Thursday, April 30, 2015

MISERY LOVES COMEDY

--> Amy Schumer   Bobby Cannavale   Jon Favreau   Jimmy Fallon   Judd Apatow   Freddie Prinze, Jr.   Martin Short   James L. Brooks   Lewis Black   Richard Lewis   Matthew Perry   Christopher Guest  Kevin Nealon   Jason Reitman   Bob Saget   Steve Coogan





-->
Misery Loves Comedy is a clever title, it turns out, because in this revue of comedians’ entry into that world—what came before—and what has happened since does reveal some of the highlights—successes and failures—that drew them like moths to a fire.  Sometimes it was that they suddenly realized they could be funny and that they enjoyed the limelight.  The other side is the experience of absolute failure (dead silence in the audience) and feelings of utter worthlessness.  Parents’ reactions to their acts had a profound impact on them; e.g., “You can always go back to Conan, right?” or simply  “Your jeans fit nice.”  Rather than deterring them, such comments made the comics more determined to pursue their dreams.
For some, joking is a way of coping.  Cannavale tells about getting beat up at school, and when he tells his family and they don’t have much of a response, he makes a joke, and then they laugh.  Jermaine Clement says he was always laughing at his family; he loved his uncles’ jokes.  Jim Norton realized that no one—even football players—bothered you if you were funny because they were afraid you might mock them.  He finds making people laugh a “power thing.”  Nick Swardson found that comedy took over and did for him what drugs were doing so he couldl dispense with them.  After constantly failing at sports, Apatow in desperation to be socially acceptable made people laugh by pretending to be a slot machine.  He’d put rocks up his nose and have people pull his arm down, whereupon the rocks would fall out of his nose.
Other times, the comedians were simply playful.  Guest discovered ventriloquism, which he would do in class.  The teacher didn’t know where the sound was coming from, inaccurately guessed, and made the wrong person leave the room.  Apatow would take a huge recorder and wangle his way into studios to interview stars like Jerry Seinfeld.
But the comedians also talk about their craft—how important timing is, how they can predict with their “laugh ears” when a laugh is going to erupt, and how they have been inspired by those who came before (especially Lenny Bruce Richard Prior, and George Carlin).  Several talk as well about the bond among comedians, how they’re drawn toward each other at gatherings and talk shop.
The film ends with a brief discussion about whether one has to be miserable to be funny.  Altogether, this is an informative and interesting film that is successful in getting behind what makes us laugh at comedy—and comedians.  Lovers of comedy will likely be especially drawn to this interesting and entertaining documentary.

What makes a comedian?

Grade B-                                                    By Donna R. Copeland

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON

Robert Downey, Jr.   Chris Hemsworth   Mark Ruffalo   Chris Evans   Scarlett Johansson   James Spader (voice)   
 Jeremy Renner   Samuel L. Jackson   Don Cheadle   Aaron Taylor-Johnson   Elizabeth Olsen   Paul Bettany   Andy Serkis






