Thursday, June 20, 2019

TOY STORY 4

Tom Hanks     Keanu Reeves     Christina Hendricks     Annie Potts
Joan Cusack     Tim Allen     Tony Hale     Madeleine McGraw     Emily Hahn 


     After the toys have said goodbye to their previous child, Andy, they are getting used to their new child, Bonnie (Hahn).  Woody (Hanks) is hurt that he is not the favorite toy for Bonnie like he was for Andy, but he still has protective feelings toward her, as he has come to have toward all the toys.  It’s kindergarten time for Bonnie, but she is loath to go. Woody sees that she will need his help, so stows away in her backpack to keep an eye on her.  Sure enough, after her parents leave, Bonnie is sad, and when a boy shuns her and grabs her art materials, she is really about to cry.  Woody steps up, rummages through the trashcan, and finds materials she can use to make something. It turns out, he has thrown on Bonnie’s table a fork and other little things like plastic eyeballs which she promptly makes into a toy.  She is so pleased and proud, she names her toy “Forky”.
     The problem is, Forky (Hale) doesn’t want to be a toy (something foreign to him) and keeps charging back to any trashcan he can find.  This will now be Woody’s primary responsibility:  Retrieving Forky for Bonnie every time he runs away. He also has to teach him many things about his new world.  Adventures follow when Bonnie’s family takes a trip in an RV, ending up at a park with a carnival.  Woody’s job is cut out for him, as Bonnie has become so attached to Forky and he keeps running away.  Not only are there adventures and challenges on the road and at the carnival, some of the scariest moments take place in an antique store!  Woody goes to the store when he recognizes a lamp in the window that reminds him of his old friend Bo Peep (Potts).
     Toy Story 4 comes through for children in its addressing—and making an adventure of—some of their deepest fears (abandonment, uselessness, rejection) and the means of coping with them (asking for help, turning to friends, being loyal to one’s own people).  Normal fears are countered with encouragement (“C’mon, you can do this!”) and, sometimes, (“Let it go; it’s not important”). And, ultimately, the film models the value in taking calculated risks in life for the goals of exploration of self and the world, and letting go of comfort and security, at least temporarily.  I have to admit that “Yes, we can-ada!” brought a smile to my face every time.
     Director Josh Cooley lives up to his reputation for Inside Out, Up, and Rataouille in making a film that is appealing to children and adults and, most importantly, speaking to children about important issues.  Production design by Bob Pauley and music by Randy Newman—along with the excellent cast—make this follow-up to previous Toy Storyiterations worthwhile.  
     Cooley and the producers must have had unbelievable influence to pull in A-list actors like Tom Hanks, Keanu Reeves, Jordan Peele, Annie Potts, Mel Brooks, Joan Cusack, Tim Allen, Laurie Metcalf, and Betty White for voicing the major characters.  Music by Randy Newman and production design by Bob Pauley, along with the animation and art crews boost the production to high quality film—shocking for a fourth version of a movie.  Cheers to Pixar and Walt Disney Pictures.

An adventurous, fun children’s movie with substantive messages for kids, and still entertaining for adults.

Grade:  A                                    By Donna R. Copeland

THE FALL OF THE AMERICAN EMPIRE

Alexandre Landry     Maripier Morin     Remy Girard     Louis Morisette     Maxim Roy     Pierre Curzi


