Thursday, January 17, 2019

GLASS

James McAvoy     Sarah Paulson     Bruce Willis     Samuel L. Jackson
Anya Taylor-Joy     Spencer Treat Clark     Charlayne Woodard


     M. Night Shyamalan has written and directed a number of films (The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, Signs, The Village, Lady in the Water) that seem to have a hit or miss quality about them, at least from film critics’ points of view.  Glass is intended to be the third in a trilogy with Unbreakable and Split, neither of which was up to his first success, Sixth Sense.  It is a sequel with promise, but falls short, partly because of a complicated story that contains multiple back stories, but mostly because of the editing, which forces the viewer to spend too much time wondering what is being portrayed in many scenes.  Perhaps devotees of M. Night Shyamalan’s previous two films, Unbreakable and Split, the first two parts of a trilogy, of which Glass is the third, will be able to establish precedence and context to certain scenes, but the general public will be frustrated in trying to figure out what is going on, particularly in the beginning scenes. 
     The main players are:  1) Kevin Crumb (McAvoy), an established master at portraying dissociative identity disorder (DID), who has multiple personalities, one of which is a superhuman hunk capable of, say, overturning cars, another of which is a nine year-old with a lisp.  An abusive mother is the cause of his problems.  2) David Dunn (Willis) has a security business with his son Joseph (Clark), who believes his father has superhuman powers, but knows he is to keep quiet about it.  David is committed to preventing crimes from happening through his tactile sensitivity, whereby he can sense when someone is doing something wrong and goes about trying to stop it.  3) Elijah Price (Jackson) having grown up with a bone disease that makes his bones extremely fragile, decides, based upon his expertise in comics, that there must be the opposite of weaknesses such as his—superheroes, who have extraordinary strengths.  The movie does have a clever way of showing how each of these characters confronts his weakness and develops a superpower, but logic about their existence soon falls away. In a grandiose turn showing his supreme confidence in his belief, Elijah goes about convincing Kevin and David that they are indeed superheroes. 
     Once again in this last of a loosely connected trilogy, James McAvoy is the most interesting aspect of a film about disturbed individuals.  I don’t know if he necessarily captures the actual DID disorder, but he is entertaining in his ability to be so many personalities.  Bruce      Willis and Samuel L. Jackson have roles that they could easily “phone in”, but certainly provide more interest than would be there otherwise.  The addition of a psychiatrist (Paulson) and her staff at the mental hospital once again implies that the care in such places is self-serving rather than to help patients.  Paulson is a fine actress, but she is wasted here.
     In short, Glass is overly ambitious and too reliant on sketchy scenes to provide necessary information to follow the convoluted story, so many times it comes across as a jumbled mess.  Although it has been shown that many people can turn weaknesses into strengths, a man becoming a super-hero as a result is hardly a possibility.

This Glass is less than half full.

Grade:  F                                    By Donna R. Copeland

Monday, January 7, 2019

DESTROYER

Nicole Kidman     Toby Kebbell     Bradford Whitford    Sebastian Stan    Scoot McNairy
Tatiana Maslany     James Jordan     Jade Pettyjohnn


     This is one of those films where you have to work hard just to keep up with the characters and the story, partly because Director Karyn Kusama chose to switch back and forth in time rather than tell the tale chronologically.  It’s a common practice I literally hate, and see no reason for it—except to make us work hard.  Perhaps filmmakers think it increases the mystery, because the viewer doesn’t have critical information until almost the end of the film. But that’s not a good reason.
     Destroyer had the potential to be a fine thriller, but fails because of the above and because by the time critical information is given, it serves only to draw out the story and drag on and on when you just want it to end.
     We’re thrown off base right away, when Detective Erin Bell (an almost unrecognizable Kidman) drags herself around a murder scene amidst the taunts of other detectives already there.  She spots significant clues, and goes to the police station to still more taunts.  She is the only one who could recognize some tell tale signs at the murder scene, but you won't know that this is the end of the movie, rather than the beginning of the story.  
     To avoid spoilers, I will refrain from going into the story at all.  Erin Bell is the focus and reason for the story and for the title itself.  She is a detective on the Los Angeles Police force, who has become persona non grata, and must endure taunts from all sides, including criminals and her own daughter.  We’re immediately curious about her history—which is a rich one—but must travel back and forth in time among a myriad of characters to learn about only a fraction of it.
Acting in this film is its strongest asset.  Award-winning Nicole Kidman (in three films just this year:  Destroyer, Boy Erased, and Aquaman plus television’s “Big Little Lies”) captures and sustains your attention throughout the film, which (in its disjointed way) is about who she is and part of how she came to be.  (I say “part”, because that’s all we get.)  Toby Kebbell and Bradley Whitford provide terrifying cameos that make you shiver, and Tatiana Maslany and Jade Pettyjohn play their roles of fleshing out the plot aptly.
     There is so much potential for soul in this story, that it’s a crying shame the ones responsible seemed to miss their own point.  The tale of a sharp but discredited detective with a back-story who continues to persevere contains the makings of a moving human story; but this film is not the one to tell it.  The title itself proves the filmmakers’ absence of empathy and insight into the main character.

