Wednesday, September 20, 2017

KINGSMAN: THE GOLDEN CIRCLE

Taron Egerton     Mark Strong     Julianne Moore     Colin Firth     Halle Berry
Elton John     Michael Gambon     Channing Tatum     Jeff Bridges     Bruce Greenwood     Emily Watson

     Those who really took to the first Kingsman (2014) are likely to be disappointed in the second adaptation of the Mark Millar/David Gibbons comic book (“The Secret Service”), even though the writing/directing team is the same (Matthew Vaughn, director, and co-writer Jane Goldman), as is the cinematographer (George Richmond).  Where the first film went beyond the flashy technological effects to get in social commentary about the environment, social class, compassion, cooperation, and violence, this version seems to be preoccupied with technology, staging one combat scene after another, without much else in between.  And this is two-plus hours of screen time.
     Harry Hart’s (Firth) trainee from the first film, Eggsy (Egerton), is now an agent working with Merlin (Strong) to rein in a mega drug cartel run by the ruthless Poppy (Moore), who has ambitions to addict the whole world to increase her sales, but has ready an antidote against the disastrous effects of her doctored drugs, thereby retaining a continuous client base.  She concocts a plan, essentially putting the President of the United States (Greenwood) into a bind where, no matter what he does after he signs the agreement, Poppy’s plan will go through.
     The action takes Eggsy and Merlin to Kentucky, where they meet with private intelligence operatives and discover Hart—who was thought dead—but is alive in a compromised state.  They join forces to go after Poppy, loyalties switch back and forth, and multiple battles take place.  (It’s a bit ironic that in the first film, private intelligence agencies are shown to be bad; whereas in this film, the Kingsmen have little trouble collaborating with them, although, of course, a number of suspicions are raised and tested.)
     The script seems to be the biggest problem in The Golden Circle.  It has little substance or character development so becomes, to me, like a trade show for special effects, showing unbelievable lassos, hacking capabilities, and other tools that the characters seem to have ready for any situation, and these are inserted into so many combat scenes any interesting or engaging story is submerged.  Eggsy as the fresh-faced new Kingsman agent seems ill-suited to the tasks placed before him; and although Hart is brought “back to life” to back him up, his status seems so compromised in the beginning and through most of the action, his successes veer toward the unbelievable. 
     The filmmakers can boast about the number of A-list actors in the film:  Colin Firth, Mark Strong, Julianne Moore, Halle Berry, Elton John, Channing Tatum, Jeff Bridges, Bruce Greenwood, and Emily Watson, and they all perform really well; however, many have little screen time or impactful roles.  Tatum, Bridges, Greenwood, and Watson are only in a few scenes.  Julianne Moore, an outstanding actress, is not quite as formidable as the witch Poppy should be.  She should send chills up your spine, but although Poppy does unbelievably heinous things, it’s hard to imagine these actions coming from the character portrayed by Moore, a fault of the script and/or direction rather than her performance per se.  Elton John is a highlight in all this; he is his character and plays it to the hilt.  His persona and what he does hits the mark, about the only time in the film this happens.

This film is a puzzlement.  Although the original show runners are the same and the actors are top-notch, this version of the Kingsman productions falls far short of the original.

