Friday, August 26, 2016

DON'T BREATHE

Stephen Lang     Jane Levy     Dylan Minnette     Daniel Zovatto


          Chills and thrills a’plenty are in Don’t Breathe.  Three young pals, Rocky (Levy), Alex (Minnette), and Money (Zovalto)—pun intended, I suppose—are making their living by stealing from other people.  One has a connection to an alarm company, which allows them to disengage the alarms, enter homes and help themselves.  They have to hand over a high percentage of what they get to a “handler” who lets them know which houses to hit.  Then, as expected a really big job comes up, and at first Alex is reluctant because he knows the penalties if they’re caught, depending on the circumstances and whether or not they’re armed.  He has his limits as to how much risk he wants to take.
          Money, on the other hand, who seems to have no scruples about anything, is gung ho for the job, as is his girlfriend Rocky.  After Alex reads a news story about the blind man who lives in the house, he decides to join them after all.  The blind man (Lang) is ex-military and received a handsome settlement in a legal suit.  Since he lives in a modest house in a neighborhood in Detroit that is mostly abandoned, there is likely to be a stash of cash on hand.
         Off they go, and actually get into the house, but what awaits them there will be surprise after horrible surprise.  That could be one of the weaknesses of the plot—at least six times you think it’s going to end, but Director Fede Alvarez and his co-writer Rodo Sayagues, always have one more gasp up their sleeves.  The plot goes upstairs, downstairs, in the cellar, in the attic, and outdoors.  There are locks to break (and sometimes the intruders are locked inside), guns to fire, and a muscular ex-military fighter who doesn’t need his eyes to take someone down. 
          The plot is intelligent, mostly, with clever twists, such as the fact that in the beginning the viewer will have little sympathy for the thieves, especially Money, although Rocky is a single mother with a rough background who cares deeply for her daughter.  Then as the plot unfolds what Alex and Rocky have done fades in comparison to what they encounter.  Which is a true horror story.
       As with almost all the horror movies I’ve seen, though, I roll my eyes when the characters do stupid things and don’t take advantage of ways to escape, and that happens here.  Both Alex and Rocky could have gotten out of the situation a number of times.  Rocky is a bit more understandable in the sense that she stubbornly pursues her goals, and if there is any chance at all to get away with the loot, she will try.  The filmmakers have hooked Alex in by making him have the hots for Rocky, who is Money’s girlfriend, and clearly he feels protective of her and will not leave until he knows she is safe.
         Stephen Lang as the blind man convinces us of a layered personality with muscular arms that are as intimidating as his blank but intelligent eyes.  He has to use his other senses to detect who is around and where, which he does mostly with accuracy until he gets desperate and rattled, then he is a wild man.  But he pretty much gets our sustained attention over the long haul.  The twist in his story is the most chilling of all.  Minnette, Levy, and Zovatto carry off their roles with ease, and move the plot along over the tense terrain.

A good come-on for horror fans with its gripping plot twists.

Grade:  B                                    By Donna R. Copeland

Thursday, August 25, 2016

SOUTH SIDE WITH YOU

Tika Sumpter     Parker Sawyers


          This depiction of the beginning of a love story is something probably every couple wishes they could have.  Of course, it’s done with talented filmmakers led by writer/director Richard Tanne, and is respectful as befitting U.S. President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama.  At the same time, it’s also delightfully revealing.  I had heard that she gave him a hard time in the beginning, but I hadn’t realized she was so feisty.  (Making me wonder how she transitioned into such a unifier across the years.) 
          Southside with You shows Michelle’s reluctance to date Barack in the beginning, for good reason; she was his supervisor at a big law firm, and she had to be very circumspect to counteract prejudices toward blacks and women.  And while he was respectful of her opinion, he wanted to date her so much, his charm (her term is “smooth”) eventually won her over.  He only got her to go with him the first time when he invited her to a Southside (Chicago) community meeting, which piqued her interest; but little did she know he planned to spend the whole day with her.  Their interchanges during the date are very entertaining—like listening to two opposing attorneys argue about a very interesting case.  We also witness Obama’s speaking skill in addressing a group, reasoning with doubters, and ultimately winning them over.
        Another aspect that was intriguing to me was the way each listened to the other’s personal stories, then had insightful comments to offer.  For instance, after he was critical of his father a couple of times, she observed that he needed to forgive his father and move on rather than “living your life against his.”  What comes across in their discussions is their equality in discussing important, personal matters, as well as their support of one another.  Of course, they laughed and had fun; it was not all seriousness.
         Tracy “Twinkle” Bird had a sharp eye in casting Sumpter and Sawyers for the major roles, and the actors came through in looking like the real people through gestures, speaking voices, and demeanors that we have come to recognize and know so well from this famous couple.
          I’d like to note that the film is not a “Democratic” product/propaganda; it is genuinely a love story that could be considered typical of well-educated people in their 20’s/30’s, and would be open-ended if we didn’t already know how it turned out.  Tanne’s approach to the material, the tone, and the choices of what to show make the film both entertaining and informative.  The integration of Stephen James Taylor’s music with the drama and cinematography (Patrick Scola) is seamless, making the film a fine work of art.  The final song played during the credits and Scola’s blurring of the picture during transitions reinforces this observation.
          I wish we had seen a “To be continued…” sign at the end so we could see more of the everyday life of these fascinating individuals.

