Thursday, December 12, 2019

UNCUT GEMS

Adam Sandler     Julia Fox     Idina Menzel     LaKeith Stanfield     Kevin Garnett     Eric Bogosian


     This film is billed primarily as a comedy—and that fits with the reputation of Adam Sandler, who stars here as a fast-talking salesman whose schemes leave destruction in their wake.  Although many have apparently found great humor in it, I didn’t laugh once, and in some scenes that brought laughter from the audience (a beaten man put naked into a car trunk), I found pathetic.  To each his/her own humor, I guess.
     Howard (with the apt last name of Ratner) is a jewel merchant in New York’s diamond district who doesn’t mind where his uncut gems come from.  He has managed to get a rock from Ethiopia that seems to have iridescent opals inside, which he thinks will fetch a million dollars at an auction.  When Kevin Garnett (renowned basketball player) visits his shop, Howard can’t resist bragging about it and showing it to Kevin, who is truly entranced, but Howard can’t sell it to him because it is scheduled for an auction.  He tells Kevin when and where the auction is, but Kevin sees the stone as a lucky charm, and insists on borrowing it for his game that evening until 9:00 the next morning when he will return it.  You can guess how that turns out.
     This transaction is especially dicey because Howard is a wheeler-dealer and gambler who can’t help himself from attending to both of those sides of his personality. The trouble beginning to loom up against him are debts he owes to unsavory characters, who are shaking him up (and more than that).  As soon as he thinks his wheeling-dealing is paying off, he gambles on his advances.  For instance, he is a baseball fan, and when he sees Garnett’s reaction to the stone, he places bets on that team winning with some money he got from pawning a “security” item.  
     The movie’s excitement derives from Howard’s bets and his attempts to evade debt collectors.  Part of the time, we’re pulled into it by watching Kevin’s basketball games; and part of the time we’re witnessing Howard’s excruciating, painful struggles with collectors advancing on him every time he makes a turn.
     Inserted into the drama (for reasons I question) are pictures of Howard’s colonscopy and family Jewish rituals, which are more forgivable, given his heritage. Yes, Howard has a family, and we see gratuitous scenes of him with his wife and children; but he also has mistress Julia (Fox) ensconced in an apartment.  We see scenes of that relationship as well.  But whatever his relationships—family, mistress, goons—Howard is the same scam artist trying to con all of them, none of whom believes him, at least not for long.
     Uncut Gems’ biggest failing is that it is not about anything really.  That is, the moral of the story is…?  Please fill in the blanks for me.  Also working against it are the incessant yelling, haggling, f-you sequences, which never come to an end.
     Adam Sandler plays his stock character well as always.  The only other actor who stood out is Kevin Garnett, whose demeanor and facial expressiveness may portend a second career for him.  

Uncut Gems appeals to the taste of a few, but is sorely lacking in any substantive meaning.

Grade:  D                                    By Donna R. Copeland

Wednesday, December 11, 2019

6 UNDERGROUND

Ryan Reynolds     Melanie Laurent     Manuel Garcia-Rulfo     Adria Arjona     Corey Hawkins
Dave Franco     Ben Hardy


