Thursday, April 27, 2017

HOW TO BE A LATIN LOVER

Eugenio Derbez   Salma Hayek   Rob Lowe   Kristen Bell   Raphael Alejandro
Michael Cera   Rob Corddry   McKenna Grace   Raquel Welch   Linda Lavin


       There are not many films with lovers 25 years apart in age—that is, with the man being younger.  But How to be a Latin Lover has not just one but two such couples.  Maximo (Derbez) walks and talks like he is God’s gift to the world, comfortably ensconced in his wealthy partner’s mansion, with maids running after him serving his every whim and constantly cleaning up his clutter.  He’s been a bit thoughtless in marking his anniversary, so impulsively buys her a sporty car, charging it to her account.  It doesn’t dawn on him that her knees wouldn’t allow her to sit in it, so it turns out to be a car for him.  But…to his shocking amazement, since he thinks she doesn’t notice his lapses, she quickly falls in love with the car salesman (Cera), and he is kicked out of her life.
     Maximo is in his late 40’s and has never worked a day in his life, so what to do?  Suddenly, he’s back in his modest childhood days when he calls on his sister Sara (Hayek), who doesn’t want to see him (they are estranged because he hasn’t bothered to keep in touch or even attend their mother’s funeral), but she grudgingly allows him to stay with her and her son Hugo (Alejandro) in their small apartment temporarily.  Maximo’s years of being indulged and not having any responsibility gets him into one awkward situation after another.  He knows nothing about family life, so devalues his relatives, seeing them only as means to an end, i.e., finding another sugar mama.
     He tries to get help from one of his friends (Lowe), who has a similar arrangement with an older woman (Lavin), but the two men get into a brawl when one betrays the other—another scene that is supposed to be hilarious.
     Most of the story deals with the bizarre premise that Maximo can guide his sister (an attractive widow who hasn’t dated in years) and na├»ve nephew smitten with his 10 year-old classmate) in the art of seduction.  But this is the one (only) thing in which he is an expert, and in the process of helping others, he finds the value of family.
     Significant mishaps occur along the way, with a script intended to be funny, and indeed, the screening audience did get a big kick out of it.  My own impression is that except for the young-men/old-women twist, not much is novel or particularly funny in this film.  It is the same tired theme of the infantile man somehow achieving his goals without earning them in honorable ways.  His only redemption in my eyes is his realization that he has let his nephew down and then tries to make up for it in a touching, meaningful way.
     How to be a Latin Lover has a good cast, and the director, Ken Marino, has created a particular kind of comedy that makes people in the mainstream laugh, but leaves those of us who want more substance, hungry.  

Hard lessons for a Latin lover to learn

Grade:  C-                                    By Donna R. Copeland

BUSTER'S MAL HEART

Rami Malek     DJ Qualls     Kate Lyn Sheil     Sukha Belle Potter


      Writer/director Sarah Adina Smith’s surreal production could only succeed with the force of Rami Malek’s portrayals of odd characters (e.g., Mr. Robot) who can mysteriously transform himself into different personas ranging from everyman to psychotic man.  Here, he is at least two characters—one, a restless night clerk at a hotel who is frustrated with a job beneath his intellect; and the other, a deranged “mountain man”, fleeing from the law after a traumatic event.  There is a lot to fill in between these two appearances, and it’s not always clear exactly what is transpiring. 
     Smith jumps back and forth in time (which I nearly always hate, but her aim here might be to keep the viewer guessing and slightly disoriented to identify with the star’s predicaments), so that we see Jonah happily married to Marty (Sheil) and reveling in his precocious daughter Roxy (Potter), but he’s feeling stifled and bone-weary from his job.  His social/political views help fuel his anger.  The family has moved in with Marty’s parents to save money for a plot of land in the country, and this is clearly stressful for all, and what brings Buster to the brink is the dawning realization that they may never fulfill their dream.
     One night at the hotel, a mysterious man (DJ Qualls) asks for a room, but refuses to give any ID or even a name.  He easily engages Jonah into conversations about a coming apocalypse called an “inversion”, heightening his anxiety and further prompting Jonah’s existential/political questions.  Eventually, Jonah tries to get rid of the man, and thinks he has, but…
     Other times, we see Malek as longhaired bearded “Buster” roaming around in the mountains, breaking into vacation homes, and running from the sheriff and his deputies.  Smith leaves us guessing here, as well as at other times, as to which scenes are hallucinations and which are real.  At times, I even wondered whether the Qualls character might be another of Jonah’s personalities. 
     Buster’s Mal Heart is intriguing, fortified by Rami Malek’s performance in television’s “Mr. Robot.”  Similarities between Jonah (“Buster”) and Mr. Robot are enough to enhance this production’s already fascinating value.  DJ Qualls gives the right amount of creepiness as the mysterious hotel guest to rev up the mystery.

