Thursday, January 19, 2017

xXx: RETURN OF XANDER CAGE

Vin Diesel     Donnie Yen     Toni Collette     Samuel L. Jackson
Deepika Padukone     Kris Wu     Ruby Rose     Tony Jaa     Nina Dobrev     Ice Cube


          My impression:  That this film was made purely to highlight its special effects and bring a videogame look to film—not that others haven’t had that purpose before.  So if this is your thing, you will love xXx:  Return of Xander Cage.  Story is secondary to the legendary (and unreal) acumen of Xander (Diesel), whom everyone thought was dead, but was only in hiding.  The CIA searches him out, and recruits him to retrieve Pandora’s Box, a deadly weapon they had in their hands until a band of phenomenal intruders literally snatched it away from Jane Marke (Collette), a CIA higher-up. 
         But first, we get a treat of seeing Xander doing incredible athletic stunts to establish his credibility as not only an unbelievable athlete, but a patriotic, conscionable citizen--and lover--as well.  (He brings television broadcasts to soccer fans in Central America.)  He is against “men in suits” and a champion of the people.
      After Jane Marke recruits him, Xander is unbelievably quick in bringing her the information she needs by being an “undercover agent.”  (The sexual and macho symbols are replete throughout the film, meant to please the 15-40 year-old male viewers.)  Now the fun begins as Pandora’s Box, the ultimate deadly weapon, is located as being in the hands of two people in the Philippines, Xiang (Yen) and his partner Serena (Padukone).   
     Marke introduces Xander to his retrieval “team”, all males, who are completely unacceptable to him.   He dispatches them immediately as pussies, and brings his own people on—both men and women with special skills.  Marke is cagey, and although complaining, she allows him to lead his own team in the assault on the couple in the Philippines who have Pandora’s Box.  They are Xiang (Yen) and his partner Serena (Padukone) who have a fleet of amazing fighters of their own.
          Xander puts his people in place, and they make an assault amidst a party.  (Sex and violence are a must in this film).  What follows are a crafty shake-up, as well as the identification of the real villains.  Changing alliances and the representation of noble motivations give this film a little more quality beyond the technical achievements. 
          D. J. Caruso’s film shows how government agencies can be corrupt and self-serving, but it does not suggest any viable alternatives.   Well, perhaps the final scenes with Pandora’s Box does.

A love letter to Vin Diesel and his phenomenal abilities.

Grade:  C+                                    By Donna R. Copeland

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

SPLIT

James McAvoy     Betty Buckley     Anya Taylor-Joy     Jessica Sula     Haley Lu Richardson


       About as creepy as it can get in portraying a mentally ill person’s delusions.  James McAvoy is at the height of his performances in the depiction of someone with multiple personalities.  Here, he can be tough, mean, simple minded, and artsy, depending on which identity is “up.”  He does this mostly with facial expressions and body language, which makes his performance more impressive.  The psychiatrist treating him is pretty well portrayed and very well acted by Buckley as Dr. Fletcher.  How factual the representation of dissociative identity disorder is, I can’t really judge because I don’t have experience with that diagnosis, but it “rang true” from what I know.
        My issue with this and other horror movies is that they linger a bit too long on moments of tension and tend to drag them out long after they’re plausible.  Most notable is the ending—which is not really an ending—in which a character has a chance to do just that (end things) and doesn’t. Another issue is that every scene with the women shows them to be fragile, easily rattled, and unable to take action.  The two girls abducted with Casey (Taylor-Joy), Marcia (Sula) and Claire (Richardson), really got on my nerves with the panicky breathing and hysterical behavior.  And although Dr. Fletcher is portrayed as a very competent therapist in most of the story, her portrayal toward the end is inconsistent with how she is portrayed professionally in the beginning.
          The story begins with a father urging his daughter and her friend to be compassionate toward an odd, retiring classmate, Casey, and offer her a ride home.  But just as they are getting in the car, the father acknowledges someone approaching, and suddenly we see the stranger driving the car rather than the father.  This stranger is abducting the three girls.  He is “Kevin” (McAvoy) who will rain terror on them in the coming days.
          Shyamalan has had an uneven career, with some of his work praised (Sixth Sense and perhaps Signs) and much of it criticized (Lady in the Water).  He is good at weaving a story that keeps the viewer mesmerized and interested in the esoteric, but at times he gets too caught up in the supernatural.  Here, he is good at introducing the main character with 23 personalities slowly, so the viewer’s reaction may be, “Is that the same person we just saw?”  And then the disorder we’re seeing becomes clear.
          Another plus is Shyamalan fleshing out Casey’s character so that her current behavior and deportment are well accounted for by events in her childhood.

