Thursday, April 19, 2018

I FEEL PRETTY

Michelle Williams     Amy Schumer     Emily Ratajkowski     Aidy Bryant     Busy Phillips     
Rory Scovel     Lauren Hutton     Naomi Campbell     Tom Hopper


     Self-confidence becomes the primary thrust of the story, illustrating how it can over-ride reality in both a positive and negative sense.  Amy Schumer as Renee, plays her usual role of being a buxom young woman, convinced that she is disadvantaged because of her looks, and taking a jaded view of men who seem to her to favor pretty women.  She imagines that someone as beautiful and well proportioned as Mallory (Ratajkowski) has the world at her feet and can’t possibly be disappointed or hurt.  
     Writers/directors Abby Kohn and Marc Silverstein use a literal bump on the head to show how a change in attitude can do wonders for a girl’s self-esteem. Magically, Renee gets up from the floor after a fall at her spinning class bursting with a self-confidence that defies reality; and, interestingly, people seem to overlook physical appearances and go along with her delusion.  She charms people, and utilizes traits of thoughtfulness, creativity, and leadership to gain their respect and make a better life for herself.
     Of course, everything will not go smoothly all the way, and Renee will learn some lessons about friendship and genuineness that will give her a better hold on life, herself, and those she cares about.  
     The premise as acted out in I Feel Pretty,in its emphasis on attitude and outlook influencing life events, is rather simplistic and concrete.  Although it’s billed as a comedy, the story is straightforward, and lacks creativity in making a true-to-life story be funny and profound at the same time.  It’s much too earnest and lacks subtlety to accomplish that. Better films in which to see the transformation of women as a result of changes in perception and experience, for instance, include Maudie, Megan Leavey,andPatti Cake$.
     Amy Schumer is gifted in portraying the loveable, spastic, good-hearted character she plays here, but I think she is capable of more than that, and would like to see her in more substantive roles.  I fear she will be like Melissa McCarthy, who continues along in the same role that made her famous, despite her talent.  Refreshingly, Michelle Williams has taken on a completely different, comedic role here.  Who would’ve thought?  This paragon of depth in character pulls off the role of a beautifully masked intelligent, powerful woman with a high-pitched “girly” voice.  She is the only really interesting, novel character, and I wish she had been given more screen time.
     Actors in the roles of Renee’s friends, Scovel (Ethan), Bryant (Vivian), and Jane (Phillips), give vibrant color to the film, and convey the genuineness that Renee needs to keep her grounded.  I especially appreciated Scovel’s character, who goes against male stereotypes.

Look beyond Amy Schumer’s role (not new—although very well done) to identify those that exemplify openness to the novel, tolerance for differences, and go against stereotype.

Grade:  C+                                                By Donna R. Copeland

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

LEAN ON PETE

Charlie Plummer     Travis Fimmel     Steve Buscemi     Chloe Sevigny     Steve Zahn     Alison Elliott


