Wednesday, August 21, 2019

THE PEANUT BUTTER FALCON

Shia LeBeouf     Dakota Johnson     Zack Gottsagen
John Hawkes     Thomas Haden Church     Bruce Dern


     Tyler (LeBeouf) and Zak (Gottsagen) make a most unlikely pair—almost as implausible as peanut butter and falcon.  But all of it comes together in this charming tale of overcoming the odds and living in the moment—against the background of catchy folk music tunes.
Local thief Tyler, holding a lot of anger and depression, is on the run when his path crosses that of Zak, an orphaned runaway from the nursing home, with Down’s Syndrome.  Zak has hidden away in Tyler’s boat, not realizing that Tyler is being chased by the men he stole from.  On Zak’s tail is his caretaker Carolyn (Johnson) from the home.  But after a touch-and-go start, Tyler and Zak have figured out a way to survive in the wild, and they’ve become bro’s with a special handshake.
     Having grown up with an older brother, now deceased, who was his mentor, Tyler is basically honorable and doesn’t have the heart to leave Zak behind. Instead, he becomes Zak’s mentor, something that Zak is sorely in need of after a life of being over-protected. His hunger for masculine influence is expressed by a burning desire to meet his idol, Salt Water Redneck (Church), and attend his wrestling school.  Tyler encourages him in this pursuit, promises to take him there, teaches him survival skills like swimming (after Zak had almost drowned), and even begins training him for wrestling by building up his strength. When Zak is indulging in peanut butter one evening, Tyler says he needs to pick out a wrestling name, an “alter ego.”  Zak thinks of a falcon, and somehow the peanut butter gets mixed in, and the name “Peanut Butter Falcon” is celebrated.
     Meanwhile, the dedicated Carolyn, who has become something of a mother figure to Zak, is canvassing the countryside with a picture of Zak and questioning whether anyone has seen him.  When she finally locates him and Tyler on the beach with their makeshift raft, she gets drawn into their adventure, and the duo becomes an even more unlikely threesome (a “family!” Zak proudly proclaims).
Their journey to Salt Water Redneck will be filled with folksy adventures and danger in the form of Tyler’s determined pursuers.  These travels are entertaining and frequently amusing as we see them accommodate to one another, develop insights, and form a close bond.
     Peanut Butter Falcon is enjoyable as light entertainment with some soul and human truths that give it some substance, and a number of close calls that create excitement.  The cast is probably the most impressive quality it has. Applause is in order for Zack Gottsagen for his convincing portrayal of his character with a combination of pluckiness, determination, likeability, and sheer joy.  Tyler is a different role for Shia LeBeouf, one that is more intimate and emotional than his usual, and he pulls it off nicely.  John Hawkes, Thomas Hayden Church, and Bruce Dern all cinch the entertainment value of their distinctive cameos, for which they are perfectly cast.

Suspend disbelief and take in this fanciful, heartwarming film.

