Saturday, May 30, 2020

UNCORKED

Courtney B. Vance     Mamoudou Athie     Niecy Nash     Sasha Compere


     What a delightful surprise to see a winner from a relatively new filmmaker, Prentice Penny, writer and director.  We don’t usually think of a black middle-class young man with a future in his father’s business wanting to become a sommelier (not a Somalian, as envisioned by some in his circle). But Elijah (Athie) is a dreamer, and something caught his fancy when he first heard of experts in wine tasting. 
     All will not be well on the home front.  Blessed with an empathetic, insightful mother, Elijah was encouraged to pursue his calling, which turns out to be a bitter disappointment to a father (Vance) who had sacrificed his own dreams in order to please his father and keep up the family’s BBQ business.  As so often happens, father Louis has so repressed his own wishes, he does not recognize putting his son in the same bind he encountered as a young man. I admired the mother’s ability to still the turbulent waters of the two men’s relationship, and maneuver through treacherous waters—superbly acted by Niecy Nash.
     But there is much more going on in this story; the main thrust is Elijah’s enrolling in school and trying to master a course that few manage to pass, to become a Master Sommelier.  It would have been rewarding to learn more about his three other fellow students, who similarly had stories to tell, but we have to be content to get only glimpses into their personalities and background.  
     This is primarily a family drama that entertains as much in that as getting insights into the wine business, which will be intriguing to wine lovers unacquainted with the profession.  As in quality filming, it has additional themes of overcoming tremendous odds to achieve a dream and father-son conflicts that appear to be unresolvable. 
     Writer-director Penny should be congratulated on his ability to give us a picture that is skillful in intertwining family dynamics and a profession that is potentially interesting to most people.  Speaking of which, the movie is likely to attract wine lovers, but may not speak to those who have other favorite drinks.  When the students are required to describe wines and their essences and come up with grapes and region of origin (from Europe to the Americas to the world over), as well as the date, we realize what an art and a science it is.
     Along with the script and direction, the cast is extraordinarily good.  Vance is well known for his proficiency in television’s “American Crime Story”, and that is clearly apparent here, but the other actors are less well known.  As the lead, Mamoudou Athie comes through with a fine performance of a young man torn between loyalty to his family—especially his father—and pursuing an exciting opportunity.  But as noted, Niecy Nash as his mother, Sasha Compere as his steadfast girlfriend, and the actors playing his classmates are superb.

Lots of heart and soul in this story about a young man with a dream against all odds.

Grade:  A-                             By Donna R. Copeland

Saturday, May 23, 2020

THE PAINTER AND THE THIEF

Karl Bertil-Nordland    Barbora Kysilkova


     True stories make the best dramas by far.  This Norwegian documentary shows the actual painter and the two actual thieves who stole two of her paintings.  After going to one’s trial and meeting him, Barbora developed a most unlikely friendship with Karl.  He had no memory of the theft—except that he loved the paintings—but he was on drugs at the time.  Not only did he have no memory of the event, he never had any contact with the other thief again.
     This is a fine documentary by Benjamin Ree, a young filmmaker with extraordinary insight into the psychological make-up of the two figures, highlighting the concept of forgiveness that runs throughout the amazing story.  The craft of storytelling is supported by the music of Uno Helmersson and the brilliant cinematography of Kristoffer Kumar and Benjamin Ree himself.  Stark images of winter scenes and wreckages are counterbalanced by warm human connections, vivid colors, and the magic of painting.
     Characteristic of provocative documentaries, The Painter and the Thief keeps the viewer engaged in two mysteries: How the friendship will play out and where the paintings are now.  The more entertaining of these is getting to know the two characters, each of which has significant background (childhood) experiences that propel them into their individual lifestyles.  The common bond turns out to be abuse of different kinds leading each into self-destructive behaviors.  Once again, there is a paradox.  Hers has to do with being a rescuer; his with addictions that threaten not only his relationships but also his life.  Here’s where it works.  She is steadfast in a way he has never known in his life; he gives her genuine praise for all kinds of things, which raises a lifetime of low self-esteem and self-worth.  
     Seldom in life or in dramatic films/plays/literature is there a story about two self-destructive figures forming a therapeutic relationship, and further, creating a lasting bond.  Noteworthy in this documentary are the demonstrations of the efficacy of psychotherapy and rehabilitation in prison and in personal lives.
     Your experience of this film is likely to be fascination, curiosity, and mystery—not necessarily woven into many documentaries—along with a renewed appreciation for forgiveness. 

