Thursday, October 19, 2017

THE SNOWMAN

Michael Fassbender     Rebecca Ferguson     Charlotte Gainsbourg     J. K. Simmons


     The best thing this film does is illustrate how important good direction is to movies, because this seems to be the main flaw in The Snowman.  No matter how fine the actors are (e.g., Fassbender, Gainsbourg, Simmons, Ferguson) nor how artistic the cinematography (Dion Beebe), editing (Thelma Schoonmaker), and writing (Peter Straughan, Hossein Amini), a film can still be so deficient in the key function of directing (Tomas Alfredson), the other arts simply cannot make up for it.  It’s puzzling in this case, because Alfredson has had two successes in English language films (Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and Let the Right One In), and it’s surprising that he had such a lapse in this case.  He has responded to criticisms by explaining that when they got the go-ahead to begin filming, they did not have enough time to shoot all the scenes in the script, and when they started editing, this was all too apparent.  This helps explain some of the gaps, but doesn’t account for the lack of coherence or the apparently significant departure from the successful novel on which the story was based (by Jo Nesbo).
     This partially explains why there are so many scenes, especially in the beginning, where one has no idea who the characters are or, later, how they fit in with the story.  At any rate, it’s difficult for the viewer to piece together the sequence of events.  Part of the problem is that extraneous scenes are included, serving only to confuse, such as the scenes where Fassbender’s character Harry Hole is stone drunk.  This has nothing to do with what transpires; later another detective has the same problem, but we are not told how they are related to one another. 
     As much as I could glean, the story is about a series of murders across many years in which a snowman appears just before the murder of a mother with a young child.  Hole, the leader of the crime squad, and Katrina (Ferguson), his assistant, are charged with finding the serial killer.  There are a number of false leads, and when we learn who the killer actually is and what happens to him, it lacks the “Oh, I see” moment of a good detective story when the reader/viewer realizes there were clues that he/she missed.  In this film, there appear to be few if any logical connections with which to give the plot coherence.
     I don’t recall a time when a film that has this much potential falters so badly.

Sadly, The Snowman is not worth the price of a ticket to see it.

Grade:  F                                    By Donna R. Copeland

MARK FELT: THE MAN WHO BROUGHT DOWN THE WHITE HOUSE

Liam Neeson     Diane Lane     Marton Csokas     Josh Lucas     Michael C. Hall   
 Bruce Greenwood     Tony Goldwyn     Tom Sizemore     Julian Morris


     FBI agent Mark Felt was profoundly disturbed by his knowledge of the White House’s involvement in the 1972 break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters in the Watergate Hotel in Washington, and felt impelled by his conscience to do something about it anonymously.  He had been an agent for 30 years, and was completely devoted to its principles and solicitous of its integrity.  When J. Edgar Hoover died unexpectedly, there was a shake-up in leadership, and because President Nixon and his staff wished to have more control over the agency, they chose to pass over Felt, the #2 man with a spotless reputation, and put in the director’s place L. Patrick Gray, who would be more of an ally to them.