Grade:  B                                    By Donna R. Copeland

Monday, August 19, 2019

THE NIGHTINGALE

Aisling Franciosi     Sam Claflin     Baykale Ganambarr     Michael Sheasby


      The Nightingale in this story is an Irish woman with a lyrical, clear-as-a-bell voice caught up in the colonization of Australia 1825.  Having served a prison term, she needs papers from her husband’s superior to absolve her of her crimes and be free.  She has an infant and she and her husband are trying desperately to escape to parts unknown.  The problem is Leftenant Hawkins (Claflin), who has a hold over both Aiden (Sheasby) and Clare (Franciosi), has no qualms about exacting services from her against her will.
     I wanted so much to love this movie.  The writer/director Jennifer Kent, cinematographer Radek Ladczuk, and musician Jed Kurzel all worked together on the well received Babadook (2014) in which a woman is forced to deal with supernatural forces.  In contrast, in this film the main protagonist, Clare (Franciosi), must confront and deal with a real man whose ethical/moral principles never seem to have registered.  We admire her fortitude and perseverance in overcoming one obstacle after another, only to find herself trudging through the Australian outback, guided by an Aboriginal, Billy (Ganambarr).
     My primary issue with the film is in the character of Clare, a woman tough as nails in some scenes, but sinking into passivity in others when real action is required.  It’s an inconsistency in character that is simply not plausible.  I didn’t necessarily expect her to be super-hero heroic—as in recent films attempting to highlight the power of women—but I would expect the fire that propelled her toward vengeance and fuel her stubbornness toward her black guide would last to the end when she finally confronts her tormenter.  But she freezes at significant times, which is inconsistent with how she is portrayed earlier in the film.  There are also lapses in judgment, which seem uncharacteristic for someone of Clare’s temperament.
     The Nightingale is beautifully filmed, but would have benefitted from more judicious cutting of violent scenes that go on too long and some of the scenes where the actors are trudging through brush.  Aisling Franciosi makes a wonderful Clare, showing her honesty, solid values, and fortitude in the face of adversity.  Sam Claflin captures the smooth sleeze of a lieutenant who has been promoted beyond his capabilities and has no compassion for others, but only for his own advancements.

A beautifully rendered film about a convicted Irish woman’s struggles in surviving and maintaining her family in Australia.

Grade:  C+                                    By Donna R. Copeland

READY OR NOT

Samara Weaving     Mark O’Brien     Andie MacDowell    Adam Brody     Henry Czerny


     The entire premise on which this film is based is that family myths are true and their precepts must be heeded when, by now, we all know that everything your family tells you is not necessarily so.  The picture opens in a huge mansion with everyone running around with masks on.  It looks intriguing, but don’t hold your breath.
     Thirty years later, the Le Domas family myth lives on and the rituals are still observed, an excellent time to teach young children the traditions.  After having been somewhat estranged from his family, the oldest son and heir to the family fortune, Alex (O’Brien), has brought his bride home for their wedding.  Grace (Weaving) is a bit intimidated by the family, but sees their tradition of a game to welcome new members to the fold as amusing, and she’s ready to play along.  
     Little does she know what she’s in for; Alex has not divulged to her the bizarre aspect of “games” in their household.  He gives her a chance to back out, but she thinks he’s being silly, and goes ahead and draws the card that will indicate the game they will play:  Hide and Seek.  She’s a little puzzled, but immediately goes to look for a place to hide; the family will play the part of the seekers.  Foreboding dawns immediately when Grace elects to hide in a dumb waiter.
     That much will suffice in giving the reader a hint as to what the story will be about. Horror buffs may revel in this production filled with gore to the laughable stage.  It offers a “thrill” a minute; just leave your logic at home.  Grace will be running and fighting for her life for the next hour.
     It seems to me, the hinge on which everything depends, the script by Guy Busick and Ryan Murphy, falls short in providing material that this group of fine actors could exploit, nor does it engage the viewer in reacting to the horror and mystery.  It is something of a hack job (pun intended) where one impossible event follows another. For instance, one is not meant to question how a character can use her hands that have been shot and pierced with a nail to scale an iron fence, choke a pursuer, and use them for other means of escape.
     Samara Weaving performs admirably, showing real strength beneath a veneer of blond beauty, along with strength of will, even when it looks like she’s done for. Her feats are not always plausible, but they elicit interest and some degree of satisfaction.  Adam Brody as the loyal brother of Alex, also brings expertise to his role.  The other actors, including Andie MacDowell and Henry Czerny, are solid back-ups for the main stars.

Ready or Not is a film for horror fans who enjoy the action without having to think through the logic of the plot.

