Tuesday, September 29, 2015

GOOSEBUMPS Press Conference Summary

          Even after answering questions from various groups for three hours before, the main cast members (Jack Black, Dylan Minnette, Odeya Rush, and Ryan Lee) of Goosebumps were fresh and lively for their press conference.  In a dramatic entrance, Dylan was singing as they filed in, and Jack announced that he had ordered Tex-Mex to eat for when they go on their way to the next junket point.  Of course, the cuisine had to be explained to someone like Odeya who is from Israel.
        A burning question for all eight critics/reporters present was about R. L. Stine, the author of the Goosebumps books (62 of them, no less!), and his take on the movie.  Jack said he met Stine before shooting the picture, and found that the author is nothing like the character Jack plays.  He called Stine “an amazing guy” and a brilliant writer—which Jack tried to keep in mind when he was playing him.  Jack said the character in the movie is a very dark figure, with sinister and antisocial qualities, which couldn’t be further from Stine himself (or the actor himself, I’ve observed). 
         Stine actually loves the film and had no objections to the portrayal of him.  He was more interested in seeing that the filmmakers were mindful of Stine’s audience and that it had equal parts of scariness and fun, which is how he wants his monsters to be seen by children. Stine’s positive opinion about the movie was “like gold” to Jack.
        Jack and the three younger actors had high praise for one another in their working relationships.  Odeya said that Jack puts everyone at ease because he’s so approachable.  Ryan said he grew up watching Jack’s movies, and recalled seeing him after a press junket for Super 8, when he never dreamed he would get to work with him in the future.  Jack complimented the three younger actors for their skill and “realness.”  He and Director Letterman felt lucky to get them because a) each was their first choice out of hundreds of auditions and b) they were so much in demand on other projects.
      There was an interesting question about working with the computer-generated monsters.  Jack explained that the director sets the scene for the actors with verbal descriptions and they act out their parts as if the fantasy character were there.  For instance, in the scene where Jack encounters The Blob, he is standing on a table and moving about as if he were in a bowl of Jello.  Computer-generated images are always added in at a later time.  In the Production Notes, Letterman says that whenever possible they created a material creature out of make-up and special effects.  Most of the monsters are material or a hybrid of material and CGI, and a few are purely CGI.
         Which of the monsters is the scariest to the actors?  It was generally agreed that Slappy is; he’s a little like Chucky of the Chucky horror movie series.  Jack pointed out that he has the power of teleportation, but is also like Hannibal Lector or Darth Vader because he’s the sinister mastermind.  He represents the darkest part of Stine’s psyche.  Although Avery Lee Jones was the puppeteer/ventriloquist on set, the voice was subsequently replaced with Jack’s. 
          Since Jack Black has two seven and nine year-old boys, I asked about whether they had read the Stine books, and he replied that they hadn’t, although they do like scary stuff and have an app on their iPad that shows creepy things.  When they were younger, he used to make up stories for them at bedtime, such as his own version of Lord of the Rings, with adventures involving Hobbits and dragons.  He always left them with a cliffhanger, e.g.,           “Tomorrow, you’ll find out what happened with the Dragon of Algernon!”
          He was certain when he read the script that his children would enjoy Goosebumps, so they received a special screening at their school in Los Angeles (not the School of Rock, as someone suggested).
         The last scene of Goosebumps leaves the impression of a sequel to come, which Jack said depended on how well this movie fares and how good the script for the next one might be.

         Everyone seemed to leave the conference on an upbeat note, inspired by the actors’ enthusiasm for the film and their fruitful collaboration.  I, for one, think it will be a hit as a Halloween movie this year.  Right now, I’m wanting to see it again!






