Tuesday, August 30, 2016


Rachel Weisz   Michael Shannon   Azita Ghanizada   Kathy Bates   Danny Glover

             This is one of the most interesting, intriguing studies of identity and attachment issues that I’ve seen.  There are movies about “split personalities” and multiple personality disorder based on the unconscious, but this is different in that Alice/Jenny (Weisz) is consciously changing her name, who she is, and her history, seemingly on a whim.  Or perhaps it’s when she starts feeling trapped (an attachment issue).  She describes an experience of getting to a “blank space” in her identity that feels like a high just before she decides who she’ll be next. 
            Transforming identities becomes a theme throughout Complete Unknown (a title that may refer to a Bob Dylan song, “Like a Rolling Stone”*).  For instance, when Tom (Shannon) meets Alice for the first time, she appears to be someone else; the name on a birthday cake is misspelled; and there is a sequence in which two people misidentify who they are completely in a game-like way.  At a party, some have fun altering biographical details, whereas others see it simply as lying and become incensed at the notion of doing so.  For myself, I find some humor in it, but admit that I found it unsettling in the beginning of the film when we see the Weisz character in shifting locations, appearances, and surroundings.  Someone’s identity is so central, we get disoriented when they become something like the shape changers in mythology.
            Tom is in business with his brother and is married to Ramina (Ghanizada), a talented jewelry designer who has been accepted into a designing school in California.  Tom is clearly feeling torn about venturing out of his comfort zone (home and profession) and launching a different life in California.  He’s having a hard time even discussing it with his wife, and is clearly hoping the dilemma will magically disappear. 
            When Alice appears unexpectedly at a party and he discovers that she blithely changes her identity at will, he is impatient and judgmental (with some justification, as we see), even horrified.  But he is also intrigued, and keeps pressing her for more details.  Then, when an unexpected situation arises, and she playfully pulls him into a game of pretend, he begins to see a possibility that never occurred to his practical mind before, which will prompt an important transformational change in himself.
            Complete Unknown could be seen as a light, entertaining movie that is just for fun.  But writer with Julian Sheppard and director Joshua Marston have something in mind that is more substantive, having to do with taking risks to fulfill one’s potential, or to escape untenable circumstances, or to explore the concepts of identity and personality, and, finally, to address the ethical questions and controversy that arise when people “mess” with something that some regard as God-given, e.g., taking different personas at will, or—more topical—changing gender. 

Don’t miss the humor and substance of this absorbing film.

Grade:  A                                    By Donna R. Copeland

*How does it feel
To be on your own
With no direction home
Like a complete unknown
Like a rolling stone

Dylan, B. (2004). Bob Dylan Lyrics 1962–2001. Simon & Schuster. pp. 167–168. ISBN 0-7432-2827-8.

Friday, August 26, 2016


Stephen Lang     Jane Levy     Dylan Minnette     Daniel Zovatto

          Chills and thrills a’plenty are in Don’t Breathe.  Three young pals, Rocky (Levy), Alex (Minnette), and Money (Zovalto)—pun intended, I suppose—are making their living by stealing from other people.  One has a connection to an alarm company, which allows them to disengage the alarms, enter homes and help themselves.  They have to hand over a high percentage of what they get to a “handler” who lets them know which houses to hit.  Then, as expected a really big job comes up, and at first Alex is reluctant because he knows the penalties if they’re caught, depending on the circumstances and whether or not they’re armed.  He has his limits as to how much risk he wants to take.
          Money, on the other hand, who seems to have no scruples about anything, is gung ho for the job, as is his girlfriend Rocky.  After Alex reads a news story about the blind man who lives in the house, he decides to join them after all.  The blind man (Lang) is ex-military and received a handsome settlement in a legal suit.  Since he lives in a modest house in a neighborhood in Detroit that is mostly abandoned, there is likely to be a stash of cash on hand.
         Off they go, and actually get into the house, but what awaits them there will be surprise after horrible surprise.  That could be one of the weaknesses of the plot—at least six times you think it’s going to end, but Director Fede Alvarez and his co-writer Rodo Sayagues, always have one more gasp up their sleeves.  The plot goes upstairs, downstairs, in the cellar, in the attic, and outdoors.  There are locks to break (and sometimes the intruders are locked inside), guns to fire, and a muscular ex-military fighter who doesn’t need his eyes to take someone down. 
          The plot is intelligent, mostly, with clever twists, such as the fact that in the beginning the viewer will have little sympathy for the thieves, especially Money, although Rocky is a single mother with a rough background who cares deeply for her daughter.  Then as the plot unfolds what Alex and Rocky have done fades in comparison to what they encounter.  Which is a true horror story.
       As with almost all the horror movies I’ve seen, though, I roll my eyes when the characters do stupid things and don’t take advantage of ways to escape, and that happens here.  Both Alex and Rocky could have gotten out of the situation a number of times.  Rocky is a bit more understandable in the sense that she stubbornly pursues her goals, and if there is any chance at all to get away with the loot, she will try.  The filmmakers have hooked Alex in by making him have the hots for Rocky, who is Money’s girlfriend, and clearly he feels protective of her and will not leave until he knows she is safe.
         Stephen Lang as the blind man convinces us of a layered personality with muscular arms that are as intimidating as his blank but intelligent eyes.  He has to use his other senses to detect who is around and where, which he does mostly with accuracy until he gets desperate and rattled, then he is a wild man.  But he pretty much gets our sustained attention over the long haul.  The twist in his story is the most chilling of all.  Minnette, Levy, and Zovatto carry off their roles with ease, and move the plot along over the tense terrain.

A good come-on for horror fans with its gripping plot twists.

