Friday, December 2, 2016

THINGS TO COME

Isabelle Huppert     Andre Marcon     Roman Kolinka     Sarah Le Picard     Solal Forte     Edith Scob


          This is a French film for thinkers—people who like to ponder questions about life, love, and wellbeing.  Nathalie (Huppert) is a philosophy teacher with a passion for her subject, which radiates out to her students, who revere her and even come close to loving her.  She speaks to their inner selves at a time when demonstrations and petitions are swirling around the campus.  One student in particular, Fabien (Kolinka) stops by her classroom after he has graduated to thank her for her guidance.
           We get glimpses of how Nathalie conducts her classes, in her posing questions such as, “Is truth debatable, as contrasted with belief?”  Or she gives them a Rousseau quote to think about and be prepared to discuss:  “If there were a nation of gods, it would govern itself democratically.  A government so perfect is not suited to men.”  This academic material in the film is always presented with different points of view, and refrains from claiming one side or the other is right. 
          Home is a different story, where Nathalie’s two teenage children tease her a bit about her intellectual connections, and her husband—who is also an intellectual, but much more dispassionate—is slightly scornful of her.  Their interactions are far from loving, and clearly bother the children.  It’s interesting that Chloe (LePicard) lets her father know that she and her brother are aware of his affair, and want him to tell their mother right away, which he does.  But what’s more interesting is that when he does tell her, she is stunned (they’ve been together for 25 years), and immediately asks why he didn’t keep it a secret from her.  After he lets her know he is moving out and she has time to process the information, then the anger appears. 
        However, this is not the usual tale of a man leaving his wife of many years.  Even though it is at a time when her children are leaving home, her dependent mother is dying, and her publisher is attempting to commercialize her work, Nathalie is resolute, and soon realizes that she is free—truly free—for the first time in her life.  What she makes of it is the main point of the film, along with a parallel theme of political issues the masterful writer/director Mia Hansen-Løve throws out for us to ponder.  She does it through Nathalie’s classes and through her relationships and conversations with the former student Fabien and his fellow provocateurs.  In these thought-provoking discussions, generational differences in perspective are apparent.  Upon being confronted by Fabien about her lifestyle not being guided by a “thought system”, Nathalie says, “I’m too old to be radical; I’ve done that, been there before.  I’ve changed.” Fabian’s girlfriend softly retorts, “But the world is the same, only worse.”  At another time, Nathalie explains more fully: “Revolution is not my goal.  Mine is more humble; it’s to help kids think for themselves.”
        Isabelle Huppert is her usual mix of coolness and mysteriousness in playing her character.  She has no trouble keeping us engaged with her as the main focus for almost the entire film.  She is backed up here by the fine, thoughtful script and astute direction of Mia Hansen-Løve.  The writer/director is the daughter of two philosophy teachers who talked about their work at home, so the insertion of deep philosophical questions into the dialog comes across naturally and authentically.  Music by Raphael Hamburger is delightful or sad, depending on the context, and Cinematography by Denis Lenoir is first-rate.

A quietly brilliant film about an older woman adapting to major changes in her life with humor and soft resolution.

