Wednesday, October 21, 2020

LOS HERMANOS THE BROTHERS

 


     This is a most remarkable, captivating story exemplifying political impact on families when countries enter into fractious relations amounting to a cold war. Ilmar Gavilan and Aldo Lopez Gavilan were born in Cuba six years apart, after the U.S. had already placed an economic embargo on Cuba after the revolution there in 1959.  The boys’ parents were both musicians, and when Ilmar showed his talent on the violin, it was arranged for him to study in Russia.  He and his mother, a concert pianist, were there for a year, after which, Ilmar settled in New York to continue his studies.  Meanwhile, back in Havana, Aldo was following in his parents’ footsteps in becoming a pianist like his mother and a composer like his father, and he was able to study in England, but returned to Cuba to start a family.  Each Gavilan son progressed to international fame separately, almost never being able to play music together, until President Obama began to open doors between the two countries.

     The documentary guides us through the brothers’ lives, contrasting the major differences of their experiences as a function of the two nationalities.  Music is the incredible strain that unifies almost every aspect of this story.  Ilmar marries a Korean cellist; Aldo marries a Cuban conductor. Clearly, music—as well as being a tie between them—is the most important value of everyone involved.  

     For that reason, the reunion of the brothers in Havana when travel between the two countries becomes possible, is thrilling for them—and the same for us vicariously. Throughout the film, viewers get generous helpings of the music performed by the Gavilan brothers and their associates (Ilmar’s Harlem Quartet), family members’ concerts, and others, even with American violinist Joshua Bell.  

     The directors who put all of this together, Ken Schneider and Marcia Jarmel, should be applauded for their vision, their assembling of a skilled crew, and the ability to convey profound messages about the importance/influence of music and politics on humankind.  Part of the charm and fascination of the film—(as if the family isn’t enough!)—is the cinematography, eloquent and entertaining in its own right.  The list of cinematographers is long among both the U.S. and Cuban contributors, but the two main ones leading the pack (Roberto Chile from Cuba) and Dave Sperling (from the U.S.), are evidence of the artistic energies and collaborative richness that pervade the film.  Both in landscape and in musical performances, the cinematography awes, instructs, and inspires.

     Another element running through the film are the genuine emotions expressed within families and across cultures and musical genres.  If only politics would get the message!  Toward the end of the documentary we hear the disappointing voice of current President Trump increasing restrictions and sanctions against Cuba—just a fraction of the damage he is doing around the world, but aptly illustrative of what we have to lose if he remains President. 

 

A film for all to see who wish for a world united, freedom for families, and love and respect for the power of music.

 

Grade:  A                                    By Donna R. Copeland

REBECCA

 Lily James     Armie Hammer     Kristin Scott Thomas     Tom Goodman Hall     Sam Riley


     The film starts out to be the intriguing, guilty pleasure that the novel on which it was based was.  Daphne Du Maurier’s book was a hit from the beginning of its publication in 1938, described by a publisher as “everything the public could want”, and, even currently, it’s considered a “marvelously gothic tale with a good dose of atmospheric and psychological horror” (Critics for The Independent, “The 40 best books to read during lockdown”, 8/22/2020).  The book has never been out of print since its first publication.  

     This rendition in film (coming after Alfred Hitchcock’s Academy Award winning film in 1940 and various others less notable) has a talented cast, beautiful production, costumes, and music, and for most of it keeps the viewer liking this kind of drama engaged.  

     The captivating story is about a rather naïve, unnamed companion (Lily James) to a dowager, bumping into a wealthy widower, the famed Maxim de Winter (Hammer) by accident several times in Monte Carlo.  He is taken by her and pursues her on clandestine dates to the point of proposing marriage.  She’s very appealing both in her naïvete and her passion for adventure and knowledge.  He’s gallant and honorable, and after a couple of weeks proposes, after which they settle on his estate well known as Manderly, a property passed down in the family for 300 years.

     That’s when the mystery starts, as there is a ghost hanging over the mansion in the form of the former, now deceased, Madam de Winter perpetuated by the entire staff led by Mrs. Danvers (Thomas), the housekeeper.  Most people know the story well, and the film adheres very closely to Du Maurier’s novel.