Grade:  D                                    By Donna R. Copeland


LUCE

Naomi Watts     Tim Roth     Kelvin Harrison, Jr.    Octavia Spencer
Norbert Leo Butz     Andrea Bang     Astro     Noah Gaynor


     Complexity is an understatement in this film about weighty topics ranging from race, privacy, security, trust, secrets, and communications that are misread because of listeners’ presumptions and conscious or unconscious wishes.  Luce’s strength is in illustrating how much anxiety and pain come to bear when there are no easy answers.  It’s a story that is worthy of much discussion after the movie among those genuinely moved by the events depicted.
     Initially, the Edgar family seems so admirably ideal.  Amy (Watts) and Peter (Roth) adopted a 10 year-old survivor of abuse and former child soldier in African Eretrea, and seem to have brought up a black-skinned child with all the privileges typical of privileged white children.  Named ‘Luce” (meaning “light”), the child is so gifted, personable, and emotionally balanced, he arouses expectations of fame, not only from his parents, but teachers and even other students—which, ironically, becomes a burden to him when he sees how favorably he is treated compared to fellow classmates.D 
     In high school, Luce has a diverse group of friends and easily recognizes the bias with which some are treated, while he is excused.  He has a highly ambivalent relationship with his favorite teacher, Miss Wilson (Spencer), who is one of those who, he feels, expect him to be perfect.  He and the history teacher have sparring sessions fraught with a mixture of respect, overt politeness, and outright barbs.  It’s hard for the viewer to sort out the truths in this relationship, just as it is for the protagonists.  In a clever bit of script writing, the two people at different times make the statement, “Unfair doesn’t make it untrue.”
     During the course of the drama, we learn more about the Edgars’ conflicts with each other and between them and Luce.  It’s clear that husband and wife differ in their relationships with Luce.  As best as she tries to keep her private life confidential, Miss Wilson’s family history is exposed in a most unsettling way.  Luce’s diverse group of friends provides further intrigue and muddying of the waters.
     This production, directed by Julius Onah and co-written with J. C. Lee is fascinating in its grasp of contemporary issues that are not easily sorted out, all while being engrossing and entertaining.  Kelvin Harrison, Jr., as Luce performs expertly, portraying a character a bit too facile in his explanations and studied politeness.  However, at 25, he just can’t be convincing as a high school teenager.  (My ongoing gripe is the casting of young adults to play teenagers when there is an abundance of qualified younger actors in that age range.  Age discrepancy is highly disconcerting to those of us well acquainted with teenagers.  All of the “teens” in this film are in their mid-twenties, and one is 30 years old.)
     Octavia Spence is one actor continually worthy of praise.  She has recently branched out into roles where the character is a mix-up of good and bad qualities (e.g., Ma), all captivating, and highlighting her ability to portray conflicting personality characteristics.  Naomi Watts and Tim Roth also have nuanced performances that are convincing as real people going through major self-exploration and adaptation.  
     Julius Onah is early in his career as director and producer (this is only his second full feature film), and with Luce, he shows promise as a sensitive filmmaker knowledgeable about human frailties and strengths, and expert in storytelling.  Contributing to the quality of Luceare writer J. C. Lee, musicians Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury, and cinematographer Larkin Seiple.  

Combining mystery, intrigue, and entertainment with topical issues of race and privilege, Luce challenges viewers to question what is truth in the story and ways in which our own biases may come into play.