THE WALK

Joseph Gordon-Levitt     Ben Kingsley     Charlotte Le Bon
          The Walk is an impressive account of a man obsessed with an idea and persistent to a fault.  Phillippe Petit is the man who walked a tight rope between the Twin Towers in New York City in 1974, became the subject of James Marsh’s Oscar-winning documentary about that experience (Man on Wire, 2008), and author of a book about it (To Reach the Clouds, 2008).  Just as impressive are the special effects rendered by Director Robert Zemeckis (Back to the Future, Cast Away, Polar Express, Flight) and his team and the photography of Dariusz Wolski.  Numerous heart-stopping shots and gasps in the audience attest to the filmmakers’ ability to give viewers an “I was there” experience in 3D. 
          Petit (played by Gordon-Levitt) grew up in a military family and disappointed his father with his preoccupation at an early age with circus tricks.  When he saw a man on a high wire for the first time, he was smitten with the feat.  He managed to talk his way into being coached and mentored by an expert performer, Papa Rudy (Kingsley), which sent him on his way toward the goal of impressing the world with his feats.  His father’s booting him from the household and sending him out on his own was of little consequence to him.
          He meets another street performer in Paris, Annie (Le Bon) by first competing with her then wheedling her into a romantic relationship.  She will play a key role in supporting him throughout his initial dream and plan to walk a tight rope between the twin towers, even moving to New York with him and encouraging him through bleak times when everything seemed hopeless.  The night before the walk, she keeps vigil on the street with binoculars in hand, waiting for the moment.
          There is much more to the planning of the walk than the naïve viewer would imagine, and furthermore, at least a half-dozen additional people are needed to gain access to the buildings, help with cables, and perform other tasks before the walk can take place.  Assistants for Petit comprise a motley crew of helpers, one of which is afraid of heights (although he is not the one who abandons the project at the last minute).  The film does a good job in demonstrating what is needed, the setbacks and frustrations that ensue, and the psychological demands on everyone in working through conflicts and sustaining motivation throughout.  Dreams can be infectious, and Petit has a gift for keeping everyone around inspired.
          Gordon-Levitt fits the role hand-in-glove, even adopting a convincing French accent and mastering the tight rope for many scenes, although he did use a double (Jade Kindar-Martin) for more difficult walks.  In an interview with Ryan Gilbey of The Guardian, Kindar-Martin points out that psychological preparation is just as important as the physical.  “I told him [Gordon-Levitt] to believe he is the master of the world” (http://www.theguardian.com/film/2015/sep/24/the-walk-movie-world-trade-centre-robert-zemeckis-joseph-gordon-levitt). 
          I was less taken by Kingsley’s performance—and surprised because he’s usually outstanding.  But his accent was a mixture of several, and a deep connection with Gordon-Levitt’s character just didn’t come through.  On the other hand, the chemistry between Le Bon and Gordon-Levitt is dynamic.

Bottom line:  A gripping tale that takes you on a tight-rope high above the streets of New York.

Grade:  A-                        By Donna R. Copeland


Friday, September 25, 2015

SICARIO

Emily Blunt     Josh Brolin     Benicio Del Toro


          Sicario will make you question many of your beliefs about right and wrong.  A rather naïve FBI agent Kate Macer (Blunt) is voluntarily sent to work in an operation that is completely outside her familiar element.  She has done a good job recently and is considered a sharp agent, street-wise, who is consequential in her work.  We’re shown that right away, although she is seen to vomit after a successful operation she has led.  After that, she is considered for a bigger operation in which the goal is to identify and take out a major cartel leader.
         Enter Matt Graver (Brolin) and Alejandro (Del Toro) who are engaged in a plan to go across the Mexican border and reel in the Big Fish, the head of a major drug cartel.  The tension of the film centers on Macer’s ethical pull between what she knows is right and the sensibilities of Matt and Alejandro.  They rescue her any number of times when she makes errors in judgment, yet she still questions their means to an end.  And so will the viewer, which is what I presume Villaneuve (director) and Taylor Sheridan (writer) had in mind as the essence of the film.  They want us to put ourselves in Macer’s shoes and question what we would do in similar circumstances.
       The three main actors are in their element, at their best, in their roles.  Blunt is a complex mix of strength and naïveté; Brolin is enigmatic and playful; and Del Toro is typically shiver-producing in his intricate mix of the humane and brutal.  Blunt is at her best, but I think the screenwriter did her a disservice by making her impulsive and less thoughtful than she should be at times. 
         A highlight for me was the cinematography of the master Roger Deakins.  Over and over again, his perspective artistically guides the picture, as when we see armed men in uniforms and night goggles stealthily crossing a landscape scene toward an underground tunnel within the background of a gorgeous sunset, presumably expressing the hope that aggression (war) is justifiable and humane in the end.
          All of that is left up to the viewer to decide in this finely drawn picture of the good trying to overcome evil.  It provokes good discussions about the role of someone in Macer’s position, the efficacy of torture in obtaining information, and how closely we need to adhere to Constitutional rights when apprehending criminals.

