Wednesday, November 22, 2017

THE MAN WHO INVENTED CHRISTMAS

Dan Stevens     Christopher Plummer     Jonathan Pryce     Miriam Margolyes     
Simon Callow     Bill Paterson     Donald Sumpter


     This film is related to the Goodbye, Christopher Robin story in its reflection of real events and troublesome experiences in the authors’ lives that produced the two works of art that have been beloved by the public for generations:  Winnie the Pooh and A Christmas Carol.  The Man Who Invented Christmas, Charles Dickens, drew on his own childhood memories, dreams (nightmares), and elements in his adult life to weave into a tale about a miserly old man who is visited by ghosts of his past, who make comments about his character and predictions about his future.  According to this account, Dickens identified with Scrooge enough to motivate him to make some changes in his own life as a result.
     The small book seemed to have a similar effect on the readers when it came out just before Christmas in 1843; and according to the historian who wrote the book on which this film is based (Les Standiford), it transformed the Christmas holiday from a Puritanical and Industrial Revolution attitude into one now considered as a time of giving and good cheer. Charitable giving in the country went up noticeably the year of its publication.
     We get a good look at Dickens’ life during the time he was writing A Christmas Carol, when he was reeling from three commercial failures, was ridden with debt, had a large family to support, and had the burden of caring for his parents.  There were constant interruptions to his writing, which made him lose his temper and make rash judgments, only to try to reverse them later.  The film shows his visions of Scrooge and other characters visiting him, inspiring him to rush to his desk to include them in his story.  An interesting aspect of the film is its depiction of Dickens incorporating not only his own memories and fantasies into his writing, but other observations he makes in his everyday life.  For instance, he has a nephew who is very ill and has to use a crutch (a model for Tiny Tim, perhaps?).
     Director Bharat Nalluri and screenwriter Susan Coyne present us with a story that cleverly weaves together Dickens’ everyday life with his fantasies, dreams, and the story he is writing, based on the book by Les Standiford.  Production design by Paki Smith shows the house in Victorian London where Dickens lived and worked, its transportation, factories, stores, and clubs in rich detail.  Music by Mychael Danna and cinematography by Ben Smithard evoke the period and, all together, the filmmakers give us a beautifully rendered period piece that is likely to appeal to the viewing audience at Christmas-time, although the general viewing audience may find it tedious to go through Dickens’ fits and starts in the writing process.
     Dan Stevens as Charles Dickens beautifully portrays the harassed young writer, who, although often displaying a quixotic manner, is constantly pressured by others (and himself) to distinguish himself from his father by being a practical businessman.  Christopher Plummer possesses all the qualities of a Scrooge who continually feeds the author valuable information and feedback.  Another standout is Jonathan Pryce as the feckless parent who is gifted in coming up with excuses on the spot for his failings.  Justin Edwards as Dickens’ loyal friend and agent and Morfydd Clark as wife Kate provide good support.  The cameo by Donald Sumpter as Jacob Marley is priceless.
 
The Man Who Invented Christmas is a worthy addition to holiday viewing.


Grade:  B+                                         By Donna R. Copeland

COCO

Voices of:  Anthony Gonzalez   Gael Garcia Bernal   Benjamin Bratt   Edward James Olmos


