Wednesday, June 20, 2018

EATING ANIMALS



     If you plan to see this film, make sure your menu plan for dinner does not include meat.  This informative documentary by Christopher Dillon Quinn (21 Up America, God Grew Tired of Us) and narrated by Natalie Portman is based on a book by Jonathan Safran Foer who helped write the screenplay.  All three are producers of the film that provides data about our food industry, about which I venture few of us are sufficiently knowledgeable.  Yes, I personally had heard about “factory farming”, but I had no idea of the extent of it nor of the gargantuan political weight of food manufacturing companies in making sure government regulating agencies do their bidding. (Not an unfamiliar state of affairs, unfortunately.)
     Eating Animals also does a fine job in highlighting the personal stories of farmers, ordinary citizen observers, and a former U.S. government-employed veterinarian about their lives and the costs to them and their families for speaking out.   These accounts lend considerable weight to the thrust of the documentary.
     Apparently, industrial farming began to dominate food production in the 1970’s when corporations became a powerful force in food production.  By that time, they had captured 99% of the market, after edging out independent farmers.  How did they do it?
     Partly by duping farmers into signing contracts that would keep them beholden for years (not informing them, of course, of how they would be housing thousands of animals under deplorable conditions, going into enormous debt to keep the whole operation going, and sickening them with the smells and state of the animals), and take away even their rights to protest.  One disheartening strategy is labeled “tournament farming”, in which stats are kept as to which farmers produce the most for the least cost.  “Winning” farmers get bonuses on the backs of “losing” farmers, and its forbidden for neighbors and friends to share information.  (The underlying strategy, of course, being to prevent neighbors from banding together.)
     Eating Animals is a commentary about another instance in which big corporations have bought off our Congressional representatives and regulatory agencies to do their bidding.          There are now “Ag-Gag” rules that prevent anyone from filming or talking about the abuses that go on in the food industry.  Taking a picture on a factory farm can be a felon.  
     This is a very even-handed account about the meat and dairy industry, being frank and illustrative without being preachy, and it shows how we all are complicit and will undoubtedly suffer the consequences further down the road.
     On the upside, there are U.S. companies coming up with plant-based protein, and China has announced its aims to decrease meat consumption 50% in its country by the year 2030.  

The unconscionable cost to animals and humans of a meat-based diet.

Grade:  A                                                            By Donna R. Copeland

JURASSIC WORLD: FALLEN KINGDOM

Chris Pratt     Bryce Dallas Howard    Justice Smith    Daniella Pineda    Isabella Sermon
James Cromwell     Geraldine Chaplain     Toby Jones     Rafe Spall     Ted Levine     Jeff Goldblum


     There is a lot going on in this movie, so pay attention. It’s a bit of a hodgepodge involving the threat of a volcano destroying the dinosaurs left on Isla Nublar (from the last Jurassic World); the reunification of Owen (Pratt) and Claire (Howard) and a bit of romantic tension; family issues among Benjamin Lockwood (Cromwell), his granddaughter Maisie (Sermon); her guardian Eli (Spall), and her nurse Iris (Chaplain); the trafficking of animals for use in genetic research and warfare; and, finally, the question of how important it is to save endangered species.
     Got all that?  OK, then hop on board for the set-up.   After the park closed in the last film, and the dinosaurs were left on their own, concern arises when a previously extinct volcano begins to erupt, threatening to destroy the dinosaurs’ world.  Lockwood is at the end of his life and wants to do something meaningful, so he has devised a sanctuary on his estate that is big enough for the animals.  He enlists the help of Claire and Owen in transporting the animals off the island to his sanctuary. 
     There is just one problem—a big problem.  His overseer Eli has let his “business opportunity” self and obsessiveness about wealth get hold of him, and has developed other plans—namely, breeding dinosaurs for specific purposes and selling them as exotic animals in the international market.
     All of this engages the audience emotionally (and audibly during the screening I attended), as they experience fears of animals and humans, outrage, compassion, excitement, and all the sentiments evoked in emergency situations.  It’s quite a contrast between these events and the dry exhortations of the congressman Ian Malcolm (Goldblum) urging Americans to accept things as they occur without trying to intervene.
     J. A. Bayona (The Impossible, A Monster Calls) has realized on film the Michael Crichton novel in a manner that is engaging, tense, and to some extent thought provoking.  After throwing out so many pointed issues, however, the ultimate resolution is left open, from the fate of the dinosaurs, to the future of the main characters, to the fate of the world as we know it.  Perhaps this is a good thing, in that it reflects succinctly our own times of upheaval.  But the last 20 minutes/half hour is a little bit too much overkill (pun intended); it should have been condensed.