A low-key but fascinating story about the beginning of a love affair.


Grade:  A By Donna R. Copeland

HANDS OF STONE

Robert De Niro     Edgar Ramirez     Ana de Armas     Ellen Baskin     John Turturro     
Ruben Blades     Usher     Oscar Jaenada     Reg E. Cathey


          Roberto Duran (Ramirez) grew up in Panama, a street kid, who learned early on how to hustle, coached by a neighborhood “Pied Piper” who gathered up the kids and taught them how to survive by hook or by crook.  Duran’s father had long left his mother, and this man, Chaflan (Jaenada), served as his first father figure.  The second was Carlos (Blades), whom Duran at an early age kept bugging to train him to be a fighter, and when Carlos actually saw his drive and determinism in an underground fight, he agreed.  The third—who served as devoted mentor as well—was Ray Arcel (De Niro), who was approached by Carlos to pick up Duran’s training because he recognized that the famed trainer would make Duran a champion prizefighter.  Both Carlos and Ray sustained their involvement in Duran’s career for years despite major setbacks.  This could be the underlying substance of this biopic—the search for a missing father and how that served to fuel a man’s aggression and then channel it into something useful.
     Another influence was Panamanian politics, that country’s efforts to regain their sovereignty after the U.S. “bought them” with a canal.  Duran was a perceptive child when the protests first began, and when he witnessed the killing of a Panamanian trying to raise Panama’s flag at the Panama Canal and the Panamanians’ perception that the U.S. had reneged on a deal, the U.S. was identified as the father who abandoned him in infancy.
Ray Arcel was reluctant to take on Duran—he had been punished by the boxing powers that be at the time—but partly because he saw the potential and partly because he just wasn’t ready to retire, he began a relationship with Duran that affected both of them emotionally and changed their lives.  Duran soon became the boxer with manos de piedras (hands of stone).
         After Duran does become a sensation, he makes some mistakes that almost cost him his titles and reputation.  The film chronicles these with good pace and timing (the director is Jonathan Jakubowicz), allowing us to see the evolving relationships not only between the fighter and his trainers, but also his wife (de Armas) and Sugar Ray Leonard (Usher).  The film touches on the corruption in boxing that uses fighters as commodities (Turturro’s cameo appearances are appropriately subtle and commanding) and how international events can encroach upon people’s lives.
      Cinematography by Miguel Ioann Littin Menz is remarkable, particularly during the boxing matches.  Like a ballet dancer, the camera soars, pauses, and has explosions of color and action, capturing the viewer’s attention with its sheer beauty.
         De Niro remains a force in the movie business, and Hands of Stone is his film in a way, although Ramirez more than holds his own in portraying a deeply conflicted man who had to evolve from a scrappy street kid to head of a prosperous household, all while managing the temptations and seduction of fame.  Ramirez capably shows the multi-facets of this personality.  Ana de Armas captures our interest as well in her excellent portrayal of a wife needing to adapt to as well as influence her tempestuous husband.  A delightful addition to this cast is Usher, who plays the patient, charming, and ultimately very insightful Sugar Ray Leonard, a gentleman in the best sense of the word.

Under the guidance of father figures, a tempestuous boxer acquires hands of stone.

