Thursday, February 15, 2018

BLACK PANTHER


Chadwick Boseman     Lupita Nyong’o     Angela Bassett     Letitia Wright     Danai Gurira    
Michael B. Jordan     Andy Serkis     Sterling K. Brown     Martin Freeman     Daniel Kaluuya


     Talk about a rising star; writer/director Ryan Coogler has made big splashes in just a few years with his award-nominated and winning Fruitvale Station (2013) and Creed (2015), and now stands to earn much high praise for Black Panther.  He is lauded for delivering productions with all of the elements of notable films—entertainment, fantasy, emotionality, and meaning while weaving in topical issues of race, gender, and government.
    All of those qualities emerge in Black Panther, a mythologically-informed story about destiny, heirdom, sibling rivalry, and legacy.  But current politically sensitive issues are present as well, such as state protectionism vs. participation in world affairs, treason vs. loyalty, and methods for achieving power/respect in the world.
     T’Challa (Boseman) is the heir-apparent for the kingship (in the form of Black Panther) of Wakanda, a fictional country somewhere in Africa, notable for its natural resource metal of vibranium, which allows the country to develop uncommon technological achievements, while passing themselves off as a third world country (a protectionist endeavor).  Then the intrigue begins, when Wakandan prince N’Jobu (Brown) decides that Wakanda should share its knowledge to be of service to the rest of the world, which is further complicated by the surprise appearance of an American rival (Jordan) to the Wakanda throne who is accompanied by a notorious arms dealer (Serkis).   Battles ensue, which test the loyalty of some and throw T’Challa’s right to the throne in doubt.
     Chadwick Boseman as Black Panther exemplifies a strong leader from a distinct culture who eschews war and is committed to truth and right.  Michael B. Jordan exemplifies a worthy opponent who, brought up in the American way of thinking, is convinced that power/might is the only way to assure that “good” things happen.  I particularly loved the strong women surrounding the Black Panther, who represented loving, civic-minded mother (Bassett), technologically savvy sister Shura  (Wright), trusted secret service head Okoye (Gurira), and cagy spy and love interest Nakia (Nyong’o).  It’s so refreshing to see women in traditionally male roles, especially Nakia exerting a humanitarian voice and Shura a technology guru. 
     Boseman as the Black Panther effortlessly keeps real the fine lines between statesman, warrior and pacifist.  Michael B. Jordan chews up his role as the African American brought up in the U.S. with a historic heritage he doesn’t quite understand.  Daniel Kaluuya is ever subtle but strong in his role as W’Kabi, torn between two different regimes.  Andy Serkis—long overdue for an acting award—plays a deliciously evil arms dealer.  Martin Freeman of the Hobbit’s Bilgo Baggins fame is extraordinary as an American CIA agent (excellent casting!).  And, finally, Forest Whitaker ably plays the reverential priest Zuri who must swear in new kings of Wakanda.
     This is certainly a film that can be viewed numerous times for its complexities of plot and message and its performances by the principal players. 

Black male and female superheroes abound in this unusual action movie touching on race, destiny, thrones, and legacy, making an exciting addition to the action/fantasy genre.

Grade:  A                                    By Donna R. Copeland




EARLY MAN

Voices of:  Tom Hiddleston     Maisie Williams   Eddie Redmayne   Timothy Spall   Nick Park