Grade:  C-                                    By Donna R. Copeland

STRONGER

Jake Gyllenhaal     Tatiana Maslany     Miranda Richardson     Clancy Brown


     David Gordon Green knows how to tell a story that gets to the heart of the common man—and of those who surround him during significant events in his life.  In Stronger, he captures not only the spirit of Boston after the Boston Marathon bombing, he shows the arc of one of the accidental heroes of the moment, Jeff Bauman, heroically played by Jake Gyllenhaal.  Hopefully, award season will be Gyllenhaal’s long-overdue time to get the credits he deserves.  How many people have kept a sharp eye on him through all the 2,000’s?  I certainly have, and think his superb performances in Nightcrawler, Brokeback Mountain, Prisoners, Nocturnal Animals, and other major films make him deserving again this year.
     In Stronger, Gyllenhaal plays a rather hapless guy who is trying to win back his girl by promoting her run in the Boston Marathon.  He and Erin (Maslany) have broken up several times before on account of his unreliability, smacking of a bipolar disorder.  He is late, doesn’t show up when he’s supposed to, etc.  And as is typical of him, he suddenly gets pumped when he discovers she is running in the Marathon and he wants to promote support for her.  He’s trying to win her back, and stands with a homemade sign about her on the finish line when the bombs start going off.
     Jeff is a smart man, and as soon as he wakes up from the anesthesia following surgery on both legs, he lets the FBI know he saw one of the bombers and can give them a description, something that helped authorities in apprehending the perpetrators. 
     So at this point, we know something about Jeff and the woman he loves.  Next, we get a picture of what this kind of fame can do to a person of his makeup and his relationships.  He is surrounded by people who unwittingly want to satisfy their own frustrated aspirations through him.  This is especially true of his mother Patty (Richardson), who hasn’t had much of a life after divorce, except what she can hold onto with her brother and his family.  But beyond his family, even passersby who have seen his story on TV feel like they own a part of him.
     Jeff is one of the least likely people who can manage the situation, much less use it to his advantage.  We see how the man tries to cope, see the admirably stalwart support he gets from Erin, and the complications his relationship with his mother presents.  This is Green’s strong suit—his presentation of very real, very flawed people who nonetheless deserve our love and support.  I appreciated so much his portrayal of Erin, a young woman who loves, forgives, and tries to cope with a situation that is thrown at her and not of her own making.  She seems to me to be as much a hero as Jeff. 
     This is a story about a hero that could go in many different ways.  Green has chosen to make it a real story about real people.  But he hasn’t limited it to Jeff and Erin.  We also hear about the man Carlos who rescued Jeff, also an unlikely hero who, after losing two sons manages to acquit himself.   Certainly, the direction and acting in this film is superb, but the cinematography by Sean Bobbitt and music by Michael Brook contribute significantly to the excellence of Stronger.

The story of an unlikely, unwilling hero and the complexities around him.


Grade:  A                                By Donna R. Copeland

BRAD'S STATUS

Ben Stiller     Austin Abrams     Jenna Fischer     Shazi Raja    
Michael Sheen     Jermaine Clement     Luke Wilson     Mike White


     Brad (Stiller) is having a very bad time as he and his son Troy (Abrams) go visiting university prospects.  It brings to Brad’s mind his own college days, his beloved mentor, and four close buddies.  As he reminisces, he becomes more and more agitated, comparing himself and his life to his imaginings about his friends’ lives.  It seems that they have all been more successful than he (he’s focusing solely on the financial aspects), although he has a happy marriage and his son is looking at top-notch colleges. 
    This part of the film is difficult to sit through because Brad’s self-preoccupation and competitiveness keep us from empathizing with what he is going through.  But this is also where writer-director Mike White’s insight and perception into the human mind and his social sensitivities make his films (e.g., The Good Girl, Beatriz at Dinner) a step above so many.  Across the course of the film, Brad will have a number of illuminating conversations that will help him resolve his midlife crisis. 
     Each conversation is very different, but always on the right track and relieving to us as characters say to Brad what we would like to.  Two surprising ones are the encounters he has with his son’s young friend Ananya (Raja).  She is not cruel, but to the point in giving him feedback about himself.  “You still think the world was made for you.”  Then she goes on to talk about white privilege and male privilege, and how fortunate Brad is to have what he does.  His other conversations are with his college buddies, Craig (Sheen), Billy (Clement), and Jason (Wilson) in which he gets status updates on their lives.  A much anticipated dinner with Craig fills him in on the other friend, Mike (White in his own cameo). 
     I like that Brad is not portrayed simply as a wienie; he has a successful company, is able to use his connections to help Troy make up for a missed appointment, and stands up to his principles in the final conversation.  He seems to have made a turn-around by the end of the film.  He does remind me of Doug (John Lithgow) in Beatriz at Dinner; privileged and annoying at times, but not a really bad person; in fact, Brad’s rapid changes show a strong character with values underneath.
     This is probably one of Stiller’s best performances, and the rapport between him and Abrams as his son and Jenna Fischer as his wife is optimal.  Brief appearances by Sheen, Clement, Wilson, and White add richness and heighten interest; and Shazi Raja is so good, I expect a bright future ahead for her.  Music by Mark Mothersbaugh and cinematography by Xavier Grobet reflect their talents and experience as artists.

