Thursday, July 30, 2015


Tom Cruise     Rebecca Ferguson     Jeremy Renner     Simon Pegg    
Alec Baldwin     Ving Rhames     Sean Harris     Simon McBurney

      With a complex plot and twists and turns, Mission Impossible:  Rogue Nation does indeed appear to be impossible time after time.  As usual in this series, there are suffocating moments when you wonder how on earth (or in the air) they’ll get out of a scrape, and clearly loyal friendships become paramount.  Intrigue is heightened by a central character who keeps you guessing as to where the loyalty lies. 
      In this feature, Ethan Hunt (Cruise) is part of the IMF, a U.S. secret service run by William Brandt (Renner) that is currently being threatened by CIA head Hunley (Baldwin), who believes the Syndicate IMF has been after is a figment of their imagination, particularly Hunt’s.  But because IMF is committed, they go rogue, and Hunt is aided by his old pals William Brandt (Renner), Benji Dunn (Pegg) and Luther Stickell (Rhames). 
      By the way, the movie is filled with humorous puns and references to other Missions, and in this feature, the IMF is not the only entity going rogue.  The frequent jokes and asides make the viewing fun, and offset the repeated high-wire acts (e.g., in an opera house during a performance of Puccini’s Turandot) and near escapes from fights, chases, and under-water challenges. 
      I think writer (with Drew Pearce) and director Christopher McQuarrie have successfully extended the franchise one more time, with intellectual complexity, political maneuverings, and derring-do.  The camera work of a master, Robert Elswit, increases the quality.
      Tom Cruise does his usual fine job in portraying an almost superhuman character whose hunches are infallible.  Adding an appealing, more naïve but still smart sidekick like Pegg adds another entertaining dimension.  A stunning addition is Ferguson’s Ilsa, a beautiful, intelligent, and forceful counterpart to Hunt, where there is chemistry mixed with refreshing ambiguity. 
      It’s impressive that this fifth version of the Mission Impossible series remains fresh and captivating after so many years.  McQuarrie has achieved just the right balance in all its entertaining components.

Fans of the Mission Impossible series are not likely to be disappointed.

Grade:  A-                        By Donna R. Copeland

Monday, July 27, 2015


Ed Helms     Christina Applegate     Chris Hemsworth     Leslie Mann     Chevy Chase

Vacation did not seem like a vacation to me at all.  The writers/directors John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein must have used some kind of formula in which each joke or episode has to be done at least twice and every so many minutes there will be a joke about sex, bodily functions, or physical or verbal bumbling.  At least partly, the formula is based on numerous versions of the original National Lampoon’s Vacation (1983), which makes it outdated, but even so, additional sequels are planned.  Clearly, many people enjoy this kind of humor, but to do each joke and incident twice and not come up with anything close to creative makes me tired.
           Rusty (Helms) is a pilot for a small airline, and the story begins with his older co-pilot thanking him for sticking up for him in keeping his job.  Of course, the old man immediately begins showing he is too old by repeating himself three times (funny the first time, but overkill for the second and third) and doing such a bad job piloting when Rusty is away from the cockpit, the plane starts bouncing around throwing Rusty right into the boobs of an attractive passenger (this happens at least three times).  And this is only in the first five minutes of the film.
           Briefly, Rusty overhears that his wife is tired of going to the same place for vacation year after year, so he plans a trip to a theme park (Walley World) dear to his heart without consulting his family.  He rents a foreign car, which he doesn’t know how to operate, and which sets the scene for repeated jokes of the car being out of control and Rusty’s repeated bumbling in trying to operate it.  Of course, they have horrendous accidents, but they all come out unscathed.  Ah, how funny.  They’re going on a 2,000 plus mile journey, so there will be plenty of time for shenanigans, usually with Rusty being the butt of the jokes because of his ineptness.
           Aside from simply not being funny, Vacation is obnoxious in giving a high five to a young kid mouthing off, swearing, and being cruel; glorifying/making light of over-drinking; and solving problems by physical violence.  The adolescent son who has some appreciation for cultural and educational aspirations and nonviolence is poked fun at; whereas his cheeky younger brother is held up as a model.  When his older brother finally takes him down, this is presented as heroic because he did it by (mildly) beating him up. 
There is one scene in Vacation that I did find truly funny, despite its slapstick tinges.  I won’t give anything away, but it takes place at Four Corners, where four states meet and involves officers from each state quarreling, each trying to maintain his/her control of territory. 

