Thursday, May 23, 2019

ALL IS TRUE

Kenneth Branagh     Judi Dench     Ian McKellen     Kathryn Wilder     Jack Colgrave Hirst


     Not so much rings true (I don’t think) in this fantasy written by Ben Elton and directed by Kenneth Branagh—also its star—but it is interesting.  All is True deals with the period immediately following the fire that destroyed the Globe Theatre, primary venue for William Shakespeare’s plays. Immediately after, Shakespeare retired and never wrote any more.  
     The film shows Shakespeare (played by Branagh) returning home and planting a garden, although, admittedly, he was not very good at it.  In settling back in with his wife and two daughters—one of whom is married—Shakespeare is presented as being glad to be home, devoted to his family, and still grieving the loss of his son Hamnet at age 11.  In this drama, Hamnet’s twin, Judith (Wilder) reveals her own story of how the child died. 
     Most of the drama delves into the hypothesized dynamics of the Shakespeare family, in which William’s wife Anne (Judi Dench in predictably fine form) voices her resentment about his extended absences and other affections he has expressed in his poems.  She is cranky, but mostly forgiving.  His daughter Judith (Wilder) echoes her mother, but her complaints have an additional edge; she is convinced that her father values his dead son over his daughters, particularly her.  The Shakespeares’ daughter Susanna is married to a Puritanical physician, and it’s implied that he takes a self-righteous, accusatory stance on most issues.  The movie shows Judith eventually marrying after she and her father resolve their conflicts, although it is not under the best of circumstances.  All is True suggests that both daughters were involved in local scandals.
     I found the film rather strange in its presumed knowledge of history and its attempts to be currently relevant.  For example, the film clearly conveys its respect for Shakespeare, but it also comes down hard on male privilege and upper class self-entitlements, as well as absent fathers out to make their mark on the world.
     Not being a Shakespearean scholar, I was constantly wondering how much the film is based on historical fact.  Elton and Branagh include any number of hypothetical interactions and events that may veer far from the truth, however plausible they might be.  In this respect, I’m opposed to dramatic liberties taken by filmmakers who seem to go off on their own tangents, simply to entertain/thrill audiences.  On the other hand, if the screenwriter is a real scholar, and makes educated guesses about, say, how it was for Shakespeare to “come home”, I’m a bit more forgiving.
     At any rate, for aficionados of the period and Shakespeare, the film is likely to be entertaining.  For those not particularly interested in historical details and atmosphere, you can skip it.

An unusual look at William Shakespeare and imagining his life in retirement.

Grade:  B-                                    By Donna R. Copeland

PHOTOGRAPH


Nawazzaddin Siddiqui     Sanya Malhotra     Farrukh Jaffar


     Photograph is very similar to writer/director Ritesh Batra’s previous film, The Lunchbox in its quiet love story where the protagonists are unassuming people who manage to fall into each other’s world quite by accident. In this production, Mumbai street photographer Rafi (Siddiqui) takes a picture of Miloni (Malhotra), but after she has paid for it, she gets distracted and walks away while he is struggling to put it in an envelope.  
     We wait to see if they will ever see each other again, and sure enough they do, and he is able to give her the picture.  It turns out, the timing is exquisite for both of them.  Her parents want to give her picture to a friend whose son is about to depart for the United States; they see a match here.  And Miloni is able to supply the snapshot. Rafi has a doting grandmother who threatens him in all kinds of charming ways if he doesn’t find a wife soon. And, oh! she is coming to visit him soon.
     Rafi, while devoted to a grandmother who made sacrifices for him and his siblings, is shown to be a very careful man in conducting his life.  He doesn’t move quickly in any endeavor, so there are no prospects in his horizon for a wife.  He cannot bear to disappoint Dadi (Jaffar), so he uses his imagination in pulling out Miloni’s picture while a song entitled “Noori” is playing, and voila! he creates a girlfriend named Noori he can tell her about.
     But Dadi won’t be satisfied unless she is able to meet her, so Rafi has to ask Miloni to meet Dadi, say her name is Noori, and play along as if she is his chosen one. Shy, self-effacing Miloni is intrigued by this, and decides she will help Rafi.  Plus, there seems to be a mutual attraction between them that neither seems to fully comprehend.
     The charm of Photograph lies mostly in the innocence and trust of all involved, from the two main characters to Rafi’s friends and family, to Miloni’s family.  The charm throughout is remarkable because Miloni is from a privileged background, whereas Rafi and his family are of more modest means, yet all are honorable with similar values.  Batra shows how people from different social strata can come together so easily if outside social constraints are absent.  Cagey Dadi has figured out that her grandson’s love is from a different station, but she goes no further than letting Rafi know she knows.  
     This film is not for everyone with its slow pace, studied character development, and social commentary.  But for those who can appreciate a simply told story about people in another country where most of the characters are admirable, it will be refreshing.

