Thursday, October 17, 2019


Suraj Sharma     Schweta Tripathi     Iqbal Theba     Jay Ali     Hannah Masi

     Immigration and legal status of immigrants is a sensitive issue in the U.S. nowadays, and this film illustrates the extraordinary trials such people may have to go through in the application process—and even then it’s not a certainty; multiple snags can occur and the whole plan may fall through anywhere along the way.  
     This is a story from a young Indian’s point of view.  Filmmaking has always been what gives Hassan’s life meaning. When he finally gets accepted at an American university in film, he manages to get loans, and arrives full of hope with the expectation of staying with his uncle’s family.  On his first night in their home, however, he overhears a conversation that informs him of the uncle’s duplicity; the family doesn’t really have room for him.  
     Hassan (Sharma) is never one to impose in any way, so he sets out the next morning to make other arrangements, and at the end of an exhausting day, slumps down on a street bench with all his luggage, fighting disillusionment.  An astute, empathic waiter at an Indian restaurant sees him there and immediately surmises the story.  Having been in a similar predicament years earlier, Babaji (Theba) invites him in, gives him a meal, and serves as a constant, benevolent father figure from then on.  (The kindness of strangers!)
     But Babaji has his own burdens, and Hassan will have to figure out and solve any number of practical problems that will arise.  He’s a quick learner, hard working, and honest, but through no fault of his own (except maybe a little), difficulties crop up like weeds in a garden.  On the first day of classes, he is told to divest himself of a job, a girlfriend, anything that will stand in the way of the 24-7 that a degree in film will require.  Of course, he has to have a job in order to survive, and he will eventually meet a woman (Masi) who seems like someone of his dreams.  These are only some of the obstacles that Hassan will have to overcome, either by solving or compromising, along with stresses occurring at home that he can do nothing about.
     Director Danish Renzu and his co-writers (Tara Tucker, et al.) present an eloquent picture of the practical and emotional demands made upon someone like Hassan. It’s entertaining, moving, suspenseful, and with characters viewers will come to care for and appreciate. Eric Neveux’s music enhances the story in all its wanderings and variable situations.
     Suraj Sharma who plays Hassan made a big splash (pun intended) in his debut as Pi in Ang Lee’s Life of Pi (2012).  It’s well known by now that he got the part among 6,000 auditioning, and only because his brother talked him into accompanying him to the try-outs; he went simply on a lark.    Since then Sharma has been seen in a number of movies and television series, including “Homeland” and “God Friended Me.”  He’s a fine actor, who has a chance to show his range in Illegal, from na├»vete to moral outrage, to young love, and all of the personableness in between.  
     A resounding statement in the film suggests its essence:  “Hope deferred makes the heart sick.  It can even kill a man.”  We see the roller coaster ride Hassan takes, admire his fortitude, and realize the film has a hard lesson—not only for those with the hope of immigration to the U.S.—but just as much for those of us already here, living our comfortable lives.

An entertaining and heartfelt story about someone wanting to find the American dream, and the reality of his search.

Grade:  A                                    By Donna R. Copeland


Angelina Jolie     Elle Fanning     Michelle Pfeiffer     Harris Dickinson    Chiwetel Ejiofor
Lesley Manville     Imelda Staunton     Juno Temple     Sam Riley

