Wednesday, May 24, 2017

PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: DEAD MEN TELL NO TALES

Johnny Depp     Javier Bardem     Brenton Thwaites     Kaya Scodelario     Geoffrey Rush     Kevin R. McNally


    This fifth version of the Pirates is swashbuckling, extremely loud, and chock full of CGI effects.  It may have been the particular theater I was in for the screening, but the sound was so deafening, it was difficult at times to make out the dialog, especially if a character’s speech was not well articulated.  But this won’t bother a real fan of Pirates of the Caribbean; one I talked with afterwards was very pleased with what he saw.
    The tantalizing search in this version is to find Poseidon’s trident, which holds a secret (map) showing the location of treasure.  Henry Turner (Thwaites), son of Will Turner (Orlando Bloom), needs it to break the curse that keeps his father from returning home.  Carina (Scodelario), an astronomer (accused of being a witch because of her scientific knowledge), wants it to map the universe and reveal to her who her father is.  (He has left her a ruby-encrusted diary that will guide her to it).  Captain Salazar (Bardem), who used to be a pirate hunter for the Spanish Navy, was betrayed by Captain Jack Sparrow (Depp) and has ended up getting trapped in the Devil’s Triangle.  He and his crew are now ghosts who cannot survive on land.  He has it in big time for the elusive, immature drunk, Sparrow. 
    Finally, Captain Barbossa (Rush), Sparrow’s erstwhile rival, has tried to execute Sparrow, Henry Turner, and Carina, but now becomes their ally against Salazar who is in the process of destroying Barbossa’s fleet of ships.
   The adventure in Dead Men Tell No Tales, is the quest for the treasure, with Henry’s and Carina’s father issues woven in.  My impression is that the filmmakers were more interested in a special effects extravaganza than dramatic characterization and story.  Consequently, we see many spectacular battles and close calls from which the heroes magically escape, especially Sparrow, who is portrayed as an endearing, spastic drunk. 
    Johnny Depp has played this character so many times, he can do it without much thought or planning.  Bardem and Rush are probably the most impressive actors in the group because the roles written for them are colorful and dimensional.  Thwaites and Scodelario are good, given what is written for them, but their characters should have been more fleshed out. 
     Even diehard fans may have trouble with this latest version of Pirates of the Caribbean.  Not much new is introduced to capture the imagination.  The film does acknowledge women’s issues in showing the skepticism toward women as scientists and the theme of the primordial search for the father, but both subjects are mostly in passing.

Dead men might not tell tales, but they can wreak havoc as ghosts (if you believe in them) or as thinly drawn characters in a so-so movie.

Grade:  D                                    By Donna R. Copeland


BUENA VISTA SOCIAL CLUB: ADIOS

Manuel ‘Guajiro’ Mirabel     Ibrahim Ferrer     Omara Portuondo     Ruben Gonzalez    
Eliades Ochoa     Compay Segundo     Ry Cooder     Juan de Marcos Gonzalez


     The Buena Vista Social Club dates back to 1996, when a loosely connected group of veteran musicians were brought together in Havana rather spontaneously to record two albums by African and Cuban musicians.  The African musicians did not arrive because of visa problems, but band leader Juan de Marcos Gonzalez was determined to reinstate music from Cuba’s golden age of the 1940’s and 1950’s.  So with Nick Gold of the UK label World Circuit and American Producer Ry Cooder, they recorded the album, Buena Vista Social Club, which, despite their modest aspirations, became the biggest-selling Cuban album (more than 8 million albums) in history after it was released in 1997. 

