Thursday, December 14, 2017

FERDINAND

Voices of:  John Cena     Jeremy Sisto     Bobby Cannavale     Lily Day     Juanes
Jerrod Carmichael     Kate McKinnon     Anthony Anderson     Peyton Manning    
David Tennant     Carlos Saldanha     Miguel Angel Silvestre


     How do you tell a story about a pacifist bull?  Well, Twentieth Century Fox Animation and Director Carlos Saldanha do just that, based on a book by Munro Leaf and Robert Lawson.  We don’t know why Ferdinand (Cena) doesn’t want to fight; his father is a champion bull, but Ferdinand likes to smell the flowers—literally!  He is teased unmercifully by his peers, especially Valiente (Cannavale), a barnyard bully.  But Ferdinand is smart, and when it looks like he is going to be chosen to go to the arena for a fight, he bolts (no easy task, since the bull pen is highly secure). 
     I won’t say how he gets away, which is part of the fun, but he ends up on a ranch owned by Juan (Juanes), who indulges his daughter Nina (Day) in keeping as many pets as she wants.  She falls in love with Ferdinand, and they become fast friends.  He is SO happy with Nina and her father, smelling dozens of flowers on the countryside as he roams wherever he wants, and only has to contend with the testy Paco (Carmichael) the dog who is feeling like his special place has been usurped.  Ferdinand is fed and treated well at the ranch and grows to be “a beast” of a bull.
     All would have been fine ever after, but Ferdinand sees no reason why he can’t accompany his new family to the annual flower market in the city.  Juan says it is not a good place for Ferdinand, and he is left behind.  Alas, he argues with himself about complying with his owner’s wishes, but ultimately decides he should go to the festival.  Once there, he is so enthralled by all the flowers, he makes some bad decisions, and thereafter the festival becomes truly like “a bull in a china closet”, because his appearance terrifies people, and in trying to get away, he upsets more than one apple cart.
     This escape costs him greatly, and he finds himself once again in la Casa del Toro where bulls are trained and from where Ferdinand had just run away.  Now, we see the more mature Ferdinand taking a leadership role in trying to persuade his fellow bulls why they should resist going to the bullring.  These sequences are good for children to see how political positions are reasoned out based on observed facts. 
     After this, the story devolves into the contemporary popular car-bus-train chase.  (Every exciting film has to have a car chase, right?)  I didn’t get the impression the children in the audience were as fascinated by this as were/are filmmakers, but this goes on for a significant number of minutes in the film.
     When the story finally gets back to the basic idea of the film, it ends on stirring moments when the concept of/reason for pacifism is shown very clearly, both in the evidence about what actually happens at bull fights, and what can go on in the ring when a bull doesn’t want to fight.  It ends in a way that preserves everyone’s pride.
     Ferdinand has some very clever, funny scenes (e.g., a dance contest, of all things, between the Germanic sounding, haughty horses and the inhabitants of the barnyard at Casa del Toro), and some lines tossed out for adults in the audience (e.g., “Let’s try to Haagen-Das (hug) it out”, “I’ve fallen, and I can’t giddy-up”, and a reference to re-gifting.)  But most of its value is in modeling for children a) how to make decisions about whether to fight or not to fight; and b) showing that bravery can be shown by leadership just as much as by muscle.  Related to that, it shows how maturing in a loving atmosphere is strengthening.

This is about a brave bull who had good reasons for not going into the bullring.

Grade:  B+                                    By Donna R. Copeland





STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI

Daisy Ridley     Domhnall Gleeson     Adam Driver     Oscar Isaac
Mark Hamill     Carrie Fisher     John Boyega     Kelly Marie Tran      
Benecio Del Toro     Andy Serkis     Laura Dern     Justin Theroux

