Thursday, August 9, 2018

NEVER GOIN' BACK

Maia Mitchell     Camila Morrone     Kyle Mooney     Arisotle Abraham II     Joel Allen     Matthew Holcomb


     Never goin’ back?  I wish I’d never gone to this movie in the first place.  Think of every motif filmmakers use to transmit grossness—farts, poop, vomit—every silliness and foolishness in ideas and behavior—every cockamamie scheme ever cooked up—well, folks, it’s all here in this mish mash of a conglomeration about young adult misfits.  Other than the set-up of Angela (Mitchell) and Jessie (Morrone) fantasizing about going to Galveston for a holiday, there is no real plot; there are only scenes strung together in which the characters argue loudly (incessantly) and come up with harebrained illegal ways to get themselves out of one jam into another.
     The filmmakers’ (e.g., writer/director/editor Augustine Frizzell, editor Courtney Ware) lack of experience is evident, and I have to wonder what possessed the producers and whatever underwriters there were to approve it.  What is its point?  It doesn’t really have a story—just offensive vignettes—no characters show learning and transformation, and no lines are really funny. There are occasional reasons to gasp when you see what is immediately ahead, but the story actually has no suspense, and it’s obvious how everything is going to turn out in the end.
     It is the case that the two leads, Mitchell and Morrone, are well cast, and the best scenes in the film are when they are together dreaming their dreams, planning ahead, and just being goofy.  It’s when they or (heaven forbid!) the guys Dustin, Cedric, and Ryan (Allen, Abraham, Holcomb, respectively) try to cook up plans for easy money that the movie sinks (and, frankly, becomes offensive).  I was sympathetic with the character Brandon (very well played by Mooney), who is the only one capable of keeping a job and having some sense of the real world.  His negotiating a deal with the two girls is one of the few scenes that connote tenderness and sincerity.  Brandon provides some sense of reality in the story, whereas interchanges such as the one of a bigot in a grocery store yelling at Angela and Jessie and their yelling right back are ludicrous and not funny at all.
     Never Goin’ Back is a movie worth skipping.

This movie is no more than a bunch of foolishness with zero entertainment value.

Grade:  F                                    By Donna R. Copeland

THE MEG

Jason Statham     Bingbing Li     Rainn Wilson     Winston Chao     Ruby Rose     Page Kennedy


     The Meg has a lot going for it:  thrills, intrigue, humor, and fairly good character development.  It opens with a rescue mission that ends up with wins and losses, and Jones Taylor (Statham) being faulted for his role in it.  Five years later, the setting changes to a research station off China, run by Dr. Zhang  (Chao) and his daughter Suyin (Li).  They’ve made an amazing discovery that the floor of the ocean is deeper than previously thought, and they want to explore the boundary between our world and the one they hypothesize lies beyond.  Newly arrived to inspect the operation is its funder, billionaire Morris (Wilson).  He is impressed with what he finds and is gung-ho to proceed.
     The research group makes its initial voyage, and do seem to find something major that will be the find of centuries—a whole different ecological environment containing different species from our own.  But…they encounter something huge that rocks their water vessels violently.  They will soon discover that the entry they used to get to the new discovery has been used by a huge shark, a megadon believed to be extinct, to enter our system.  
     The rest of the story involves the threats posed by the animal and the team’s efforts to survive it and protect the rest of the world from its destructiveness. Within this context, a number of personal relationships complicate the story and provide interest beyond the adventure.  Some of the crew were in the previous mission with Jones Taylor, and still hold a grudge. One is a physician, and one is Taylor’s ex-wife.  In the current emergency, they all agree with Dr. Zhang that Jones is essential to the operation.  He will need to be persuaded to come, however, and if he does, interpersonal conflicts will have to be dealt with.
     While these “human interest” vignettes make the film more appealing, some have clearly been inserted simply for that purpose, and this is obvious.  One example is Suyin’s daughter who is present on the research station.  Her interactions with Jones especially have a false quality, particularly when her lines are not plausible “child-speak.”  Another is a romance sparked in the midst of disasters, which is OK, but once again, a little forced.
     Jason Statham nails his role as a hero bordering on super-hero on the one hand and a kind of charm on the other, even though mostly he is sardonic.  This is where the screenwriters have done a good job in developing his and some of the other characters into believable figures.  For instance, the Suyin character is interesting in her assertiveness and self-confidence, something not usually shown in Hollywood’s female characters.  But Li gives her spark and appeal so well she captivates.  Rainn Wilson is miscast in my opinion; I never could see him as a billionaire sponsor.
     The main “beef” I have with the film is that it extends the story too long, simply to add on special effects and more and more disasters and near-fatalities.  It could easily have ended after the first encounter with the megadon, rather than wearying us with additional emergencies.

