Saturday, August 8, 2020

RIVER CITY DRUMBEAT

Edward “Nardi” White, Albert Shumake, Zambia Nkrumah


     In the midst of being submerged in reminders of all the atrocities and heartaches blacks have gone through for so many years, River City Drumbeat brings hope and a little comfort in seeing some of the heroes of that community trying to make things better by instilling fine values of caring, reverence, purpose, and accomplishment in young people who might be vulnerable because of their circumstances.  
     The documentary highlights the inimitable Edward “Nardie” White who recognized early on that there was too much emphasis on sports for young blacks, that some of them did not fit the mold and actually had artistic inclinations.  Noting that one of the first sounds an infant in the womb hears is the heartbeat of his mother, directors Anne Flatte and Marion Johnson introduce us to the work of White who, with his deceased wife Zambia Nkrumah, founded the drum corps in Louisville, Kentucky, over 30 years ago. They spent their lives guiding young people on a course that would be advantageous to them in the long run. The kids are given drum lessons that may start in early childhood and continue until they graduate high school.
     Always forward thinking, White began to train his successor some years before he planned to retire.  An original member of the corps, Albert Shumake, who is now a young father, has picked up White’s mantle with the same degree of commitment.  In watching them work with the drummers and hearing what the kids say about them, it becomes clear how kind they are and how the whole experience is therapeutic for the kids and their families.  Albert himself says that it saved him from the fate of many of his classmates who are now in prison or even dead.
     The film has footage of a few performance pieces, but mostly we get to observe the corps in operation and hear the touching stories of individuals. The primary message is loud and clear; that when a community moves in sync to better the lives of children at risk, it’s a success.

An uplifting account of a novel approach in improving the chances for a better life for thousands of children.

Grade:  A                                    By Donna R. Copeland

Thursday, August 6, 2020

A THOUSAND CUTS


     Presumably, this documentary is meant to and does serve as a warning to democracies around the world when democracy itself seems to be more and more fragile as time goes on, and more populist leaders become heads of increasingly authoritarian governments.  This is the story of how that process advanced in the Philippines with the 2016 election of Rodrigo Duterte for President, and his re-election for a second term in 2018.
     Most of the focus is on a journalist named Maria Ressa, the head of the publication Rappler, in her efforts to inform voters of Duterte’s stringent policies toward his single issue—drugs.  During the almost two-hour presentation, no other issue comes to the fore, giving me the impression that Duterte’s platform has been about nothing else except, of course, loyalty to him and his regime. He is called to task by journalists questioning his single-minded politics and its effects, to which he responds with insults and efforts to arrest and imprison them.  (He has no compunction about killing people on the street without giving them the benefit of a hearing.)
     Ressa gives numerous examples of how Duterte managed to gain his power, even though just before his first election he was considered a “wild card.”  One of his methods was to capture the media in a way that separated out disinformation media from traditional news reporting that has the aim of objectivity and facts.  Duterte used social media to distort the news (sometimes through fake accounts with the ability to fan out to millions of other accounts), and using a sensational pop star—Mocha Uson with millions of followers—to support him with nationalist-type messages advocating undivided loyalty to leaders in power.  Ressa calls these tactics the “weaponization of the internet”, which includes the use of algorithms in social media like Facebook that do not distinguish fact from fiction—all of which can undermine democracy.
     Duterte’s crudeness is shown by quoted statements such as, “If you end up dead, it’s your fault” (spoken to media).  In response to Ressa’s charge that he is supposed to be the protector of the constitution and the rule of law, his response is, “Because of the rule of law, there must be fear.”  This is an example of how he can distort the question by replying to another issue.
     A Thousand Cuts is basically a good documentary in getting the facts across; however, I do have a problem with Ramona S. Diaz’ direction and the other filmmakers involved.  Namely, they rushed through the production with too many items on the screen at the same time (e.g., billboards, footnotes) as the primary scene.  There is no way one could read and process all the information for the brief period it was on.  Even the single frames with written information didn’t stay on long enough. 
     In all, though, A Thousand Cuts does show how thousands of cuts to a democracy can kill it.  If we value our democracy, we should all be fearful.  Maria Ressa says we are in a time of existential crisis, and sadly I think she may be right.  