     Nick Park and the Aardman Animation Studios bring us another enchanted story that entertains while it inspires hope and the achievement of dreams.  Dug (Redmayne) is an aspiring young man who tries to convince Bobnar (Spall), chief of the cavemen, that they should go beyond being a tribe of rabbit hunters and start searching for big mammoths instead. Unrealistic expectations, perhaps?  Bobnar indulges him by saying he will think about it, but in the meantime, Lord Nooth (Hiddleston), whose tribe has advanced to the Bronze Age and are deep into mining, is driving them out of their precious valley to get to the rich ore deposits lying beneath it. 
     Then an element of fanciful story telling is inserted into the drama.  Dug has found cave drawings that indicate that their ancestors played some kind of game with a ball similar to one he has stumbled upon near the mines.  (The “Bronzios” are the champion football team at the time).  Dug and his friends kick the ball around playfully for a time, but through strange coincidences they encounter someone who actually knows about the Bronze Age people’s game of football (soccer to Americans).  Who is this someone?  She is a girl(!) named Goona (Williams) who is barred from her people’s team because she is a girl.  But she is passionate about the sport and spends many hours watching the game and playing it in her imagination.  When she sees an opportunity to coach the cavemen and transform them into a disciplined team, she jumps at the chance to get back at the Bronzios who were never very nice to her.
     Much excitement and intrigue follow when Dug negotiates with Lord Nooth to get back their land.  The outcome of these negotiations will be determined by the winner of a football game between the scrappy “Brutes” and the expert “Bronzios.”  (Lord Nooth is not being magnanimous; he plans to reap more entry fees at the gate from the cavemen.  Little does he know that his wife Queen Oofeefa will have a role to play in the contest.)
     This movie is up to the quality of the famed “Wallace & Gromit” TV series and video games and The Curse of the Were-Rabbit and Chicken Run feature films, as well as other awarded productions by the same filmmakers.  It is beautifully animated and the story is full of humor, clever puns, and substance (story by Park, screenplay by Mark Burton and James Higginson.  An added bonus is that the story incorporates critical roles played by females—an issue close to our current political preoccupations.
     The voices of Hiddleston, Williams, Redmayne, Spall, Brydon, Margolyes, and even Director Park himself fit perfectly with their characters. 

From Nick Park and Aardman Animations fans, a new release à la “Wallace & Gromit”, The Curse of the Were Rabbit, and Chicken Run.


Grade:  A By Donna R. Copeland

Thursday, February 8, 2018

15:17 TO PARIS

Alek Skarlatos     Anthony Sadler     Spencer Stone     Jenna Fischer     Judy Greer


     It’s a long time before you get on the train to Paris, although there are a few introductory scenes about the terror on the train.  But first, you must endure the heroes’ background story:   acting-out kids in school with lousy teachers and principal and witness how poorly equipped a school can be in guiding children with learning disabilities or other minor problems that could have easily been remedied with behavioral methods.  If a student stares out the window and has difficulty focusing, a teacher’s answer immediately is medication without having the child evaluated by a professional with that specialty.
     The three friends are eventually split up (Anthony going to another school and Alek being sent to Oregon to live with his father), but maintain a close friendship.  Despite his history of a reading disability and difficulty following instructions, Spencer Stone manages to qualify for military service (airman first class in the U.S. Air Force) and realize his dream of being in the military.  The other two forge different careers, but they remain fast friends, and reunite in young adulthood to take a brief sojourn through Europe.  After partying their way through Rome and Venice, they decide to take the train to Paris.  But the thrust of this story is that while onboard, the three heroically foil a terrorist attack with their quick thinking and physical preparedness.
     Although Director Clint Eastwood’s aim of putting these men’s story on screen (and having them act out their roles as adults) is an interesting one, the execution of the project falls short for a number of reasons, primarily because the men are not actors, and it shows.  Secondly, screenwriter Dorothy Blyskal’s dialog is wooden with hackneyed phrases abounding.  Third, Blu Murray’s editing uses the current fad of jerking the viewer back and forth between past and present.  It seems like most of Eastwood’s cast and crew are relatively inexperienced, and needed more guidance on his part.  Perhaps he is reflective of and buying into the recent trend of skepticism toward and discounting of professional experience and expertise, even though he clearly doesn’t fit into that category (e.g., his accolades for American Sniper, Letters from Iwo Jima, Million Dollar Baby, Mystic River, and Unforgiven).  Not only the actors, but the writer, editor, and other staff working on the film trend toward the inexperienced.
     Sadler, Skarlatos, and Stone wrote a memoir about the experience (with Jeffrey E. Stern) on which the film is based; but I have an idea the part about their early years in school is penned and configured by the filmmakers, perhaps from the trio’s personal accounts or from their own perceptions of school.  This part of the film is the most tedious; toward the end, when the drama occurs on the train, the movie picks up considerably.

