Thursday, January 16, 2020

BAD BOYS FOR LIFE

Will Smith     Martin Lawrence     Vanessa Hudgins    Alexander Ludwig    
Charles Melton     Paola Nunez     Jacob Scipo


     At one point, a character says to another, “Now it’s time to be good men.”  In the meantime, though, Mike (Smith) and Marcus (Lawrence) are going to be bad boys—really bad boys—and take pride in it.  Forget about codes of conduct, following orders from superiors, or reasonable driving in a car chase (car chases are obligatory for any action movie) through heavy traffic. Such codes are for sissies and “quitters” to use Mike’s term.  I shudder when I see the fare that is put out there for young people to consume.  In the first five minutes, the filmmakers show us the some of the poorest sides of men (a hair-raising ride through crowded streets) and women (murder of a public official), and that’s only the beginning of the glorification of might and brawn winning out over fundamental values.  Religious beliefs, family considerations, and acknowledgement of limitations are scoffed at.  Oh, and all of this is supposed to be hilarious—and indeed is, for some people, apparently.
     As to the story, detectives Mike and Marcus have been partners in Miami for years, with the code “bad boys for life” (fist bump).  Marcus is having some reservations about continuing and is ready (eager) to embrace retirement.  But Mike is incredulous, seeing Marcus as simply giving up, and he frantically attempts to dissuade him.  After Mike is drastically injured, even the captain of the police force tries to persuade him to let go, and absolutely forbids him to investigate his own injury case.  But no; brain and all brawn is the theme of Bad Boys, and we have an idea that might will get its way in the end, and Mike will get what he wants.
     What follows, is the typical good guys against the bad guys battles between the Miami police force and the mysterious (to them) force against them. Significant figures in the law enforcement community are being killed—high crime, it turns out, with a very personal message.  We will learn about that in the last half-hour, a close-to-maudlin twist that ends up in an inferno in Mexico City ruins.
     The one thing good I can say about this film is the cinematography by Robrect Heyraert. His depiction of the street scenes, the shoot-outs, and the eerie beauty of the Mexico City ruins are all exquisite.  Likewise in artistry—which the script sorely lacks--Lorne Balfe’s music captures the haunting, raucous, and enigmatic moods of changing scenes in the movie.

How long, oh how long, must we endure films lauding the macho man at the expense of humanitarian values…and even technology?

Grade:  D                                    By Donna R. Copeland

DOLITTLE

Robert Downey, Jr.    Antonio Banderas    Michael Sheen    Jim Broadbent    Harry Collett    Carmel Laniado
Voices of:  Emma Thompson, Rami Malek, John Cena, Kumail Nanjani, Octavia Spencer
Tom Hollans, Craig Robinson, Ralph Fiennes, Selena Gomez, Marion Cotillard


