Thursday, May 17, 2018

BOOK CLUB

Diane Keaton     Jane Fonda     Candice Bergen     Mary Steenburgen
Andy Garcia     Craig T. Nelson     Don Johnson     Richard Dreyfuss

     This bit of froth proceeds just about as expected, given the cast and the topic. Older women do daring things and after ups and downs, (almost) everything turns out groovy in the end. The characters are rather stereotypical, except maybe for Vivian (Fonda), who chose career over marriage and has become a wealthy woman.  Sharon (Bergen) is a Federal judge who’s been divorced for 18 years.  Diane (Keaton) lost her husband a year ago, and has two daughters who are rushing her into the grave and overly parenting her, or trying to.  Carol (Steenburgen) is happily married to Bruce (Nelson), but he has shut down since his retirement.  Their relationship needs a shot or something in the you-know-where.  
     The four women have been friends for years, their connection currently centering on their book club.  Vivian decides to spice things up, and when it’s her turn to choose the book, she passes around E. L. James’ Fifty Shades of Grey.  Her friends are horrified, but each one (guiltily) charges through it, and it seems to have a unique effect on each one, egged along by more frank discussions about how the women really see each other.  Basically they all need to get out more, out of their particular rut.  Sharon is prompted to go to an online dating site; Diane piques a fellow traveler’s interest by reading her book on the plane, after she has literally fallen into his lap getting into her seat; and Carol tries sexual come-ons in the book to arouse Bruce’s interest.  Vivian doesn’t “try” anything; she is convinced she has found the key to happiness.  Then an old school chum, Arthur (Johnson), surfaces and begins provoking her.
     Bill Holderman (director and co-writer with Erin Simms) has created a crowd pleaser (going by the reactions of the audience in the screening I attended) that contains sit-com humor, predictable complications, and a fanciful ending. Another idealistic treatment is reflected in the highly attractive appearances of most of the characters—certainly the women, and arguably for the men, as there was audible panting when Andy Garcia appeared.  
     There is little of substance in the story; the best dialog comes toward the end when the friends become more open and realin their conversations.  But for the most part, the story is more pie-in-the- sky than anything based on reality.  The best part of the movie is seeing the abundantly talented well-cast actresses doing what they do best—acing their roles as written for them.  If only the writers had opted to portray a more realistic picture of this stage in a woman’s life; I assure you, it would contain many more shadings and nuances, and likely be a much more interesting film.

A rather skewed, fanciful view of the lives of women past a certain age.

Grade:  C                                                By Donna R. Copeland


DEADPOOL 2

Josh Brolin     Ryan Reynolds     Morena Baccarin     Bill Skarsgard     T.J. Miller     Zazie Beetz     Julian Dennison
Eddie Marsan     Leslie Uggams     Brianna Hildebrand     Lewis Tan     Stefan Kapicic     Jack Kesy     Terry Crews  


     Deadpool is back, loaded with heroics, physically impossible altercations and gun battles, just as before in the first Deadpool, mixing in even more jokes and references to other movies.  He seems to be living a contented life with his beloved Vanessa (Baccarin), and they are discussing baby-making when his past re-emerges in a way that will make him do something that will plague him for all time to come.  
     Now, he is out for revenge, which lands him in jail (the “icebox” for mutant offenders), where he is paired with a mutant orphan (Russell, aka “Firefist”), who idolizes Deadpool and pleads for friendship, to no avail.  But after Deadpool has repeatedly rejected him, he learns more about him, and at Vanessa’s urging, decides to protect the orphan from two forces out to get him.  One is the abusive head of the reformatory where the child had been living; and the other, the formidable Cable (Brolin), a time-traveling super-hero from the future who is worried about what Firefist might do that could affect him in some way.  He serves as the new villain.
     To go after these foes, Deadpool realizes he needs to form a band of warriors, which he will name X-Force.  Many apply for the job, some of which are Zeitgeist (Skarsgard), Bedlam (Crews), and Domino (Beetz).  The interviews of these characters are fun to see, not the least of which is Peter (Rob Delaney), who has no special talent and just comes along for the ride. Seeing their special powers in action provides additional entertainment.
     The film, directed by David Leitch, a former stuntman who, as in Atomic Blonde, has created well choreographed fight scenes, does not really break new ground, and actually becomes tedious in its endless self-commentary staged battles, and endless references to other films. The fight I enjoyed most was on a hijacked urban train with Deadpool stopping Cable’s bullets with his twirling ninja swords.  Reynolds and Brolin are standouts in their respective roles of two distinctly different characters—one, a motor mouth who goes after bad guys, and the other a true villain without mercy.  The actor from New Zealand who plays Russell, Julian Dennison, first won international fame in Taika Waititi‘s Hunt for the Wilderpeople,  He is just as good here as in the previous film, and manages to steal your heart.
     Tyler Bates’ music is a good part of the entertainment, as is Jonathan Sela’s cinematography.  When X-Force parachutes down into a city, the scene set against a bright blue sky, is humorously reminiscent of Magritte’s painting, “Golconda.”