A mostly well crafted thriller that will make your skin crawl while you admire the star.

Grade:  C+                                    By Donna R. Copeland

THE FOUNDER

Michael Keaton     Laura Dern     Nick Offerman     John Carroll Lynch     Patrick Wilson     Linda Cardellini


       Such an ironic title, as one finds out by the end of this dramatization of Ray Kroc (Keaton), the known founder of the McDonald hamburger franchise.  This film is noteworthy in telling the story of how that came to be and the people involved, of which most of us were doubtless unaware.
          Kroc starts out as a door-to-door salesman and schemer of investment projects, many of which were groundless for potential.  His weary wife (Dern) has become skeptical of his harebrained schemes, and simply wants to continue their comfortable golfing country club life with friends.  Kroc is currently trying to sell a milkshake maker that is supposed to speed up the process considerably, but we see doors shut in his face over and over.  Then he gets a message that a restaurant in California wants to order 6-8, so drives pell-mell from St. Louis to the one and only McDonald’s Drive-in owned by brothers Dick (Offerman) and Mac (Lynch) McDonald. 
          This is in the 1950s, when all the drive-ins had curb-hops who took your order and brought your food on a tray that attached to your car.  Ray eats most of his meals at drive-ins, and we see him get annoyed when his order gets mixed up in one way or another.  One of the funniest moments in the film is the screenwriter’s (Robert D. Siegel) portrayal of Ray’s first visit to McDonald’s (with golden arches), where he has to get out of his car, wait in line, place his order, and receive it in a paper bag and cup.  Befuddled, he finally realizes that he must eat it in his car or on a park bench.  When he finds the hamburger is delicious, he immediately goes to talk to the owners.  But he has more in mind than simply their order of the milkshake machines; he wants a tour of their business, which they readily do, showing that speed and natural ingredients are secrets to their success.
          Ray immediately asserts himself by offering numerous suggestions for increasing their business, most of which the brothers decline to accept.  After much pressure, though, they finally give in to the idea of franchising McDonald’s.  They had tried this before, but gave it up because quality control could not be maintained.  Ray counters their objections by offering to play that role, and assuring the McDonalds that he would oversee operations at all the franchises.  The McDonald’s produce a contract that stipulates that all changes in the franchises must be approved by them.
           The McDonalds continue to deny almost all of Ray’s suggestions, and in frustration, he begins to ignore them and do with the franchises whatever he pleases.  Of course, this all comes to a head and we hear the end of the plus/minus story. 
         Siegel’s screenplay continues his fine writing skill (The Blind Side, Turbo, The Wrestler) in presenting a script that avoids the potential for being boring (business, sales) by focusing on the personality of the lead and its subtle transformations across time, and the story’s relevance for contemporary times.  Keaton’s realization of Ray’s character is marked by a combination of charisma, self-interest, and willingness to slight the ethics of his behavior.  It’s a little akin to his Birdman role, without the imagination shown in that film, but Keaton’s performance is just as good. 
         Director John Lee Hancock (The Blind Side, Saving Mr. Banks) knows just how to bring the screenplay to life and show how the film is a part of American corporate history as well as McDonald’s specifically.  It moves at a good pace, always keeping our interest and fascination with the subject and the characters high.
          Kroc is to be credited with the commercialization of the hamburger business, much to the McDonalds brothers’ dismay.  He converted it into a real estate business (Franchise Realty Corporation) by buying all the properties on which the franchises were located, introduced “unnatural” powdered ingredients for milkshakes, and expanded the business beyond U.S. borders.  I don’t know, but I imagine there are similar stories to tell about many of our U.S. corporations.