     Talking to the animals and having them respond back.  This movie is surprisingly convincing in making you think it is possible. Dr. Dolittle (Downey) has been holed up in his house, not doing much of anything but talking to his animals after he lost his love Lili on her adventure at sea.  He lives with these creatures, and seems to be gradually going nuts.
     In the meantime, there is young Tommy Stubbins who can’t bear to shoot animals on his family’s hunting expeditions (much to the puzzlement of his father) and one time, he accidentally wounds a squirrel named Kevin (Robinson).  Desperate, he runs to the animal doctor’s house to get him to save him.  Now, Kevin is outraged and deeply resents Tommy, vowing throughout the story to get his revenge.   
     On his way to Dr. Dolittle’s, Tommy runs into Lady Rose (Laniado), Queen Victoria’s niece.  The queen is gravely ill, and has specifically asked for Dr. Dolittle’s help.  But the doctor is still grieving for Lili and is insufferably cranky, just wanting to be left alone.  After reluctantly reviving Kevin, he’s talked into (after being told that if the queen dies, his house will go to the Treasury and he’ll have to find another place to live) going to the palace, riding ostrich Plimpton (Nanjiani).  Unbeknownst to Dolittle, Tommy has stowed away in the carriage with Lady Rose, consistently begging the doctor to take him on as his apprentice, but always denied. Nevertheless, Tommy tries to be as useful as he can and learn to talk to the animals on his own.  It will take a long time for the distracted Dr. Dolittle to recognize Tommy’s value.
They arrive at the palace, Dolittle quickly diagnoses the queen’s problem (by most unorthodox but entertaining means), and decides that the antidote can only be found at a remote island.  To reach it, Dolittle must steal Lili’s diary with directions to the island from her father, King Rassouli (Banderas), king of the pirates.  This requires detailed planning, because the king is not pleased with his son-in-law.  
     Adventures begin on the high seas, with the Dolittle party in one boat, and jealous rival Dr. Blair Müdfly (Sheen) in hot pursuit.  Seems there is some palace intrigue, and Müdfly has received certain instructions to sabotage the Dolittle party.  In addition, the crew will have to either sneak into the palace and retrieve the diary or confront King Rassouli directly. The struggles on the ocean and within the palace provide enough tension and interest to qualify for a kid’s action movie.
     In this whole saga, Robert Downey Jr., is in his element, being playful and crafty at the same time (one of his trademarks).  Martin Sheen is a worthy adversary, with greedy eyes and rude hoots when he thinks he has won a battle.  Antonio Banderas plays the more cosmopolitan figure with exotic appearance and inflated entitlement to redress perceived wrongs against him. All the other supporting actors—including those who lend their voices to the animals—are superb.  They’re given wonderful lines that perfectly capture their individual personalities, such as one with self-esteem problems, one with daddy issues, one inclined to bury his head in the sand when the going gets rough, and one suffering psychological aftereffects from stomach problems.  Much to the character’s credit, Dr. Dolittle at times functions as a therapist by encouraging these animals through their trauma, along with being a brilliant diagnostician and surgeon.  
     The production design (Dominic Watkins) and sets (Lee Sandales) are beautiful, backed up by an intelligent script by director Stephen Gaghan and his co-writers.  Danny Elfman’s music and Guillermo Navarro’s cinematography likewise contribute a great deal to this delightful production.  
     The production has much of value for children in modeling teamwork (“Teamwork makes the dream work”), the value of persistence in reaching a goal, recognizing that individuals need to be encouraged through their difficulties, and the efficacy of forgiveness in making everyone feel good about what they are doing.

A delightful action movie for children about how animals and humans can work together for mutual benefit.  

Grade:  A                             By Donna R. Copeland

Thursday, January 9, 2020

UNDERWATER

Kristen Stewart     Vincent Cassel     T. J. Miller     Jessica Henwick


     I could empathize with characters in this film being trapped underwater, with the creaking of the ship, periodic explosions, and rushing water blasting through the halls.  I felt the same way in the theater, being trapped in a movie where I couldn’t see much of what was happening, couldn’t hear what little dialog there was other than, “Can you see me?”  “Can you hear me?” “Are you OK?” and got sick of hearing underwater sounds and the creaking of the ship.  Major things, like death, occurs, but you might miss them altogether.  I can’t remember when I wanted to walk out of a movie more than I did at this screening.
     The setting is a deep-sea drilling ship, with researchers on board.  We get a little glimpse of Kristen Stewart’s character, Norah, in the beginning, brushing her teeth (which has come to be a motif for filmmakers these days), and pondering about her life, including the thought that, “there’s a comfort to cynicism; there’s a lot less to lose.” These musings are interrupted by an earthquake, which sends ocean water flooding down the halls.  Hundreds of people are killed, but Norah barely escapes with one other member of the crew.  They manage to get to another part of the ship where the captain (Cassel) and two others have survived, but it’s clear the ship is sinking, and the captain decides they will don sea-diving gear and walk to the main station, hoping they have enough oxygen to last.
     But the elements are not the only threat.  It seems there are huge sea monsters that have appeared, all too ready to toss them about like rag dolls.  The audience is petrified, waiting to see whether they’ll reach their destination.  
     The actors play their parts well, albeit on mostly one note:  panic, with little variation and without much dialog. Director William Eubank has chosen to make the picture very dark, so that it’s difficult to get a good look at the monsters.  Perhaps this was intended to make it even more scary?  