     De Marcos had located and assembled old-timers pianist Ruben Gonzalez, singer Ibrahim Ferrer, guitarist and singer Eliades Ochoa, singer Omara Portuondo (their “leading lady”), and singer Compay Segundo.  They would be joined by contemporary artists of note, such as bassist Orlando ‘Cachaito’ Lopez, trumpeter Manual ‘guajiro’ Mirabal, and laoud player Barbarito Torres.  Ry Cooder was so jubilant after the recordings, he swore it to be “the best thing I was ever involved in.”  He went on to say, “These are the greatest musicians alive on the planet today.  In my experience Cuban musicians are unique.  The organization of the musical group is perfectly understood.  There is no ego, no jockeying for position so they have evolved the perfect ensemble concept.” 
     In 1999, the highly acclaimed German director Wim Wenders directed a documentary entitled Buena Vista Social Club, in which he filmed some of the original recordings, along with excerpts of their subsequent concerts in Amsterdam and New York City and interviews of musicians telling their stories. 
     Sixteen years later, we have another documentary by Lucy Walker that filmed the now-named Orquesta Buena Vista Social Club’s final tour, which lasted over a year (1998-99) and spanned four continents.  It’s a retrospective look back at the people and the music of Cuba, with clips of the original BVSC artists, as well as current performances by additional members replacing those who have died.  Early scenes are filmed in Cuba, showing the old stomping grounds and hearing the major actors reminisce about their early days and the bands they played in along the way, interspersed with clips from the past.  Then we see them on their last tour around the globe beginning with their first live concert in Amsterdam in 1998, complete with the conflicts, even up to the day before. 
      All their endeavors have been highly successful, keeping Cuban music alive and valued.    These revered artists were filled with wonder right up to the ends of their lives about how much their audiences have loved their songs.  Ry Cooder won a Grammy for his CD, Wenders’ documentary was nominated for an Academy Award, Ibrahim Ferrer was awarded three Grammies but was denied a visa to attend the ceremony in 2003, and Gonzalez, Portuondo, and Ferrer received the Order of Felix Varela, Cuba’s highest cultural honor.  Compay played his last show only two weeks before his death, and Ibrahim Ferrer’s was only four days before his death.
     After d├ętente, the Orquesta Buena Vista Social Club was invited to play at the White House in 2015, hosted by President Obama and Vice President Biden.  They ended their tour in Havana in 2016.  As of 2017, Portuondo was still on tour at age 86.
     Walker’s documentary does not contain much information that is new, but can be praised for its highlights of the lives of dedicated musicians, for whom music is life, and for its revitalization of a beloved musical genre and the Cuban ethos and spirit.

The Cuban musical phenomenon across the years.

Grade:  Grade:  B                                    By Donna R. Copeland

BAYWATCH

Dwayne Johnson   Zac Efron   Priyanka Chopra   Alexandria Daddario   Kelly Rohrbach
Lifenesh Hadera   Jon Bass   Yahya Abdul-Mateen II   Rob Huebel

      This is a fun romp in the sun with criminal intrigue mixed in.  Based on the TV show with the same name years ago (1989-2001), the contemporary film is able to accentuate the sexiness of the characters with more freedom, and inserts a major drama that is able to grab your attention and hold it.  Regarding the former, it does feel repetitive in the beginning with so many close-ups of backsides and cleavages and constant double entendres.  Some of the dialog is just too smart and glib to sound realistic.  Perhaps these are what make a movie sell, but I wish it weren’t so.
     However, as the story gets going, the struggle between the lifeguard in charge, Mitch (Johnson), and the new recruit forced on him, Matt Brody (Efron), becomes an interesting male competition for dominance.  The beauty of this for me is the maturity with which Mitch responds to Matt’s anti-authority challenges, which not only contributes to the humor, but ultimately demonstrates how an authority figure can make/break such a person.  Director Seth Gordon and the other filmmakers enhance the comedy and suspense of the film by drawing this interaction out. 
     Major dramatic elements emerge as Mitch starts to discover packets of drugs on the beach, and feels entitled to investigate their source, although he is constrained by his boss, Captain Thorpe (Huebel), and the beach policeman, Sgt. Ellerbee (Abdul-Mateen II), to let it go and leave it to the police.  This is where the movie gets a little dicey in showing that the amateur lifeguards can do a better job of investigating than the police department; although, granted, there is corruption in city government involved, which is the filmmakers’ way out.
Part of the thrill of Baywatch is seeing the lifeguards achieving amazing rescues by virtue of their physical fitness, their rapid assessment of a crisis, their preparedness in meeting all kinds of emergencies, and their commitment to honor and service.  The other part is watching them solve mysteries and come up with clever ways to disrupt an ongoing criminal activity.
     Dwane Johnson is in his element in this type of film, which requires a gorgeous physique, eloquent sarcasm, and a heart of gold.  Zac Efron is able to play all the different aspects of his character in Matt Brody—braggadocio, entitlement, belligerence, and, finally, humility.   It is refreshing to see the filmmakers giving just acclamation to the females on the team.  Rohrbach as CJ is sharp, competent and a true partner of Mitch.  Alexandria Daddario as Summer, a blonde babe, comes across as patient, understanding, and sharp—not your usual stereotype blonde.   I took to the beach policeman character played by Abdul-Mateen II, who is not the brightest bulb in the room, but has the capacity to recognize heroics and truth.  And the villain?  Priyanka Chopra has the look and feel of a female seductress with grandiose ambitions.  She qualifies.
     Baywatch will please many who watch it, especially those who followed the television show; but it is updated in a way that will appeal to contemporary audiences who are drawn toward stars like Dwayne Johnson and Zac Efron, a bit of sexiness, and major intrigue.