A gripping tale that excites and captivates—up to a certain point.

Grade:  B                                                By Donna R. Copeland

BLACKKKLANSMAN

John David Washington     Adam Driver     Laura Harrier     Ryan Eggold     Topher Grace
Ryan Eggold     Jasper Paakkonen     Paul Walter Hauser     Harry Belafonte     Alec Baldwin



     Spike Lee has given us a chilling, eloquent picture about race relations in America, based on an autobiographical account by Ron Stallworth, a former police officer in Colorado Springs, Colorado, who led an undercover operation to infiltrate the Ku Klux Klan in the 1970’s.  It plays like a suspense-filled thriller, with the viewer sweating through many scenes where it is uncertain whether cover will be blown and whether characters will be killed.
     Ron Stallworth (adeptly played by Washington) is the first black police officer in Colorado Springs; to be a policeman was always his dream—particularly if he could be an undercover agent.  His first assignment is as a records clerk, which he loathes; then the opportunity comes to cover a speech by a controversial figure at a local campus, Stokely Carmichael, who has changed his name to Kwami Ture, a name that sticks in the throats of the law enforcement community.  Ron does such a good job, he is assigned to the intelligence service when he comes up with a plan to go undercover in the just-forming Ku Klux Klan in Colorado Springs.  
     After answering an ad for recruiting members for the local KKK by telephone, he convinces his police captain to send in a white police officer, Flip Zimmerman (Driver), to pose as “Ron Stallworth” and learn what the Klan is up to in the area. Stallworth actually calls David Duke (Grace), “Grand Wizard” of the Klan, to expedite his membership card. Duke is so impressed with Stallworth, he goes to Colorado to induct him personally into the Klan.
     In addition to the tension surrounding the undercover operation and maintaining anonymity, there is also conflict in the romantic relationship Ron has rather naively formed with one of the black protestors, Patrice (Harrier), who looks exactly like Angela Davis, and who is constantly trying to find out who he really is. There is also the Klansman Felix (spookily played by Paakonen) who is suspicious of Flip, (he thinks he has spotted him as a Jew) and performs tests of his identity and commitment. We’re also on edge, waiting to see if any of the threats picked up by the police department and the FBI(?) will come to fruition.
     BlacKkKlansman will most likely come to be considered as Spike Lee’s best film so far.  It won the Gran Prix at Cannes this year, and Lee received a standing ovation at its premier.       This seems well deserved in consideration of the overall production including screenplay, direction, actors, music, and cinematography—and its topical relevance.  One of the jewels is the juxtaposition of a Klan meeting showing a disgusting racist film and a black protest meeting, in which an account delivered by Harry Belefonte tells about the horrific mistreatment of a black child.
     As stunning as the film is, it is long; and there are a few scenes that could have been shortened, and one at the end that could have been cut altogether; it’s a telephone call informing a major character about the law enforcement subterfuge.  Perhaps this actually occurred (I have not read Stallworth’s book), but it looks more like the filmmakers simply wanted to vent their spleen.

BlacKkKlansman is a meritorious addition to the films that are making statements about us that we should take seriously.