     Fairy tale land—one never knows what to expect as to what will come up.  In this version following on the previous Maleficent (2014) (both starring by Angelina Jolie in the title role), her goddaughter Aurora (Fanning) is grown up and falling in love with Prince Philip (Dickinson).  As expected, he has fallen in love with the son of the King and Queen of Ulstead, a human tribe with a history of conflict with the Moors, Maleficent’s land of the fairies.  An awkward dinner takes place initiated by Philip’s mother, Queen Ingrith.
     Maleficent is reluctant to go, but for the sake of Aurora, she agrees, and they all come together; but tensions abound, as happens when two very different cultures eat together.  Major conflicts ensue, with misunderstandings and subterfuge aplenty, and suddenly Maleficent disappears.  Where she goes propels the story forward and gives us insight into her origins and an explanation for what is to appear in the rest of the film.
     As before, Jolie embodies her character in all its dimensions and power, and Fanning provides balance in her tenderness and rationality.  Although she is a good actress, Michelle Pfeiffer as Queen Ingrith seems miscast in that she simply doesn’t come across strongly enough with the qualities called for by her character.  I can’t say any more so as not to spoil the plot.  Harris Dickinson as Prince Philip didn’t wow me as someone heroic, but I assume that is a function of the script, and the same goes for Robert Lindsay as King John.  Ed Skrein as Borra (one of Maleficent’s newly discovered tribe) is the only male who is a counterpart to Jolie’s and Pfeiffer’s female characters in strength.
     To me, the problems arising during this tale are related primarily to the unsuccessful attempt to insert actions that are clearly contemporary into a fairy tale. One example is Aurora coaching her mother on social manners.  Now, sophisticated Maleficent has been around the whole world and is familiar with such things as social graces, so having it seem as if she is being coached on what to do at a dinner party seems laughable.  I had the same impression when Aurora’s simple “woodsy” dress at one point is magically changed by Maleficent to one that looks like a contemporary Neiman Marcus creation.  Just as in the earlier film, the viewer is yanked back and forth between the fairy world and our reality-based one.
     As before in the 2014 version, the opening scenes in this sequel are so dark it’s impossible to know what is going on.  There is a battle, but who is who cannot be distinguished.  I still don’t know who the warring parties are.
     Finally, there is a disconnect between the ending of the earlier film and the beginning of this one in which Maleficent seems to have reverted to her previous maliciousness.  No explanation is given for this, or perhaps the viewers are just being led down a garden path. (More jerking around.)
     This second Maleficent doesn’t measure up to the first one, which is too bad, since there was an opportunity here to tell a story like a fairy tale that speaks to contemporary concerns (e.g., war vs. peace). But the way war and peace are dealt with here is no different from…how many movies and actual events?
     In the end, it’s not clear whom this film was made for other than the pockets of those invested in it monetarily.  Much of the story as presented will go over the heads of most children; and it is likely to be simplistic (meaningless?) to many adults.

If you love a good fairy tale, stay away from this one.

Grade:  D                                    By Donna R. Copeland


Antonio Banderas     Asier Etxeandia     Leonardo Sharaglia     Nora Navas     Penelope Cruz     Asier Flores

     Pedro Almodovar’s account of his early years and a low period in middle age when he was suffering with a host of bodily complaints, depression, and anxiety is a soul-baring, intimate look at his life.  Interestingly, he sets aside the years when he was becoming and had achieved fame as a world-renowned filmmaker, although the main character, Salvador Mallo, is portrayed as just such a person.  But except for giving us brief pictures of Salvador’s childhood, this story focuses on an aging man in the midst of an existential crisis marked by physical ailments and ennui.
     I love the way the movie opens with the young Salvador (played by the enchanting Asier Flores) and a group of boys being asked by the choir director at church to demonstrate their potential for singing.  His pitch is perfect, demonstrating promise, at least in singing.  But the child goes on from there in mastering his studies and earning a scholarship at seminary. (Make no mistake, though; he definitely does not want to become a priest!)
     The film jumps back and forth between Salvador’s young life [poor, encouraged by his mother (Penelope Cruz, who always livens up the scenes she’s in] and much later on when he is at his lowest point, being supported primarily by his good friend Mercedes (Navas), who manages to get him to medical treatment.   It’s the most depressing part of the film because not only is Salvador suffering from a paralyzing depression, but he’s gotten into heroin to ease his pain.  He has re-connected with an actor (Etxeandia) in one of his films whom he alienated at one point, and with his old lover Federico (Sharaglia) who appears by sheer chance.
     All this is suspenseful as to how it will turn out in terms of Salvador working through his significant difficulties.  
     The talented Antonio Banderas is a long-time friend and collaborator of Almodovar, so his portrayal of the Salvador character is hand-in-glove.  Some of the most refreshing scenes in the film are those in which Salvador as a child is shown to be so very bright, enthusiastic, and caring toward everyone he meets, he wins our hearts and stokes our belief that everything is going to be all right in the end.  
     These and other scenes of Salvador with his dying mother and his reunification with Federico are some of the most intimate and revealing moments in the film, showing Almodovar’s admirable understanding of human relationships and how and why they are so important.