Grade:  A                                    By Donna R. Copeland

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

THE EAGLE HUNTRESS

Aisholpan Nurgaiv     Daisy Ridley


          There are so many reasons to see this fascinating documentary about a Mongolian girl.  First is the cultural lesson about eagle hunters who capture an eagle—preferably an eaglet in a nest—develop a nurturing relationship with it, and train it to catch food in the winter.  Another reason to see it is the remarkable story of a girl of 13 who decides she wants to be an eagle hunter like her father and his ancestors before him.  She has worked side by side with him from the time she was very small, and she came to the conclusion herself that she would learn to do what he does first, then eventually become a doctor.  Finally, the father is a model for parenting.  It’s as if he were a experienced behavioral psychologist. 
         I could keep going on about, for instance, the eagle hunting festival/contest and Aisholpan’s and her father’s trek with horses over stones, cliffs, and through four-foot snow drifts in -40º F weather [e.g., there is a “catcher” who chases the fox on his horse, then the hunter (eagle) who captures the prey]. But I don’t want to give too much away; the joy in watching this film is in the discoveries made in a journey.
         Aisholpan is a spunky girl who loves to compete at school (makes A’s) and win at chess, wrestling with boys, etc.  She lives in a dormitory because there is no school near where she lives, and she only goes home on weekends.  She takes care of her brother and sister who also live in the dormitory.  Still, with all this, she has a sunny personality, smiles frequently, and has a zest for life.  She states emphatically that “girls can do anything boys can do if they try.”  Even though she’s committed to the very masculine pursuit of eagle hunting, she still shops at a festival for a bow to put in her hair. Her parents have been fine role models for her, and many Americans will envy their loving, cheerful, cooperative home life where everyone at least appears to be happy and fulfilled.[1]
          In some ways, the family’s life is hard.  They have few possessions because they must move back and forth between a tent-like gir in the summer and a house in the winter.  They’re far from even a village.  Still, they have plenty to eat, and are able to secure the relatively fancy clothes required to compete in the annual eagle hunting festival.  When I see how close to nature they are (regarding it as a mother) and contrast it with our frenzy for post-Thanksgiving shopping and stuffed-full houses, obsession with electronics, and social-political conflicts, I have to sigh.  And wonder…
       First-time director Otto Bell focuses on the father-daughter relationship while acquainting the viewer with the art (and it is considered an art) of eagle hunting.  To enhance the presentation, Jeff Peters’ music is a fine blend of eastern/western sounds, and Simon Niblett’s cinematography captures the eagle/human chase and hunt for a fox, the intimate scenes inside the gir, and the sweeping landscape of snow in equal measure.  It does seem like we’ve traveled to Mongolia and participated in a cultural experience we’ll never forget.  Daisy Ridley (Star Wars:  The Force Awakens) is a fine narrator, but the real stars are Aisholpan and her father talking on camera as if there were no camera.  They are natural, freely sharing their thoughts and feelings, and exemplifying an ideal parent-child relationship.

This is a must-see for girls, boys, families and anyone interested in cultural exchanges.

Grade:  A                   By Donna R. Copeland



[1] Such a contrast with the film I saw earlier today—Nocturnal Animals—where no one is happy or fulfilled, although I think it’s a fine movie.

MOANA

Voices of:  Auli’i Cravalho     Dwayne Johnson     Temuera Morrison     Rachel House     Jemaine Clement


          This magical, musical animation from Disney incorporates folklore and myth to tell a story about identity with reverence for history and the preservation of the world.  It’s a hero’s—actually, a heroine’s—journey where she must go out into the world far beyond her safe island and undergo many trials to save her people and their land.  The sea has called upon her to do this, and she is encouraged to go by her old grandmother, who knows all the old tales about the island.  The most important one has to do with an island goddess who was life-giving and created many islands in the sea.  But competitors wanted her life-giving powers.  One of these rogues was Maui (Johnson), a trickster and shape shifter with a magic fishhook; he stole her heart where the life-giving powers resided, and ran away with it.  Unfortunately, for him, he encountered his own enemies, one of which takes his magic fishhook away from him.
          Moana (Cravalho) is the daughter of Chief Tui on the island of Motunui where she will succeed her father as chief eventually.  Because of a past bruising experience, Chief Tui orders everyone to remain on their safe island and not venture out beyond the reef.  But when the coconuts begin to dry up and turn black inside and the fish start disappearing when Moana is a teenager, she begs her father to allow her to go beyond the reef where there will be more fish.  He adamantly says “No.” 
         Now, Grandmother Tala is rather mischievous as well as wise, and she knows a way for Moana to get a boat on her own and defy her father.  (This is just one of the many points made in the film about females needing to be strong and not necessarily heed a male superior.)  So this is just the beginning of our heroine’s journey; she must find the demigod Maui and persuade him to help her retrieve his sword and return the heart (which was given to her by her grandmother) to its rightful owner, thereby saving their island.
         The unlikely pair (he’s a blustering chauvinist and she is feisty and competitive) set off quarreling—he tries to ditch her several times.  But they always end up working together when they encounter pirates, a lava monster, and a crab that glitters to retrieve what belongs to them.  The ocean will help with its special powers to return a favor to Moana, who aided it many years before. 
         The story is exciting and humor is sprinkled in throughout.  For instance, there is a pet rooster called Heihei who has a liking for rocks which it swallows then coughs up and who insists on traveling in Moana’s boat, despite the fact it can’t swim.  The ocean has a way of rising up in a cone-like form to deliver things to Moana (once it high-fives her) or it speeds her or Maui through the water like a speedboat and tosses them—splat!—back on the boat.  These and other scenes had the kids and me laughing out loud.
      The animation is absolutely beautiful and is accompanied by music and song that reminds of a Broadway show, with a mix of Polynesian and other music genres.  Composers are Lin-Manuel Miranda, Opetaia Foa’i, and Mark Mancina.  The two directors (Ron Clements and John Musker) and co-directors (Don Hall and Chris Williams) are to be congratulated with their cast and crew for such a fantastic production.  The story has substance with fine messages for children, e.g., “Listen to the voices inside you to know who you are” and a nonrestrictive role model for girls.  Boys should love it just as much, with its strong male figures and the kind-hearted Maui. 