Deadpool 2—not dead in the water, but a sequel only diehard Marvel fans will appreciate.

Grade:  B                                By Donna R. Copeland


SHOW DOGS

Will Arnett     Natasha Lyonne     Omar Chaparro     Andy Beckwith
Voices of:  Ludacris     Alan Cumming     Stanley Tucci     Jordin Sparks     Shaquille O’Neal     Gabriel Iglesias


     Show Dogs, directed by Raja Gosnell and written by Max Botkin and Marc Hyman, is one of the rare animated films that will appeal to children and adults equally.  There is a little pandering to adults in the romantic theme, and to children in a fart joke; but for the most part, the film models good messages about the importance of friends and family and respect for individual and cultural differences.  
     Max (voice of Ludacris) prides himself on being a police dog who is street-wise and disdainful of offers to be his back-up by his feathered admirers whose motto is, “Birds of a feather fight crime together.”  He takes pride in his abilities, and enjoys elite status in the New York Police Department. But he is suspicious when an FBI agent, Frank (Arnett) appears on the scene to solve an animal trafficking problem.  It seems that a baby panda has been taken from his mother, and Max makes a promise when he gets a glimpse of the child that HE will return him to his mother.  But when Max is ordered to partner up with the FBI agent to investigate the crime, still in the planning stages at a dog show, he continually tests Frank’s capabilities, giving him more than a few nips. Frank is just as unhappy as Max, and clearly knows nothing about dogs.
     When he seeks out an expert in Animal Control, Mattie (Lyonne), she realizes right away that Frank (who has lost Max) is clueless about dogs; but she is a patient and kind person, so tries to help him. 
What follows is a combination of a thriller (finding the perps), comedy about poor Max having to become an “undercover” show dog, and gratification for dog lovers who get to see all the breeds primping up for and competing for the prize of Best in Show.  
     Creativity abounds in this unusual pairing of a thriller within a dog show that is animated and also a comedy.  Beyond that, it is more than simply entertaining; it has truths about our world and current issues we’re grappling with. Heitor Pereira’s music enhances and offers further entertainment in its puns, and David Mackie’s cinematography meets every challenge with artistry and skill.  

An animated film like few others, offering thrills, chuckles, and truths to live by.

Grade:  A                                    By Donna R. Copeland


POPE FRANCIS: A MAN OF HIS WORD


     Wim Wenders, writer with David Rosier and director of the documentary, shows from his speeches all over the world how Pope Francis is a man of his word. He is the only pope taking the name of Francis, inspired by St. Francis of Assisi who took a vow of poverty and spent his life working for the common good.  Pope Francis models his life after the saint, eschewing a luxurious apartment in the Vatican, using a modest car, living frugally, and consistently advocating for principles that most religions embrace, but appear to have forgotten.  
     The film is very well executed; Wenders made a wise choice in making most of the film showing the Pope, who is an inspiring speaker, addressing multitudes or talking only to a few.  Cinematographer Lisa Rinzler artistically frames the locations, captures the expressions of hundreds of faces, sometimes tucking pictures of St. Francis into a modern-day scene.    Laurent Petitgand’s music likewise incorporates a range of musical genres, with religious themes more prominent, of course.  Wenders’ narration from time to time is excellent and succinct in commenting on scenes and summarizing the Pope’s aims and values.  
     The sheer number of weighty subjects in the forefront of the Pope’s mind is impressive, and they clearly reflect his religious beliefs and close connection and communication with people from all levels of society.  We see him with world leaders (Presidents of the U.S. and other countries), but mostly with people who have come to see him and touch him when he travels around the world.  He may single out a nun whom he knew long ago in Argentina; he has children take the microphone and ask him questions about why he wanted to become Pope and why he doesn’t live in a luxurious apartment and drive a fancy car (his answers are beautifully instructive and respectful of the questioners); he listens most attentively to all who speak with him and unhesitatingly reaches out to them with his hand or with a pontifical kiss; he practices what he preaches in terms of listening and responding empathically.  
     Pope Francis is keenly aware of the world’s problems, and addresses them repeatedly in his speeches.  Foremost is what we are doing to Mother Nature, and our indifference to the amount of poverty and joblessness that surround us and to the hordes of immigrants who are seeking a better life.  Diversity is something good that helps us grow (even though we become anxious when faced with differences); we need to build bridges instead of walls.  He also feels strongly about arms control, making children a priority, and zero tolerance for pedophilia.  
     One of the most moving sequences is when Pope Francis addresses both houses of the U.S. Congress and more than one legislator can be seen brushing a tear away.  This is a perfect illustration of his power in the sense of inspiring, educating, and hopefully motivating his listeners toward sound principles of living.  Francis has been an activist pope in certain ways, such as taking an ecumenical view in respecting all religions, preaching for equality (between men and women, rich and poor, and everyone), and refraining from condemning homosexuality.  He firmly believes that God gave us freedom to make choices, the most valuable of gifts.