This version of the Avengers features a dizzying number of battles with characters flying at each other through the air at lightning speed.  The story opens with the Avengers in an eastern European country, Sokovia, raiding a Hydra outpost led by evil scientist Strucker who has used Loki’s scepter to create the superhuman Maximoff twins out of humans, one of whom, Pietro (Taylor-Johnson), can run at superhuman speed and the other, Wanda (Olsen), can read and manipulate minds and throw scarlet energy blasts. 
But the Avengers overcome Strucker, and when Stark (Downey) and Banner (Ruffalo) take over his lab, they discover artificial intelligence in the scepter’s gem, which Stark wants to use for his “Ultron” peacekeeping defense program.  Unbeknownst to them and to their chagrin, however, when he appears, Ultron is sentient and hatching a plan to “save” the earth from mankind because they’ve done such a bad job.  While the Avengers are celebrating their victory over Hydra and Strucker, Ultron begins to take action by eliminating Stark’s A.I., J.A.R.V.I.S., and stealing the scepter, which he plans to use to upgrade his body and construct an army of fighter drones.  In addition, he talks the Maximoff twins into joining him in his efforts.  He is persuasive, because he talks only of peace, but fails to mention his grandiose plan of extinguishing humans and populating the earth with metal creations in his own image. 
When this is discovered, another battle ensues, and Wanda is able to make chaos among the Avengers by hypnotizing them into stupors and transmitting hallucinations that relate to their personal underlying fears, resulting in undermining any sense of team spirit they had.  Now they realize they need a break for rest and teambuilding, so they head for Hawkeye’s (Renner) farmhouse to rest up.  But their recuperation is interrupted by the arrival of Nick Fury (Jackson), informing them that Ultron has forced Banner’s scientific colleague Dr. Helen Cho (Claudia Kim), to use her synthetic tissue technology to perfect his body, so they head for South Korea to foil his efforts.
In the process, allegiances shift among different characters, Stark is able to resurrect J.A.R.V.I.S., which Thor activates with lightning, resulting in a new robot called Vision (Bettany).  The ultimate battle ensues in Sokovia, where Ultron has major plans to use the city in his efforts for global extinction of humans.
Director Joss Whedon, who is also one of the writers, is known for inserting emotional elements into his action films to make them more than simply action scenes with special effects.  This is usually successful, but not so much in Avengers:  Age of Ultron.  The side stories of Romanoff and Banner, Hawkeye and Wanda, and War Machine’s repeated corny jokes, for instance, seem patched in rather than seamlessly integrated into the overall story.  He is successful, however, in making the action interesting and exciting, and by now, after so many iterations, most of the characters have depth and distinct personalities.  As an added bonus to me, Whedon is a master at inserting classical music and literature into the sci-fi action genre—e.g., operatic aria playing in a laboratory that is creating A.I.’s.
The film’s impressive cast, music (Danny Elfman and Brian Tyler), cinematography (Ben Davis), and special effects make this a movie well worth seeing for those who are fans of the superhero genre.

Can the Avengers save the planet?

GRADE:  B                      BY DONNA R. COPELAND

Thursday, April 23, 2015

LITTLE BOY

Jakob Salvati     Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa     Emily Watson     David Henrie     Tom Wilkinson     Kevin James







            Little Boy is full of paradoxes, and at first I wasn’t sure what to think of it.  At times, it seemed like a story with a religious point of view (Christian at first, but then Eastern beliefs were mixed in); at times, it seemed to be admiring violence, but at other times, it seemed anti-war; and numerous times it seemed to imply a causal connection between events that were simply correlated in time. 
            Pepper Busbee, aka “Little Boy” (Salvati) is a slight, meek child of around eight who is small for his age and who is bullied by the heavy-set punk in town and his lackeys.  The refreshing part is Pepper’s completely innocent, inquiring mind.  He has an extremely close connection with his father who plays with him and uses fantasy to build up his self-confidence and self-esteem.  Unfortunately, this is during World War II, and the father is called away for military service.  In addition to Little Boy, he leaves behind his wife Emma (Watson) and older son London (Henrie).  London isn’t really old enough to manage his father’s business well, and he seems to have a chip on his shoulder and have a weakness for drink, so things will not go smoothly in the father’s absence.  In addition, the screenwriters (Director Alejandro Monteverde and Pepe Portillo) made Emma, the mother, out to be a “weak Willie”, who seldom gives guidance or comfort or sets limits when she needs to.  To the film’s discredit, the fully talented and skilled Watson is hung out to dry.
            The film deals with discrimination against other nationalities in the form of the local Japanese man, Hashimoto (Tagawa), showing the cruel ways in which a small town un-welcomes such a person in their midst.  London is one of these; however, the priest (Wilkinson) has subtle ways of protecting him, and unwittingly gets him and Little Boy acquainted.  Now, Hashimoto has a friend and Little Boy has two father figures to stand in for his beloved dad, the priest and the Japanese man.
            Much of the story is played out in Little Boy’s magical and religious efforts to bring his father back through mind control and charitable tasks that are similar to those in the Bible (e.g., give shelter to the homeless) that the priest has given him to fulfill so that divine intervention might come into play.  This ploy is challenged a bit by Hashimoto who relies more on a Zen-like philosophy.  A strong point of the film is juxtaposing these two points of view of two friends without taking sides with either. 
            Little Boy is engaging with good direction and skillful acting, and I especially appreciated its exemplifying differing points of view without taking a clear stand.  Yet, there was the irritating experience of feeling like the filmmakers were coming down on the viewer too heavily, as if the audience wouldn’t get the point or like a preacher who is trying to convert the nonbeliever.  It also seemed unnecessary—and a little cheap—to insert a sleazy character like Dr. Fox (James) who makes inappropriate advances on Emma when her husband is away.  Of course there are people like that, but the interchanges do not seem to belong in this type of film.
            Finally, I concluded that the bottom line of Little Boy was that small things and small people could have a huge impact on those around them and that belief in oneself is essential for that to occur.  From that standpoint, it seems like an uplifting story told something like a fairy tale, with “good” and “bad” elements made fuzzy so that the listener has to think.