     First, to the fine cast.  Lily James (Downton Abbey, Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again) is a gifted actress who is adept in her convincing characterizations, and is so appealing here in transforming the well-read but experience-deprived pretty blonde into an assertive, intelligent detective. As Maxim, Armie Hammer (Call Me By Your Name, The Social Network, J. Edgar) delivers his usual excellence in craft, playing a very different role as a wealthy gentleman.  Kristin Scott Thomas (The English Patient, Four Weddings and a Funeral, Gosford Park, Only God Forgives) is almost a legend in capturing diverse roles and coming across as a powerful figure.  She is truly intimidating here when she is wanting to come across as either formidable, helpful, or vindictive.  Actors like Sam Riley, Tom Goodman Hall, and Beatrice Lacey fully support these stars in their bringing us a well-known story.

     The place where I think the production declines in value is toward the end, when it seemed like the filmmakers were just eager to end the project in whatever way possible.  The biggest offense in this to me is when we see Madam de Winter lighting up a cigarette as she reflects on her transformation.  The tobacco company who helped fund the movie must have paid a fair amount to have this be a part of her reflection.  I don’t recall the character ever smoking throughout the movie.  Was that supposed to convey that she is sophisticated now? Give me a break.  This whole ending of the film seems tinny and out of character with the preceding drama, and the abrupt change in the ingénue into a sharp-minded sleuth and fighter turns out to be jarring.

 

Guilty pleasure probably best describes this production.  The pleasure mostly comes from cast performances and from the timelessness of the story, one to which so many of us are susceptible.

 

Grade:  C                                    By Donna R. Copeland


THE WITCHES

Anne Hathaway     Octavia Spencer     Chris Rock     Jahzir Bruno     Stanley Tucci


     When the witches are away, the mice will play.  This is a fun piece narrated by Chris Rock and starring him and two excellent actors, Octavia Spencer and Anne Hathaway, in a fantasy based on a Roald Dahl novel.  Kid-friendly, of course, but with suspense that is likely to be enjoyed by adults as well as children.  

     It starts out tragically, but Spencer’s warm presence as a grandma is soothing, and she has her work cut out for her with her grandson’s (Bruno) grief and, later, his dilemma.  To help him with his grief, Grandma (Spencer) brings home a pet mouse for her grandson, which does indeed spur him to move on to the next step.

     After the boy encounters a witch in the store, Grandma decides they need to go stay in a fancy hotel where the wealthy white people stay.  (This is on the premise that Witches only seek out minorities—e.g., the blacks—and the disadvantaged.)  Grandma knows this from losing her childhood friend in just such circumstances, and she informs her grandson about witches.  They are demons made to look like humans. They have no toes, no hands, no hair—and must compensate for this with gloves, wigs, high-heeled shoes, etc. When they go out in public, they look like regular society women.  

     By coincidence, the International Society for the Prevention of Cruelty of Children is having a convention at this very hotel.  Crossing of paths between this group (which is a front for the Grand High Witch played by Hathaway and her coven) and Grandma and her grandson forms most of a plot filled with nail-biting suspense, along with some horror and comedy.  Mice-phobic people might want to stay away—but should see—this escapade.

Special effects (Adrian Bennett, Fernando da Silva et al.) take center stage in showing what happens when magic appears to spice up the action in the story. Here it is used to engage the audience as much as the plot and the actors.  And it is so satisfying!

     Co-writer and director Robert Zemeckis, with the help of Alphonso Cuaron and Guillermo del Toro (Mexican filmmakers we all know and love), has assembled a cast and crew that elevate this film from a run-of-the-mill children’s movie to one that is capturing and entertaining, but has important messages related to acceptance of others, regardless of their appearance, the importance of family, and simply enjoying life, whatever happens.  


The film can be seen on HBO MAX beginning 10/22/20.

 

A film for the times in terms of its message and as a vehicle to escape momentarily the concerns of the day.

 

Grade:  A                                    By Donna R. Copeland



Thursday, October 15, 2020

WHITE NOISE

 

     The film written by Niall Johnson and directed by Geoffrey Sax is interesting, but a disappointment in that it highlights three publicly visible figures of the alt-right in America without defining exactly what the alt-right is supposed to mean.  The three figures are all highly individualistic—even critical of one another—and about the only thing that unites them is their white supremacy beliefs and support of Donald Trump.  Are the filmmakers implying that alt-right is a disparate group that cannot be defined in any uniform belief?  

     The two things that unite the three lead characters is their privileged status in America (one in Canada) and their advocacy of white supremacy (although one is compromised enough about this belief that a slightly colored mate is fine) and hatred of Islam.  One complains about suppression of males after the advent of the feminist movement, but this fades as time goes by, and he is shown to be happily married to an Iranian woman.  Although the three attach themselves to the “alt-right” movement for a time, it becomes clear that each is really out for him-herself.