Unless you’re into horror movies with little character development or dialog and a lot of creepy sounds, you’re not likely going to want to see this film.

Grade:  F                                    By Donna R. Copeland


LIKE A BOSS


Rose Byrne     Tiffany Haddish     Salma Hayek     Billy Porter     Jennifer Coolidge


     Give a few pretty good actors a mediocre script, and what do you get?  Of course, a bad movie.  Everything in this movie is predictable from start to finish.  The filmmakers took every stereotype of women they could think of and included it (e.g., bitchy, manipulative woman boss with an obsequious yes-man at her side, yammering friends, insipid topics of conversation, vindictiveness…you get it). The set-up is two friends since middle school are now roommates with their own beauty company called Mia & Mel.  One is hyper-responsible and timid; one is brash and always coming up with something new. Mia (Haddish) is the former, and Mel (Byrne) the latter.  
     With their business about to fail (hesitant Mel can’t bear to tell Mia about it), a company raider, Claire Luna (Hayek) swoops in with an offer Mel can’t refuse, despite Mia’s apprehensions about losing control of their own company.  They end up agreeing to the terms, but the script has them behaving like school girls avoiding the dishes; somehow, they can never come up with an assigned presentation, even at critical times. They squeak by a number of times, but essentially it goes back and forth between their being in, then out, with Claire.  The absurdities resolve into a completely vindictive conclusion.
     It’s surprising that the director of Like a Boss, Michael Arteta, is the same one who directed Beatriz at Dinner, an innovative, charming, and insightful movie, with Salma Hayek as its sassy star.  What attracted Arteta and Hayek to this script?  I wonder.  The story is by Danielle Sanchez-Witzel, with a screenplay written by Adam Cole-Kelly and Sam Pitman.  The movie seems so much from the male perspective, I have to think the two screenwriters influenced it in that direction.
     There are truly revolting images, such as the “pussy cake” (a cake in the form of a birthing baby’s head emerging from a vagina), an assistant telling Mia and Mel that “Claire will be with you when she wants to be with you”, and “Follow your juices.”  Over and over, the movie tries to push sexual references to the limit while still trying to be funny.
          None of this material has any underlying meaning; it’s clearly for laughs in traditionally “forbidden” areas. Ironically, I think the hope was that it would make a strong statement about female friendship and loyalty, but the writers couldn’t seem to be able to come up with more than a stereotypical, “happy-ever-after” illustration of that or any subject of depth.

This is a superficial, stereotypical view of women and their relationships among themselves and with the larger world.

Grade:  D                                                By Donna R. Copeland

Wednesday, January 8, 2020

THE SONG OF NAMES

Clive Owen     Tim Roth     Catherine McCormack     Jonah Hauer-King     Eddie Izzard