     Not many films and filmmakers can keep up the momentum that the two space fantasies Star Wars and Star Trek have, and in this eighth sequence of Star Wars, writer/director Rion Johnson proves that this franchise is still good to go.  He does a good job in preserving and renewing beloved themes and images while introducing new ones that point toward the future.  We see two of the original characters, Luke Skywalker (Hamill) and Princess Leia (Fisher); and new interactions between Rey (Ridley) and Kylo Ren (Driver)—both introduced in the last episode, The Force Awakens—set up so that we know they will meet again.
   The Last Jedi opens with an attack on the Jedi resistance forces, which now consist of only 400 fighters on three ships.  The story will shift back and forth between attacks from the Jedi’s arch enemy, the First Order, commanded by General Hux (Gleason) and their own attacks, commanded by General Leia Organa, upon the First Order.  General Hux must answer to the supreme leader, Snoke (Serkis), who initially denigrates him for his failure to stop the destruction of some major artillery.
   Meanwhile, Rey, who finally located Luke Skywalker on the planet Ahch-To in the last picture, revisits him with the message that his presence in the battle is critical for the survival of the Jedi.  He has been coming to the philosophical conclusion that the survival of the Jedi is not that important, so her job will involve many hurdles, meditations, and encounters.  Will she convince him to go? 
   There are additional scenarios and encounters to keep the story intriguing, like the relationship between Finn (Boyega), Rey’s missing co-pilot, and Rose (Tran) a mechanic with impressive knowledge and skills; Poe (Isaac) and whoever is in charge of the Jedi at the time; and the triangle of Snoke (Serkis), General Hux, and Kylo Ren. 
     It’s not all drama; there are many scenes that make the audience laugh out loud, like that with Chewbaca and the bird-like creatures, the Porgs; the trip through the casino planet and recruitment of the code-breaker DJ (Del Toro); and Poe’s hacking into the First Order’s communication system.  
    This episode in the Star Wars saga boasts a huge cast of talented, actors already famous for other roles and for previous Star Wars productions:  Mark Hamill (still packing a punch of the rebel Luke Skywalker; Adam Driver (writhing under the struggle within himself about identifying with the dark side); Domhnall Gleeson [reveling in his shaky command of the First Order, which is threatened by Kylo Ren (Driver) and, ultimately by Snoke himself (Serkis)]; Oscar Isaac, the “trigger-happy” Poe trying to influence the Jedi leadership of General Leia and Vice Admiral Holdo (Dern); Benecio Del Toro emerging in the casino to volunteer his hacking skills as DJ; and, finally, the funny, flirting, techno skilled interactions between Finn (Boyega) and Rose (Tran). 
     The star, Daisy Ridley, has held onto her success in capturing the previous role of Luke Skywalker in the Jedi forces as Rey, a fearless, persistent, cheeky young woman who is relentless in pursuing her goals.  This involves her own personal exploration (who she is, where she came from) as well as perfecting the art of The Force. 
     Star Wars fans are likely to be jubilant over this production that seems to have preserved much of the character of the previous films and ventured into new territory, all while keeping the elements of surprise and humor.

Rion Johnson’s production appears to cover all the bases for fans in its preservation of the beloved, surprising twists and turns, and comedic bursts.