Save your money; just rent the original National Lampoon’s Vacation, and you will have seen a better version of this.  Go only if bodily functions, stupidity, and sex make you roll over with laughter.

Grade:  F                                           By Donna R. Copeland

Thursday, July 23, 2015


 Joaquin Phoenix     Emma Stone     Parker Posey

Abe (Phoenix) is a very good but disconsolate philosophy professor who teaches summer classes at a university lecturing on rational arguments about different approaches to understanding life.  It’s a bit surprising then when he comes up with an irrational plan for solving a problem that is not even his own.  Nevertheless, this plan gives meaning to his life, and he immediately becomes purposeful and even ebullient; hence, the title of the film, Irrational Man.
           Right from the start, it’s troubling to see Abe continually drinking booze from a flask in his pocket.  He is known as a controversial figure from his published works and his lectures.  When he is aggressively pursued by colleague Rita (Posey), he easily gives in, although depression keeps him from performing up to his ideal.  He holds off on another crush from a student, Jill (Stone), as long as he can, insisting simply on friendship; but she is also persistent, and he succumbs to her as well.  One day, she gets caught up in a conversation going on in the restaurant booth next to them, and has him come closer so he can hear.  From this brief snippet of information, Abe comes up with his plan.
           Writer/director Woody Allen often comes up with moral dilemmas (e.g., Crimes and Misdemeanors, Magic in the Moonlight, Match Point), as a way of telling a story; this one, like some of his others, having to do with murder.  He is careful to set the stage so that the act has a certain degree of justice and righteousness to it.  Allen’s interest also seems to be in illustrating the self-righteousness of academics and women’s naiveté, and sometimes lack of a moral compass. 
           Phoenix captures the moody philosopher’s role, and easily transitions to the man who has come up with an answer that satisfies his need to help someone in trouble and vent his anger toward the system.  Stone is just as good at playing a bright young woman who is able to challenge an older intellectual by asking probing questions and having a mind of her own.  Posey carries off a devil-may-care attitude in going after what she thinks will save her from life in a rut.
           Irrational Man is light fare, but becomes interesting in its twists and suspense during the last half of the feature.

An irrational plan to relieve an existential crisis.

Grade:  B                         By Donna R. Copeland


Billy Crudup     Ezra Miller     Tye Sheridan     Thomas Mann     Michael Angarano     Olivia Thirlby