Baywatch is titillating at first, but you will gradually be drawn into its intrigue.

Grade:  C+                                    By Donna R. Copeland


Monday, May 22, 2017

MOMMY DEAD AND DEAREST



     Munchausen’s by Proxy constitutes one of the more mysterious, and even bizarre, medical diagnoses in that it refers to a mother purposely making her child ill in order to fill her own unmet needs.  As noted by psychologist Dr. Marc Feldman in this documentary, Claudine “Deedee” Blanchard represents one of the most severe cases seen, with the mother beginning to make up illnesses and disorders in her child Gypsy Rose from the time she was three months old, and continuing until Gypsy was 19.  Of course, some of the disorders came about because of the medicine Deedee was giving her—medicines for everything from eye, ear, and muscular disorders, to leukemia and leg paralysis and a host of other complaints—even multiple surgeries.  She kept Gypsy in a wheelchair constantly, at least in public.  At some medical visits, she would instruct Gypsy to stay in her wheelchair, be calm, and not to move her legs.
      Deedee was persuasive with doctors, friends, family, and the communities in which they lived, thereby receiving not only medications, but gifts of trips, a house, and cash in addition.  She trained Gypsy well in playing the role of a brave, upbeat child with chronic conditions.  She was ingenious in convincing medical doctors that this or that was wrong, and she brought in copies of medical charts to bolster her claims. 
     Despite all her lifelong efforts, when Gypsy was a teenager she struck up an online friendship with Nicholas Gode John, someone with major problems of his own, and the two plotted a way for Gypsy to escape her controlling mother. 
     The film directed by Erin Lee Carr reflects her extensive research and exploration of the Syndrome and this case in particular.  Numerous people involved were interviewed and are shown:  Gypsy herself, family members, friends, attorneys, reporters, law enforcement officers, and physicians.  Because Gypsy and Nick committed a crime, the documentary becomes something of a crime thriller as well.  Carr was praised for her previous documentary, Thought Crimes: the Case of the Cannibal Cop, and her work as a Vice Media journalist:  Click.  Print.  Gun, both of which have been shown at film festivals and were produced by HBO.  In 2015, Variety cited her as one of ten documentarians to watch.  With Mommy Dead and Dearest, she has lived up to that appellation.
     Carr can be praised as well for giving an example of how psychopathology can be “passed down” through generations.  We hear strains in accounts of both Gypsy’s and Nick’s parents and grandparents—and even somewhat in Gypsy herself—of coming by certain traits naturally, either by nature or by learning.

This is an accurate account of the syndrome, Munchausen’s by Proxy, which becomes like a thriller in reporting on an extreme case.