Although the idea behind 15:17 to Paris is intriguing, the execution falls far short of its promise.

Grade:  D                                    By Donna R. Copeland


Friday, February 2, 2018

WINCHESTER

Helen Mirren     Sarah Snook     Jason Clarke     Finn Scicluna-O’Prey


     This work of horror and intrigue, co-written with Tom Vaughan by Directors Michael and Peter Spierig (identical twins born in Germany and working in Australia), does what such a picture is supposed to do—keep us on the edge of our seats, play into common fears about old mansions, and pull us into the world of spirits and ghosts as it tries to convince the character, Dr. Price (Clarke), that the spirits/ghosts are there for a cause and a purpose. 
     Dr. Price has been contracted by the board of the Winchester Company to evaluate the mental stability of Sarah Winchester (Mirren), heir and half-owner of the Company, out of their concern for the company’s solvency.  Is she still fit to be on the board?  She has been adding onto her mansion in San Jose, California, for years; construction goes on 24 hours a day.  She says the purpose of this work is to calm the spirits of all those who have been killed by Winchester guns.  Sarah is convinced that if she shows them remorse, they will be at peace and go on to a better place.  She builds a room for each of them until they get that peace, then they move on.  (Now, those who never get to a calm place must be locked away in their room with, specifically, 13 nails.)
     Eric Price, a staunch empiricist, is quite prepared to consider Sarah delusional, even though eerie things begin to occur immediately after he arrives at the Winchester mansion—glimpses of strange figures flitting by, the bells tolling precisely at 12:00 every night, and of course unexplained noises at all times of day.  Once, when he goes to investigate, he peers through a door slightly ajar to see Sarah in a trance gazing upward, and sketching instructions for re-building that someone seems to be telepathically sending her. 
     Sarah has her trusted niece Marion (Snook) living in the house with her young son Henry (Scicluna-O’Prey), and he shows strange and even dangerous behaviors from time to time.  The question arises about whether he is cursed as a Winchester or simply showing signs of grief over the loss of his father. 
     As time goes on, the weirdness increases to a point that it looks like everyone and everything will be destroyed. 
     I think Winchester succeeds in what it is attempting to do in its genre, and beyond this, astute observations are made from time to time that give it more depth, such as making the point that sometimes real (i.e., personal) experience is more valuable than professional training.  It especially highlights the motivations that can result from guilt—Mrs. Winchester’s for the damage her gun company has done, and Price’s for his role in his deceased wife’s demise.  Just importantly, it shows how each is able to assuage guilt through action and/or taking a different perspective.
     Helen Mirren’s artful portrayal of a woman with spirit, determination, self-confidence, and a little quirkiness is persuasive in drawing us into her world, just the way she draws in Clarke’s Price.  And he skillfully transitions from a grieving skeptic without a purpose in life to someone drawn in to more meaningful endeavors.  Snook, as the intensely loyal but thoughtful niece shows the bind her character gets into when she gets put between Winchester and Price.  Young Scicluna-O'Prey as Henry is alternately endearing and frightening, depending on whether he is a normal boy or caught up in a spirit’s machination. 
     I interviewed the Spierigs at the South by Southwest Film Festival in 2014 where their film Predestination, based on a Robert Heinlein story, premiered.  It has a complex plot, full of intrigue and social issues and, like this film, shows their creative thinking merging with social conscientiousness.  I was impressed with them then, and regard them as filmmakers who will advance the artfulness and thoughtfulness of films for years to come.

An intriguing horror film with a wonderful blend of history, biography, and fantasy.

