Thursday, March 21, 2019

GLORIA BELL

Julianne Moore     John Turturro     Michael Cera     Alanna Ubach     Rita Wilson     Brad Garrett


     Chilean Sebastian Lelio’s films have been popular in the U.S., particularly Disobedience (2017) about a Lesbian Jewish couple and A Fantastic Woman (2018) about a transgender woman.  Gloria Bell is a remake of his earlier film, Gloria (2013) about a woman past her 40’s trying to develop a satisfying life. Played by Julianne Moore, Gloria looks for someone to share her life with.  Her two grown children, Peter (Cera) and Veronica (Ubach) are caught up in their own lives and clearly enjoy their independence.  Gloria is successful at her job in insurance, and for pleasure goes to dance clubs hoping to connect with a man.
She does connect with Arnold (Turturro) one evening, and they start an intimate relationship that is, unfortunately, punctuated with calls from his two grown daughters needing his assistance.  But to her credit, Gloria is patient and understanding and allows Arnold the space to attend to his family demands.  This is clearly a warning signal, but one she doesn’t attend to.
     When Gloria wants to introduce Arnold to her family, particularly to her son and daughter, her ex-husband and his wife are present as well.  When the Bell family gets to reminiscing and showing old pictures, it’s too much for Arnold, and he disappears.  The rest of the story is about whether Gloria and Arnold will make it as a couple.  
    It’s a “Will they or won’t they?” situation.  This has the potential to be interesting, but several factors keep it in a mundane, rather boring place.  First of all, the main character (much as I love Julianne Moore) captures little interest.  She comes across as lonely and dependent, but, worst of all, lacking any problem-solving skills.  For example, she can’t seem to keep someone else’s cat out of her apartment. I presume this was supposed to be comical, but I didn’t find the humor in it.  And there are numerous other times when her decisions make the viewer shake his/her head.  
     Secondly, the dialog and action of the story makes you hold your hand over your mouth and yawn.  When the couple of the story meet, their interchange is so stilted and uninteresting you want to leave the dance floor.  Throughout, secrets are kept unnecessarily, and it’s hard to see these people in our present-day culture.  
     I did see Lelio’s original film Gloria, and was unimpressed then; I had hopes that in this rendition Julianne Moore would change my mind about it, but it’s still a story about a repressed woman who can’t figure out how to get her needs met.  It is so unlike women of today, I couldn’t relate to it.
     Julianne Moore does accomplish her usual high level of performance, and John Turturro matches her well.  Michael Cera is striking in his ability to show discomfort in the company of an unintrusive but still annoying mother, and Alanna Ubach is wonderful as the daughter who is the antithesis of both her parents in being excited about exploring new horizons and acting upon it.
     This film is only mildly interesting, and is not likely to capture much enthusiasm among today’s audiences.

A woman’s core personality keeps her from living a life she thinks she desires.

Grade:  CBy Donna R. Copeland

US

Lupita Nyong’o     Winston Duke     Shahadi Wright Joseph    Evan Alex              
Elisabeth Moss     Tim Heidecker 


