Thursday, January 14, 2021

MLK/FBI


     This is a history of Martin Luther King’s courageous fight for civil rights in this country from 1955 to 1968.  From the beginning of his activism, he was a suspect for treason in J. Edgar Hoover’s mind.  The head of the FBI grew up in the south, and maintained an attitude toward Blacks signifying that they are by nature susceptible to “dangerous ideologies” like communism, that they do not have basic American values, and that Black men in particular must be monitored for sexual deviance.  After a protest march in Washington, D.C. and MLK’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech, Hoover referred to King as “the most dangerous man in America”, a remarkable statement, given that MLK was always an advocate for nonviolent protest.  Perhaps we should take from this the power of a position of nonviolence.

     The documentary directed by George Pollard is based on a number of biographies about the life of Martin Luther King, Jr., and his leadership in advocating for freedom, equality, and justice for his people and other minorities such as Latinos, Native Americans, Puerto Ricans, and Appalachian whites.  And it’s about the FBI’s continual surveillance of him using wire-taps, bugs, and FBI agents listening in, in an adjoining room, first in efforts to associate him with Stanley D. Levison (activist, CPA, attorney) and the Communist party, then with marital infidelity as a way of publicly embarrassing him and weakening his leadership, in the hope that his followers would abandon him.

     Pollard and his writers Benjamin Hedin and Laura Tomaselli present a coherent, even-handed approach in telling his story and what happened to Martin Luther King, Jr.  David J. Garrow’s biography (The FBI and Martin Luther King, Jr.:  “Solo” to Memphis) is used as a primary source, along with newly declassified documents and interviews of some of his associates and biographers such as personal counselor Clarence Jones, activist and close confident Andrew Young, journalist Marc Perrusquia, historian Beverly Gage, and Professor Donna Murch.  

     The documentary characterizes King’s relationship with the John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson administrations, the continued FBI surveillance on King’s life and its use of informers.  Although King was skeptical when he was first told about the government’s surveillance, he began to realize it was possible, and when he read in a publication about the U.S. using napalm in Vietnam, he was convinced that he could no longer support the U.S. in its war effort.  The effect of these statements on the Johnson administration with all its political troubles had far-reaching effects.

     The documentary does a good job of tracing the roots of racism back to slavery and its persistence through time, and when it comes to light that the FBI has gone so far as sending disparaging letters to King, suggesting he kill himself, James Comey, Former FEI director, is quoted as observing that it was the darkest part of the FBI’s history.” 

    MLK/FBI serves as a useful historical account of the years in the 1950’s when the U.S. was just becoming aware of racial issues and the influence of Martin Luther King Jr., and the 1960’s when protests came to a head around King’s opposition to the Vietnam War.  King is a hero who will be recognized for ages to come.

 

A timely documentary that should be required of all young people in school, and informative as well to those beyond.

 

Grade:  A                                                By Donna R. Copeland




 

Thursday, January 7, 2021

PIECES OF A WOMAN

Vanessa Kirby     Shia LaBeouf     Ellen Burstyn

Benny Safdie     Sarah Snook     Molly Parker

 

     This is a powerful film.  It shows so much sensitivity—toward women and men—I became convinced the writer (a woman) and the director (a man) must have worked hand-in-glove with one another, as well as with the cinematographer.  And sure enough, director Kornel Mundruczo, writer Kata Weber are partners in real life. But with the inclusion of cinematographer Benjamin Loeb, it constitutes the impressive team that brought an artistic, psychologically informed work into being, not excluding the fine actors.  It touches on a number of controversial topics so relevant in our times.

     Pieces of a Woman traces the path from exultation about a first pregnancy in which everything doesn’t go well through the immediate (six months), bombarding effects upon a family.  It details different ways of coping among a number of people and how those differences can have long-term effects.  The film brilliantly chronicles what I have for some time come to realize—that losing a child is probably the worst thing that can happen to someone.  Such a profound experience is sure to foster long-term consequences for those involved.

     Martha (Kirby) and Sean (LaBeouf) appear to love one another intensely, and are overjoyed to be expecting their first child.  Sean is a gruff member of a bridge-building team who has a tender side, making it easy for him to give his wife the support she needs in the pregnancy.  They decide to have a midwife (Parker) for the birth.  How will that go?

     The ensuing events tell the story of how this will all turn out, given the interrelationships we only discover later in the film.  

