Thursday, September 22, 2016

GOAT

Ben Schnetzer     Nick Jonas     Gus Halper     Danny Flaherty   Jake Picking     James Franco


          This is an unfortunate movie in some ways; that is, because it’s so sadistic, and I believe it’s not good for people to watch/enjoy such pictures.  In addition, hazing as rough as the Phi Sigma Mu Fraternity dishes out in the film Goat is illegal in most states.  Goat is based on Brad Land’s memoir published in 2004.  Much to my surprise, however, even though “hazing has been banned by 44 states and virtually all colleges and universities”, it is still a problem on college campuses, as shown by a recent comprehensive study (http://diverseeducation.com/article/10811/ reported on by the Associated Press, “Study: Hazing Still a Problem on Campus”, March 12, 2008).  “The study found the highest rates of hazing (74 percent) among members of varsity athletic teams and fraternities and sororities (73 percent). But rates also were high for participants in club sports (64 percent) and performing arts organizations (56 percent).”
          After reading this, it partially answered my question as to why Director and co-writer Andrew Neel and screenwriters David Gordon Green and Mike Roberts might have wanted to adapt Brad Land’s memoir about his experience of hazing at college into film.  Perhaps it is to make the public aware that despite the efforts to get rid of hazing, it’s still a problem on many campuses.  Neel also says in an interview at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival that “I’m just interested in the darker side of who we are” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OkYiMSoEuVA - Interviewer, Micah van Hove of No Film School).  And his film is about the darker side of masculinity, despite its appearance in a setting of fraternal “brotherly love.”
          Land’s memoir not only describes the brutality of the hazing, but before that, he had been approached by two strangers after a party to give them a ride.   Unfortunately, they were up to no good and beat him severely, leaving him by the side of a country road and stealing his car.  He may have experienced post-traumatic stress syndrome as a result, but his own personality of passivity and denial and family issues kept him from getting help.  Instead, he followed his older, more socially competent brother Brett to college and pledged his fraternity. 
         The film opens at a raucous fraternity party to which Brett (Jonas) talked his brother into coming, hoping that he will impress the members so they will accept Brad (Schnetzer) into their chapter.  But Brad is more of a loner and leaves the party to go home.  It is just outside the door as he is nearing his car that he is approached to give the two strangers a ride.  After he recovers, as much as he’s going to, he pledges his brother’s fraternity, and goes through the hellacious week of pledging, where he and the other pledges undergo unspeakable tortures.  The Phi Sigma Mu members are shown to be champions of masculinity, but of the kind that is uncontrollably aggressive, brutal, foul-mouthed, and sadistic. 
          Needless to say, women hardly appear in the film, and when they do, they’re pictured primarily as sex objects.  In this and in other aspects—such as Brad’s personality weaknesses and ethical dilemmas faced only by Brett and the college—the film is one-dimensional.  Hence, not much time is given to insights about or rationale against hazing.  Shock value appears to be the intent here.

A shallow and purposeless look at hazing on college campuses.