     Nowadays, we seldom get an intelligent comedy—not only in the sense of being well constructed—but one sprinkled throughout with philosophical and literary references that are to the point yet still funny, at least in the way the main character quotes them, and to whom (like a bank teller who hasn’t the foggiest notion of what he’s talking about).  Witty statements and unexpected encounters will make you chuckle throughout the film, e.g., “Help me; I have too much money” and “I’m a delivery man with a Ph.D. because I earn more money driving a truck than I would teaching.”
     Alexandre Landry is key to the film’s appeal and success in his character as Pierre-Paul, who has a PhD in philosophy and has succeeded in internalizing his lofty education and applying it to the practicalities of contemporary life. That is, he quotes John-Paul Sartre, Martin Heidegger, and Jonathan Swift in one short conversation when he’s explaining how he looks at life today.  But he’s not just an intellectual nerd; the man volunteers at a homeless shelter where he has real conversations with the people there and genuinely seems to care about them and their stories.  His sincerity contrasts with the cynicism and duplicity shown by others.  Landry successfully pulls off the character of a well-educated man who can relate to everyone he meets and is still open to and chasing after new experiences.  (I figure most women will have a crush on him and his boyish charm and good heart by the end of the film.)
     The story is a cat-and-mouse game concerning a large amount of money being stolen, with both the police and gangsters trying to track it down.  When Pierre-Paul, the philosopher, is confronted with the temptation of large sums of money dropped in bags at the crime scene—where he just happened to be—this record-free good citizen succumbs, and stuffs two enormous bags into his delivery truck.  What happens to that huge amount of cash forms the central plot of the film.
     In the process of Pierre-Paul safe-keeping the cash and using an ex-convict (Curzi) an elegant call girl (Morin), and an esteemed hedge-fund investor to dispense with the money, writer-director Denys Arcand weaves in points about economic inequality, off-shore accounts and tax avoidance, immigration, and police misconduct in a riveting tale where the police and gangsters are constantly trailing the suspects (and doing horrible violence in some cases), but where social values pre-empt the nefarious strategies of law and crime.
     Arcand injects optimistic notes into his condemnations, like the generosity of lowly people versus the wealthy and the possibility of reform for ex-cons and call girls.  His basic message is about the corruption of values in favor of money that has led to the fall of the American empire, but he is not restricting it to the United States. The setting of the film is in Montreal, Canada.
     Much of the subtle intellectual humor may be lost on most viewers, but I found it deliciously entertaining, although a tad too long.

Writer-director Arcand submits an impressive follow-up to his previous films (The Decline of the American Empire, The Barbarian Invasions, and Jesus of Montreal).

Grade:  A-                                    By Donna R. Copeland

Thursday, June 13, 2019

THE DEAD DON'T DIE

Bill Murray     Adam Driver     Steve Buscemi     Danny Glover     Selena Gomez
Rosie Perez     Iggy Pop     Chloe Sevigny     Tilda Swinton     Tom Waits     Carol Kane


     Normally, I love Jim Jarmusch films (Only Lovers Left Alive, Paterson, Coffee and Cigarettes, e.g.), but although The Dead Don’t Die starts out rather interesting—primarily because of the characters introduced and the wry humor—but when the zombies arrive…and stay on and on…the script becomes repetitive and surprisingly boring, even though the low-key humor is still sprinkled liberally throughout.
     The most entertaining part of the movie is the group of small-town Centerville characters that include Chief of Police Robertson (Murray), his deputy Ronnie Peterson (Driver), hermit Bob (Waits), farmer Miller (Buscemi), and hardware store owner Hank (Glover); but the standout is Zelda Winston (Swinton), the Samurai sword wielding funeral director of the Ever After Funeral Home and computer expert.  
     All is quiet and the usual peaceful in Centerville until strange things start happening.  It stays light more than usual, electronics don’t work like they’re supposed to, the same song keeps playing on the radio…and then zombies start appearing and proliferating, doing their thing. 
     It seems to be a well-known fact of zombie lore that to rid yourself of a zombie, you must “kill the head.”  Zelda has nothing to fear when she goes outside because of her unfailing aim. Ronnie is the only other one to have had some training in the past, but he can also wield a sword effectively. Robertson is good at blasting heads with a shotgun.  So how will it all turn out when zombies—even those recently departed—start appearing everywhere?  To quote Ronnie, “This is all gonna end badly”, but is he right?  Will everything turn out OK?  With some prompting, Robertson reassures dispatcher Mindy Morrison (Sevigny) of just that.
     Writer/director Jarmusch’s intention may be to highlight the narrator, who happens to be the hermit Bob.  From his comments on what he observes through his binoculars, we get the impression that Bob is fully informed about what is going on in the world—including in nature—and comes to certain conclusions.  He makes pronouncements from time to time that could be seen as a commentary about contemporary society, with its penchant for material acquisitions at the expense of environmental and humane values.  
     Which prompts us to ask,  “Are we the people the zombies of today who have the potential to kill off whole species—including our own—because of misplaced desires?  If so, does Jarmusch mean that “the head” must be dealt with for us to save ourselves?
     This is a film that doesn’t seem to amount to much on the surface, but thoughtful reflection may turn up seeds of wisdom.