     Most touching are the scenes showing the breakdown of the relationship between Martha and Sean.  Martha’s adversarial relationship with her mother (Burstyn) is already foretold. Others between Sean and his brother-in-law Chris (Safdie) show the compromised position Chris is in. The relationships woven in between Sean and his mother-in-law, and an attorney (Snook) are plausible additions that enhance the suspense of the story.

     Vanessa Kirby and Shia LeBeouf are well cast as the central couple, and make us believe they’re truly undergoing the pain.  Ellen Burstyn as the interloper-mother-in-law plays her role to the hilt—behind-the scenes manipulator with few scruples.  And, finally, Molly Parker as the accused midwife shows all of what she is supposed to in her role.

     This movie was more difficult to stay with than I expected—primarily because of the long birth sequence (30 minutes).  Maybe the filmmakers needed to show this to people who haven’t had a baby, but for one who has been there (albeit under much less stressful circumstances), I found it hard to watch.  This led to my next question of who is this movie for?  Those who have been under similar circumstances? Perhaps, but I figure few people have gone through anything similar.  There is a thought that perhaps the writer and director have had just such an experience, and the film is a way to express what they went through.  

     At any rate, Pieces of a Woman is worth seeing, particularly for those awaiting a birth of a child and are curious—and if they have secured a midwife.  But otherwise, I’m not sure who will be interested in the film.  Part of my problem is with the title, Pieces of a Woman, which implies that there are only pieces of us.  We are all a whole, so I have no idea what the filmmakers intended.

As a chronicle of childbirth attended by a midwife, this film is excellent. I’m just not sure how many in the general public will find it relevant.

 

Chronicle of the effects of the loss of a newborn child on a family.

 

Grade:  C                                    By Donna R. Copeland



Tuesday, December 29, 2020

HERSELF

Clare Dunne     Molly McCann     Ruby Rose O’Hara     Harriet Walter     Ian Lloyd Anderson

 


     Herself.  An intriguing title for a film.  After I watched it, I thought about an improvement on the title might have been Her Self, for Sandra (in a winning performance by Dunne) finds her self in the events that will transpire. The film absolutely captures the figure of a woman literally beaten down, unsure of herself but with, somehow, a deep abiding truth about what is good and what is acceptable.  It chills to think about the countless numbers of women just like her.

     Sandra is a fairly typical mother who loves her children and is especially good at encouraging their play and fantasy life.  Emma (O’Hara) and Molly (McCann) like to romp and play, and are fun children to be around.  The two girls are well behaved and adults are always charmed by them. But Molly has seen something meaningful in her life, and when her parents separate, she begins to refuse to go with her father on the court-appointed day.   

     This spurs the father (Anderson) on to sue for custody of the children.  We see a trial that pulls in evidence that he can use, but this is not the full story.  

     The film is directed by Phyllida Lloyd (Iron Lady, Mamma Mia) who has a practiced eye in observing all kinds of dilemmas women face in life.  Her sensitivity is apparent throughout Herself in highlighting the kinds of support women need in facing the trials of life—mentors, generous volunteers, advisors, and family members, to name a few.  And she is likewise expert in characterizing specific personalities.

     Clare Dunne (who also co-wrote the screenplay) convincingly portrays a resourceful woman caught in a multitude of dilemmas, pulled first one way and then another, trying to make sense of what is new to her, and always mindful of her children. I was especially drawn to Harriet Walter’s performance as an older woman who grasps the import of a situation and makes up her own mind about what to do.  She is a mother figure, without which Sandra could perhaps not achieve what she does, primarily faith in herself.

     This film is about how the efforts of a community can be the determining factor in the fate of one of its members.

 

A straight-to-the-heart drama about how a community can come together to serve the needs of a self-sufficient but desperate woman.

 

Grade:  A                                    By Donna R. Copeland



Wednesday, December 23, 2020

WONDER WOMAN 1984

Gal Gadot     Chris Pine     Kristen Wiig     Pedro Pascal     Robin Wright     Connie Nielsen


     What a different film from the 2017 version, which I had loved.  It’s puzzling that this one, written by essentially the same writers (director Patty Jenkins, Geoff Johns, Dave Callahan) and with the same director (Patty Jenkins), could fall so short of the previous version. Could the fact that it had so many (17) producers have made a difference?  Probably not, and with fine actors like Gal Gadot and Chris Pine returning, and given a strong supporting cast, with Kristen Wiig and Pedro Pascal in co-starring roles, the fault seems to lie in the script.