The Stanford Prison Experiment is a docudrama about a well publicized research project conducted at Stanford University by psychologist Philip Zimbardo attempting to show that the environment in prison shapes guards’ and prisoners’ behavior more than their dispositions or past experiences.  The film, directed by Kyle Patrick Alvarez with script written by Tim Talbott, is based on Zimbardo’s 2007 book, The Lucifer Effect.  Zimbardo saw this research as a follow-up to a study in the previous decade by another psychologist, Stanley Milgram, who showed that subjects would comply with an authority figure even to the point of increasing shocks to other subjects to lethal levels when instructed to do so by the research observer.  (The person pressing the button was unaware he/she was not actually delivering a shock.)  The point in both studies was that authority figures and the institutional environment wield a considerable degree of influence over an individual’s behavior. 
           Undergraduate students at Stanford were recruited for a psychological study of the effects of the prison environment on prisoners and guards and paid $15 a day for their participation.  They were only superficially screened for psychological problems, criminal background, or medical problems.  Nine students and one alternate were randomly assigned to be guards, and the same number for the prisoners. 
         To test his hypothesis of inherent characteristics of the participants determining behavior, Zimbardo instructed the guards to foster disorientation, depersonalization, and loss of identity.  This was done by having them arrested in their homes, strip searched, put in dresses and stocking caps, given numbers for their names, and chains put around one of their ankles—all done in order to make the prisoners feel powerless.  To reinforce this, guards were put in standard khaki garb, given mirrored sunglasses to avoid eye contact with the prisoners and wooden batons.  They were instructed not to hit or harm the prisoners in any way.
            The experiment was conducted in a building on campus, with offices converted into cells and using the hall for dining.   The prisoners were to stay in their cells day and night for the duration, except when they were eating, and then they couldn’t talk to one another. 
Early on, within a day or so, the guards—who were told they would be observed by research staff at all times—began using abusive tactics, including hitting and psychological torture.   Even when this was brought to Zimbardo’s attention, he frequently chose not to intervene or he would make promises to the prisoners that he had no intention of keeping.  Any act of rebellion on the part of the prisoners was met with harsh punishment, such as taking away their beds and giving them a bucket for toileting but not allowing it to be emptied. 
            In a short amount of time, some of the prisoners started to fall apart, and ask to leave the study.  It was determined later that not only had 1/3 of the guards resorted to sadistic behaviors, Zimbardo acknowledged that even he had lost his objectivity.  When an observer who came on the scene toward the end of the first week, deemed the experiment as unethical, Zimbardo was convinced to end the research on the sixth of the planned 14 days. 
          In retrospect, Zimbardo concluded that his expectation that the study would prove that, under certain conditions, even good people might behave badly was met.  He subsequently testified as an expert witness in the court martial of one of the Abu Ghraib guards that the man’s behavior was a function of the system, as opposed to his being a “bad apple”, as the government claimed.
           Criticisms of the Zimbardo study include a small sample size, a biased selection of the participants (all white middle class young men), and my own thought that the research staff and guards acting as if the “prisoners” had actually committed and been convicted of crimes, invalidates the study.  Additionally, no personality measures were administered or background information of the participants was obtained.  Without this information, the conclusion that it was the environment that brought out sadistic behavior is weak.
           To me, this is a horrific film to watch; the cruelty and unjustified behavior on the part of the guards made me take a number of breaks during the screening (I watched it at home via a link).  This made me question why the film was made at all; it’s an example of what not to do when people have power over others.  There is a well-known, accepted principle in psychology that to improve people’s behavior it’s more effective to model good leadership than to show poor/bad/evil modeling. 
           Unfortunately, there is no explanation of the study results at the end of the film by Dr. Philip Zimbardo.  I doubt the general public will be able to come away with a clear understanding of the rationale of the work or Zimbardo’s interpretation of it.  This would have greatly enhanced the film, and provide give an illuminating picture of the Abu Graib phenomenon that would be helpful.  
          As far as the film, the actors do a fine job in depicting the characters in the study.  Billy Crudup is especially noteworthy as Zibardo.

Viewer beware.

Grade:  D                                    By Donna R. Copeland

Wednesday, July 22, 2015


Jake Gyllenhaal     Rachel McAdams     Forest Whitaker     50 Cent     Miguel Gomez

Redemption comes at last when a slow learner finally masters his destiny in Southpaw.  It’s a hard-won battle every step of the way.  Billy “The Great” Hope (Gyllenhaal) is boxing at the top of his game after he and his wife Maureen (McAdams) have crawled up from an orphanage, always sticking together.  Then tragedy strikes—helped along by hotheaded Billy—and he begins to lose everything that is meaningful to him.  At rock bottom, he looks to Tick Wills (Whitaker) a former trainer who owns a gym, but is rejected because he appears not to be willing to make changes.  When it looks like this will be his only chance, he agrees to start at the bottom and see if he can work his way up to the point where he regains custody of his daughter.
           This is a brutal film (rated R for its violence) with long, bloody boxing scenes and agonizing sequences, so not for the faint of heart or those with weak stomachs.  Gyllenhaal bulked himself up for the role, and adapted his ordinarily clear voice to curt mumbles and grumbles to fit the character.  Just as much a star, Whitaker delivers philosophical truths (“Stopping punches with your face is not defense”) quick, targeted comebacks, and behavioral conditions that will be essential to Billy Hope’s rehabilitation and ability to fight strategically.  McAdams is well cast as a loving wife who takes care of her husband as much as she can.  Young Oona Laurence as the Hopes’ daughter Leila deserves recognition for her portrayal of a grief-stricken child who faces overwhelming losses.
           Director Antoine Fuqua realizes writer Kurt Sutter’s script in well-paced, believable sequences, and he works closely with his colleague in other films, Mauro Fiore, to produce stunning camera work, alongside an inspiring musical score. The film is dedicated to its award winning musician and popular film composer James Horner (Titanic, Avatar, A Beautiful Mind), who was killed last month in a plane crash.
           The film is a bit slow to get started with its real drama beyond the fight sequences (and some of the fights occur before you get a chance to invest in the characters), and the struggles between the Hope couple are excruciating to sit through.  A good bit of it is watching the wife trying to rein in her drug-addled, fight-obsessed husband, often to no avail.  I think trimming some of these scenes would have made this a better film.  When it moves into showing the psychology of Billy Hope and his rehabilitation and relationship with his daughter, it becomes much more engaging.