Moana:  Animation and music for all ages.

Grade:  A                                    By Donna R. Copeland

BAD SANTA 2

Billy Bob Thornton     Kathy Bates     Tony Cox     Christina Hendricks     Brett Kelly     Ryan Hanson


          The perverse filmmakers must have had an uproarious time indulging themselves in a buffet of non-PC barbs, images, and insults in Bad Santa 2.  If all the obscenities and lewd remarks were removed from the dialog, there would hardly be a script—except, of course, for dear Thurman’s (Kelly) lines.  He manages to give even the crusty, hardened Willie (Thornton) pause, and the possibility for redemption.
       Filmgoers should be aware that this is a justifiably R-rated film showing risky sex, violence, crime, and alcoholism—and does not necessarily speak against it.  Willie’s mother-from-hell (Bates), whom he despises, has manipulated him back into her sphere by using Marcus (Cox) to tempt him with a $2million job.  Of course, these three cannot be in the same room together more than five minutes before they’re at each other’s throats and spouting every obscene threat that comes into their pathetic minds. 
       The setting for their non-PC operations is a Christmas charity run by the Hastings (Hendricks and Hanson), where they are dressed in Santa costumes.  It is true that the Hastings are not really admirable, but c’mon, a robbery of a charity with Santa drinking alcohol and using offensive language with the kids??  This makes me want to limit the Constitutional Amendment for free speech.
        Bad Santa 2 is meaningless, without any scrap of redeeming quality.  Even the one cheery character, Thurman, is portrayed as dimwitted, and persists even after plain good sense should tell him not to continue his pursuit of Willie as “family.”  We see no cleverness in the jokes or in the plans for the robbery (turn out the lights, open the safe, escape through the garbage chute—which is fitting).  We see the expected end result, including a slightly sheepish Willie making a turn…oh no, not making a turn.  

Tell me you don’t want to see this movie.


Grade:  F                 By Donna R. Copeland

ELLE

Isabelle Huppert     Laurent Lafitte     Charles Berling     Judith Magre     Anne Consigny