     Case in point, the beginning scenes setting up Diana Prince’s (Gadot) relationship with Barbara (Wiig) are especially cringe-worthy.  Barbara’s idiot-level hero worship of Diana while debasing herself sounds phony, which is born out by an abrupt change later on that doesn’t make sense.  I have a real problem with roles like this written for women.  I have yet to meet someone in real life like that. Moreover, there is no rationale provided as to why Barbara would make such a sudden change toward Diana. Diana was always respectful and encouraging to Barbara, and hasn’t seen her for some time, much less done anything to warrant the bile.

     This is an action movie, and like most, is committed to battle after battle with unmitigated impossibilities in the action.  It has to rely on magic, which might be thrilling for some, but unless it is well thought out, it comes across as ridiculous.  I take into account that such a movie as this needs to have something of a comic-strip stamp on it, but it also needs to have some realistic underpinnings.  

     One thing the film does well is in its caricature of someone like Maxwell Lord (Pascal), for whom no amount of acquisition is enough.  The excesses of that personality are drawn out and constitute the main point of the film.  On the other hand, I found his relationship with his son rather treacly, and think it was better to have left that out, particularly since no mention of the child’s mother is made—except to disparage her when she drops her son off for time with his father--and no substance is given to the father-son relationship other than the father’s narcissistic attachment and his son’s yearning for him as a real person.  

     Gal Gadot’s presence is the only exciting aspect of this film that makes you want to continue viewing her tale.  No one else in the film has that kind of draw, which consists of more than her grit and skill; she has strong moral values she is living by. Unfortunately, this film neglects to highlight and honor her nobility.

 

The craft in filmmaking is good, but unfortunately, the script is lacking in its appeal, and Wonder Woman’s greatest assets are underplayed.

 

Grade:  C                                    By Donna R. Copeland



 

THE DISSIDENT


     For a long time, Jamal Khashoggi was a highly respected journalist in Saudi Arabia known as “the voice of Saudi media”, one who was very close to the monarchy and considered a spokesman for it.  But while he was a part of that system, he was also a reformist who would eventually be advocating for the country to move toward a more democratic form of government.  As he was going in this direction—about the time of the “Arab Spring” when it looked like a number of countries in the Middle East, specifically Egypt, might be heading there, the monarchy under Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salmon was consolidating its power in terms of the government, the media, and any would-be challengers to his authority.

     The Arab Spring was alarming to Saudi Arabia where rumblings of similar movements were becoming apparent.  As a defense, the Saudis helped change the direction in Egypt by funding the counter-revolutionary movement, effectively maintaining a dictatorship there.  

     This documentary does a fine job is putting Khashoggi into the context of his time and those understanding and supporting his efforts, in addition to elucidating in more detail the investigations that were attempte following his death.  We hear a lot from Omar Abdulaziz who appears a number of times in the film.  Omar had already had to flee from Saudi Arabia for his Tweets against the monarchy—never being able to contact family or friends again—and encourages Khashoggi to join his group in Canada.  Khashoggi does that, but eventually ends up as a journalist at the Washington Post in D.C.  

     When he left Saudi Arabia against his will and for the last time, he had to bid farewell to his family, and the Saudi government pressured her to divorce him. Several years later when he was living in the U.S and working at the Post, he had developed a relationship with Hatice Cengiz, a Turkish womnan, whom he wanted to marry.  The reason the two of them had gone to the Saudi Consulate in Ankara was to get proof of his divorce, but it was there by all accounts he was brutally killed.  

     The Dissident presents a well-rounded picture of Khashoggi’s life and the kind of person he was.  According to Omar Abdulaziz, he became an instant hero across the world after the news of his death.  

 

Here is a well-documented account of the life and death of Jamal Khashoggi, an activist working for reform in a country ruled by a dictator.

 

Grade:  A                                    By Donna R. Copeland




 

SOUL

Voices of:  Jamie Foxx     Tina Fey     Daveed Diggs     Angela Bassett     Phylicia Rashad

     This is a Pixar movie renowned for its colorful history of bringing movies to children (e.g., the Toy Story series, Finding Nemo, Inside Out, Up, Coco, The Incredibles, Monsters Inc.).  In Soul, it is up to its reputation in superb animation and graphics, characterization, and music (Jon Batiste, Trent Reznor, Atticus Ross).  Whether or not children will grasp the intended principles planted in the script is yet to be seen. It has a “smell the roses while you may” quality to it that adults will clearly get, and its treatment of death will be meaningful to them as well.  Perhaps children will be entertained primarily by the imaginative animation, design, and effects…and watching Joe’s ungainly navigation and the spunky cat, 22.  