Grade:  A                        By Donna R. Copeland



Saturday, May 20, 2017

A QUIET PASSION

Cynthia Nixon   Jennifer Ehle   Duncan Duff   Keith Carradine   Jodhi May   Catherine Bailey


     A quiet passion is not always so quiet, although it is an apt title to signify a woman whose passions ran so deep, her family had to calm her down repeatedly, after which she would try valiantly to keep those passions quiet.  In the end, she was always a stricter judge of herself than of others, and was praised for the depth of her soul and her honesty.
     The American poet Emily Dickinson is stunningly captured by Cynthia Nixon in Terence       Davies’ dramatization of her life in A Quiet Passion.  As a female in the late 19th Century, she was sassy even as a child; but her cheek came from her intelligence and thoughtfulness.  The aim always seemed to be to gain knowledge rather than to be simply rebellious.  Her father (Carradine) was remarkably patient and permissive with her, yet he too felt like he had to set firm limits on her.  It was her sister Vinnie (Ehle) who was most effective in countering her arguments and mollifying her.
     Terence Davies’ dialog in the film, helped along with Dickinson’s poetic inserts, is smart and sometimes wittily funny, such as this conversation between Emily and her friend Vryling (Bailey):  [Vryling] “In the long term, honesty is not the best policy.”  [Emily] “Is dishonesty?”  [Vryling] “I prefer to call it diplomacy.”
     In his writing and direction, Davies gives us a vivid picture of the poet.  In addition to her pugnacity (Emily was outspoken about religion and her belief in God, marriage, male/female relationships, and death, for instance), she became increasingly reclusive as she got older and became more mystified about social manners and interactions.  She could be rude, but she clearly had a conscience, as when her sister Vinnie called her on it and when her father scolded her for being rude to the housekeeping staff.  “They’re our employees; not our servants”, he tells her.  She kisses him on his head, and he asks, “What’s that for?”  She answers, “For telling me the distinction”, after which she apologizes to the help, and tells them to keep the prize money for her loaf of bread that she’d won.  She became increasingly disillusioned with the world, referring to herself as a “no-hoper” who “knows best how to starve.”  She would say to Vinnie, “I long for something, but I’m afraid of it.”  In short, Emily Dickinson was a bundle of contradictions, yet had considerable insight about herself.
     As noted, Cynthia Nixon gives an award-worthy performance in fitting herself so thoroughly and neatly into the poet’s character.  Supporting cast members, Jennifer Ehle, Keith Carradine, and Catherine Bailey add dramatic flavor to this fascinating story.  The artistic cinematography by Florian Hoffmeister shows many scenes which could be framed and stand alone as paintings.  One in particular is a view of a window with a vase of flowers, curtained by a fine, sheer fabric, behind which we can see and hear the minister giving his sermon. 

A poetic rendering of images, dialog, music, and movement to convey the essence of Poet Emily Dickinson.

Grade:  A                                    By Donna R. Copeland

Thursday, May 18, 2017

CHUCK

Liev Schreiber     Elisabeth Moss     Naomi Watts     Ron Perlman     Jim Gaffigan     Morgan Spector     Pooch Hall


