Thursday, March 4, 2021

14 DAYS, 12 NIGHTS

Anne Dorval     Leanna Chea     Francois Papineau 

            This is a gentle movie, a disquieting mixture of stunning, eloquently filmed scenes; warm, appealing characters; and profound grief in a pervasive thread running through it all.  The film opens with a snowy landscape, eventually focusing on a primitive thatched wall with a rectangular window that looks like a black hole.  To some extent the cinematographer Yves Belanger is the storyteller supplementing the sparse dialog.

            Based loosely on a true story, the French Canadian screenwriter Marie Vien weaves a fascinating tale about a mother who travels to Viet Nam, the land of her adopted daughter who has been killed in an accident.  Her goal is to learn more about Clara’s native land as a way of connecting with her.  But the Vietnamese are still holding grudges against the French for invading their country, so Isabelle (Dorval) is not always given a warm welcome.

            She decides to visit the orphanage where Clara was taken after her birth, and meets with the young woman who took care of Clara in her first year.  After initially being somewhat short with Isabelle, the woman shows compassion for her, looking her up later and giving her a clue about the birth mother.  Isabelle will end up contacting Thuy (Chea), which transforms the drama into a story about two mothers.

            Director Jean-Philippe Duval presents the narrative with interspersing flashbacks, as seems to be the current preference among filmmakers.  Seldom nowadays are films presented in chronological order, necessitating the viewer’s periodic reorientations.  A welcome unifying element in this instance is the backdrop of Viet Nam’s natural beauty and bustling cities captured by cinematographer Yves Belanger and accompanying mood enhancing musical score of Bertrand Chenier.  

            In addition, the two fine actresses Anna Dorval and Leanna Chea deliver intensely emotional scenes that keep us curious and engaged, using body language and facial expressions to elaborate on the dialog. Their success makes us feel close to their characters and caring about how they fare.

            14 Days, 12 Nights’ moving account authenticates the varying experiences of losing a child and unites them in a realistic whole.  The loss is profound no matter how or when it occurs and, clearly, processing its psychological effects is a part of adjusting oneself.  The filmmakers demonstrate their understanding of this fact throughout, but especially in one of the concluding scenes.

 

The talented filmmakers behind this very human, moving account show their appreciation and understanding of human experience and something of what it takes to adjust to loss.

 

Grade:  A                              By Donna R. Copeland

 



Wednesday, February 24, 2021

SAINT FRANCES


Kelly O’Sullivan     Charin Alvarez     Mary Beth Fisher     Ramona Edith Williams     



            This is a potentially good film, but uneven in its quality.  I so wish it had been done well, because I’m sympathetic to most of the issues presented.  But the script (Kelly O’Sullivan) and direction (Alex Thompson) are deficient in telling the basic story.   Sometimes the action is overwrought, and other times almost devoid of emotion.  It addresses important issues, sometimes helpful in such, and sometimes not.  It’s almost as if the issues the filmmakers wanted to cover are ticked off one by one, then brushed away.  Importantly, the main character, Bridget (O’Sullivan), does not come across as a real person, which is doubly ironic, because the actress is the screenwriter!  This is her first time out as a feature writer, so I think she just needs more experience.

            The action is around a fairly well-to-do Lesbian couple hiring a college drop-out to be the nanny for their two children, one a spunky Frances (beautifully portrayed by tiny Williams) and the other a newborn boy—who cries a lot, BTW, just so you know.  The nanny has good intentions, but little/no experience in childcare.  She is clearly not at ease with children (she was recommended to the couple by her good friend who had the job previously), and has to rely on her own upbringing and natural instincts.  (It doesn’t help the script—and I question why it was included—that her mother reveals to her that when she was a baby her mother had fantasies of…)  

            A major problem of the script is inserting so many weighty issues into a film that is supposed to be a comedy and a drama.  I counted at least six subjects overloading this film including postpartum depression, birth control and abortion, emotional repression, married and unmarried couples’ issues, the challenges and joys of motherhood, and nursing a baby in public.  Little vignettes of each of these subjects are inserted, and then we quickly move on to something else.  Bottom line:  too many issues for this kind of film.

            The movie also brings up for me the current penchant of filmmakers to show in detail bodily functions and self-care, whether it’s brushing teeth (which they all do wrong from a dentist’s point of view) or dealing with a menstrual cycle—all of which I think are unnecessary to prove whatever point they’re trying to make.  It seems like an artifice simply to draw in viewers’ attention.  Please don’t show me bloody sheets and expelled products; I’m interested in the story!  Another issue is writing dialog for children that doesn’t match their stage of development.  In this film, little Frances giving wise counsel to Bridget is an example.