Documentaries that come across as dramas renew our faith in the saying that truth can be stranger than fiction.

Grade:  A                                    By Donna R. Copeland

Thursday, May 21, 2020

THE TRIP TO GREECE

Steve Coogan     Rob Brydon


     As striking and lovely as the land- and seascapes are in this buddy movie, if you’ve seen The Trip to Italy and The Trip to Spain, you’ve seen The Trip to Greece.  Despite it being a different country, there is little contrast between this and the earlier versions.  This film has the same format as the other two, in which Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon take trips to exotic places, tooling around in boats and cars, kibitzing with one another along the way, having brief interactions with others, and dining in restaurants with fine cuisine (e.g., mussels with expresso powder dust) and breathtaking views.  
     Conversations range from take-offs on beloved characters in movies, referencing historical characters and facts about the country they’re in, and competing on who is better at…anything.  They might take dips in the seas and join up with old acquaintances or current friends, and occasionally, we hear their conversations with loved ones at home.  
The films are primarily improvisational, but real events in the actors’ lives are woven in.  This one in particular shows significant events taking place at home, along with a reunion of husband and wife who are very much in love.
     I enjoyed this version of the Coogan-Brydon trips less than the others, partly because of its repetition, but also because it seems more rushed. Writer-director Michael Winterbottom really made a mistake in showing only glimpses of the kitchen staffs preparing elegant dishes without going into detail about what they consist of and something about the people preparing them.  They focus on one waitress who delights them, but that’s the extent of highlighting the people who serve them.  
     Just listening to Coogan and Brydon for such long stretches becomes tedious at best. We tire of them by the end of the film.  Another issue is that many of the references they make in their impersonations of Hollywood figures and Greek historical figures are likely to go over the heads of most viewers.  Most will be saying, “I don’t get it…”
     With the rich history of the worlds explored and the movies discussed in these films, it is puzzling to see the lack of creativity and potential for humor that is missed. 

Looking at a travelogue about Greece will be more exciting and informative than this film.

Grade:  D                                    By Donna R. Copeland


Wednesday, May 13, 2020

MILITARY WIVES

Kristin Scott Thomas     Sharon Horgan     Gaby French     India Ria Amarteifio


     People don’t usually think much about the wives of military personnel, so to see a film about them as a group is a treat. Written by Rosanne Flynn and Rachel Tunnard and directed by Peter Cattaneo, the story revolves around group dynamics when a bevy of not-likeminded souls are thrown together, and then teased/cajoled/pressured to see themselves as a group with an identity.  Obviously with a clear understanding of how groups coalesce, the writers and director create a realistic account that is entrancing for the viewer, and based upon a real story. 
     The vehicle through which this group identity comes about is singing (first), which evolves into an actual choir.  We are introduced first to the colonel’s wife, Kate (expertly—as always—played by Kristin Scott Thomas), who uses her station on the base to influence and command respect.  But she is a newcomer, and attempts to over-ride Lisa (Horgan) who is put in charge of the wives’ activities, especially when their husbands are away on a mission.  Kate quickly gets the impression that Lisa is not an experienced leader, and is ready to impose her more “cultural” will on the group.  Their initial interactions make the viewer (at least this female reviewer) cringe, dreading the usual “cat fight” that follows in so many films. 
     It’s like two cultures coming at each other gangbusters, but with a feminine veneer. I say “veneer” because that is how the conflict is typically portrayed of women.  But these characters have more substance.  And the processes through which they do come together ring unbelievably true.  It’s rewarding to see two women work out a complicated relationship through the essential give-and-take that working through requires.
     It is seeing how those processes go forward that constitute the humor and drama of Military Wives.  We may guess how everything is going to turn out, but it’s the journey there, along with the human truths displayed, which makes the film a joy to see.
     Kristin Scott Thomas has had a long career in successful films, one of which (The English Patient) received an Academy Award for Best Picture, along with a number of personal awards for her accomplishments.  I have always gotten the impression she chooses the films she is in for a reason, either its meaningfulness to her personally or its message for its audience.  She has always been one of my favorites so much so that I will see any film in which she appears.  Here, she once again does a masterful job in evincing the gradual changes that occur in a character over time when dealing with social/emotional issues that will humanize her.
     Thomas’ co-star, Sharon Horgan as Kate’s primary competitor fully meets her halfway, and the two of them achieve such anin-sync performance it’s entertaining just to watch them perform.  I’m not as familiar with Horgan’s work—which has been primarily in British television—but she demonstrates quality in nuance and range in this film that attests to her skill.
     Other characters in Military Wives are colorful and hold your attention, such as the reluctant but talented singer played by Gaby French, the cheeky teenage daughter played by India Ria Amarteifio, and the wife of a new recruit played by Emma Lowndes.  
     What two leaders of a military base choir accomplished made such an impression, the idea spread throughout the military, with over 75 choirs now active across UK bases.