“Fortune favors the bold” – Ray Kroc quote.

Grade:  A                                    By Donna R. Copeland

Friday, January 13, 2017

THE AUTOPSY OF JANE DOE

Emile Hirsch     Brian Cox     Ophelia Lovibond     Olwen Catherine Kelly


          This thriller gets into the supernatural, along with the standard thunderstorm, bumps, and other strange happenings during the night.  Tommy (Cox) is the town’s coroner and has a mortuary business, employing his son Austin (Hirsch) as a medical technician.  They seem to be getting along reasonably well after the death of Austin’s mother, but Tommy is itching to venture out into the world.  He hasn’t had the nerve to tell Tommy yet, because he feels an obligation to stay and help his father.  He has a girlfriend, Emma (Lovibond), who is pressuring him to tell his father and follow through with their plan to relocate.
           The men have just received four bodies from a burning house, and already find some puzzling signs.  On top of that, the sheriff brings in another body that was half buried in peat in the basement.  This is even more puzzling, and it gets weirder as they proceed to do an autopsy.  For starters, there are no outwardly visible signs of trauma, despite broken bones and internal injuries.  They decide to work through the night because the sheriff needs answers by the next morning.
           The beginning of the story written by Ian B. Goldberg and Richard Naing takes time in developing the characters and setting up the mystery and alarming events that are to follow.  As Tommy is conducting the autopsy, we’re privy to his findings and the questions that arise.  This is very interesting to observe; however, he does seem to be going through the steps of an actual autopsy, so the squeamish might consider whether he/she is up to the film. 
           Norwegian Director Andre Ovredal and his staff know how to put together a horror film in terms of pacing, sound effects, camera action, and maintaining suspense, sprinkling in just enough reality-based effects to make the story more plausible.  Hirsch and Cox have good rapport, convincing as a father-son duo, and showing sheer terror when it looks like they’re trapped and being pursued by supernatural forces.  With virtually all of the scenes taking place in the confines of the morgue, the claustrophobic sense enhances the horror.  As the corpse, actress Kelly maintains utter stillness (a function of yoga practice) in her body staring blankly ahead with gray eyes.
          The movie should keep horror fans happy and scared within its well-crafted story telling, sound effects, camera action, and solid performances.

A creepy thriller that captures your interest as you learn about autopsies, even while you wish to escape the claustrophobic atmosphere.

Grade:  C+                                    By Donna R. Copeland

Thursday, January 12, 2017

PATRIOTS DAY

Mark Wahlberg     J. K. Simmons     Kevin Bacon     John Goodman     Michelle Monaghan     
Jimmy O. Yang     Alex Wolff     Themo Melikidze


