nadine turns to is a shy classmate, Erwin (Szeto), whom she underestimates and devalues (partly because he seems to like her) until the end when she can be truly impressed.  Their interchanges are realistic for shy kids their age, and constitute some of the most genuine and comedic portrayals in the film. 
         Unfortunately, there is someone else Nadine turns to, a crush she has on someone she doesn’t really know, Nick (Calvert).  She accidently sends him an erotic text, which he surprises her by responding to, and they go out on a date that doesn’t turn out well.
        Steinfield does an expert job in playing an annoying, difficult child with self-esteem problems, and her gradual painful transformation into a more mature person is nuanced.  Kudos to veterans Harrelson and Sedgwick; it’s always gratifying to see talent and experience at work.  Szeto’s Erwin could be considered a break-out performance in his portrayal of a kind of nerdy, artistic character still naïve, but with tons of talent.
        The Edge of Seventeen is a debut film for writer/director Kelly Fremon Craig.  It’s a good start, but I hope she will become more thoughtful of the social/psychological messages she sends in her films, and go beyond simply pleasing an audience that may not be very discriminating.  She appears to be sensitive to human dilemmas and experiences, and could become more mindful of creative means of overcoming them.  She presents rich psychological material in the characters, but these are not resolved in a realistic way.
        In addition to the problems with this film mentioned in the first paragraph, I cannot figure out why filmmakers cast older actors to play teenagers.  Steinfield was 19 when the film was made—which isn’t so bad—but the other teen actors ranged in age from 20-30 years old.  If there weren’t talent in the age range of the film, I could understand, but there are; so why don’t filmmakers cast them?  It’s simply ludicrous to expect us to imagine a 17 year-old in a 30 year-old body.

A film about teenagers probably not for teenagers.

Grade:  C                                   By Donna R. Copeland

Monday, October 17, 2016


Gael Garcia Bernal     Jeffrey Dean Walker   Alondra Hidalgo

          Desierto depicts the arduous, dangerous trek undocumented workers from the south make, trying to reach the U.S. in hopes of a better life.  Jonás Cuarón co-wrote, directed and produced the film in collaboration with his renowned filmmaker father, Alfonso (Gravity, Y Tu Mama Tambien, Children of Men) as producer.  A previous joint effort by the father and son include the multiply award-winning blockbuster, Gravity. 
          When a truck carrying a group of 14 hopefuls breaks down in the middle of the desert, the driver tells them and his unwilling assistant they will have to go the rest of the way on foot.  Unfortunately for them, a self-appointed vigilante (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) with a high-powered rifle and a well-trained tracking dog is roaming around trying to find them after he sees their tracks.  From there on, the film is essentially following the group and their pursuer as they laboriously make their way, not knowing exactly which way to go.  It’s a mournful, discouraging story made all too real by similar accounts we read about in the newspapers.  In view of current attitudes toward immigrants, the Cuaróns hope to rouse some sympathy for those who are so desperate to get here they undergo uncommon horrors in addition to the blazing sun and thirst.
         Filmed in Baja California, Cinematographer Damian Garcia captures the beauty and desolation of the desert around the border, accompanied by the haunting music of Woodkid.  Bernal is a gifted and experienced actor, and he is up to his usual performance here; and it’s a good thing because he is the only admirable character in the film.  Jeffrey Dean Morgan, whom I see as a white-skinned Benecio del Toro, effectively plays a sinister, bitter guy whose favorite recreation seems to be tracking prey and getting his thrills from hitting the mark.
         Desierto does fill the viewer with suspense and dread as intended by Jonás Cuarón, but viewing does become tedious at times without much happening besides the tension-filled chase, except for a few dramatic episodes sprinkled in here and there.  Perhaps it would have helped if the back-stories of more of the characters were told.  We hear only a bit about two, so don’t have much of an investment in the others.  The most serious missing back-story is that of Sam (Morgan).  I would have loved to make sense of his character by having more details about his journey in life.  And by the way, why doesn’t he have a mobile phone?  I understand that even smugglers are using them nowadays to guide their charges through the desert.  But maybe this is set in an earlier time.

The exhausting, dangerous journey of undocumented workers trying to make it to the U.S.

Grade:  C+                                    By Donna R. Copeland


Natalie Portman   Peter Sarsgaard   Greta Gerwig   Billy Crudup   John Hurt   Richard E. Grant

          The opening scene:  A black screen and loud, dirge-like music with sound winding down like someone stopping an old phonograph player clues you in for the mournful tragedy that is to follow.  In Jackie, director Pablo Larrain has created an artistically rendered film that pays homage to Jacqueline Kennedy, wife of slain President John F. Kennedy, and the aftermath of his assassination.  We get a behind-the-scenes view of her efforts in planning his funeral, the many resistances she encounters, the conflicts she has with some, and the intrusive advice she receives, regarding funeral planning and her children for instance, from so many.  Above all, we see an intelligent woman whom many considered shallow and pretentious take the helm and manage to honor her husband in the way she wanted, which was based partly on her keen knowledge of history but as well on her own deeply felt, genuine emotions.
           Larrain jumps around in time perhaps to help convey an impressionist “painting” of the woman and give the viewer a sense of the turbulence experienced by the country after the assassination.  Scenes are interspersed with an interview conducted by “A Journalist” (Crudup)—presumably Theodore H. White, a family friend—whom Jackie had asked soon after his death to write about John Kennedy’s legacy for Life Magazine.  This is apparently where the comparison was made with their years in the White House as “Camelot”, the subject of a Broadway Play, the last song of which was Kennedy’s favorite.  Jackie wanted the article to convey the import of the song:  “Don’t let it be forgot, that once there was a spot, for one brief shining moment that was known as Camelot.” 
        Other scenes portray Jackie’s interactions with Bobby Kennedy (Sarsgaard); her efforts, assisted by William Walton (Grant), in restoring the White House; poignant moments of intense grief and loss; and conversations with a priest (Hurt) during a stroll in Arlington Cemetery.
          The film is a tour de force for actress Natalie Portman as Jackie.  She is in virtually every scene, and gives us a convincing picture of a beautiful, intelligent, accomplished woman of great complexity who could dismiss the most presumptuous adversary with a terse, incisive comment.  At the same time, Portman needed to show the Southern and Catholic influences in Jackie’s background, along with that of privileged wealth.  
        Peter Sarsgaard doesn’t look much like Robert Kennedy, but it is easy to see the resemblance in his actions and tone, whether he is grieving for his brother, supporting the widow, or voicing his anger and disappointment about the curtailment of what he hoped would be a brilliant and lasting legacy.  Billy Crudup as the sometimes cheeky journalist challenging and complimenting his interviewee shows us the awkwardness of the situation, his attempts to maintain objectivity, and finally succumbing to her charm.  Greta Gerwig's performance as Jackie's lifelong friend and White House Secretary is nuanced and appropriately low key.
           Mica Levi’s music and Stephane Fontaine’s cinematography support and enhance the excruciating drama played out on the screen, and Noah Oppenheim’s screenplay is an even-handed, historically accurate commentary on the “Camelot” years of John and Jacqueline Kennedy.  Pablo Larrain’s synthesis of all the components into a captivating whole should earn him praise and justifiable award consideration.

An insightful, artistic portrayal of a sometimes controversial American legend.

Grade:  A                                 By Donna R. Copeland