Thursday, November 26, 2020

BLACK BEAR

Aubrey Plaza     Sarah Gadon     Christopher Abbott


     In a rather tangled two-part plot, writer/director Lawrence Michael Levine explores some version of the “life imitates art” juxtaposition.  To illustrate his point he uses a recurring image of the main character in a meditative position surrounded by nature.  The first scenario is presented with certain actors in certain roles followed by those same actors and characters enacting a different story.  

     In Part One, Aubrey Plaza plays the role of a director (Allison) seeking inspiration at an isolated retreat owned by Gabe (Abbott) and Blair (Gadon), an unmarried couple expecting a baby.  One of the first evenings with them is disturbing—for the viewer, as well as for Allison—by the couple’s constant bickering and by Blair’s jealousy toward Allison.

     Suddenly, in Part Two, a movie is being shot, with the plot being somewhat the same as in Part One, but with the characters shifted around.  Here, Gabe is a movie director married to Allison, the star of the movie.  That is, “Gabe” and “Allison” are the married couple, and “Blair” is a rival of Allison.  Living up to what Allison has claimed in the first movie—that she was an actor difficult to work with, Allison portrays that character in the movie, being late to the set and arguing with her husband (the director, now, in the movie being shot) about the script.  Lying is a sub-theme throughout both parts of Black Bear.

     The movie demonstrates Aubrey Plaza’s skill in portraying a chameleon personality who can act out a scene on the spur of the moment and thus has some mystery about her.  Christopher Abbott and Sarah Gadon, her co-stars, likewise show very different personas, depending on what is called for in the script.  

     As intriguing as this might be for those informed about anti-mimesis (Oscar Wilde’s belief that “Life imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life”) and the notion that we only see what artists have taught us to see, I think most viewers of this movie will not be entranced by it.   I appreciate what writer/director Lawrence Michael Levine has tried to do, but figure that such esoteric content will be lost on most, and that they will see the movie as a bit of a jumble.

     On the other hand, I figure that actors themselves will love the script, which embodies what they have to do on a regular basis.  It also reflects the constantly changing relationships they see every day in their own lives.

     The symbolic significance of the black bear of the title is more difficult to determine. If it refers to William Faulkner’s “The Bear”, I can only relate it in terms of Falkner’s equating the bear in his story to nature or to the wilderness and its death.  The last scene of the movie is Plaza’s character encountering a big black bear with interest and a glint in her eye. Is she encountering the bear as something of nature to which she needs to get reconnected? Or is it about nature on its road to destruction?

 

This is a film primarily for those in the business of filmdom or to those who ponder humans’ relationship with nature.

 

Grade:  B                                    By Donna R. Copeland




MAYOR


     Mayor. A noble politician—one seldom seen perhaps. But here we have the mayor of Ramallah, Musa Hadid, trying to steer his Palestinian city through what Palestinians would say is illegal Israeli settlements and incursions into their territory, particularly recently, under Netanyahu.  The Palestinian territories of the West Bank and Jerusalum have been occupied by Israel since 1967.  Jerusalem is a contested capital just 10 miles from Ramallah, a historically Christian city and the seat of the Palestinian government, as well as the epicenter of Palestinian commerce and culture.  It’s an area where Israeli settlements have been increasing. 

            This documentary is a picture of Mayor Hadid’s day-to-day activities in Ramallah leading up to the designation of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and President Donald Trump’s support of it by moving the U.S. Embassy there from Tel Aviv.  

     David Osit is the director, producer, cinematographer, and editor of Mayor, a tall job, but one I think would have benefited from additional eyes on his work.  Specifically, it’s clear he knows all about his subject and all the back stories; and perhaps because of that, we’re not given all the information we need to understand dramatic—or even everyday—events occurring before us. He’s not aware of what we as a public do not know.  We have to guess what a certain discussion or obviously disturbing events are about that are being shown on the screen.

     The ultimate message is clear, though.  From the film’s viewpoint, the Israelis have encroached upon Ramallah with their settlements and military incursions, taking away the Palestinian’s ability to keep up infrastructure and maintain amenities in their town.

     Covered in the film are the political efforts by Mayor Musa Hadid and the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to convince other countries—specifically the U.S. and Great Britain—of their plight.  A poignant observation made by a Ramallah citizen is, “People don’t know about us.”  And as a U.S. citizen, I have to admit that I was not aware of their plight.

      But this is a heroic attempt to inform us of a place in the world that is under threat and needs our attention and concern.  For that, David Osit is to be congratulated on highlighting a conscientious, admirable civic leader and his attempts to do his best—a figure sorely needed in our time!