     The purpose of White Noise is unclear to me; we’re shown intermittent scenes of each of them pursuing their individual goals, but there is not really anything—other than whiteness values—that unifies their belief systems.  Perhaps—as shown in the title—this is the purpose, to show how strong the wish for our country to be “white” (although there really is no such thing) supersedes so many other considerations.

     I was hoping for a production that would help define and delineate the alt-right as a group and how it became effective in electing Donald Trump President of the United States.  Beyond that, the filmmakers should maybe have speculated what the potential is for the alt-right to influence the next election of the President in 2020.

 

An interesting picture of some figures in the alt-right who support Donald Trump as President, but the execution is very poor.

 

Grade:  F                                    By Donna R. Copeland

TIME

 

     A young married couple desperate to make it and get ahead, go against everything they’ve been taught, and try robbing a bank.   As the teller of the story says, “Desperate people do desperate things.”  Not being experienced criminals, the two involved in the robbery are apprehended, of course. Sybil Richardson plea-bargains and gets 12 years and, by the way, she is three months pregnant with boys. Robert gets 60 years.  This is the story primarily about Sybil bringing up their six boys on her own, maintaining a strong connection with Robert, and using family and friends as well as her own considerable resources to survive.  She is relentless throughout in her efforts to get Robert released early, despite the restrictions of his sentence:  No parole, probation, or suspension of sentence.

     Always with an eye for the future, Sybil recorded videos to show her husband of the family’s daily life when/if he gets out of prison.  These videos and additional photography by Nisa East, Zac Manuel, and Justin Zweifach, along with Sybil’s input are used by Director Garrett Bradley to comprise the movie.  The photography is iffy at times, such as the amateur videos of family life.  The camera jumps radically in some scenes, making it hard to see what is going on.  But the film is shot in black and white, which lends authentication to the basic story, and the photography provided by the professionals is extra fine.  Music (Edwin Montgomery, Jamieson Shaw) is another plus, especially the piano in the background (Emahoa Tsegue Maryan Guebrou).

     Another problem with the film is the editing (Gabriel Rhodes), which is choppy and fails to keep the viewer oriented.  We see people whom we haven’t been introduced to or it’s not clear which child is in the camera (not being chronological, we can’t keep track of who is who).  This is particularly bothersome when we see an older son, but have no idea whether it is Remington, Justice, or Freedom.  The film notes that Sybil was rearing six sons, but I could only identify four; if Laurence and Maklik on the IMDB list of performers were in the film, I missed them.

     Many questions arise about details during the film.  It was only an hour and 21 minutes, so the filmmakers could have included details such as how the robbery was conceived, what were the discussions about it, and the specific plan of actually doing it.  Did the protagonists have any criminal records? Who took care of the children while Sibyl was incarcerated?  We assume it is the maternal grandmother, but we see no scenes of that period of time.  A considerable part of the film shows Sibyl lecturing, but we’re not told what groups she is talking to.  She seems to have landed a job as a car saleswoman, but no details are given about when/how she got the job and how long she had it.

     This is an instructive film for American citizens to see, and much of it is well done.  Sybil Richardson and her family are all attractive and well spoken (not the stereotypes of incarcerated people), and it’s clear they are “well brought up”; when she talks on the phone trying to get information from the justice system, Sibyl is inevitably patient, polite, and tactful, even when she is exasperated with its seeming apathy.  The family as a whole—including the maternal grandmother—are well portrayed and come through in a good light, as well they should.

     The positive aspects of Time (an apt title) make this a film I think every American should see, in its highlighting the need for judicial reform, how the system as it stands is completely unfair to some, and the unnecessary destructive effects on whole families that can result when sentences are too harsh.  Despite its flaws, the nobility of the Richardson family and how they have coped are an inspiration. 

     Films like this should be shown in schools and detention facilities so that young people can see how a foolish mistake when you are young can have devastating consequences, and how important it is not to get caught in that trap.  Granted, that people of color are much more vulnerable than whites are to this dilemma.

 

This movie cries out for judicial system reform.  Overuse of incarceration is a problem for our country, and this film literally brings home the harmful effects of it on families, as well as what it takes to deal with it.