     At first in this story, Charley (Plummer) appears to be a hapless teenager whose mother has disappeared and whose father Ray (Fimmel) womanizes (“The best women have all been waitresses at some point.”), makes enemies, and hasn’t much of an idea about how to parent, although it is clear that he loves Charley.  Quietly appealing, Charley clearly has some sense of responsibility as he realizes money is tight in the family and looks for a job.  He happens upon the Portland horserace track and Del (Buscemi), a grumbling horse trainer and quarter horse owner who puts the few horses he has left onto the track, and who takes a chance on Charley.  He hires him for a day to see how well he can do, then takes him on for a little longer when he sees that Charley is different from “most teenagers nowadays” in that he’s an able and willing worker.
     Del is a colorful, cantankerous type who forbids people around him to talk very much—especially if they get into personal topics.  Yet, he manages to find out that Charley has not been taught much in the way of manners, doesn’t have a mother, and lives with his father.  That’s about all he wants to know, but it does make him at least slightly sympathetic toward the boy.
     Despite the jockey Bonnie’s (Sevigny) warning Charley not to think of the horses as pets, he does get attached to the horse “Lean on Pete”, a not very good racer who might eventually be sold to someone in Mexico for its meat.  Charley does his best to see that doesn’t happen in all the ways he can think of, but it looks like the inevitable is very near.  
    Charley has had major losses in his life, and when he experiences another one, he decides he can fulfill two purposes in saving Pete and in finding the woman Margie (Elliott) who was a mother-figure to him long before.  The last he heard, she lives in Wyoming, so he has a some distance to go to find her.  He sees no other way out for him and Pete.
     Most of the story is about that journey and the tremendous degree of determination and fortitude Charley brings to bear on his situation.  A fine balance is maintained between Charley’s appealing personality (a number of people along his way reach out to help him) and pure and simple bad luck, mean people, and the limitations of anyone this age. 
     The drama is well told by British Director Andrew Haigh (45 Years) with fully formed characters and keeping up the suspense with only a slight slow-down in the middle.      Plummer does an extraordinarily fine job of giving a realistic view of this unusual teen as he did as wealthy J. Paul Getty’s grandson in All the Money in the World. Critical roles played by Steve Buscemi, Chloe Sevigny, Steve Zahn, and Alison Elliott round out the cast to make this an independent film well worth going out of your way to see.

A boy growing up in life without a niche is determined to find one, one way or another.

Grade:  B+                                                By Donna R. Copeland

Saturday, April 14, 2018

BLOCKERS

Leslie Mann     John Cena     Ike Barinholtz     Kathryn Newton     Geraldine Viswanathan    Gideon Adlon    Graham Phillips

     Ah, parents!  Three of them in this farce turn out to be helicopter parents bent on redoing their own youth through their children.  Which, of course, turns out to be interference.  “The Kids are All Right” as the 2010 entitled movie showed, and they’re all right here too, making much more sense than their parents—well, most of them.  Three of the teens’ parents were all right too; it’s just the other three who need an intervention.
     The basic conflict is that snooping parents find out that their three daughters plan to lose their virginity on prom night.  They’re set off for different reasons, but Lisa (Mann), Mitchell (Cena), and ambivalent Hunter (Barinholtz) simply assume that they should not let that happen.  
     Director Kay Cannon uses a script from Brian and Jim Kehoe to create a spoof about parents having to let go of their maturing children and protest it by including themselves in the kids’ prom night, of all times!  Of course, they are convinced that their only interest is in protecting their daughters from unscrupulous boys and “ruining their lives.”  It makes for a lot of laughs, without too much damage done.  Along the way, though, these intentions get them into hot water and embarrassing moments when they ironically get caught by their kids. (Isn’t it supposed to be the other way around?  That parents “catch” their kids doing something?
     Blockers hits the mark in a number of places where, for instance, Lisa describes fears for her daughter Julie (Newton) that are clearly a reflection of her own disappointed hopes at that age. Especially funny is father Hunter, who has been an AWOL dad, but more than the others has kept up with millennials, and knows something about their culture and can interpret emojis. This is not always helpful, but at least he has some sense of the need for parents to step back.  No one heeds him, so in a desperate (although late) attempt to stay involved, he goes along with Lisa and Mitchell in their attempts to “rescue” their daughters.
     Where I think Blockers goes over the top is in the assumption that the more shocking something is, the funnier it is. Filmmakers don’t always recognize that fine line between dialog that is life-funny and that which simply turns the viewer off.  Example:  An innocent but determined character telling her partner to put his penis in her vagina in just those words.  No human is likely to say that, so it’s just not funny.  On the other hand, seeing uptight parents happening upon a couple play-acting a sex drama will make you laugh.
     Another place I think the filmmakers missed an opportunity is in deemphasizing the conflict between the sensible parent (who is a doctor) and her husband Mitchell and the parents of Julie’s boyfriend Austin (Phillips), all advising the trio to stay out of their children’s lives.  Maybe this is because Blockers is meant to be comedy over drama.
     Leslie Mann, Ike Barinholtz, and John Cena are hilarious as the three interfering parents, all for different reasons, but consistent with their characters.  