A sort of modern fairy tale set during WWII.

Grade:  C+                        By Donna R. Copeland

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

THE AGE OF ADALINE

Blake Lively     Michiel Huisman     Harrison Ford     Ellen Burstyn     Kathy Baker


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            The Age of Adaline ties in with the fantasies of most adults to stay young forever.  There is an amusing “scientific” explanation for how this happens in the movie that will make you smile.  Although most of the film is predictable, it is fun to play with the idea of the kinds of repercussions a person would have to deal with should it happen, and the choices one might make.
            Without going into the details, let’s just say that Adaline (Lively) does not age, and she makes the choice to keep it a secret, stay on the move to avoid detection, and avoid long-term relationships.  This means she can only see her daughter Flemming (Burstyn) occasionally, and as the years go by Flemming looks more like her grandmother than her daughter.  But also through the years, Adaline becomes more depressed and lonely, and when her path crosses that of a persistent Ellis (Huisman), she is sorely tempted to change her course, especially when Flemming urges her to indulge herself and grab onto some happiness.
            I could have done without two major coincidences toward the end of the story that the writers J. Mills Goodloe and Salvadore Paskowitz inserted, which made me think it was merely a way to have the story end on a good note.  A more interesting conclusion would have been to simply follow Adaline and Ellis continuing on the journey as it was set up in the beginning.
            Blake Lively captures well evasiveness and sidestepping the truth when Adaline is confronted with the curiosity of new and old acquaintances.  Her own beauty makes it plausible when others seem to be awestruck by Adaline’s appearance.  At the same time, Adaline can’t resist showing off her memory and intelligence when she gets a chance, and Lively does this just as well.  Huisman’s natural charm and attractiveness make him an ideal love interest for the main character, and he maintains a good balance between genuine caring and playful flirting.  Ford and Burstyn as his parents are up to their usual standards of quality.
            Director Lee Toland Krieger keeps the film moving in a light-hearted, entertaining manner, and although the film might not appeal to everyone, it certainly will to those who enjoy romantic fancies.  A major strong point is musician Rob Simonson’s soundtrack, which gives us a sampling of music from early 20th Century (Ella Fitzgerald) through the ‘60’s and ‘70’s (Bob Dylan, Jefferson Airplane) to 2010 (Stephen Lu). 

An interesting romantic fantasy.

Grade:  C+                        By Donna R. Copeland

Sunday, April 19, 2015

CHILD 44

Tom Hardy     Noomi Rapace      Joel Kinnaman      Vincent Cassel      Gary Oldman     Charles Dance     Jason Clarke