Grade:  B+                                    By Donna R. Copeland

Friday, August 16, 2019

HONEYLAND


     I was struck by Hatidze’s face when she first appears on screen.  She has one of those visages that reflect life experiences; and the fact that the wrinkles all up her cheeks seem to be from smiling gives us a clue as to her personality.  Of course, it’s also obvious that wrinkles from worry are there as well. As an aside, it turns out she is only in her early 50’s, but looks more like 80, a reflection of the life she has had.
     At first, it seems like Hatidze and her aging, ailing mother are leading reasonably comfortable lives, except that the mother is bedridden and losing her sight and hearing.  They bicker, but convey to each other as well their devotion.  The mother is sympathetic with Hatidze, knowing that she is a burden, and she clearly seems ready to die, but life persists. As the youngest daughter in the family, Hatidze takes seriously the custom that she is to take care of her mother until she dies, even though she has numerous brothers.  Hatidze shows only traces of resentment about this, and consistently tries to do the best for her that she can.
     A significant event occurs when a large family with seven children settles in next door. Hussein and his wife Ljutvie seem to be industrious, fixing up abandoned crumbling structures on the land and raising animals.  The kids do a lot of tumbling around and wrestling with one another, but they also help a great deal with whatever chores come up.  
Since Hatidze has always had an isolated life, she is thrilled to see the family and immediately bonds with the children, singing, playing, dancing, and teaching one boy about beekeeping, her primary occupation—her livelihood really.  
     Hussein shows an interest in beekeeping, and Hatidze freely shares with him her considerable knowledge about it.  
     In addition to the cross-cultural aspects of Honeyland, the theme of human interactions with nature is strong, first showing up in demonstrating how Hatidze relates to the bees, singing to them, and expressing her gratitude for their honey, always leaving them half for themselves.  Hussein represents the modern way of thinking that nature (and anything else in reach) must be conquered and grabbed.  [I wanted to scream at him like Ygritte to Jon Snow in Game of Thrones:  You know nothing, Hussein!].  But unlike Jon Snow, Hussein does not learn from experience or others’ guidance.  Greed and a tempter get the best of him.
     What follows is conflict and tense conversations between Hussein and Hatidze.  
     The film ends on a thoughtful note about how this story plays out, leaving the viewer with the sense that Hatidze’s inner strength and strong character will see her through to the end, without which it might be a bleak story.  A follow-up interview with the directors and their comments about Ljutvie and her innate talent for being in front of a camera is further testament of her strength and fortitude.
     Directors Tamara Kotevska and Ljubomir Stefanov present an illuminating—and entertaining—picture showing the enculturation of diverse groups and the delicate balance between nature and humans.  Hatidze represents love of nature and other human beings; Hussein, the self-serving capitalist who ignores the importance of both.  Cinematography by Samir Ljuma and Fejmi Daut is breathtaking from the vast expanse of the surrounding countryside to the intimacy of daily life in a family.  
     The film seems as much a drama as a documentary, and the real people portraying themselves is truly remarkable.  Also remarkable is the fact that the story is the real story of what transpired.  Neither of the directors speaks the language of the protagonists, and the work was filmed in real time.  For instance, they were unaware beforehand that the large family would arrive while they were there.  Cinema Veritè at its best.

Take a trip to the beautiful, remote countryside of Macedonia in Turkey for an interesting excursion into human struggles and joys and their relationship with nature.

Grade:  A                                    By Donna R. Copeland




THE CHAMBERMAID (LA CAMARISTA)