       A dramatic account of the 2013 bombings at the Boston Marathon refreshes our memory of what happened that day and the investigations to find the perpetrators that followed.  It’s fascinating and informative to see how the rescue and investigation proceeded, and how quickly the suspects were identified with security cameras.  With that information in hand, a police officer knowledgeable about the area knew where to look for them.  There was disagreement initially among the FBI and city/county/state officials about when to release the names, but as soon as they did, they began to get leads.  (The FBI preferred to withhold the names so as not to tip off the bombers and allow them to escape.)
        The film gives us glimpses of some people’s lives beforehand, such as Sgt. Tommy Saunders (Wahlberg) who had been temporarily suspended from the force, some of the victims, and the Tsarnaev brothers, the bombers.  This helps make the shock more real and important to us, and gives us a glimpse into how private lives are affected (tragically, sometimes) by civic duties.  The most dramatic of these is when the Tsarnaevs on the run hijack a car driven by a student (Yang) whom we’ve been introduced to earlier as a son talking to his family in China and to his friends.  Dzhokhar (Wolff) and Tamerian (Melikidze) Tsarnaev are shown to be bumbling and argumentative in their execution of the terror and their attempts to get away.  In the aftermath of the explosions, it’s eerie to see them at home watching TV reports of their work, and Tamerian sending Dzhokhar to the store on an errand.
       Peter Berg, the director, moves the story along, with frequent cuts—sometimes so frequent it makes you dizzy—but covering the scope of the massive event well, including preparations for the race and some of the back stories, law enforcement during the race, the bombings and chaos that followed, the rescue, and finally the investigation and pursuit of the criminals.  There is an especially interesting interrogation of the older Tsarnaev’s wife by the FBI.  It did not produce much information, but showed the FBI’s expertise in connecting with someone to elicit information.
          No one character really stands out, although Sgt. Saunders seems to turn up at every important event.  Wahlberg’s performance is not as outstanding as in some of his previous work, although it is adequate, and it could be that the writers/director wanted a lower key persona for this role.  Experienced actors in supportive roles that measure up to their reputations include J. K. Simmons, Kevin Bacon, John Goodman, Alex Wolff, and Michelle Monaghan.  Relative newcomer Themo Melikidze playing the older Tsarnaev is entirely convincing.

A reminder of the fateful day in 2013 when two brothers wreaked havoc in Boston during the marathon.

Grade:  B                                    By Donna R. Copeland






LIVE BY NIGHT

Ben Affleck     Elle Fanning     Brenda Gleeson     Sienna Miller     Zoe Saldana     Chris Cooper
Remo Girone     Robert Glenister     Chris Messina     Miguel Pimentel


         Does crime pay?  Live by Night seems to be addressing this issue, but the reasoning and events used to talk about it are complicated.  Joe (Affleck) is rebellious toward his father (Gleeson), a Boston police captain, and a bit jaded after a stint in the Marines during WWI, saying that he is no longer going to take orders from anyone.  As a reaction to these situations, he chooses a life of crime to support himself, much against his father’s advice, of course.  But the irony is in what he finds when he is caught between two warring crime bosses; father figures ordering him around—in spades.  And he also finds that now the stakes are much higher, and his vow not to kill anyone else becomes increasingly impossible.
      Joe is extremely na├»ve in the beginning of the story, and easily becomes fatefully involved with the girlfriend of the first big boss, Albert White (Glenister).   Emma (Miller) is coquettish and he is easily entangled in her web.  He just about loses his life as a result, but is rescued at the last minute, although he does have to do some time in prison.
        Just why he again makes a bad choice when he gets out is not explained—a fault of the writing.  That is, a boy who seemed to come from a “good” family with basic values is somehow attracted to a life of crime?  There is nothing in the script about the character that accounts for this.  But say it’s simply money; he doesn’t know how to make lots of money without participating in the alcohol trade during Prohibition.  Let’s just go with that.
         Competing drug lords Albert White (Glenister) and Maso Pescatore (Girone) recognize his skills, and recruit him; first, White, then Pescatore.  He is able to keep from killing when he is with White, but with Pescatore, that option is not open.  Not only must he deal with competition in business, but he eventually has to deal with the Ku Klux Klan in Florida.  The ante keeps increasing for this unfortunate character until he thinks he has finally reached a solution.
           Another complication Joe encounters in Florida comes in the form of a sexy Cuban, Graciela (Soldana), who supports pro-Cuba revolutionary causes.  She will be his redemption both emotionally and legally.  At last, he finds through her a path that will free him from his baser instincts.  But there are major twists in the story on up to the end.
         Affleck co-wrote, produced, and directed Live by Night, and after his success with Argo and winning numerous awards, this film is something of a disappointment, which has to do with a host of problems.  The main characters are not well fleshed out; the sound quality makes it difficult to understand the dialog sometimes, and the logic of going from Point A to Point B in events as well as the characters is weak or absent.  Affleck’s own performance is thin, not nearly as powerful as much of his earlier work in Gone Girl, Argo, and The Town, for instance.  Perhaps it’s just a matter of time and attention; he has numerous projects in development and in production.
          Turning in good performances are Elle Fanning, Brendan Gleeson, Zoe Saldana, Chris Cooper, Ramo Girone, Robert Glenister, and Chris Messina.  Robert Richardson (Hateful Eight World War Z, Django Unchained, Hugo) is a wizard with the camera, and the music of Harry Gregson captures the period.