Drama with tinges of humor morphs into a mystery/thriller.

Grade:  B                                    By Donna R. Copeland

Thursday, April 20, 2017

CITIZEN JANE: BATTLE FOR THE CITY


     Courageous Jane, taking on the influential leaders of New York City in the l950’s, made landmark strides in challenging them to take a different perspective on city planning.  The importance of the topic is noted by the observation that the scale and speed of urbanization from the 1950’s to now is the greatest in the history of cities.  Moreover, what we’re doing now will shape cities for years to come.  This documentary addresses the question of what constitutes a successful city and who it is who makes decisions about its size, form, and function, as well as who will live there.
     In the mid-20th Century, two figures stand out as embodying the issue of city planning.  One is Robert Moses, a modernist New York City planner with grandiose ideas about what was possible, as well as strong beliefs about public housing and transportation.  His opposition included a cheeky journalist named Jane Jacobs, who contended that cities should be about people, public places, and neighborhoods that are inter-connected and accessible.  Moses championed the automobile and the need for throughways that necessarily had to cut through green space and neighborhoods.  And although he started out as a progressive wanting to address city blight and areas of poverty, he was looking at it from a distance—an aerial view, so to speak.  Whereas Jane walked the streets and made astute observations from which she formed her ideas about what makes a city vibrant and successful.
     To address the city’s poverty, Moses favored tearing down tenements (which he did by the thousands), “wiping the slate clean”, and starting all over again, eliminating the sidewalk culture and people clustering together.  He was late in realizing that this vision resulted in isolated communities, dead-end streets, and separation of work, residential, and recreational areas, along with residential sectioning based on social class.  Three of his most outrageous ideas were to 1) build the Cross Bronx Expressway, tearing up vital neighborhoods and essentially creating a wall between north and south Bronx; 2) build the Lower Manhattan Expressway, dividing it up like he did the Bronx; and 3) run Fifth Avenue through Washington Square Park.  Fortunately, because of the activists’ efforts, he was denied the last two ideas.
     Jane Jacobs expressed her opinions on city planning in one of eight books she wrote.  In The Death and Life of Great American Cities, she questioned city planners (Moses’ brand was repeated in cities across the country) and countered them with her own vision of what constitutes successful cities:  Diversity in people, jobs, uses of streets, types of buildings, and the accessibility of all these to all people.  “Fit your plans to people; not buildings”, she would say.  One of Jacobs’ most fundamental beliefs about cities is that the city is a living, ever-changing organism, and we need to manage the change organically and on the basis of our observations, getting input from the people who reside in it, rather than taking a top-down approach to planning.
     The comprehensive, engaging documentary traces the early lives of Moses and Jacobs and the evolvement of their ideas and actions across the many years of their careers.  The cinematography by Chris Dapkins is extraordinarily good in lustrous black and white, eye-catching colors, and original footage from the time.
     A cautionary note at the end of the film is that what happened in the U.S. in the fifties, is now going on in China, where they are creating isolated developments without streets that are likely to become the slums of the future.

Citizen Jane Jacobs challenges the concepts of noted New York City planner Robert Moses.

Grade:  A                                    By Donna R. Copeland



UNFORGETTABLE

Rosario Dawson     Katherine Heigl     Geoff Stults     Cheryl Ladd     Isabella Kai Rice     Jayson Blair


     Unforgettable’s weak plot contrasts with strong performances of the main characters.  After a traumatic childhood and recent past, Julia (Dawson) is eagerly anticipating her new life with David (Stults), someone who seems ideal—sensitive, caring, and responsible.  He has a lovely house in California and gives her his grandmother’s ring upon their engagement.  Julia is initially undeterred by the intrusions of his beautiful ex-wife Tessa (Heigl) and his ambivalent daughter Lily (Rice).  She finds Lily easy to win over, but Tessa begins to throw her curves right away.