About plans gone wrong in so many ways.

Grade:  C+                                    By Donna R. Copeland

Wednesday, January 2, 2019

ON THE BASIS OF SEX

Felicity Jones     Armie Hammer     Justin Theroux     Kathy Bates     Sam Waterston     Cailiee Spaeney

     Two mind-boggling aspects of the film, set between the 1950’s and 1970’s, are the number of U.S. laws that favored men over women and the obstructions a gifted woman like Ruth Bader Ginsburg faced throughout most of her young career. Beginning with law school at Harvard, throughout her attempts to get a law firm to hire her, and her attempts to bring up and hold onto a major case about gender discrimination, men talk over her and the other women, disparage their comments, and often simply ignore them.  It’s a puzzle in their circles as to why RBG and her husband mix up their typical gender roles, e.g., her taking the lead in arguing a case, him taking on household and child care chores, and, above all, sharing in all their responsibilities at home and in their profession.  
     One prospective employer at a respectable law firm in New York expresses his admiration and respect for her (who graduated first in her class, even after helping her husband through law school while she was also enrolled, AND took care of their child), but he doesn’t hire her because the wives in the firm might get jealous.  (Actually, I was told exactly that and was turned down for the same reason when I was applying for my first job as a psychologist in 1979.)  RBG finally lands a job at Rutgers teaching “Sex Discrimination and the Law.”  
     On the Basis of Sex provides us with an excellent dramatic account of Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s life, from the time she was a girl up to her winning a major case at the Denver Court of Appeals.  It follows the prior release of a fine documentary, RBG, by Julie Cohen and Betsy West, earlier this year.  At first, I regretted their releasing the two films so close together in time, but after having seen both, I see them as complementary.
     This film, written by Daniel Stiepleman and directed by Mimi Leder, balances RBG’s personal background—including adult family life—with arguments among colleagues and those formally presented in court.  By the end, we have a clear sense of how this woman came to be (influence of her mother), the almost unprecedented degree of support from her husband Marty, and her forging a new pathway through a male-dominated legal system to achieve what is now perceived to be  obvious rights for women.  I especially appreciated hearing some of her arguments in court, which were presented in a way that only logic is needed to understand it—knowledge of law not needed.
     In addition, the film portrays the Ginsburg family’s actual life, such as arguments between RBG and her daughter that were expertly moderated by Marty Ginsburg. As portrayed here, he could be a model for a father’s role in conflicts between a mother and her daughter. The film captures the Ginsburgs’ marital relationship, which was apparently always loving, but open to conflict and differences of opinion.  Marty is clearly a peacemaker but one with principles and loyalty to both his wife and daughter.
     As she did as Jane Hawking in The Theory of Everything, Felicity Jones captures the charming spunkiness of a woman who is well grounded.  She conveys just the right blend of feminine charm, fierce commitment, and solid logical mind that characterizes heroic women.  Armie Hammer is a master of supporting roles—for male or female characters—of all different kinds, as he has shown here, and I’m wondering when he will play a starring role; he is clearly capable.  A real winning actor here is Kathy Bates as the irascible Dorothy Kenyon, a determined social justice advocate. This is a perfect role for Bates who should receive a supporting actor nomination.

A film that addresses equality between men and women with grace.  Thank you, Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

Grade:  A                                    By Donna R. Copeland


Monday, December 24, 2018

VICE

Christian Bale     Steve Carell     Amy Addams     Sam Rockwell     Alison Pill
Don McManus     Eddie Marsan     Tyler Perry     Jesse Plemons