Grade:  A                                    By Donna R. Copeland


Thursday, December 7, 2017

WONDER WHEEL

Jim Belushi     Kate Winslet     Juno Temple     Justin Timberlake


     Wonder Wheel is classic Woody Allen, even to one of the characters taking on his persona (a common motif in his films).  It’s his typical family drama in which relationships are tested and sometimes remain intact and sometimes not.  Humpty (intended reference to Humpy Dumpty?), played by Jim Belushi is somewhat down and out, but is managing to squeek by as a mechanic at the Coney Island Amusement Park.  He’s married to one of the waitresses at a clam shack, Ginny (Winslet), a chronically disappointed (with everyone and everything) woman who often appears to be doing her best, but consistently freaks out and has migraines.  One big problem is her son from her first marriage, a budding arsonist—which doesn’t bode at all well for his future.
     Ginny feels trapped in her marriage to Humpty, whom she has managed to wean off alcohol, but is bored with, and has become involved with the lifeguard Mickey (Timberlake).  But everyone has to go into emergency mode when Humpty’s enchanting daughter Caroline (Temple) appears at the door one day.  Her father disowned her after she married a mobster against his advice, but now she is desperate with no place to go (her mother died), begging her father to take her in.  She appears to be very sincere in recognizing her mistakes of the past, and genuinely tries to make positive changes, helping Ginny in the restaurant (making some mistakes along the way) and taking classes.  Her father is overjoyed that she has seen the error of her ways and wants to help her continue with her education.  But tension stays high, as we learn that her ex-husband’s cronies are looking for her because she “knows where the bodies are buried.”  So her life is in danger.
     Then fate seems to do its work, along with coincidences and human weaknesses.  Conflict heightens when no one seems to “get” Ginny; her husband, Mickey, and Caroline all misunderstand her in very different ways—none of them seeming to know what to do as they gain insight into her past and present experience.  It becomes a chaotic Woody Allen scenario. 
     The four main characters fit their roles hand-in-glove.  Belushi knows very well how to play the underdog man who has had to fight for everything he has, but isn’t the brightest bulb in the room.  Winslet is extraordinary in portraying a woman deeply disturbed who somehow manages to cope outwardly with everyday practical issues.  It’s just in the emotional areas she shows bewilderment and even hysteria, and her judgment falters.  Timberlake manages to pull off the man you both admire and become impatient with, depending on the situation.  He shows the character’s great efforts in being open and honest and still being oblivious to its consequences.  Juno Temple as the blonde, sexy, young Caroline, balances out her appearance with thoughtful consideration of those around her, and has clearly learned from her mistakes.  She is the most interesting character, showing adaptability to change and the only one not blaming others for her mistakes.
     The production is weakened by 1) appearing too “stagey” at times (you could swear you’re watching a play); 2) including the part about Ginny’s son withD psychological problems (which doesn’t seem to fit in the story and is left completely unresolved); and 3) by replaying standard Allen themes.  I though it ironic when Ginny, starting to feel suspicious, grills Caroline about whether Mickey took her hand, touched her, or kissed her. She is obviously over-reacting, but in view of the current news stories about powerful men preying on younger women, it’s an odd thing to include in a current film.  Because of Allen’s own family situation, one wonders upon whom he is basing the Ginny character.
     On a more positive note, the music—which I assume are jazzman Woody’s selections—captures so well the mood of each scene, especially the views of the amusement park and the merry-go-round.  The music merges with the story and lifts the movement of each scene.  Cinematographer Vittorio Stararo’s camera and palette elevate the production artistically.

A classic Woody Allen production.

Grade:  B-                                    By Donna R. Copeland

DARKEST HOUR

Gary Oldman     Kristin Scott Thomas     Stephen Dillane     Ronald Pickup     Ben Mendelssohn     Lily James



     Timing.  If only this picture had preceded Dunkirk, I think we would have a better understanding of both films.  Darkest Hour informs us about Winston Churchill’s darkest hour just after he’s become Prime Minister (without the firm support of key Parliament members and even King George VI) when Hitler’s Germany has occupied the Netherlands, Belgium, and France.  Viscount Halifax (Dillane) and Lord Chamberlain (Pickup) are urging him to start negotiations for peace with Hitler—which is anathema to Churchill.  But to this film’s credit, we feel the tremendous burden the conundrum places on someone with this degree of power.  And Churchill sincerely looks at all sides, finally being convinced of the road to take, delivering one of the most rousing speeches of his career about standing up to Hitler’s military threat.  (The ride on the underground, where he elicits riders’ opinions is the filmmakers’ invention.)
     Writer Anthony McCarten and Director Joe Wright have made Darkest Hour a study of Winston Churchill the man—his relationship with his wife Clementine (Thomas) (who continually reinforces the better side of him), his interactions with Parliament members and his staff and the King (Mendelssohn), and frequent periods of doubt and concern over doing what was right for the country and its people.   He seems hardboiled about sacrificing thousands of troops in Callaix, yet when it is made personal by his secretary Miss Layton (James), he is clearly moved and saddened.  When his family toasts him on winning the post of Prime Minister, his own toast is, “Here’s to not buggering it up.”
     This may be the role of Gary Oldham’s career, and one that may earn him a long overdue Academy Award.  The makeup and his portrayal of the great man completely hide his own identity.  I tried in vain to see a trace of Oldham the actor in his appearance.  He’s known for a wide range of roles and pictures, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Nil by Mouth (writer, director), Sid and Nancy, The Dark Knight (2), Batman, Planet of the Apes, and Harry Potter, and he well deserves accolades for his performance here.  Kristin Scott Thomas is exemplary in her acting as well, and Lily James is noteworthy in her role as Churchill’s new secretary. 
    Director Joe Wright is acclaimed for his British productions, particularly Pride and Prejudice and Atonement, but is respected as well for his other films, The Soloist, Hanna, and Anna Karenina. In Darkest Hour, he elects to shine more light on Churchill’s personality, particularly during a tenuous period when he has little support and must convince so many that it’s better not to negotiate with Hitler and Mussolini but for England to stand its ground.  He was a voice crying in the wilderness, because so many in the government were not taking strong stands against fascism, and his good friend President Roosevelt did not feel free (because of America’s neutral stance) to lend air support. 
     The film highlights that period of time when Winston Churchill proved himself a hero.  Not much will be new to the viewer after so many Churchill movies; the primary reason to see it is perhaps Gary Oldman’s performance.