Altogether a thoughtful, evocative film.

Grade:  A                                    By Donna R. Copeland

WILDLIKE


Ella Purnell     Bruce Greenwood

        Wildlike is a beautifully filmed first-time feature with an engaging story by writer/director Frank Hall Green.  Set in Alaska among breath-taking wilderness scenes and ice-capped mountains either close up or in the distance, nature becomes an important player in this story, quietly captured by cinematographer Hillary Spera. 
I especially like the story, which develops slowly, as the main character Mackenzie (Ella Purnell) is rather mysterious, partly by seldom answering questions put to her.  She is greeted by “Uncle” (Brian Geraghty) at the airport, and taken to his house.  He is friendly and welcoming, and we learn he is the brother of her father who has died.  Only gradually do we learn why she has been sent from Seattle to stay with him.  For a very good reason, after a short time, she instinctively runs away and finds herself in the Alaskan wild.  The story then heightens the viewer’s interest by having unexpected twists and turns.
          At one point, Mackenzie’s path crosses that of Rene Bartlett (the oh-so-fine Bruce Greenwood), then follows what I think is one of the more comical aspects of the film, when Mackenzie begins to follow “Bart” as he prefers to be called, almost tropistically.  He tries every way he can think of to shake her, but she inevitably turns up.  He doesn’t talk much more than she does, although we do learn that he is working through a grief reaction, and wants to hike in this part of Alaska for a particular reason.
          A touching, highly symbolic sequence occurs when the two hikers encounter people flying kites; these people are very warm and welcoming, and invite them to stay overnight and take a short flight in the morning.  This event and something that occurs a short time later marks a turning point in Bart’s and Mackenzie’s relationship, although the journey is still far from over.  At least now, they have a sense of the possibility of flying and becoming free of their burdens.
          The resolution of the story is another aspect that makes it a cut above most; it’s highly intelligent, sensible, and leaves just enough up in the air for the viewer to depart the film feeling inspired.
        In addition to the quality of storytelling, Greenwood’s and Purnell’s rendition of their characters and the journey they go on contributes mightily to the quality of Wildlike.  Purnell’s facial expressions are highly controlled, such as the graduated smiles she makes that go from just slight to broad.  Greenwood creates a certain degree of mysteriousness as well, and often conveys much of what he is thinking and feeling just with his eyes or mouth.

A film sure to keep you engaged.

