Thursday, November 15, 2018

FANTASTIC BEASTS: THE CRIMES OF GRINDELWALD

Eddie Redmayne    Katherine Waterston     Dan Fogler     Jude Law     Johnny Depp
Zoe Kravitz     Allison Sudol          Ezra Miller     Credence Baregone     Carmen Ejogo


     The second installment of the Fantastic Beasts series tells about the renewed threat from the dark wizard Grindelwald, who has escaped from the custody of the MACUSA (Magical Congress of the United States of America) and has a devious plan to create a new world wherein non-magical beings will be subservient to the wizards who have pledged loyalty to him.  In this framework, one is either for or against him, and he demands a declaration of loyalty.
     The alarm goes out in the wizard world about this new threat, and Dumbledore (Law) charges Newt Scamander (Redmayne) with joining forces to stop him.  Newt is handicapped a bit by MACUSA’s forbidding him to travel internationally, but he is managing to get around that in his and friend Jacob’s (Fogler) journey searching for their loves, sisters Tina (Waterston) and Queenie (Sudol)
     One of the drawbacks of the film is in the script with its multiple plot lines involving so many people it’s hard to keep track of everyone and all the sub-plots involved.  There are the relationships between Jacob and Queenie, Newt and Tina, and Credence and Leta; there is the historical relationship between Dumbledore and Grindelwald; there is the relationship between Newt and his beloved beasts (quote:  “Newt has never met a beast he didn’t love”); there is the question of the true identity of Credence (Miller); and, finally, there is a question of who among all these characters will take up with Grindlewald and help him in his master plan.
     Director David Yates has collaborated with J. K. Rowling (author of the books on which all the Harry Potter and Fantastic Beasts films are based) on the last six productions, and she has written the screenplays for the two Fantastic Beasts films.  This partnership, along with other consistent members of the team (Cinematographer Philippe Rousselot, Production Designer Stuart Craig), returning actors Redmayne, Waterston, Fogler, Sudol, Miller, and Depp, and the visual and special effects artists contribute a kind of consistency in quality that make the series popular with general audiences.  However, many viewers—possibly more discerning—are picking up on the repetitiousness and “tent-pole” characteristics of these creations.
     Eddie Redmayne’s talented acting is a plus in the Fantastic Beasts series, although whether it can endure the number of upcoming productions remains to be seen.  It’s been agreed that he will remain in his role.  In this film, he, Waterston, Fogler, Law, Kravitz, and Sudol pull off their roles admirably.  

This latest offshoot of the Harry Potter series is attempting to hold onto its popularity with the general public.