Redemption for a slow learner.

Grade:  C+                          By Donna R. Copeland

Tuesday, July 14, 2015


Paul Rudd   Michael Douglas   Evangeline Lilly   Corey Stoll   Bobby Cannavale   Michael Pena

I was intrigued with much of the plot in Ant-Man, the atomic research and the technology of shrinking a human into a tiny creature.   That thousands of these ants could band together to perform amazing feats is both comical and satisfying from the standpoint of the power in numbers.  That they would need inside and outside control from humans fits nicely into the paradigm.  The point about the dangers of weapons being in the hands of unscrupulous or self-serving characters is painfully relevant to the real world of today.
           We see Scott Lang (Rudd), a mechanical engineer, being released from prison, and gradually hear his story about being a whistle-blower for noble reasons, his using some poor judgment, and his determination not to get involved in any kind of illegal activity again.  A bit of comedy is provided by his friends in crime who welcome him with open arms and already have jobs up their sleeves for him. 
          Scott’s life is complicated in that he is not allowed to see his young daughter until he gets a job and an apartment and starts paying child support.  But that is easier said than done when he has a criminal record.
           The other path of the story is about a wealthy inventor, Dr. Hank Pym (Douglas) and his grown daughter Hope (Lilly), from whom he is estranged.  Pym has a formula that he has withheld from everyone else because it is so powerful he thinks chaos would result if it were in the wrong hands.  It has to do with an adult putting on a suit and acquiring the ability to transform into a tiny ant that can easily slip into spaces and that, despite its size, has the power of the adult.  And moreover Pym has recruited various species of ants to follow the bidding of The Ant-Man.  His former protégée Cross (an apt name, played by Stoll) is infuriated because Pym won’t share the formula with him, and he has subsequently taken over his company by influencing Hope, the chairman of the board, to help him displace Pym.  But when Cross is about to work out the formula on his own and sell the technology to men whose motives are untrustworthy, Hope gets worried and consults with her father.
           Through Pym’s machinations, these two stories come together because he wants Scott to be the one to wear the suit.  Hope is not happy about this at all, because she has clamored to do that herself; but her father refuses because it might endanger her life.  A plan is ultimately worked out, and most of the film is about the struggle between the Cross and Pym camps—Pym trying to thwart Cross’s attempts to gain the technology and Cross desperately wanting to close the deal with the buyers.
           The Marvel/Disney produced film directed by Peyton Reed is visually beautiful (cinematographer Russell Carpenter) and the special effects a delight to see.  A sequence of Scott Lang going into sub-atomic levels is particularly impressive.  Paul Rudd (who had a hand in the script) is perfect for his role, and of course Michael Douglas brings gravitas to his.  The supporting cast of Evangeline Lilly, Corey Stoll, Bobby Cannavale, and Michael Pena help bring additional humor, romance, and excitement to the plot. 
           As with most action movies, I think having the male characters engage in fistfights over and over is just absurd.  In this one, even the scientists take ridiculous swipes at one another, and the filmmakers obviously take great satisfaction in wrecking property.  I’m curious about why these two action sequences give some people such a thrill.

Paul Rudd brings sensibility to an action movie.