     I’m not a horror movie fan (my reality base usually takes me out of the drama), but Us was successful in keeping me engaged—mostly.  Tense moments are right in the beginning when Adelaide (Nyong’o) as a child wanders off at an amusement park and goes into a hall of mirrors.  She is curious and exploring until…she comes to a figure who looks just like her.  She runs out as fast as she can to find her parents, who are beside themselves with worry.  Her trauma is framed as PTSD, and she overhears her parents discussing her with others we don’t know, one of whom suggests she needs to turn to the arts to help her out of the trauma.  And indeed, she becomes a ballet dancer.  Much of the sense of doom here and later on in the film is provided by composer Michael Abels (who also scored Get Out by the same director), whose music will be a profound influence on the way you experience the film.
     Years pass, and Adelaide is now married to Gabe (Duke) and they have a daughter Zora (Joseph) and son Jason (Alex).  Gabe is fun loving and seems always to be trying to bring Adelaide along on whatever venture he comes up with.  But she is clearly uptight and fearful.  When Gabe proposes they go to the beach house (which is near the amusement park she visited as a child) with their friends, the Tylers (Moss, Heidecker), who will be nearby, she is equivocal about it, but eventually gives in.
     They get to the beach, but when they meet their friends, the Tylers, it’s clear that Gabe feels inferior to Mr. Tyler in his house/car/yacht.  And Adelaide doesn’t relate to Mrs. Tyler, who seems oblivious to Adelaide’s reticence, and barrels on with conversations that hold no interest to Adelaide.  Adelaide’s whole attention is concentrated on her children, especially Jason, who—unbeknownst to Adelaide encounters the same house that Adelaide visited years ago.
     Everything is fine until the family goes home to the beach house, when suddenly they see replicas of themselves standing on their front walk.  At first, they don’t realize the four figures look exactly like themselves, and Gabe, doing the father-protection thing, goes out to reason with the intruders.  They don’t respond in the way he expects, so he grabs a baseball bat to go out and confront them again.
     Now, from here, you will witness a stream of horrors that will scare you, leave you perplexed, and exasperate you.  At one point, we see someone holding a sign that says Jeremiah 11:11 (which is:  Therefore thus saith the Lord, Behold, I will bring evil upon them, which they shall not be able to escape; and though they shall cry unto me, I will not hearken unto them.” “Is this a prophetic statement?”, you ask yourself.
     Unfortunately, toward the end, the story drags and takes you out of heightened alert. Jordan Peele is a master at revving up the suspense and evoking all kinds of associations in the viewer, and most of the time he does that here.  But somehow, towards the end, his message doesn’t come through. 
     Symbolism is strong throughout, but its meaning is not always clear:  What do “hands across America” (Reagan era) and “It’s our time now” symbolize? Who do the doppelgangers represent?  It is possible to relish the film without bothering to deal with this aspect, however.

A thriller with symbolism for the viewer to figure out.

Grade:  B+                                    By Donna R. Copeland

RUBEN BRANDT, COLLECTOR

Voices:  Ivan Kamaras    Csaba “Kor” Marton      Gabriella Hamori
Matt Devere     Henry Grant     Christian Niels Buckholdt     Butch Engle


This clever animation will be appreciated more by some than by others.  Informed art lovers will get a kick out of the references to and depiction of famous art works, and the psychologically minded will appreciate the fundamental connections made between nightmares and child-parent issues and patients’ transferences to their therapist. Those viewers might also be intrigued by the coincidental relationship between two opposing characters revealed toward the end.  But it’s also simply fun to watch the masterfully created figures in Ruben Brandt, accompanied by Tibor Cari’s sexy, intriguing score that mixes classical and popular music.  I might want to see it again in the mood of a child watching cartoons on Saturday morning.
Even though the basis underlying the plot is on the absurd side (patients stealing artworks to make their therapist’s nightmares go away), the creatively dynamic animations, colorful characters, and story compensate.  One of the characters, kleptomaniac Mimi, resembles the Pink Panther in her acrobatics and gymnastics; but she is much more attractive and has a taunting, superior air against her rivals.  When the heists are broadcast around the world, the therapist is dubbed “The Collector” because it’s reasoned that since the art works are too famous to be sold anywhere, the thief must be a collector.  
In the process of following the criminals lifting world-renowned art pieces from museums like the Tate, the Louvre, the Uffizi, MOMA in New York, and Chicago’s Art Institute, we are privileged to visit major cities in the world, with thrills provided by an art-informed detective Mike Kowalski (Marton) going after the felons in hair-raising car chases.  In addition to Mimi, there is the bodyguard Bye-Bye Joe (Devere), computer-savvy Fernando (Buckholdt), and “professional” bank robber, Membrano Bruno.  Mixing everything up by competing with this crew, is a mobster (Engle)
The fanciful animations are endlessly intriguing, many of them resembling Picasso’s Cubist paintings, for instance, the figures may have multiple eyes not necessarily aligned and abstract body shapes.  Car chases—one involving a forklift raising up a car on a three-lane highway—become scary and comical at the same time.  It’s not perfect; the connections are not always clear, so at times one must just “go with the flow”, trying not try to reason through the action, and simply enjoy the numerous clever references, such as those made to iconic figures like Alfred Hitchcock.  Witty references made by writer/director Milorad Krstic to both fine art and movies make up half the fun.
Krstic, a painter and multimedia artist with formidable knowledge of the arts, has created this fantasy as his first feature film.  He is almost surely up-and-coming, and I expect he will continue to imagine more adult cartoons to please and delight us.  I hope so!  This is a great first start, and I will look forward to seeing his future work.