          The movie opens with a black screen and the sounds of a brutal rape underway, and the first image to appear is a cat with expressive eyes. The victim Michèle (Huppert) calmly gets up after the masked perpetrator leaves, sweeps up broken glass and remnants of clothing, puts them in the trash, and goes to work.  Michèle is a complicated woman—as are all of Huppert’s characters.  Our next surprise is that she owns a video game business with her partner and best friend Anna (consigny), overseeing a cohort of young male designers.  She’s not very well liked, although in some contexts we see her as very charming, even charismatic. 
          Ambivalence underlies all her relationships—with the staff, with her ex-husband, her son and his girlfriend, her mother, and a lover.  She clearly has a mean streak, and when she does things like seek out her ex-husband’s current girlfriend, we wonder what she is about (this becomes more clear across time).  In the meantime, she casually lets those around her know that she was raped, does not want to go to the police, and proceeds to try to identify the intruder.  She buys things to defend herself with in case he returns, but does not install an alarm system.  Further, when she identifies him, she doesn’t take the appropriate action immediately, although she does have her own plan.
          We get hints from time to time about Michèle’s murky past, which involved her father being imprisoned for life, and her own picture as a child being published in the stories about his crime.  Despite her mother’s urging her to visit him, her response shows she is revolted by the thought.  We never actually get a full explanation about her history with him.
        Huppert is stunning in her portrayal of the character in Elle, and the film has been submitted by France in the Best Foreign Film category.  Paul Verhoevan (Basic Instinct, RoboCop, Black Book) directed it, based on Philippe Djian’s novel, with screenplay by David Birke.  My problem with the film is its lack of psychological coherence, particularly in the Michèle character, despite Huppert’s excellent performance.  That is, her motivations and actions are so contradictory, it becomes difficult to see them embodied in a single person who is believable.  She is secretive, yet thinks nothing of expressing her emotions inappropriately at social gatherings.  She engages in highly risky behaviors with surprising people, but seems to be a very good businesswoman.  She is calculating, yet overreacts sometimes with little information or misinformation.  Her reasons for not contacting the police on several occasions are never explicated.
         The men surrounding Michèle tend to be no match for her in the least.  Her ex-husband is something of an “effete intellectual”; her son doesn’t have the foggiest notion of how to succeed in life and cannot handle his girlfriend; her lover is demanding but shows no affection for her; and her father is serving a lifetime jail sentence.  I’m puzzled about why the novelist and screenwriter (both male) portray all the male characters in such a way.  On the other hand, they’ve also created a male who brutally rapes and batters a woman on more than one occasion.  Does this have meaning, perhaps?  Does it say something about deeper issues between men and women from the authors’ point of view?
          Elle is a fine production in many ways—most certainly Huppert’s performance—and it keeps the viewer locked into the story.  The music by Anne Dudley and the cinematography of Stèphane Fontaine are of fine artistic merit.  But flaws in the script and characterizations detract from it.

Brace yourself; this will puzzle you as much as interest you.

Grade:  B                                    By Donna R. Copeland

Sunday, November 20, 2016

ALLIED

Brad Pitt     Marion Cottiard     Jared Harris     Lizzie Caplan     Matthew Goode


          “Marriages made in the field never work”, so says Max’s superior on learning that Max (Pitt) and Marianne (Cottiard) have gotten married.  The two were partners in a successful operation that killed a German ambassador during WWII.  The statement is prophetic, but not in any way Max suspects.  Nevertheless, the couple seems very happy together, they have a child, and except for Max being called away frequently for work, their life is golden.
         The film begins with the first meeting of Max and Marianne in Casablanca, Morocco, where they have to convince everyone in the community that they are married and are uniting after a long separation. In truth they are British and French spies who are charged with a critical operation.  It’s interesting to see this introduction, as I imagine it’s a true reflection of the awkwardness that agents must experience when they are pulling off an act with someone they’ve never met before.  Marianne seems more experienced than Max—she has certainly been in Casablanca for a longer time, and since she is charismatic and very social, she has made many friends.  He doesn’t seem to mind; when he is put to the test of being a card shark in order to be invited to a party, his assets are quickly apparent.
          Things seem to float along; Max is promoted and Marianne seems entirely fulfilled with her role as homemaker and mother.  Then some earth-shattering news (for them) arrives, and Max is in a major dilemma.  That’s when the cat-and-mouse game really starts, for despite his instructions to do nothing, Max can’t help doing some investigating on his own.
        The script by Steven Knight (who also wrote Dirty Pretty Things, Eastern Promises, and Locke, which he also directed) is layered and nuanced, and the central, ultimate conflict is intriguing, both in its conception and in its resolution.  Unlike Knight’s previous film, Locke, which was an ingenious account of a man in a car on the telephone, Allied contains some artificialities in some of the scenes that detract from its plausibility, e.g., the couple’s baby being born in a building while it is being bombed, and an operation to extract information from a man in jail resulting in numerous killings).  These are unnecessary exaggerations.  It may be that the director, Robert Zemeckis, who nevertheless has fine work to his credit, and/or the producers wanted to hype up the story, which results in my reaction of “Oh, c’mon!"  But this is not a major detraction.
         Marion Cottiard carries off the role of a spy to perfection and with real heart.  At one point her character states that she is so good at what she does because she uses genuine emotions.  And that is what Cottiard does in acting; we’re drawn to the charisma and quick wit she infuses into her characters.  Brad Pitt is…well, Brad Pitt is so known to us because of all the publicity he gets in his personal life, that it may interfere with our seeing the character.  It was Brad before me the whole time rather than Max the character.  On the other hand, he is usually a very good actor, and perhaps the filming of Allied occurred during a stressful time in his personal life, which could have affected his performance.  I thought the chemistry just wasn’t completely there between Max and Marianne.