    This was a period of time when the FBI and the White House engaged in a number of clandestine activities such as bugging the offices of political rivals, activist groups, or just anyone it considered suspicious.  One of Hoover’s agents, Bill Sullivan, was especially skilled in these nefarious activities, and when the White House realized he could be useful even after Hoover had already dismissed him, the White House appointed him head of its own intelligence office.
    Soon after this film begins and Felt (Neeson) is passed over for the directorship in favor of Gray (Csokas), Sullivan (Sizemore) is appointed to the White House.  Felt sees this as very bad news, knowing that it would compromise the independence of the FBI.  In fact, the White House was successful in pressuring Gray to suspend the FBI’s investigation of White House involvement in the Watergate break-in.  As he witnesses the increasing erosion of democratic government, Felt begins to use what power he has to expose what is happening through the media.  He was able to keep his actions secret for 30 years.
    With all the secret machinations and intrigue going on in so many areas of the government during the time, this story should keep you on the edge of your seat.  It doesn’t.  Moreover, the story is not well told in the sense that characters are introduced without any explanation as to why they are, so by the end it’s not clear who is who, how they got to be where they were, or any of the intense emotions they must have been experiencing.  The only emotion in evidence is in a side story inappropriately inserted about Mark Felt’s missing daughter. 
    Neeson and the other main characters—Marton Csokas, Josh Lucas, Tom Sizemore—play their roles well; it is the script that lets them down.  Another example is Diane Lane, a fine actress who plays Felt’s wife.  We see brief glimpses of her and can tell she is very unhappy, but little about their marriage and family is elucidated, except, of course, about the daughter, which is still sketchy and seems only an excuse for the filmmakers to introduce some affect into a rather plodding script.
    Director Peter Landesman adapted the screenplay from Mark Felt’s book, which I have not read, but wonder if it is as dry as the film.  I wish I had come away from it with a good understanding of what happened, relate it to present-day events, and feel inspired by Mark Felt’s adherence to principles at not inconsiderable cost to himself.

This film will not give you a clear picture of the events surrounding the Watergate scandal.

Grade:  D                                    By Donna R. Copeland

ONLY THE BRAVE

Josh Brolin     Miles Teller     Jeff Bridges     Jennifer Connelly     James Badge Dale     Taylor Kitsch


     Only the Brave tells the story of the Granite Mountain Hotshots from Prescott, Arizona, a scrappy group of fighters who have to overcome city politics to become certified as official firefighters.  Their supervisor (“Supe”) Eric Marsh (Brolin) has been trying for years to be able to use his skills and talent with authority.  His mentor Duane (Bridges) coaches him on political maneuvers, and sure enough he is given a chance to have his team evaluated for certification.  He does need to hire a couple more men, and decides that even though Brendan (Teller) has a drug and felony history, his wish to parent his newborn child and give her the father he never had as a child convinces Eric to give him a chance.
Brendan will undergo an initiation into this special “fire fighting fraternity”, which will test his loyalty and endurance, and we will see whether he makes it or not.  It’s a challenge because of his history and the fact that his ex-girlfriend is pregnant. 
     We will witness a number of fires (spectacularly filmed by Claude Miranda), learning a bit about the science and technology of fighting them.  But to its credit, Director Joseph Kosinski and his writers Ken Nolan and Eric Warren Singer go behind the fire scenes and show us what the personal lives of these fighters is like.  Brendan’s challenges are made more poignant by his being away from home so long his infant daughter doesn’t want to have anything to do with him, which makes him question his occupation, even though it has been rehabilitating.  Another character has to make a decision about staying with his passion for fighting fires and taking on the responsibility of having a child.  These real-life issues give spark and life to the film, balancing the emphasis on the technology of fire-fighting with moving human stories.
     A minor drawback of the film is that it isn’t always obvious why certain tactics are taken, and I ended up questioning whether the pilots in the planes spraying fire repellant work at all with the fighters on the ground, who get sprayed from time to time.  Dialog was difficult to decipher sometimes as well.  On another positive note, the music by Joseph Trapanese is truly fine.

This dramatization of a real group of firefighters is most interesting—especially since fires in the west are a topic of conversation now in the U.S.—as well as exciting and touching.