     The story is that Joe (Foxx), a middle school band teacher is gifted in his work, but aspiring to be a jazz musician, much against the advice of his mother (Rashad).  When he gets talked into an audition with the Half Note combo led by Dorothea (Bassett), he nails it and forgets about teaching.  In fact, he is so excited he’s not careful where he’s going and steps into a manhole, losing consciousness.  

     The writers Pete Docter (director as well), Mike Jones, and Kemp Powers have invented a “holding” place for Joe to go while he awaits his final destiny.  He freaks out when he realizes where he’s going and runs backwards trying to escape.  Where he ends up is a place populated by little amorphous beings yet to be born, one of which is the misfit 22, who has never found that spark that will light up her life.  Somehow during this time, a mistake is made in assignments, and Joe gets assigned to be a mentor to 22.  After bickering with one another, they find a loophole in the system and manage to get themselves transported back to earth, where Joe hopes to rejoin the combo and be a jazz musician.  But after they land, he is in a hospital bed with a cat the nurses have given him as therapy.  In another accident of fate, 22 the cat ends up in Joe’s body and he in hers, but despite everything, they manage to escape the hospital and head toward the Half Note.

     There are plenty of adventures along the way and the insights they each gain about life will be passed on to the viewers in story-like fashion.  Jamie Foxx and Tina Fey as Joe and 22 make up a funny, entertaining duo, and they are finely backed up by Angela Bassett, Phylicia Rashad, and Daveed Diggs.  The music is remarkable in that Jon Batiste (TV’s “The Late Show”) weaves in his elegant jazz into Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’s original score, resulting in an innovative combination.  

     This is one of the few animated pictures that might need subsequent viewings to grasp a complex script and fully appreciate the score.

 

Another Pixar success in a long stream of captivating animated productions.

 

Grade:  A                                    By Donna R. Copeland


PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN

Carey Mulligan     Bo Burnham     LaVerne Cox

     She’s promising all right.  Cassie (Mulligan) is a young woman working in a coffee shop who adores her boss, but her heart isn’t exactly in her job.  Her parents express concern because she doesn’t seem to have any friends, and it’s especially troubling that she doesn’t have a boyfriend.  They want her to move out and forge her way ahead in life.  As the story proceeds, we get the impression she is very bright and used to be in medical school.  But that was long ago.  She has a few flings, and the guys always rhapsodize about how beautiful she is.  Some of the time, she appears to be so intoxicated she has trouble walking, but then she can shore up suddenly and appear cold sober.

     The director, Emerald Fennell, has been an actress for most of her career (Camilla Parker Bowles in “The Crown” and a nurse in “Call the Midwife”), but she has also been the writer for television shows (“Killing Eve”, “The Drifters”); now, for her first time as writer/director of a film feature, she has crafted an impressive work with expert pacing throughout.  There is some comedy in the beginning, as noted in the ads for it, but the drama and horror are not far behind.  

     Fennell’s pacing for the kind of film she has made enhances the power of the drama that ensues, and she allows information about the past to emerge only in small increments.  Cassie is a little hard to figure out in the beginning; she surprises us with what she says and how she acts at times.  She’s so closed up—even with her parents—she’s hard to read.  Yet we see her doing unexpected things that won’t make sense until much later.

     Mulligan is perfect in the role—as skillful in playing a drunk as she is in verbal sparring and flirtatiousness.  About halfway through the movie it begins to dawn on the viewer what she might be up to, but it remains unclear until the very end.  Cassie is especially changeable with a man from her past who was always attracted to her, and now openly asks to date her.  At times she seems willing, then backs away. Bo Burnham as Ryan is a good match, and they have a great time being silly together and very slowly falling in love.  He is able to make her laugh and she gradually opens up to him.

     The number of supporting actors/characters appearing from time to time means the viewer has to pay attention and may find him/herself scrambling for their names and keeping track.  But they are all solid, and their bit parts enhance the movie’s quality. The actors include Laverne Cox, Clancy Brown, Jennifer Coolidge, Alison Brie, Molly Shannon, Connie Britton, Max Greenfield, Gabriel Oliva, and Alfred Molina.

     Promising Young Woman clearly fits well into the “#MeToo” era, and could be instructive for young men and women to see.  The story comprises an eloquent depiction of what might be considered innocent fun and games for some who may not be fully aware of the consequences.

 

This is an extremely well constructed film with the gradual enlightenment of characters building up to a final conclusion.

 

Grade:  A                                    By Donna R. Copeland