Grade:  B+                        By Donna R. Copeland

Saturday, August 20, 2016

KUBO AND THE TWO STRINGS

Voices of:  Charlize Theron   Art Parkinson   Ralph Fiennes   George Takei   Rooney Mara   Matthew McConaughey


            What a perfect blend of visual beauty, creativity, magical stories, and delightful lessons for life!  The American stop-motion animation studio Laika is well known for its quality work (Coraline, ParaNorman, The Boxtrolls), and Kubo and the two Strings represents their best in my opinion.  The visual beauty lies mostly in the sheets of paper that float or spin around and then are instantly formed by origami into magical figures.  But they are not just magical, their identities are revealed in time, and provide a way for a young child to come to terms with the loss of his parents.  The stop-motion animation could be entertaining and appreciated even without the drama, but that’s the icing on the cake.
            The film opens with an undulating sea and a tiny figure in a boat saying mantras to herself to keep her boat on course.  She ends up being tossed on shore and asleep or unconscious.  A baby’s cry awakens her and she runs over to find her infant son wrapped in a blanket.  He has a patch over his left eye.  The full story about them and how they got there unfolds during the course of the film, but in the interim, we see mother and son residing in a remote cave carved in a huge rock formation.  The mother appears older and frail, and her devoted son, Kubo (Parkinson), feeds her and comforts her when she has nightmares.  She tells him wonderful stories, his favorites being about his father.  He has many questions about him, but is always left hanging when his mother forgets.
            During the day, Kubo runs down to the village and tells the same stories in the city square which are illustrated with his magical papers and origami figures.  Plain sheets of colored paper are magically transformed into figures as he relates a tale.  Now, Kubo has been warned many times by his mother not to stay out after dark, but when he hears that during a certain festival people light lanterns and talk to their departed loved ones in the cemetery, he makes his own lantern and tries to talk to his father, not noticing that the sun has set and it’s dark.
            From there, the story becomes an adventure in which Kubo is visited by his ferocious aunts (Mara), witchlike figures out to capture him; thrown with a monkey (Theron), a beetle (McConaughey), and his origami action figures and their weapons, all while being actively pursued.  There are close calls, harrowing battles on land and sea, and a quest.  Kubo eventually learns who the witches are, why he has only one eye, and the full story about his parents.  In the process, it becomes a hero’s journey toward enlightenment and manhood.
            Themes include the value of stories, magic, family, and overcoming evil, mixed in with plenty of humor and adventure.  The interchanges between the monkey and the beetle are wonderfully entertaining in the midst of real threats.  Of deeper import are the observations about death and how memory (the “most powerful magic there is”) in the form of stories keeps loved ones alive forever.  And finally, there is a poignant sequence where an evil man is transformed by making him forget his meanness and defining him as someone charitable and good, giving credence to the idea that the attributions of others influence who we are.
            In addition to the wonders of Laika and Travis Knight’s animation, the voices of Theron, Parkinson, Fiennes, Takei, Mara, McConnaughey, and the Japanese actors provide additional color and meaning to the story.

Animation and story at their best, a film for all ages.

Grade:  A                        By Donna R. Copeland

Thursday, August 18, 2016

IMPERIUM

Daniel Radcliffe   Toni Collette   Tracy Letts   Nestor Caronell   Sam Trammell   Pawel Szajda   Seth Numrich


          Daniel Radcliffe plays an uncover FBI agent, Nate Foster, whose charge is to mingle with neo-Nazis and gain their trust.  His supervisor Angela (Collette) is certain that they are planning a major event that will risk the lives of many people.  She thinks the Harvard educated, ex-Marine, and personable new person in the department would make an excellent choice for the job.  Her boss, Tom Hernandez, who doubts her judgment in this case, frequently makes disparaging remarks about her, and thinks Nate is not ready for such a job, so he initially nixes the operation.  But with pressure, Angela gets her way and Nate embarks on a dangerous mission.
        The men comprising the Skinheads make a motley crew, with different shadings to their beliefs and prejudices.  Some are fundamental Christians, some are simply angry at the world, and some have more of an intellectual reason for joining the movement.  One is a hothead who Nate thinks it’s only a matter of time before he is arrested.  They’re all united in their belief, however, that “diversity” equals white genocide and that the white race deserves supremacy.  (They’re obviously unaware that race cannot be biologically defined.)  I found it enlightening to get a picture of what these people are like and the differing motives they have for joining the group.
       It’s also interesting to see how the FBI creates an uncover sting in and what the experience of being such an agent is like.  He has to be convincing in feigning beliefs he doesn’t hold, possess special knowledge so he appears as smart as or smarter than the others, be likeable to most of them, and be quick to change the script in a flash if something is about to go wrong.  Radcliffe achieves this persona, and the script is snappy enough to maintain the action.  Writer/director Daniel Ragussis has successfully adapted the true story on which the film is based to the screen.  That story with the same title was written by Michael German.
      Toni Collette, Tracy Letts, Sam Trammell, and Pawel Szajda provide excellent supporting roles in helping to make Imperium an interesting, exciting, and sometimes disturbing thriller.  It will be in limited release as well as VOD August 19, 2016.