     Disney/Pixar’s colorful, entertaining animation will delight children and adults, which I inferred while watching the screening and hearing the applause at the end.  Production design by Harley Jessup is rich in detail and captures Mexican lore about the land of the dead.  The story by Lee Unkrich and his fellow writers has emotional depth that is understandable to children and is meaningful for adults, and carries a strong message:  “Never underestimate the power of music.”  Michael Giacchino’s score fits the mood and culture perfectly, employing both vocal and instrumental numbers.  The film is reminiscent of Jorge Gutierrez’s and Guillermo del Toro’s The Book of Life.
     The story is about young Miguel (Gonzalez) growing up in a multi-generation close-knit family that, for some reason, has forbidden music of any kind.  This presents a big problem for Miguel, in that music is “in his blood”, so to speak.  He feels a special kinship with Ernesto de la Cruz (Bratt), reportedly the most famous musician of the town, and aspires to carry on his tradition.  His family is horrified, but don’t explain, except to say that great grandmother’s father abandoned his family to go on the road and perform his music.  To support herself and her children, his wife began a successful shoe business, which everyone is expected to work in after they are grown, and forbids even the mention of music ever after.
     In the meantime, on Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead), Miguel is accidently transported into the Land of the Dead, where he encounters some of his ancestors, as well as de la Cruz himself (who was killed by a huge bell crashing down upon him).  By this time, Miguel is convinced the man is his great great grandfather, and seeks his help in becoming a musician.  In the process, and through Miguel’s acquaintance with a kindly dead man named Hector (Bernal), he discovers the source of his family’s age-old tradition of rejecting music.  In the process, he also transcends his antagonism toward family, and comes to see the inestimable value of it.
     This film is about staying connected with family in a positive way through photographs and by remembering and telling stories.  In the Mexican tradition, that is how the dead “stay alive” by living in the hearts and minds of the survivors.

This animation will transport you to the Land of the Dead and its mysterious, uplifting ways.

Grade:  A                                    By Donna R. Copeland

Thursday, November 16, 2017

JUSTICE LEAGUE

Gal Gadot   Robin Wright   Jason Momoa   Amy Adams   Ben Affleck   Ezra Miller   Henry Cavill
Joe Morton   Diane Lane   Billy Crudup   J. K. Simmons   Ciaran Hinds   Jeremy Irons   Jesse Eisenberg   Ray Fisher


     Oh, my, my!  Superman is dead, and the planet is threatened by a terrible force, Steppenwolf (Hinds), who only needs to get three “Mother Boxes” to communicate with one another and the world is his.  (There are more references to ‘mother’ in this action film than all the rest put together.  Hmmm…).  Steppenwolf has started by sidelining the Amazons and Atlantis, and now he is after Planet Earth.
     There is the possibility of bringing Superman back from the dead with scientific and super-hero means, and Batman (Affleck) and Wonder Woman (Gadot) have a little argument about the merits of attempting such a feat.  She sees it as risky, but he convinces her that it may be the only option.  He also knows that it will take teamwork, so has been recruiting a team to counteract the threat.  Along with Wonder Woman, he manages to get The Flash (Ezra Miller), Aquaman (Momoa), and a Cyborg (Fisher) created by Dr. Silas Stone (Morton), with Alfred Pennyworth (Irons) at central control.  All finally agree to attempt the resurrection of Superman, who is clearly essential for success.
     What follows is the usual formula of an action hero film:  Fight, fight, dialog, fight, fight—always ending up with a fist fight, of course, despite all the fancy gadgets and powers of the players.  The special effects are impressive, as is often the case in these films (production design is by Patrick Tatopoulos (Godzilla, Stargate, Dark City), but the dialog is not of the same caliber.  There are few/no surprising twists and turns, so its primary value is in entertainment, and that’s if you like action hero films.
     A star-studded cast makes this film more interesting, particularly with a larger role given to Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman, who is grooming herself to be a leader.  Bruce Wayne (Batman) appears to be flagging a bit and is feeling a bit guilty about his role in Superman’s demise, so maybe the new pairing could be Superman and Wonder Woman.  Along with Henry Cavill and Gal Gadot, Ben Affleck, Ezra Miller, Ciaran Hinds, and Ray Fisher give their characters depth and watchability.
     Director Zach Snyder and his writers (including Chris Terrio and Joss Whedon) have delivered a mildly entertaining, watchable film, but one that is indistinguishable from most of the genre.

Wonder Woman proves her worth among her fellow heroes.

