Friday, June 26, 2020

MY SPY

Dave Bautista     Kristen Schaal     Parisa Fitz-Henley    Chloe Coleman    Kim Jeong


     This mildly entertaining “spy story” is formulaic and predictable, although it’s the kind of movie many families love, with a cheeky kid, a little romance, some danger, and an uplifting message.  The bad guys are truly evil, the hero is flawed but teachable, and there are enough tense situations to produce a bit of sweat.
     Dave Bautista as JJ, a CIA agent, is charged with protecting a widow and her daughter after the woman’s husband is killed and his brother is likely to come after them, looking for valuable information hidden in a missing external drive. This is a comedown for JJ, who has just taken out a whole cluster of criminals in Paris the CIA was hoping to get information from—a mistake of overkill, literally.  Moreover, in this new assignment, he is sent to partner with Bobbi (Schaal), a tech backup who has a bad case of hero worship and aspirations to become a full-fledged spy.  JJ is disdainful of such foolishness.
     But JJ is unprepared for the child and mother he is supposed to protect.  Nine year-old Sophie (Coleman) is shown to be cagey beyond her years, and immediately identifies something her dog uncovers in their apartment—a camera (heh-heh; thank you, Internet!). The rest of the plot thereafter involves JJ’s and Bobbi’s management of the case and the appearance of a real threat.
     Young Chloe Coleman as Sophie is the best part of the movie, primarily for her acting skills, not so much for the script, which has her spouting out lines that are obviously written by an adult.  But despite the artifice, the actress pulls it off and is entertaining throughout.  
     As a former wrestling champion with ups and downs, Bautista easily conforms to the brawny, slightly wooden CIA character with a grieving heart who can be manipulated by a smart kid.  Kristen Schaal and Parisa Fitz-Henley are given roles that first present as softies, but I appreciated the fact that the writers and directors gave them some aggressive tools to use at critical moments.
     My Spy is clearly a family film meant to inspire without getting too far into controversial issues.  It’s mainly a light, fun film for those looking for just that.

A film meant for those wanting a feel-good story with some excitement.

Grade:  C                                                            By Donna R. Copeland

Thursday, June 25, 2020

HOUSE OF HUMMINGBIRD

Ji-hu Park     Sae-byeok Kim     In-gi Jeong     Seung-yeon Lee


     House of Hummingbird is a mood piece, beautifully filmed, teeming with depth of feeling, and a story that keeps you guessing.  It’s clearly from a culture so different from my own, but so engaging it felt like I was in that country (Korea).  Penned, directed, and produced by young filmmaker Bora Kim, it’s remarkable in its sophistication, both in terms of filmmaking and in storytelling.  There are instances in the film in which it’s so clear that Kim is psychologically attuned to the human condition and the experience of young people as they’re trying to make sense of the world.
     The story centers around Eun-hee (Park), an eighth-grader in Seoul, Korea, in 1994. She’s considered unattractive and “odd”, not only in her family, but at school.  In a poll conducted by a terrible teacher asking the class to designate which of their classmates was most likely to be a delinquent, Eun-hee “won.”  Then we get some pictures of her family at home, where father and mother are in discord, but inexplicably make up after a violent argument, Eun-hee is flogged by her brother, and her sister comes and goes at all kinds of hours and asks Eun-hee to cover for her.
     In addition, the movie recounts interactions and conflicts involving mother’s brother, Eun-hee’s brother and sister, some of her friends, and—most heart-warmingly—Eun-hee’s tutor, Miss Yong-Ji (Kim).  In this sea of non-communication, the tutor is presented most eloquently and meaningfully to Eun-hee—and to us.
     This is primarily an evocative illustration of the lack of communication in the Korean culture.  Major issues are skirted around, and even when someone is bawling out loud, you see no signs of comfort—even a hand on a shoulder—even within a family.
     Then Eun-hee encounters Miss Yong-Ji, who takes over tutoring after the poll-taking a—hole is let go.  How—you wonder—did this woman discover/develop the almost uncanny ability to teach in a way that will be therapeutic to her students?  For instance, in answer to the question about “whether you ever hate yourself”, Yong-Ji responds with, “It takes some time to learn to like yourself.” That demonstration will be the kernal of truth and beguilement central to this beautiful movie.
     The last scene captures the quality of the film by a poignant attempt to reestablish reassurance and hope.
     I feel sorry that many will not appreciate House of Hummingbird because of the pace; this is not really a criticism of the work, but a comment about what we demand of films nowadays.  But if viewers will stay with the filmmaker, they will be rewarded with a sensitive, beautiful rendition of this family’s life, and this girl’s in particular.