Grade:  C+                                    By Donna R. Copeland

WILDLIFE

Jake Gyllenhaal     Carey Mulligan     Ed Oxenbould     Bill Camp


     After demonstrating his acting abilities in acclaimed movies (e.g., There will be Blood, Little Miss Sunshine, Love & Mercy), Paul Dano decided to try his hand at directing a movie based on a book written by Richard Ford, which brings us to Wildlife.  The book spoke to Dano, reminding him of his own experience of his parents’ separation, in which, as an only child, he was inclined less to rebel and act out, and more to try to hold everything together.  He was the responsible one, the “parent child” in psychological parlance.
     In the film, we see the family first as having just moved from Lewiston, Idaho, to Great Falls, Montana.  Joe (Oxenbould), a teenager who has felt uprooted with the move, is trying to satisfy his father’s wish for him to become a football star.  His father Jerry (Gyllenhaal) has aspirations to become a force in golf at the local club where he works.  However, he gets fired—in his own words—because he is so good with the customers.  When the club has second thoughts and wants to re-hire him, the narcissistic wound of rejection prevents him from accepting.  Instead, for some reason (visions of greatness?), he decides instead to fight forest fires raging in the nearby forests, which will take him away from the family for several months.
     Incensed, Jerry’s wife Jeanette (Mulligan), rails at him for the stupidity of his plan.  In the meantime, she has decided to ignore Jerry’s wish that she remain a housewife and has taken a job as a swimming coach.  This will introduce her to a different world from that she has been trained for and is used to, and brings her in contact with people in the town; one of her students is a wealthy widower, played by Bill Camp.
     The story is about what happens in this interim when the parents are separated, and Joe, feeling the tension between them, tries his best not to take sides and accommodate to an altered world.  But in fact, in Dano’s description, he is a “kid being kicked out into the wild [and told], “This is the real world.”  In other words, get used to it.  
     The rest of the story is about Joe’s experience of being with his mother, completely cut off from his father, and having to somehow make sense of it all.  In the role of this character, Oxenbould, a young Australian actor, perfectly captures the basic dilemma and the multiple awkward positions his mother places him in during the course of the movie.
     Problems with the film could be with the way the parents communicate with Joe. It seems to me they relate to him in ways that are unrealistic, asking his advice at strange moments (“Joe, what do you think I should do?”; “Joe, how do I look?” [for an interview or for a date], and always turning to him in moments of crisis.  I haven’t observed any parents being this blatant, but given that Dano is basing this partly on his own experience, maybe it happens.
     This is probably the “meatiest” role in Carey Mulligan’s career, and she takes to it with all she has.  She is brilliant.  Her character’s common sense arguments/putdowns of her husband’s decisions are careful not to attack him directly and personally, but clearly she conveys she is her own person and not willing to subject herself to anyone for any reason.  
     I never have enough words of praise for Jake Gyllenhaal; he inhabits all different kinds of characters in ways that are always believable.  I had a hard time at first seeing him as a passive/aggressive figure who is fiercely independent, assuming his family would be waiting for him with open arms when he returns, but of course he does just that with all the authenticity the role requires.  
     Paul Dano should be very proud of his new direction (and a script in collaboration with Zoe Kazan); he has all the makings of a good director who has an eye for the overall picture and knows characterization well enough to cast fine actors for the roles.  I congratulate him and his collaborators for a film in which a kid succeeds despite his parents’ utter disregard for him.  Let’s all hail the promise of the human spirit over adversity.

An example of how a teenager can master the challenges his family—and life—can throw at him.

Grade:  B+                                    By Donna R. Copeland 

WIDOWS

Viola Davis     Liam Neeson     Robert Duvall     Colin Farrell     Michelle Rodriguez
Elizabeth Debieki     Cynthia Erivo     Brian Tyree Henry     Daniel Kaluuya


     Hold onto your seat; despite the leading title, this movie will keep you on edge—and on your toes—throughout the two-hours-plus time.  Rapid cuts between love scenes and major crime in the beginning shake you and disorient you, and then you must figure out who are all the characters thrown at you in the first few minutes.  
     Basically, if you’ve seen the previews, you know that the widow of a slain criminal contacts the other widows of her husband’s accomplices with a plan to secure their future after she finds the notebook he made sure she would get. As happens a lot in this film with men and women, he has underestimated her feminine wiles and will.
     In a role made for her, Viola Davis as Veronica uses her head after she is threatened by a rival gang, the Manning brothers (Henry and Kaluuya), who demand money from her that her husband Harry Rawlings (Neeson) stole.  Jamal Manning is determined to join the wealthy of the world, using his brother Jatemme as a fearsome hit man with no limits as to what he will do.  
     Corruption in city government is intertwined with criminal elements, assuring that interconnections among the characters will inevitably occur.  For example, Tom Mulligan (Duvall) and his son Jack (Farrell) are corrupt city officials who mete out city contracts to their friends.  Jack is currently running for city comptroller against Jamal Manning. All of them were well acquainted with Harry Rawlings when he was alive.  
     The main characters in this well-conceived plot are after the money that is now missing (burned up?) from the Rawlings caper that went down.  You will know who, if any, will end up with it only after many thrills and chills along the way.  The women occupy the stage most of the time, and actually, the men don’t come across well at all.  We see honor and care among the women who are following in their husband’s footsteps, but not in the same way.  The male characters are shown to be duplicitous, violent, and reactionary. 
     Writer-director Steve McQueen (12 Years a Slave, Shame) and screenwriter Gillian Flynn (Gone Girl) based the movie on the popular British television series written by Lynda La Plante of Prime Suspect fame.  With this much talent, it’s not surprising that their production is of such high quality.  No cheap thrills here, every inch of it is solid and has internal consistency and believability.  Hans Zimmer’s score and Sean Bobbitt’s cinematography provide an additional degree of excellence.
     Quotable quotes:  “You reap what you sow”; the reply:  “I hope so” and “If something goes wrong, I want my kids to know that I didn’t just sit there.” 

