Thursday, March 23, 2017

T2 TRAINSPOTTING

Ewan McGregor   Ewen Bremner   Jonny Lee Miller   Robert Carlyle   Anjela Nedyalkova
Shirley Henderson   James Cosimo   Kelly Macdonald


      Nostalgia seems to get the better of four old friends from childhood who come together—some by accident—with old grudges still burning.  This is prompted by Mark Renton (McGregor) coming back into town and looking up Spud (Bremner) first, and then cocaine snorting Sick Boy (Miller) to settle a score.  He’s wanting to avoid crossing paths with Begbie (Carlyle), who feels most betrayed by Mark.  Those who saw the first Trainspotting (also directed and produced by Danny Boyle) know why.
     Coming across Spud in the midst of a tragic situation, Mark starts using what he learned in rehab to get Spud on a better, healthier track.  He gets enough nerve to pay a visit to Sick Boy, wanting to compensate him for what Mark had done to him.  And although Sick Boy—Simon now—puts up a good front, he plans to do his best to bring Mark down.  He confides in his friend/business partner Veronica (Nedyalkova) of his intentions, and pulls Mark into their business plan of establishing a “sauna”/bordello.  Mark has learned some things about marketing, and the three apply for a loan. 
     Several themes are woven into the action, one being the relationship between Mark and Simon, with Veronica making it a triangle.  Another is Spud’s taking to heart any advice given to him, and trying boxing, but really ends up writing stories with Veronica’s encouragement.  Interestingly, the stories are based on the four friends’ growing-up years.  Then, there is the pursuit of Begbie, who has managed to squirm his way out of prison, and is intent on bringing Mark down.
     The story ends up being rather clever and humorous (if one can ignore the sordid parts), and illustrates so well the ultimate outcome of the characters.  It’s also a sad story, with losers and cheaters (if you want to call them that) getting their due, and clever, hard-working souls coming out on top. 
     McGregor is still at the top of his game, and his interactions with his old friends (expertly played by Bremner, Miller, and Carlyle) will be of special interest to those who saw and loved the earlier film.  I enjoyed this updated rendition showing the astuteness, sensitivity, and practicality of the Veronica character (superbly played by Nedyalkova), and the reemergence of Diane (Macdonald) as a successful lawyer, reminiscent of the Irish girl-made-good in HBO’s Boardwalk Empire.  In contrast, it’s rather sad to see the lives of three of the old friends have not developed much beyond the sordid existence witnessed in the original story. 
     The cinematic effects and period music in T2 Trainspotting—along with the acting—make this an interesting film to see.  It’s not the best that Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire, 127 Hours, Steve Jobs) has done, but I did hear applause at the end of the screening I attended.

How do drug addicts fare twenty years later?


Grade:  C                     By Donna C. Copeland

WILSON

Woody Harrelson     Margo Martindale     Laura Dern     Isabella Amara


     Here’s a movie that has great potential with Director Craig Johnson (Skeleton Twins) and starring Woody Harrelson, a success in many films.  And Wilson does start out being quite funny as a lonely character connecting only with his dog, and becoming irate when his only friends, a couple, tell him of their plan to move out of the city.  (“How could you do this to me?!”)  Indeed, self-centeredness and self-entitlement turn out to be his mantra for the rest of the story, which essentially kills it.
     Obnoxiousness is Wilson’s middle name.  He bothers people on the bus or on the street who obviously are engaged in their own activity or work, insisting they talk to him.  In a virtually empty bus, he takes a seat right next to a man who is clearly working, insulting his response to Wilson’s question about what he does.  He says the most outrageous things to people who have mildly rebuffed him, such as, “You’re a toxic soul-drawing vampire.”
When his father is dying in the hospital, Wilson ignores his critical condition and entreats him (the man is unconscious) to say he loves Wilson.
     One of the only really engaging parts of the film Wilson is the brief period when Margo Martindale is on camera.  She lights up any film she’s in, and here, they have a comical exchange where she is tech savvy (he’s amazed at what she does “at her age”), helping him locate his ex-wife, Pippi (Dern).  She carries on with the task despite his insults of her and Pippi, and locates Pippi’s sister, who will be a lead in finding Pippi.
     Harrelson does his usual good job in capturing a character’s essence and bringing it to fruition.  That it doesn’t quite work here is likely due to the script by Daniel Clowes, which calls for him to be too persistently obnoxious and rude without any redeeming qualities.  After all kinds of disasters, the story then delves into deeper emotional areas, but the viewer hasn’t been prepared, so can’t empathize, and the scenes fall flat. 
     Another place where the film hits/misses at the same time is in Laura Dern’s character Pippi.  Dern is excellent in portraying a woman who has been through major hard times, but still has hope and is trying to make her life better.  Pippi and Wilson have some touching moments together, which are largely successful, but when Pippi, against her better judgment but egged on by Wilson, visits her sister, once again the script calls for an over-the-top scenario. 
     Another strong point in the film is in Isabella Amara’s characterization of Claire, Wilson’s and Pippi’s daughter given up for adoption.  (I’m not giving anything away; it’s in the previews.)  Amara is completely believable and noteworthy in showing the mixture of Claire’s reaction to the sudden appearance of bizarre parents in her conventional, well-to-do suburban world.  Yes, she does show some of their DNA, but nurture by her adoptive parents has helped her achieve good sense.
     Overall, I think about how the movie does something similar to what the Wilson character does; it says a nice thing, followed by a blistering, withering comment.  This is supposed to be funny, but smacks more of cruelty and social ineptitude.