A painful but ultimately rewarding trip into the mind of a man having a midlife crisis.


Grade:  B+ By Donna R. Copeland


Thursday, September 14, 2017

REBEL IN THE RYE

Nicholas Hoult     Kevin Spacey     Hope Davis     Sarah Paulson     Zoey Deutch     Victor Garber


     In some of the early scenes of the film, we get a graphic picture of J. D. Salinger’s personality as a highly self-confident, even cocky, social climber in his flirtations with Oona O’neil (Eugene’s daughter, charmingly played by Zoey Deutch).  He does capture her attention just by the way he introduces himself, and although she flits away very quickly, she’ll remember him later, and they will develop a romantic relationship.
     The essence of the film is about Salinger’s passion for writing and a compelling need to be published.  This is partly related to his father’s (Garber) wish that he would go into business rather than pursuing the arts, which is encouraged by his mother (Davis).  Interestingly, his grandfather had insisted that his father Sol give up piano and go into business, which he did, and the family lived in very comfortable circumstances.  But horrified at the thought, J. D. was not to be deterred.  I have heard from writers, as well as other artists, that to practice their craft is a given like breathing, not to be ignored, as I suppose was the case for Salinger.
     Salinger subsequently developed a mentoring relationship with one of his professors, the unorthodox Whit Burnett (Spacey), who had an eye for talent and could see into Salinger’s having antiauthority issues and knew how to deal with them.  Burnett was just what Salinger needed for continual encouragement, tolerance for Salinger’s biting sarcasm, and vacillation between feelings of superiority and hopelessness.  He is shown to be critically responsible for Salinger’s writing and finishing his most famous novel, Catcher in the Rye, which is partly autobiographical. Salinger’s agent, Dorothy Olding (Paulson) also provided support, and was instrumental in his getting a lucrative contract with The New Yorker to publish his short stories.
     Although the meaning in the title is a puzzle, Rebel in the Rye (1951) does an excellent job in capturing Salinger’s personality, his prickliness, his need for privacy, his condescension toward others and an unforgiving attitude, along with the single-mindedness with which he approached his profession.  Even family seemed to have been a secondary priority.  He served in the military during WWII, and suffered thereafter from what appears to be PTSD, from which he received some measure of relief in Buddhism and meditation.     
     Director Danny Strong, who wrote the screenplay based on Kenneth Slawenski’s novel, J. D. Salinger:  A Life, relates his story well, although perhaps superficially, showing Salinger’s relationships with family members, friends, publishers, his work, and people in general.  Perhaps the span of time Strong tries to cover is too wide, given the rich experiences of its subject; this necessarily abbreviates many events that could have given the work more depth and texture.
     Nicholas Hoult captures the look and personality of Salinger in a convincing way, and the supporting cast is very fine as well, especially Kevin Spacey, Sarah Paulson and Zoey Deutch.  The scenes with Hoult and each of these characters enliven the pace and pulls us in.  This is distinctly in contrast to the recluse we have come to know as Salinger, who lived in the woods and never published again after 1953, although he lived for another 57 years.

An account of a recluse compelled above all else to write:  J. D. Salinger

Grade:  C                                    By Donna R. Copeland

AMERICAN ASSASSIN

Dylan O’Brien     Michael Keaton     Sanaa Lathan     Taylor Kitsch     Shiva Negan