World War II has ended, but in Stalinist Russia a reign of terror pervades, as related in Child 44 based on a prize-winning book with the same title by Tom Rob Smith.  This should be a better film than it is, with its outstanding cast.  Since I haven’t read the book, I don’t know how well the script follows Smith’s book, and maybe Richard Price (screenplay) simply wasn’t up to the job.  I also found the editing (Pietro Scalia and Dylan Tichenor) nerve-wracking and choppy.  The story does not flow easily, and it’s always several seconds or minutes into a new scene before the viewer can figure out what is going on and who the players are.  Cheap shots like showing only the bottom parts of the actors and hearing voices before speakers appear seem to be attempts to heighten the mystery, but this is completely unnecessary; the story is dramatic enough without camera and editing tricks.
           We see Leo Demidov (Xavier Atkins in early years; Hardy in later years) weeping about his father’s death, escaping from an orphanage, and ending up in military service, where he becomes a hero.  For that, he is appointed to the MGB (later to become the KGB) where he is to round up traitors.  He is shown to be more compassionate than most, particularly his fellow officer Vasili (Kinnaman).  When Vasili shows himself to be cruelly vengeful and cold-blooded, Leo attacks him publicly, which will have dire consequences for Leo and his wife Raisa (Rapace).
           We’re given a picture of the MGB when a suspected traitor (Jason Clarke) is routed out at a farmhouse, and when Leo asks him why he ran from the officers if he was innocent, the reply is, “When you’re followed, you’re arrested; and when you’re arrested, you’re already guilty; so you tell me, why did I run?”  We see many people being rounded up at home, at work, or on the street for apparently the flimsiest excuses.
           In this context of fear and paranoia, an atmosphere where the illusion of an idyllic state is more important than truth and justice, murder can go undetected, which is especially unfortunate in the case of a serial killer of children, who knowingly exploits this fact and literally gets away with murder(s).  Most of the rest of the story deals with this and the outrageous vindictiveness of Vasili who will make Demidov pay dearly for his public reproach.  But Leo is conscientious—even though he and Raisa are pursued as traitors—and doggedly pursues the cases of the murdered children.
           The whole story of Child 44 is an intriguing one that keeps the viewer keenly involved and invested in the outcome, so it’s a shame that with the fine cast and Ridley Scott as one of the producers, Director Daniel Espinosa was not able to bring about a work of higher quality. 
 
There is no murder in paradise.

Grade:  C                                         By Donna R. Copeland

Friday, April 17, 2015

EX MACHINA

Domhnail Gleason     Oscar Isaac     Alicia Vikander




 In Ex Machina, Alex Garland, writer/director, weaves a tantalizing sci-fi tale that is part horror, part ethics/morality (whether A.I.’s should be treated humanely), and part romance.  In keeping with the title, the work is constructed so that by the end of the story we have been given information that lets us know just how bad things are.  “Deus ex machina” is a literary term meaning “god from the machine”, and refers to a plot device whereby a problem towards the end of the story is unexpectedly solved by the insertion of something or someone new.   Although the “Deus” is left out of the title of the film, references are made to the god-like role the creator of the A.I. has, especially since his invention is made more human by being sentient and emotionally aware. 
            Garland is a master at juxtaposition:  An ultra-modern home/laboratory set in the beauty of nature’s flora and fauna; a research site that appears to run smoothly and effortlessly with the help of the latest technology and a researcher fully in control, yet it could be called “the house of paranoia” when suspicious activities make their appearance; opening scenes are accompanied by the tuneful music of Schumann’s “Scenes from Childhood”, but in time there is a sense of dread, and the music becomes cacophonous.  A scene that is bright and revealing will suddenly turn dark, when secrets come to light.  CEO Nathan Bateman (Isaac) is a fitness freak, yet imbibes liquor and wine constantly.
            Caleb (Gleason) is incredulous but overjoyed to learn that he has won a contest among young coding specialists in the computer search company he works for.  He will get to spend a week working on a top-secret project with the eccentric CEO who wrote the Blue Book of code.  Caleb is a bit taken aback when he is flown by helicopter to a field in the mountains and told to follow the river until he comes to a house.  Nothing else is orthodox after that either, even simply getting entry into the house.
            After entering, he encounters Nathan, who is indeed a physical specimen, and who is presently at a punching bag.  As he guides Caleb through the property with enigmatic descriptions and instructions (“Your key opens any door you’re permitted to go through, but won’t work on those you’re not”), it is also clear that he is intellectually sharp and a challenging teacher.  It is some time before Caleb learns what Nathan’s project is.  But finally, he is introduced to Ava (Vikander), Nathan’s newest creation, and told that he will be doing a Turing test on her (finding out just how sentient and human-like she is). 
            Delightful special effects show Ava’s mechanistic appearance while including sufficient human qualities to make her attractive.  Then when she unexpectedly dons wig and clothes, she is indeed a handsome woman.  Also appealing is her command of language, her soft voice, and pureness of logic.  Vikander cinches the role with just the right mixture of human and A.I. qualities. 
            Oscar Isaac’s talent shines through as a bearded, complex character with many admirable and despicable facets to his controlling personality.  Gleason is making a name for himself lately in any number of films (Harry Potter movies, Calvary with his father Brendan, and Unbroken), and was named as one of European films’ “Shooting Stars” in 2011.
            The excellent script, special effects, and acting make this the best sci-fi film I’ve seen.  I’m looking forward to what I hope will be many more productions by Alex Garland.