     This well conceived production with incredible casting and screenplay should hold up against the sure-to-come backlash.  Its greatest value lies in bringing to life background events and personalities that changed our country forever during the period of Richard Cheney’s political career (roughly the 1970’s-2009).  The choice of having a narration, and the selection of the figure to do it, points to just one of the creative ways in which writer-director Adam McKay and his colleagues present the personal and political values and characteristics that aided Richard Cheney and his wife Lynne in attaining the power they ultimately achieved in the U.S. government.  
     The story starts out with Cheney as a wayward partier when it looked like he would simply be a neer-do-well.  Enter Lynne Cheney, who had already dealt with alcoholism in her father, and gave her husband clear messages about her expectations of him and the consequences that would ensue should he choose not to abide by her conditions. Dick Cheney shored up, and began his career in politics.
     His true character begins to emerge after he has made it to Washington as an intern and aligns himself with Donald Rumsfeld.  Rumsfeld’s mentoring meshes completely with the personality of Cheney already in place:  ambitious, crafty/secretive, uncanny perception and the ability to look ahead and plan.  In the course of his career, Cheney will undergo ups and downs, but he will always have an eye out for opportunity, with a solid backer/strategist in his corner, his wife Lynne.  
     Through significant political threats (such as significant and historically unprecedented upsets in White House administrations) to his ambitions and heart attacks, Cheney forges on, seemingly undeterred, without any apparent contemplation or self-examination about his actions.
     Vice charts these activities, showing how stable he is in his positions and machinations.  When George Bush becomes President, he sees a golden opportunity to push forward something he has learned about from his lawyer, David Addington, the “unitary executive theory”, in which the power of the executive is absolute; the President can, literally, do no wrong. Application of this idea paved the way toward eroding previously firm policies about civilian privacy, foreign policy, and wartime engagement and behavior.  “Where law ends, tyranny begins”—an idea first attributed to British philosopher John Locke (1689) and carved on the Supreme Court building, which flashes briefly during a scene in this film, a meaningful quote.
     Christian Bale is a wonder playing Dick Cheney, who he doesn’t ordinarily look or sound like.  But with the extra weight, prosthetics, and studious attention he gave to media in preparing for the role, Bale is a dead ringer.  Amy Adams as Cheney’s stalwart, tenacious, and adoring wife is likewise convincing.  This is as strong a casting I’ve ever seen for a picture, including Steve Carell as Donald Rumsfeld, Sam Rockwell as George Bush (the younger), and Alison Pill as Liz Cheney.  Bale and Adams will almost certainly be named during the award season coming up.
     Adam McKay’s writing and direction of a subject that is sure to be controversial is, probably, one of his best, even taking into account The Big Short, which won an Oscar for screenplay.  I fully expect Viceto reap accolades during the awards season.

Demonstrates the power of drama in relating some significant historical transitions in the U.S.

Grade:  A                                    By Donna R. Copeland

Saturday, December 22, 2018

IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK

Kiki Lane     Stephen James     Regina King     Diego Luna     Brian Tyree Henry     Dave Franco


     Ah, yes, if Beale Street could talk, what a tale it would tell—I mean tales.  Based on a novel by the highly respected James Baldwin, novelist and social activist (Notes of a Native Son), and directed by Barry Jenkins (who also wrote the screenplay), who won the Best Picture Oscar last year for Moonlight, this film is expected to be above the norm.  And in my estimation it is.
     The story is about an appealing, warm-hearted family forced by others’ mistakes to face the grim reality many African-American people face—that of being wrongly convicted of a crime.  The main character is young, bright, unassuming Tish (Lane); the story is about the troubles she faces when her just as innocent boyfriend Fonny (James) is identified as the rapist of a Puerto Rican woman.  Never mind that he has a verified alibi and lives far away from the scene of the crime, which occurred in the dark—he is identified as the perpetrator in a line-up.  (Although research has long shown the unreliability of eyewitness identifications, many police departments continue to use it.  
     Early in the story, we see the fundamental bond that has developed between two kids from childhood, and see it blossom into a passionate romance that has more gentleness ingrained in it than in any other I’ve seen in a film.  Prospects look great; Fonny will try to make it as an artist in woodworking, and Tish will work in a department store, and they will find an apartment (after some frustrations) to their liking. Then, out of the blue, we are dealing with the accusation tainted with much of the corruption in law enforcement and judicial processes that we’re all familiar with by this time.
     Barry Jenkins has proven himself as a significant American filmmaker, who works with a core team [Nicholas Britell, music; James Laxton, cinematography; Joi McMillon and Nat Sanders, editing; and Cindy Tolan, costumes) to produce films that are engaging to watch and carry potent social messages.  They’re framed in a way as to elicit as much empathy and understanding of the issues as possible, without alienating (if possible) skeptics.
     The movie is fast-paced except when it’s properly lingering over emotional scenes, presents a clear history of the characters—including their families—and maintains an air of mystery and suspense.  My one question while viewing it was why a mother, rather than a lawyer, went to Puerto Rico to find a woman.  The final scene in that encounter shows a need for professional interrogation, but finances were likely a factor.

A very successful film in eliciting your interest and outrage.