     Six characters so closeted, when someone says, “Who are you?” the answer is, “No one.” They like to see themselves as “ghosts.”  Number One (Reynolds) (they use numbers, rather than names) who essentially functions as the leader (and founder, perhaps) has strict principles to live by, which precludes forming attachments, having cell phones, or leaving any digital trace of their footprints.  (This code is bandied about from time to time, with some squirming against it, and some openly questioning it; but One always defends it.)  They’re a “Delta” force doing risky, undercover work; but unlike the Navy Seals, for instance, they are not attached to a government.  It’s part of their creed that they take orders from no one and make their decisions to take action all on their own (vigilantes).  This also means that things like “due process” and written laws of justice are not a part of their value system.  They do believe that if they see broad social injustice—such as a despotic leader exploiting his people—they have a right/duty to intervene through whatever means it takes.
     This system presents a wondrous opportunity for filmmakers (Michael Bay, director) to devise a point-by-point account of the group’s derring-do against a backdrop of luxurious settings (e.g., Florence Italy and Hong Kong), on gigantic yachts, in elegant hotels, and so on.  It’s like a James Bond film, but here you have six/seven heroes/heroines to gaze upon.  Likewise, it’s an opportunity for a macho extravaganza of destruction.  (Thank goodness, they spared Michaelangelo’s David sculpture in Florence!)  It’s the cinematographer’s (Bojan Bazelli) job to show off the visual elegance of these scenes, accompanied by Lorne Balfe’s reverberating score.
     6 Underground is a libertarian’s wet dream about heroic acts being achieved outside the strictures of authority and government.  It’s likewise a video-game-like lavish display of machismo—executed by women (thank you very much!) as well as men.  I do appreciate females being portrayed with as much authority as the males. And it even shows their superiority at times when two males can’t keep from fighting like little boys.
     As in many action films, 6 Underground is heavy on the car chases and heroics at the expense of story and character development. Maybe this was meant to be more tongue-in-cheek than I got, but, to me, Ryan Reynolds did not fit with the hard-edged character he was meant to be.  Just to look at him physically, is to see a nice and gentle guy who could pull off Deadpool beautifully.  I think a more sharp-edged—going toward the cynical—look in the actor would be more apropos in this case.
     I can say that on the one hand, 6 Underground is entertaining in places and has unexpected elements, and I always like to see the evil man get his due.  On the other hand, envisioning a vigilante force outside of law exerting its judgment (including killing) without benefit of a lawful trial makes me uneasy.  I’m also against the wanton destruction shown during much of the film, especially when cars are careening every which way and bashing into other cars, buildings, and historical sites along the streets in Florence and elsewhere. These scenes become tediously repetitious.
     Aside from Reynolds—who I think was miscast, although he is a good actor—Melanie Laurent, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Ben Hardy, Corey Hawkins, Adria Arjona and Dave Franco enrich the plot and inhabit their characters well, especially Laurent, Hardy, Hawkins, and Garcia-Rulfo.  

If you’re up to a video-game kind of movie, this will please you.  But if you have a problem with vigilantism and absurd car chases, find another film to watch.

Grade:  D+                                    By Donna R. Copeland






Tuesday, December 10, 2019

RICHARD JEWELL

Olivia Wilde     Sam Rockwell     Paul Walter Hauser     Jon Hamm     Kathy Bates


     This is a horror story, but it’s actually a dramatized account of what happened to the security guard who recognized the possibility of a bomb being in an abandoned backpack at the 1996 Olympics Games in Atlanta, Georgia.  After being called a hero for three days, the FBI got a tip from a local college president about a security guard he had fired. It’s unbelievable that such an elite group would place so much confidence in it, but they apparently did, and Richard Jewell (Hauser) was relentlessly pursued for almost three months, not only by the FBI, but as well by media outlets competing with one another to get the biggest scoop, and in such a hurry, they did not check their sources as they were supposed to.  The film focuses on one over-ambitious reporter (Wilde) who had unethically obtained a leak from one of the agents and wrote a front-page article identifying Jewell as the prime FBI suspect.
     The script by Billy Ray, based on a Vanity Fair article by Marie Brenner, follows the true story closely and is taut and suspense-laden, but also carries with it humorous (not derisive, but sympathetic) portrayals of Jewell and his mother Bobi (Bates).  They are a Southern middle-class mother and son who live together in a neat apartment.  He has aspirations to be a police officer, but has a habit of taking his job too seriously, following the letter of the law (of which he is well informed by his own reading), without an understanding of practical/political considerations. He’s not taken seriously by local enforcement, but to their credit, when he points out a suspicious backpack, they indulge him, only to find that there is indeed a bomb inside.  The area is evacuated as quickly as possible, which does save lives when the bomb explodes.
     Along with the fine script, the actors are superb.  Hauser gives such a realistic portrayal of Jewell, the viewer is drawn in immediately with his combination of folksy charm, innocence, and commitment.  Sam Rockwell (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, MissouriThe Way Way BackFosse/Verdon) is one of my favorite actors; he always nails whatever character he is portraying, and here he is a complex Southern lawyer with anti-authoritarian attitudes, just the right person to defend a social outcast with principals.  Kathy Bates plays Jewell’s soulful, devoted mother with just the right touches of dedication and commitment to make it believable that Richard is her progeny.  
     In his 50-year career, Clint Eastwood is a phenomenon in entertainment spanning television and movies in different roles of actor, director, producer, and even composer.   His films are generally well received, especially Million Dollar Baby, Unforgiven, Bird, and Mystic River.  His most recent films in 2018 (15:17 to Paris and The Mule) were largely panned, but it is likely that Richard Jewell will represent a comeback to his usual solid form.  It may be over the top in some places, but seems to adhere closely to Marie Brenner’s magazine article.