This is an Indian adventure that is close-up in portraying real people with minds of their own.

Grade:  B+                                    By Donna R. Copeland




Wednesday, May 22, 2019

BOOKSMART

Beanie Feldstein     Kaitlin Dever     Billie Lourde     Jessica Williams
Lisa Kudrow     Will Forte     Jason Sudeikis


     Take a peek at the generation coming up, just graduating from high school and finally developing perspective on where they’ve been and where they’re going.  Booksmart is something of a nerdy girl’s dream; one who is smart in book learning, but panicked to realize the night before high school graduation that she hasn’t lived.  She’s developed a slightly condescending attitude toward her classmates through the years, not realizing that some of them have been achieving just as much (i.e., headed for Harvard, Yale, etc.), but have been having fun and developing relationships all along.  She wants to salvage her life and is determined, even if she has only one night to do it. 
     The movie is meant to be a lighthearted window into the current younger generation (those of means, at least) with lifestyles that are self-indulgent, but not heartless.  Although there are scenes where the two main figures—the “nerds”—are characterized in unkind stereotypical ways, minds are changed when the girls loosen up and begin to mix with their classmates on a more even footing.  Some of this might be a little “pie-in-the sky” wishful thinking (most people with deep-seated impressions are not ordinarily so forgiving of those who are “different”), but it’s a good model for younger audiences to see how people can come together in permissive circumstances.
     Beanie Feldstein as Molly and Kaitlin Dever as Amy hold their own as starring characters who are confronted with a whole new world right in their hometown before they take off for Botswana or wherever—parts unknown.  They show the girls sparring, arguing, and coalescing, solidifying a friendship that will last forever.  Feldstein in particular sensitively conveys subtle changes in her character that develop as she gains insight.
     New director/accomplished actress Olivia Wilde is backed up by an all-female writing team (Susanna Fogel, Emily Halpern, Sarah Haskins, Katie Silberman) in portraying diversity in an appealing light.  Tolerance is paramount here in going against your usual prejudices about intelligence, gender, and race—um…maybe not so much, class.  But there is a forgiving attitude throughout—especially with the hilarious Lisa Kudrow and Will Forte as Amy’s parents, but also other characters who change and forgive as they get more information. (Have you ever forgiven someone who vomited on you?)
     Music by Dan Nakamura and cinematography by Jason McCormick do their job of integrating elements of the film together into a meaningful whole.

A great date night movie for the young at heart—with substance.

Grade:  B                                   By Donna R. Copeland

Sunday, May 19, 2019

NON-FICTION

Guillaume Canet     Juliette Binoche     Vincent Macaigne     Nora Hamzawi



     This French production by Olivier Assayas means to ponder the contemporary world of media (books, blogs, social networks, literature, art) to think about how the digital age has affected it for good or bad.   Different characters in the continual conversations we hear in the movie argue in different ways, but all acknowledge that the world is changing and leaving us all to wonder how cherished values and modes of communication will survive.
     We first meet the suave Alain Danielson (Canet), head of a publishing company who holds a clear reverence for books, but is determined to stay ahead of the digital game in his field.  He has no trouble refusing to publish an old client/friend’s novel, yet eventually (after a brief fling with his “digital transition” assistant) endorses it as an e-book that he claims is bound to be popular.  Alain is married to Selena (Binoche), a classically trained actress now in popular movies and television who comments about the effects of her age on the roles she is being offered.  (Another evidence of sea change in these people’s world.)  
     The other prominent couple figuring in the drama are Leonard (Macaigne), a traditional novelist nonplussed by publisher Danielson declining his latest manuscript, and his wife, Valerie (Hamzawi), a political consultant.   Note that Leonard is having an affair with Selena, Alain’s wife.  
     The mostly open marriages (Selena does express some concern about her husband’s affair, even as she is having her own) seem to reflect Assayas’ fundamental thesis in the film, that as reluctant/resistant as we may be to change, we are rapidly being assimilated into the social/cultural changes that are taking place all around us.  
     Certainly, the concept of marriage has evolved to incorporate different combinations beyond one man and one woman, and extra-marital liaisons no longer hold the same stigma they once did.  But Assayas doesn’t skip over the anxiety we experience in these changes, even as we participate in them.  These anxieties extend beyond those closest to us, to beyond, to existential concerns related to art, the visual arts and literature, 
     The ongoing esoteric conversations among the intellectuals in the film will be completely lost on most viewers who will find them tedious and boring, which means that Non-Fictionis directed only toward those who might have an interest in ongoing cultural changes in our society and the effects the digital age will have upon it.  This is probably the most intellectualizing bed swapping you will ever encounter.
     Both Guillaume Canet and Juliette Binoche are highly regarded as talented actors, and they electrify scenes they’re in.  But Vincent Macaigne and especially Nora Hamzawi provide excellent support.
   