Jurassic World:  Fallen Kingdom will immediately draw you in and keep you on the edge of your seat

Grade:  B                                                By Donna R. Copeland


WON'T YOU BE MY NEIGHBOR?


     There has probably not been a more committed public figure in defending children and voicing their needs than Fred Rogers, the man who brought the television show, “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood” into American homes for 30 years to talk to children about everything.  He could make children feel good about who they are, and be reassured about things they might be worried about—all done in a soft, matter-of-fact way using play, song, puppets and mini-dramas.  No subject was off limits, including death, illness, and national tragedy.  He demonstrated that when such things are discussed in ways that children can comprehend, ask questions, and learn, they can be guided toward valuable means of coping.  
     Mr. Rogers’ childhood experiences likely influenced his thoughts and ideas about children and his choices for professions as an adult, in that he was often sick (scarlet fever, for example) and had long periods of time when he used his own imagination to entertain himself; he was introspective, and thought about existential concerns; and he was bullied some at school (“Fat Freddie”).  As an aside, he was very proud that he had kept his weight at 143 all his adult life—showing him that he had some control over his own life.  His playfulness is shown in his relating the number 143 to an address for a puppet on his show, and one of his messages, “I love you.”  (I has 1 letter, love has 4 letters, and you has 3 letters).
     The documentary was in the hands of Morgan Neville (writer/director of Best of Enemies:  Buckley vs. Vidal, and 20 Feet from Stardom), an accomplished documentarian who captures the essence of what Fred Rogers was about in this film.  It moves at a good pace, bringing in Rogers’ family, friends, and associates to give life to the man and his work.  I was especially struck by Yo-Yo Ma (famed cellist) telling about his first meeting with Rogers, who immediately engaged him, got him on his show, and who later performed at his memorial service.
     I was also moved by Neville’s including the part where Rogers pulls in “Officer Clemmons”, a black police officer on the show but an opera singer/actor/playwright in real life, to share a wading pool with him just when the ‘70’s civil rights struggles were ongoing, a main bone of contention being “blacks’” rights to swim in “whites’” pools.  Mr. Rogers talks him into cooling his weary feet, lends him a towel, and helps him dry off his feet.  
     Fred Rogers felt strongly about television being a model and teaching tool for children, particularly in his criticism of its frenetic pace and introducing super heroes to children, which were to him, a distorted fantasy that was misguiding for children.  He decried the fact that television for children was far too busy and loud, not allowing for contemplation.  Rogers purposively used silence as a tool in his programs.
     The film has many accounts by Rogers’ family, friends, and colleagues, talking freely about the man, how they saw him, and what he taught them.  It was interesting to hear about some of the fantasies about him—that he was gay, that he was a former Navy Seal, that he had tattoos—all of which seem to have been projections from people’s minds.

An inspiring account of a man who dedicated his life to teaching and modeling good principles for children.