Grade:  A                                    By Donna R. Copeland

PUZZLE

Kelly Macdonald     David Denman     Irrfan Kahn     Bubba Weiler     Austin Abrams     Liv Hewson


     This is a coming-of-age story not of a teenager, but of a devoted housewife and mother.  (About time, don’t you think?)  It’s significant that the film opens with Agnes (Macdonald) preparing a birthday party—and it turns out it’s her own.  Doing for others is the mantra of her life, and she rarely takes herself into account.  She is surrounded by a loving family, her husband Louie (Denman) and her two sons, Ziggy (Weiler) and Gabe (Abrams).  They are all appreciative of her, and although Ziggy has some inkling of her self-sacrifice, Louie is clueless.  He’s a big, huggable teddy bear who thinks telling her she is “cute” is a compliment when he is in fact putting her down.  He claims the traditional role of father (boss) in the family who is supposed to “protect” his wife from important decisions.  Gabe, who has given her a phone for her birthday—which, of course, she shies away from—keeps trying to pull her into modern times.
     Never underestimate the upheaval the liberation of a woman(women) can create.  In this case, it comes about through jigsaw puzzles.  Agnes has always been fascinated with math and patterns, and when she opens her presents by herself the day after the party, she tosses the phone aside and shakes the puzzle out of its box, a fateful step.  She quickly works it out and begins seeking out other puzzles. (Figuring out puzzles is clearly a theme for this whole story.)
     This takes her to New York City to find more where, once again, fatefully, she sees a notice “desperately seeking a partner for a puzzle competition.”  This connects her with the eccentric puzzle-master, Robert (Kahn), a disaster-obsessed Indian who has become wealthy off a patent he invented.  Here, too, the strait-laced Catholic woman who firmly believes in causality and human control bumps into the Eastern philosopher who says whatever happens is meant to be and outside our control.
     In a way, I think this is what the film—and Agnes, ultimately—are wrestling with: free will versus determinism. While Agnes is discovering the powers of free will (which also involves the concept of sin and guilt), she confronts Robert’s observations about fate and determinism, sidestepping the pain of guilt.  When this is considered, the way the film ends makes more sense, in that the filmmakers are making a point about this issue.  It’s slightly ironic, however, in its support of Robert’s philosophy until the end, when I found the worn “I’m sorry” remark as hollow.
     Puzzle is a quiet film, but make no mistake in assuming it is a “nice”, calm (boring) story about an ordinary family.  It is raw in depicting the emotional ravages that can occur within the family and among people in general when new ideas and ways of seeing the world and people are introduced at a gut level.  But it is sympathetic both to those wanting to hold onto the old and those who anticipate change.
     Praise is due for all involved in the filmmaking of Puzzle.  Director Marc Turtletaub has proven his value in producing the soulful hits Little Miss Sunshine, Loving, and Safety Not Guaranteed; Screenwriter Oran Moverman is credited with Love & Mercy, The Messenger, and I’m Not There; Dustin O’Halloran’s music uncannily syncs with the ambience of each scene; Kelly Macdonald is a tour de force in portraying her lead character, well supported by the exotic and mysterious Irrfan Kahn and the sometimes quietly, sometimes demonstrably emotive David Denman.  I absolutely loved the way all characters are presented sympathetically, avoiding the all-good/all-bad connotation.

Puzzle wrestles with the questions of free will versus determinism in a real-life family drama.

Grade:  A                                                By Donna R. Copeland

Thursday, August 2, 2018

CHRISTOPHER ROBIN

Ewan McGregor     Hayley Atwell     Bronte Carmichael     Mark Glass
Voices of:  Jim Cummings     Brad Garrett     Nick Mohammed     Peter Capaldi     Toby Jones