Grade:  C                                    By Donna R. Copeland

LAST FLAG FLYING

Bryan Cranston     Laurence Fishburne     Steve Carell     Deanne Reed Foster     Cicely Tyson


     As is typical for Richard Linklater films, this one is packed full of a mix of humor, discussions/arguments about the government/war/military service, religion, personal responsibility, conflict resolution, expiation of guilt, and experiences of nostalgia and loss.  Three buddies in the armed services during the Viet Nam war meet up unexpectedly when the son of one of them is killed in Iraq during his service.  Larry “Doc” (Carell) is distraught and appeals to his friends to accompany him to bury his son in Arlington.  The three haven’t seen/heard from each other for years, and when Larry enters Sal’s (Cranston) bar, he has to remind Sal to look closely to recognize him. 
    The next day, they go to round up the third buddy who—to Sal’s horror—is now a minister.  Richard (Fishburne) has become as circumspect (sober, married, and reverent) as Sal is somewhat depraved (boozing, single, irreverent and atheistic).  Larry stands somewhere in between, and often serves as peacemaker between the other two.  Sal instantly agrees to go on the journey; whereas Larry has to be convinced.  His wife Ruth (Foster) is effective in appealing to his sense of responsibility and guilt.    This journey will be a meandering one for various reasons, and he and Sal will be at odds much of the time, which provides both entertainment and thought-provoking discussions.
     All three actors are proficient in their very different roles, with Carell having perhaps the most challenging task.  His character is understandably and clearly depressed, but he has to show occasional spunk and wit and still play the grieving father, along with a mix of orderliness and bumbling.  Sal plays the executive role in making decisions, making things happen, but also has a mix of restlessness, blurting out whatever comes into his head, and asking impertinent questions, which actually becomes tiresome after awhile.  Fishburne’s character is someone who was as much a rabble-rouser in his younger days as Sal, but has sobered up and has developed strong Christian moral beliefs.  Cicely Tyson’s cameo role is golden in its poignancy.
     Linklater is gifted in successfully blending so much meaningful content into a story (this one based on co-writer Darryl Ponicsan’s novel), while still maintaining a sense of humor and acceptance of human frailties. Cinematography by Shane F. Kelly, editing by Sandra Adair, and music by M. Graham Reynolds help make the story flow with a natural rhythm and pique interest in the material.  There are some scenes that seem irrelevant and bog down the picture, such as the cell phone store (although this was a time to poke fun at the geezers’ age gap) and Sunday dinner at the Minister’s house. 
     The film is timely in its treatment of the death of servicemen during war, the government’s ineptness at times in acknowledging and being truthful about the deaths and expressing gratitude to families for the loved one’s service.

A Linklater-style road trip for three retired U.S. Marines.

Grade:  B+                                    By Donna R. Copeland

Monday, November 13, 2017

THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI

Frances McDormand     Woody Harrelson     Sam Rockwell     Lucas Hedges     Peter Dinklage     John Hawkes