Grade:  A                                                By Donna R. Copeland

Thursday, June 14, 2018

TAG

Ed Helms     Jon Hamm     Jeremy Renner     Jake Johnson     Hannibal Buress
Isla Fisher     Annabelle Wallis     Rashida Jones     Leslie Bibb


      Five guys are ultra serious about their game, having played it since 1983 when they were kids, convinced that it will keep them young.  And they do seem like little boys playing their macho games. After they grew up, they did restrict it to the month of May, but during that month any one of them—or group of them—could appear at any time to tag someone.  The one who is “it” gets to tag, and then that one becomes’ “it”, just like in the childhood game.
     This particular May is special (and the reason why changes across time), but Hoagie (Helms) rounds up three of them (having no compunction about interrupting a Wall Street Journal interview or even a therapy session), saying that Jerry (Renner) is getting married and dropping out after this year.  Callahan (Hamm), Randy (Johnson), and Sable need little convincing to hop in the car and head to Jerry’s hometown.  The stakes are soooo high because Jerry is the champion who has never been tagged.
     Jerry is the best part of the story, in that he is ingenious in anticipating every move of the conspirators, preparing for them in comedic ways, and—by the way—being a master in what looks like martial arts; he can foil every attack and then escape without being detected.  Renner actually broke a couple of bones in doing his stunts.  He is impressive to watch, and although this is not nearly the caliber of Hurt Locker—for which he is perhaps best known—the role is similar in the character’s canniness and attraction to risk.  It’s certainly different in the mischievous eye of Jerry.
     Other main characters are in roles familiar to us.  Ed Helms is the ambitious achiever who often misses the mark by just a little bit.  Jon Hamm is the suave CEO of a large, successful company.  Jake Johnson is the slightly manic talker with a talent for saying the wrong things.  Unlike these, Hannibal Buress’ character isn’t like his previous roles; here, he is thoughtful, speaks in convoluted sentences, and is more than a little paranoid—a clever addition to the cast of characters.
     Females seemed to have been “tacked on” in stereotypical roles:  the aggressive Anna (Fisher) dying to be a part of the guys’ game and being a female version of a guy.  Susan (Bibb) being the beautiful ultra feminine bride wielding her power behind the scenes.  Rebecca (Wallis), the reporter so intrigued by her subject’s life, she abandons her intended story to follow him on a tangent.  The most realistic character is Cheryl (Jones), who expertly fields two suitors from high school, maintaining her equilibrium and sense of self throughout.
     Tag reflects the backgrounds of the director (Jeff Tomsic) and writers (Rob McKittrick and Mark Steilan) being in television, although they based the story on Russell Adams’ account of the original group of men in the Wall Street Journal.  It plays like an extended sitcom with a bigger budget.  The audience I was with in the screening laughed heartily in the expected places, but I doubt this film will appeal to those interested in wanting comedy to push forward in a wave of creative expression that speaks to the contemporary frame of mind.

A light comedy about a group of men extending their childhood game into macho competitions in adulthood.

Grade:  C-                                    By Donna R. Copeland

INCREDIBLES 2

Craig T. Nelson     Holly Hunter     Sarah Vowell     Huck Milner    Eli Fucile
Catherine Keener     Bob Odenkirk     Samuel L. Jackson     Brad Bird     Isabella Rossellini