I so wanted this movie to be funnier and snappier.

Grade:  D+                            By Donna R. Copeland

LIFE

Rebecca Ferguson     Jake Gyllenhaal      Ryan Reynolds     Hiroyuki Sanada     Olga Dihovichnaya     Ariyon Bakara


      Life: an apt title for a gripping story about a mission to Mars in search of evidence of extraterrestrial life.  The six-member crew of the International Space Station are excited about testing the sample they’ve obtained, and all eyes are transfixed on it when Hugh (Bakara) begins his experiments to see if it will produce life at all.  When a one-cell organism appears, they joke about Hugh’s “child”, and as he teases it to interact, he starts getting attached.  (A rather hokey parallel event occurs at the same time when another crew member watches on Skype as his son is being born on earth.)  Please!
     Fortunately/unfortunately, the “thing” now called “Calvin” begins to thrive, and starts growing at an alarming rate.  After only days, it has uncommon strength and enough intelligence to threaten humans and their inventions.  At first, the concern is to get the sample to earth, which is then modified to getting Calvin there, and finally to how to keep Calvin away from earth entirely. Lives are lost in the most gruesome ways imaginable (and each one is shown in graphic detail) as various methods are tried to overcome it.
     Director Daniel Espinosa (Safe House, Child 44) brings the script by Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick to life (pun intended), greatly enhanced by Nigel Phelps’ production design, Seamus McGarvey’s cinematography, and all the other special effects artists.  Inventive ways are used to show in gruesomely graphic fashion how Calvin operates and what it does to human bodies.  Of interest are the ways in which we see the astronauts cope with the unreal situation—the times they keep their cool and the times they are completely freaked out.  Also demonstrated is the futility of attempting to plan for every eventuality in a complex system.
     Miranda (Ferguson), as the Project Investigator and medical doctor on board leads her team decisively with support from the other astronauts: Roy (Reynolds), David (Gyllanhaal), Kat (Dihovichnaya), Kendo, (Sanada), and Hugh (Bakara), biologist.  It’s a diversified group professionally and ethnically, which melds together nicely to get a job done, and heroes are not scarce.  A drawback of the film is that we don’t get to know enough of the background of the characters to see them and care about them as individuals.  The film seems to be more focused on the technology and special effects than on the people and character development.  It could also have spent more time and highlighted the weight of the numerous ethical dilemmas the crew faced, particularly Miranda. 

Life opens up thoughts about space exploration and the possible scientific, moral, and ethical dilemmas that may arise from it.

Grade:  C                     By Donna R. Copeland


Sunday, March 19, 2017

WALKING OUT

Matt Bomer     Bill Pullman     Josh Wiggins     Lily Gladstone


      Father-son bonding movies are usually well received, especially when they occur after a period of estrangement.  It’s clear when David (Wiggins) arrives at the airport on a snowy day in Montana that he is a bit uneasy.  His father Cal (Bomer) doesn’t seem to notice; he is much more enthusiastic about the visit and seeing his son.  He tells David excitedly about his plan to take him moose hunting, and just maybe David will get his first moose.  This was a milestone in Cal’s own life, which he relates to his son, reminiscing about the time he spent with his own father.  The spoken memories are enhanced by showing videos of him as a youngster (played by Alex Neustaedter) with his dad (Pullman). 
     We eventually learn that David lives with his mother in another state; she couldn’t take the Montana weather, and left his father.  Cal’s ties to the land (and he owns a large parcel) are so strong, he couldn’t possibly think of living anywhere else.  David is clearly from the city, and knows little about what most boys from the country learn in terms of skills in camping, hunting, fishing, etc.  Not only that, he appears to be rather reluctant to go on a hunting trip and would rather play games on his telephone.  He’s a bit squeamish about killing animals anyway.  When Cal realizes this, he is sorely disappointed, but gives David the choice of not going.  Of course, that’s accompanied by the threat of sending him back to his mother and the knowledge that he has let his dad down.  This gets through to David in a flash, and he decides he’d rather go hunting.
     Eventually, Cal lets go of his macho front and becomes a very good teacher on hunting in the wild, such as what to do if a bear starts chasing you, and how hunting is different from killing an animal for anything other than food.  He accompanies this with his childhood stories, which David seems eager to hear.  The meat of the film is when two life-threatening incidents occur, and we see how the bond between the two has become strong enough to support them during the rest of the trip.
     It’s a coming-of-age story for David who will never be the same afterwards.  Usually, I want movies to be shorter rather than longer, but I wish this one had shown more about David’s transformation and his reunion with his mother.  Nevertheless, it’s a skillful rendering of father-son bonding in the wilds of the breathtaking snowy landscape of Montana.
     Bomer and Wiggins capture the father-son relationship so well, and the backdrop of Montana in the winter (Cinematographer Tood McMullen) is exquisite.  In this age of serial relationships among adults, I wonder about if many teenagers would find this story helpful in identifying and bonding with their fathers.  I also applaud the filmmakers for not shying away from depicting a very sensitive subject.