Grade:  A                                    By Donna R. Copeland

Thursday, February 1, 2018

BILAL: A NEW BREED OF HERO

Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje     Jacob Latimore     Ian McShane     Cynthia Kaye McWilliams     China Anne McClain    
Mick Wingert     Sage Ryan     Dave B. Mitchell


     Bilal is promoted as “a new breed of hero”, but this seems to be little different from a host of other such stories, in that Bilal undergoes tragedies from the time he is a child, endures them reasonably well, maintains his rebellious determination for freedom, recognizes words of wisdom and generosity in a strong Mohammed-like figure who buys him from his evil master, and manages with his comrades—particularly his guide Hamza (Mitchell)—to achieve civic and religious goals. The animated story from the UAE is based on ancient Muslim lore during the time that wealthy merchants relegated most of the poor masses to slavery.  Viewers with young children should be aware that the film includes a bloody war.
     The thrust of the story lies in its emphasis on freedom, freedom that everyone deserves regardless of appearance or ethnic origin.  This comes through, albeit sometimes a bit preachy.  The story maintains the belief that there is a god who oversees the lives of men and expects them to adhere to his teachings about kindness and social justice, as contrasted with anger and vengeance toward others.  The film is marketed for middle age children and above, but I wonder how many will get their message.  In the screening, there were cheers when the bad guy was undone—evidence to me that they missed the import of the film:  Use a stick rather than a sword whenever possible.
     The film is from Saudi Arabia, animated by Barajoun Entertainment, and filmed in Dubai.  Influences of a Middle Eastern perspective are clearly apparent, and I understand that the directors (Khurram H. Alari and Ayman Jamal), and particularly Jamal, wished to present a Muslim point of view that is inclusive of all people in its egalitarianism.  The animation struck me as quaint in comparison with what I am accustomed to seeing, although I don’t know exactly why.  I think maybe because the figures were more robotic-appearing than human-like.
     McShayne voicing the haughty slave owner Umayya was just right in showing the sense of entitlement of the ruling class, and his well-taught son Safwan (Ryan and Wingert) took what he said to heart, implementing it whenever possible, being particularly focused on Bilal (voiced by Latimore and Akinnuoye-Agbaje).  Voice acting of the cast is very good in general.  
     There seem to be internal contradictions in the story (and perhaps it is true of most religions) between the messages of tolerance and the hostilities expressed among the characters.  Although Bilal comes to believe that the stick should be used whenever possible over the sword, killing and war (in which he participates) seem to be condoned. 

Although marketed as “a new breed of hero”, Bilal closely resembles heroes in many cultures: undergoing trials, maturing under the guidance of a wise guide, and transforming into a beloved leader.

Grade:  C+                                    By Donna R. Copeland



FILM STARS DON'T DIE IN LIVERPOOL

Annette Bening     Jamie Bell     Julie Walters     Vanessa Redgrave


     I am still waiting (how many years?) for filmmakers to portray the cancer experience in a realistic way.  For some reason (I have no idea why), they tend to romanticize it.  Beyond that, they often reinforce ways of coping that don’t help anyone (e.g., refusing treatment when first diagnosed, not informing family.  That being said, my comments are as follows.
     The film is loosely based on the real life of Gloria Grahame (played here by Annette Bening in a fine performance), an American actress in the ‘40s and ‘50s who was known for her performances in It’s a Wonderful Life, The Bad and the Beautiful, Sudden Fear, Human Desire, and Oklahoma!  This film covers the period when her career is waning and she has concerns about her looks.  Her path crosses that of Peter Turner (Bell), a much younger man who becomes smitten with her.  They meet at his parents’ boarding house and her room is next to his.  Difference in age is not an important factor for him, and he adores her. 
     Gloria is the type of person who has always been adored, including by her mother (Redgrave), so she has a certain amount of self-entitlement and expectation that people around her will attend to her needs.  It’s interesting that when she becomes very ill, she doesn’t want her family to be informed.  Instead, she prefers to be cared for by Peter and his family, with whom she has become very close, perhaps because they are a more loving, helpful group than her own family.  We don’t see her four children, except her son, briefly, at the end.  There is a cameo of her mother played by Vanessa Redgrave and her sister (Frances Barber).  It would have been of value to know more about Gloria’s background and why she would prefer the company of her boyfriend’s family over hers, and more about what happened to her career.
     The film, based on a memoir by the younger co-star, Peter Turner, is directed by Paul McGuigan.  It’s another case where the filmmakers choose to jump back and forth in time—which I’ve come to despise—and which makes it difficult to follow the stages of their relationship and the illness.
     Both Annette Bening and Jamie Bell deliver fine acting performances, and there is believable chemistry between them.  Vanessa Redgrave is stellar in her cameo appearance as Grahame’s mother, quoting Shakespeare while sitting beside her snippy other daughter played by Frances Barber.  Julie Walters as Turner’s mother exudes her usual warmth and wit. 