For an exciting, invigorating, suspense-filled evening go see Widows.

Grade:  A                                                  By Donna R. Copeland

GREEN BOOK

Viggo Mortensen     Mahershala Ali     Linda Cardellini     Don Stark     Sebastian Maniscalco


     It’s fascinating to see how filmmakers are able to turn stereotypes on their heads so shrewdly and wittily, which can be funny, heartbreaking, or insidious.  Here, the director (Peter Farrelly) and writers (Nick Vallelonga, Brian Hayes Currie, and Farrelly) have woven a tale based on a true story showing how a slightly condescending African-American who is wealthy, mannerly, and educated can somehow bond with a white working class man, a bouncer at the Copacabana in New York, with clear hostilities toward minorities.  In their concert tour, they confront southerners with major prejudices, field workers gawking at a black man in a suit being driven by a white man who has to fix the car, and self-contradicting southern traditionalists who invite a black artist to perform for them, but will not allow him to use their bathroom or eat in their dining room.
     Part of the delight of Green Book (referring to a guidebook used by blacks designating restaurants and motels/hotels in the south that would accept them as patrons) is observing how, with the right provocative experiences many can change, even though some will be impervious. And that is the lofty goal of Dr. Don Shirley (Ali), to change the world and make it a better place.  He succeeds beautifully and heartwarmingly with his driver Tony (Mortensen)—as he himself is transformed in the process. And we hope that he leaves change in his wake as he protests with dignity the injustices he encounters on the road.  
     Another delight is seeing the different perspectives of the two men crashing into one another, usually in the car on the road.  They have pointed conflicts that are only settled by Don being Tony’s boss.  Yet, Tony gets his jabs in from time to time.  Tony is proud of his life-long designation of “Tony Lip”, which came from his reputation at an early age of being a good bullsh*ter. When Don labels it as simply lying, Tony is offended.  He sees it as getting people to do what he wants them to.  And both learn from the conversation as Tony ponders what Don has said and Don along the way sees how Tony’s bulls*ting gets them out of jams.  It expresses in an exquisite way the truth in both their views.
     Another beauty of this film is to see the two actors, Mortensen and Ali, at work. They are masters at conveying subtle signs of all kinds of thoughts and emotions.  They have perfect chemistry with one another and will always praise the other’s skills.  They’re not just being polite; both approach their roles in a perfectionist way, wanting most of all to convey accuracy and authenticity.  Ali’s piano playing is a wonder to see, and I was curious to know if he could actually play that well.  It turns out that he had a coach and sometimes double, but the rendition on the screen looks like it is all Ali.
     This is a very different Farrelly film from his past collaborations with his brother Bobby (e.g., There’s Something about Mary, Dumb and Dumber, Shallow Hal) in its being more than a comedy, something of a character study, and taking a political point of view with regard to race and class.  He should be proud of the venture in its depth of commentary and essential substance, along with the comedy.  At its most eloquent, Don agonizes, “I’m not black enough, not white enough, not enough of a man—so who am I?”  Stereotypes limit us; diversity frees us.  That’s the message of this film, which won the audience award at the Toronto International Film Festival.
     Despite the two-hour run time, I didn’t want the story to end; I wanted to stay with these people.

A wonderful film that moves you, prompts you to ponder, and makes you laugh.