Behind the scenes government in Britain leading up to the Battle of Dunkirk.

Grade:  C                                    By Donna R. Copeland



THE SHAPE OF WATER

Sally Hawkins     Michael Shannon     Richard Jenkins     
Doug Jones     Michael Stuhlbarg     Octavia Spencer     Nick Searcy


     The playful, loving nature of Sally Hawkins’ Elisa perfectly captures the nature of this film and Guillermo del Toro’s creativity and imagination.  She’s a complex character—as is the plot—and continually surprises us with her thinking and actions.  She is mute, but not deaf, and is one of the two housecleaners at a research facility, the other being Zelda (Spencer), who knows sign language and assumes a maternal stance toward her.  Elisa’s neighbor, Giles (Jenkins), a rather fussy, inhibited man who doesn’t seem to know that she does not like key lime pie, and goes ahead and orders it for her, despite her protests.  He knows sign language as well, and is able to express his appreciation to her for looking out for him.
     The research facility is an odd one, with Dr. Robert Hoffstetler (Stuhlberg) in charge, and he has invited Strickland (Shannon) to come to the lab to study a strange creature Strickland found in the Amazon Jungle.  Elisa is immediately fascinated with “Amphibian Man”, and sneaks a peak at it as often as she dares.  Then she gets bolder when she finds that he appreciates a boiled egg she has brought to him.  She teaches him sign language, which he rapidly acquires, and they begin to communicate.
     The story takes on more adventure and drama when we learn of the varying motivations among all parties to study the creature (Jones).  Strickland, a speculator wants to make dough and please the five-star General Hoyt (Searcy); Hoffstetler, a scientist (and more, which we don’t find out until later) has interests beyond the scientific; and Elisa, a good-hearted maid with strong moral principles, simply wants to protect it.
    Del Toro inserts quirky mannerisms for the characters and plot twists and turns to entertain us with while he is telling his story, which turns out to be a bit of a thriller.  For instance, take Strickland—not minding that the women are cleaning the men’s room—he proceeds to wash his hands before he pees, and expounds on his thoughts about washing before or after relieving himself.  Mystery is introduced when he leaves behind a trace of blood on the lavatory.  Elisa loves movies and dancing, and proceeds to tap-dance along her way when she is alone.  Giles makes odd pronouncements such as, “Corn Flakes were invented to keep people from masturbating.”  Zelda has a demanding husband, who doesn’t seem to do much of anything, which she endures with patience; but she’s good-hearted like Elisa, so they make very fine friends.
     All this is bound together with the flowing score of diverse but script-meaningful songs by the musically elite Alexandre Desplat and artistic camerawork of Dan Laustsen. 
    Del Toro likes to play with magic in his films, and he is like a magician himself in putting together in The Shape of Water all of the many elements of filmmaking to give us excitement, creativity, full-bodied characters, and visual displays that we can see as a true work of art.
     Bravo! Guillermo del Toro! 

Weird meanderings of a beautifully told story with an unexpected ending.

Grade:  A                                                Donna R. Copeland

Monday, December 4, 2017

THE DISASTER ARTIST

James Franco     Seth Rogen     Dave Franco     Josh Hutcherson     Alison Brie     Zac Efron