      It’s obvious from the start where this movie is going.  The disappointing part is that the story is written and directed by women (Christina Hodson, writer, and Denise Di Novi, director) (the screenwriter is apparently a male David Leslie Johnson, however).  The reason I’m disappointed about the womens’ work is that it’s the usual bitch-crazy woman characterization of Tessa.  Julia, likewise, is shown to have a shady past where (uh-oh!), she was in a psychiatric hospital for a time.  This is the set-up for a cat fight(s) that will be inevitable sometime in the story. Fatal Attraction and numerous other films have done this subject very well.  Therefore, to me, it would have been a much better story if there were less psychopathology and more nuanced flaws in the women, not fitting into stereotypical portrayals for the sake of the sensational.
      Other flaws in the plot include inconsistency of character, e.g., Julia is shown to be so competent in most contexts (her job as editor, her adaptation to a new life in a different city, and her people skills); yet doesn’t seem to notice that luggage is flying off her car as she drives down the highway, answers calls on her cell phone from “Unknown”, seems powerless to set limits with Tessa, and has no idea how to defend herself until the very end. 
      Rosario Dawson can be counted on to give a performance that shows the textures of the characters she is portraying in variable moods and situations.  Katherine Heigl captures the “perfect” beautiful blonde with the porcelain skin and the devil underneath.  The film does show the exquisite transmission of cunning and contrivance from mother to daughter.  Cheryl Ladd in her character as Tessa’s mother serves as a fine model for this, and we can see her daughter unwittingly grooming her own daughter, Lily. 
      Caleb Deschanel’s cinematography contributes to the mystery and thrill of the film, with the camera always being a witness and sometimes being a guide before the action happens.

Unforgettable offers simplistic, stereotypical thrills and chills, and just may be forgettable.

Grade:  C-                                    By Donna R. Copeland

BORN IN CHINA


     Come take a leisurely stroll over the scenic Chinese countryside in the greatest of comfort—unlike that for the filming crew which lugged their equipment, trudging up and down mountains in all kinds of weather to allow us this indulgence.  Disneynature’s Born in China, expertly directed by Chuan Lu and grandly photographed by six artists (Irmin Kerck, Justin Maguire, Shane Moore, Rolf Steinman, and Paul Stewart), is narrated by John Krasinski.  The story by a group of writers (David Fowler, Brian Leith, Phil Chapman and Lu) is fascinating in its portrayal of family life—mostly between mothers and newborns—among monkeys, pandas, and snow leopards, with references made to cranes, antelopes, hawks, and yaks. 
     The endearing parts track the birth of a baby through its first year in three families, showing the instinctive quality of the mother-child bond and the struggles to survive and protect the young in the wild.  Mother Panda Ya Ya focuses all her attention on daughter Mei Mei while she feeds on bamboo (40 lbs/day!) and nurses her infant with breast milk.  After about six months, we see Mei Mei start the separation process by attempting to climb trees, initially rolling all the way down the hill after which her mother scoops her up and takes her home.  When Mei Mei is able to climb the tree high up without falling, the two will separate.
     Mother Dawa, an agile and quick snow leopard, lives at 14,000 feet above sea level on the rocky mountains, having her two cubs in a cave, where they will remain until they’re old enough to attempt navigating the rocks and cliffs.  Dawa has to defend her territory from predators and then be one herself to get food.  She may be challenged by a neighboring leopard whose food supply has become scarce in her own territory and will try to take over Dawa’s.
     The third story focuses on Tau Tau, a monkey who was the center of attention in his family—which consists of multiple doting mothers—until his sister is born.  He feels he has to resort to joining a tribe of “lost boys” who hang out together with their leader Rooster and get into all sorts of mischief—or just playing the game of jumping on branches and falling to the ground.  The drama here is Tau Tau’s evolving relationship with his family, an acceptance/rejection tale that most closely resembles that of a human family.
     Filmmakers should be congratulated for incorporating educational material into the script (e.g., Chinese myths associated with cranes and pandas), frankly portraying life and death and linking both to the Circle of Life, and showing the values in appreciating and becoming knowledgeable about the natural world, which includes the humorous aspects of it.  Compared to other films, this one is relatively short at 75 minutes, which is exactly right for the kind of film it is.  It is idyllic, in a way.  When I saw the crystal clear waters, clean air, and fertile earth, I was reminded of the compromises we humans have made in an industrial age.

Revel in the refreshing, natural world of Born in China for relief from contemporary cares and concerns.

Grade:  A                                    By Donna R. Copeland



THE PROMISE

Oscar Isaac     Christian Bale     Charlotte Le Bon   Tom Hollander   James Cromwell