This film is a wake-up call to many democracies of today.

Grade:  B                                    By Donna R. Copeland







MADE IN ITALY

Liam Neeson     Michael Richardson    Lindsay Duncan


     Any movie with Italy in the title attracts me instantly because of the wonderful trips I’ve had there with incredulous landscapes, welcoming natives, and cultural milieu.  And this film does not disappoint in that sense.  The setting is mostly in Tuscany, among the rolling hills, luscious vegetation, and camaraderie of the Italians.   Provocatively, the story begins in a British art gallery where the owners are splitting up.  (Actually, the husband is being dumped by the wife whose family owns the gallery.)
     That is the underlying theme to begin with, but the crux of the story is about the young man—the husband above—who in desperation looks up his estranged father with the hope of selling a seldom-used property in Italy so he can buy the gallery in New York.
     Robert (Neeson) is surprised to hear from his son Jack (Richardson), but gamely travels to the property in Italy—actually a small estate—with the plan to sell it. As is often the case in old houses, memories abound, and it is there we get the back-stories of Jack and Robert. (Note that these are two men who are typically reticent, and their accounts are slow in coming.)  But in the meantime, the viewer can experience the richness of the Italian landscape and people.
     The story of the two men includes the sudden death of the older man’s wife and the younger man’s mother.  After that, the father tries to protect his son from painful memories and in so doing unwittingly closes off not only his relationship with his son, but also the child with his mother.  The beauty of the plot (although rather expected) is that in renovating the house, the two men restore their connection.
     Liam Neeson as the father is exemplary as always, and Michael Richardson fits the role as son extremely well.  Lindsay Duncan as the real estate agent brings genuine comic relief, and Valeria Bilello as the young restaurateur add color and interest to the plot.
     Made in Italy is a pleasure to watch, certainly for those who have been to Italy, but likely also for those with aspirations to visit.  I would recommend it as a pleasant evening entertainment.

Made in Italy will take you there for a pleasant visit.

Grade:  C+                                    Donna R. Copeland

RED PENGUINS


     This documentary offers a lesson in why not to get involved in conducting business in a culture one doesn’t fully understand.  The particular men who got involved in the venture can be forgiven, in that their dealings with the Russians occurred at a turbulent time in history—the fall of the Soviet Union, the rise of Yeltsin, Putin, and ambitious Russian oligarchs out to exploit this situation and anything else they could, but it illustrates as well the optimism with which Americans have so often ventured into other cultures with high hopes.
     In the early 1990’s, Russia’s premier hockey team, the Red Army, began looking for a partner to boost the team’s standing in the world.  Their popularity was declining, and audiences were waning. At the time, Howard Baldwin was the owner and chairman of the Pittsburgh Penguins, and he and Tom Ruta, a former owner, got the bright idea of making a coalition with the Russian team and came up with the idea of the “Red Penguins.”  
     They got a buy-in from the Red Army coach, Viktor Tikhonov, and manager Valery Gushin, and launched what they hoped would be a viable partnership with the ultimate goal of bringing capitalism to Russia as it was transitioning from Communist Soviet Union, where Mikhail Gorbachev had come into power, into a potential ally of the U.S.  As Americans, Baldwin and Ruta figured that the best person to set this up would be a PR person by the name of Stephen Warshaw.  
     Warshaw went in with all tools blasting, and it seemed at first that the Russians were just as susceptible to American marketing as we are.  Warshaw seemed to have no limits—e.g., strippers for cheerleaders, live bears serving beer, even to children.  The arena began filling up again, fans abounded with great enthusiasm, and the partners were super excited about the interest of Disney buying into the partnership.  
     But alas. The country was in great turmoil—as one Russian businessman (oligarch) commented, Russians were simply unprepared for capitalism (floods of cash) and democracy.  And when red flags began to appear in the form of bookkeeping irregularities and huge political upheaval in the country itself (Boris Yeltsin replaces Gorbachev, then Vladimir Putin appears), Baldwin and Ruta were slow to catch on.
     Gabe Polsky’s (writer, director), documentary proceeds like a drama, with factual information spiced up with intrigue and suspense.  The exploits of Warshaw and his far-out ideas and derring-do add much to this, along with the humor he introduces.  
     I am not a sports fan, and although this is about hockey teams, clips from actual games are minimal.  On the upside, I thoroughly got into hearing about this foray into Russia by hopeful—and rather na├»ve--Americans that held so much promise, although ended up with such heartbreak.  It’s a lesson in business, as well as being educational and entertaining.