     A clever blending of fantasy and reality makes this film engaging and funny, while still honing in on an essential need for children and adults—that of play and of staying in touch with the childhood experience.  Grown-up Christopher Robin (sympathetically played by Ewan McGregor) is being overworked and de-valued at the Winslow Luggage Company where he is an efficiency manager.  Although he doesn’t live up to his own counsel for other people, Robin’s boss, Giles Winslow (Glass), thoughtlessly keeps urging Robin to work harder and make sacrifices for the company.
     In this sense, Robin is a pushover, only meekly protesting and eventually giving in to his boss at the expense of family time and leisure.  He is a workaholic who doesn’t even like his job very much, and he is starting to simply “go through the motions” with his wife and daughter.  Evelyn (Atwell) reasons very convincingly in wanting him to take a different perspective on life, but Christopher ignores her.  Even his daughter Madeline (Carmichael) cannot pull his heartstrings to devote some time for her.  When he does make attempts, it is clear that he is clueless and has lost any sense of what childhood is—or should be.  Tellingly, he keeps pushing Madeline to work harder at her studies so she can go to a boarding school where she herself doesn’t want to go.
     This is all the set-up for the major thrust of Christopher Robin, which is adventures for all, with little homespun truths coming now and then from Winnie the Pooh (Cummings).  The above is all “reality”, and a bit dull until Robin and Pooh happen upon each other in one of their old haunts.  Thereafter, the story takes a quick left and we become reacquainted with the characters in the Hundred Acre Wood.  In addition to Pooh, there are Eeyore (Garrett) the endearing pessimist, Tigger (Cummings) the frolicking optimist, Piglet, Owl, and the rest of the “Winnie the Pooh” beguiling gang that children everywhere have loved.
     Not all films of this type (elaboration of beloved children’s stories) succeed, but this one expertly directed by Marc Forster should be a hit with children and adults.  It has internal validity in projecting how the sincere young Christopher, who always wants to do good (as in pleasing adults) is, as an adult, taken in by a taskmaster and exploited.  It illustrates how far away he has grown from that imaginative, affectionate, spontaneous youth he once was.           
     Who helps him get back in touch and make some revisions in his life, and how, is the crux of this tale.  The impressively seamless transition from childhood to adulthood may be attributed to the screenwriters (Alex Ross Perry, Tom McCarthy, and Allison Schroeder) who have written a continuing story that could logically and developmentally follow from the original works and characters conceived of by A. A. Milne and Ernest Shepard.  It is likely that Tom McCarthy has provided much of the substance in the material because of how it resembles in tone and thoughtfulness his earlier successes (Win Win, The Station Agent, The Visitor, Spotlight, and Up).  He has a way of mixing wisdom, humor, and emotion into a story in the most delightful way.  
     Partly because of this, Christopher Robin the movie retains much of Milne’s original charm and humor with Pooh’s wise pronouncements [such as, that doing nothing sometimes achieves better results than doing something] and the other Milne characters’ humorously doing what they’re remembered best for.  

Christopher Robin has grown up, but still needs some helpful guidance from Pooh and his old friends.

Grade:  A                                    By Donna R. Copeland

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

TEEN TITANS GO! TO THE MOVIES

Voices of:  Scott Menville     Kristen Bell     Nicolas Cage     Tara Strong     Will Arnett
Khary Payton     Hynden Walch     Stan Lee     Patton Oswalt     Jimmy Kimmel


     In our narcissistic age, it’s fitting that we have more films for kids about its consequences, particularly when Hollywood has such a draw.  This animated film is about a “sidekick, a nobody” who has aspirations for greatness like the known superheroes enjoy.  Robin (Menville) is chafing about his insignificance in the superhero world, and his team’s references to his small hands only makes it worse.  (Wonder where the filmmakers got the idea that small hands has some significance in a film about hubris…)  So he begins to whip up enthusiasm among his team of Teen Titans, consisting of Raven (Strong), Cyborg (Payton), Starfire (Walch), and Beast Boy (Cipes), for making a superhero movie with them as stars.
     They proceed to Hollywood with high hopes of getting a contract, and wonder about who would be their nemesis, which all superheroes have.  Not surprisingly, one appears in the form of Slade (pronounced ‘slade-a’ to give it more oomph and voiced by Arnett). His power is in mind manipulation, and we see all kinds of manifestations of that in the story, except those times when Robin is onto him and doesn’t succumb to some of his mis-directions.  But Robin is susceptible to thinking about his own interests without regard to his team.  He keeps chanting that he wants “a movie all about me.”
     In the meantime, the Titans go to Warner Brothers and try to enlist the interest of director Jane Wilson (Bell).  [As an aside, much of this film is spoofing not only Hollywood, but superhero films in general, and this includes DC and Marvel comics.  Stan Lee of Marvel Comics has two wonderful cameos.] Wilson comes across as a caricature of director stereotypes, dismissing the Titans initially for their inconsequentiality.
     Eventually, though, the movie will get made, but at considerable cost; Robin will have to make compromises (like dispensing with his team) and learn a life lesson—one that will be to the edification of children in the audience.
     Clever references to previous superhero movies will please those knowledgeable about DC and Marvel Comics.  At one point when Robin wants to take him in, Slade reminds him that superheroes’ archenemies never go to jail—instead, their next plan gets foiled in the next movie by a superhero.  
     Teen Titans is clearly geared toward children, both in its humor (yes, farts and poops) and in its attempts to convey good principles such as thoughtfulness toward others and the pitfalls of pride. But with its running commentary on super hero figures and the comics behind them, it’s entertaining for adults as well, particularly those familiar with the genre.
     The core group responsible for the “Teen Titans Go!” TV series are at work in the movie version as well, for instance, directors Aaron Horvath and Peter Rida, production designer Dan Hipp, and musician Jared Faber.  The design, animation, and graphics match up nicely with the action, creating a unified whole.  Actors’ voices are apt for their parts, and special shout-outs go to Scott Menville as Robin and Will Arnett as Slade who are onscreen the majority of the time.