            Maybe this is too much of a spoiler, but to illustrate the naïveté of the plot, Bridget does stumble through, even though she has made a number of serious mistakes, and then miraculously becomes a model for and great friend not only to Frances, but to Frances’ parents as well, who have used Bridget as a therapist.  I appreciated one point of the film, which is that it would be helpful to talk to a therapist when you’re troubled.  I also appreciated that both women are shown to be ideal employers, understanding, forgiving, and generous, which I see as realistic, given who these characters are, and gratifying.

            Although the issues presented in Saint Frances might pull you in, and the actors are exemplary, Saint Frances misses the high mark of a thoughtful, well-produced film.

 

Not as much a comedy or a drama as advertised, but more one of filmmakers attempting to get a foothold on making good films.

 

Grade:  C                              By Donna R. Copeland



BILLIE EILISH: THE WORLD'S A LITTLE BLURRY

 


     In the beginning of this film, I was impressed with seeing how a music video was made.  Then, I was impressed with how many people were fawning over the star, noting that she puts herself down and harshly criticizes her performances.  But it’s not clear whether she does this intentionally (to get praise and reassurance) or whether she is simply talking about how she feels.  As the film progresses, I’m drawn in, first of all by her appeal, but also by seeing a strong family unit working together.  Both parents are amateur musicians and have fostered the careers of their son Finneas and daughter Billie.

As much as I admired the star, there are all kinds of appealing features to this documentary, which Director R. J. Cutler and the other filmmakers have so competently produced.  There is the appeal of seeing all the facets of Billie Eilish’s personality, seeing them expressed in her outfits and her appearance overall, the presentation of her family—almost unique nowadays for the family staying together--and most of all, a teenager hit artist thanking her parents for their help, not only in helping with careers, but also in the way they brought the children up.  Eilish possesses an unusual combination of authenticity and playfulness.

     The film does a great job in showing the stress of constant hordes of people pressing against celebrities.  We can see Billie reveling in this at first, then realizing how much it affects all of them.  We see a child star trying to cope with fandom and the inclusion of her Justin Bieber idolization brings that point home—even though it certainly surpasses most fans’ experiences.

Most of all, the documentary highlights the process of idolization from humble beginnings, ways of coping, and its effects on all involved—family and friends.  To see what a child at 17 years old goes through is enlightening.

     The documentarians of Billie Eilish are to be congratulated on giving us a realistic picture of stardom achieved by a teenager.  It was moving to hear Billie’s mother expressing herself about how necessary a responsible parent is to help navigate the waters of fame.  She is keenly aware of the danger drugs and alcohol pose for such “lucky” performers.  

     Finally, it’s awesome to hear about all the Grammy awards Billie earned in 2020—including Record of the Year, Album of the Year, Song of the Year, Best new Artist, and Best Pop Vocal Album—with her brother Finneas sharing in those awards, along with his own Producer of the year Award. 

     For someone who did not really know who Billie Eilish was, I enjoyed the film a great deal for the way it covered a star, not only in concerts and acclaim, but as well in illustrating the background and values of a singer/songwriter star from an intact family.

 

An inspiring look at a new artist with a history different from the usual story of instant fame.

 

Grade: A                                                By Donna R. Copeland 

 

 

Friday, February 19, 2021

THE VIGIL

Dave Davis     Menashe Lustig     Malky Goldman     Lynn Cohen     Fred Melamed


     Yakov (Davis) is in a rather fragile state as a result of a traumatic event and subsequent stay in a protected Hassadic Jewish community.  Those around him are supportive and helpful in guiding him through the transition back into normal life.  He assures them he is just fine, only strapped for funds.  When his old rabbi and friend offers him a chance to be a shomer (someone staying with a dead body overnight to protect the soul from demons), he takes the opportunity to earn some money.

     What will transpire during that fateful night is truly horrifying.  Eerie sounds and sites are intensified by Michael Yezerski’s music and Zach Kuperstein’s cinematography.  It’s difficult to tell sometimes whether what we’re seeing/hearing is only in Yakov’s mind or actually occurring.  These boundaries are often blurred and it’s sometimes hard to tell if the wife of the deceased, Mrs. Litvak (Cohen), is sane or not.  She is introduced as being demented.  But after the deceased’s demon—while he was a prisoner at Buchenwald and currently—begins to haunt the house, she seems quite intact.