A documentary about hockey teams that is more about culture and business than sports.

Grade:  A-                                    By Donna R. Copeland



Thursday, July 30, 2020

SUMMERLAND

Gemma Arterton     Gugu Mbatha-Raw     Lucas Bond     Penelope Wilton     Tom Courtenay     Dixie Egerickx


     The film is immediately engaging in telling a war story about displaced children and those sheltering them when London was under siege in WWII.  Alice (Arterton) is one of the shelterers, although one initially rejecting the idea and agreeing to do it only for a week until another home can be found.  Alice is a writer who jealously guards her time, and is known as the local witch because of her acerbic personality and avoidance of friends or even friendly chats at the grocery store.
     What happens is that the child assigned to her, Frank (Bond), manages to worm his way into her heart, as most children will eventually.  When Alice discovers that Frank can actually be interested in her work as a researcher studying mythology, a bond is formed that takes Alice completely by surprise.  But the moments of joy and understanding will soon be interrupted and seriously threatened.
     One of the elements that makes the story so appealing is the attractiveness of the two main characters, played by Gemma Arterton and Lucas Bond.  Even when they’re first becoming acquainted, the actors are able to convey a special kind of connection that makes the story even more meaningful by the end.  Arterton is skillful in portraying the prickliness of Alice at first, and then her gradual transition into someone more “normal.”  Bond is a natural in playing a child who is reacting to trauma, but has a firm base of security coming from a good home with caring parents.
     Tom Courteney as head of the local school and Dixie Egerickx as Philip’s classmate and friend both give delightful performances that lighten the, sometimes heavy, drama unfolding.  The part played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw is primarily in flashbacks that fill us in on Alice’s history, and she also provides levity and depth of character.
     Writer/director Jessica Swale does a fine job in flashbacks that make Alice in particular, with her quirky characteristics, believable.  The story she tells is fanciful—too implausible perhaps for some—but I think the information given toward the very end made it all come together and be more plausible, although still a bit unlikely to some extent.  Swale’s writing is beautiful with memorable lines such as, “Planes crash, Frank; what matters is how you deal with it.”  Some of its power is in it serving as a theme for the movie as a whole, along with another apt saying that “stories have to come from somewhere.”
     Summerland has much appeal, particularly for the time we are living in; but it is a story with richness and depth in characterization as well.

A good summertime movie to counteract some of the stress of current times.

Grade:  B                                    By Donna R. Copeland

THE SECRET: DARE TO DREAM

Katie Holmes     Josh Lucas


     Sweet, syrupy, pure fantasy—I loved this movie!  The joke’s on me, because it’s not the kind of film that I usually take to at all—in fact, I’m often averse to this kind of thing.  Yet, there was something about it that moved me and sustained my interest the whole time.  It’s basically a tension between ultra-realism and pragmatics vs. determinism—everything happens for a reason and beyond one’s control. (So just relax, and everything will work out.)  I think it is the subtlety with which these ideas are presented that makes this film “excusable” to me.  
     The story is set up right away showing a life that seems hopeless.  Miranda (Holmes) is a struggling widow with three kids.  Her house is falling apart, she is forgetful, and her kids are so keenly aware that they can’t afford the kinds of things kids want, it continually reminds her of the loss of their dad.  On the positive side, she has a secure job where the owner of the restaurant, Tucker (O’Connell), is attracted to her and a mother-in-law who—though bossy—is someone she can depend upon and truly cares about her and her children.
     One day, when Miranda is arguing with her daughter in the car coming home from school, crash! she rear-ends someone in a pick-up truck.  But the driver is one of those individuals who is intuitively sympathetic and empathic—so much so, he offers to repair her bumper, the only thing damaged.  (Note:  This is a continuation of the tension between optimism and pessimism.)  Brad (Lucas) stays on the scene, helping her and her kids both emotionally and in practical things, like repairing the roof after a storm…all set up to continue the parable of self-determinism and fate.
     The film is very well directed by Andy Tennant from a finely written script, and the actors led by Katie Holmes and Josh Lucas make the story zing.  Yes, you’ll have little surprises along the way, although some of you will chafe at the predictability.  But there are little tweaks that take it beyond the ordinary.  For example, the mother-in-law (expertly executed by Celia Weston) is shown in stereotypical ways (i.e., obnoxious), but also with genuine caring and concern for her daughter-in-law.  She represents the “good sense”, “practical” side of the story’s argument, along with her favorite, Tucker, who faithfully pursues someone he cherishes.
     But Brad represents the figure who, after a traumatic event, alters his life toward one of acceptance and hope, taking in stride whatever happens and making the best of it for others as well as for oneself.  This attitude is shown to be inspiring to kids as well as adults, and is the central message of the film.