Grade:  F                        By Donna R. Copeland

THE LOVERS AND THE DESPOT

Shin Sang-ok     Choi Eun-hee     Kim Jong-il


          A most amazing story!  And if there are skeptics, that’s understandable.  Nevertheless, after listening to This American Life’s (Podcast #556) reporting on this story last year, as well as the audiotapes obtained by the lovers, I’m inclined to believe it.  Kim Jong-il apparently had a rough childhood in the sense that he had every toy imaginable, but could not play with other children.  He grew up isolated (not surprising that he turned out to be a movie enthusiast), shy, and short—very unlike his charismatic father.  But he was indulged, and was given anything material he asked for.  So he grew up getting whatever he wanted; why not moviemakers too?
        In 1978, a famous movie star in South Korea went missing when she was visiting Hong Kong.  Soon afterward, her ex-husband, film director Shin Sang-ok, went missing as well when he was searching for her in Hong Kong.  The first kidnapping is generally accepted as valid, but there are those who are skeptical about Shin’s story, in that he had always had money problems with his film company and the conservative, censoring government had taken away his permit to film altogether.  Several years later, when he and his wife began to appear at film festivals with their North Korean financed films, it appeared that they had been “bought off” by Kim Jong-il, a passionate film enthusiast who complained about his country’s film industry.      
     This documentary by British filmmakers Ross Adam and Robert Cannan is a coherent and well-documented account of the remarkable story.  Although they don’t give a final pronouncement of the validity of the couple’s claim, they did gather material from personal interviews with Choi (Shin died in 2006), their two children, and U.S. officials (one of which was Michael Yi, a native Korean previously working at a military intelligence organization in South Korea and later as a classified U.S. intelligence officer charged with interrogating North Korean defectors and arresting North Korean espionage agents); news materials from the time; and clips from the couple’s films (seven of which were made in less than three years in North Korea), which enhance the documentary’s appeal.  
      Finally, anticipating that their story would be questioned, Choi and Shin cleverly sneaked a tape recorder into one of their meetings with Kim Jong-il, in which he basically acknowledged he had them kidnapped for the purpose of elevating the North Korean film industry.  (He never did get the connection between government repression and the North’s unimaginative, boring films.)  This recording is played in the film, with Yi, the U.S. intelligence officer verifying Kim’s voice.
     Considering all of this together, it appears to me that Adam and Cannan did due diligence in collecting the facts of the case, and we do know that after the couple suddenly appeared at the U.S. Embassy in Vienna and given asylum by the U.S., they were interrogated thoroughly and the validity of their claims was established. 
      The documentary does intersperse dramatizations of scenes in the movie, and it is not always clear which ones they are and which are actual, for which Adam and Cannan could be criticized.  They do a good job of showing the lives of Shin, Choi and Kim Jong-il prior to the kidnapping, which sheds some light on how and why their paths intersected, but could have addressed more directly the question of whether Shin was abducted against his will.   However, the fact that he was placed in a detention facility for months and punished severely for attempts to escape with signs of starvation apparent, suggests that his wasn’t a friendly crossing over.  Choi was aghast when she saw him for the first time in North Korea, prompting her to ask, “What happened to you?!”
            As strange as this story is, we shouldn’t underestimate a dictator nor the ingenuity of people wanting freedom.  After eight years of a surreal experience involving the best and the worst, the couple end up valuing freedom above all else.

An inspiring story about ingenuity and knowing what it takes to survive in a paradoxical world.

Grade:  A                                    By Donna R. Copeland

THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN

Denzel Washington   Chris Pratt   Ethan Hawke   Vincent D’Onofrio   Haley Bennett  
Peter Sarsgaard   Byung-hun Lee   Manuel Garcia-Rulfo   Martin Sensmeier


          A motley group of seven men recruited one by one by a Kansas Warranty Officer Chisolm (Washington) band together to rescue a farming town from the evil miner Bartholomew Bogue (Sarsgaard), who wants their land and is willing to give them only a pittance for it and simply kill them if they refuse.  Chisolm is retained by Emma Cullen (Bennett), whose husband was one of those killed, but he agrees only after she gives him a significant bit of information. 
          Gradually, Chisolm meets up with a few malcontents who join him for one reason or another:  card shark/gambler/trickster Faraday (Pratt), haunted sharp shooter Robicheaux (Hawke), tracker-with-a-tomahawk Horne (D’Onofrio), knife-wielding assassin Billy Rocks (Lee), Mexican outlaw on the run Vasquez (Garcia-Rulfo), and Comanche arrows and bullets sharp shooter Red Harvest (Sensmeier).  These guys are not only colorful in their backgrounds, they bring much of the humor of the movie (sometimes a bit corny), presumably to balance the extreme violence shown in the film.  All these actors are superb in their roles, and elevate the film above the mundane script.
          Chisolm sends the cowardly sheriff (Dane Rhodes) to take the message to Bogue that the townsmen will not give up without a fight, and that he and his men will be defending them.  When Bogue learns there are only seven defenders, he thinks it will be a piece of cake.  His lackeys put together a small army, and head toward the town.  But Chisolm is a strategist who is able to anticipate his enemy’s maneuvers, and has made detailed plans involving explosive booby traps, trenches, placements of shooters, and even weapons training for the locals.  The battle that ensues is bloody and long, complicated by a ferocious weapon mercilessly fired by Bogue.
          This remake of two earlier films considered masterful, one in 1954 (Seven Samurai) by Akira Kurosawa, legendary Japanese filmmaker, and one in 1960 (The Magnificent Seven) by John Sturges seems unnecessary.  There could have been more updates, such as modernizing and making more realistic—even for the 19th Century—the Bennett character Emma.  For example, she defended the town admirably and saved Chisolm’s life, but he didn’t even thank her; instead, he took her gun away from her.  The filmmakers made sure that we would see her cry more than once, just to emphasize once again the stereotypical female.  Here’s a thought:  Include her and call the film The Magnificent Eight. 
          Musician James Horner should be acknowledged for his contribution to this film.  He had made considerable progress on the score, but died before the work was completed, so Simon Frangien was enlisted to complete it.  Mauro Fiore’s cinematography does justice to the exquisite western landscape, and his filming of the action scenes is artistic, as is the usual for him.