     The story of Chuck is not much different from so many other sad boxing tales in the movies (e.g., The Fighter, Hands of Stone, Raging Bull) in which the fighter comes from humble origins, doesn’t mind getting hit, is persistent against all odds, gets bruised and bloodied in the ring, indulges in self-inflated trash talk, and after he has a success or two gets into serious trouble that threatens his career and destroys his family.  In fact, the fighter in Chuck, Chuck Wepner, is the real person on which the character in the movie Rocky is based. 
     Chuck (Schreiber) has such a reputation for getting beat up in the ring, his nickname is the “Bayonne [New Jersey] Bleeder.”  He never shows pain, and when his wife worries about him or his daughter draws a picture of his battered face, his response is always, “I don’t mind getting hit.”  Chuck’s wife Phyliss, beautifully played by the talented Elisabeth Moss, is supportive, comforting, and a good sport; that is, except in cases where his flirtatiousness exceeds the limits of her tolerance.
     Everyone gets excited when Chuck’s trainer (Perlman) informs him that Don King, the influential boxing promoter, wants Muhammad Ali to fight a “white guy” at the world championship.  Chuck has won enough rounds with other fighters that he is considered and finally chosen to be that guy.  That’s enough to get his name on the map, because after the fight went through more rounds than was expected, Chuck became famous. 
     Thereafter, the story grows dark as Chuck has hopes of starring in Sylvester Stallone’s second Rocky picture.  (The first one was based on Chuck’s life, and even though he recognizes that it is actually the story of his life, he simply enjoys the compliment).  But by this time nightlife has done him in, and he fails to succeed in the audition.  He ends up being arrested for drug trafficking, and goes to prison.  That’s not the end of the story for Chuck, though.
     The script and the direction of this film by Philippe Falardeau is well done, and the acting by Schreiber, Moss, Perlman, and Watts is especially good.  Watts doesn’t really figure in until toward the end of the story, so in the interest of not being a spoiler, I won’t go into that.  I will say that the film could have done a better job of folding her character into the plot early on so that what finally transpires is more plausible.
     This seems to be a case where the movie is well done by all concerned, but because there have been so many predecessors telling the same tale, Chuck doesn’t have the punch (pun intended) to wow us as it may have intended.

Yes, another film about boxing, with the hero replicating his predecessors.

Grade:  C                        By Donna R. Copeland

EVERYTHING, EVERYTHING

Amanda Stenberg     Nick Robinson     Anika Noni Rose     Ana de la Reguera


     The film is based on a young adult novel by Nicola Yoon with a screenplay by J. Mills Goodloe, which, I gather, follows the book very closely.  After seeing it and regarding it as a pie-in-the-sky story about teenagers (which resembles more of a ten year-old’s fantasy to me), imagine my surprise to find the book has been so well received (4½ stars on Amazon) and judged to be one of the best books of the year.  It’s a completely fanciful tale about a girl with SCID (Severe Combined Immunodeficiency Disease) who has essentially lived in a bubble all her life. 
     Madeline’s mother, a physician, has constructed a beautiful room for her with a scenic view outdoors, and she spends her time reading, writing reviews, playing Scrabble with her mom, and exploring on the internet.  She has a nurse who is like a friend—her only friend.  When a family moves in next door, Madeline (Stenberg) watches from her window and notices a blonde boy her age.  This is Olly (Robinson), and they make eye contact, wave, and soon are texting back and forth.  He is friendly and playful, and Maddy, as he calls her, is very excited about having a friend her age to relate to.  Their friendship is facilitated by her nurse Carla (de la Reguera), but when Maddy’s mother finds out (after some of Maddy’s risky behavior), Carla is fired, and a regimented nurse takes her place.  This is too much for Maddy, and she decides to take matters into her own hands.
     So much of this film strains credulity.  For instance, no one wears a mask or gown when they’re with Maddy, which I thought was always required for reverse isolation, and which I presume is what Maddy’s room is.  She tells us that items coming in are irradiated to remove any contaminants, but the mother and nurse come and go without seeming to change anything (oh, once we see Carla changing her shoes). 
     But really, the most inauthentic part of the film is the dialog between the two teenagers and the easy sociability of a girl who has lived her whole life essentially alone.  It’s hard to imagine how she could navigate the scenes she’s in after such an existence. 
     Portraying Maddy, Amanda Stenberg (Hunger Games) brings her character to life in a convincing performance that makes you believe in her and root for her.  Nick Robinson (The Kings of Summer, Jurassic World) as a boy who is supposed to be a bit awkward and from a troubled family shows his skill in his portrayal of the type of insecurity that comes from an abusive father, and with protective feelings for those he feels responsible for.  Supporting actors Anika Noni Rose and Ana de la Reguera fill out the cast nicely.
     Everything, Everything is directed by three-time director Stella Meghie, and she should be pleased with her work here.  The detraction of the film for me is the screenplay’s unrealistic presentation of an illness and the portrayal of teenagers that lacks authenticity and believability.

Everything, Everything is too sweet and too “precious” to be what it wants to be.

Grade:  D                                    By Donna R. Copeland