Fascinating!

Grade:  A                        By Donna R. Copeland
           

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

THE SALT OF THE EARTH

--> Sebastiao Salgado     Wim Wenders     Juliano Ribeiro Salgado


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The Salt of the Earth title of this excellent documentary refers to the famed Brazilian photographer, Sabastiao Salgado, who photographed life, death, animals, and nature in over 100 countries from the time he was a young married man and began using his wife’s camera.  He is now 71, and they live in Paris where they fled in 1969 after a military coup in Brazil. Although his education was in economics, when he was sent to Africa on assignment and observed the plight of people there, he switched to photography so he could make more people aware of some of the horrors taking place in our world all the time.
           The film is divided into sections that reflect to some extent his psychological journey, from seeing the millions of deaths as the result of famine, disease, and political purges to environmental concerns, and how he finally resolved the emotional turmoil, expressing his hope that humanity will rediscover itself in nature.  In the 1990’s, Salgado and his wife Lelia restored acres of their land in Brazil that was destroyed by drought into its original state, making it a nature preserve managed by a group they founded, the Instituto Terra, which is dedicated to reforestation, conservation, and increased environmental awareness.  The first section of the film is entitled The Other Americas; the other sections mirror the titles of his books: Sahel, Workers, Migrations and Genesis.  He sees his work as “a love letter to the planet.”
Salgado’s son, Juliano, and the internationally acclaimed filmmaker, Wim Wenders, directed this breathtaking view of the world as seen and experienced by Sabastiao Salgado.  The story is told primarily through Salgado’s photographs and his commentary about humanity.  At the start, we hear him talking about the lives of workers’ in a Brazilian gold mine, Serra Pelada, and see his wonderfully sculptured pictures of them.  His empathy and compassion are immediately apparent as he relates what he saw and felt when he first visited the place. 
           The film has been criticized for being too “beautiful” in showing the horrors of the world, but I disagree with this.  To me, the artistry makes even more vivid the plight of so much of humanity, I was more likely to be suffused with sadness and compassion after seeing the work and hearing the voice of Salgado than I would have been were it more like a newscast.
           One aspect of the film that might be considered regretful is that Salgado’s wife Lelia—who has always been a strong force in the family and their projects—could have had more screen time.  It would have been enlightening to hear how she managed life at home while her husband was away so much.  Toward the end of the film when she is talking about their environmental project in the Amazon, it is clear that she is a bright woman with strong opinions. 

Beautiful visual display and humanitarian concerns tell a sad, bleak story, but with rays of hope in the end.

Grade:  A                              By Donna R. Copeland

Thursday, April 9, 2015

WHILE WE'RE YOUNG

--> Naomi Watts     Ben Stiller     Adam Driver     Amanda Seyfried     Charles Grodin     Peter Yarrow






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While We’re Young deals with the time when aging starts to get personal—personally meaningful.  Josh (Stiller) and Cornelia (Watts) are there and get side-tracked by a younger couple, Jamie (Driver) and Darby (Seyfried) whose lives seem so exciting, unlike another couple whom they’ve been friends with for years, who just had a baby.  Josh and Cornelia discuss how free they feel and lucky to start hanging out with the younger set interested in so many things—hip hop, mystical evenings with a shaman, bicycling, woodwork, music on vinyl, and so on.  Best of all, it seems, Jamie aspires to be a documentarian just like Josh and his famous father-in-law Leslie Breitbart (Grodin). 
      Josh has always preferred to work alone, but after exposure to Jamie’s apparent generosity, he attempts to be more collaborative, and they embark on a joint project, and Josh is forced to introduce Jamie to Breitbart.  Josh has always rejected his father-in-law’s attempts to advise him out of sheer determination to make his career his own.  Jamie has no such qualms; he freely borrows from others, charmingly pulling them into his circle, and making his way toward the top.
      Ever so gradually, it dawns on Josh what is happening, and he makes a scene at an inappropriate time, thinking that when he “exposes” Jamie everyone will feel just as he does.  It’s a crushing moment when it becomes obvious that no one sees anything wrong with what Jamie has done/is doing, and that even Cornelia sees him as overly suspicious.  She loves her husband, and this puts her in a bind, which she handles beautifully.
      In this sensitive part of the drama, Noah Baumbach, the writer/director, seems to be working through issues in his own mind about the nature of truth and films, particularly documentaries.  How does the filmmaker walk that fine line between being strictly truthful and ensuring that a film will be interesting, even entertaining?  Does it matter if the truth is hedged a bit or a lot if the point of the film is really about something else? 
He does make sure that the Josh character develops more insight into himself and others as a result of this painful experience, and by the end seems to be setting himself on a much more relaxed journey through life.
      Stiller and Driver have the meatier roles and play them very well.  I was sorry that the characters for the two main actresses, Watts and Seyfried, were written primarily as support for their husbands.  They are both highly talented and skilled, and it seems a waste to have them in such lackluster roles, although as usual their fine acting shows through.  Charles Grodin and Peter Yarrow in cameo roles demonstrate that age has its privileges, including professional seasoning.
      James Murphy’s score and soundtrack are truly enjoyable accompaniments to the film, particularly in its perfect pairing of the drama with sound in so many scenes. 
Overall, this is a fine update in Noah Baumbach’s career; I think his finest yet.