    The Armenian apothecary Mikael Pogosian (Isaac) has aspirations to become a doctor. With his parents’ encouragement, he is betrothed to a young woman in their village.  Her dowry will pay for him to get his medical degree in Constantinople, which he calculates will be two years, after which, he will return and marry his sweetheart.  Hence, the title, The Promise; little does he know what (individual, country, international events) will threaten that pronouncement.
     He’s doing well in his studies and makes friends with a fellow medical student who introduces him to a couple of his friends and they begin sampling the nightlife.  Chris Myers (Bale) is an American reporter writing stories about the war, and his girlfriend, Ana (Le Bon) is a tutor for the children of Mikael’s uncle.  She is Armenian like Mikael, and that serves as a bond between them.  Against their will—certainly Mikael’s, but also because Ana is unsure of Chris—the two develop an attraction for one another, and the love triangle will be interspersed into the story, which is mostly about the persecution of the Armenians.
     This juxtaposition of the triangle and the sieges against the Armenians has been criticized by critics of The Promise; but I liked having a human interest story for relief from the extremely brutal, merciless attacks that constitute most of the plot.  The interactions among the three are deftly presented, and don’t follow the usual outcome of such relationships—something else I appreciated.  Although, granted, the passion shown between characters at times is unbelievable under the circumstances.
     When the Ottoman Empire joins the Central Powers against the Allies in WWI, they simultaneously step up their attacks on the Armenians.  Religious hatred, animosities, and purges had been occurring for centuries in the region, and the Ottoman leadership is now deciding to systematically get rid of all Armenians.  (One and a half million of them were massacred during this period of time.)  Through a chain of events, Mikael’s medical student friend is conscripted into the military and Mikael is put in a slave labor force building a railroad.  After a chance accident, he escapes and heads home to his parents, realizing that they are now in danger. 
     Much horror transpires, and Mikael, his family, and his friends are drawn together in a bloody conflict against the Ottomans.  Toward the end of the film, Ana responds to Mikael’s urge for revenge with “Our revenge will be to survive.” 
     This is the Armenian story, which is well worth the retelling, although it is a brutal, bloody tale.  Director Terry George and writer with Robin Swicord, bring forth an account of the fate of the Turkish/Kurdish Armenians in history that officials in Turkey are still loath to admit occurred.  The cast of Isaac, Bale, Le Bon, and Cromwell are superb in their renditions and in their sensitivity to portray victims of state government discrimination.  The music of Gabriel Yared and cinematography of Javier Aguirresarobe greatly support and enhance the qualities of this film.

Ordinary lives caught up in the drama of history.

Grade:  B                                    By Donna R. Copeland


THE LOST CITY OF Z

Charlie Hunnam   Sienna Miller   Tom Holland   Robert Pattinson   Angus Macfadyen


       A gripping tale about one man’s obsession to make his mark on the world by locating the remains of a city that may have existed in the Amazon Jungle of Bolivia from 200 A.D. to the 1600’s.  Percy Fawcett (Hunnam), a middle-class British man in the early part of the century, is trying to be recognized for his military service, but now, the Royal Geographical Society has contacted him. He had distinguished himself in college with his mapping skills, and the Society wants him to use these skills in the Amazon, where Bolivia and Brazil are quarrelling about their boundaries, by mapping the river that courses between their two countries.  This would be an objective way to settle the dispute and avoid war.
     Fawcett is an earnest young man determined to over-ride his father’s disreputable reputation.  The complication is that he is married and has a young son, Jack.  But his wife Nina (Miller) shares his ambition and is as caught up in the quest for adventure and fame as he is.  So she gives her blessing and even does research in the library to help his cause.
Fawcett will make more than one journey into the Amazon Jungle, have both peaceful and life-threatening encounters with the natives, deal with unpredictable members of his parties, have to put off his wife who wants to accompany him on one expedition, and deal with the criticism of his teenage son.  He is away from home when his last two children are born.  Still, even after serving in WWI, he burns to dream his dream and “to seek the unknown” and find proof of a civilization that existed centuries earlier.
     The story, based on a book by David Grann, which drew upon true events, compels your attention through a relatively long film.  It switches rapidly back and forth between Great Britain, the Amazon, and the war theater—necessary, but sometimes abrupt because of the ground it has to cover.  In the process, the viewer is engaged with the dream of discovery of the unknown, the personal make-up of Fawcett, his attachment to his family, his wife’s heroism and faith in him, the politics involved in scientific expeditions, the mysteriousness of native cultures, and, ultimately, the outcome.
     Director James Gray has taken David Grann’s celebrated book about The Lost City of Z, and produced an intelligent, fascinating account of Percy Fawcett’s adventures.  His work is brilliantly enhanced by the cinematography of Darius Khondji, a master of light and shadow, photographic effects, and storytelling with the camera.  Charlie Hunnam is exactly right for the Percy Fawcett character, and I sing praises for Sienna Miller and her depiction of a woman of strength and purpose who could still be a model for women today.  The performances of Tom Holland, Robert Pattinson, and Angus Macfadyen provide lively support.
     The Lost City of Z is an opportunity to broaden your horizons, appreciate the scientific endeavors of committed explorers, and indulge yourself in exotic cultural experiences.  It says much about commitment and the exhortation to dream.

You may be able to find yourself in The Lost City of Z, and if you do, you’ll be the better for it.

Grade:  A                                    By Donna R. Copeland