Grade:  A                                          By Donna R. Copeland

Monday, September 14, 2015

BLACK MASS

Johnny Depp   Joel Edgerton   Benedict Cumberbatch   Kevin Bacon   Peter Sarsgaard   Adam Scott   Corey Stoll
          Black Mass:  an excellent film with a stunning cast that mesmerizes as the viewer witnesses one blatant crime after another.  It’s instructive in showing how a particular attachment formed in childhood renders the adult myopic in relation to someone who was his “savior” at a critical time.  I learned (from Wikipedia) that the title “Black Mass” is a metaphor for an unholy alliance, which I presume refers here to the FBI’s (particularly agent Connolly’s) alliance with a major criminal as an “informant.”
         Director Scott Cooper and the whole team deserve applause for just about every aspect of filmmaking:  The script (Mark Mallouk and Jez Butterworth, screenplay; Dick Lehr and Gerard O’Neill, book); the acting, particularly Depp, Edgerton, Cumberbatch, Bacon, Sarsgaard; makeup so well done I hardly recognized Depp; and cinematography (Masanobu Takayanagi) in artistic use of the camera.  The pacing made the film move in the best of storytelling technique.  Being unaware of the wealth of data about Jimmy “Whitey” Bulger’ criminal career, I expected much to be made of his years of escape, but the filmmakers made a wise choice in restricting most of the film to his criminal behavior and the FBI’s unwitting cooperation.  It was more than enough to fill a two-hour time slot.
            Black Mass serves as a study of personality and character; how people coming out of South Boston have developed a keen sense of loyalty, how one person goes in a criminal direction, another to political office, and still another to law enforcement.  Their background binds them together in a fascinating way.  Bulger is especially well fleshed out, so that we get a comprehensive picture of the complexities of his makeup (e.g., strict religious values in some areas, no conscience in others, and the knowledge and ability to use politeness and the concept of loyalty in evil intentions).
          The social commentary raises the question of how much one can change after coming from a humble background, at least one that makes moral compromise a part of everyday life, for which, I think, South Boston has a reputation.  This is seen in the Cumberbatch figure—Whitey Bulger’s brother—who apparently acquired a veneer of uprightness which brought him a political office and later a university presidency.  But when he had to make a compromise by communicating with his brother on the FBI’s most wanted list, he had to give up the presidency.
          I went reluctantly to the screening of Black Mass (I had seen the television documentary of Bulger’s capture), but was gratifyingly surprised by the substance of the film in terms of criminal behavior and the informed, comprehensive view of humans at their best and worst.

Go to Black Mass for its perceptive insight and understanding of human behavior.

Grade:  A                                    By Donna R. Copeland


SLEEPING WITH OTHER PEOPLE

Jason Sudeikis   Alison Brie   Adam Brody   Adam Scott   Amanda Peet
          In Sleeping with other People, Lainey (Brie) and Jake (Sudeikis) get together once, and then don’t see each other again for years.  When they do meet up again accidently, they’ve each been through difficult relationships, and after confiding in one another, they agree that they’ll simply be friends to avoid the stickiness of a sexual relationship.  A fine friendship does develop; they have fun times together, but date other people.  They talk freely, and support one another in whatever difficulties they’re having with others.  They have to work through small piques of jealousy from time to time, and their friends often remark about how they seem like a couple—which they always emphatically deny—but they do genuinely seem to care for one another.
      Eventually, Lainey decides that she will return to medical school after being a kindergarten teacher, and she moves to Michigan.  Oddly (to me) they part without plans for staying in touch, and Jake gets involved with Paula (Peet) who is his boss, is divorced, and has a child.  The film shows vividly how unconscious concerns and preoccupations can simmer underneath a person outside of awareness.  Jake and Lainey will meet again, but only after a considerable amount of turmoil.
          The film is billed as a comedy, but even though there are some funny lines (“You’re not an addict; you’re a whore!”), much of the story is about the ups and downs in relationships and the difficulty in staying faithful to a mate, more serious business.  Sudeikis and Brie are entertaining in their roles, they have good chemistry together, and Brie gets to show off her dancing skills and Sudeikis his gift of gab.  A host of other stars surround them (e.g., Jason Mantzoukas, Adam Scott, Andrea Savage), showing that the film is well cast.
          Director Leslye Headland (writer as well) keeps a good pace and clear direction, and the music of Andrew Feltenstein and John Nau matches the changing moods of the story, often making a humorous reference with it.  There are some rough spots (as in the beginning when Lainey is throwing a senseless tantrum in the school dormitory), a lot of casual sex and rather public hook-ups, which lends some unevenness in the flow.  The cruel way a character is dumped toward the end of the film is another episode that does not fit well in a comedy.  I think the film would be better if it lightened up and offered more wit and less turbulence.

A rom-com with more upheaval than comedy.