An entertaining and clever animation for adults.

Grade:  A-                                    By Donna R. Copeland

THE MUSTANG

Matthias Schoenaerts     Bruce Dern     Gideon Adlon     Connie Britton     Jason Mitchell     Josh Stewart


     This is Director Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre’s first feature film, co-written with Mona Fastvold and Brock Norman Brock.  She has had a long acting career (including being in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly), and after she became interested in animal therapy for prisoners, she visited prisons and attended film laboratories at Sundance for advice and consultation in making the film.  This was not only to understand the process of the therapy, but also to see first-hand actual prisoners who are incarcerated.
     Cinematography by Ruben Impers (Beautiful Boy) is impressive right away in landscape shots of wild mustang horses on the prairie being herded by a helicopter into prison corrals where they will be tamed by prisoners.  It’s meant to be a dual process of both the horse and the prisoner learning how to contain negative emotions and express positive ones.  The latter is demonstrated so beautifully in one tender moment between Roman Coleman (Schoenaerts) and his horse Marcus after numerous out-of-control scenes.
     When we first meet Roman he is almost entirely non-communicative; he’s been in prison 12 years, in and out of isolation, and after some sessions with the psychologist (Britton), he is assigned to an “outdoor maintenance program”—literally shoveling horse s---.  Advocating for himself is completely foreign to him.  While working at that job, he keeps noticing a mustang kicking against the enclosure it’s in (no doubt expressing what he himself feels), he walks over and begins to bond with the horse.  When the chief trainer (Dern) observes this (he’s already had a few hostile encounters with Roman), he decides that this man and this horse are meant to be a pair, and suddenly Roman is in animal therapy.
     Parallel story lines help maintain fascination and suspense in the prison setting related to one of the trainers (Henry played by Mitchell), an affable black man who is successful in undercutting some of Roman’s hostility with gentle teasing, and Roman’s roommate, Dan (Stewart).  These are woven together well with the main story line, adding depth and scope to the tale.
     I liked pacing in The Mustang in giving the viewer time to get to know the characters and absorb the import of it, but revving up the tension and excitement from time to time, keeping you on the edge of your seat.  It is also a film that can be instructive in showing the commonalities between humans and animals and demonstrating the effectiveness of rehabilitative therapy training/for both. One tiny drawback that I saw was the filmmakers not showing the inevitable pain prisoners experience when they must inevitably part.  This is shown to some extent, but not as much as (to me) it is warranted.

An uplifting and inspiring film for just about everyone, with a powerful performance by Schoenaerts.