Grade:  B                           By Donna R. Copeland

Saturday, July 11, 2015


One day, filmmaker Crystal Moselle was walking down First Avenue in Manhattan when a group of six longhaired boys ran past year.  Curious, she caught up with them and got them to talking about their lives.  That is when she learned that they were from a family of seven children of Oscar and Susane Angulo, and that it was only recently that they were allowed out of their apartment.  For years, Mr. Angulo had not allowed anyone in the family to go outside.  Mrs. Angula home-schooled the six boys and their younger sister, who was developmentally delayed.  In the film, Mukunda described what happened when he decided one day to go out on his own.  He put on black clothes and a mask so he couldn’t be identified, but someone became suspicious of his appearance and called the police.  (Unfounded fear is a theme of The Wolfpack.)  The police took him home, and I guess at that time learned about the father’s restrictions.
           Fortunately, Mr. Angulo loved movies, and the boys spent much of their time watching films from their library of about 5,000 titles.  In addition, they memorized lines, and filmed their own movies using their own scripts, costumes, props, the works.  It certainly attests to the therapeutic value of films (see, for example, Lisa Elin’s, about cinema therapy).   Further, and luckily in this case, films prepared the boys for their eventual entry into the real world.
           The parents and some of the brothers are on camera, giving their points of view about the situation.  Oscar and Susane said they met in Peru (I think he was a tour guide), where she was traveling from the Midwest.  She was so impressed with his values she fell in love and they married and went to New York.  Oscar said that was supposed to be temporary because he really wanted to live in Scandinavia, but they never got enough money to go, the years went by, and they remained in New York.  The film doesn’t give information about his employment, and one of the boys said that he didn’t work, so I don’t know how they managed financially.
            Gaps in information is the only criticism I have of the film; not only do we not learn how they survived financially, but except for Mukunda, we don’t know which boy is which, and five of them are frequently pictured (I often couldn’t figure out where the sixth one was—perhaps he is much younger).  What does come through loud and clear is everyone’s sunny, optimistic personality, which they all attribute to their mother.  And indeed, when she is interviewed she is very personable and forthcoming.  Much of what underlies Oscar’s reticence is his fear, expressed more often in reference to drugs and killing, but I also get the impression that he is preoccupied with control.  It’s amazing to me he was able to harness his whole family for such a long time, but it’s clear in listening to the boys that some of them have internalized some of his apprehensions.  The teenage years being what they are, it’s not surprising that Mukunda was 15 when he decided he was going to go out regardless.
           Moselle is to be congratulated for being successful in getting a family like the Angulos to confide in her on camera.  Of course, since they’re all film buffs, perhaps it felt like a perk for them to be able to enter the film world, so to speak, through her.  The time they met until the film was released was about five years, so Moselle was able to collect a great deal of information from interviews and family pictures.  It is a fascinating story about the resilience of children and the power of love and attention.

Thank goodness for the movies!

Grade:  B By Donna R. Copeland

Thursday, July 9, 2015


--> Ryan Reynolds   Matthew Goode   Ben Kingsley   Natalie Martinez   Michelle Dockery   Derek Luke   Victor Garber

Self/Less could have been so much more of a film if the creators had maintained the focus on humans’ search for immortality.  Their fantasy of science creating a way for a person to “shed” a diseased body and retain their mental capacity and experience certainly is intriguing.  Dr. Albright (Goode) casually observes that this is a win/lose proposition, but unfortunately for Damian/Eddie (Kingsley/Reynolds) this is only elaborated on after the operation is completed. 
           The loss part for this particular movie for me were the car chases/crashes and fierce gun battles, with unbelievable outcomes.  Sometimes filmmakers think they have to always cater to the young man’s taste and include heroics even when it is not necessary to make a film interesting.
           Leaving that aside, Damian is dying and someone gives him a mysterious card that says the name on it could be helpful to him.  He tries to connect with his estranged daughter Claire (Dockery), but when she rejects him and they get into an argument, he feels guilty and miserable.  Soon after, he collapses and is taken to the hospital, whereupon he decides to visit Dr. Albright.  Damian is a billionaire, so he can well afford the “treatment” offered by Dr. Albright—the transplant of a new body while leaving his mind intact.  Damian does not want to die so agrees to the procedure.
           Interesting to me is that post surgery, he has to be retrained in many kinds of physical actions—like walking—but in short order, he is fit as a fiddle—and only in his 30’s.  He is given a new name, identity, and papers and lives the good life with a new friend (Luke) he has met in New Orleans, where the procedure was performed and where he is put up in an apartment as arranged by Dr. Albright.  Then he begins to have hallucinations and other symptoms associated with the transplant, and is reminded that he absolutely cannot skip taking the pills prescribed by Dr. Albright.  Without the medication he will eventually lose his abilities and die.  But Dr. Albright has built in a handy little perk for himself:  The patient cannot contact him; Albright will periodically visit the patient and give him a small bottle of the medication, thereby keeping him “on a hook” and observed.
           But what he—now he is Eddie—observes in his hallucinations bothers him so much because they seem so real, and because he has never seen the people within them before.  He starts to explore, first by searching on the internet, and then doing some detective work.  What he finds, is shattering, and the rest of the story is about how all that plays out.
           I was upbeat about seeing Self/Less because I liked Tarsem Singh’s earlier film, The Fall, and as I say, the part about seeking immortality through the process called “shedding” (i.e., shedding the body) was intriguing, and the aspect of crime associated with scientific breakthroughs enlivens the pace and captures our interest.  It’s going over the top with the violence to the point of absurdity that detracts from the quality of this film.
           The main cast is really fine with Ben Kingsley acting out a billionaire’s dilemma in encountering something he can’t do anything about, and Ryan Reynolds’ portraying an armed services veteran whose fitness and combat skills are formidable.  Matthew Goode is convincing as a competent scientist in complete control, but with ulterior motives that are initially hidden.  The two main actresses (Michelle Dockery and Natalie Martinez) have lesser roles, but are very good in what they do.