A heartfelt, soul-baring account of significant periods in the life of a world-renowned filmmaker.

Grade:  A-                                    By Donna R. Copeland

Tuesday, October 15, 2019


Yuan Shen     Thomas Gaynor     Alcee Chriss III     Nick Cappozoli     Sebastian Heindl

   Competitions are generally fun to watch, and Stacey Tenenbaum (writer/director/producer) of Pipe Dreams has created a finely constructed and balanced production of the 2017 Canadian International Oregon Competition in Montreal, Canada, where the first place prize is $100,000.  Featured competitors comprise a diverse group, one from China, one from New Zealand, one from Germany, and two from the U.S.  Tenenbaum shows us vignettes of the personal lives and histories of these competitors, their attitudes toward organ music and their programs specifically, and their general preparations for the competition. After acquainting us with the group, their experiences before the contest are shown four months, two months, and then two weeks before the event, as well as during the first, second, and final rounds.
     Yuan Shen has a lot to prove even from birth, when her father hoped for a boy and got a girl instead.  Moreover, he is an accomplished organist who has been her teacher most of her life, and maintains an encouraging presence for her, even now. Performing Tai Chi together helps sustain a close relationship.
     Alcee Chriss is an African-American Texan who grew up in modest circumstances with gospel music and jazz.  He and his brother target practice with guns for diversion.  He lost his mother when he was in high school, and gets inspiration from remembering her during his practices.  He tends to get very nervous before competitions, so listens to guided relaxation scripts to calm himself down.
     Sebastian Heindl, the youngest of the competitors at 19, is from Germany, even the city of Bach, whose music is a major part of the CIOC.  He was regarded as a child prodigy and has grown up with Bach, often singing along as he is practices the organ. 
     Nick Cappozoli is highly controlled, according to his teacher, who encourages him toward introducing “ecstasy” and more “craziness” into his playing.  He is from Pittsburgh and enjoys playing miniature golf with his family.
     Thomas Gaynor, from New Zealand, travels around the world, sometimes for contests, where he has lost twice to Alcee, a particular competitor.  He has loved the organ as a child, being particularly fascinated with its mechanics.  
     By the time of the contest and learning that eight of twenty competitors will be eliminated in the first round; six of twelve will be eliminated in the 2ndround, and who the winner will be after the finals, the viewer has become invested in seeing who will come out on top and in hearing their individual reactions to the outcome.
     Pipe Dreams offers the opportunity to observe competitors in a contest that has a different flavor from our much more prominent athletic events and music award ceremonies.  Tenenbaum has done a fine job in showing the personal struggles and aspirations of a group of very interesting and admirable young people trying to do their best in a public display of their primarily solitary practiced talents. Clearly, the joy of what they do sustains them.
     Perhaps the only addition I would make to the film would be for a post-session in which knowledgeable people would help us understand the factors that were at work in the jurors’ decisions.  Were they primarily focused on technical expertise, choice of program, or some other considerations?  Obviously, to someone who was impressed with all the players, I’m curious about how the decisions were made—if it’s even possible to get those involved to discuss it.

Pipe Dreams is for the music lover who wants to get caught up in a refined contest of organists. 

Grade:  A                                                By Donna R. Copeland

PIPE DREAMS was previewed for Austin Film Festival (Oct. 24-31).  It will be showing:

Thursday October 24, 2019 7:15pm - 8:33pm
St. David's Episcopal Church, Bethell Hall 301 E 8th St, Austin, TX 78701, USA

Wednesday October 30, 2019 5:45pm - 7:03pm
Rollins Theatre 701 W Riverside Dr, Austin, TX 78704

Visit for more information or call 1-800-310-FEST

Thursday, October 10, 2019


Will Smith     Mary Elizabeth Winstead     Clive Owen     Benedict Wong     Ralph Brown     Douglas Hodge