     The wistful opening song (“The Last Rose of Summer”) previews the emotional tone underpinning this story, even though comedy and drama emerge time and again throughout.  Seven months before, Mildred’s (McDormand) teenage daughter was raped and killed, and as time goes on and no arrests are made, Mildred—never one to shrink from conflict—starts to agitate for more action from the police, specifically Sheriff Willoughby (Harrelson).  He responds to her respectfully, explaining why, and he sounds reasonable; but Mildred is not to be mollified.  To make her case a public issue, she buys space on three billboards outside of town to post this message:  “Raped while dying.  And still no arrests.  How come, Chief Willoughby?” 
     With this action, writer/director Martin McDonagh (In Bruges, Seven Psychopaths) gives us a window into Smalltown, USA, and how politics often work there.  And this is one where the Chief of Police is really conscientious, a mensch.  Not so much one of his officers, Jason Dixon (Rockwell), who has a huge chip on his shoulder, is unapologetic about his racist views, and has no trouble bending the law to suit himself.  Sheriff Willoughby has a challenge in mentoring him in his wish to become a detective. 
     When Mildred singles Willoughby out for her rage, she riles up most of the town folk who are already feeling sympathy for him because word has gotten out that he has cancer.  Some of the truths McDormand is illustrating is that the general public’s memory is short (seven months has made them “forget” the murder); few understand the depth of grief following the loss of a child (the very worst thing to happen to people and something that keeps going on across time), particularly when guilt is involved; and still the genuine caring and protectiveness seen when some in the community understand the issues and act accordingly.  McDonagh shows all these complexities with sensitivity and an even hand. 
     How does an Irishman get to know this?  McDonagh talks about taking bus rides around the U.S., visiting small towns, and acquainting himself with the people who lived there (Interview on Charlie Rose, 11/9/17 on PBS).  He saw a billboard in one place that first stimulated his thoughts about making this film.  In addition, McDonagh brings his own sensibilities to his dramas; in this case, showing characters in such depth, we see their strengths and weaknesses in equal measure.  And he goes further in showing redemptive experiences, where his characters actually acquire some insight and valiantly try to make positive changes. 
     McDonagh chose his cast carefully and well.  From the beginning, he knew he wanted McDormand, Harrelson, and Rockwell; and do they all shine.  McDormand is a shoo-in for award nominations for her performance here (previous wins have been an Oscar for Fargo, a Golden Globe for Olive Kitteridge, and Independent Spirit Awards for Friends with Money and Fargo), and her work has been consistently top-notch.  Rockwell deserves supporting role awards for his Dixon, whom he manages to make you hate in the beginning, and then have some sympathy for when he at least partially redeems himself.  Harrelson may not be considered for an award this year for this film, but he lends his expert rendition of a character with good judgment for whom we have great sympathy.  He, McDormand, and     Rockwell are all good for the high comedic moments as well as the drama in this film.
     McDonagh’s collaborators in music (Carter Burwell) and cinematography (Ben Davis) help make this film the artistic triumph it is.

A film likely to be on the award circuit when the time comes.

Grade:  A                                    By Donna R. Copeland

Sunday, November 12, 2017

CALL ME BY YOUR NAME

Armie Hammer     Timothee Chalamet     Michael Stuhlbarg     Amira Casar


      This could be the most sensually charged film of the year.  Every image and sound touches the senses, from the lowing of cattle, to the silvery glistening of the lake, to the boisterousness of partying and lovemaking, to the splash of bodies hitting water, to the lushness of the Italian landscape, to the warm embraces and lounging intimacy of family—I could go on.  But you get the point—you will be wrapped in a new kind of cloth by Luca Guadagnino (director), James Ivory (screenplay), and Andre Aciman (Novel).
     This is a coming-of-age story different from its predecessors.  It centers around Elio (Chalamet), the teenage son of an American father and Italian mother who spend summers with his family in northern Italy.  They host an American professor every summer who assists Professor Perlman (Stuhlbarg) in his archeological work.  This year, they are hosting Oliver (Hammer), who immediately becomes popular for his looks, his physique, and his athletic skills, and still impresses his host with his academic knowledge.
  The Perlmans’ son Elio is a young gifted musician/composer who is only grudgingly/tentatively dipping his toe into life experiences.  He is trying out everything he can when he is brave enough, is slightly insecure, despite his adoring/supportive parents, and at first looks askance at his father’s new protégé.  In adolescent style, he shows the newcomer his “old” bedroom, as he moves in next door, and takes the man around town to orient him; but something about Oliver catches his eye.  He is both repelled by and attracted to him.  He especially hates Oliver’s “Later!” when he takes his leave. 
     This will be an eventful summer for Elio as he makes discoveries about himself, Oliver, and others; but Oliver is touched as well in ways he hadn’t imagined before.  The viewer will be surprised—or at least intrigued—by the meanderings of the story.  It’s different from what we’ve seen before in its introduction of an evolving view of sexuality, one that is more naturalistic and, hopefully, more considerate and responsible. 
     Call Me By Your Name is a call for our recognition and respect for natural, human impulses and desires that may not fall into traditional dichotomous categories.  It’s presented sensitively, humanistically, and realistically, and will be very valuable for adolescents searching for themselves. 
     Timothee Shalamet is a standout in his performance as Elio, as we see a remarkable transformation from his slightly sullen beginning of the summer to the smitten end.  Armie Hammer is also perfect as the adult who is searching, ambivalent, and unsure, wanting to be circumspect and proper, yet fallible to human enticements.