For western fans not bothered by mediocre remakes, this will hold your attention.


Grade:  C                                 By Donna R. Copeland


Wednesday, September 21, 2016

QUEEN OF KATWE

David Oyelowo     Lupita Nyong’o     Madina Nalwanga


        Mira Nair is known for quality filmmaking (Salaam Bombay, Mississippi Masala, Monsoon Wedding), and in Queen of Katwe, which is based on a true story, she excels in her conceptualization and import of the film, and directs an outstanding cast and crew to deliver a comprehensive work that is cross-cultural, and has heart, soul, and entertainment value.  Her choices of Alex Heffes to compose and incorporate African sounds in the music and Sean Bobbitt to do his magical cinematography (e.g., making chess matches interesting and exciting and capturing the facial expressions of the native players and observers) show her perceptiveness and attention to detail.  It helps that for a story about Africans that is to be strongly cultural, Nair has filmed in Uganda before (Mississippi Masala), where she met and married an Ugandan and now has a home there.
           The film stars, David Oyelowo, a native Nigerian, and Lupita Nyong’o, born in Mexico of Kenyan parents and reared in Kenya, are likewise excellent choices because of their backgrounds as well as their acting talent and skill.  The central main character, Phiona, is played by Madina Nalwanga, a native of Katwe and a first-time actor who gives a flawless rendition of the girl from the slums who is taught to play chess and turns out to have an uncanny gift for the game (e.g., she can reason out and see the next eight moves she will make).  Nair wisely chose all the rest of the actors from the area around Katwe, who give naturalistic expressions when they see the other actors in the story and interact with them.  A prime example is when Oyelowo graphically acts out a sequence in which he is telling the “Katwe Pioneers” the story of a dog chasing another animal for food who escapes, and hearing the principle behind it—running for a meal vs. running for your life.  It’s clear that the child actors have not heard this before and are completely enthralled.
        Mira Nair began considering this feature film after making a short documentary (“A Fork, a Spoon, and a Knight”) about the teacher, Robert Katende.  Katende was an engineer in Uganda who couldn’t land a job in that profession and began teaching soccer and chess to children in the slums who didn’t have a prayer for an education, or even learning to read.  He astutely identified a girl (horror to male egos young and old) who seemed to have not only the ability to strategize and plan ahead, but was a fighter. 
          Phiona (Nalwanga) was an outcast even in her poor neighborhood, but when she and her brother began to learn chess, it was clear that she had an uncommon talent for it.  The acclaim she began to receive was a boost to her ego, and as a result she adopted better social skills.  Katende (played by Oyelowo) was a “born teacher”—with all the selflessness that implies.  He often taught by telling stories as well as direct instruction, and he wisely thought chess would be especially valuable to poor children in the discipline, persistence and planning ahead that it requires.  After he talked a few kids into coming and learning the game, Katende got hooked on leading this young group of chess players to national chess championships.  His talent in hustling enabled him to jump over the hoops thrown out to the lower classes by the system, and get his kids to tournaments.  (Gratifyingly in the story, it is pointed out that his wife plays an important role in her understanding of his decisions and aims so that she goes along with him, encourages him, and agrees to house them and teach many needy children to read in her home). 
          The screenplay by William Wheeler is based on an ESPN Magazine article and a book by Tim Crothers with the same title as the film.
       In an after-screening satellite interview, Nair, Oyelowo, Nyong’o, and Nalwanga responded to questions from the host Dave Karger and the audience.  Oyelowo stated that he was most inspired by Nair’s decision to make the film from the perspective of a woman, a woman of color, and to make the central character be a female, rather than the male teacher, Katende.  At one point in the film, a chess tournament official states about Phiona:  “Such aggressiveness in a girl is quite a treasure.”  He also praised Nyong’o for her ability to convincingly play a woman living in a slum, selling corn in order to support her large family, given that Nyong’o is a famous movie star and Oscar winner and a fashion icon.  He began his compliment by saying he had the most fun watching her practice walking like Phiona’s mother, and even demonstrated it for us (making everyone laugh), and then explained why that was such a feat, given who the actress is in real life.  The film’s appeal to Lupita was in its depiction of a small girl with a big dream, which came from her becoming aware of her passion for something.
          In regard to cast selection, Nair said she first met Phiona and Katende in New York during a chess match.  She observed Phiona’s feistiness and pluck at the time, and when she met her mother back in Uganda, she could see where the daughter had gotten it.  So she chose actors who could recapture that spunk, Lupita Nyong’o and Madina Nalwanga.  
           An interesting observation is that the real Phiona and Madina (who had never acted in a movie before) had never seen a film before this one, except for Jurassic World, which the child actors were shown after shooting began.  Madina said that her role seemed like she was acting out her own story, because she is a native of Katwe.
           A heartwarming touch at the end of the film is Nair’s idea to take photographs of the actors with their real person counterparts standing side by side.  In addition, Phiona and Katende were in the telecast audience for us to see them as well.