A story about how self-serving machinations of the FBI and media outlets can ruin an innocent man’s reputation and torture him and his family for months.

Grade:  B+                    By Donna R. Copeland


Thursday, December 5, 2019

MARRIAGE STORY

Scarlett Johansson     Adam Driver     Laura Dern     Ray Liotta     Alan Alda
 Azhy Robertson     Julie Hagerty     Merritt Wever


      A heartbreaking story—but not so much that a couple’s paths in life take them in different directions—but that their whole separation becomes contaminated by external factors.  Geographical separation is commonplace in families nowadays, and is one of the factors in couples’ not being easily able to maintain an intimate relationship, especially when husband-wife careers’ pull them in different directions.  Nevertheless, upsets could be worked out amicably between the two parties, but so often third parties intervene in ways that are damaging.
     For example, Nicole (Johansson) and Charlie (Driver) are enjoying their marriage and professional collaboration in New York when she gets an offer for and accepts a starring role in a television pilot in Los Angeles.  That is where she is from and where her family is, and so she has always wanted to return.  Charlie gives lip service to her desires, but his career is taking off in New York, so he figures that she will go “do her thing” for a while, then return with their son Henry (Robertson), who has gone with her.  She kind of thinks this too; however, while she is there she begins to think about her marriage, and comes to feel that Charlie dominates her life too much.
     She then takes a fateful step in engaging canny lawyer, sharpshooter Nora (Dern) who is expert in pulling Nicole into her web, reinforcing her reservations about Charlie and working hard to exploit the case to the fullest extent (of her bill, of course).  This will set the ball rolling so that it will no longer be Nicole and Charlie working out their own solutions, but a legal battle between Fanshaw and Charlie’s attorneys, first Bert Spitz (Alda) and later when the going gets rough, Jay (Liotta).
     Writer-director Noah Baumbach knows very well of what he speaks.  The story is loosely based on his own separation from Jennifer Jason Leigh, his first wife, who apparently approves of this production.  (Baumbach is now with Greta Gerwig, director of Lady Bird and Little Women).  He is to be praised for a valiant attempt to present both sides of the contentious splintering in a fairly objective way. As presented, though, I had more sympathy for Charlie than for Nicole; but that may be partly because Nicole’s position and actions are not as well articulated, such that we don’t feel for her as much as we do for Charlie.  Except in the last court scene, she is not “rained on” by the lawyers as much as Charlie is.
     The two leads, Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver, are fundamental in telling this story.  They give such seamless, authentic representations of their characters the film looks almost like a documentary.  Laura Dern as a lawyer is brilliant in capturing the persona of someone who knows how to beguile while delivering cutthroat blows.  Alan Alda, but more especially Ray Liotta, as Charlie’s lawyers are very good, but do have lines that match the lethality of Fanshaw.  Julie Hagerty and Merritt Weaver as Scarlett’s mother and sister provide some great hilarity to offset the heavy drama. 

Painful, hard truths and emotional ups and downs in this film will move you deeply, and for those who have gone through a divorce it will bring sharp remembrances.

Grade:  A                                                By Donna R. Copeland

Thursday, November 28, 2019

DARK WATERS

Mark Ruffalo     Anne Hathaway     Tim Robbins     Bill Camp     Bill Pullman     Victor Garber