A beautifully filmed story to savor and become enthralled.

Grade:  A                                    By Donna R. Copeland


Thursday, June 18, 2020

IRRESTIBLE

Steve Carell     Rose Byrne     Chris Cooper     Mackenzie Davis



     Jon Stewart (writer, director, producer) is at his best in comedy mixed with high drama, while ultimately making killer points about issues within a larger scope. Fine acting from the principal players makes it all work.
     The scene opens in a small town in Wisconsin that has lost its main industry and is dying.  The mayor and other city leaders have a proposal that appears not to be in the interest of the town of Deerlaken or its citizens.  The measure has almost passed when in strides local farmer Jack Hastings (Cooper) with a passionate argument against it.  However, he appears not to be making much headway with the leaders or the townspeople.
     When Democratic political consultant Gary Zimmer (Carell) hears about the situation and Hastings, he has the bright idea to shape Hastings into becoming a mayoral candidate in the upcoming election, who is confident he can “turn” Jack and the whole Republican town into Democrats.  
     Gary’s colleagues are extremely skeptical, but he has such confidence in his judgment and skills, he takes off for Deerlaken with high hopes, only to be consistently shocked by the nature of a small town versus a city like Washington D. C. (Example:  He only has to order lunch at the local watering hole, and meet a couple of people, for everyone he meets immediately after to know him by his new nickname, “D. C. Gary”, and he is greeted by everyone he meets as if they’ve known him forever.)
     Gary is successful in convincing Jack to run as a Democrat, and the campaign forges ahead.  There will be jolting upsets when Gary’s archrival, Republican Faith Brewster (Byrne), hears what he is up to and likewise descends upon Deerlaken.  But she is supporting the re-election of the mayor (Brent Sexton), backed by big bucks.  This, of course, results in Gary intensifying his fund-raising efforts.  The subsequent no-holds-barred rivalry of the two serves as part of the production’s entertainment.  
     Chris Cooper is ideal as a countrified character with an “aw-shucks” attitude overlaying a canny, strategic mind, and his background includes being a war veteran.  Gary sees that the principles underlying his arguments adhere perfectly with explicit aims of the Democratic Party.  A widower, Jack has a grown daughter Diana (Davis), who is devoted to her father, and enthusiastically joins his campaign.  
     The odds favor first one campaign then the other, with Faith shown to be a ball-busting flirt without principles and Gary handing it right back to her and gradually increasing his edge.  But as time goes on, the two factions are portrayed more even-handedly, and the viewer is shown more clearly the source of the problem.  Nice wrap-up!  But since I think the very ending is surprising and masterful, I won’t reveal more than that.
I have sorely missed Jon Stewart’s Daily Show on the Comedy Channel, so was highly gratified with many of the lines appearing throughout the film that are signature for him and truly funny and provocative, e.g., “Good people have to do s----- things in service of the greater good” and “We’re spending to start something; they’re spending to stop something.”      More substantively, Jon interviews Trevor Potter (whom I became acquainted with on the Steven Colbert Report show), former Chairman of the Federal Election Commission and current President of Campaign Legal Center stating how it is legal to hide billions of donations to a campaign that later can be diverted to other projects.  Thank you, Supreme Court, for the Citizens United ruling.