A mostly funny account of parental meddling.

Grade:  C+                                    By Donna R. Copeland


A QUIET PLACE

Emily Blunt     John Krasinski     Noah Jupe     Millicent Simmonds     Cade Woodward


     This is a very quiet place, necessarily, because acutely hearing monsters might hear and attack wherever human sound is coming from.  It took a while for the audience to settle down, but before long, it was the quietest movie theater I’ve ever been in, which is a measure of just how much tension and apprehension the film elicits in the audience.  It’s clear from the beginning that there has been some kind of holocaust; there are few people around, stores have been wrecked, and the characters we see use sign language.
     The Abbott family (father, mother, daughter, and two sons) is appealing, and they’re able to communicate a great deal with sign language and visual cues. Evelyn (Blunt) is nurturing and fun with her family, doing household chores and home-schooling the kids. And one of your first questions is how she is going to keep a newborn quiet, because she is pregnant. Lee (Krasinski) is intelligent, and he and Emily seem to have thought of everything—well, almost everything—in preparing for eventualities and training their children about what to do. In addition, he spends much time in his workshop trying to get as much information as possible about the monsters and find their vital weakness.  The three children, daughter Regan (Simmonds), Marcus (Jupe), and Beau (Woodward) are typical in their propensity for play and unpredictability, as well as their desire to help.   Regan has a special burden to bear because of something that happens early on in the story.  They are all so appealing, it’s easy to care about what happens to them.
     Krasinski’s directing is something he will be proud of, in its story line (on which he collaborated with Bryan Woods and Scott Beck), the development and pace of the plot, and the selection of the cinematographer Charlotte Bruus and musician Marco Beltrami.   Much of the film is beautiful to watch, with the surreal experience of quietness as the family walks around barefoot, sometimes through the corn fields and woods in full color, punctuated by rushing waters, static in electrical and computer devices (and even in a hearing aid), and the alarming sound of monsters (gorgeously and ghoulishly designed by Industrial Light and Magic) as they groan, trying to find the source of a sound or swoosh in loudly for a kill.  
     Both Emily Blunt and her real-life husband John Krasinski show their talents in acting that conveys so much information nonverbally.  Millicent Simmonds (Wonderstruck) is admirably expressive, and in this role brilliantly shows Regan’s complexities in her hearing impairment (which is real for Simmonds), her unequivocal love for her brothers, her ambivalence toward her parents, and her feelings of guilt, suspicion, and rage toward her father.  
     All the different special effects and production design (Jeffrey Beecroft) in A Quiet Place are noteworthy, especially for a horror film, which knows to reveal the physical appearance of the monsters only gradually.  For much of the first part of the film, they’re only heard, not visible, which heightens the fear factor.  But then, when they’re fully seen, they are fascinating and disgusting at the same time.
     As one who is not an aficionado of horror movies, I found this one to be thoroughly engaging, parsing out the horror in believable—not too fantastic—premises and scenes.  I could have done without the ill-conceived pregnancy and birth of a baby (although this amazing couple even planned that out very carefully.)  

A Quiet Place is deceptive in its title, as an unspeakable horror where sounds can destroy you and your family.