A finely executed picture of perhaps the most inspiring, noble, but humble, leader of today.

Grade:  A                                                By Donna R. Copeland



Thursday, May 10, 2018

LU OVER THE WALL

Voices of:  Christine Marie Cabanos     Michael Sinterniklaas    Stephanie Sheh    Brandon Engman


     This Japanese animated fantasy film from Masaaki Yuasa seems more oriented toward adults than children.  The story is about a community’s lore about and apprehension toward a group of “Merfolk” who live under the sea.  There are tales of how they have kidnapped people in Hinashi and are the cause of all sorts of mysterious events.  A grandfather strongly admonishes Kai Sinterniklaas), his grandson, to stay away from the sea and not play music nearby (the music causes the Merfolk to emerge).  The trouble is, Kai loves music, and has had an unusual experience of coming face to face with a mermaid, Lu (Cabanos), who will break into dancing anytime she hears music.  He is intrigued, and they soon become friends.
     Kai is a solitary, internalizing boy who says little and doesn’t seem to have any aspirations, although he does upload some of his songs on the internet.  But he has caught the eyes and ears of Yuko (Shah) and Kunio (Engman), his classmates, who need him for their band. Kai has a deep interest in the Merfolk, and although he is averse to joining their band, but when they tell him they practice on an isolated island near where the Merfolk are, that is the hook he needs to relent and join them.
     The band’s story is interwoven with community events, and they get caught up in a major controversy that resembles our current world with factions supporting and opposing acceptance of another culture.  This aspect is a strong part of the film, especially when it shows how increased fear on both sides escalates the turmoil…and it is the part more meaningful to adults than children.  The film is almost two hours long, which, once again, seems inappropriate for children, the primary audience for animations.  
     The animation itself is beautifully rendered by the Fuji Creative Corporation in Japan and Anime Limited in the UK.  Perhaps it is not up to the artistry of the famous Miyazaki and Ghibli Studio, but it’s eye-catching and pleasing throughout.  Masaaki Yuasa’s direction with his and his co-writers’ storytelling makes this production well worth seeing.  There is a wonderfully humorous and well-composed scene of three characters floating side by side in the water after one of them was sure he would drown.  This is something both children and adults will get.

Animation that delights and surprises in an entertaining story with substantive social issues.

Grade:  B                                    By Donna R. Copeland

LIFE OF THE PARTY

Melissa McCarthy     Molly Gordon     Maya Rudolph     Christina Aguilera     Matt Walsh