An unnerving and heartfelt bonding of father and son hunting moose in the wilds of snowy Montana.

Grade:  C                                    By Donna R. Copeland


SMALL CRIMES

Nikolaj Coster-Waldau     Molly Parker     Macon Blair     Robert Forster     Jacki Weaver
Gary Cole     Michael Kinney     Larry Fessenden     Pat Healy     Tara Yelland


      Small Crimes takes us into a town’s corruption and gossip with dirty cops and mafia bosses.  Joe Denton (Coster-Waldau) is just being let out of prison after serving six years for the attempted murder of a district attorney.  He states his intentions to reform, telling the prison chaplain whom he has been seeing for counseling for years that he wants to make up for the past.  Once he’s out, he goes to his parents’ (Forster, Weaver) home and borrows his father’s truck. But after walking past a bar, he retraces his steps and goes inside.  Those are fatal steps; in no time at all, he is being pulled back into the old circle of dirty cops and a mob boss, drawing him back into the circle with threats to his family if he doesn’t follow through.  Lieutenant Pleasant (sure!) (Cole) gives him specific instructions on what to do for all involved to avoid reopening a case.  Of course, what to do involves a crime.
      Joe makes feeble attempts to do the jobs he is supposed to, but either fails or chickens out.  (It seems that prison experiences did have some effect on him.)  Thinking he’ll get around the problem another way, he makes friends with the mob boss’s hospice nurse, Charlotte (Parker), another maneuver that reveals his lack of concern for his impact on others.  Former mob boss is dying of cancer, has gotten religion, and is talking about turning state’s evidence, implicating Joe and his accomplices.  The man has to go, says Lieutenant Pleasant.
      The film is good at showing how someone being released from prison has a very difficult time reintegrating into society and the influence past connections have on the process.  And as we see Joe trying different means of squirming out of the situation, we’re also aware of his lack of perspective and sensibility about the overall picture.  In other words, the film ends up not having much of a point about what it is portraying.  This brings to mind the question of the title, Small Crimes, which actually refers to something much heavier:  murder.
     Coster-Waldau is a fine actor, as we’ve seen in HBO’s Game of Thrones, but this script by the director E. L. Katz and screenwriter Macon Blair (the latter influenced by Jeremy Saulnier of Blue Ruin and Green Room) doesn’t have enough creativity to exploit his talents.  Molly Parker, Gary Cole, Robert Forster, and Jacki Weaver provide excellent supporting talent, but they are also let down by the script, which doesn’t have what it takes to be a major work. 

Small Crimes ends up being small potatoes in moviedom.