Grade:  A-                                    By Donna R. Copeland

Thursday, April 12, 2018

BEIRUT

Rosamund Pike     Jon Hamm     Dean Norris     Shea Whigham     Harry Pine


     If you go to see Beirut, directed by Brad Anderson and written by Tony Gilroy, you would do well beforehand to acquaint yourself thoroughly with the actor-character pairs, because so many people are thrown at you at once, it’s hard to know who’s who.  This is after the opening scene of an energetic cocktail party gone bad.  No background information is given, either about the story or the characters. So there is a lot of figuring-out to do through most of the first half.  This, along with Mason Skiles’ (Hamm) continuous imbibing of hard liquor brings on a bit of wooziness.
     Skiles has gone into a deep funk and become an alcoholic after his diplomatic sojourn in Beirut where he loses all that is dear to him.  He returns to the States after an international reputation for negotiating, only to form a small two-man company that negotiates between small-town bosses and labor unions.  After his partner announces that he is joining another company, Skiles is suddenly presented with a puzzling offer from the CIA, which is to present a lecture at the American University in Beirut on negotiating.  Beirut is the last place he wants to go on earth, but the timeliness (and probably seductiveness of something more exciting than his boring life) of the charge, along with a first-class airplane ticket, cash, and passport, allows him to be “poured” (alcohol reference again) onto the plane.
     Once there, Skiles has a devil of a time trying to find out what he is expected to do, because he knows it is more than simply a lecture.  Sandy Crowley (Pike) is clearly tasked with squiring him around, but the agendas of three State Department officials is obscure—until it finally seeps out.  He is to negotiate the release of an American (a former friend when he was in Lebanon) who has been kidnapped by Palestinians.  The exchange is to be for one of the men involved in the 1972 Munich massacre.  This means he has to deal with Israel as well, as they are likely to have one of the perpetrators.
     There are additional complexities in the mix that make this film engaging; unfortunately, the viewer is presented with so many puzzles to figure out it simply becomes frustrating.  The filmmakers should have given us more background into characters like Skiles, Crowley, the State Department officials, young Karim (whom Skiles and his wife had sheltered and mentored), and the whole political situation at the time.  When I view a film, I want to be carried along by the story, not charged with figuring out who is who and what is going on throughout.
     The actors are the best part of this film, giving color and fascination to an intriguing subject.  I think we were let down by director Anderson and writer Gilroy, who failed to provide the essential elements to make this a captivating story—which it should have been.  It’s only towards the very end when Skiles is negotiating the exchange of prisoners that Beirut comes into its own.

Intrigues during the Lebanese civil war that should captivate us more than this film does.

Grade:  C                                    By Donna R. Copeland

Thursday, April 5, 2018

THE MIRACLE SEASON

Helen Hunt     Tiera Skovbye     Erin Moriarty     Danika Yarosh     William Hurt     Nesta Cooper


      The story begins with the star of the high school girls volleyball team, Captain Caroline ‘Line’ Found (Yarosh), doing her thing, which is to take center stage in any gathering with a special talent for drawing everyone into her circle. She is charismatic and impulsive, and pulls love and adoration from all she meets.  With her hyper vibes and constant chatter, she is a bit irritating to Coach Kathy “Bres” Bresnahan (Hunt), and the coach has to counsel her about what leadership involves.  But somehow, all this works, and the team is pumped about going for their second state title in a row.
     But Caroline’s life is not as rosy as it appears; her mother is seriously ill and not expecting to live much longer, much to the sorrow of Caroline and her father, Ernie (Hurt).  She was actually a volleyball star in her day, and has given her daughter the shoes she wore.  The always-optimistic Caroline ignores her mother’s frankness and visualizes that they will be together forever.  Regrettably, this turns out to be an ironic statement, in that Caroline will go before her mother. 
     Based on a true story, Miracle Season is meant to inspire viewers by getting them into the spirit of the (volleyball) game, and see how a team pulls together in the face of adversity.  The adversity is grief that comes over them after their beloved captain is killed in an accident.  Caroline’s best friend, Kelly (Moriarty) is tapped to take her place as captain, but it’s clear that in their relationship Caroline was the leader, and Kelly’s self-image pales in contrast.
     This is the turning point in the story; whereas the first part is almost irritatingly sweet in its idolization of Caroline, the transition into grief and how the characters manage it becomes the meat of the film.  Director Sean McNamara focuses on the different ways people cope with loss, and highlights conversations that are healing and inspiring.  An example is Caroline’s father expressing his bitterness and guilt and then helping Kelly with hers.  He’s a strong force in moving her from hero- worship to valuing herself, and assuming her legitimate role as captain.
     Helen Hunt and William Hurt anchor the film as only well seasoned actors can, showing how a viewer can be transported beyond the entertainment value of a film to one of real substance.  Coach is ill at ease socially, but provides the toughness this group of girls (I think the filmmakers tilted them too far into stereotypical “girly” girls) need to overcome adversity.  Hurt is the gentle, fatherly support Kelly, in particular, needs to become her own person.  Erin Moriarty as Kelly, shows great potential for bringing life to a character and becoming a star in her own right.
     For its intentions, I think this film succeeds in its likely appeal to viewers wanting to be inspired and follow a sports team with all its thrills and chills. I’m wondering how it will appear to women who actually play volleyball and are on teams.  My impression is that it is overly dramatic in its depiction of the girls, and that for all its heavy focus on the grief, many will, unfortunately, be turned off.  I congratulate the film for being frank about the grief process.