The best of Baumbach.

Grade:  B                          By Donna R. Copeland

Saturday, April 4, 2015

SEYMOUR: AN INTRODUCTION

Ethan Hawke     Seymour Bernstein







Seymour is about pianist/philosopher Seymour Bernstein, who decided to give up his stage career when he was 50, and turn to teaching full-time.  Ethan Hawke, the director, should be proud of this fine documentary, which provides an artistic, impressionistic view of a gifted musician and teacher.  It is a philosophical as well as a musical exploration into performance, the performer, and life itself.
           Hawke had been wrestling in his own mind about “why I do what I do”, and whether he was being authentic in his life.  Also, during the previous five years, he had been experiencing crippling stage fright.  About this time, he met Seymour at a dinner party and began chatting about it because he immediately felt comfortable around the musician.  Seymour’s responses to him proved to be more valuable than anything Hawke had been given before, and he conceived the idea of making a documentary about Bernstein’s life.  This is all made clearer by viewing the documentary, in which we discover the pianist is as much a philosopher/teacher as a musician.
           The format of the documentary consists primarily of demonstrating Seymour’s teaching methods with actual students, former students’ impressions of him, and his own musings about himself, the music business, and a bit of his own performances, which occurs mostly at the end of the film while the credits are rolling.  He plays the first movement of Schumann’s Fantasy in C Major, Opus 17, written for Clara, Schumann’s wife.  Seymour notes that Schumann called it “one quiet note played for a secret eavesdropper”, and went on to say to Clara, “You are the note of my life, and you are the secret eavesdropper.”
           Ramsey Fendall’s cinematography, Anna Gustavi’s editing, and the sound work by Hollie Bennett and Matthew Polis—along with a fascinating, articulate subject—make this documentary a beautiful piece of art.  It never drags, even though it is about one person, because it is populated with so many of Seymour’s students and colleagues and has so many musical interludes.
           Seymour loves his students, but emphasizes to them the importance of practice.  Upon first encountering students who refused to do so, Seymour was incredulous, especially given his personal experience.  At age six he begged his mother to get him piano lessons, even though no music was ever played in his home.  She acquiesced, and later on, after he had learned to play, he found a Schubert serenade in a book and began to play it, feeling as if he had always known it.  He found it so beautiful he wept.
           Seymour and two of his former students talk more about the importance of practicing.  Kimball Gallagher observes that each performance of a piece represents thousands of hours of practice.  For classes, he sometimes plays a piece very slowly to demonstrate how practicing like that for hours makes the piece what it is, ultimately.  Joseph Smith adds that Americans tend to think that talent is everything, and it just happens; they don’t realize the number or practice hours involved.
           When he was younger, Seymour was a successful performing musician, had a wealthy patroness, and was getting fabulous reviews.  But none of this could compensate for the nerve-wracking experience he had before a concert, periodic memory blocks, feelings of inadequacy as a performer and as a person, and the commercial aspect of performing.  He said it wasn’t until age 50 that he began to feel comfortable on the stage, yet at that time, he decided to arrange a farewell concert, which would be his last.  He found his creative identity as a teacher after he ended his concert career, when everything seemed clearer, and he became happier and more fulfilled.  Many said, “Don’t you have a responsibility to your audience?”  And his response was:  “I pour it into my students.”
           Since retiring from the stage, Seymour has been living in a one-room apartment “because I love my solitude.”  He finds order, harmony, predictability, and control in music, unlike in the social world in which a relationship can be destroyed by one careless remark.