Go to Imperium to be thrilled and chilled.

Grade:  B                                    By Donna R. Copeland


BEN-HUR

Jack Huston   Toby Kebbell   Rodrigo Santoro   Nazanin Boniadi   Ayelet Zurer   Pilou Asbaek   Morgan Freeman


          This story of Ben-Hur is derived from the 1880 novel by Lew Wallace entitled Ben-Hur:  A Tale of the Christ, with a screenplay by Keith R. Clarke and John Ridley, who also wrote the screenplay for 12 Years a Slave.  In this film version, the plot diverges here and there from the novel.   Previous films based on the book were made in 1907, 1925, 1959, and 2003, the most famous of which was William Wyler’s in 1959 starring Charlton Heston and Stephen Boyd, which won 11 Academy Awards and became the top grossing picture of 1960.
           In 2016 Ben-Hur, Judah (Huston) and Messala (Kebbell) are brothers, Messala being rescued by the Ben-Hur family when he became an orphan.  This sets up an intense bonding/rivalry between the two, the latter fueled by the mother’s antagonism toward Messala, and her efforts to place a wedge in the obvious attraction between Messala and her daughter.  Embittered and feeling justified in his actions, Messala accuses Judah of treason against the empire and betrays the family who sheltered him.
         Like a coming-of-age hero who must undergo numerous trials, Judah is arrested by the Roman soldiers (he wasn’t guilty and tried to protect the zealot he had rescued who betrayed him), put in a Roman ship’s galley to row for five years, manages to escape during a battle at sea, and is washed ashore near the camp of a wealthy African sheik (Freeman). After saving the sheik’s sick and dying horse, the sheik sponsors Judah’s entry into the chariot race of his life with Messala being his primary competitor.  Messala has now become an important Roman officer in the army.
        Huston and Kebbell show their acting skills in achieving a detectable ambivalence toward one another that comes through as a deep, complex relationship.  Judah is the more secure and insightful brother who was born naturally into a noble family, whereas Messala has stored up years of resentment at their social inequality, despite Judah’s assurances that he is truly a member of the Ben-Hur family.  Messala has coped with his situation by joining the Romans in their brutal campaign to crush uprisings that seem to be proliferating in conquered dominions.  Morgan Freeman as the sheik has the same gravitas that he brings to all his roles.  The actresses are beautiful, but are primarily ornaments without much of a role, except maybe Esther (Boniadi), who is paired with Judah and asserts herself easily when she thinks Judah is not listening to her.
          The story of Ben-Hur is well told with OK special effects, but I see no need for the 3-D version.  For those who are sympathetic to the Christian religion, it is likely to be inspiring as well as entertaining. 

Brother against brother in brutal Roman times.

Grade:  C                                    By Donna R. Copeland

DON'T THINK TWICE

Mike Birbiglia   Gillian Jacobs   Keegan-Michael Key   Kate Micucci   Tami Sagher   Chris Gothard   Katie Rediger


         The Commune is an improv comedy troupe in New York City, with member aspirations to make it big by being chosen to write or perform on the popular television show, Weekend Live.  It’s a close-knit group of people, some of whom have been together for a long time, and they see themselves as a family.  They live, eat, breathe skits-in-the-making constantly, and seem to assume that they will always be together.  They’re very open, feeling free to criticize someone’s performance or how they’re behaving.  Although writer/director Mike Birbiglia is a comedian, as are many of the actors, Don’t Think Twice is as much a drama as it is a comedy.
        The drama comes when it dawns on everyone that they have individual aspirations, and some will succeed and others won’t, at least for a time.  It puts a strain on the group, and they have to work through the congratulatory high-fives, the envy, the disappointment and the realization that they indeed will not always be together.  Interestingly, some actually blossom, and some find other avenues of satisfaction, such as personal relationships and new venues. 
         It’s a strength of Birbiglia’s writing and direction that the drama has depth and realism and goes beyond pure comedy.  It covers competitiveness in the workplace, coping with limited funds, intrusions of events and people in the outside world, problems in finding/keeping a venue, and personal relationships.  Not that the comedy isn’t funny; it is.  I especially like the beginning when a history and definition of improv is outlined, with its three basic rules:  Say yes (building on what your partners create), remember it’s about the group—not one individual, and don’t think (get out of your head).
         The improv moments are funny within a backdrop of a group of young people who are wrestling with the realities of life in show business.

The heartbreak of not being chosen.

Grade:  B                        By Donna R. Copeland