Grade:  A-                                    By Donna R. Copeland

THE FLORIDA PROJECT

Willem Dafoe     Brooklynn Prince     Valeria Cotto     Bria Vinaite     Christopher Rivera


            When we see the name of the purple-colored motel in the opening scenes—Futureland Motel—it is a portent that we’re not likely to think about until about half-way through the film.  This was specifically the intent of the filmmakers (primarily, Sean Baker, writer/director/editor), with The Florida Project (“Florida” evoking scenes of pastel frolics and “Project” evoking associations with housing projects) being a commentary on the sorely deficient social services in this country, making the term “Futureland” a kind of ironic statement at best and a dire prediction at worst.  Significantly, the Futureland Motel doesn’t really jive with the saccharine, colorful fantasyland that is Disney, which lies just beyond the reach of the Futureland Motel residents who live on the fringes of society.  (See Sean Baker’s comments about the film below*)
            But first, we will meet the children at the motel who live in a world of their own, full of their own fantasies gleaned from the marginal adults around them and their own creative imaginations.  Foremost among these is Moonee (Prince), a natural leader and as feisty a young child as you’ll ever meet.  She can swear with the best of sailors, thanks to her mother’s modeling.  But she is endlessly creative in exploring the world around her, absorbing like a sponge everything she sees and hears.  She is like the smartest street kid in New York City. 
            Moonee is appealing and very attractive to other children who meet her.  There is Scooty Rivera), whose mother works at a nearby restaurant and charitably hands out food to Moonee, knowing that she and her mother are living on the edge.  There is Jancey (Cotto), who gets acquainted with Moonee under adverse circumstances, but her grandmother, like many of the characters in this film, are tolerant and want to be helpful, so allows Jancey and Moonee to become friends. 
            Overseeing the motel as the management—although he must answer to its owner—is Bobby (Dafoe), about the only competent adult in the picture, and even he is not sure at times what to do.  But at least he has some sense about how children should be protected, and he exerts his authority as best he can.  I loved the scenes where you expect he will be cross with the children, but indulges their games and plays along with them instead, a real departure from the characters Dafoe usually plays in expert fashion.
            This is really a film about children, specifically, Moonee, who is growing up without the help and structure she needs to be successful in life, but is nevertheless very smart, perceptive, and world-wise.  I see the film as asking the question about what will happen to her (and others in her situation) ultimately.  Baker doesn’t hand it to us on a silver platter, so to speak, but poses the question that our socially conscious selves must answer.
          This film is hard to watch, primarily because we’re seeing/listening mostly to children’s interactions for most of the scenes.  But it’s also hard to witness the woeful efforts of Moonee’s mother Halley (Vinaite) to parent; psychologically, she is about the same age as Moonee.  So while she is great at acting out their imaginary fantasies in play, she is indiscriminate in what she teaches and models. 
            Brooklynn Prince’s performance shows an apparently innate talent for acting; this is her first film.  Her lines come out sounding like they come straight from her, rather than from the script co-written by Baker and Chris Bergoch.  It’s also a reflection on the fine casting and direction, in that, except for Dafoe, like Prince, this is the first film for all the main actors—Vinaite, Cotto, and Rivera.
            What starts out to be a mundane experience of following children around turns into a socially provocative film of importance to considerations about contemporary American life.

Children on the loose near (not at) Disney World.

Grade:  A                                    By Donna R. Copeland

*Baker:  …We wanted to make audiences laugh, have fun with these kids and spend the summer with them, but also use this platform to shed a light on what I think is a very important topic.
"Housing is a fundamental human right, and I think the first step toward change is awareness, so if we can get more people to be aware of this national situation," Baker continues. "I hope this movie inspires people to get involved —donation, education, support, advocacy. … Audiences are asking what [the ending] means, and that's important because it has people discussing the ending, which means they're actually discussing the topic." http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/florida-project-ending-director-sean-baker-explains-meaning-how-he-did-it-1047215

Thursday, October 12, 2017

THE MEYEROWITZ STORIES

Adam Sandler   Ben Stiller   Dustin Hoffman   Emma Thompson   Candice Bergen
Rebecca Miller   Judd Hirsch   Grace van Patten   Elizabeth Marvel   Adam Driver