Not your usual zombie move, but one that provides food for thought.

Grade:  C+                                    By Donna R. Copeland


AMERICAN WOMAN

Sienna Miller     Christina Hendricks     Aaron Paul     Sky Ferreira     Amy Maddigan


     American Woman reflects the lives of many middle-lower class Americans today who are not necessarily exposed to the “American dream” of getting an education and then proceeding on up the scale. No, it’s more a comment on the lives of these citizens as it is and, unfortunately, the dilemmas many women find themselves in when they have not been steered toward that education we hear so much about, along with self-sufficiency and independence.
     Debra (Miller) finds herself in the all too familiar situation of having to bring up her daughter on her own when she is still not really mature (e.g., rebellious, headstrong, impulsive, and angry), but she is doing the best she can. Somehow, even though her family relationships are studded with conflict, she believes they will support her when push comes to shove.  Debra clearly loves her daughter who is now a teenager and with a son of her own, and the mutual support and affection—even playfulness—between them is obvious.  Clearly, she is not prepared for what happens when her daughter doesn’t come home one night. 
     Along the way, Debra must make compromises in order for herself and her grandson to survive.  At first it’s “anybody who will pay the mortgage and other bills”, then it’s a charmer whose charms are not limited.  As she is fighting her way through these “significant others”, her family tries its best to support her, but she is not ready for that or tolerant enough of them to accept their offers.
     What will happen to this woman?  She has a better chance if she is attractive (which she is), but she also needs capabilities in maneuvering through grief, loss, unexpected responsibilities, and pure luck.  It’s especially disheartening when she becomes involved with Chris (Paul), seemingly a mensch, only to have him turn out to be less than.  Will “true grit”—also passed down as an American virtue—see her through?
     I pondered about why this British-produced film was entitled American Woman.  Is it that this woman’s experience is uniquely American?  I think probably not, but perhaps she embodies the stereotypical view of American women being unprepared for curve balls society might be throwing their way.
     Sienna Miller plays her role with all the flair and pathos it requires, and pretty much holds the movie on her own.  

The American story from a certain woman’s point of view.

Grade:  C+                                    By Donna R. Copeland

LATE NIGHT

Emma Thompson     Mindy Kaling     John Lithgow     Hugh Dancy     Max Casella     Denis O’Hare