Altogether, Military Wives is an entertaining, uplifting film that will engage you, entertain you, and sometimes make you cry in depicting human truths.

Grade:  A                                    By Donna R. Copeland

Thursday, April 2, 2020

NEVER RARELY SOMETIMES ALWAYS

Sidney Flanagan     Talia Ryder     Ryan Eggold     Theodore Pellerin


     The title?  It comes from a questionnaire the 17 year-old Autumn (Flanagan) is asked to respond to when she goes to New York for a medical procedure.  The questions are probing, and since she is not inclined to talk about her experience at all, they throw her for a loop.  
     This documentary-like drama written and directed by Elizabeth Hittman tells about a few days in the life of Autumn.  It’s up close and extremely personal; yet, paradoxically, we’re not given much information through dialog.  It’s a bit like watching a silent film and needing to infer what is transpiring visually.  Hittman has the unusual skill of giving the viewer just enough information about the characters and the setting to pique curiosity and keep you majorly invested in what happens.
     We meet Autumn right away as she is performing as a singer/guitar player at a small night spot.  Simply brief glimpses of this, her family situation, and her daily life previews for us the poignant, story that will unfold.  Autumn is extremely reticent, not even being forthcoming with her cousin and best friend Skylar (Ryder), who provides constant support and requires little explanation.  Somehow, the decision is made to go to New York from a community in Pennsylvania, neither girl apparently ever having been there before.  But they have a mission and go by bus to the city.
     In eliminating dialog for the most part, I suppose that Hittman is making a commentary about young people today who communicate primarily through their devices, and otherwise do not have extended, heart-to-heart discussions that most people of previous generations seem to do automatically.  It is somewhat of a relief to see medical professionals patiently asking Autumn questions, ones which require answers (ah…communication!).  Most of the time, though, Autumn and Skylar undergo and work through major dilemmas with little discussion.  One young man does engage them (primarily Skylar) on the bus to New York, which only serves to increase our concern for the girls.
     Another issue Hittman comments about is the absence of family support and government services available to teenagers with few resources.  We’re not actually told about Autumn’s family, but are given enough views of it to surmise what it is like.  Left to her own devices, Autumn seeks help from social services, but of course receives little that is useful.  Interestingly, she does get some empathy and some services in New York City (going against its reputation), but these are limited, and the girls have to be clever, brave, and assertive not to be abandoned altogether.
     I think this film is laden with social-psychological meanings and commentary, not only about families, but also about society’s insufficient readiness to meet the challenges that are presented by a new generation in a rapidly changing technological environment.  Are families (however constituted), society, and government prepared?  Food for thought.
     This glimpse of a few days in the life of a teenager left on her own (by her own choice) says so much about the current state of affairs viz a viz family complexities and limited social services available.  

A gripping film capturing a few days in the life of a teenage girl left on her own (by her own choice) but with the help of a steadfast friend.

Grade:  A                                    By Donna R. Copeland


Thursday, March 12, 2020

THE HUNT

Hilary Swank     Betty Gilpin     Ike Barinholtz     Wayne Duvall     Amy Madigan     Reed Birney     Emma Roberts