Grade:  A                                    By Donna R. Copeland

Friday, November 9, 2018

A PRIVATE WAR

Rosamund Pike     Jamie Dornan     Tom Hollander     Stanley Tucci


     I don’t know if other people will have the same experience in watching this film as I did, but to me it was like listening to television news stories from Sri Lanka, Iraq, Aphganistan, Libya, and Syria one after the other, highlighting mangled, bloodied bodies and cries of misery.  Our heroine, Marie Colvin—a journalist and real person—(played eloquently by Rosamund Pike) seems to be drawn to war zones, even as she hates them.  She says at one point, “In covering war, can we really make a difference?”  In her own mind, that is what she is about, trying to get the world to care.  And she is successful, at least in her editor’s mind, when he compliments her:  “You have the God-given talent to make people stop and care.”  I wish the story had moved me to a greater extent, but it didn’t, which I will address below.
     We first get a bit of background on Marie, at home in London with her husband David, a professor/novelist, when she is early in her career.  He makes a comment about her being away from home so much, and clearly doesn’t appreciate the passion she has for her work.  When she gets seriously injured in Sri Lanka and begins showing signs of PTSD, he tries to get her to change directions.  But after a stint in a mental hospital, in a couple of years she is headed to Iraq.
     That is where she will meet the photographer Paul Conroy (Dornan), who is awed by her and eventually becomes a devoted partner in covering war stories.  He sticks with her throughout, being a kind of protector (which she allows it) and pal.  They end up in Libya during the Arab Spring, and meet with Gaddafi—whom she has met before—and she asks him hard questions, which he responds to with heart and humor.  
     By this time, Marie is showing signs of serious alcohol problems and issues with Sean, her editor (Hollander).  She has met someone who—if anyone could—inspire her to rest on her laurels, but at this point, Sean tries to reel her in to continue.  She comes back with the argument that what she does protects him (and her readers).  “I see it so you don’t have to”, she says; whereupon Sean comes back with, “But if you lose your convictions, what hope do the rest of us have?”  That kind of guilt trip will always get to Marie, and she travels on to Syria and Assad’s bombing of civilians there.  
     I was taken with director Matthew Heineman’s previous films, which were documentaries: Cartel Land, City of Ghosts.  Here, he attempts to dramatize Marie Colvin’s life (based on Marie Brenner’s article in “Vanity Fair” magazine, with a screenplay by Arash Amel) as a gutsy, committed journalist whose life-long wish was to appeal to populations of the world to help those in desperate need.  But, surprisingly, the film doesn’t leave the viewer with a clear understanding of Marie herself.  Why did she keep chasing war stories to the point that it was almost—if not in fact—suicidal?  Did her editor, Sean Ryan (Hollander), try to keep her out of harm’s way—until the sensational story became more important?  Nor does the film pull us in emotionally so that we’re cheering at the end.  No, it’s missing the heart and soul that his documentaries captured so well.
     That being said, Pike’s performance is flawless and moving throughout.  She clearly understood and appreciated the character of Marie Colvin, in ways that I could not in seeing this film.

This is about recent wars and intended as an anti-war film.

Grade:  C+                                     By Donna R. Copeland

ROMA

Yalitza Aparicio     Nancy Garcia Garcia     Marina de Tavira     Diego Cortina Autrey    Marco Graf


     Roma can be seen as a tribute to Alfonso Cuaron’s nanny/housekeeper when he was growing up.  He has said it is partly autobiographical, and the character Cleo (Aparicio) is truly someone to admire in her faithfulness, caring concern, diligence, and honesty.  Cleo works for a middle class family in a household with four children and a grandmother in a district of Mexico City called Roma in the 1970’s.  The father is a physician always on the run, showing little love or even attention to his wife or his children. Family members are used to having someone waiting on them, so Cleo’s time—all the time—is picking up after them, doing the laundry, bringing them treats, and helping Adela (Garcia), the cook.  The children clearly love her and show their appreciation for what she does.  The mother also seems to consider her part of the family—most of the time—seeing she gets medical care and bringing her along on vacations.
     Cuaron presents us with a cross-sectional picture of the family and the context in which they live for a year when the Mexican government is in conflict with student protestors and guerillas.  Although these events are going on around the family (military bands marching down their street, police/student fighting in the streets outside the hospital), they are mostly untouched, partly because they are going through their own dramas at home, like fire, earthquake, marital conflict, pregnancy outside marriage, car accidents, and near drowning.  The family is seen to be rolling with the punches and coping with whatever life throws at them.
     And I suppose that is the point of the story, that common ordinary people face traumatic events and manage to get through them despite the odds.  In the end, perhaps it poses the question as to whether governments do as well as their citizens. 
     Yalitza Aparicio has become a sensation since the film first debuted.  It was difficult for Cuaron to find the right actress after talking extensively with his childhood nanny, Libo, and searching all over Mexico, finally in small towns.  When Aparicio first appeared for an interview, her family was suspicious that it might be human trafficking.  But they allowed Yalitza, a schoolteacher, to proceed, and she has been a sensation ever since the film first previewed.  
     Cuaron can be proud of his own career, winning awards for Gravity, Children of Men, and Y Tu Mama Tambien, but Roma is his baby, both in its autobiographical aspects and because he has so many roles in producing the film:  writer, director, producer, cinematographer, and editor.  The skillful craft employed in making it is another of its distinctions.  It is flawless in many aspects and shows what dilemmas and paradoxes “maids”/”nannies” encountered at the time, but other films have also featured this, such as La Nana(Sebastian Silva, 2009), which shows the unique bond that can form between the employer's family and the maid/nanny.  