Seymour: “I never dreamt that with my own two hands, I could touch the sky.”

Grade:  A                               By Donna R. Copeland

Thursday, April 2, 2015

DANNY COLLINS

Al Pacino     Annette Bening     Bobby Cannavale     Jennifer Garner     Christopher Plummer     Giselle Eisenberg






The script for Danny Collins written by Director Dan Fogelman is so smart and true to life it’s scary at times (such as the accurate portrayal of ADHD), and the fine actors make it shine even more.  Loosely based on a true story about a British folk singer, Steve Tilston—whom the movie calls “Danny Collins”—who discovered years later that John Lennon had written a letter to him that was delivered to someone else.  The film uses the letter to tell its story about a rock star who, by this time, is aging and performing the same material he has for 30 years.  Then his agent (Plummer) surprises him with the letter, and it has an immediate impact on him in a positive sense of straightening up his boozy, drug-filled life and starting to write music again.
           Danny remembers the son (Cannavale) he never met, who is now grown and living in New Jersey with a wife (Garner) and child (Eisenberg).  The son, Tom Donnelly, has made it clear that he wants nothing to do with his father and wants him to stay away from Samantha, his wife, and their daughter Hope.  But Danny is committed to his self-styled rehabilitation, and makes offers Tom can hardly refuse.  They go back and forth, with Tom trying desperately to hold onto his anger, and Danny never giving up on his plan.  Their interchanges—which include wife and daughter—are both funny and agonizing at the same time.  In the midst of it all spunky Hope takes in everything that is being said and voices her opinions in a way that an indulgent father has to listen to.
            Danny has rented a room at the local Hilton, where he’s had a grand piano shipped in, clearly intending to work; but he’s not above trying to have a little fun with the all-business hotel manager, Mary (Bening).  They get into verbal jousting, and when she finally relents and has some tequila, they actually get close and start sharing their troubles.
The story has many developments on all fronts as Danny progresses and slips backward, and money starts to become an issue.  All of this has to be worked out, and Fogelman’s script never lets the viewer down. 
           Pacino is a master at portraying complex characters with precision and fullness, and Bening is well placed in being his counter force.   The performance of Cannavale is at its usual level of excellence, and Garner, who has a less well fleshed out role, still has to convincingly be the go-between in father-son struggles—which she does.  Plummer, like Pacino, has a long history of fine performances, and his presence in this film is true to form.  The child Giselle Eisenberg steals the scene every time she is on, and I SO appreciated her lines being authentically child-like and not obviously written by an adult.  They are so true to life, I wondered if Fogelman was getting that part of the script from his experience with a real child.  Giselle clearly has a future in acting if she maintains an interest in it.
         I hadn’t expected much from Danny Collins the movie, and was thrilled when it became clear that it was going to be so good.  It is fresh, believable in terms of character development, and it maintains suspense throughout.  Of course, much of what happens could only occur if at least one character had access to big bucks, but still, it is a fine work of art nevertheless.

An insightful, entertaining look at a modern family’s dilemmas.

Grade:  A                                    By Donna R. Copeland

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

WOMAN IN GOLD

--> Helen Mirren     Ryan Reynolds     Katie Holmes     Charles Dance     Elizabeth McGovern     Daniel Brühl     Max Irons