 

A well crafted documentary informing us in a very human, delightful way about the plight of a city needing support by the international community.

 

Grade:  C+                                    By Donna R. Copeland 




SOUND OF METAL

Riz Ahmed     Olivia Cooke     Paul Raci     Mathieu Amalric


     This is a story written by writer/director Darius Cianfrance (Blue Valentine, The Place Beyond the Pines), and has all the emotional pull of his previous films.  Sound of Metal is co-written and directed by Darius Marder—his frequent collaborator.  Their films invariably have such substance it’s always a special treat to see them—not a treat in the sense of a confection, but in their ability to present major life situations and dilemmas in a way that is emotionally sound and recognizable as a real-life event.

     We meet Ruben (Ahmed) and Lou (Cooke) in the midst of a punk rock performance with Lou (Janis Joplin-esque) on vocals and Ruben pounding away on drums.   The crowd goes wild, and it’s clear they have a huge following. But yo!, it turns out that after one performance Ruben suddenly stops hearing sounds.  A visit to a doctor informs him that he is going deaf (cause unclear).  

     This is a real shake-up, and the filmmakers are skilled in demonstrating to viewers what this must be like.  There is the initial denial, followed by a sense of grief that creeps in. The filmmakers are so adept in having viewers identify with the main character, we almost feel at the end that we’ve actually gone through the experience.

     These scenes segue into a deaf community where Ruben has been sent to accommodate to his loss of hearing.  Lou can’t stay with him—no one can—so returns to her father in Paris. They’re so much in love, it’s wrenching to see them have to separate, but Lou insists on his going to the camp as a life-saving effort when he throws a tantrum in their mobile home and threatens suicide.

     Abrupt shift.  The film does an excellent job in portraying a place where the deaf learn not to see themselves as handicapped and figure out how to live in a hearing world.  Ruben has little talent for introspection, so is befuddled many times by the concepts presented to him; but Joe (Raci) the kindly head of the community is like the father he never had, which makes him stop and think and be willing to do the exercises Joe recommends.  Indeed, Ruben does well and is something of a hero in the community, particularly with the kids.  

     Now comes another major dilemma.  Ruben can pursue the cochlea implants he has heard about or stay within the deaf community imparting his talents for the benefit of the residents.  Does he reconnect with his wife and try to resume his music career?  Or does he accept Joe’s proposition about accepting deafness as a normal condition and continue to inspire others?

     Riz Ahmed gives an award-worthy performance in his ability to inhabit a character, give it charisma, and show agonizing decisions that have to be made. Olivia Cooke is very good, but she is really in only a few scenes.  Kudos to Paul Raci for so accurately and convincingly showing what deaf people face and how they can cope with it optimally.  

     Sound of Metal is a film for everyone. None of us know when a major physical change in ourselves might take place.  But here is a hopeful way that one can deal with it.

 

This is another film for contemporary times that pulls for empathy and understanding of the trials some must undergo in their lifetimes.

 

Grade:  A                                    By Donna R. Copeland 



Thursday, November 19, 2020

CHRISTMAS ON THE SQUARE

Dolly Parton     Christine Baranski     Josh Segarra     Mary Lane Haskell    Selah Kimbro Jones

Treat Williams     Jennifer Lewis     Jeanine Mason


     Maybe, partly, with all that is worrisome going on in our world today, I wasn’t quite in the spirit of Christmas when I viewed Christmas on the Square.  But as much as I’ve always loved Dolly Parton, there is just too much sweetness in this movie.  The music, choreography, sets, and acting are all first-rate, but the predictable script by Maria S. Schlatter pulls at the heartstrings so often, and the emphasis on angels and miracles is so fantastical, I found it a bit cloying. It is possible that more conventionally religious people than I could find it moving and inspiring.

     The main character Regina (Baranski) is shown to be a real witch, always disgruntled and dismissive of others with no nostalgia for her hometown or empathy for its residents.  She is even rude to her lifelong best friend Margeline (Lewis).  After her father’s death, Regina buys the town and looks to make a neat profit by selling it to the Chita Mall (cheat ‘em all?) to develop the biggest and the best shopping haven.  To add insult to injury the residents are all to be evicted on Christmas Eve.  “Life is not a fairy tale”, Regina sings with a new acquaintance who, unbeknownst to Regina, will be a major instrument in the alteration of her world view.

     Moreover, what she doesn’t realize is that there is an angel (Parton) and an angel-in-training (Mason) who are behind the scenes manipulating her to change—for the good, of course!  