Only the intellectually curious should apply/attend.

Grade:  B                                    By Donna R. Copeland

Thursday, May 16, 2019

JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 3 - PARABELLUM

Keanu Reeves     Halle Berry     Ian McShane     Laurence Fishburne
Mark Dacascos     Asia Kate Dillon     Lane Reddick     Anjelica Huston


     ‘Parabellum’ apparently means “call to war”, which is the theme of John Wick:  Chapter 3.  Repeatedly, we see groups aligning up against one or more persons, and agents being sent out to “be of service” (“I have served…years; I will be of service.” is the ritualistic response to a challenge)—which usually means taking someone out.  But the central character to go to war with is John Wick (Keanu Reeves, in his third appearance as Wick).
     By the third John Wick film, most of the drama and character development have been expended in the first two, and in this third we get what looks like a stunt man’s dream:  endless scenes of choreographed fights that used to be fascinating, but by now have become repetitive and tedious.  As with many action films, the fight scenes go on for 30 minutes or more.  This is understandable in view of the director Chad Stehelski’s background as a stuntman, but when that is essentially all that’s in a movie, it can’t hold the interest of those of us wanting a story.
     John Wick 3 is marked by extremely violent fight scenes that sometimes are accentuated by humorous images, which did indeed bring laughs from the viewers.  As in cartoons like “Bugs Bunny”, stunts are punctuated with humor, usually from one character clobbering another in rapid sequences with bodies flying into each other or into things like glass cases and careening every which way.  Many are cleverly done and get chuckles and guffaws from the audience.  There are swords that go completely through a man, with the point appearing on his backside and swords or guns being shoved into a man’s head then pounded to drive it in further.  One has to see it as a cartoon; otherwise, it’s just sick.
     In this version of John Wick (Reeves) has a bounty on his head to the tune of $14 million for killing someone in the Continental Hotel where the rule is that no blood can be shed there.       This rule comes down from the “High Table”, a mysterious group with inviolable rules overseeing underground criminal operations in the city. Wick tries various strategies (and wins out in a formidable number of hostile encounters) to redeem himself, eventually ending up in Morocco where the highest of highs gives him instructions for expiation, but only after he does extreme penance.  Then even more battles occur on a set reminiscent of Wick 2, which had mirrors.  This one has see-through glass everywhere in many configurations and on multiple levels.  (It’s a stunning set design.)
     Moreso than in the previous Wick films, this one involves shifting loyalties and very little drama in terms of personal interactions or character development.  For instance, Wick’s relationship with Sofia (Berry) is not explained, other than that they had a history that left her so resentful she leaves him on the desert sands, making a big show of depriving him of water in a gruesome way.  
     Keanu Reeves owns the character of John Wick admirably, as he has done for the previous renditions, but the constant “mano-a-mano” encounters show him to be as weary as we are of the endless struggles.  A fresh new exotic face is Asia Kate Dillon, as the Continental’s chief, who conveys a mixture of threat and decisiveness.  She is good, but I would have liked to see more mercilessness, a fault that I attribute to the writers or director rather than to the actress.  Ian McShane and Laurence Fishburne are marvelous in their continuing roles as underground criminal elements.  Halle Barry did well with what she had; her storyline did not add much, and her character needed to be much more developed to make it interesting.

John Wick is on the run (i.e., in a string of stunts and cartoon-like maneuvers) with a $14 mil bounty on his head after breaking an almost inviolable rule in a consecrated place.