     I am always partial to Brad Bird, and think that his production of Incredibles 2i s just that—impressive enough to be regarded as incredible, and a film that is likely to appeal to all ages.  One of Bird’s strengths is in mixing lavish visual and special effects with an entertaining story of substance. Beyond the entertainment, values come through with respect to “doing good”, fulfilling civic duties, living up to one’s potential, and being a good parent (at times being equated with having super-powers—which I found very amusing andrealistic).
     The Parr family is a trifle at sea since super-powers have been outlawed (you get a real sense of loss of purpose from them), and their reputation is on the decline after their last job not turning out very well—at least in the public eye. Helen (Hunter) is flexing and saying they need to adapt, but her husband Bob (Nelson) is protesting.  Then something unexpected happens; a wealthy man, Mr. Deavor (Odenkirk) who is convinced super-powers are needed, has a plan for getting the law changed, and approaches the Parr family.  Well, specifically, he is asking for Elastigirl (Hunter), observing that she does less collateral damage in her heroics than her husband.  
     Of course, this creates a crisis in the Parr household.  Bob (Mr. Incredible) has trouble getting his head around the fact that someone would be preferring his wife over him, and Helen feels torn about leaving her family, even though it’s to save them.  Moreover, she and young Violet (Vowell) question the wisdom of breaking the law, even if it is to do good.  But Bob (to his credit) urges his wife to take up the mantle and perform a heroic act to save people and demonstrate the usefulness of super-powers.  After much soul-searching, all she needs is a fancy motorcycle delivered to her garage, and she is off.
     Mr. Deavor is in partnership with his sister Evelyn (Keener), who has designed new suits for the Parrs that have cameras installed, as a way to publicize their achievements.  What they do can be featured on the news, thus everyone will see their value, and public opinion will be successful in effecting change.
     There will be any number of major challenges to the Parrs, close calls, and a significant betrayal, which make the movie entertaining and provoke thought all the way through.  In the process, important contemporary issues are dealt with about men vs. women and their roles, about adherence vs. protest of laws, about trust vs. betrayal, about inventors vs. sellers of a product, and even about kids vs. parents.  I liked the way kids are portrayed, both needing guidance and nurturance and being listened to for their opinions.  
     A number of clever and humorous scenes are incorporated, revealing writer-director Bird’s ingenuity, such as inserting the role that he himself voices of Edna, the woman Bob turns to when parental duties have worn him out.  The interactions between her and the baby with emerging super powers, Jack-Jack (Fucile), are hilarious and heart-warming.  The cartoon figure looks exactly like Linda Hunt (NCIS-LA), who is the wise and supportive leader of undercover operatives with a blunt-cut pageboy hairdo on CBS TV. Jack-Jack, who is gleefully playful, manages to don just such a hairdo to win her heart.

An enthralling animation that will keep the whole family spellbound.

Grade:  A                                    By Donna R. Copeland

Thursday, June 7, 2018

OCEANS 8

Sandra Bullock     Cate Blanchett    Rihanna    Sarah Paulson    Mindy Kaling    Awkwafina
Anne Hathaway     Helena Bonham Carter     Richard Armitage     James Corden    Dakota Fanning


     This clever, fun heist movie will engage you, intrigue you, and keep you entertained. Debbie Ocean (Bullock), sister of Danny (George Clooney) in previous Oceans movies, is just being released from prison after serving five years. She bounds out in the same outfit as when she went in—dressed for the evening in a trendy black outfit—assured that she can go anywhere and do what she wants with the $45 in her pocket. And we see how she begins to do just that with her light fingers and made-up stories as she ensconces herself into a fancy hotel and gets in touch with her seven specially talented friends and accomplices, the first being Lou (Blanchett), an Australian motorcycle enthusiast and sharp observer of human behavior  
     Debbie has used her time in prison well, figuring out detailed plans for living up to her family name, exacting a delicious revenge, and getting a ticket to the high life for life.  Debbie and Lou flesh out a strategy for a major heist of jewelry at one of THE social events of the year, the Met Gala, hosted by the iconic Vogue Magazine editor and artistic director of Conde Nast publications, Anna Wintour who appears as herself in the film.  
     Debbie and Lou assemble a motley team of thieves, smugglers, fashion and jewelry designers, forgers, and computer geniuses to play their roles in an intricately choreographed dance designed to net them all a sizeable share. What are they after? Cartier’s 150-million-dollar diamond necklace.  It will involve managing to get just the right celebrity to wear it to the ball.  
     Some of the funniest scenes include the eccentric fashion designer Rose Weil (Carter) flattering the always-aspiring celebrity Daphne Kluger (Hathaway) to go along with the plan to wear the necklace.  (Not hard at all, once she sees it.)  To watch Hathaway acting out preening and self-love in brilliant red lipstick in front of the mirror as she tries on various necklaces (the real diamond one is held out as a tease) will surely make you groan and laugh at the same time.  
     Also engaging are glimpses into the current lives of the fellow co-conspirators. Tammy (Paulson) is a contented mother who buys tens of bicycles on eBay when she has only one child.  Nine Ball (or “Baller”, if you prefer) (Rihanna) is a wizard on the computer, and most of the fun here is seeing others having to catch up with her; and like any good Asian has a relative, April (Midori Francis), to come through at a crucial time.  Mindy Kaling, as Amita, the jewelry designer, is trying to find a partner on an internet match site, but she will amuse and impress you with her rather naïve pronouncements coupled with design efficiency.  Constance (Awkafina) always shows up just in time, and even though she is simply collecting and sorting things, you smile at her dedication.  
     In Oceans 8, Director Gary Ross demonstrates his sensitivity toward women’s important issues, his delight in mixing up craftiness and comedy, and his flair in infusing excitement into a rather predictable plot.  The journey there is the point, and it will serve as a good time to relax and simply enjoy.
     This Oceans’ cast impresses with its unwavering skill and art.  The major protagonists and supporting actors deliver what we hope for and expect in a film of this kind.  Bravo to all!