     A perfect allegory for the times.  The Hunt is a 20thcentury take on George Orwell’s novel Animal Farm, in which the animals rebel against their masters.  Only in this rendition, it’s the “Elite Liberals” against “The Deplorables.”  Its plot is not a straightforward telling of a story.  It starts out with a group chat on the telephone, then goes backward and forward in time.  (So keep track of the names, even though it will still be confusing because identities are frequently shifting.)
     Before (almost) everything becomes clear, we witness characters being restrained on a plane and later hunted with guns, arrows, and hand grenades in an open field or roadside station.  These are people from different parts of the country who have been kidnapped, anesthetized, and brought to…they don’t know what state they’re in.  They only hear references to “Manorgate” (parallel to Orwell’s “Manor Farm”), and two pigs wearing human clothes appear from time to time—clues for those familiar with Orwell’s work.)
     That’s enough of the plot; it will be more entertaining and engrossing the less you know about it.  
     Writers Nick Cuse and Damon Lindelof are to be congratulated for their creativity in adapting a novel published in 1945 about Russia and the Soviet Union and cleverly making it relevant to our country today.  Director Craig Zobel expertly films their script, making it come alive in ways that are simultaneously entertaining and appalling.  I always have a problem with movies shifting back and forth in time, and in this film, it’s especially challenging when characters disappear and reappear, and identities often shift (e.g., it is not always clear whether a character is one of the good guys or the bad guys)—all of which contributes to its formulation as an intriguing intellectual puzzle.  
     Betty Gilpin exquisitely plays a somewhat mysterious figure who seems at first to be a deadpan young woman from Mississippi.  But she is a formidable fighter and always seems two steps ahead of whomever she meets.  Gilpin deserves a nomination for this role.  She easily carries the story as a lead figure.  Hilary Swank is perfectly cast in her role, although she is not present in most scenes.  Supporting cast is likewise a talented group of actors who move the story forward with ease.
     My only criticisms are in too much shifting back and forth in time (a current fad in filmmakers’ trying to make their movie more exciting) and in the length of the final battle (as unbelievable as it is humorous).
     This is one of those films that come along every so often to remind us of the artistic, intellectual talent at filmmakers’ disposal.  When you see a work like this, you wonder again why this talent is not tapped more often, and we are offered remakes and sequels ad nauseam.  Oh, yeah…once again, it’s all about the money.

Prepare to be entertained (likely) while being appalled (almost certainly) in this well-informed allegory reckoning back to George Orwell’s Animal Farm.

Grade:  B                                    By Donna R. Copeland


Saturday, March 7, 2020

ONWARD

Chris Pratt     Julia Louis-Dreyfus    Octavia Spencer    Tom Holland    Mel Rodriguez


     This is a fun animated movie that kids are likely to love (and some adults too, based on the guffaws I heard at the screening), with a couple of good messages.  Two brothers live with their solicitous mother, getting along fairly well (except maybe for the older one’s bossiness toward the younger, and his chaotic way of dealing with life).  Ian the younger (Holland) is imminently responsible and sincere, but painfully shy and woefully lacking in self-confidence.  His older brother Barley (Pratt) is just the opposite, never fearing where angels fear to tread, knocking things over and getting into trouble everywhere he turns.  But he is good-hearted, and thinks he is doing a yeoman’s job in helping Ian in the father’s absence.  Their mother Laurel (Louis-Dreyfus) does a heroic job in running interference and trying to bolster Ian’s self-image and tame Barley’s dominating bluster.  Just a typical American family, right?
     On Ian’s 16thbirthday, Laurel presents the boys with a gift from their father he wanted them to have when they’ve both reached age 16.  Come to find out, their father believed in magic, and gave them something that would pass on his love of the craft. Barley is a bit ahead, being familiar with the Quests of Yore fantasy game, so he coaches Ian every step of the way, even through the “Path of Peril”, with many adventures in between. Their quest is to find the Phoenix Gem that will allow their father to visit them for one day.  The quest constitutes the bulk of the movie, which is complicated by Laurel’s need to keep her boys from harm, and in doing so, she enlists the aid of Manticore (Spencer), a good witch.
     There are a number of clever—even funny twists—in the plot, such as a spell that gets interrupted brings only the bottom half of the father back, but still, he is able to impress the boys with his dance steps and witty communication.  Manticore is a hoot in her blustery problem-solving, grand sweeps, and funky dialog.
     Many symbols of magic are sprinkled throughout the story—as in a fantasy game—with the underlying thrust of helping the brothers come of age, Barley in learning the value of wisdom and thoughtfulness and Ian in developing self-confidence. Storytelling is done in such a way that I think kids will get the messages while still being entertained by the animated production.  
     This is typical Pixar, with stunning graphics and a decent story to go with.  It should be popular, but is not likely to make a big splash.

A tale about two brothers and how magic can bring them together and foster their development, overseen by their parents.

Grade:  C+                                    By Donna R. Copeland