For political enthusiasts, this film hits home in the most delightful ways—all to make a provocative statement about the United States today.

Grade:  A                                                By Donna R. Copeland

BABYTEETH

Eliza Scanlen     Toby Wallace     Ben Mendelsohn     Essie Davis


     This romanticized fabrication of the cancer experience is likely to dismay those who have actually gone through it—especially when the patient is a child.  As someone who worked in a cancer center in Pediatrics as a psychologist for almost 25 years, I found little in the film that resembles any of the hundreds of families I encountered.  
     The backdrop of the film features a family (clearly made up by filmmakers) in which the father Henry (Mendelsohn) is a psychiatrist, the mother Anna (Davis) a musician, and the daughter Milla (Davis) a quirky teenager with cancer. (This is only revealed after a time.)  She chances upon Moses (Wallace) at the train station when she is in some kind of stupor and doesn’t board with her classmates.  Moses has just almost run over her trying to make his train, but she is in a daze.  (No indication as to why.)  He is doing some kind of stretch on the platform when she comes to and he speaks to her.  (Ding ding ding, you should hear the bells sounding.)  
     They speak briefly, and the connection is made (if you believe in fate).  Milla (not one of the in-group in her high school) is smitten at first glance.  What develops is an unlikely story about Milla bringing home this drug dealer who exploits her attraction to him (he from a home that he has been kicked out of) to take advantage of her family who is well off.  But he is not a clear-cut sociopath.  During the course of the story, he often makes sense more than almost anyone else, and clearly matures in due course.
     The film goes into detail in describing the parents.  Henry is a pill-pushing psychiatrist who has little regard for psychotherapy and is easily distracted during his practice.  (Moreover, as a clear-cut ethical violation, he treats his wife in his practice.)  As a result of his prescriptions (the recommended dosage of which she ignores), Anna has become a pill-popping zombie at times.  At one point, Anna states, “This is the worst possible parenting I can imagine”, and I agree.  The parents’ clearly stated pronouncements are never followed up, and they often come across as helpless in the face of life in general.  An example is when Milla goes missing one night, it is ludicrous to see Anna canvassing the city with a picture of her, asking if pedestrians she sees on the street have seen her.
     Milla is portrayed as a cheeky teenager who mostly has a clear idea of what she wants, but is often flummoxed by her parents.  Something in her recognizes what stability Moses has to offer—despite his background—and she clings to him as a lifeboat in a storm. She is realistically portrayed as a thoughtful, sensitive teenager who is trying to make her way despite her parents.
     The whole story of this film seems so made up with unlikely and unconvincing attachments and events, I could not take it seriously.  The actors do a fine job—particularly Eliza Scanlen and Toby Wallace as the young couple—and serve as the strongest features of the film. Ben Mendelsohn has a succession of fine acting roles, but this script doesn’t allow him to exercise the same talent.  Essie Davis as the convincing heroine in Babadookalso gets little here to show off her talent.
     An example of looseness in the integrity of Babyteeth are insensible titles of sections, the whole of which offer little clue to the scenes that follow, including:  Insomnia, Breakthrough, A Little Bit High, Nausea, Fuck this, Romance (part I and II), The Shower Routine, Sleeptalking, Seasons Greetings, What the dead said to Milla, Everyone Was Invited, A Beautiful Morning, and The Beach.
     Although Babyteeth has been well received by critics, I cannot think of anyone I know who would want to see this movie.

A fantastical tale of a teenager with cancer.  No, the ending does not redeem it.