This is a great movie for kicking back, relaxing, and letting the irony and truthfulness amuse you.

Grade:  B                                    By Donna R. Copeland

HEREDITARY

Toni Collette     Alex Wolff     Gabriel Byrne     Millie Shapiro     Ann Dowd


     The set-up for Hereditary is truly chilling—not too much to be unbelievable and just enough to make it plausible. The Graham family—father Steve (Byrne), mother Millie (Collette), son Peter (Wolff), and daughter Charlie (Shapiro) appear normal enough.  They live in a picturesque setting in a large old house in what looks to be a small town.  There are hints that strange things are going on in the scattering of dollhouses around the house (that will only become creepier later).  But also noticeable is something in Charlie’s eyes and behavior. For instance, she doesn’t say much, sometimes makes a clicking noise with her tongue, is seen drawing portraits of those around her incessantly, and once, we see her do something destructive to an animal as she casually eats a candy bar.     
     Millie’s mother has just died, and Millie wonders why she doesn’t feel like crying, but after she sneaks away to a grief-counseling group and her history tumbles out, we can see why.  Sadly, she feels a bit ashamed about attending, and keeps it from her family. Millie is an artist who is trying to meet a deadline for a project that involves figures she must paint so intricately, she needs glasses like jewelers and watch repairmen wear—just another touch to add to the eeriness of the story.  
     One evening, Peter asks to use the car to go to a party, although he presents it as a school function.  His mother gives him permission, making sure there will be no alcohol, and insisting he take his younger sister Charlie along.  This is one of the first set-ups typical of horror filmmakers—something that doesn’t make sense, but is needed for the plot later on.  That is, why would a mother force a teenager to take a 7 year-old to a social function when neither of them wants it? At any rate, they are compliant children, and they go along.
     This is where the movie takes a weird turn.  A tragedy occurs in which Charlie is killed, and the mother is not the same ever since.  This in itself is not unusual (no one is the same after losing a child), but in a horror story like this, the occult is introduced more overtly, where there were only hints before.  
     Millie’s chance (or not so much coincidental, as shown later) encounter with a member of the support group who hails her down at the shopping center, asks how she is doing, lets Millie know that she too has lost a son and grandchild, and gives Millie her address and phone number “if you need someone to talk to, because we all do.”  Millie makes light of this, once again, significantly, not telling her husband about Joan (Dowd) or the subsequent séance that she will experience in which Joan is able to conjure up her grandchild.
     After this, the film goes over the top in typical horror-film paths, introducing ever more fantastic events that have the audience gasping (or laughing, depending on individual perceptions).  Some of these scenes are effective (such as when Millie and Peter start to work on their issues—painful as they are.  But then, the turn is to more conventional horror motifs that have little to do with reality, i.e., Paimon, a king of hell, makes his appearance.
     This is a more than admirable first feature by writer-director Ari Aster, and one of which he can be truly proud.  His script and direction, the superb acting—particularly that of Collette—and the cinematography, music, and the rest of the crew make this a noteworthy film.  The music (Colin Stetson) and camera (Pawel Pogorzelski) are visible enough to be characters in being so present in telling the story even when no actors are present.  

Horror films come and go, but you should take notice of this one.

Grade:  B                                    By Donna R. Copeland