Grade:  C-                                    By Donna R. Copeland



Sunday, September 13, 2015

MAZE RUNNER: THE SCORCH TRIALS

Dylan O’Brien   Kaya Scodelario   Patricia Clarkson   Lili Taylor   Thomas Brodie-Sangster   Aidan Gillen   Ki Hong Lee   Giancarlo Esposito
          The title Maze Runner is apt in that the protagonists seem to run during almost the entire movie.  In The Scorch Trials, a group of kids are racing through “The Scorch”, which is desolate, sandy, hot terrain and bombed out cities with buildings caving in, and they have zombie-like beings and others chasing after them for one reason or another.  It’s rather remarkable through all this that they seem to survive for days without much food or water.  The film opens with a group of teenagers routed out of bed and told to run (with the implication they are being rescued).  And in fact, they are taken to a place where someone named Janson (Gillen) repeatedly reassures them they are in a safe place and to “just relax.”  It appears to be true to the starved, beleaguered teens as they are fed and clothed and begin to feel content.  Except…
          One odd member of the group whom Thomas (O’Brien) doesn’t know takes him for an exploration at night that raises his concern.  Apparently Thomas (although unbeknownst to him because something has happened to his memory) is seen as a leader [“maybe they’ll listen to you”, says Newt (Brodie-Sangster)], not only by members of his group, but by others he encounters during the rest of the story.  They boys do find things that disturb them so much they plan an escape, but since they don’t know where they are, they have no idea where they’ll run to.
          And that’s the main part of this drama.  It’s a post-apocalyptic world as told in a trilogy (The Maze Runner) by the novelist James Dashner.  Scorch Trials is the fifth in a series of films based on Dashner’s Maze Runner novels.  This is actually the first one I’ve seen personally, but although there are references to previous events in the series, the film still stands on its own. 
          When Thomas and the others in his group discover that the experiments they are a part of might be dangerous to them, they attempt to escape but must go through the barren Scorch land to get to a safe place they’ve been informed about.  The researchers are hot on their trail, along with bounty hunters and the zombie-like creatures they meet along the way.  The questions become about whom they can trust and whether or not they’ll make it to their destination. 
          Although perhaps not as original as some would hope, the story is exciting and tense throughout, and the production design (Daniel T. Dorrance) and set direction spectacular.  Director Wes Ball, Musician John Paesano and Cinematographer Gyula Pados, worked together in previous Maze productions and all contribute to the quality of this one.  Young Dylan O’Brien—who was Thomas in the 2014 production—is a fine actor who holds his own as the lead.  Other actors (Clarkson, Taylor, Gillen, and Lee) are likewise forceful in their presentations. 

A fast-paced young adult thriller with panache.

Grade:  C+                                    By Donna R. Copeland



CAPTIVE

David Oyellowo     Kate Mara     Michael Kenneth Williams

           Captive, a really tight, tense thriller, portrays the desperation of an inmate frustrated about being locked up for so long for something he did not do.  (The film leaves unclear whether he is right or not, but seems to imply that he is correct.)  Brian Nichols (Oyelowo) decides to take matters into his own hands when he finds out he has a newly born son.  So he breaks out of a courthouse jail leaving a heartbreaking mess behind him, and ending up at Ashley Smith’s (Mara) house, holding her captive.  Ashley is trying to get her life back in order so she can reclaim her daughter who has been taken away from her, deemed as unfit to be a mother, so this is a very inconvenient time, aside from the fear and anxiety it produces.
           Most of the drama—based on a true story written about in a memoir by the actual Ashley Smith, Unlikely Angel—takes place in her house where a relationship develops between her and the escapee.  Ashley is even more terrified because Brian was serving time for a vicious rape, which she knows about because his escape is breaking news on TV.  He binds together her hands initially and her hands and feet later on, but as time goes on and they share some of their back-stories, a certain amount of trust develops.  Interestingly, they both go through periods of soul-searching, especially when talking about children and their own childhoods, and when she reads excerpts from a book she had previously rejected, The Purpose Driven Life—a Christian based book written by Rick Warren and blessed by Oprah Winfrey.  Their interaction goes on through the night, and by morning she is fixing him breakfast. 
           A deadline is approaching; she has promised to attend her daughter’s program at school at 9:30 am.  It’s critical that she make it, and David feels torn, given his new feelings about parental responsibility.  He appreciates her need to go; but will he figure out a way to assure his own safety in the meantime if she does?
           The book and film on which this story is based is from a Christian point of view, with a quote from the Bible: “…but where sin abounded, grace did much more abound” (Romans 5:20), which indicates the overarching principle behind it.  I appreciated it for its presentation of three-dimensional characters, and its picture of human beings in whole.  People are so much more than one aspect of their reputation.  It also shows how relationships are a process over time; that people can and do change.
           David Oyelowo, one of filmdom’s most talented actors, delivers here, and is to be praised for taking the role of the apparent bad guy.  He and Kata Mara give very nuanced renditions of people in the hostage circumstance.  Although this is a religiously based work, Jerry Jameson, the director, and perhaps the writers (Brian Bird and Ashley Smith) as well, use restraint from that standpoint, and have composed a work that is more humanly dramatic than anything else. 