     Life of the Party is pretty much in the same vein as other Ben Falcone/Melissa McCarthy creations, such as Tammy andThe Boss, and McCarthy’s films in general (i.e., This is 40, Identity Thief, and Bridesmaids).  In these, her character is buffoonish, destructive, and slapstick funny, with the emphasis on slapstick.  Here, I suspect that the husband-wife team (writers, with Falcone being the director) envisioned something different, in that McCarthy’s character has a few more redeeming characteristics (sympathetic, tolerant, with higher aspirations), and she isn’t quite as spastic (falling spectacularly again and again).  However, they couldn’t seem to resist inserting a couple of scenes where she does end up on the ground in one, and is completely destructive in another.
     The story opens with Deanna (McCarthy) and her husband Dan (Walsh) taking their daughter Maddie (Gordon) to college and dropping her off at her sorority house. Dan chooses this time to drop a bombshell, and Deanna is suddenly thrust upon her own devices.  As is typical for someone in this situation, she looks back over her life and decides to reverse a fateful decision she made earlier in life, to drop out of college in her senior year.  She will enroll and complete her studies to earn a degree.  
     There is one hitch in this—she’s returning to Decatur University where her daughter is. From here, Falcone and McCarthy weave a fanciful story that is not likely to happen here or on any planet in the universe.  That is, “Dee-Rock”, as she will now be called, becomes a hit on campus, with the total support of her daughter and her classmates and even the whole university! 
      If you can buy that, I’ve got a bridge…
     For years, I have been hoping that the talented McCarthy would reprise the career path that she started in Spy, which showed her talent as an actress in portraying an intelligent, strong woman who could be calculating and crafty.  When I interviewed Paul Feig, writer/director of Spy, he described her as “one of the funniest on the planet…She’s also like your best friend…not intimidating.”  His goal was to make Spy feel real, and McCarthy met his expectations.  She has not been in such a good movie since.
     Light comedy can be fun, and the kind of humor in Life of the Party certainly makes money, but I have a problem with its scenes written to draw laughs:  meanness of female college students, unwitting consumption of chocolates laced with marijuana resulting in destruction, college women not being able to do simple math, etc.  The whole premise that college students would be so accepting and supportive of the McCarthy character is far-fetched, let alone the idea that it’s a reasonable thing for a mother to be college friends with her daughter. Wha?....
     McCarthy is good at bringing this character to life; she is appealing, funny at times, heart-warming at times, and even sensible at times.  But how I wish she would move on to more substantive roles.  I would love to see her branch out into a strong dramatic character; she could do it!
     Supporting actors, such as best friend Christine (Rudolph) and daughter Maddie (Gordon) are great, but to me, the one who steals the show from others is Heidi Gardner as Deanna’s Goth roommate, totally neurotic, always deadpan, but with a soul.  She is so refreshing as a new kind of low-key character who whose demeanor and dialog makes you chuckle.

Melissa McCarthy in nothing new under the sun.

Grade:  D                                    By Donna R. Copeland


BREAKING IN

Gabrielle Union     Billy Burke     Richard Cabral     Ajiona Alexus     
Levi Meaden     Mark Furze     Jason George     Seth Karr


     Picture a large house out in the woods with acreage around it.  That’s where Shaun (Union) grew up, and now that her father has died (they have been estranged, so she hasn’t been home in years), she is responsible for selling it.  Neither she nor her two kids are happy about giving up a weekend at home, and when they arrive at the house, it’s a bit creepy with its electronic gadgets and high tech security system (alarms, cameras, lights—all connected to a monitoring station.  You would think they would get a feeling of safety—which was the idea of having it installed—but the house is a bit creaky, and son Glover’s (Karr) association to it is one of loneliness.  His sister Jasmine (Alexus) is relieved that she has cell phone service “way out here.”
     Shaun is trying to adjust to feelings brought up by her childhood home, and just wants to get everything settled and get back to husband and hearth.  
     Intruders weren’t on the agenda, of course, but soon after the family arrives, there they are.  The first one, Eddie (Burke) moves stealthily and comes upon the kids, then goes out to the patio looking for their mother.  What follows is a cats and mice game in and out of the house with harrowing twists and turns.  The rewarding part, of course, is the fact that the mother is not your stereotypical “mom”; Shaun is clearly up to the crime team in wits and daring.  And although the film publicity plays up the mom-doing-everything-to-protect-her-young, I think winning—along with morality—is built into her character.  She will do what she does primarily to protect her children, but it goes farther than that into assuring that justice will be done.
     Gabrielle Union is stunning in the role, including fitness that allows her to jump across fences, run into the woods with agility, and be a worthy opponent in a physical fight.  She is good as well in her role as mom and wife, but with a past that weighs her down from time to time.  This event is only one instance of that.
     I think the four “bad guys” roles are well cast with a leader (Meaden) trying to contain his crew, especially Duncan (Cabral), the most deranged, and Peter (Furze), the most bothered by limits that have been crossed.  Eddie (Burke), with a critical role in the operation, has been missing most of the time, thanks to an encounter in the woods with Shaun.
     Breaking In is well written by Ryan Engle and directed by James McTeigue.  Their characters are plausible and behave in ways that are within the realm of believability.  The scare factor is maintained pretty much throughout, in a what’s-going-to-happen-next mode.  I spotted just a few times when credulity was strained, i.e., when Shaun was talking to her daughter in loud whispers that the bad guys were sure to hear, and when she didn’t take the children and run when it looked like she could have. 
Otherwise, for a horror film, I was moved and carried along by the drama.

This film will thrill you and chill you in its play on electronically “safe” houses.

Grade:  B                                    By Donna R. Copeland