Grade:  A                                    By Donna R. Copeland

Friday, March 15, 2019

CAPTIVE STATE

John Goodman     Vera Farmiga     Ashton Sanders     Jonathan Majors


     Writer/director Rupert Wyatt and his co-writer Erica Beeney have boasting rights for a movie that leaves the audience mystified until the very end.  In the meantime, viewers sit and wonder what the h--- is going on and try to figure out who the characters are. This takes place on a darkened screen where much of the action is hidden, just like the characters. By the time it starts to become clear—as one viewer observed—you’ve become disengaged and have little investment in the outcome.  There’s a major twist after the fog, but it’s too little too late to be exciting or satisfying.
     The beginning scenes and text inform the viewer that Chicago has been taken over by aliens and that everyone has an identity chip and is followed constantly by cameras with monitors behind them.  
     We see more of John Goodman in the Chicago police station as a district commander than anyone else.  He clearly has an investment in Gabriel (Sanders), the son of his deceased partner, but this kid doesn’t want to have anything to do with him.  Gabriel and his older brother Rafe (Majors) have had a hard time after their father’s death, but clearly don’t see the commander as any kind of mentor.  The commander has been studying and following events closely for nine years since the invasion, and he is convinced that something major is about to happen. No one seems to take him seriously, including his supervisor, who sees him as a little crazy.  
     Another thing we see is a group of characters who have united together with plans to escape (to where, we’re not told). Much of the story involves their various ruses to become anonymous and get out of Dodge...Chicago.  They’re seen as insurrectionists by the police, who have been cooperating with the aliens in a compromised position.
This leads up to the twist, which I will not reveal.  
     I generally admire John Goodman’s performances, which are almost invariably excellent; but in Captive State, the script shows him to be something of a gumshoe, uninteresting and run-of-the-mill. He sometimes seems to have a conscience, sometimes not; and to genuinely care, sometimes not.  So as the lead actor, it’s not easy to get behind him and cheer him on.  Vera Farmiga is wonderfully mysterious—as she is supposed to be—making enigmatic pronouncements that are worth paying attention to.  Ashton Sanders (Moonlight) is a young actor to pay close attention to; he captures all the nuances shown by a young man being pulled in different directions and learning about the paradoxes of life.  These performances are about the only aspect of the movie to savor; otherwise, there is not much. 
     Captive State had potential for being a provocative, currently relevant story; however, the execution failed to deliver, mostly by keeping the audience confused and in the dark most of the time.

If you want sci-fi, you won’t get it here.  If you want thriller, it comes too late for you to care.

Grade:  D+                                    By Donna R. Copeland


FIVE FEET APART

Haley Lu Richardson     Cole Sprouse     Moises Arias     Kimberly Hebert Gregory


     Although not groundbreaking (c.f., Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, The Fault in our Stars, and Miss You Already and many others through the years), Five Feet Apart can be seen as an engaging story that is uplifting despite sad and disappointing turns of events. Director Justin Baldoni clearly knows of what he speaks (presumably from past experience) in a film about teenagers, the restrictions placed upon them by an illness (cystic fibrosis or CF), and how personality, past experience, and connections with others are all in play.
     The normalcy in this film about illness involves its two main characters, Stella (Richardson) and Will (Sprouse), who are polar opposites in personality and outlook on life finding common ground as they fall madly in love with one another. Each is good for the other. Stella’s self-described “OCD”, commitment to treatment, and a rosy outlook on life are juxtaposed against Will’s acerbic outlook and casualness toward treatment that frequently pushes boundaries.  They both have cystic fibrosis (and you will learn much about the disease in seeing the movie), which requires frequent hospitalizations, daily treatment regimens, and the proscription of contact with another person with CF; that is, they can have physical contact with family and friends, just not with fellow patients.
     The entertainment comes from the push-pull of the two developing real appreciation and caring for the other.  The dialog (writers, Nikki Daughtry and Tobias Iaconis) is both snappy and thoughtful while maintaining a reality base so that it doesn’t sound morbid or like something written for stand-up comedy.  This includes the fussiness of Nurse Barbara (Gregory) as she tries to keep the slightly rebellious teens in tow after getting “burned” once before (“Not again on my watch”, she proclaims), interactions among the CF patients, and messages from the medical staff to families.  
     Different kinds of guilt become a running theme woven into the main story.  Stella suffers from “not being there” at the right time for her sister.  Barbara feels guilty about loosening restrictions on two previous patients. One CF patient expressed distress about the burden of his illness being placed on his family.  In the course of the story, these troubles are sensitively addressed.  This is another example of how the film moves beyond the “death and dying” issue to deal with everyday concerns.
     One drawback of the film is toward the end when the filmmakers tease and pull the rug out from under the viewer.  Just how many last-second saves should be in any script?  But above all, Five Feet Apart demonstrates the importance of physical touch to all of us.  Not only is abstinence a strain when expressing delight, but it’s crushing in moments of grief.  We see how much Stella’s and Will’s minds and eyes have to make up for the absence of even the slightest physical connection.
     Haley Lu Richardson (Support the Girls, Columbus, The Edge of Seventeen) clearly lives up to her acting promise in portraying a complex teenager with major challenges behind and ahead of her.  Cole Sprouse, whose claim to fame rests primarily on the TV series, “Riverdale” in which he plays a lead role, shows a range of emotional sensitivities and ease with his character in this production that should prove his dramatic talent.  Essential to the success of this drama is Poe, expertly played by Moises Arias.  He is an important third in the Stella/Will drama in his contrast with Stella and Will and in his tempering/uniting their differences.
     Musicians Brian Tyler and Breton Vivian composed a wonderfully provocative score that captures and enhances so well the varying moods of Five Feet Apart.  