An inspirational story about a most unlikely chess player.

Grade:  A                                            By Donna R. Copeland

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

BRIDGET JONES'S BABY

Renee Zellweger   Colin Firth   Patrick Dempsey   Emma Thompson   Jim Broadbent   Gemma Jones   Sarah Solemani


          This is the third installment of Bridget Jones, and I would have thought that after the cool reception of the second (Bridget Jones:  The Edge of Reason), that that would be it.  But, no, in this age of filmmakers’ lust for remakes and sequels (i.e., money), we get the third version:  Bridget Jones’s Baby.  Renee Zellweger remains Bridget, and Colin Firth is retained as love interest Mark Darcy.  Patrick Dempsey is introduced as Mark’s charismatic rival, TV star and professional matchmaker, Jack.  I think his character (and Dempsey is perfect in the role) adds the most refreshing addition to the plot and helps bring the sitcom-like story into contemporary times.  More about that below.
         As the film opens, Bridget is coming to terms with her life situation—over 40 and a “spinster.”  With pressure from her co-worker Miranda (Solemani, who adds additional flair and talent to the cast), Bridget decides she will become a sexy “cougar” and go to a camp festival, all the rage, and let come what may.  She ends up falling down in the mud, being rescued by Jack who just happens by and is instantly attracted to her.  One-night stand, and she skitters off.
          As happens in social circles, Bridget encounters Mark from time to time—once with his wife, then once at a family christening without his wife, when, it turns out, he is divorcing.  The old fire is rekindled and they have a significant encounter.
         Now, of course—the whole point of this movie—Bridget finds out she is pregnant.  The problem is that she slept with two men at about the same time, so who is the father?  Consistent with the zany character, Bridget used very old condoms in her encounters with the two men.  (I’m glad there was at least an attempt at safe protection!)
       It’s inevitable that the three—Bridget, Mark, and Jack—will be thrown together from time to time, with first one man and then the other professing his love for Bridget and the child.  Eventually, everyone knows that the fatherhood is unclear, and we see them struggle through the ambiguities of the situation.  The interchanges at prenatal classes are some of the funniest scenes of the movie, especially when the instructor assumes the two men are a couple and Bridget is the surrogate for their adoptive baby.  Playful Jack thinks this is great fun, and begins to relate to Mark as a lover (he is willing to role-play for fun), which only makes Mark more uneasy.  Being so proper, Mark is already having a hard time with this bizarre situation.
         The conclusion is well orchestrated by Sharon Maguire as director of the first and third versions of Bridget Jones and by the screenwriters Helen Fielding, Dan Mazer, and Emma Thompson.  (Thompson as the physician also brings wry hilarity to her scenes.) 