A famous aging film star on the decline captures the interest of a much younger man, and they make the most of their time together.

Grade:  C                                    By Donna R. Copeland

Thursday, January 18, 2018

FOREVER MY GIRL

Alex Roe     Jessica Rothe     John Benjamin Hickey     Abby Ryder Fortson     Peter Cambor


     This story is rather like a fairy tale that resembles an adolescent girl’s fantasy, starting out with a tragic jilting at the altar, then moving to the would-be groom’s country music career and fame on the road, and on to regrets and efforts to atone.  The film is written and directed by Bethany Ashton Wolf, based on a novel by Heidi McLaughlin, an author who writes about how people can “find their relationship with God and each other…[her] passion emerged through her personal discovery of how God’s love heals and restores all our brokenness” (information from a search of “Heidi McLaughlin”). 
     The film opens with the bride Josie (Rothe) at the church waiting to go down the aisle when she receives word that Liam (Roe) is not going to appear.  No explanation is given, but he is shown performing country music at concerts, followed by hordes of young people, so we assume that he has chosen that lifestyle over being tied down in St. Augustine, Louisiana, with his high school girlfriend. 
     Eight years transpire, and it is clear that Liam has become an over-indulged star whose every whim is catered to and every need taken care of by his staff, largely his agent Sam (Cambor).  Two incidents draw him back home:  Damage to his precious cell phone that he has kept for years and news that his best friend from school was killed.  We find out later why that phone is so important.
     At any rate, he impulsively runs to the funeral, abandoning his music tour, and of course crosses paths with his jilted sweetheart Josie.  There, he learns of some shocking news that could potentially change his life forever.  It prompts him to remain in his hometown for a while, staying with his widowed father, who is Pastor Brian (Hickey) at the community church.
     Never underestimate the ire of a small town when someone has transgressed, and that ire is what Liam faces when he returns home.  He gets it from Josie (whom he clearly still holds a torch for), his father, Josie’s brother, and all the townspeople he meets.  But his father is a good Christian pastor, and soon preaches (apparently after wrestling with his own demons) about mercy and forgiveness.  Liam will not have an easy time of it, proving how hard it is to overcome a bad reputation, but he handles it with humility and grace—making a few mistakes here and there—and learning that money is not necessarily a motivator for everyone.  The rest of the fairy tale spins out largely as expected, particularly in consideration of the principles of the novel’s author.
     The film is well directed and the actors are skilled, particularly Hickey, who has to portray someone with a son he loves but gives him grief, a pastor who must comfort others, and ultimately, show that he can see his son in a different light.  Alex Roe and Jessica Rothe as the leads do well individually, but the chemistry between them is less convincing. 
     Along with the day-dream-like script, I had a big problem with the lines written for Josie’s daughter Billy (Fortson).  The actress was great, but there is no way a seven-year-old would say things like, “You two weren’t exactly subtle, if you know what I mean” and we should “help him process the news.”  Nor would she be likely to reproduce some guitar riffs after seeing them for the first time, without any previous training on the guitar.

This is a film for fairy tale lovers.

Grade:  C-                                    By Donna R. Copeland