     Dave Davis as the main protagonist does a great job in moving among the many psychological states his character transverses, and it is these manifestations that are on-screen most of the time.  Lynn Cohen is a good match in evincing someone we’re never quite sure of the whole time, weaving in and out of the unreal and a normal kind of nurturance.  She and Davis show convincing chemistry that heightens the story’s interest.

     This first feature by writer/director Keith Thomas is good at playing with the viewer’s own sense of reality and the boundaries into fantasy—as successful horror films do.  The weaving in of psychiatric disturbance makes the sorting out even more challenging.  It hovers just below going over the top in drama and unbelievable coincidences to make it a good mystery/thriller.  Some minor loose ends made me wonder, such what happened to Yakov’s backpack after he entered the Litvak house, how Sarah got Yakov’s phone number in order to text him, when she had only given him hers, and how it was that we heard Dr. Kohlberg on one phone call with Yakov trying to call him down, and then on a later call as if he hadn’t talked to Yakov at all.

 

The Vigil is full of the usual nighttime horrors, and has enough of a good drama that fans of the genre are likely to approve.

 

Grade:  B                                    By Donna R. Copeland




 

SILK ROAD

Ross Ulbricht     Jason Clarke     Jennifer Yun     Jimmi Simpson 

     This film seems to have a number of targets; there is the old school “street” agent working to bring in dope smugglers, and the cyber threat from criminals using encrypted software and Bitcoin to bring in the dough.  We see how these two positions are pitted against each other in Silk Road, but we also see other kinds of conflicts, which are not well spelled out.

Silk Road is interesting in its introduction of a young political libertarian with high ideals who wants to allow people freedom at the expense of the “state” (i.e., the government).  One win for the individual is a loss to the state, in his way of thinking.

Ross (Ulbricht) is from an upper middle-class family, whose father has (perhaps vicarious) aspirations for him, but he has an itch to succeed on his own terms.  He keeps looking for something that will confirm his philosophical position, and he has only a dim view of his potential success.

     He comes up with an idea of using Bitcoin to finance illicit drugs—non-traceable and most of all, outside the government’s authority.  He’s only mildly interested in some drugs, and has given no thought to the ultimate implications of his plan; the plan he has come up with seems to be perfect from his point of view.  He has no inkling of the number of users who would click on “Silk Road” and make him a wealthy man.

     Enter Rick Bowden (Clarke), a DEA agent who has been disparaged for his previous actions as a “street cop” for getting involved in cocaine use.  After rehabilitation, he is now being assigned to the cyber division of the DEA, for which he is ill prepared, being considered as a dinosaur (e.g., no self-respecting cyber agent would deign to use street methods, his primary modus operandi).  He is being put to pasture; his supervisor tells him that all he has to do is sit at his desk doing whatever, and he will get his pension in nine months.

     Can Rick do this?  Of course not; we get the impression he has never backed away from a challenge.  But there is an interesting juxtaposition in the movie between what older Rick can accomplish as opposed to what the younger Ross can accomplish.  Underlying that dilemma is the contest between “street smarts” versus “intellectual strategies.” The film seems to imply that the newer cyber techniques accomplish the job without the dirt and grime of the former.  But another component of the ending seems to imply that there might be something of worth in the dirt and grime.

     I see the techniques used by Rick in “solving” the case as a huge and unnecessary distraction in the telling of the story.  It also muddies the waters in terms of what the filmmakers had in mind.  If they wanted to show how young people are naïve sometimes in their visions for society, they did that very well.  But inserting the torture of one of the players in demonstrating street techniques is unnecessary, misleading, and revolting.

 

A crime story pitting newer technologies against older street-smart approaches in fighting crime.

 

Grade:  C                 By Donna R. Copeland


Wednesday, February 10, 2021

FRENCH EXIT

Michelle Pfeiffer     Lucas Hedges     Valerie Mahaffey     Imogen Poots

Susan Coyne     Isaach De Bankole     and the voice of Tracy Letts


     Could there be a more unlikely group to be together in Paris?  The movie takes a while in getting you/them there. It starts out with Frances Price (Pfeiffer) learning—although not for the first time of being told—that she is out of money.  Obviously, from her home, to the way she is dressed, and the places she frequents, she is used to high style living.  She takes her financial manager’s advice and sells her valuables, giving her a tidy sum of money, which would last a lifetime for a frugal person. That, Frances is not.  