A rom-com that many will enjoy following the previous Bridget Jones films.


Grade:  C+                         By Donna R. Copeland

SNOWDEN

Joseph Gordon-Levitt   Shailene Woodley   Rhys Ifans   Nicholas Cage   Tom Wilkinson   Melisso Leo   Zachary Quinto


           Oliver Stone and his co-writer Kieran Fitzgerald present a close-up look at the man who successfully blew the whistle on the U.S. Government for what he terms “running a dragnet on the whole world” by “tracking every cell phone.”  He says that terrorism is really an excuse for acquiring economic and social control for the supremacy of the U.S. Government.  We learn that there is a wide network of surveillance that encompasses the whole world, including friendly allies and virtually everyone in our own country.
     Who is Edward Snowden?  In the process of hearing about his life and his accomplishments, our respect for him grows.  He is articulate in expressing his observations, was a star player in his advancement through government posts by virtue of his intelligence and hard work, and regarded as one who is conscientious, questioning, and honorable in his values.  He made numerous attempts to give service to his country, but each time he encountered evidence of wrongdoing on the part of the NSA and CIA, it was a challenge to his conscience.  He tried to express his concerns to his mentor, Corbin O’Brian, the deputy head of the NSA, but was given rationalizations for the government’s going against the Constitution.  Finally, at great sacrifice of his personal life, he decided he needed to let the American people know what was going on.
        It’s a matter of historical record—and Snowden was actually warned of this—that previous whistleblowers like Thomas Drake and Bill Binney were severely punished for trying to go through proper channels in expressing the same concerns as Snowden.  It ruined their lives and their careers because they didn’t have concrete “proof” of their allegations.  That is why Snowden did not make a formal complaint and made sure he had the proof of his allegations; and so he is charged with “stealing” classified documents.
        Snowden carefully plotted how he would proceed, which was to fly to Hong Kong, contact a documentarian, Laura Poitras (Leo) and newspaper reporters from London’s Guardian, give them his information, and trust them to analyze and publicize it at their discretion.  As we all know, his plan after that was to fly to Moscow, then Cuba, then to Ecuador for asylum; however, the U.S. withdrew his passport, and he has been in Moscow ever since 2013.
          Stone wisely inserted into the story Snowden’s personal relationship with his girlfriend Lindsay (Woodley).  This serves several purposes; namely to fill out the picture of Snowden and show his human normalcy and the significant influence of Lindsay on his life and balance the wealth of technical information the viewer must process during the film with a real love story.
         Gordon-Levitt is award-worthy in his capturing the look and essence of Snowden, and Woodley gives her character Lindsay life that shows smartness, spunk, and curiosity.  They have wonderful chemistry in showing how this couple has remained together to this day, despite countless separations and pressures.  Ifans, Cage, Leo, Wilkinson, and Quinto are incredibly good supporting actors that help elevate the quality of Snowden.
      My problem with the film is its lack of chronology.  It seems to be a fad among filmmakers today to jump around in time.  There is some sequencing of Snowden’s jobs, but seemingly at random, we go back and forth between Hong Kong, Snowden’s relationship with Lindsay, CIA operations, Geneva, Tokyo, and Oahu.  I see no reason for this, and feel jerked around.
        After the screening I attended, we were treated to a live broadcast of a conversation with Snowden (via satellite from Moscow), and the filmmakers Oliver Stone, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and Shailene Woodley, hosted by Matt Zoller Seitz (Editor-in-Chief RogerEbert.com and author of The Oliver Stone Experience). 
        In this, Edward Snowden gives us further proof of his character, saying that it’s obvious that he is “the world’s worst boyfriend.”  In the film, he and Lindsay have many conflicts about his official need for secrecy, his absences, and his preoccupation with his job.  Each time it looks like they’re about to have a normal life, he gets another offer of a position he can’t turn down.  At one point he says wistfully, “Lots of people cruise happily through life; why can’t I?”  He pays tribute to Lindsay in the televised conversation, acknowledging that she is stronger than he is.
       Oliver Stone elaborated on how the film got off the ground.  He had nine visits in Moscow with Snowden before they agreed to proceed.  He pointed out how much technical information he had to process, the wariness of Snowden which made Stone wonder if he would cooperate, and the time it took for them to develop mutual trust.  Snowden said he was impressed with Stone’s complete concentration and attention to detail on a project; “He was consumed with it”, he said.
      Gordon-Levitt and Woodley touched on the challenges and fulfillment of extreme emotional scenes and the rigor of multiple takes of the material.  Woodley commented on the media’s treatment of Lindsay after the announcement of Snowden’s defection, acknowledging that the pictures of her on the Internet were one-dimensional and stereotypical, whereas she is in fact a woman of depth and talent.  Gordon-Levitt expressed the gratification he felt when Snowden’s family attended the movie’s premiere in New York and thanked him—the best feedback he has ever gotten, he says.
         Finally, Snowden addressed the question of “I don’t have anything to hide, so I don’t care if the government monitors my phone calls, e-mails, and Internet posts.”  He said that “privacy is the fountainhead of all other rights”, so we should be mindful of what it means to lose that privacy.  He urged everyone to start at the local level in advocating for it, discuss it openly with others, and unite in efforts to let the government know we are against universal surveillance without cause.