     The title—which is the same as the novel by Norman Lebrecht—is puzzling, but its origins will be revealed in the movie, along with its cultural associations. Fundamentally, the story is about brotherly attachment between two boys across many years.  Martin’s father, Gilbert, out of his love of music decides on the spot to take a young Jewish violinist with promise into his home in London during the build-up of WWII when the Nazis were apparently going to invade Poland, the boy’s country.  Davidl’s father returns to Poland to protect the rest of his family, promising the child that he will return for him.  
     Gilbert also thinks the arrangement will be good because his son Martin is about the same age as Davidl, and they can room together.  It turns out that the two boys are decidedly different in character and values, but after initial conflicts, arguments, and competitions, they become fast friends, though always with an edge.  An underlying sibling rivalry develops immediately, especially when Martin sees that his father clearly favors Davidl and indulges him much more than he does his own son.
     The complexity brought out in this relationship fraught with ambivalences is one of the strengths of the story because it carries a wealth of information about families and individuals that rings true to life and to the people we know from our own experience.  It’s made even more complicated by Davidl’s chameleon-like personality—intelligent, self-possessed, witty, cynical—very much his own person whose behaviors and points of views are often surprising.  He’s charismatic, along with being a gifted violinist. This is very different from Martin, a protestant well brought up to show respect, follow the rules, and think of others.  He is bright, though, and is also a musician (piano). 
     In adult years, Davidl has achieved fame, and is considered one of the best. Gilbert has booked him for concerts, which are well attended.  Then, one night, inexplicably, Davidl does not appear for a performance, and the waiting audience is sent home.  Davidl had been greatly affected by news out of Poland and unknowns about his family.  It is perhaps after getting some very distressing news about where they have been sent that tips him over the edge.  Davidl has abruptly disappeared before, but this time, he cannot be found.
     The plot then takes a turn into a detective story, with Martin obsessed with finding Davidl and getting an explanation.  This extends over 30 years, with his wife Helen becoming thoroughly exasperated with his doggedness.  We question what this is about, but can only speculate from a number of possibilities.  This detective story aspect of the film appealed to me, as Martin goes on one lead after another trying to trace the enigmatic Davidl.  Through these efforts, more of Davidl’s life and his experiences are revealed, along with the people he has met along the way.
     The real star of the movie is Tim Roth, who plays Martin with all of the acting skills he has.  It is probably his best performance to date.  Photography by David Franco is exquisite, particularly when he superimposes two scenes from earlier and later in the story as a graphic to illuminate the significance of “The Song of Names” for the characters.  Howard Shore’s music is likewise a major asset in classical works as well as the background score.  The three actors who play Davidl (Luke Doyl, Jonah Hauer-King, Clive Owen) convincingly and expertly play the violin.  How much is their own playing versus special effects, I don’t know; I couldn’t tell.  Either way, it was beautiful music to my ears.

A period film set in the world of music that combines pure drama with cross-cultural exchanges, wartime trauma, and sleuthing to extraordinary effect.

Grade:  A                                    By Donna R. Copeland

Tuesday, December 24, 2019

SPIES IN DISGUISE

Voices of:  Karen Gillan     Rachel Brosnahan     Tom Holland     Will Smith
Rashida Jones     Ben Mendelsohn     Reba McEntire     DJ Khaled     Masi Oka


     This is a high-tech animation that the kids in the audience found at the screening I attended to be great fun.  There are the obligatory scenes of puke, poop, and pee; but the story has substance in pitting a nerdy little peace-loving scientist against a macho master spy who always insists on doing his jobs alone and “fighting fire with fire.”  The scientist Walter’s (Holland) response to that is, “Then we all get burned.” Writers Brad Copeland and Lloyd Taylor have inserted segments that make you chuckle and sometimes laugh out loud when the character Walter uses scientific lingo that few would understand—least of all, Lance Sterling (Smith)—like “spectral analysis” and “thermography”, and “exothermic reaction.”  Walter always explains what he is doing, and he comes up with ingenious inventions to get Lance out of trouble:  a robotic hand (which has gone missing!), glitter that obscures the visual field, and then produces serotonin when the field clears and kittens appear, making the gnarliest of bad guys go, “Aw…” There’s even something that produces a giant hug that envelops the bad guy and traps him in its bubble.
     The gist of the plot is that the young budding scientist is encouraged by his mother to be himself, and reassures him that they are a team and she will always have his back.  He takes these lessons to heart, and is more than puzzled when his path crosses that of ace spy Lance Sterling, who has a habit of dismissing everyone as beneath him. Because he doesn’t really see anyone besides himself, he misses young Walter’s gifted talents and actively tries to swat him away like a fly.
But there is something that will haunt Lance when he discovers someone has stolen an asset from him, and is even passing himself off as Lance, damaging his reputation.
     The film has a number of good points, especially the one in which children will see Walter’s persistence in the face of dismissal and discouragement, his maintaining his integrity throughout, and ultimately becomes a hero for his intelligence and creativity.  Also helpful for children is for them to witness Lance’s transformation from an over-confident narcissist to someone who is reduced to a pigeon (a pigeon?? Yes!!) and learning that other beings have phenomenal skills too, and that they know how to function in a team.
     Voices of actors like Tom Holland, Will Smith, and Ben Mendelsohn (playing the bad guy) bring excitement and verisimilitude to the story, backed up by the talents of Brosnahan, Jones, McEntire, Khaled, and Oka.  Music by Theodore Shapiro adds much to the drama and humor of Spies in Disguise.