     You know those movies that are so funny you miss some of the lines because people are laughing?  That’s what Late Night is; Mindy Kaling’s script is chock full of sharp witticisms along with plain common sense that provokes thought and consideration about topical issues that elicit ambivalence and the need to squirm.  Emma Thompson’s characterization of a gorgeous, haughty night show host who is dependent on her writing team’s jokes and who gets gobsmacked by an inexperienced, “factory worker” with a heart makes this comedy many steps above most.  Kaling has a lo-ooong career ahead of her. One of the most challenging assignments in movies and television is that of making a comedy that is really funny but thought-provoking at the same time.
     Katherine Newbury (Thompson) has won awards for her late-night television show of ten years, but it seems to be getting stale and not keeping up with the times. As so often happens, a sudden social pressure makes the show runners start scrambling.  Diversity is one such concept.  “Hire a woman!” comes the pronouncement for the writing staff, and that’s how a Native American woman with little experience in comedy and coming from a chemistry laboratory gets hired for the “Tonight” show. 
     How Molly (Kaling) fits and doesn’t fit into this group becomes part of the story. But another part of it is how Katherine has to change in response to all kinds of forces coming after her.  
     Molly represents frankness and truthfulness, which is revolutionary in the entertainment world.  Not only that, she doesn’t observe the tacit rules of engagement, especially toward superiors. But the beauty of the writing is that Molly is usually right—no matter how much resistance she gets—in ways the audience will understand.  “Never give up” is the motto she pins to the wall behind her desk, but even she is put to task for this a number of times.
     Katherine is a fine example of a narcissistic person who doesn’t bother to know anyone else, is extremely intelligent, goal-directed, and able to let the verbal jabs fly in a barrage against anyone in her way.  As a listener rather than the target, her retorts are actually funny and highly entertaining.  They appeal to baser urges that we are not able to express nearly so well.
     The two female leads have an armada of different kinds of foes that women all over will recognize.  For Molly, it’s the clutch of male writers jealously holding on to their turf—even if it’s the ladies room that hasn’t been used because there haven’t been any women around.  (The show does a fantastic job in depicting the lame defenses males and whites give for their behavior.)  But it’s also the female boss above Molly who has the same prejudices in many respects the male writers have.  For Katherine, it’s the icy, all-business Caroline Morton (beautifully rendered by Amy Ryan), owner of the network, who is taking a ratings-only approach to scheduling/cancelling a show.  But most of all it’s her public, which she hasn’t bothered to “read” and listen to for years.  An entertaining—and provocative—aspect of the film is its emphasis in so many ways on listening.  Paradoxically, not listening is highlighted to show its importance.
     Use of social media and managing it makes this film even more contemporary.  It models how to deal with it in a way that works for you, rather than allowing it to work against you.  I was reminded of one of my esteemed bosses’ pronouncements to us:  “When in doubt, tell the truth.”

I can’t think of anyone who would not be affected by this film and inspired to do better.  (Ahem…well maybe I can.)

Grade:  A                        By Donna R. Copeland

SHAFT

Samuel L. Jackson     Jessie T. Usher    Alexandra Shipp    Regina Hall    
Richard Roundtree     Matt Lauria     Titus Welliver



    This will be my guilty pleasure for the year.  Shaft’s script by Kenya Barris and Alex Barnow is sharp, witty, and even laugh-out-loud funny, and the plot is complex enough to be of interest and without too many implausible elements. Larry Blanford’s cinematography shows artistic sensibilities, including following a guy knocked off a building, then capturing his last bumps down with a final splat.  Slow-motion scenes with bullets and characters thrown into a glass wall are not new, but these have a kind of flair that puts them a notch above most.  Director Tim Story should be proud of his accomplishments in making this an engaging and thoughtful film, a cut above the usual action/comedy/crime drama.
     I like the juxtaposition of the traditional Jackson Shaft character (hard-core ex-cop who now has enviable street cred, specifically in Harlem) and his MIT-educated FBI son (beautifully played by Usher) whose mother (Hall) has tried her best to shield him from his father, with the result that he is regarded as charming and respectful in his current social circle, but regarded as a complete boob (i.e., sissy) by his father and his old-time cronies.  This humorous juxtaposition is carried along in the son’s high-tech skills versus his father’s “old school” ways, and is a divide that must be bridged for there to be a meeting of the minds.
     Life has a way of shaking up human plans.  Young John Shaft is vying for agent status at the FBI, but at present is a data analyst.  When one of his good friends dies under suspicious circumstances, John is compelled to make sense of it, which necessitates a trip to Harlem where his friend was found, reportedly from a drug overdose.  John knows that Kalim was not using when he saw him the day before. But one trip to Harlem when he attempts to meet a drug dealer who supposedly supplied the drug, lets him know he is out of his element, and so he needs to call on his father.  
     The rapprochement between father and son lends much of the comedic element to the film, but not without emotional valence; they approach one another with tons of misconceptions and biases, which are usually dealt with comedically, but (to the film’s credit) hard truths and petty biases command their attention, and to deal with them, it ends up transforming both men.  When John Shaft the first appears, we get the bonus treat of seeing three generations trying to cope with their differences. Love (although not immediately recognized) ends up being the bond that can cement their connections.
     All the actors bring home their roles, especially tried and true Samuel L. Jackson being his usual irreverent macho man; Jessie T. Usher expertly evoking the “white-i-fied”, gentle black man who has learned a thing or two about guns and hand-to-hand combat in his FBI training; Regina Hall as the outraged black mother attempting to “gentrify” her son; and finally Richard Roundtree playing the lovable-but-still-gnarly patriarch of men in a family thwarting conventional rules.  Not to be discounted is Alexandra Shipp, who excels in furthering female roles that go against stereotype.
     Considering Shaft contextually, as representative of a genre that is traditionally denigrating toward government (rules), women, and “outside” groups like Muslims, yet has some kind of truth and certainly humor that makes you want to forgive, it’s a good movie.  And hence, my seeing it as a guilty pleasure; I was entertained and could laugh and enjoy it so long as I remained in its “space”, not pondering about its contrast with actual values I hold dear.