     If you want to see a dysfunctional family in action, see the Meyerowitz Stories on Netflix.  Much—especially in the beginning—is painful to watch and listen to, but as time goes on, and genuine caring and concern are mixed in with the rancor and bickering, it finally gets to laugh-out-loud funny.  Noah Baumbach, writer/director knows much of what he speaks in terms of the psychology of family interactions.  It’s dramatized, of course, and there are some scenes I wish he had toned down a bit to make the film more tolerable and plausible, but for the most part it’s a rich store of family dynamics.  Sibling rivalry and its sources (absence of parents, favoritism of parents), the neediness of people who have grown up missing nurturance and acceptance they craved as children, and the effects of divorce and remarriage on children and spouses live on in people’s adult lives—as clearly demonstrated by the film.
    Harold Meyerowitz (Hoffman), the patriarch of this clan, is obsessed with his art to the exclusion of almost everything else.  He seems to have been a successful teacher, but the value of his art productions is not clear.  Harold’s obsession with his art and his place in the art world extends to his interest in his favorite son Matthew (Stiller), whom he sees as being a contributor to his art, despite the fact that his son Danny (Sandler) used to be a musician and in adulthood has been much more involved in his father’s life.  His daughter Jean (Marvel) represents the child almost completely forgotten by everyone, except she has managed to maintain a texting relationship with Matthew and Danny’s daughter Eliza (van Patten). 
   There are hit and miss visits among family members, none of which appear to be satisfying to anyone, then Harold becomes seriously ill, which serves as a catalyst in bringing out more pointed and emotionally productive encounters.  These inform us—and them—about the sources of their various discomforts and resentments and significant events they have endured, giving us a good picture of how the family members came to be who they are today.
    Baumbach’s direction is solid, and Randy Newman’s music and piano accompaniment throughout give a lilt to the drama and comedy onscreen.  Similarly, Robbie Ryan’s cinematography highlights, focuses, and shifts with the action, giving us the sense of being inside the picture observing a real family. 
     Both Adam Sandler and Ben Stiller are a question marks for me before I see one of their movies.  Adam was great in his work on “Saturday Night Live” and in Spanglish, but That’s My Boy, Big Daddy, and The Waterboy are insipid and show none of his acting skills.  Similarly, Ben Stiller has been exemplary in Brad’s Status and The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, after bombs Zoolander 2 and Along Came Polly.  Here, with the good script and the direction of Baumbach, they are at their best, and supported by a number of good actors (Hoffman, Thompson, van Patten, and Marvel, with cameos by Bergen, Miller, and Driver). 

Picture of a dysfunctional family that comes together (mostly) during the patriarch’s life-threatening illness.

Grade:  B+                                    By Donna R. Copeland


HAPPY DEATH DAY

Jessica Rothe     Israel Broussard     Ruby Modine     Charles Aitken     Rachel Matthews


     The playful idea (borrowed from 1993’s Groundhog Day) behind this film could have been interesting, but it just doesn’t work for several reasons.  First, all the female figures are so stereotypical they are unbelievable.  (Note that writer Scott Lobdell and director Christopher Landon are both men in their 40’s and 50’s).  Second, it is hard to maintain interest in a story that keeps repeating the same scenes over and over again.  The filmmakers tried to make it as engaging as possible by slightly changing the scenario, which almost works, but it wasn’t enough to keep me from becoming impatient.  Thirdly, the main character is shown to be so obnoxious in the beginning scenes, the viewer has little empathy or sympathy for her during most of the film.  And finally, the resolution(s) at the end are so far-fetched, I had become completely disengaged by the conclusion.
    The story is that college student Tree (Rothe) wakes up in a strange dorm room belonging to someone she apparently spent the evening with, Carter (Broussard), who is polite and considerate and attempts to be kind and patient with her.  She is rather demanding (Tylenol!) and gives him a cursory glance before rushing out the door.  She heads to her own dorm room and is greeted by her roommate who tries to give her a birthday cupcake, which she declines.  Throughout the day, she has encounters with her sorority president (Matthews), her professor (Aitken), and others on the university quad.  These scenes are the ones repeated over and over, and at the end of each “day” (because they’re all the same one), she encounters a threatening figure who tries to kill her.
     Jessica Rothe is a good actress who manages the persona of this complicated character with ease, and Israel Broussard as the ideal understanding man portrays sincerity and genuine caring.  Rachel Matthews plays her role as the bitchy female leader well; it’s just another role I object to as stereotypical male kind of thinking. 
     In addition to the actors, the production is well done in terms of direction and cinematography (Toby Oliver).  I would say that the script is the weakest aspect, one that would be very hard to pull off, and one that doesn’t succeed here. 