     In that sense, the film makes some solid points in modeling encouragement and forgiveness toward others, and in telling a back-story that explains how Regina came to be the person she is.  Moreover, to its credit, the wide diversity of the cast expands on the principle of tolerance.  

Dolly sings often in the story, starting out as a humble figure on the square with a box labeled “Change” (a fitting theme of the film) and validating her vocal fame. Although not known as a singer, Baranski does a very credible, lyrical job in singing her role, and her acting skill for which she is known, is very apparent.  Duets of the pastor (Segarra) and his wife (Haskell) and their solos highlight their musical assets.  

     A highlight of the film for me is the conversation between Regina and Violet (Jones), a child bartender (don’t worry; it’s reasonably explained).  The child is shown to be unusually perceptive (as children are known to be) and wise beyond her years, as she notes in questions about her role as a bartender.  The biggest delight of the movie for me is the conversation the two have, in which the script is strong, and the rapport between the two actors so strong and touching, one is aware of two talented actors at their best.  Not surprising for Baranski, of course, but impressive where young Selah Kimbro Jones is concerned. I can hardly wait to see her in more films.

     So, my review is mixed, as the movie is likely to be a hit among families (at least those who are Christian) looking for an uplifting movie and others who maintain a wish/belief in miracles.  For those who are skeptical or take a dim view of the traditional “Christmas movie”, you probably won’t be attracted to it.  I’m not sure how people of very different religions will regard it.

 

A movie for those in the Christmas spirit who revel in the magic of the season.  It may not be apt for those of different faiths or those with a more nonsectarian bent.

 

Grade:  C                                    By Donna R. Copeland

THE LAST VERMEER

Clads Bang     Guy Pearce     August Diehl

 

     Although this is an interesting story, The Last Vermeer is uneven in its presentation and inserts events in the script that seem to be intended simply to make the film more exciting to the current generation.  John Orloff (pen name, James McGee) wrote the script about a character named Han van Meergren who sold forged Vermeer paintings to the Nazis during WWII.  This story covers the period when he is put on trial for being a Nazi sympathizer.  

     Central to this story is Captain Joseph Piller (Bang), a Jew who is determined to reclaim all the artwork acquired by the Nazis that had once been owned by Jewish people.  Piller is not very appealing (macho, gruff, willing to use aggressive techniques on people he’s questioning), so makes an unconvincing portrait of a hero.

     Piller has managed to apprehend van Meergren (artfully played by Pearce), but has to fight off Minister of Justice Alex de Klerks (Diehl), who Piller sees as someone who makes deals with Nazis to let their sympathizers off.  So he fights de Klerks for custody, but de Klerks is not giving up.  This turns into a struggle between government officials, which is not very interesting.

     More interesting are the justifications that van Meergren gives for why he sold the forgeries,  the stories around which he builds his defense, and his own personality.  Just the opposite of the stolid Piller, he is a bon vivant who charms everyone.  In fact, one account is that he charmed the people of Holland so much, they were cheering for him to win his trial.

     Guy Pearce is clearly the actor to focus upon, both in terms of his skill and in terms of the character he plays.  In his performance, one can see why audiences might so identify with the villain, they root for him—charming to the nth and giving all kinds of appealing twitches and eye messages.  Bang does very well with the character as written, but unfortunately for the actor, he comes across as chauvinistic and someone so focused on his own agenda, he has no empathy.  August Diehl is superb in his portrayal of an expert who lauds it over everyone, but is discredited in the end.

     Forgeries in art tend to be some of the more exciting plots to devotees of art and art history, and I expected to relish this one.  However, the male-dominated, rather convoluted plot in this one is disappointing.  Two redeeming factors are the performance by Guy Pearce and the cinematography of Remi Adefarasin.

 

Only art lovers will be attracted to this film, but they are very likely to be disappointed by its lack of artistry in the script.

 

Grade:  D                                    By Donna R. Copeland




CRAZY, NOT INSANE

                                                 

     A documentary by Alex Gibney features a psychiatrist who has tried for years to convince the legal profession that the death penalty should not be used on those who have serious psychopathology because those people are missing the controls that keep the rest of us from doing heinous acts.  Her basic question has been, “What keeps us [you, me, everyone else] from becoming a murderer?”  Having interviewed extensively 22 serial killers and scores of other serious offenders, she posits that Identity Dissociative Disorder (previously, Multiple Personality Disorder) accounts for the majority of them. She finds these other identities in perpetrators she has interviewed by eliciting them from family history, hypnosis, and psychological tests, and always verifies that these people also have organic signs from neurology and imaging tests that suggest physical abuse—usually coming from parents.  I get the impression that it takes personal histories including interviews, neuroimaging, and psychological tests altogether to confirm an identity disorder leading to murder.