     This is not your typical father-son drama, but that is one of the themes applicable to three characters in the film.  Clay Verris (Owen) dedicates himself to serving as a father figure for young men in training, seeing himself as a “loving, dedicated, present” father—words that will be thrown back at him at a later time.  Henry Brogan (Smith) is one he took under his wing, making him the top, universally acclaimed assassin in the world.  After Brogan became employed by the U.S. Government, Verris started his own company, Gemini, which specialized in DNA research and cloning. From the trailer, you know that he has made a clone of Brogan’s DNA, which Verris raises as his own son, calling him Junior (also Smith).
     At a certain point, Brogan has had enough and is ready to retire; after 72 killings, he’s feeling a “hurt” deep in his soul.  Just as he starts launching his boat to go fishing, though, strange things start happening, and he will gradually learn that he is being played by more than one party.  First of all, he spots a government agent working at the boat dock disguised as a kind of clerk, but he blows Danny’s (Winstead) cover in nothing flat, and because he appeals to her, they become partners in solving the mystery of what is going on behind the scenes and who it is who suddenly turns up, trying to kill him.
     The story has intrigue in being set and filmed in exotic places like Cartagena in Colombia, Budapest in Hungary, and even the southern state of Georgia, and it has thrills (a daredevil motorcycle chase in one of the cities, as well as extended physical fights with impossible maneuvers where the fighters get up repeatedly after looking like they’ve been killed), all of which resembles most action films.  It is appealing to see the warm and genuine Danny fight with the same ferocity as the men.
     Most of the drama consists of Brogan and his clone struggling with one another, one to kill, one to survive, and this is mostly entertaining (except for each encounter being extended for too long a time), but the real “meat” of the story is whether and how they will work through the curious position each is in, one being a clone of the other.  
     Complex relationships between characters has been Director Ang Lee’s forte (Brokeback MountainLife of PiCrouching Tiger, Hidden DragonThe Ice Storm), and I presume it was meant to be similar in Brogan and Junior’s relationship here.  It certainly seems like fodder for a rich characterization of the most complex relationship of all.  But with the director’s and writers’ focus on action rather than psychology, Gemini Man looks and feels a lot more like the generic action film than a psychological exploration of a futuristic relationship, which was not neglected, but was only minimally explored.

Gemini Man has an intriguing aspect, but this takes second place to the typical action movie thrills.

Grade:  C-                                    by Donna R. Copeland

Thursday, October 3, 2019


Eddie Murphy     Kodi Smit-McPhee    Wesley Snipes    Keegan-Michael Key
De’vine Joy Randolph     Chris Rock     Craig Robinson     Snoop Dogg     Mike Epps

     Here’s a way for black people to get into their groove and for those of us unfamiliar with Rudy Ray Moore (aka “Dolemite”), the “Godfather of Rap”, to jive a little with him and his cohorts when he is just getting started in show business in the 1970’s.  In the beginning of this story, he’s trying to make it as a comedian in L.A. when he has an inkling that there are black audiences who are not being served in the entertainment industry.  He finds in his stand-up routines that black people can appreciate a certain kind of humor, so he cagily puts out three bawdy records that sell well—much to others’ surprise, and even to his own.  
     It turns out that what was regarded by most of America at that time as profane—even porn--black people found in it a particular kind of humor (as in “Yo daddy’s a freak, and yo mama’s a whore”—the beginnings of the rap genre).  This encourages Rudy—who has stellar aspirations to add singing, acting, and film producing to his resume.  He is determined to satisfy the appetites of his people without regard to conventions (primarily white people’s), running up against not only white “shirts”, but (middle/upper class?) blacks in the arts and in production, who have been going in the direction of “refinement” as they envision it.  Rudy crashes right through all of that, while bringing many of those people on board with him.
     Rudy Ray Moore (expertly rendered by Murphy) is a fascinating individual with the unusual ability to sell his visions (and he is a master salesman) to producers who will back him so that he can give full vent to his creativity, first and foremost in comedy with music (what would eventually become rap), but as well in business (managing to get funding, construct a studio, act in and produce a movie).  How Rudy got started in show business is remarkable.  After serving in the Armed Forces, he was working in a record store, trying to get the DJ (Snoop Dogg) to play some of the records he’d made, which were based on a homeless man’s lewd limericks.
     We get to go along with Rudy on a major part of the making of his first movie, Dolemite, its significance being that it’s the first of what came to be known as Blaxploitation films. The filming of it has hilarious scenes where ineptness is clearly visible, but in Rudy’s hands becomes a delightful farce, helped along by Wesley Snipes (stunning!) as director D’Urville, Keegan-Michael Key (socompetent) as writer, Kodi Smit-McPhee (respectful, how-old-is-he? cinematographer), and Lady Reed (Randolph), Rudy’s creation of a saucy character from a self-deprecating, disillusioned woman. 
     Rudy is a complicated character in whom people have little faith; but in actually possessing talents in salesmanship, sensibility about black folk, and astute judge of character, he was able to pull it off, not only by proving his worth to the powers that be, but also recognizing traits in others that could be encouraged and brought out to serve his purposes.  A prime example is Lady Reed (Randolph) whom he decides after talking to her in a bar that she could be a funny sidekick in his comedy routine.  Writer Jerry Jones (Key) helps in coaching Rudy in script writing.  Rudy plucks his reluctant, snobbish director D’Urville Martin (hilariously played by Snipes) out of a strip club.  He accepts a new graduate (Smit-McPhee) from film school to be his cinematographer.  His old friends Ben Taylor (Robinson), Jimmy Lynch (Epps), and Daddy Fatts (Rock) are his reliable stand-bys.  
     In Dolemite is My Name, Eddie Murphy and Director Craig Brewer revive this character with apparently similar sensibilities about the world today as Rudy had about his people at the time.  It may seem a bit slow to viewers in the beginning, but that is partly because it takes a while to get oriented in another world—at least for many of us.  This was certainly true for me, as I had not seen previews and knew nothing about Rudy Ray Moore.  But after a time it became fascinating and truly funny.  