Not to be taken too seriously, Shaft has soul and heart, and a comedic edge.

Grade:  B                                    By Donna R. Copeland

THE LAST BLACK MAN IN SAN FRANCISCO

Jimmie Fails     Jonathan Majors     Tichina Arnold     Rob Morgan
Danny Glover     Jamal Trulove     Mike Epps     Finn Witrock


     You will be surprised when you go see this film; it is oozing with creativity from start to finish.  It felt to me like I was captured by a painting set to music, luckily for me, there is someone close by who tells me a story about it.  
     Opening scenes give full vent to the music by Emile Mosseri (modern brass sounds at first, then Greek and operatic choruses and popular tunes later) and cinematography by Adam Newport (stunning portraits of 19thcentury houses with the sea as a backdrop, and later with close-ups of expressive faces and other captivating scenes).  Two young men wait for a bus that may not arrive while they listen skeptically to a street preacher.  The script blithely trips along as it wends its way along the streets of San Francisco, occasionally with tinges of nostalgia, but mostly with the bustling of teeming humanity and sometimes jeering clutches of black men jiving with each other under a shade tree.  
     The two men waiting for the bus, Jimmie and Mont, play the two leads in the film, expertly rendered by Jimmie Fails and Jonathan Majors.  They make cynical, half funny observations of what is going on around them, with most of their focus being on a particular house that Jimmie says was built by his grandfather.  He and his parents lived there, but had to leave abruptly and the family split up, with Jimmie being sent to a home.  Mont draws scenes and people around him continuously with the intention of writing a play.  Jimmie maintains a sense of ownership toward the house, even taking it upon himself to do minor handyman jobs and making plans for the garden—to the dismay of the white woman living there.  
     Until one day, it becomes obvious that the house is empty.  Jimmie sees this as a dream come true, and he and Mont settle into it on the assumption that it will be their home.  As the story proceeds, it becomes imminently clear that Jimmie is a dreamer and that the house carries such a weight of symbolic meaning for him, that he will pursue it regardless of anything else.  This seems to be the crux of the film: Dreams that, as impossible as they may appear, can sustain a person—and someone close to him—through all kinds of obstacles.  As viewers, we latch on as well, and become comfortable in the house.
     The metaphor of a dream extends to the images of waiting on a bus that may or may not come.  Does one continue to wait patiently, or take it upon oneself to skateboard to the destination? Either way, the dream may still live on.
     Along with its many qualities, The Last Black Man in San Francisco goes against stereotype by depicting two black men who are gentle in spirit and in deed.  No matter what is going on in the film, when they are in a scene, it is peaceful and relaxed.  Well, except for times of extreme frustration, when feelings may be vented violently, but on a skateboard.  The connection between the men continues as a puzzle—it’s unclear exactly the nature of their relationship—which is another aspect that keeps us engaged, to the film’s credit in its expertise of intrigue and ambiguity.
     How much do I love this film?  I think you can guess that I am entirely smitten with its broad expanse of artistic representation of the human condition and our urban environment, its visual and auditory pleasures, its commentary about dreams, and a unique view of homelessness that is unmatched.

Very likely to be my best film of the year for its sheer creativity mixed with realism.

Grade:  A                                                By Donna R. Copeland