      This is a thriller about international intrigue involving the CIA and black ops, Mossad, the Iranians, the Israelis, and a nuclear device, taking place in Malta, Romania, Warsaw, Tripoli, Istanbul, and Rome—all lovely places to visit, but except for a scene here and there, we won’t see much.  The story is set up with young Mitch Rapp (O’Brien) and his girlfriend (Charlotte Vega) on a beautiful beach on Ibiza enjoying tender moments, when they are attacked by Muslim terrorists.  This affects Mitch so profoundly, he signs up to be a black-ops recruit under the tutelage of Stan Hurley (Keaton).  Mitch already has an oppositional streak, which will sometimes serve him well, and sometimes undermine him.  He is expected to get this under control in his training.
      Mitch’s recruiter, Irene Kennedy (Lathan) regards him as a prodigy, but Rapp is reluctant on the basis of Mitch’s psychological characteristics.  After rigorous training and a practice run or two, Hurley decides Mitch is ready and takes him into the field.  You know this is a movie when Mitch repeatedly goes against orders and still saves the day.  The most critical operation is one where a rogue agent called “Ghost” (Kitsch), a former star pupil of Hurley’s, collaborates with Iranians in Poland to construct a nuclear weapon.  The rest of the story is about the CIA’s attempts first to retrieve stolen plutonium, and then to sabotage efforts to make a bomb.
    The film is fast-paced under the watchful eye of Director Michael Cuesta, whose experience as a producer/director has been primarily in television, but succeeds here too.  Cinematographer Enrique Chediak follows the action and fight sequences so well it’s always clear what is happening—unlike in many action films.  Dylan O’Brien is believable as a fresh-faced green recruit bursting to make his mark, and of course, Keaton is a perfect foil for him.  I did not find Taylor Kitsch to be as formidable and evil as I think he was supposed to be, which diluted the impact of some key scenes.
     My problem with action thrillers is that they are so filled with preposterous successes that I’m left cold.  In American Assassin, at one point, a character asks Mitch how he has survived so many close calls, then derides him if he thinks he’s special and deserving of sympathy.  All during the film, Mitch is amidst of all kinds of dangers, but somehow he comes out ahead, and the last scene shows that this is an origin story with sequels to come.  At least this one was more clever than most.

Take a ride on the black-ops special to see intrigue, bloody torturous encounters, and occasional humor.

Grade:  C                                    By Donna R. Copeland

mother!

Jennifer Lawrence     Javier Bardem     Ed Harris     Michelle Pfeiffer    
Brian Gleeson     Domhnall Gleeson     Kristen Wiig


      mother! could be seen as an allegory, one about an artist’s insatiable need for love and admiration.  The story begins in an ordinary way, with a young couple, played by Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem (they’re never given names, nor are any of the characters, making it seem even more like an allegory), living in what looks like an idyllic setting, a romantic old house belonging to his family they are refurbishing—well, actually she’s refurbishing it; he is a serious poet with strict boundaries around his writing room. 
Home invasion #1 occurs when a man (Harris) suddenly appears at the door, and the poet invites him in, clearly delighting in what he says about the poet’s work.  Sometime after, another visitor arrives, and she turns out to be the man’s wife (Pfeiffer).  Ignoring his wife’s cautions, the poet magnanimously tells them they can stay as long as they please, also ignoring their sense of entitlement and bad behavior as guests.  After two sons of the guests (B Gleeson and D Gleeson) arrive, the family has a major dispute about a will that devolves into a trip to the hospital for one of them.
     After these guests leave, the poet and his wife have a period of blissful retreat, during which she gets pregnant and he finishes a major work.  She is so happy and hopeful, and he seems genuinely pleased.  Then home invasion #2 occurs after his book is published; hordes of fans, along with the publisher (Wiig) arrive to celebrate.  The mayhem is captured in many scenes to come.
     All the while, the house gives off creepy sounds and groans as if it were a character itself; blood stains appear and travel/transform with pungent meaning.  Occult signs and portents are everywhere.  Aronofsky seems to be making a major point about stardom and fandom, how they feed off one another, and how they can go out of control. 
     I’m a fan of Aranofsky, and like the idea of showing so graphically how artist and fan are so reciprocal, how the artist can be seduced at whatever cost, and how the mob mentality of fans seems to have no limits.  But in this film, I think he went over the top in prolonging the invasion scenes so that they take over the movie.  This gets tedious very quickly.  I did get a huge kick out of seeing the fans literally interpret the poet’s words to mean that when he says “share”, that entitles them to have what is his.
     Clearly, Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem pulled out all the stops in their performances.  And Ed Harris and Michelle Pfeiffer, with their relatives (the Gleesons), are able to add a touch of the comedic to offset the horrors.  I wish Wiig’s appearances had been highlighted more, as she is so camera-grabbing in the brief times we see her.