An entertaining account of the beginnings of rap popularized by a remarkable figure in showbiz.

Grade:  A-                                                            By Donna R. Copeland

Wednesday, October 2, 2019


     A good documentary places events in context, and demonstrates how they are relevant today.  Director Matt Tyrnaur has done just that in Where’s My Roy Cohn? as he did in a previous documentary, Citizen Jane:  Battle for the City.  In both productions, he effectively uses interviews and film clips to give the viewer an inside look at his subject and his/her essence and passions. The earlier film shows the power and effectiveness of a citizen taking on a respected figure (Robert Moses) whose plans for the infrastructure of New York City disregarded the importance of neighborhoods and the people within them.  This film shows the influence of a man whose primary purpose in life is to exert control over others, one who wishes to be a “puppeteer”, as some said of him.
     Tyrnaur’s vignettes about Roy Cohn’s early life clearly mark the path he was to take as an adult.  Born of Jewish parents with connections in New York, he was adored/worshipped by his mother, who had aspirations for him to become important. In this, we see the first inklings of the split between image and reality.  From childhood, he was the center of her attention, while his father was a judge and influential in Democratic Party politics at the time. He was extremely intelligent and facile in using it to his advantage.  Agendas seem to have been set when his mother—who was not very attractive—was betrothed to his father in exchange for a judgeship. In this, we see the seeds of the darker side of his personality:  The use of tactical ways in getting others to bend to his will and the absence of limits as to what he would do to win.
     His “fame” began as Senator Joseph McCarthy’s chief aide, when he was known as a bully for getting information in any way he could, to the point where an Army General asks him, “Have you no decency?”  From there, the absence of moral principles and ethics becomes even more apparent as he takes on corrupt clients from the underworld, woos the rich and powerful into his web, makes friends with certain members of the press, and advocates for Republican Presidents (Nixon, Reagan, Trump).  Donald Trump was an easy mark for him to take on and instruct on defending himself:  “Never apologize”  “Never admit you’re wrong.”  
     In the end, this is a fascinating account of the making of a sociopath—e.g., superficial charm, above-average intelligence, rational, lack of remorse/shame, antisocial behavior—who was able to “develop” into someone who could deny his own sexuality and condemn others for it, let alone take pleasure in condemning the innocent.  “I hate hypocrisy” is a statement he makes early on that gives a lie to his whole life.
     There are little details in this film that epitomize who Roy Cohn was, such as a boat named “Defiant”, and his penchant for wrapping himself in the U.S. flag and declaring, “God bless America” illustrating the degree of his hypocrisy. 

An illuminating picture of a true sociopath with difficulties in distinguishing between image and reality.

Grade:  A                                    By Donna R. Copeland