 

Grade:  B-                                    By Donna R. Copeland

MARTIN EDEN

Luca Marinelli     Jessica Cressy     Vincenzo Nemolato     Marco Leonardi     Carlo Cecchi


     A period drama (early 20thCentury) that may not appeal to viewers of today. Although it might.  In the film, young Martin Eden (Marinelli) goes through struggles in his young and later adult years that involve wrestling with individualism vs. socialism—a contentious subject that is prominent in current news, with the Republican administration claiming (unfairly) that the Democrats are planning to usher in socialism.  Republican adherents are pulling out their guns (unnecessarily) against peaceful protesters of clearly obvious injustices.

     The film depicts contentious arguments for and against unions, conflicts between the wealthy and the poor, and the ultimate value in education.  Maybe the story is not so far afield from today.

     Martin is a man from a poorer background who has found the life of a sailor appealing to his sense of adventure and interest in the world.  One day by the seashore he finds an older man abusing a younger man and intervenes, knocking the older man down.  It turns out that the young man—Nino (Nemolato)—is from a wealthy family, who shows him gratitude by inviting him to stay for lunch, where each member of the family expresses appreciation.  On this occasion, Martin is introduced to Nino’s sister Elena (Cressy), whereupon he falls in love at first sight.  

     The story then follows their relationship, with her encouragement of him in educational pursuits, and his idolization of her and her status.  He wants to “come up” to her level in society and be worthy of her.  Education is an unpredictable mistress, however, and as Martin becomes more informed, he is pulled into a quandary more than once.

     Perhaps stemming from his background, but also simply a function of his personality, he is hotheaded and often gets into scuffles.  Someone he meets who encourages this—at least in an intellectual sense—is Russ Brissenden (Cecchi), a hard-core socialist.  They become close friends, and Russ gives him a manuscript that he wrote in which he drew upon Martin’s work.

     Martin Eden (script by Mauricio Braucci) is based upon a Jack London novel in which he claims to be critical of a Nietzschean individualistic point of view, but admits that most people regarded the novel as defending Nietzsche’s view against socialism.  The waters are muddy, as perhaps they are today in American politics.

     The Martin Eden character is clearly a cynic, which might not appeal to the general audience.  The cast is strong (Luca Marinelli especially), but the writer and director (Pietro Marcello) were not successful in making succinct, clear statements about the plot and the characters.  

 

This film will appeal primarily to those interested in period dramas with emphases on political thinking.

 

Grade:  C+                                    By Donna R. Copeland 



DAVID BYRNE'S AMERICAN UTOPIA

 


     This is a (truly) feel-good musical.  It’s David Byrne’s way of playing a small part in bringing together a country fractured by politics, the pandemic, and social unrest.  The production is beautifully done, blending together meaningful lyrics, interesting music with ear-catching sound effects, choreography by Annie-B Parson that resembles a kaleidoscope, sophisticated production design by Alex Timbers and a rhapsodic spirit.  It’s so creative throughout, the time flashes by as you try to soak in all the elements.  

     All this is with the backdrop of muted colors—mostly shades of gray—and everyone barefoot.  Aptly, it shows children’s drawings first (going back to our roots), then David Byrne holds up one of those brain models you’ve probably only seen in college classes.  He points out the part that survives even when it is disconnected from the other parts, and highlights those parts that provide clarity or confusion, parts that process sound, and those related to hallucinations.  He observes that babies’ brains have millions of connections, but as we grow, only those that are meaningful to our experience remain, that place where the world makes sense. He will come back to referencing the ethos of America and our ways of changing and making sense of life as the show goes on.

     In his songs, David Byrne attends to the universal experiences of loneliness, awkwardness, feelings of not belonging, love for people, aspirations, senselessness, displacement, violence, and much more.  He has songs about the experience of soaring along and then suddenly wondering, “How did I get here?”  And afterwards, realizations that “it’s the same as it ever was.”  So…what are we to do? His answer has to do with valuing other people, dancing, being sensitive to what is around us, and being alert to possible dangers.  

     There is a topical, very moving number toward the end—Janelle Monae’s “Hell You Talmabout”, in which the singers repeat the names of blacks Emmet Till (1955), Eric Garner (2014) and others more recently killed at the hands of the police. But many oldie favorites of Byrne’s songs are sprinkled throughout.

     American Utopia is a beautiful collaboration between Spike Lee and David Byrne in converting Byrne’s Broadway stage show (which had to stop performing live when the pandemic hit) into a movie whose songs—some old, some new—continue to resound in your brain long after the ending.  The same happens with the many different moods brought up by the production.

 

A musical rare in its encompassing so many elements of human existence, particularly in these troubling times, ultimately leading to a sense of healing and peace.

 

Grade:  A                                    By Donna R. Copeland