An exciting sports story about an “impossible” comeback, but with dips into the reality of grief.

Grade:  C+                                    By Donna R. Copeland

Thursday, March 29, 2018

ISLE OF DOGS

Voices of:  Bryan Cranston   Koyu Rankin   Kunishi Nomura   Edward Norton   
Bob Balaban   Bill Murray  Jeff Goldblum   Greta Gerwig   Frances McDormand   
Scarlett Johansson   Harvey Keitel   Akira Ito  F. Murray Abraham   Tilda Swinton  
 Liev Schreiber   Yoko Ono   Courtney B. Vance   Akira Takayama


     In the hands of Wes Anderson, a stop-motion animated film with mostly dogs as characters and an allegorical theme will captivate children and adults without pandering to either.  Probably by coincidence, writer-director Anderson, with the help of Roman Coppola, Jason Schwartzman, and Kunichi Nomura, employ themes of topical relevance today:  government corruption, foreign influences on government, student protests, and issues related to animal research.  Additional weight comes from a case of repentance of justified charges for crime, followed by atonement.  Oh, yes, and murder and cannibalism are covered as well.
     Now, you might think from reading the above paragraph, that Isle of Dogs is entirely too serious and doesn’t sound entertaining at all.  But hold on—the action in the film is fascinating, rife with chuckling humor and imaginative sets, all accompanied by Alexandre Desplat’s wondrous score that enriches every scene.   Cinematography by Tristan Oliver and all the production and set design are remarkably artistic and enjoyable.
     The story takes place in feudal Japan, where Mayor Kobayashi (Nomura) and his cat-adoring people have decided that dogs are bad (as evidenced by dog flu, snout fever, and other symptoms) and a threat to humans, so must be banished to Trash Island (think of the environment in Wall-E); this is despite a noble scientist (Ito) announcing that a cure is imminent. 
     It turns out the mayor has a nephew who has become his ward after the child’s parents died.  Atari (Rankin) has a beloved dog named Spots (Schreiber), and even Spots has been banished.  This is too much for Atari, and in his grief and desperation (and smarts) he commandeers a small plane on his uncle’s estate and flies to Trash Island to find Spots.       That’s where many of the adventures and entertaining encounters take place.  Every dog has a personality and personal issues to deal with.  Anderson is able to insert drama in just about anything.
     Suspense is high in making us wonder whether Atari will find his dog (and there is an additional twist there), what will happen to all the dogs we’ve come to know on the island, and what will happen politically in Megasaki City.
     There is so much to process in Isle of Dogs that you are likely to want to see it again.  Noteworthy is the way the filmmakers bring home messages about justice, right, fairness, and joie de vivre without being condescending.  It’s all there for you in the experiencing of the film.
     Anderson has his favorite actors, and they are here, along with a host of others for us to admire.  I have heard that actors vie to be in an Anderson film, and it’s easy to see why.

Quintessential Wes Anderson in presentation, message(s), thoughtfulness, beauty, and fun. 

Grade:  A                                                   By Donna R. Copeland