Gabriela Cartol     Teresa Sanchez


     The life of a chambermaid is not one most of us can imagine, but writer (with Juan Marquez) and director Lila Aviles gives us a vivid lacerating depiction of what it is like from the point of view of one who walks that path.  First of all, surprises abound when the maid opens the door to a room.  She might even find a guest under a bed!  She may have to tidy a room in an extraordinary mess and figure out how to remove stains.  The film will bring up memories of Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma about the devoted housekeeper of his childhood, as well as the well-publicized incident of Dominique Strauss-Kahn, head of the International Monetary Fund, being charged with sexual assault of a Sofitel Hotel housekeeper.  All charges of aggression against him were dropped, but he only denied the aggression against her.  The implication is that some guests presume that housekeepers should be at their bidding.  
     It’s noteworthy how workers so often are regarded by guests as automatons who can be “strongly requested” to perform all kinds of services, such as babysitting an infant so the mother can take a shower.  In this case, the wealthy mother seems to take a personal interest in Eve, but leaves the hotel without notifying Eve or following through with offers made to her.  It’s clear many guests never really lookat the women; they’re part of the furniture.
     But the well-heeled are not the only ones willing to take advantage of others or make empty promises.  Eve’s co-workers are shown to be just as self-serving and exploitative as her superiors.
     But this story is just as much an in-depth look at the main character, Eve (Cartol), a dedicated, hard worker at a hotel in Mexico.  She clearly comes from modest circumstances, but has solid moral values and is more intelligent than she seems at first.  In following her on her daily routines, we get a picture not only about her character, but those of her superiors and guests at the hotel as well.  This is a sociological-political cross-section of the society Eve lives in.  We see the aftermath of guests’ messy—even horrifying--nocturnal activities, the challenge in swiftly cleaning up the rooms, the political manipulations of co-workers and supervisors, and the suddenness with which privileges are revoked.  It makes it brilliantly clear how difficult it is for some to move up in the world, despite their talents and good nature.
     Just as The Chambermaid will be compared with Roma, Gabriela Cartol will be compared with actress Yalitza Aparisio’s portrayal of Cleo.  She captures the essence of the modern-day “servant” who is sincere and energetic in fulfilling her duties, and is a real person behind the mask she is forced to wear.  Also, as in Roma, pulses of humor and lightness keep the film from becoming too heavy.
     As the world seems to be moving toward widening gaps between the rich and the poor, this engrossing, expertly rendered film will assume even greater relevance. Lila Aviles is a director to keep your eye on.

The life of a chambermaid is far from boring, but not necessarily in a positive sense.  

Grade:  A                                    By Donna R. Copeland


Wednesday, August 14, 2019

WHERE'D YOU GO, BERNADETTE?

Cate Blanchett     Billy Crudup      Trojan Bellisaro     Kristen Wiig     Laurence Fishburne     James Urbaniak


     For a fun and rewarding experience, Bernadette fulfills the promise that most Richard Linklater films do. It’s about marriage, parenting, and family, but branches out further into “kookiness”, self-actualization, neighbor relations, and adventure, and with some scenes shown against the breath-taking seascapes for which Antarctica is famous.  Along with the seascapes, there are wonderful Escher-like shots that are meant to disorient the viewer, compliments of cinematographer Shane F. Kelly (A Scanner Darkly, Boyhood). 
     The first half of the story is a bit unnerving, with Bernadette (Blanchett) at her most manic, alternating between being a comedian and a complete nut job. Her husband Elgie (Crudup), a Microsoft techie, adored her initially when she had just won a “genius” award for architecture, but now seems incomprehensible of her frantic leaps in everyday living.  They have a daughter Becky (Bellisaro), who is very mature and astute at the young age of 12, and it’s clear that she has a closer relationship with her mother than her father.
     After visits with a psychiatrist (Greer) and an FBI agent (Urbaniak), Elgie tries to make things right, but he is not fast enough:  Bernadette has disappeared.  And this will not be the first and only time. Intrigued?  You should be.
     Linklater has a knack for bringing in the viewer as if he/she is a part of the family.  We identify with Bernadette and her need for privacy and alone time, with Elgie’s befuddlement/attraction to her, and the child Becky’s better understanding of the adults than they do of themselves.  All this brings the story alive for us, and we become invested in the outcome. 
     Cate Blanchett is a wonder to behold as an actress who can mesmerize while bringing home the truths of her characters.  In this case, she plays to Billy Crudup’s strengths as an actor who lives in his character to best advantage.  Kristen Wiig is perfect as a locally admired mother who, like Elgie, is mystified by women going against type.  Wiig has a way of bringing authenticity to her characters in a way that makes us laugh and cry at the same time.  This must be Trojan Bellisaro’s break-away moment playing an astute teenager who is thoughtful, loving, and perceptive to its best advantage.  I’m sure we’ll be hearing more about her in the years to come.

An award-worthy picture of contemporary personal/family drama that propels us forward.

Grade:  A                                    By Donna R. Copeland