Too much violence lessens the impact of a potentially interesting film.

Grade:  C+                                                             By Donna R. Copeland


--> Amy Winehouse

Amy is a fine documentary by the BAFTA award-winning filmmaker, Asif Kapadia (Senna, The Warrior), chronicling the underbelly of fame in the contemporary world for those with unfillable needs and fragile constitutions.  It is alternately sad, funny, entertaining, and ironic; sad and ironic in that from the time when she was very young, she admonished her mother to be stronger with her, which then became a theme in her songs, sometimes directed to a specific person, but also to the larger community around her.  I was reminded of the lack of restraint seen in the paparazzi and even the public chasing after her like crazy people.  Those responsible for her “management” as an artist—including her own father—were apparently oblivious to her needs, especially toward the end.  Not that Amy Winehouse would be an easy person to manage!
           Amy the person exemplifies the “artistic personality” with ambivalent relationships, mood swings, a compulsion to write and sing, and inconsistency amidst alcohol and drug abuse.  The film is chock full of pictures from her real life, one showing her having a tantrum as a preschooler, and her mother saying helplessly, “When Amy makes up her mind…”  But the old pictures (a big plus for this documentary) are also great in showing her having good times, being witty onstage and off, speaking insightful thoughts about herself and others, and of course singing in her jazzy voice of soul resembling the likes of Billie Holliday and Ella Fitzgerald.  We’re treated to a song with her and Tony Bennett during the film. 
           One aspect of Winehouse’s make-up which is a bit surprising—particularly if one did not know about her earlier—is her modesty about her voice and an unassuming nature when she is feeling confident.  She had to be pushed into singing and writing songs by her friend Nick Shymansky, who stood by her for as long as he felt he could. 
           Two of the most destructive influences on Amy were her father (who essentially abandoned the family when Amy was young and had no qualms about exploiting her when she became famous) and a man she was married to only briefly, Blake Fielder-Civil, who introduced her to crack and heroine.  She was completely infatuated by both men.  Her songs themselves tell us a lot about Amy because she notes that her songs are mostly about herself or related to her (examples:  “Stronger than Me”, “Rehab”, “Love is a Losing Game”, “What is it about Men”).  Her tragic end came in 2011 when she died of alcohol poisoning.  Many mourn our loss of her as someone highly significant for the musical genres of jazz and soul.

No one strong enough to save her.

Grade:  A                                    By Donna R. Copeland


--> Voices of:  Sandra Bullock   Jon Hamm   Michael Keaton   Allison Janney   Steve Coogan   Pierre Coffin   Geoffrey Rush