The Secret turns out to be a nice surprise, and one that could stimulate more serious discussion later.

Grade:  B                                    By Donna R. Copeland


Saturday, July 25, 2020

RADIOACTIVE

Rosamund Pike     Sam Riley     Anya Taylor-Joy


     In an extraordinary production directed by Marjane Satrapi and starring Rosamund Pike as Madame Curie, we hear the story of an eccentric scientist who won two Nobel prizes through much conflict and a certain amount of public hatred. She was the first woman to win a Nobel, notably being relatively unimpressed with it, but at the same time fighting for her role in it.
     Madame Curie (nee, Marie Slodowska) was having a difficult time holding onto a lab to do her work—both because of her being a woman trying to do science and because of a rather cantankerous personality.  It was most fortunate that her path crossed that of Pierre Curie who recognized immediately that they could achieve much more working together. It was likewise fortunate that he knew how to “handle” her, which included being conscientiously careful in seeing that she received every credit she was due in their partnership. For instance, initially, the Nobel committee was intending to give the prize to him alone, but he would only accept it if they gave it to both of them.
     The story is fascinating in a number of ways; first of all in seeing the hurdles she had to jump over in even being able to be a scientist, but secondly because of a quirky, prickly personality.  She was highly complex in her make-up, having a phobia about hospitals, being ambivalent about recognition yet ferociously insisting on getting credit for her achievements, and giving in completely to the love she had toward her husband.  She and her husband were also unusual in their communication with one another and in the family. Sensitive topics were never out of bounds for discussion, and they could have heated arguments, then easily switch back to a loving relationship.
     Pike is well known for her talent and skill in acting, and here once again she captures what I presume is the essence of who Marie Curie really was.  It should be a career high for her.  (I have not read Lauren Redniss book on which Jack Thorne based the script, but would guess that the film is a fine representation of Redniss’ work, which was a finalist for the National Book Award in 2011.)  Sam Riley as Marie’s husband makes a good match with Pike, and the scenes they’re in together are electric.
     Another aspect to marvel at in this production is Anthony Dod Martle’s artistic cinematography, which he uses to further the story and accentuate the dramatics. I think it’s a case where one could look at and revel in the pictures alone without the sound.  Transitions, close-ups, and the blending of visuals are striking in their own right.
     Personally, I was very moved by Radioactive in that when I was a psychologist at M. D. Anderson Cancer Center, much of my research was about identifying the effects of central nervous system radiation on children’s ability to learn years after they received it.  Kudos also to the film for showing the positive and possible negative effects of scientific knowledge—about which Madame Curie eventually became all too aware.  Her redemption came partly from the effectiveness of radiation that was helpful even at that time, and in her daughter’s continuing discoveries of its use in medicine and on the battlefield.
     Radioactive is a film I wish all young people could see for its modeling of simple passion for science, the challenges that arise in the tension between family life and career, and the prejudices that can appear from a general public that is not educated or well informed enough to override petty concerns.  The film is most timely in all these aspects.

Now appearing on Amazon Prime, this is a story that will entertain, inspire, and inform anyone who sees it.

Grade:  A                                    By Donna R. Copeland