     Working with Clinical Psychologist Dr. Catherine Yeager, neurologist Dr. Jonathan Pincus, and defense attorney Richard Burr, psychiatrist Dr. Dorothy Lewis assembled a team to examine very carefully common precedents to the horrendous acts performed by killers.  Her interviews of these people are fascinating not only from the information she elicits, but the trusting bond she is able to achieve with them. Her evaluation of perpetrators in hypnosis will be particularly interesting to those who have never observed a hypnosis interview that pulls out different identities in the same person.  

     Yes, you may be skeptical, but when she shows different signatures (no, not your usual variations seen) from one person on different occasions sometimes using a completely different name; differing responses to psychological tests (as in one case, one being psychotic and the other being completely rational), and various personalities emerging during interviews, it’s very convincing.

     Crazy Not Insane gives full voice to those in opposition to her findings—those favoring a crime-punishment approach (for instance, state governors and prosecutors) and prominent forensic psychiatrist Dr. Park Dietz.  The film shows his clear disregard for Dr. Lewis, but also highlights Dr. Lewis’ convincing evidence afterwards.

     Another fascinating encounter is Dr. Lewis interviewing an appointed executioner (electrician on the side) who in his job as executioner, claims to have absolutely no feelings about what he does.  But the pictures he paints after each execution might indicate something more going on in his psyche than he realizes.

     It is disturbing to those of us finding convincing evidence in Dr. Lewis’ studies to see protesters outside courts and other places chanting that someone should die.  What draws the general populace to such occasions?  Why are we drawn to hangings and other formal occasions of death?  

     This film attempts to answer these questions in a comprehensive, insightful way—no easy answers.

 

A documentary for those wishing to explore the issue of capital punishment of the mentally ill.  

 

Grade:  A                                    By Donna R. Copeland 

MA RAINEY'S BLACK BOTTOM

Viola Davis     Chadwick Boseman     Glynn Turman     Colman Domingo     Michael Potts

Jeremy Shamos     Taylor Paige     Jonny Coyne     Dusan Brown


     In this presentation, Viola Davis is completely transformed from her normal Hollywood public appearances—stylish, well spoken, and winner of Triple Crown Acting (Oscar, Emmy, Tony) awards, into a character called Ma Rainey, a flashily dressed, deep-voiced blues singer in the 1920’s known as “Mother of the Blues” who could invariably captivate her audience.  She was somewhat a mentor to the legendary Bessie Smith (“Empress of the Blues”) who would come after her, and between the two of them their music helped usher in the popularity of the Blues genre.  

     This story is about an attempted new recording of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom Band and the internal and external struggles they endure as they interact with one another, the recording studio, and ever-sinister threats from the white community.  You see the force of Ma Rainey’s personality in her demands (repair of her car in a minor accident, Coca Cola, a fan, etc.), knowing she has the trump card of her and her band’s presence.

     That part of the movie is tense and still somewhat entertaining, but the part that really glued me in is when different men in the band describe their encounters with racial injustice, the all too often Black experience in America. This is when you know the movie is not simply about a funky band.  It’s telling us—once again!—about the importance of racism in our country. Yes, we can say this movie takes place in the 1920’s, but when we see the protests and behind-stories associated with them in 2020, the points hit home.

     Davis shows us again that she is a wonder in acting by fully embodying her character and keeping the viewer honed in on her.  Chadwick Boseman—as irritating as his character is, even though he may be right in what he is arguing—is one of the elements of the movie that makes it work, simply by his sheer ability.  (We will miss the actor for many years hence.)  The other supporting actors are impressive in their portrayals, and bring authenticity and emotional valence to the film.

     As significant and touching as I see the arguments among the band members and those between Ma Rainey and between the white agent and studio head from a social standpoint, as a viewer I found it hard to watch for such long scenes in the movie. I kept wanting to leave it and go do something else.  This may be my whiteness coming through, but such incessant arguing is never productive—as we will see by the end.

     The “Staginess” of the production was a distraction for me.  The movie is based on August Wilson’s stage play (Broadway, Royal National Theatre in London), which was very successful. But as so often happens, converting a stage play to a movie unfortunately shows it as a replication of a stage play.  For much of the time I was watching, it really seemed like a film of the play. I’m not sure exactly why this is a drawback, but I’ve seen it so many times before, as in Fences.  Movies need to look like movies.  

      I am mixed in my reactions to Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, about which I find both positive and negative aspects.

 

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is to be seen as a chronicle of Black experience in American music.

 

Grade:  C+                                    By Donna R. Copeland