A heartwarming drama about a family in Mexico City in the 1970’s related eloquently within a black and white frame.

Grade:  B                                                By Donna R. Copeland

RALPH BREAKS THE INTERNET

Voices of:  John C. Reilly     Sarah Silverman     Gal Gadot     Jack McBrayer
Jane Lynch     Alan Tudyk     Tariji P. Henson     Alfred Molina


     If you love animation and you don’t mind the shameless plugging of Disney, you are likely to enjoy this film.  Ralph (Reilly) and Vanellope (Silverman) remain fast friends, and have discussions about their attitudes toward their lives, such as that Ralph is completely happy and Vanellope finds day-to-day a little boring.  Racing is easy peasy (she has only three tracks now), although she still enjoys it.  After a bit of thought, Ralph is sure he can make her life more exciting by building a new track for her.  He does, and although it’s a bit dangerous, Vanellope is thrilled.  
     When they go into the Litwik Arcade, they discover that a player of Sugar Crush has broken the steering wheel trying to keep up with Vanellope’s rough ride. Now there’s a crisis, because a) a new one costs more than the game earns in a year; and b) the company has gone out of business so there’s no way to order a new part.  But wait!  Someone has heard of eBay (a name Ralph has trouble remembering, wanting to call it “eBoy”), and has found a new steering wheel for sale.   Neither of them is familiar with the internet, which has just gotten connected in the arcade, so the two sneak past the yellow ribbons barring entry and come upon the wondrous site of the internet.
     This is even glorious for the viewer to behold.  Disney has created a physical representation of the internet that captures the color and endless activities it contains, even including pop-up ads, pop-up blockers, and spam (owned by the Spamley family). (All of which is especially appreciated by adult viewers.)  Ralph and Vanellope find eBay without much trouble, and see the coveted steering wheel on auction.  Since they’ve never attended an auction, though, the two will learn a hard lesson from their mistakes here.  And learning that lesson will take them into adventures and eventually a test of their close friendship.
     In their efforts to earn enough money to buy the steering wheel, Vanellope is introduced to Shank (Gadot) and her thrilling Slaughter Race.  Ralph is introduced to internet social media a la Instagram, BuzzFeed, Tumblr, and Twitter, and becomes a hit guided by Yesss (Henson) of BuzzFeed.  By posting entertaining videos of himself doing all kinds of bizarre things (the more bizarre the better), he starts earning hearts that can be cashed in.  
     As he begins earning enough money to get the steering wheel, Vanellope has gotten involved in Slaughter Race, and making friends with Shank.  In agonizing scenes thereafter, Ralph and Vanellope will learn about internet viruses that spread from “insecurities” (double entendre here) and shut down games.
     A lot more will happen before they can join each other and even talk about their friendship.  This conversation has the most substance of any sequence in the film.

An entertaining film about the internet with a clever representation, spiked with prominent Disney product placement. 

Grade:  B                                    By Donna R. Copeland