A spy thriller with imaginatively conceived intrigue.

Grade:  B                                    By Donna R. Copeland

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

RULES DON'T APPLY

Warren Beatty   Lily Collins   Alden Ehrenreich   Annette Bening   Matthew Broderick
Ed Harris   Alec Baldwin   Martin Sheen   Oliver Platt   Candace Bergen   Steve Coogan 


          “It’s about sex and romance in the old Hollywood”, Warren Beatty (director and co-writer with Bo Goldman) says of his comeback movie, Rules don’t Apply.  “…and about American Puritanism”, he adds.  Hughes was someone who didn’t have to follow rules because he was a billionaire; we see the influence of Hollywood (where rules don’t necessarily apply) on him and, through him, on the people who worked for him.  When he saw Howard Hughes briefly in the 70’s, Beatty stayed fascinated with him, and although he began conceiving the film in the late ‘90’s, it took 20 years to bring it to fruition.  It’s not a biopic, but rather a take-off from Hughes’ reputation and creating a drama from that.  I liked it for its harking back to older Hollywood films in which storytelling is prominent and meant to be inspiring.
          Marla Mabrey (perfectly cast Lily Collins) is a young woman from Virginia who has turned away a scholarship to try her luck in Hollywood, and has been invited to a Howard Hughes audition.  She is accompanied by her mother, cheeky Lucy Mabrey (Bening), who soon becomes impatient with the Hollywood/Hughes slow tempo and goes back home. 
        Much is made of Marla’s Baptist background, and when her Hughes driver Frank (Ehrenreich) informs Marla and her mother that he is a Methodist, we see them connect.  Complications ensue when Marla and Frank have a kind of pheromone-like attraction to one another.  Keep in mind that it is strictly forbidden for any of the Hughes employees to socialize with any of his 20+ starlets.  Breaking this rule will cost them their job.  Of course, this is an unenforceable rule, but Hughes has the illusion that he is keeping tabs on everyone, and he has no qualms about the way he gets information. 
      The story then alternates between Hughes’ business activities and a couple of romances.  Humor is sprinkled occasionally into the drama, such as the starlets getting their weekly paychecks in envelopes sent down from a second story window on a string.  Hughes was known for his secretiveness, and the film spoofs this by having him constantly refuse to meet with people.  The issue becomes so heated, rumors circulate about his mental stability, and he has to ward off those who think he should be declared insane.  There is a curious disconnect between Hughes much of the time looking a bit senile, but at the end showing a sharp memory and being able to rattle off complicated business analyses and plans.
          Beatty as the star demonstrates again his acting skills, and in this role he’s portraying an eccentric older man who alternates between sounding demented and relaying complex information about his projects.  His directing skills are apparent in the pace and composition of scenes in moving the story along.  He was canny in his casting two up-and-coming actors, Lily Collins and Alden Ehrenreich, for the young couple who attend church and say the blessing before meals and then get caught up in the Hollywood lifestyle. 
          Caleb Deschanel is a known master of cinematography, and his talent and experience are apparent in scenes of the Los Angeles city- and landscape, the grounds where Hughes resides, and the mysterious door in dark shadow out of which Hughes slowly emerges when he does finally deem to meet someone.  Those “someones” are usually a part of Hughes’ staff whose jobs are always tenuous, but there are others too.  This allows for many interesting cameos from Alec Baldwin, Matthew Broderick, Martin Sheen, Annette Bening, Ed Harris, Oliver Platt, Candace Bergen, and Steve Coogan.
         Not much is new here, but some older viewers nostalgic about old Hollywood days may enjoy Rules Don’t Apply; it’s not likely younger viewers will, however.

A reminiscence of Howard Hughes and Hollywood in the 1950’s.

Grade:  C+                                            By Donna R. Copeland