Ignore its potentially saddening subject; Five Feet Apart is an uplifting and inspiring film.

Grade:  B                                    By Donna R. Copeland


Wednesday, March 13, 2019

BIRDS OF PASSAGE (PAJAROS DE VERANO)

Carmina Martinez     Jose Acosta     Jhon Narvaez     Natalia Reyes


     When the drug trade in Colombia began, indigenous people got involved, which marked the beginning of their end in many cases despite their having successfully resisted the Spanish invasion long ago and were never colonized.  Doyens of the tribes attempted to bridge their culture with that of drug trading, but the corruption of money and greed rendered this impossible.  
     This is a story about that time.  Ursula (Martinez) belongs to the remote Wayuu matrilineal community, which adheres to traditional beliefs, so Ursula has strict requirements for her daughter Zaida’s (Reyes) suitor Rapayet (Acosta) to come up with a huge dowry. He can manage to meet her demands only because he acquires a newly thriving business selling marijuana to Americans, which he gains access to through his assistant Moises (Narvaez), a wheeler-dealer par excellence who not only disregards traditional beliefs, but assumes there is a work-around for any law; and, he is hot-headed and impulsive. 
     Birds of Passage is as much an anthropological account of the indigenous tribes in Colombia as it is about the drug trade, although the two become intermixed.  Traditional beliefs butt up against the ruthless capitalist drug trade, and who wins is predictable.  But the movie is visually beautiful, the characters are understandable if not always admirable, and the plot is interesting enough to keep the viewer engaged.  It spans over a decade in time (the 1960s-70s), to illustrate the gradual erosion of the family and community, punctuated by periodic crises and violence.  It is also in that period of time when there was a global interest in psychoactive drugs, many of which were processed in Colombia.
     Directors Cristina Gallego and Ciro Guerra took care in how the Wayuu people are represented, partly by having natives make up 30% of their crew, who were active consultants in assuring the validity of the characters.  They were also interested in portraying the Colombian drug trade from the perspective of a family rather than from that of drug lords, as in most films about the drug trade.
     A standout in her performance as Ursula, Carmina Martinez plays the matriarch in a convincing way, showing authority as well as affection.  Jose Acosta as Rapayet shows well the struggle he has in trying to maintain cultural beliefs amidst the compromised values in the drug trade.  He shows pained sincerity when his friend/assistant gets out of line.

Birds of Passage manages to be a beautiful, educational film, poignantly portraying the inevitable friction that develops when a drug trade encroaches upon a native culture.

Grade:  A                                    By Donna R. Copeland