This is a different coming-of-age story from the usual.

Grade:  A                                    By Donna R. Copeland

Thursday, November 9, 2017

NOVITIATE

Margaret Qualley     Melisso Leo     Julianne Nicholson     Dianna Agron     Denis O’Hare


      If you feel like you’ve sacrificed too much in your life, go see Novitiate and you’ll probably feel better by thinking you didn’t have it so bad.  (This excludes, of course, those who have been abused.)  Unless you are a Catholic since the before the ‘60’s, you may be surprised (as I was) at the stringencies young nuns had to experience in going through their training.  They’re required to efface themselves in every way one can imagine, following strict rules for every second of the day, and suppressing most of their human emotional experience.  I hope this has changed in the meantime.
     Young Cathleen (Qualley) seems perfectly suited for it, even though her family is not religious, but she is enrolled in a Catholic school, and after her father abandons the family, Christ seems like an ideal husband to her.  Where her sister novitiates struggle with ambivalence, she remains confident until…
     A parallel theme of the film about the novitiates is that of the Mother Superior (Leo), a woman who has been a nun for 40 years, and revels in her status as head of the convent.  She keeps very strict rules, and appears to take a bit of pleasure in the degradation of those who commit even slight infractions.  Decisions are easy for her in her black-and-white world; either there has been a sin that needs to be punished or—well, there is little of anything else, except actions that bore her, in which case, small penances are required.
     But Mother Superior is having a difficult time right alongside her novitiates; Vaticon II is being handed down by Pope John XXiii, in which major changes are decreed, such as that priests must face their congregation during the liturgy, there will be increased religious tolerance, nuns will be able to dress as they wish, etc.  Mother Superior resists these changes for three years, not letting anyone in her convent know about them, and believing until the end that they will not come to place.  When they do, she is devastated.
     This is a film about disillusionment—Cathleen’s early on, the Mother Superior’s, and several of the novitiates and those training them, but it’s also about change, and how adaptable people are in accommodating to it.  It’s understandable that someone who has achieved her identity in a specific system and then gets continually reinforced for it will resist any change in the order.  It’s also understandable that someone who buys into a system sincerely, then finds out that forces beyond her control go against it presents a major dilemma for her.  This is the beauty of the film; that it dramatizes real human dilemmas that come about as a result of decisions made, sometimes early in life.  And it doesn’t necessarily take a stand one way or another; it leaves that decision up to the viewer. 
     The focal point here is Margaret Qualley as Sister Catherine, the young woman trying to find answers to life through a system that promises hope.  It helps, of course, that she is gorgeous, but she is able to back that up with solid acting skills that convey the agony/puzzlement/irritation/naïveté of her character.  Beneath her Mother Superior garb, Melissa Leo proves herself once again a superior actor whose face tells all.  A nod should be given as well to Julianne Nicholson, who plays Catherine’s clueless mother who never gives up on her, even though she understands so little about how her actions brought her to this point with her daughter. 
     I congratulate Margaret Betts, writer/director, for her feature film debut.  Her awards at the Sundance Film Festival (Special Jury Prize, Grand Jury Prize) do not surprise in the interesting/educational/suspenseful script and direction of the film that moves at an ideal pace and utilizes the talents of the actors to the fullest extent.

This film about religious belief lets the viewer decide about issues.

Grade:  B+                                    By Donna R. Copeland