The Minions are some of the most lovable creatures in children’s movies.  Illumination Entertainment, directors Kyle Balda and Pierre Coffin, writer Brian Lynch, and musician Heitor Pereira  deserve high praise for making a film that is truly entertaining, uplifting, and insightful about human beings, with all accompanied by delightful music from the sixties.  The very premise of the adorable minions searching all around the world for an evil leader makes one smile.  And the fact that we can only decipher a part of what they are saying (made up of Spanish, French, English and blabber) and still know exactly what they mean is fascinating.  Also remarkable (especially for young children who have already gotten a bad reputation) is the pride shown by those who get the label of villain.
           Minions serves as a prequel to their appearance in the Despicable Me series, and here, Geoffrey Rush narrates their origins and history up to the 1960’s.  The Minions have finally found a home they love after being banished to Antarctica (in The Despicables 2), but are distressed because they can’t keep a leader.  They have lost their previous leader, super-villain Gru, and every time they think they’ve found a replacement, something happens to make him/her/it disappear.  Then Kevin has a bright idea.  He will go out into the wide world and search for the perfectly despicable leader and then they’ll all be happy and motivated again.  He recruits two Minions to follow him:  One-eyed Stuart and tiny Bob.  They manage to get to New York City, but get a tip about Villain Con soon to take place in Orlando, an ideal place to find a despicable leader.  It’s 1968 when it’s popular for hippies to hitch rides, which seems like a good idea for them, and after several futile attempts, they’re on their way when a family stops to pick them up. 
           The Nelsons (Keaton and Janney as parents) are not an ordinary family; they’re headed to Villain Con in Orlando, and have to stop along the way for funds.  After robbing a bank in colorful masks, they elude the police in a wild car chase.  Ultimately, they deliver the trio to Villain Con and part company, although the Nelsons will see them again from time to time.  And indeed they do find a potential, Scarlett Overkill (Bullock) who takes pride in her evilness and has challenged a huge audience of fans to take a valuable stone from her hands, the reward for which will be a position as one of her henchmen.  After a major skirmish among the aspirers, it turns out that Bob coughs out the stone to everyone’s amazement.  Thereupon, Scarlett and her husband Herb (Hamm) take the three Minions to their swanky home and give them their charge.  They are to steal the crown of the Queen of England, something Scarlett has yearned for all her life.  And to help them, Herb gives them three of his inventions (mechanical limbs that extend out endlessly, a lava-shooting gun, and a cap).  The cap is hilarious because it looks like a round hot water bottle, but when it inflates and spins around like a globe, it puts the viewer into hypnosis.  All of these items will come in handy when the entourage travels to London to carry out the evil deed where they will encounter major threats of imprisonment and even death.
           Minions has received only mediocre ratings from critics, but I enjoyed it a lot, and do think the general public might as well.  My only reservation is the apparent acceptance of the characters’ getting away with deeds that are sometimes illegal, but these aren’t blatant enough that children will get the idea it’s all right to copy them. 

Charge of the Minions. 

Grade:  B                                            By Donna R. Copeland

Tuesday, July 7, 2015


Reese Mishler     Pfeifer Brown     Ryan Shoos     Cassidy Gifford

 The production of The Gallows is so amateur, I imagine current high school drama departments probably do a better job.  The script reads like what an adult who is not familiar with teens would imagine how they talk and think, so it comes across as plastic.  Both of the directors, Travis Cluff and Chris Lofing, are also the writers, two of the producers, and involved in editing and visual effects.  Blatant manipulations like cheap tricks are used to instill fear (jumpy hand-held camera, sudden loud noises, heads popping up, blank screen, and comments such as, “This place is super creepy at night.”).  Among the actors, Shoos is convincing, but an early scene with Mishler and Brown is painful to watch in its flatness.
            The story has to do with a previous high school production years ago of “The Gallows” in which a tragic accident occurred involving the main actor.  Through some kind of misguided notions, the high school is repeating the play with the next generation of students.  Ryan (Shoos), who has a camera constantly in hand, is filming the production and all the behind-the-scenes chatter.  Moreover, he is a spoiler who nags and nags Reese (Houser) to quit the play, and when he’s unsuccessful in that, tries to get him to sabotage it.  Using twisted logic, he eventually convinces Reese, and a plan is conceived.  Cassidy (Gifford) is standing by and insists on being included. 
            When the plan is put into place and the three are carrying it out in the drama building, stranger and stranger things begin to happen, including the appearance of the star of the play, Pfeifer (Brown), who is kept in the dark (pun intended) about what is actually going on.  Reese has told her that they are there simply for him to practice his lines.  Of course, as the evening wears on, the horrors escalate and things go from bad to worse.
            The film is difficult to follow at times, partly because the visual effects are so pronounced they obscure what is happening to the characters, or the sound effects drown out the dialog.  There is little done to set up the conflicts that occur.  For example, it’s not at all clear why Ryan seems to have a bone to pick with Pfeifer, which is why he is bent on sabotaging a project that means so much to her, but we’re never told why.  Cassidy also seems to have it in for Pfeifer, but it’s unclear why.  A completing irritating motif of the film is one character calling out the name of another:  “Reese, Reese, Reese”, “Cassidy, Cassidy, Cassidy.”  This wasn’t just to locate them but to nag them into doing something they don’t want to, especially in the beginning when Ryan is trying to get Reese to drop out or sabotage the play.
            Perhaps those fans of horror who are not mindful of certain qualities will find this film scarily exciting.  I did not.