A film with grace in the midst of human failings.

Grade:  A-                        By Donna R. Copeland



Friday, September 11, 2015

TIME OUT OF MIND

Richard Gere
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           Homelessness is depressing, and Time out of Mind brings the point home big time.  But a major flaw in the film is that it omits any back-story about George (Gere) that would make him a sympathetic figure.  He appears fully capable of getting a job, but we never see him apply for one.  And what happened to him?  He appears as someone who had at one time been very successful.  Why does his daughter Maggie (Jena Malone) hate him so much she cannot stand to talk to him?  Without any kind of account for this man’s situation, we have nothing to go on.  Unfortunately, this film seems to validate politically conservative arguments about social services, that is, that people who apply for social services are able-bodied and simply don’t want to work.  (I am sure writer/director Oren Moverman did not have this in mind nor does he likely have this point of view.)
           Without any kind of background or human element, I can’t figure out why this film was made.  Yes, homelessness is a tragic situation, but without any humanity behind it, it is meaningless.  Are we to relate to and empathize with George simply because he is homeless?  That’s impossible for me unless I know of the extenuating circumstances.  George seems quite able to work at some kind of job, and so long as that is possible, he should be directing his efforts in that direction.  Instead, he simply applies for benefits for which he does not seem to be eligible.  Sure, there are many, many homeless people who are limited in cognitive and physical functions, but George seems quite intact.  If he is not, then the movie fails in showing his limitations.  He looks neither physically or mentally compromised.
           Writer/director Oren Moverman, known for making comments about American life in Rampart and The Messenger, may simply have been interested in showing what homelessness is like to those of us having no experience with it, and the ways in which we block out even the awareness of homelessness by literally averting our eyes when its manifestations are in our visual field.  We see George go through repeated indignities from the beginning when he is found asleep in someone else’s bathtub and is kicked out of the apartment building with dispatch by the building manager (Steve Buscemi in a cameo), to being rudely treated at benefits offices and homeless shelters.  Although he is complimented as being “handsome” by a social worker (another cameo by Kyra Sedgewick), he is harassed by a nosy fellow shelter seeker (Ben Vereen). 
           Gere’s performance is flawless throughout, which is noteworthy, because he is usually in roles about  attractive, wealthy men.  But he plays this one straight, never showing any signs linking him to, say, Robert Miller in Arbitrage.  Since the character is so taciturn, the role also required a great deal of nonverbal expression.

Richard Gere as a homeless man; who would have thought?