Grade:  D                                    By Donna R. Copeland


Thursday, June 11, 2020

TOMMASO

Willem Dafoe     Christina Chiriac     Anna Ferrara



     Scenes from a man’s life.  The Italian writer/director Abel Ferrara has written an apparent partial autobiographical account of his life—seemingly (my interpretation) as expiation for things in his past about which he has/is experiencing guilt. The story moves rather slowly across events, with forays into past events and, presumably, symbolic and metaphorical fantasies that encompass external as well as internal experiences.  The main character masterfully delivered by Willem Dafoe is a filmmaker with a younger wife and small child.  We get an insightful cross-section of significant elements and happenings in his life, with the fantasies serving to illustrate unconscious factors underlying his actions.
     We learn that Tommaso (Dafoe) is a recovering addict living in Italy with his wife Nikki (Chiriac) and daughter Deedee (Ferrara) in an apartment that must be entered through a series of locked doors/gates/elevator, suggesting from the outset preoccupations with security and control.  Indeed, these do become issues across time for Tommaso.
     The movie shows pictures of their daily life, the enjoyment and delight Tommaso gets in taking care of his daughter, the intense relationship between mother and child, the different versions Tommaso and Nikki have of what married life should be, significant events in their early lives that contributed to their adult personalities, and Tomasso’s internal experiences of all of this. The film becomes even more striking in the fact that Ferrara’s real wife and daughter play their characters, filmed in Ferrara’s and Chiriac’s actual apartment.
     The complex character presented as Tommaso has Dafoe at his finest, capturing all the subtleties and self-doubts of Ferrara as he sees himself.  He is a recovering drug addict, religiously attending AA meetings, having a keen interest in those around him, dealing with the most disturbing information he witnesses on one occasion, taking on an overbearing role in his marriage, and still finding the time and wherewithal to deal with a loud drunk out on the street disturbing the neighborhood peace. The latter ends up with a warm chat and a handshake as Tommaso sends the man on his way.
     The production clearly fits in the category of an art film in its pace and the inclusion of metaphor and symbolism.  It could be criticized as being a bit too long, but this is a minor criticism. Seldom do we witness such a film with the writer’s openness and keen insight into his own character.  It is helped immeasurably by this and by Dafoe’s, Chiriac’s, and Deedee Ferrara’s perceptive representations.

A moving depiction of the inner and outer experiences of a man and his family.

Grade:  A-                                    By Donna R. Copeland


Sunday, June 7, 2020

SHIRLEY

Elisabeth Moss     Michael Stuhlberg     Odessa Young     Logan Lerman


     Based on a novel written by Susan Scarf Merrrell about the horror/mystery writer Susan Jackson, this film portrays the underside of the lives of women finding themselves trapped in what appears to be an inescapable situation and the ambivalent relationships that develop as a result between women and between men and women.  It’s complicated and mysterious, yet leaves the viewer in thoughtful reverie afterwards.  I was mostly repelled by the characters at first (that’s why I use the word ‘underside’), but as the story progresses they become more likeable and people whom I could identify with, at least to some extent.  For instance, I think any woman who during some of her life has been “just a housewife” (wifey), will quickly understand Rose Nemser—and to some extent Shirley herself, both women caught in dominating relationships. 
     Rose (Young) is newly married to Fred (Lerman), and they are anticipating their move to a college town, he with bright prospects in academia, and she hoping to return to college when they’ve established themselves.  They are greeted effusively by Stanley (Stuhlberg), Fred’s professor, who has offered to put them up at his house when they first arrive.  A raucous party is underway when the young couple arrives, which is somewhat confusing, especially when Stanley offers room and board for them if they will do him a favor:  Cooking, cleaning, and looking after his frail wife Shirley (Moss).  Of course, we are all aware this means that Rose will be the one taking on that burden.
     Rose has a shattering first encounter with Shirley as she is ascending rather shakily up the stairs to go to bed while the party is in full swing.  Shirley’s uncannily perceptive and caustic comments send Rose into a spin.  But later, discussing it with Fred, he makes it clear that his position with the professor and the potential it holds for his career should take precedence—which it does, of course.
     Two couples living under the same roof is always a tricky situation, especially when they’re newly acquainted, so we are immediately intrigued about what is going to transpire.  And we will find that it takes us straight into the horror genre.
     The older couple in their individual ways exert cruel demands on the young couple who are trying their best to succeed.  Double binds abound, and we can admire (mostly) how Rose and Fred accommodate. It’s just that they are no match for old hands at the trade.
     The strengths of Shirley lie in the source material (Shirley Jackson’s work and Susan Scarf Merrell’s novel), the script (Sarah Gubbins), and the actors, all knowingly assembled by Director Josephine Decker (Madeline’s Madeline, Collective: Unconscious).  All of these elements combine to capture your interest—sometimes in curiosity, sometimes in horror, and sometimes in something disturbing that you might not understand.  This is enhanced by the casting of look-alike Young to play someone closely linked to Susan, played by Moss.  I’m sure it was intentional on Decker’s part, to highlight author Susan’s linking the subject of her novel to the real woman, Rose, who was caring for her.
     This is another in a long line of coups for Elisabeth Moss (“Mad Men”, “The Handmaid’s Tale”, “Top of the Lake”), for which she should have won more awards. Here, she sinks her teeth into a role that displays a completely different character from the others she has played and nails it—as she always does.  Supporting her, Odessa Young and Michael Stuhlberg bring their considerable talent to bear in character elucidation of those held in her thrall.