     Robert Bilott (Ruffalo) is a promising young attorney who has just made partner in a respected corporate law firm.  He has a number of key supporters as a result of his work defending chemical companies, who believe he will distinguish himself (and them) because of his deliberateness and passion for the law.  He will indeed live up to this faith, although not in the way his supporters think.
     Soon after starting this phase of his career, Rob is personally visited in his office by a West Virginia farmer, Wilbur Tennant (Camp), wanting representation. He has been referred by his neighbor, Rob’s beloved grandmother.  Rob patiently explains that he is a civil lawyer and not likely to serve the client well.  Tennant leaves in a huff, feeling that all his antagonism toward authorities is justified.  
     But Rob is conscientious, and visits his grandmother for more information. She reminds him that as a boy he used to go to the Tennants’ farm every summer (to swim and learn to milk cows!) and thoroughly enjoyed it.  Rob does a bit more investigation, looking at a landfill near the farm, and being shown by Tennant some of the devastation, which he thinks is perpetrated by the DuPont company (DuPont de Nemours, as they prefer to be called).  
     After doing more research into the company and getting the EPA reports, it begins to dawn on Rob that there is something to investigate (like water and air contamination, as well as animal/human organ damage.  The Tennants do not have the money to hire him, so he discusses with his boss Tom Terp (Robbins) the possibility of taking on pro bono what they foresee as a short-term project.  Terp reluctantly agrees on the basis that it will promote the Taft Law Firm’s good name.
     What is in store for them is (literally!) mountains of data for Rob to go through, unsatisfying responses from the DuPont company to his inquiries, and later on, major resistance and obstruction as a defense by DuPont, despite ever-mounting evidence against them.
     I wish I could describe to you a heroic story in which legal and political action made a decisive difference.  Although I cannot, I nevertheless urge the public to see this film (updated/extended from the Erin Brockovich) for its application to contemporary environmental and political concerns.  It’s a bit like a detective story that must accumulate data over a long period of time, and becomes a drama that is all too familiar today.
     Mark Ruffalo does an exemplary job portraying a man trying to overcome a compromised history by committing himself to helping the disadvantaged.  This comes at a cost, and we see his, his wife’s (Hathaway) and their family’s sacrifices.  Noteworthy (and perhaps award-worthy) is Bill Camp’s performance in playing a West Virginia farmer who is astute but not given credit for it by virtue of his accent, his class, and where he is from geographically (West Virginia). He successively endears others, and distances them because of his extreme (but well justified) anger. He is a significant supporting actor.
     Todd Haynes continues to surprise with his explorations into varying subjects and he and cinematographer Edward Lachman’s foray into innovative techniques in WonderstruckFar from Heaven, Carol, and this film, show their abilities to portray the poetic as well as the meaningful in their joint works.  I want to give a shout-out to composer Marcelo Zarvos, whose music has a paradoxical effect of being soft and lyrical, but with ominous overtones, even from the beginning.  Those tones let you know this will not be a romp through the park.  
     The movie gets into substantive issues relevant today about environmental concerns, corporate power, and the costs of social advocacy, while engaging you emotionally into the drama.

Dark Waters turn out to be toxic.

Grade:  B+                                    By Donna R. Copeland


THE TWO POPES


Jonathan Pryce     Anthony Hopkins     Juan Minujin


     It’s fascinating to hear two popes we’ve all seen on television having intimate conversations about their lives and about the Church, and showing in detail how the transition between the two leaders came about.  They met three times in the Vatican before the transfer of the papacy from Benedict to Francis.  Anthony McCarten based his script on his book, written after careful research and interviews with both popes (both of whom live in the Vatican). Director Fernando Meirelles says that all the lines in the script come from these interviews or conversations reported in the book.  It should be noted that the actual meetings are not likely to have taken place.  This is a dramatization based on McCarten’s work.
     But because the dialog is based on interviews with the real popes, the film conveys a sense of authenticity, helped along by the skills of the two actors and their genuine pleasure in one another’s company.  The story begins with the election of Joseph Aloisius Ratzinger, who took the name of Pope Benedict upon his ascension.  The name of one of the other candidates was the always-reluctant Jorge Mario Bergoglio.  Ratzinger did not care much for Bergoglio, who was fairly openly critical of him, as was Bergoglio of Ratzinger.  And indeed, the two held starkly contrasting views about the Catholic Church.  In general terms, the earlier pope was much more conservative than the progressive latter one, who became the present Pope Francis.
    The two could not have been more different, one coming from Germanic beliefs about society and conventional order, and the other from a passion about the sacredness of the priesthood in following the teachings of Jesus in terms of humility and equality.  Ironically, what brought them together were their Christian beliefs and their devotion to the Catholic Church.
     The conversations and flashbacks remind or inform about the sex and financial scandals that surfaced in the Catholic Church during Benedict’s term and the political history of Bergoglio when he was a Jesuit priest first, then bishop, in Argentina.  In trying to help during the junta and subsequent “Dirty War”, he made some political mistakes, for which he paid dearly, but subsequently believed that the experience was helpful to him morally.  Benedict came to realize that he had not acted judiciously and promptly to address scandals.
     In this somewhat haunting—but always interesting—tale, all of the components of filmmaking are top-notch.  Writing, direction, and editing move the story along at a good pace, maintaining the viewer’s keen interest, and flashbacks and changes of location are smooth and logical.  Cinematography is stunning at times and simply gorgeous at others, and the music is in turns wondrously sacred, dancing, or playful.  (References to ABBA and the Beatles are sure to bring chuckles).  
     One of the most impressive scenes I’ve seen in a film occurs in The Two Popes during an especially sensitive event, when there is an ethereal ray of sunlight, soft religious music, the speaker’s voice seeming to go into a tunnel, then everything abruptly stopped, and what we see is the stark midsection of a closed wooden door.  
     One of the most touching sequences in the film is the progression of the two characters’ frank distaste toward and disagreement with one another to a place of intimacy, acceptance, and above all understanding.  It is clear that in the end, each learned from the other. Each acknowledged a change of heart and belief in a way that should inspire us today in our time of extreme antagonism and suspicion among groups.  