A must-see for everyone who values their freedom.

Grade:  A-                                    By Donna R. Copeland

Thursday, September 8, 2016

THE WILD LIFE

Voices of:  Yuri Lowenthal   David Howard   Sandy Fox   Marieve Herington   Debi Tinsley   Jeff Doucette   Laila Berzins   Joey Camen    


          This nWave animated production comes from Belgium, but the language for U.S. release is in English.  Directors are Vincent Kesteloot and Ben Stassen.  It’s basically an extended cartoon, with endless chases and miraculous last-minute saves.  There are some implied messages, but these will likely go over preschool children’s heads, the audience for which I think the movie is intended.  It’s a retelling of the Defoe classic, Robinson Crusoe, with significant departures from Defoe’s plot.
           We don’t meet Crusoe right away; first, we’re introduced to rude pirates on a ship who have spied a ship burning in the distance, and they head to it for plunder.  It turns out, it’s Robinson Crusoe’ boat.  Robinson Crusoe (Yuri Lowenthal) is shipwrecked near a small deserted island inhabited by a few animals—a parrot, a goat, a chameleon, a porcupine, a tapir and a bird.  Most of the time they speak in English, which we can understand, but when Crusoe first encounters Mak the parrot, it doesn’t speak English; Crusoe names it ‘Tuesday’ and starts to teach it English.  He names it ‘Tuesday’, the day of the week he found it. 
         Mak/Tuesday exemplifies a sense of curiosity and healthy adventure.  He has become convinced that there is “another whole world out there” beyond their island, and he would give anything to be able to explore it.  This idea is pooh-poohed by the other animals, who see him as being in dangerous territory.  But Mak is the first animal to reach out to help Crusoe, seeing him as a ticket to his longed-for escape from the island.
       After his shipwreck in the stormy sea, Crusoe manages to secure a raft and make his way to the island where the animals have been living like a family.  They’ve never seen humans, so when Crusoe arrives, they are frightened and try to figure out what kind of animal he is.  All the suspicion they have and other reactions to him make up one of the good points of the film about stranger anxiety and how destructive it can be both to residents and to strangers.  It takes Crusoe some time, patience, and persistence to win their trust.  Additional intruders in the form of cats make their way to the island showing us how stranger anxiety is sometimes warranted.  This part of the film constitutes much bumbling on Crusoe’s part, and many close calls for everyone involved.
        At one point, when Crusoe goes back to his boat to salvage things he might need, he encounters the pirates who have come for any valuables they can find, and they capture him and take him to their ship, telling him that he is a pirate now.  This involves additional sequences of chases and close calls that, altogether, become tedious and cartoonish.  The big question is whether Crusoe will be able to escape the pirates’ clutches alive and whether the island animals will be safe from conniving cats.

Constant cartoon chases and close calls do not rescue this animated film.

Grade:  D                                    By Donna R. Copeland