Perhaps not a movie you will “enjoy”, but one that will shed light on female-female and female-male relationships in our recent past—and perhaps, even today.

Grade:  A                                    By Donna R. Copeland

Saturday, May 30, 2020

UNCORKED

Courtney B. Vance     Mamoudou Athie     Niecy Nash     Sasha Compere


     What a delightful surprise to see a winner from a relatively new filmmaker, Prentice Penny, writer and director.  We don’t usually think of a black middle-class young man with a future in his father’s business wanting to become a sommelier (not a Somalian, as envisioned by some in his circle). But Elijah (Athie) is a dreamer, and something caught his fancy when he first heard of experts in wine tasting. 
     All will not be well on the home front.  Blessed with an empathetic, insightful mother, Elijah was encouraged to pursue his calling, which turns out to be a bitter disappointment to a father (Vance) who had sacrificed his own dreams in order to please his father and keep up the family’s BBQ business.  As so often happens, father Louis has so repressed his own wishes, he does not recognize putting his son in the same bind he encountered as a young man. I admired the mother’s ability to still the turbulent waters of the two men’s relationship, and maneuver through treacherous waters—superbly acted by Niecy Nash.
     But there is much more going on in this story; the main thrust is Elijah’s enrolling in school and trying to master a course that few manage to pass, to become a Master Sommelier.  It would have been rewarding to learn more about his three other fellow students, who similarly had stories to tell, but we have to be content to get only glimpses into their personalities and background.  
     This is primarily a family drama that entertains as much in that as getting insights into the wine business, which will be intriguing to wine lovers unacquainted with the profession.  As in quality filming, it has additional themes of overcoming tremendous odds to achieve a dream and father-son conflicts that appear to be unresolvable. 
     Writer-director Penny should be congratulated on his ability to give us a picture that is skillful in intertwining family dynamics and a profession that is potentially interesting to most people.  Speaking of which, the movie is likely to attract wine lovers, but may not speak to those who have other favorite drinks.  When the students are required to describe wines and their essences and come up with grapes and region of origin (from Europe to the Americas to the world over), as well as the date, we realize what an art and a science it is.
     Along with the script and direction, the cast is extraordinarily good.  Vance is well known for his proficiency in television’s “American Crime Story”, and that is clearly apparent here, but the other actors are less well known.  As the lead, Mamoudou Athie comes through with a fine performance of a young man torn between loyalty to his family—especially his father—and pursuing an exciting opportunity.  But as noted, Niecy Nash as his mother, Sasha Compere as his steadfast girlfriend, and the actors playing his classmates are superb.

Lots of heart and soul in this story about a young man with a dream against all odds.

Grade:  A-                             By Donna R. Copeland