Grade:  C+                                    By Donna R. Copeland

Wednesday, May 8, 2019

TOLKIEN

Nicholas Hoult     Lily Collins     Derek Jacobi
Harry Gilbey     Patrick Gibson     Anthony Boyle     Tom Glynn-Carney


     J.R.R. Tolkien’s image as a mystical figure with a magical mind makes a story about his life quite the challenge.  But director Dome Karukoski and writers David Gleeson and Stephen Beresford have made a valiant effort in capturing his early inspirations (an imaginative mother who home schools her boys in Africa, acts out the stories she reads to them, teaches them languages, and instills in them a reverence for books), his traumatic experiences (deaths of parents, a horrific WWI), and the love of his life, Edith, that almost assuredly influenced his popular and revered works, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.  
     Above all, the film shows Tolkien adhering to values that were ingrained from childhood, ones so internalized that he was able to comply with his strict guardian’s proscriptions against associating with his love for three years (ages 18 to 21) and risking his life to seek out and protect a friend during wartime. 
     I understand the film is not endorsed by the Tolkien family and his estate, which may put a negative light on it, and well-versed readers of the books may have problems with the film as well—all perhaps justifiable.
     As one not well versed (having seen only a couple of films), I thoroughly enjoyed the film’s sensitivity to the emotional elements and entanglements shown, the artistic technique of inserting graphic memories of his life into Tolkien’s war traumas, and the abiding love story between him and Edith, all of which, I think, have a ring of truth to them.
     Nicholas Hoult (as well as the young Harry Gilbey) captures the role of Tolkien seamlessly, showing all the sincerity, befuddlement, and playfulness of the character.  Lily Collins shows the mischievousness and intellect that must have been Edith’s in the appealing manner intended.  Derek Jacoby’s ingenious cameo as a philology professor is priceless.  
     Much to be admired in this production include the artistic contributions of cinematographer Lasse Frank Johannessen and musician Thomas Newman. Johannessen’s camera serves as a guide throughout, showing devastating images of war, the playfulness of a group of friends, and the nuances of urban and rural scenes.  Newman’s music brings the cinematic and story portrayals together to make an emotional and meaningful whole.

A film worth your while whether or not you’re a hardcore fan/expert on J.R.R. Tolkien.

Grade:  B+                                    By Donna R. Copeland

Friday, May 3, 2019

RED JOAN

Judi Dench     Sophie Cookson     Stephen Campbell Moore     
Tom Hughes     Tereza Srbova     Ben Miles


     Red Joan is loosely based on the life of a British woman (Melita Norwood) who became a spy for the Russians in the 1930’s, and ultimately handed them critical information about the British atomic weapons project.  Her actions were not revealed publicly until the 1990’s, when she was 80, and the government decided not to prosecute because of her age.
     The movie takes considerable liberties in adapting the story to the screen (Lindsay Shapero) showing, for instance, Joan (the younger played by Cookson and the older by Dench) being a student at Cambridge University, becoming involved with Communist sympathizers, and falling in love with Leo (Hughes), a German who becomes a spy for the Russians.  Leo disappears from time to time without explanation or communication, and she rebuffs his attempts to get her to give up the nature of the project she is working on (as a physicist in the British scientific weapons project, a counterpart to the U.S. Manhattan Project) numerous times, knowing she would be liable for treason after she had signed the oath required by the Official Secrets Act.
            Director Trevor Nunn and screenwriter Shapero for some reason guided the story more like a soap opera plot, emphasizing Joan’s susceptibility to Leo, and cloaking it in a rationale that is actually different from the historical account.  Here, Joan’s infractions are attributed to her anti-war stance; she is horrified by the bombing of Japan and is convinced that if all the major powers had access to the atomic bomb, it would result in a d├ętente—which the movie implies actually happened.  (The real “Joan”, Melita Norwood, stated her rationale as "I did what I did, not to make money, but to help prevent the defeat of a new system which had, at great cost, given ordinary people food and fares which they could afford, a good education and a health service" (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Melita_Norwood).
     As part of the plot, Joan’s relationship with scientist Max Davis (Moore), who hires her as a secretary/scientist, gives the filmmakers an opportunity to show the discounting of women in important positions, but also another romantic twist to the story.
     The movie can be faulted for making such a radical departure from actual people and events.  It calls into question filmmakers’ claims of authenticity when they purport to base their story on historical events and then alter significant relationships and events.
     As it stands, the film is effective in eliciting sympathy for Joan, her claims of patriotism, her susceptibility to a charmer, and her rationale for doing what she did.  I just don’t know how much it actually jives with the real story.  I am much more interested in knowing more about the real story of a most reluctant spy than in a made-up story of a romance.

Judi Dench and Sophie Cookson play a reluctant spy at different ages, and while interesting, Red Joan fails to capture the true story on which the film is based.

Grade:  C                                    By Donna R. Copeland