Grade:  D                             By Donna R. Copeland



Friday, March 17, 2017

FITS AND STARTS

Wyatt Cenac     Greta Lee


     Fits and Starts is a touching comedy with comedian Wyatt Cenac (The Daily Show).  As David Warwik in this film, he and his onscreen wife, Jennifer (Lee) are very funny.  And just as much or more entertaining are the “artistic” presentations at her book agents’ party in their home.  We see writer/director Laura Terrusso’s satirical take on the avant garde art world, like an opera singer screeching out an aria, or a novelist reading an excerpt from his work (“I am the Fiji mermaid, a fish out of water…”).  These “performances” are as funny as Jennifer’s and David’s real lives.
     Everybody (on the street, in the bus, on a train) is reading Jennifer’s book, Blind Hearts.  David makes a valiant conscious effort to praise, support, and accommodate his wife.  He defers to her in many things (sometimes when he shouldn’t, and it works vice versa), but when others frequently forget they’ve ever met him, don’t listen when he talks, and praises Jennifer nonstop, his unconscious mind is taking it all in. 
     The two bicker on their way to a party hosted by her agent, and some of his resentments surface.  Jennifer (as is her wont) immediately takes action and responds to his primary complaint.  This unleashes a number of unexpected, discomfiting situations that the two will experience in the coming evening.  They get separated, David goes to the party without the support he needs, and Jennifer has to deal with being alone.  A smart ploy in the film is when she finally picks up David’s manuscript (which she never had time for before) and reads it.
    The film is a bit at war with itself in poking fun at its main characters, policemen, and performers and attendees at soirees.  It might have been better to maintain the focus on the couple as novelists, the situations/people they encounter in the social world, and the ways in which they try to deal with her success and his difficulty in getting published.  Although the characterizations of the artists are comical, it makes the flow of the film disjointed and more of a comedy show than a film with substance.
     Both Lee and Cenac are experienced actors primarily in television.  He plays his role in a sardonic way, much as he does in his work on The Daily Show.  It fits in well with a diffident character who has to deal with his spouse outshining him and who is socially unskilled in selling himself to agents and PR people.  Greta Lee has an Asian look, and fits comfortably into that niche, where she plays a go-getter and self-promoter, just the opposite of her movie husband. 
     Writer/director Laura Terruso (Hello, My Name is Doris) is skilled in writing funny scenes that capture human foibles and in creating hilarious mix-ups among people.  The encounters David has at the party when Jennifer is somewhere else are entertaining, and show his ability to act in dramas.

Husband-wife writers have to deal with discrepancies in their success even when the quality of their writing may be similar.

Grade:  C                                    By Donna R. Copeland


Wednesday, March 15, 2017

BEAUTY AND THE BEAST

Dan Stevens   Emma Watson   Luke Evans   Josh Gad   Ewan McGregor   Ian McKellan
Gugu Mbitha-Raw   Emma Thompson   Stanley Tucci   Kevin Kline   Audra McDonald  


     Be prepared for a brilliant production design (Sarah Greenwood) with graphics that resemble a kaleidoscope with spinning colors and other inventive animations and special effects.  The beloved story is updated, and the visual display enhances what is already there.  Making it a musical (music by Alan Menken) is an added bonus in entertainment.  The traditional songs are kept and additional ones are added.
      The story of a young woman in a provincial village wanting desperately to escape it and fulfill her dreams of being someone in the larger world is not unusual.  What is unusual for the time of this rendition is that Belle (Watson) rejects the idea of simply getting married and having children.  She has a clever mind and is considered odd by the villagers for her bookishness in an age when most of them do not know how to read—at least not the females.
      The town narcissist, Gaston (Evans), however, has decided that Belle is the one for him, and despite her rejections of him—which he sees simply as playing hard-to-get—tries his best to win her over.  He ignores her pleas and dismisses what she has to say, just as he does his sidekick’s (Gad) advice to back off.  He does not give up and repeatedly tries to win her (like a prize), even attempting to come between her and her father.
     Maurice is an artist and leaves home one day for Paris, where he hopes to sell something he’s made.  Along the way, he is stranded in a strange part of the country, where he is unaware that the castle where he is seeking shelter has been cursed.  He unwittingly angers the owner and is promptly put in a cell.  This owner is an ugly beast (Stevens), and thus his path crosses with Maurice’s and that of Belle when she comes to rescue him.
     A delightful part of this film is the nature of the curse that has been put on it by a sorcerer who was denied shelter by the prince.  Not only is the prince cursed, but his staff members are turned into living household items.  The butler Lumiere (McGregor) becomes a candelabra, the timekeeper (McKellan) becomes a clock, the musician Cadenza (Tucci) becomes a harpsichord, the opera singer Garderobe (McDonald) becomes a wardrobe, the butler’s wife Plumette (Mbitha-Raw) becomes a decorative feather duster resembling a swan, his cook Mrs. Potts (Thompson) becomes a teakettle with a son turned into a teacup.  These characters are delightful to watch in animation, all having magical powers they can use to defend their master.  They all look forward to the time when the curse is lifted and they can go back to their normal human lives.  The filmmakers do an enchanting job in depicting them at work, which becomes a swirl of ravishing color and flying objects.
     Director Bill Condon has pulled together all the artists creating the film into a breathtaking whole, synthesizing visual, musical, cinematographic, special effects, and acting skills, resulting in a beautiful, entrancing film.  Additionally, I was appreciative of its take-away messages of “Forgive first impressions” and “Find it in your mind’s eye and feel it in your heart” as simple but powerful for the younger viewing audience.  The superb cast led by Emma Watson and Dan Stevens enliven the production, contributing to its depth and quality.

A visual, aural, and dramatic delight, which makes it an enchanting film for kids.

Grade:  A                                    By Donna R. Copeland