This is a film for everyone in its inspiration for overcoming discordance in a fractious time and its artful, even humorous, portrayal of a beloved, sacred system.

Grade:  A                                    By Donna R. Copeland

Thursday, November 21, 2019

A BEAUTIFUL DAY IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD

Tom Hanks     Matthew Rhys     Susan Kelechi Watson     Chris Cooper     Christine Lahti


     In this film, “Mr. Rogers”, the television personality is portrayed as someone who will change the life of a reluctant expository journalist sent to interview him for a “hero” piece in a magazine.  Lloyd Vogel (Rhys) is shown to be absolutely myopic and abrasive in human interactions (and in his writings), even with his wife Andrea (Watson) and their infant child.  But after his abbreviated times with Rogers, he makes a miraculous transformation.  
     I think I understand what the filmmakers had in mind in making A Beautiful Day, which is to show how effective Mr. Rogers as a television personality could be in the real world with a grown-up.  But having had some personal interactions with the real Fred Rogers, and from my experience of the show when my daughter as a young child was transfixed by it, I came away from the movie rather taken aback.  This is a completely fanciful account of Mr. Rogers and the way in which he related to people outside his show.
     To be specific, when I was a psychologist in Pediatrics at M. D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Texas, we invited Fred Rogers to our annual Mental Health Conference1.  He came and gave a moving presentation about how he worked with kids. During his stay, we had a number of conversations with him.  I want to say that at no time when he talked with us as adults, did he use the same tone as he did on his show with children or use a style of probing someone's psyche, as is shown in this film particularly when talking to the journalist Lloyd Vogel. 
     My misgivings with the film have mostly to do with the dialog.  Writers Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster have written dialog that sounds artificial, as if someone who isn’t Mr. Rogers is trying to sound just like him, and then applying it unrealistically.  The real Rogers—or anyone with psychological sensitivity—would not ask probing questions of a journalist as if he were the man’s therapist.  Fred Rogers was much more sophisticated and psychologically informed than that.
     As far as the acting, Tom Hanks does a marvelous rendition of Fred Rogers’ manner, voice, and demonstrative concern.  Even his singing is engaging.  It was especially provocative to see Matthew Rhys (such an astute, insightful character in “The Americans”) come across as an acerbic, obtuse character who seems completely ignorant of everyday niceties and needs of others.  The rest of the cast including the always effective Chris Cooper as Lloyd’s father and Susan Kelechi Watson as his wife are top-notch.
     In my way of thinking, the writers and director Marielle Heller should have gotten more consultation about the essence of Fred Rogers and his “Neighborhood” show before embarking on the project.  Their backgrounds in Can You Ever Forgive Me, Maleficent, and A Walk among the Tombstones are not adequate preparation and experience for a movie about a master of subtlety and guidance of children.

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is not likely to encourage reminiscences about Mr. Rogers or his show for children.

Grade:  D                         By Donna R. Copeland

1Rogers, Fred.  Growing with Children.  In Donna R. Copeland, Betty Pfefferbaum, Allison Stovall (Ed.) The Mind of the Child Who Is Said To Be Sick.  Springfield, IL: Charles C. Thomas.  1983, pp. 5-12.