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Beautifully filmed, Woman in Gold tells the story of one woman in about 100,000 whose family’s art works were stolen by the Nazis during World War II.  Maria Altmann (Mirren) and her well-to-do Jewish family lived in Vienna at the time, and had acquired now-famous paintings and jewelry, most notably Gustav Klimpt’s Woman in Gold.  Newly wed, Maria and her husband Fritz (Irons) arranged to flee before they were sent to a concentration camp, but had to leave her parents behind along with, of course, all valuables. 
      The two made it to the U.S., and her sister followed.  Years pass, her husband and sister have died, and Maria finds some old correspondence that reminds her of her aunt—of whom she has very fond memories—and the Klimpt painting of her.  She questions why it is in an Austrian museum instead of being returned to the family heirs.  She has a friend whose son is a lawyer, and Maria asks to talk with him and show him the letters.
      The two don’t exactly hit it off; he seems slightly boorish to her, and she seems troublesome—even rude—to him.  But there is something that compels them to persist in the project to reclaim the paintings legally.  This will be a difficult task, partly because the Austrians have so “owned” the Klimpt paintings, they’ve become a national treasure, and obviously, the museum will not let the paintings go lightly. 
      The film draws on the lives of two real people, E. Randol Schoenberg and Maria Altmann for the story, from which Alexi Kaye Campbell wrote the screenplay.  That gives it an authenticity and a sense of history-in-the-making that a film such as this needs.  The film The Monuments Men (2014) attempted a story on the Nazis’ making off with thousands of art works, but it lacked the personal and present connection that this film possesses, which might make a difference in its popularity with the general population.
      Simon Curtis’ (My Week with Marilyn) art in directing is visibly apparent, with Campbell’s strong script, Martin Phipps’ and Hans Zimmer’s music, and the cinematography of Ross Emery.  Adding to the artful mix are the performances of Helen Mirren and Ryan Reynolds.  Mirren is at her usual inimitably strong talent for bringing a character alive, but the surprise is Ryan Reynolds who, as the attorney showing persistence, frustration, dismay, and sheer determination, gives his very best performance.

A heart-rending and historically meaningful film.

Grade:  A                            By Donna R. Copeland

FURIOUS 7


Vin Diesel   Paul Walker   Jason Statham   Michelle Rodriguez   Ludacris   Dwayne Johnson 
                                Tyrese Gibson   Kurt Russell   Nathalie Emmanuel   Djimon Hounsou





In Furious 7, 7 refers to the 7th iteration of a series of action films that make up a franchise of revving cars, high speed chases, fearsome artillery, high tech equipment, and just plain old fist fights that seem to go on for hours.  In an odd play on carnival bumper cars, two regular cars intentionally come at each other full speed not once, but twice.  (If something’s really good you always do it twice, right?).  Not only that, cars in 7 can actually fly up into the air and more than once drive off cliffs, and miraculously, no one is killed (that is, the good guys).
            What story there is, is about the brother of Owen Shaw, Deckard (Statham), coming over from Britain to avenge his death; he’s a fierce fighter who carries around bombs like they were confetti he likes to toss.  He’s lethal as well in smarts and skills, in that he used to be in British special forces until he was dismissed. 
            Another strain of the story involves a billionaire, Mr. Nobody (Russell), who engages the team of Dominic (Vin Diesel) et al. to rescue a professional hacker who has devised software that will locate anyone anywhere any time.  Bad guys are after the software creator (Emmanuel), but Mr. Nobody realizes how dangerous such an invention would be in the wrong hands, so engages Dominic’s (Vin Diesel) team to intercept them.  What follows is harrowing scene after harrowing scene with engines revving, furious car chases (even cars flying through buildings), bombs going off, people jumping from car to car or jumping out and rolling to safety, helicopters that rain down fire on their targets, drones that do the same, and on and on and on.
            Obviously, millions of people like these kinds of movies that are almost entirely action (a la the above), no matter how unbelievable, with only a dab of emotion and a smidgen of intentional comedy in the plot.  Oh, a tender relationship is thrown in here and there (Dom and Letty; Brian and Mia), and family is referred to in capital letters, but mostly the film is very loud with special effects violence and well-choreographed fights between men and between women.  Roman (Gibson)—a driver, a distracter, and a blowhard—is something like comic relief, but the lines written for him are not actually laugh-out-loud funny.  But after all this, at the end of the film, there is a moving tribute to the actor Paul Walker who plays the part of Brian O’Connor and who was killed in a car accident last year that was devastating to his fans as well as his family. 
            Clearly, this is not a film I would choose to go see on my own, but I do acknowledge some interest in the plot (such as software that will track everyone, and, like Mr. Nobody says, change police searches forever), and admire the talent of director James Wan, the actors, and crew.  Still, I can’t see the purpose or value in films like this that are mostly loud and more like watching a video game that has little relevance to reality.

A movie for Nascar fans.

Grade:  C                                    By Donna R. Copeland