     When her best friend Joan (Coyne) learns of her plight, she offers her apartment in Paris, which she rarely uses.  This creates a new problem for Frances' devoted son Malcolm (Hedges), who has just become engaged but hasn’t told her.  It quickly becomes apparent that Malcolm is completely dependent on his mother for money, so he has to tell his fiancé Susan (Poots) goodbye the next day—but of course he wants her to wait for him, even though he has no idea when he will return.

     What is sure to be a capricious journey with this mother-son duo constitutes the plot, involving very odd and unpredictable people pulled into their story as they proceed across the sea on a ship and arrive in Paris, smuggled cat in tow. But the most unpredictable of all is seductive Frances.  She (artfully played by Pfeiffer) tops them all in eccentricity.

     The movie is a farce that one can enjoy (Oh, for the theater popcorn in these Covid-19 times!) by not taking it too seriously and if you can vicariously enjoy living a carefree life with stacks of Euro notes resting on the shelf in your closet.

     Not entirely without some degree of redeeming value, the movie shows honesty among the homeless, waiters, and other average citizens, who try to give back absurd amounts of cash liberally distributed by our heroine.  Emotional health, forgiveness, and honesty come from the effusive Mme. Reynaud (Mahaffey), the type of woman Frances has in the past spurned with a flip of her sarcastic tongue.  

   Interestingly—and perhaps quite intentionally—references to death become a theme throughout this bizarre movie in its appearance in Frances’ overall plan, another dead husband, and séances with Frances’ own dead husband and his association with her black cat.  Perhaps the black cat is a warning about choosing a compromised lifestyle over a more comfortable one.

 A light confection, French Exit will amuse those who are at least a bit philosophical about life.

 

Grade:  C+                                    By Donna R. Copeland

THE WORLD TO COME

Katherine Waterston     Vanessa Kirby     Christopher Abbott     Casey Affleck 

     An admirable feat of artistic production, The World to Come takes us on an unexpected journey through two marriages in the 19thCentury full of grief and ineptitude lit up by an uncommon love.  The two couples live on isolated farms in New York.  We first meet Abigale (Waterston) and Dyer (Affleck) who live a seemingly ideal life on a mostly prosperous farm with their young daughter.  Well, it’s not really ideal; Abigale, a writer with keen sensitivities, finds her reticent, mechanically minded husband rather dull.  She is nurturing, and he values her care and tells her as best he can, but she clearly feels something missing, especially after the loss of their daughter.

     Then one day her closest neighbor Tallie (Kirby) visits unexpectedly, and the two strike up a friendship.  Their conversations are typical of housewives of the time, and inevitably touch on their husbands.  But there’s a spark, a spark that is felt not only just between the two women, but it reverberates outward through their small group.

     The writer Jim Shepard is known for his wide-ranging research of subjects he’s interested in as well as his fascination with difficult-to-explore emotions. Most striking in The World to Come are the number of times husbands and wives cannot seem to express what they’re feeling.  For the women, it’s circling around without committing too much; for the men, its terse monosyllabic utterances.  The way out in this story are the poetic musings of the women when they talk with each other when they’re alone.  And by the excitement the women feel when they meet contrasted with the pedantry characteristic of the men’s conversations when they converse and even when they talk with their wives.  Much of this production’s success lies in Shepard’s capturing the emotional valence among the characters, leaving the viewer in suspense.

     Director Mona Fastvold’s skillful assemblage of actors and crew for the production should earn her a place among the up-and-coming filmmakers, along with her sense of pace and sustaining suspense in the plot.  Katherine Waterston, Vanessa Kirby, and Casey Affleck are by now well known for their skill and attraction as leading actors, and they with Christopher Abbott deliver the kind of performance called for by the script. A significant contribution is lent by the musician Daniel Blumberg, with his dirge-like ominous tunes alternated with Andre Chemetoff’s  beautifully rendered pastoral sequences to capture the landscape and give us some relief

     This could have been a totally depressive film, but the lyrical—sometimes elegiac—dialog and cinematic crafts elevates it to something beyond, something more like a tonal poem.  It’s certainly not tied solely to a 19thCentury story; it speaks to our wonderings and speculations about marriage today.

 

This is a film for lovers of art and poetic expression capturing psychological truths about human nature through the ages.

 

Grade:  A                                    By Donna R. Copeland