Grade:  B+                        By Donna R. Copeland



Thursday, September 10, 2015

JIMMY'S HALL

Barry Ward     Jim Norton     Simone Kirby


 
Jimmy’s Hall provides a heartbreaking look at a country gripped in a conflict between the Catholic Church, wealthy landowners, and politicians on the one hand (“the masters and the pastors”, according to one character) and everyone else caught in economic straits whose priorities are for education and freedom.  We see the tactics of rumor, innuendo, prejudice, and self-interest used against innocent people.  It takes place in 1932 after a period of wartime in Ireland’s gaining independence from England and then another civil war afterwards.  The film is based on the true story of Jimmy Gralton, a political activist who built a local hall in which to expound his left-leaning views, and was deported to the U.S. as a result.
           In the movie, Jimmy (Ward) has been out of the country in New York for 10 years.  He returns after his brother was killed in one of the wars, and his mother is aging and needing help with the family farm.  He comes with no plans, but the townsfolk want him to rebuild the community hall that he was once a part of for gatherings and classes.  There are enough interested people to rebuild it with volunteer labor.  Jimmy accedes, but this goes against the local priest (Norton), who is opposed to any social organization outside of the church.  He’s especially obsessed about “communism”, which he accuses Jimmy of endorsing, but really he despises any type of free will and help for the poor, dancing, American music, etc. 
           Despite the priest, Jimmy’s Hall is rebuilt and becomes a popular gathering place for young and old, with classes, dancing, and music.  We see the priest’s true colors when he shames those going to the hall by reading out their names during a church service.  He sides with a wealthy estate owner who is banishing a farmer and his family from a small parcel of land, leaving them homeless.  Jimmy attempts to negotiate with him, but he won’t budge unless Jimmy tears down the hall, and the situation escalates.
           Director Ken Loach (The Wind that Shakes the Barley, The Angel’s Share) is known for movies with social realism, and this one is no exception.  Barry Ward, an Irish actor on stage and screen, plays the protagonist in a low-key manner, but with a winning personality, not fiery as we usually think of activists, and his attempts to introduce the Irish people to American jazz is rewarding.  Jim Norton as Father Sheridan is better known to Americans (Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Water for Elephants, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas), and is entirely convincing here as a priest struggling to hold onto dogma when faced with convincing evidence against it. 
           Jimmy’s Hall doesn’t break new ground, but it is solid and interesting as a piece of history, and Robbie Ryan’s cinematography with a muted color palette, smoke, mists, and shadows takes it a step above.

Traditional religious beliefs tangle with contemporary lifestyles.

Grade:  C+                                                   By Donna R. Copeland

LEARNING TO DRIVE

--> Patricia Clarkson     Ben Kingsley     Sarita Choudhury     Samantha Bee     Grace Gummer
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           The opening scene is priceless, and just as the taxi drivers in New York have no idea what to expect when they pick up a fare, so we encounter unexpected turns of events in Learning to Drive.  Wendy (Clarkson) becomes hysterical when her husband tells her he is leaving her (at a restaurant, no less!), and he bolts, with her right behind him.  When he boards Darwan’s (Kingsley) taxi, she jumps in on the other side and gives him hell.  Where do we go from here?
           One pathway follows Wendy as she goes through stages of adjustment trying to redefine herself.  We feel her heartbreak (Clarkson is such a good actress!), and are encouraged by her resolve to learn to drive as one small step.  By chance, Darwan, who took her home that evening, is a driving instructor in the daytime, and when Wendy finds that out later, after her daughter (Gummer) urges her to learn to drive and visit her in Vermont, she relents and makes an appointment with Darwan.
           What follows are cuts between Wendy’s life and her journey and Darwan’s who has his own issues to deal with.  Darwan is a Sikh, and his sister in India is trying to match him up with a wife.  Their stories, which touch on immigration, American xenophobia, marital infidelity, and road rage give the film more depth than we expect in a simple romantic comedy. 
           Probably its strongest asset is its window into multiculturalism and all that involves.  A vivid scene is Wendy’s long drive to Queens, a place she worked very hard to escape and Darwan worked very hard to get in.  Their differences are highlighted in Wendy’s manifestation of a liberated American woman using foul language, aggression, and wit contrasted with Darwan’s patient, traditional, ordered, polite mien.  The beauty—and the point of the story—is each becoming able to appreciate the value of the other.
           Clarkson and Kingsley are gifted actors who can bring to life any character they play, and when they’re together, the result is electric.  Gummer is proving that she has a good share of her mother’s (Meryl Streep) genes in this cameo role (not that she hasn’t had to do something with them!).  I was gratified in seeing “The Daily Show” alums Samantha Bee and John Hodgman spice up the humor with their portrayal of supporting figures.
           I like this film even more in the process of writing this review, and will keep an eye out for more from director Isabel Coixet and writer Sarah Kernochan.

Don’t miss the agony of heartbreak, the rich multiculturalism, and satisfying resolution in this romantic comedy.

Grade:  B                                    By Donna R. Copeland