Reliving a death over several days’ time can be tedious.

Grade:  D+                                    By Donna R. Copeland

PROFESSOR MARSTON AND THE WONDER WOMEN

Luke Evans     Rebecca Hall     Bella Heath     Connie Britton     J. J. Field


     Professor William Moulton Marston was an unusual figure in the 1930’s; he was a psychologist, inventor (one product being the forerunner of the current lie detector test), author of books on psychology, and a comic book writer.  He graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Harvard, earning a B.A., L.L.B., and Ph.D., then went on to further his education at American University, Tufts, and Universal Studios in California.  The fact that he created the super-hero(ine) Wonder Woman may seem odd, but she is based on his belief in the moral superiority of women, given that men (as he saw it) are more anarchic and violent.  To him, peace in the world rested on the leadership of women whose allure of love would lead men into submission to loving authority.  He said, “The only hope for civilization is the greater freedom, development and equality of women in all fields of human activity…Frankly, Wonder Woman is psychological propaganda for the new type of woman who should, I believe, rule the world” (Jill Lepore, “The Last Amazon:  Wonder Woman Returns”, The New Yorker, 9/22/14).  Bravo!
     Marston (played by Evans) was significantly influenced by the principles of the suffragette movement at the time and by his wife, Elizabeth (Hall), and Olive Byrne (Heath), a niece of the suffragette Margaret Sanger.  Elizabeth is very frustrated, because she is not given tenure at Mt. Holyoke (sister school of male only Harvard), simply because she is female.  When Olive comes to work in the Marston’s laboratory, it is apparent that Marston is attracted to her as well as to his wife, and although Elizabeth is ambivalent at first, they eventually enter into a three-way personal relationship.  
      The film focuses primarily on this period of time, with the three main characters working through the complex arrangement.  Although some actual biographical elements are included—such as Marston’s dismissal from academic appointments, encouraging him to pursue comics with Universal Studios—and Elizabeth supporting the family financially, while Olive becomes their four children’s caretaker, we see mostly the relationships among the three main characters.
     Cuts are frequently made of Marston facing some kind of “decency committee” headed by a children’s author, Josette Frank (played by Connie Brittain), who is inserted into the drama by the filmmakers to represent those who objected vociferously to aspects of the Wonder Woman image—bondage, sexual allure, attire, large breasts, etc.  These sessions are extremely frustrating for Marston who uses reason and logic that don’t come through to a religious woman with fundamental beliefs.  She was not alone, however, in that society in general forced the trio to keep their true relationships quiet.
    This would be my primary criticism of the film—too much of a focus on sexual nonconformity with less emphasis on the production of the Wonder Woman comic books and Marston’s work with Max Gaines and his two companies that would eventually merge to form DC Comics.  On its fiftieth anniversary, DC Comics named Marston one of the Fifty Who Made DC Great.  This would have been much more interesting to me than so much emphasis on unconventional relationships that should remain personal.  It was gratifying, however, to see how the arrangements among the three were discussed beforehand, with all three voicing their opinions.
      Luke Evans embodies the complexities of the Marston personality very well, and the two women are a match for him in this regard, especially Rebecca Hall.  She keeps the dialog interesting with her ideas and snappy with her humor.

An unconventional background story showing how the superheroine Wonder Woman was carefully considered and based on sound principles.

Grade:  B                                    By Donna R. Copeland