Grade:  A                                    By Donna R. Copeland

Thursday, December 20, 2018

BUMBLEBEE

Hailee Steinfeld     John Cena     Jason Drucker     
Voices of:  Dylan O’Brien     Justin Theroux     Angela Bassett


            Bumblebee is a lovable transformer that may convince you that robots have emotions after all.  This is not so far-fetched; a podcast of “This American Life” verifies that robots can come up with adages that the human mind can perceive as wise (Podcast #663, “How I Read it”).  Of course it’s a bit of a stretch to take that to emotional sensitivities, but…
            A prequel to the Transformermovies that started on TV in 1986 and appeared in movie theaters every few years thereafter (2007, 2009, 2011, 2014, 2017), Bumblebee(O’Brien) has been sent to earth by Optimus Prime, Chief of the Autobots, to set up operations to defeat the Decepticons, which are out to destroy earth.  
            Meanwhile on earth, Charlie Watson (Steinfeld), a teenage girl grieving over the death of her father is sustaining her memory of him by continuing to work on cars, their favorite activity together.  She has become sullen and self-preoccupied, but cheekily asks her mother for a car for her upcoming birthday.  Her mother doesn’t take this seriously, but Charlie has been looking in her friend Hank’s junkyard and spies a yellow VW Beetle.   She cagily bargains for it, and Hank lets her have it, giving his employee a wink that says, “if she thinks she can make that work…” good luck to her.
            Charlie doesn’t realize it, but this little car is one in which Bumblebee is hiding from the Decepticons.  When he first transforms himself from a car into the giant robot Bumblebee in her garage, she’s a bit intimidated, but her fascination and curiosity makes her pause, reflect, then want to make friends with him.  
            Most of the action thereafter will be battles with the formidable Decepticons Dropkick (Theroux) and Shatter (Bassett), mixed in with the not-very-helpful U.S. Sector 7 interventions led by Agent Burns (Cena).  
            Hailee Steinfeld as Charlie continues her fine record of performances in True Grit and The Edge of Seventeen, showing a spunky, searching teenager trying to sort out her life and understand the world she lives in.  As her newfound friend/neighbor Memo, Lendeborg lights up the screen with his initially smitten character who gamely goes along with whatever comes up, eventually respecting the strange girl next door.  Playing Charlie’s younger brother, Jason Drucker, captures your attention with his realistic portrayal of a kid who looks up to his older sister, but has ambivalent feelings about her.  
            I think this is a worthy addition to the Transformers franchise for those who like this kind of fantasy.  And the addition of a mechanically minded girl who becomes a hero especially pleases me.

A worthy addition to the Transformers franchise.

Grade:  B                                 By Donna R. Copeland

WELCOME TO MARWEN

Eiza Gonzalez     Steve Carell     Leslie Mann     Diane Kruger
Gwendoline Christie     Janelle Monae     Merritt Wever


     “Welcome to Marwen”—just know that your visit will be a strange one.  Based on a true story, this film by director and co-writer Robert Zemeckis was inspired by a 2010 documentary about the life and work of Mark Hogancamp, a man who was severely beaten outside a bar after his reference to people he was chatting with about cross-dressing.  Prior to this incident, he was an illustrator; but after his impairments (occurring after a nine-day coma and having to relearn how to eat, talk and write), he turned to photography; and to cope with the psychological after-effects, he used dolls and fantasies about them to work through his increased anxiety.
     The film begins with one of these fantasies in which the doll “Mark” (Carell) encounters German soldiers in WWII, and just when it looks like they will capture him, a group of powerful female soldiers rescue him and finish off the Germans.  This is only one of hundreds of scenarios Mark has come up with, in which he draws on the people he meets in his community for his characters (dolls).
     Mark Hogancamp is regarded as an “outsider artist”, one who has little/no educational background, but whose works become highly regarded by connoisseurs.  It’s admirable that he was able to use his remaining skills after the injuries to therapeutically work through the trauma.  Robert Zemeckis’s idea of using this material for a feature film is intriguing, but somehow it doesn’t work.  The actors are excellent (especially Carell showing the confusion and bewilderment of a troubled soul), and the special effects to capture puppets as real people are likewise impressive.  However, the alternations between reality and fantasy fail to engage.  I think another aspect of the film that doesn’t work is the attempt to portray a therapeutic approach—especially one used by an individual on his own. This is a turn-off for many viewers, who are not necessarily able to grasp the value of, for instance, an adult “playing” with dolls.  Unfortunately, I imagine that many will regard this as simply silly, even though it’s not, really.
     On a final note, it’s disquieting to see so many fine actresses wasted, such as Diane Kruger, Gwendoline Christie, and Janelle Monae.  Their roles are minimal.  Merritt Wever is perfect as a sensible, kind helper who is able to see past the weaknesses of Mark. Leslie Mann is featured more than the other actresses, but her child-like voice and manner bring nothing to the table of quality.

Visiting Marwen is likely to unnerve most viewers.

Grade:  C+                                    By Donna R. Copeland