Spies in Disguise is entertaining, and a great film for kids to see.

Grade:  A                                    By Donna R. Copeland

LITTLE WOMEN

Saoirse Ronan     Emma Watson     Florence Pugh     Eliza Scanlon     Laura Dern
Timothee Chalamet     Tracy Letts     Bob Odenkirk     Chris Cooper     James Norton     Meryl Streep


     Greta Gerwig updates this traditional story based on Louisa May Alcott’s book for girls by emphasizing the March girls’ ambitions, particularly those that depart from the standard get-married-have children tale.  Most notable are the lines inspired by Gerwig’s conversation with Meryl Streep, who plays Aunt March in the film, during first conceptualizations of the film.  The lines are spoken by Amy March (Pugh), the youngest sister, complaining about women not having rights—they can’t own anything; if they leave a marriage, even property they had before marriage, even their children, would belong to the husband.
     Much of the film, however, adheres to Alcott’s novels.  Four sisters are being brought up by their mother while their father is serving as a chaplain during the Civil War.  Marmee (Hurd) is a strong female model for them, managing—with the help of the two older daughters Jo (Ronan) and Meg (Watson)—financially, and beyond that, instilling strong values (helping the sick and the poor, with a strong commitment to forgiveness) in her daughters.  
     The family reflects the temper of the times, particularly where women are concerned. What makes the story most interesting are the differences in personality and temperament among the four sisters, and how these play out with family and friends.  Jo departs most from the norm by pursuing independence at almost any cost, Meg by marrying for love over “prospects”, Beth (Scanlon) by her musical ability, and artistic Amy at first by her self-entitlement and later by her practicality. 
     A bonus in this rendition of Little Women comes at the end when Jo is clearly taking charge of her career by cannily negotiating with the editor Mr. Dashwood (Letts) on a cash advancement, copyright, and share of the profits.  (Although she does have to make one major compromise so that the story ending will sell.)
     Yorick Le Saux’s cinematography with its warm, bright palette and vividness of interior and outside scenes contributes majorly to the production, helping to give it soul, along with the pleasant, era-capturing score of Alexandre Desplat. Saoirse Ronan’s performance is exemplary, attaining the promise of her work in HannaBrooklyn, and Atonement, and being a major force in capturing our attention.  She is well supported by Emma Watson, Florence Pugh, Eliza Scanlen, and Laura Dern as sisters and mother.  As love interest to more than one sister, Timothee Chalamet glitters as an honorable heartthrob not just for the sisters, but for some audience members as well.  It is a treat to see Tracy Letts playing the discerning publisher with a soft heart, following on his bombastic performance as Ford in Ford v Ferrari. Likewise, seeing Chris Cooper as a benevolent, wealthy Mr. Laurence after the revolting father he played in A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is refreshing.  Finally, Meryl Streep proves her value once again in playing a rich dowager who is bound to the past.
     Perhaps because I personally was never an impassioned devotee of Little Women, I’m not enthralled with Greta Gerwig’s remake of the classical tale.  Interesting and entertaining as it is, it makes me question remakes in general. That is, this tale has been told on stage, on television, and in film almost continuously since 1933.  This version, although set in the 19thcentury, is meant to capture the sentiments of today.  And it does, with flair to a great extent.  I just have a problem with telling a story already well told.

19thCentury women being little women—already a tale well told.

Grade:  B                        By Donna R. Copeland