A gangsta movie for gangsta fans.

Grade:  C                                    By Donna R. Copeland

20th CENTURY WOMEN

Annette Bening     Elle Fanning     Greta Gerwig     Billy Crudup     Lucas Jade Zumann 

         A film about women, yes, but just as much about motherhood.  It’s 1979, and Dorothea (Bening) has tenants and an occasional visitor in her 19th Century house in Santa Barbara.  She has her son Jamie (Zumann), Julie (Fanning) who comes only by night to talk and sleep in Jamie’s bed, Abbie (Gerwig), an artist who’s run away from home and renting a room, and William (Crudup) who has a room in the house but is doing major remodeling of it.  Perhaps without realizing it, Dorothea has created a family with the utmost intention of providing the best she can for her son.  It’s a little bit sad that she has no awareness of her own needs in this regard. 
        Jamie is a thoughtful child who asks his mother probing questions that, to him, she avoids answering (like, whether she’s happy); and when at one point she asks why he’s not open with her, Jamie retorts that he’s not the one who doesn’t talk.  And when she asks why he has done something dangerous, he smartly asks her why she smokes.  These questions do not seem to get through to her.
          Later, she becomes more anxious about Jamie’s progress (understandably—he’s 14-15) and enlists the help of Julie and Abbie, with both of whom, Jamie seems to have a close relationship.  She had already engaged William, thinking that Jamie needed a masculine influence  (never realizing until someone pointed it out that the two had little in common). 
          What follows is the story of young women influencing the development of a teenage boy.  Dorothea has grave misgivings from time to time, but when she confronts Julie and Abbie she gets her misconceptions corrected and is reassured (thanks to her trust and confidence in them).  This is a fine illustration of how motherhood can just be a muddling through, with no guarantee of the outcome.  Dorothea has many soul-searching moments about how she’s doing as a mother, but unlike most mothers, she has younger people close by to explain to her what is going on.
           In observing Dorothea, we get the perspective of her generation, instructive to a fault, prone to deny anything negative (although anxious about it), but wanting to maintain control of a son’s life.  To her credit, she trusts her “family”, and steps aside for Julie and Abbie to be his primary advisers (not that they have everything together).  Williams gently supports and advises her, but is respectful of her space.
          Perhaps this is a modern day fable about feminism and motherhood and how both need to accommodate to a changing world.  Women need help in their mothering and need to consider some of their own interests.  Men can help by being more sensitive to women and letting go of some of their feeling of responsibility for them.
          Mike Mills, writer-director of the film, has said it is partially autobiographical, and I think that is apparent in his sensitivity to Dorothea’s situation as she perceives it and the different perspectives shown by the characters.  Above all, I appreciate his nonjudgmental, empathic depiction of the characters.
          Bening, Fanning, Gerwig, and Crudup are perfect in their roles, and young Zumann is a treasure in his portrayal of a young man beset by so many influences.  Music by Roger Neill enhances every scene and helps us enjoy the lightheartedness of the whole production.

Motherhood as you’ve not seen it before.


Grade:  A By Donna R. Copeland