Thursday, January 29, 2015


Kevin Costner     Octavia Spencer     Bill Burr     Anthony Mackie     Jillian Estell
Black or WhiteBlack or White attempts to explore race relations in a fairly light drama with comedic elements, but it still gets into serious issues.  Among the serious subjects are white and black stereotypes, parenting, drug and alcohol abuse, and a taste of what happens when the legal profession gets involved in conflicts.  Comedic elements are shown when two cultures collide (e.g., when the demonstrative black family wants to repeatedly hug the rather stiff white lawyer) and when the child Eloise (Estell) is on the scene.  Her loving charm and bossiness with her lawyer grandpa always brings smiles. 
            Mike Binder, the writer/director has put together a reasonably good effort to talk about sensitive issues, breaking it up from time to time with a bit of laughter, but still showing how conflicts between people who are black and white can arise through misunderstandings, over-reaction, and lack of awareness about one’s underlying needs and motives.  When Kevin Costner first read Binder’s script, he said, “It spoke to me.”  And I think many audiences will experience the same reaction.
            The story has to do with a sensitive subject right off the bat; Elliot (Costner) loses his wife suddenly, and is left to care for their granddaughter Eloise who has lived with them all her life.  After the grandmother’s death, the child’s other grandmother, Rowena (Spencer)—who had worked out an amicable arrangement with Elliot’s wife—tries to get custody on the assumption that her son’s child—whom he has never seen—will be a reason for him to get his life in order.  Not only that, she has a large extended family who could provide the child with a lot of love and companionship.  She sees only the “blackness” in the child and thinks Eloise would be better off with “her own people”; whereas, of course, Elliot—despite being overwhelmed by suddenly having to take on the role of mother—thinks she should stay in the only home she has known.  The case goes to court, and we are treated both to the hearing and to the back-stories that are going on behind the scene.
            Spencer is a wonderful star who is a formidable presence in every scene she is in.  She plays “Big Mama” to the host of family members who live with her (under her largesse) in two different houses.  (She’s a real estate agent and has six businesses to run.)  Costner is strong in what may be a comeback role for him, but unfortunately, his character’s serious drinking is so repellant, it’s hard for the audience to engage with him.  The climax of the court case ends with an admirable monologue, giving him extra time, in a sense; whereas the Spencer character does not get that chance, so the film is likely to be criticized on that point (i.e., favoring the white point of view).
            But taken as a whole, I think the tensions between the races and the serious-comedic sides of the story are balanced enough for the audience to be edified as well as entertained.

Let’s have some gray.

Grade:  B                        By Donna R. Copeland


Wednesday, January 28, 2015


Timothy Spall     Paul Jesson     Marion Bailey     Lesley Manville

Mr. Turner 

              Mr. Turner (Spall) in the film, Mr. Turner, does not fit our usual images of a world-famous painter, yet I get the impression that this film has captured the essence of the actual man.  He is gruff, brusque, and a bit cantankerous, especially in his old age, yet if we listen closely we see that he is a man of principle with a heart.  At first blush, he doesn’t seem like someone who will forgive a debt after he hears about the circumstances, manage ridicule, really care about anyone or anything outside his art; but across the course of the story, we see exactly those attributes.
            Mr. Spall has consistently received justified accolades for his performance, but I think just as much credit is due Mike Leigh (writer/director) and the cinematographer (Jon Gregory) for reflecting in their visuals the essence of the painter.  Each frame is composed like a Turner painting—whether seaside or inside—with crisp colors, complex textures, action and repose. 
            We first see Turner when he lives with his father (Jesson) and a devoted housekeeper after he is becoming well known.  Our eyebrows may rise when we see how father and son relate to one another, but after we hear their personal history, it doesn’t seem strange at all.  In fact, I think it shows Turner’s real character with values for life, home, and family.  After his father dies, Turner goes into a slump, but finds someone he can cherish in the landlady in his old hometown of Margate, Mrs. Booth (Bailey).  They form a lasting bond that encompasses the self-misgivings of each.
            It’s a treat to learn more about an artist who is—for most of us—only dimly recognized, and to develop an appreciation for what many value in his paintings.  Leigh does an excellent job in helping us “be Turner” as he experiences the hurdles of life. 
            I think this film is not meant for everyone, but for those with an appreciation of art and what it means to be an artist; that is, one who is not typically someone whom everyone loves and admires, and is on the party-publicity circuit.  Rather, the artist is one who is likely to be introspective, jealously guard private time, and have a particular taste in personal relationships and lifestyles.  Turner is considered one of the foremost artists in Britain, and his art is considered to be a forerunner of the Impressionist Age.

For those with an artistic bent.

Grade:  A            By Donna R. Copeland



Jude Law     Ben Mendelsohn     Scoot McNairy     Tobias Menzies     Bobby Schofield     

Black Sea 
             Black Sea is a thriller that shows the heights of human heroism and the depths of human greed and evil schemes.  There is a plot twist in the middle that will take your breath away.  Basically, the film is about a group of men let go from their jobs who get wind of a treasure at sea, so are willing to man a submarine and go in search of it.
            Robinson (Law) is named the captain because of his experience and skill on submarines, and he recruits his buddies to join him.  When something happens to one before they even set out, Robinson recruits the 18 year-old Tobin (Schofield) who brought him the news.  Because the sunken boat is Russian-made, they need a few Russians to go with them.  And finally, they have an unwilling participant, Daniels (McNairy), who was sent by the man who is financing the operation to look out for his interests.  One hopes for the best with this motley crew, especially since the submarine they’ll be traveling in looks old and decrepit. 
            They set off, but while they’re at sea a series of tragedies/comedies occur that put them all in danger.  First of all, they start arguing about the booty even before they’ve laid eyes on it.  Robinson has made it clear that they will all share equally in the spoils—after giving the financier 40%--and one would think that since none of them has much of anything and the treasure is millions of dollars in gold bricks, that they would be satisfied.  But no, human nature comes to the fore, and some feel strongly that they deserve more.  I anticipated that the class system like the one we saw in Snowpiercer might develop, but Robinson stands his ground on equality.  Nevertheless, they continue to argue about it, along with other petty and not so petty issues, and attempt to undermine the captain on the sly.  Not only does their contentiousness put the whole mission at risk, but they endanger themselves individually.
            Because their conflicts cause real damage to the boat at times, we never know whether they’re going to make it or not, or even whether they will reach the treasure, much less make it home.  Dennis Kelly has written a script that keeps you constantly guessing and on edge, and the cinematographer (Christopher Ross) employs the camera as another character slithering up and down through the boat and even bumping into things when there is a disturbance, in following the action and composing artistic shots of the actors and the sea.  Kevin Macdonald, the director of Touching the Void, knows how to pace an agonizing thriller as well as show sometimes very touching humanity (e.g., Marley) and complex personalities (The Last King of Scotland), all of which are apparent here.
            Jude Law shines as the star—as he usually does—and his character is one we can admire for his leadership, his sense of responsibility, and his shrewd deductions.  Law is very talented in many kinds of different roles, and he is entirely convincing in this one.  The supporting actors are all very good as well.
            There are implausible moments in Black Sea, but they are not serious enough to detract from the excitement and suspense.

They all live in a rusty submarine, but it’s an exciting ride.

Grade:  B            By Donna R. Copeland