Ah, yes, one of the successful artist’s challenges is managing fandom.

Grade:  C+                                    By Donna R. Copeland

Friday, September 8, 2017

IT

Jaeden Lieberher     Jeremy Ray Taylor     Sophia Lillis     Bill Skarsgard
Finn Wolfhard     Chosen Jacobs     Jack Dylan Grazer     Wyatt Oleff     Jackson Robert Scott


     Stephen King is particularly skillful in his portrayal of characters with dimension and flair, yet always plausible and believable.  He must study humans constantly and draw on a wealth of information about us that he has collected through the years.   For example, in this film, the main character has a keen sense of responsibility and fairness…and a stutter.  Another is chubby and socially awkward…but very bright and rather nerdy in a charming way.  He has acquired an impressive amount of information about the town of Derry, Maine, that will inform his newly found friends.  King goes against stereotyping his people, and always adds something unusual, some special quirk or talent that gets manifested during the story unfolding.  Girls can be sexy and fight well and keep up with the boys.  Boys can be leaders, but also show fear and tears.  These touches constitute little surprises for the viewer, enhancing interest, and fostering attachment to the characters.  It’s not long before we know the characters and have an investment in them.  Certainly the horror aspects of his stories do that as well, but for someone like this reviewer who is not a horror fan, the added dimensions are special treats.
     This story begins with two brothers, Bill (Lieberher) and Georgie (Scott), who have great affection for one another.  Bill the older makes a boat for Georgie to take out to “sea” in the rainy street.  After Georgie encounters a clown in a storm drain, he, like many others in a recurring cycle of 27 years, disappears.  He is not the first one this year, but typical of many communities, residents seem to be rather apathetic about what should be an alarming situation—at least that’s so of the adults; the kids express real fear about it as much as the local bullies.  And Bill is particularly motivated to do something because of his missing younger brother, as is Beverly (Lillis), who is deeply compassionate and has her own threat to deal with at home.  The others in the tight group friends are more ambivalent for various reasons, but can always be counted on to join crime-solving/prevention efforts.
   Horror elements that the kids encounter include not only the hideous, fanged clown Pennywise, beautifully played by Skarsgard, but a leper, a headless man, and writhing tortured figures/heads as well that may cry out with advice like “Kill him”, “Kill them all.”  Blood is ubiquitous, and sometimes spells out, “You die if you try.”  There are supernatural events, identity switches, heartless town bullies, and gruesome bathroom scenes (which, one character points out, is the most dangerous room in the house).  Few adults are encountered, and when they do appear, they’re useless at best and abusive at worst.  Parents are so bad that when the kids rebel against them, one wants to cheer.
     Director Andy Muschietti and Cinematographer Chung-hoon Chung artfully bring to life King’s well-told story of suspense, the supernatural, high drama, and repellant forces working against the good and innocent.  The clown’s showing something that looked like a shark’s mouth is off-putting in a mixed metaphor kind of way.  The children’s roles and the actors filling them give children credit where it is due.  Lieberher (St. Vincent, Midnight Special) as the star, Lillis as the “against-type” girl, and Skarsgard as Clown Pennywise use their considerable talents to embody their characters with powerful delivery.  Supporting cast should be acknowledged as well, particularly Taylor, as endearing and scholarly Ben, and Grazer, as asthmatic Eddie who wises up to a hypochondriacal mother.
     I applaud the messages implicit in It about overcoming fears and working together to achieve great things.  The movie is entertaining, suspenseful, wryly humorous, and uplifting.

Stephen King’s much scarier version of a Scooby Doo story where kids solve a mystery.  Pennywise the clown:  “…if it weren’t for those meddling kids!”

Grade:  B+                                    By Donna R. Copeland