      What a quintessential James Franco production!  Is there anyone else who could take a cult film like The Room, duplicate parts of it, and then make it his own?  Beyond that, it rings so many bells as you watch it, beginning with its star, Tommy Wiseau (J. Franco), an oddball character who makes you smile and turn away at the same time.  A clown-like figure, he lives in his own world, and has enough resources that he can pull everyone around him into his reality, and is genuinely hurt when they start backing off.  It’s a bit sad, too, that everyone stays with him so long as they’re getting a paycheck.  But he retains one loyal friend.
     The story is about the making of a film called “The Room”, which is written, directed, produced, and acted in by Tommy.  (Keep in mind, The Room is an actual film that tanked, but later became a cult classic.)  This story is based on a memoir written by one of the film’s protagonists, Greg Sistero.  So The Disaster Artist is a bit about Gregg (D. Franco), who is an aspiring actor who lives with his mother.  He manages to strike up a conversation with a classmate he admires in his acting class, hoping to get his advice.  Tommy surprises him by instantly taking a liking to him and inviting him to room together in Los Angeles where he has an apartment.  Neither has much luck in scoring roles, so Tommy decides he’ll write his own script, casting the two of them as characters.
     The rest of the story is about the freewheeling production of the movie, with Tommy being the most unpredictable factor.  It remains a mystery as to how he has the money to finance the film, or even where he is from or how old he is.  In addition to James and his brother Dave, the cast includes Seth Rogen, Josh Hutcherson, Alison Brie, Zac Efron, Kristen Bell, Megan Mulally, and others, with cameos by Brian Cranston, Adam Scott, and Judd Apatow. 
     Despite James Franco’s talented acting here, this is something of a “nothing” movie that will leave many viewers cold; although, granted, many find it a hoot and have thoroughly enjoyed it.  I’m in the former camp; although I enjoyed the performances, it seems pretty senseless to me.

The remake of a cult movie that is intended to be funny, but isn’t very.

Grade:  C+                                    By Donna R. Copeland

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

THE MAN WHO INVENTED CHRISTMAS

Dan Stevens     Christopher Plummer     Jonathan Pryce     Miriam Margolyes     
Simon Callow     Bill Paterson     Donald Sumpter


     This film is related to the Goodbye, Christopher Robin story in its reflection of real events and troublesome experiences in the authors’ lives that produced the two works of art that have been beloved by the public for generations:  Winnie the Pooh and A Christmas Carol.  The Man Who Invented Christmas, Charles Dickens, drew on his own childhood memories, dreams (nightmares), and elements in his adult life to weave into a tale about a miserly old man who is visited by ghosts of his past, who make comments about his character and predictions about his future.  According to this account, Dickens identified with Scrooge enough to motivate him to make some changes in his own life as a result.
     The small book seemed to have a similar effect on the readers when it came out just before Christmas in 1843; and according to the historian who wrote the book on which this film is based (Les Standiford), it transformed the Christmas holiday from a Puritanical and Industrial Revolution attitude into one now considered as a time of giving and good cheer. Charitable giving in the country went up noticeably the year of its publication.
     We get a good look at Dickens’ life during the time he was writing A Christmas Carol, when he was reeling from three commercial failures, was ridden with debt, had a large family to support, and had the burden of caring for his parents.  There were constant interruptions to his writing, which made him lose his temper and make rash judgments, only to try to reverse them later.  The film shows his visions of Scrooge and other characters visiting him, inspiring him to rush to his desk to include them in his story.  An interesting aspect of the film is its depiction of Dickens incorporating not only his own memories and fantasies into his writing, but other observations he makes in his everyday life.  For instance, he has a nephew who is very ill and has to use a crutch (a model for Tiny Tim, perhaps?).
     Director Bharat Nalluri and screenwriter Susan Coyne present us with a story that cleverly weaves together Dickens’ everyday life with his fantasies, dreams, and the story he is writing, based on the book by Les Standiford.  Production design by Paki Smith shows the house in Victorian London where Dickens lived and worked, its transportation, factories, stores, and clubs in rich detail.  Music by Mychael Danna and cinematography by Ben Smithard evoke the period and, all together, the filmmakers give us a beautifully rendered period piece that is likely to appeal to the viewing audience at Christmas-time, although the general viewing audience may find it tedious to go through Dickens’ fits and starts in the writing process.
     Dan Stevens as Charles Dickens beautifully portrays the harassed young writer, who, although often displaying a quixotic manner, is constantly pressured by others (and himself) to distinguish himself from his father by being a practical businessman.  Christopher Plummer possesses all the qualities of a Scrooge who continually feeds the author valuable information and feedback.  Another standout is Jonathan Pryce as the feckless parent who is gifted in coming up with excuses on the spot for his failings.  Justin Edwards as Dickens’ loyal friend and agent and Morfydd Clark as wife Kate provide good support.  The cameo by Donald Sumpter as Jacob Marley is priceless.
 
The Man Who Invented Christmas is a worthy addition to holiday viewing.


Grade:  B+                                         By Donna R. Copeland