High Jinks and fanciful animations keep this production entertaining for children and adults.

Grade:  A-                                    By Donna R. Copeland

MISSION IMPOSSIBLE - FALLOUT

Tom Cruise     Henry Cavill     Ving Rhames     Simon Pegg     Rebecca Ferguson
Sean Harris     Angela Bassett     Vanessa Kirby     Michelle Monaghan     Alec Baldwin


     Apparent impossibilities is a running theme in Mission Impossible movies, and this one just about maxes out on them: Careening car chases on busy city streets, a glass and wall smashing brawl in a brilliantly lit men’s room leaving blood everywhere, reverberating near-miss gun shots (although many make their mark, of course), shifting identities (friends turn out to be foes and vice versa—who’s to trust?), multiple players with agendas of their own, complex nuclear bomb dismantlement, and literal cliff hangers make this an exciting, nail-biter of a story.
     Ethan Hunt (Cruise) is given the assignment of sabotaging a plutonium deal that is likely to end up as a nuclear weapon in the wrong hands.  He smarts at CIA head Erica Sloan’s (Bassett) last-minute instruction that one of her agents, Walker (Cavill), accompany him on the mission. Hunt gets a sample of Walker’s rashness and ineptness early on in the mission, and it takes all his patience to stomach him, especially when he seems not to have any inkling that Hunt has rescued him early on in a dive out of an airplane at high altitude.
     Never mind.  They get right to the business of identifying the parties involved in the plutonium trade, which is more complicated than they imagined.  They will encounter men with ideals to change the world order [Dr. Nils Debruuk (Kristopher Joner) and Solomon Lane (Harrison)]; British Ilsa Faust (Ferguson), perhaps of MI6 and well known to Hunt, who is mystified when she appears on the scene; and periodic reappearances of Sloan and Hunley (Baldwin).  In the process, accusations and proofs of loyalty abound.  
     Cruise is up to the role as always in his rendition of the Hunt persona and in his continuing bravery in doing as many of his own stunts as possible.  (He suffered an ankle injury during the filming.)  But the number of times he is hanging onto a ledge gets to be almost humorous.  It’s hard to see Henry Cavill (of Superman fame) play the role of thoughtless agent and possibly something worse, a bit of miscasting, since he is not always able to achieve the sinister threat of such a character.  Rhames and Pegg not only contribute fine supporting performances as Hunt’s loyal team; they finely and convincingly execute welcome comedic lines when the going gets tense.  Other supporting actors (Ferguson, Harris, Bassett, Kirby, Baldwin, and Monaghan) perform admirably in their roles, although scenes between Hunt and Monaghan’s character are unnecessary and way too saccharine.
     There are so many chases and characters to follow in this breakneck-paced action movie, the viewer can easily lose track, but the main thrusts come through, and you can count on getting the main points by the end.  Sprinkled in here and there are clever little motifs that bring chuckles (for example:  In tense moments a character will ask, “How…?”  The reply:  “I’ll figure it out.”)  At any rate, director Christopher McQuarrie (Mission Impossible:  Rogue Nation) seems to have maintained the series’ good reputation, and perhaps may even have improved on it.  

Be prepared for hair-raising ride—literal and metaphorical--in this action thriller.

Grade:  A-                                    By Donna R. Copeland