The enjoyment of this movie depends on how willing you are to be drawn in.
Grade:  F                                    By Donna R. Copeland           

Sunday, July 5, 2015


Cartel Land is a troubling documentary by Matthew Heineman that indicates we have little to be optimistic about in achieving a resolution of the border issues between the U.S. and Mexico any time soon because of the power of cartels, corruption in the Mexican government, and drug and human trafficking.  Although the documentary follows two vigilante groups, one in Arizona and one in Mexico, and records their discontents, it does not get into what the problems are on either side of the border, especially ours; for instance, our appetite for drugs.  If we didn’t buy them, traffickers would lose their biggest market.  It’s stated very well by some Mexicans brewing up meth; their attitude is, “Well I kind of feel bad about it, but we have to earn a living.”  Nor does it explore the U.S. “war on drugs”, political stalemates about the border and what to do with it, and the influence of policies and politics in both the U.S. and Mexico.  It references indirectly the Southern Poverty Law Center’s classification of the vigilante groups as extremist, but this is not explored to any extent.
           Nevertheless, this is a good documentary that gives the viewer a “You are there” experience that is gripping in showing the bloodshed, torture, and human trafficking rendered by the drug cartels.
           On the Mexican side of the border, it is interesting to learn about the vigilante group Autodefensas in Michoacan formed in 2013.  The citizen militia group was founded and for a time coordinated by a physician, Dr. Jose Mireles, who suggested people take up arms and reclaim their towns from the Knights Templar Cartel, and illustrates their hold over citizens. The last straw that made the organization even more appealing to the people was the cartel’s invading a farm owned by a man who hadn’t paid his dues and brutally attacking his employees, killing 15.  No evidence is given as to whether the government even tried to find and prosecute the perpetrators.  Mireles observes that when the government can’t protect its citizens they must defend themselves, their families, and their property. 
           Mireles’ leadership did not last long; in early 2014, he was regarded as a hero after the group had reclaimed 28 towns in Michoacan; but he was seriously injured in a plane crash (whether from sabotage is unclear) and was away in Mexico City being treated for about a month.  When he returned, he had lost influence in the group, and there is some evidence that the Mexican government ineffectively intervened.  As a consequence of his not wanting to give up his arms, Mireles was branded a criminal.
           The spokesman for the vigilante group on this side of the border, Tim “Nailer” Foley, uses reasoning similar to that of Mireles, saying that his group is “upholding the law where there is no law.” The Arizona Border Recon was started when he found that cartels were controlling human trafficking as well as drugs.  Foley owns the vigilante designation, but says it has gotten a bad name; it used to refer to citizens simply protecting their rights and property.  “Our main priority is going after the bad guys”, he says.  Although he is aware that they are sometimes picking up innocent people and that they have no hope of stopping the cartel leaders from transporting drugs, he is committed to keeping the border free of illegal entry.
           Because of the many complicating factors, it is difficult to assess the viability of the citizen groups taking on the cartels.  Both of these groups claim that they are protecting themselves, and when they capture someone, they turn them over to the authorities (although Mireles claims that the Mexican government simply releases them, along with their arms.)  This documentary leads the viewer to think that Mexican President Nieto likely did cave in to cartel pressure in forcing the independent group to give up their arms then outfitting them with new ones under a new leadership.  Many Mexicans think Mireles was unfairly undermined.  From the documentary, we’re given the impression that the citizen group was actually successful in reclaiming towns, and Mireles—rather than using his power for himself—was urging each town to establish a town council for governance.  As far as this side of the border, Tim of the Arizona Border Recon, does take a dim view of the U.S. government’s role in keeping the border free of illegal entry.   It’s hard to determine how objective he is, since he’s had personal experience that would make him likely to resent other people wanting to come to this country.

Good coverage of a complicated issue.

Grade:  B                                    By Donna R. Copeland