Grade:  B                                    By Donna R. Copeland

Thursday, August 25, 2016


Tika Sumpter     Parker Sawyers

          This depiction of the beginning of a love story is something probably every couple wishes they could have.  Of course, it’s done with talented filmmakers led by writer/director Richard Tanne, and is respectful as befitting U.S. President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama.  At the same time, it’s also delightfully revealing.  I had heard that she gave him a hard time in the beginning, but I hadn’t realized she was so feisty.  (Making me wonder how she transitioned into such a unifier across the years.) 
          Southside with You shows Michelle’s reluctance to date Barack in the beginning, for good reason; she was his supervisor at a big law firm, and she had to be very circumspect to counteract prejudices toward blacks and women.  And while he was respectful of her opinion, he wanted to date her so much, his charm (her term is “smooth”) eventually won her over.  He only got her to go with him the first time when he invited her to a Southside (Chicago) community meeting, which piqued her interest; but little did she know he planned to spend the whole day with her.  Their interchanges during the date are very entertaining—like listening to two opposing attorneys argue about a very interesting case.  We also witness Obama’s speaking skill in addressing a group, reasoning with doubters, and ultimately winning them over.
        Another aspect that was intriguing to me was the way each listened to the other’s personal stories, then had insightful comments to offer.  For instance, after he was critical of his father a couple of times, she observed that he needed to forgive his father and move on rather than “living your life against his.”  What comes across in their discussions is their equality in discussing important, personal matters, as well as their support of one another.  Of course, they laughed and had fun; it was not all seriousness.
         Tracy “Twinkle” Bird had a sharp eye in casting Sumpter and Sawyers for the major roles, and the actors came through in looking like the real people through gestures, speaking voices, and demeanors that we have come to recognize and know so well from this famous couple.
          I’d like to note that the film is not a “Democratic” product/propaganda; it is genuinely a love story that could be considered typical of well-educated people in their 20’s/30’s, and would be open-ended if we didn’t already know how it turned out.  Tanne’s approach to the material, the tone, and the choices of what to show make the film both entertaining and informative.  The integration of Stephen James Taylor’s music with the drama and cinematography (Patrick Scola) is seamless, making the film a fine work of art.  The final song played during the credits and Scola’s blurring of the picture during transitions reinforces this observation.
          I wish we had seen a “To be continued…” sign at the end so we could see more of the everyday life of these fascinating individuals.

A low-key but fascinating story about the beginning of a love affair.

Grade:  A By Donna R. Copeland


Robert De Niro     Edgar Ramirez     Ana de Armas     Ellen Baskin     John Turturro     
Ruben Blades     Usher     Oscar Jaenada     Reg E. Cathey

          Roberto Duran (Ramirez) grew up in Panama, a street kid, who learned early on how to hustle, coached by a neighborhood “Pied Piper” who gathered up the kids and taught them how to survive by hook or by crook.  Duran’s father had long left his mother, and this man, Chaflan (Jaenada), served as his first father figure.  The second was Carlos (Blades), whom Duran at an early age kept bugging to train him to be a fighter, and when Carlos actually saw his drive and determinism in an underground fight, he agreed.  The third—who served as devoted mentor as well—was Ray Arcel (De Niro), who was approached by Carlos to pick up Duran’s training because he recognized that the famed trainer would make Duran a champion prizefighter.  Both Carlos and Ray sustained their involvement in Duran’s career for years despite major setbacks.  This could be the underlying substance of this biopic—the search for a missing father and how that served to fuel a man’s aggression and then channel it into something useful.
     Another influence was Panamanian politics, that country’s efforts to regain their sovereignty after the U.S. “bought them” with a canal.  Duran was a perceptive child when the protests first began, and when he witnessed the killing of a Panamanian trying to raise Panama’s flag at the Panama Canal and the Panamanians’ perception that the U.S. had reneged on a deal, the U.S. was identified as the father who abandoned him in infancy.
Ray Arcel was reluctant to take on Duran—he had been punished by the boxing powers that be at the time—but partly because he saw the potential and partly because he just wasn’t ready to retire, he began a relationship with Duran that affected both of them emotionally and changed their lives.  Duran soon became the boxer with manos de piedras (hands of stone).
         After Duran does become a sensation, he makes some mistakes that almost cost him his titles and reputation.  The film chronicles these with good pace and timing (the director is Jonathan Jakubowicz), allowing us to see the evolving relationships not only between the fighter and his trainers, but also his wife (de Armas) and Sugar Ray Leonard (Usher).  The film touches on the corruption in boxing that uses fighters as commodities (Turturro’s cameo appearances are appropriately subtle and commanding) and how international events can encroach upon people’s lives.
      Cinematography by Miguel Ioann Littin Menz is remarkable, particularly during the boxing matches.  Like a ballet dancer, the camera soars, pauses, and has explosions of color and action, capturing the viewer’s attention with its sheer beauty.
         De Niro remains a force in the movie business, and Hands of Stone is his film in a way, although Ramirez more than holds his own in portraying a deeply conflicted man who had to evolve from a scrappy street kid to head of a prosperous household, all while managing the temptations and seduction of fame.  Ramirez capably shows the multi-facets of this personality.  Ana de Armas captures our interest as well in her excellent portrayal of a wife needing to adapt to as well as influence her tempestuous husband.  A delightful addition to this cast is Usher, who plays the patient, charming, and ultimately very insightful Sugar Ray Leonard, a gentleman in the best sense of the word.

Under the guidance of father figures, a tempestuous boxer acquires hands of stone.

Grade:  B+                        By Donna R. Copeland

Saturday, August 20, 2016


Voices of:  Charlize Theron   Art Parkinson   Ralph Fiennes   George Takei   Rooney Mara   Matthew McConaughey

            What a perfect blend of visual beauty, creativity, magical stories, and delightful lessons for life!  The American stop-motion animation studio Laika is well known for its quality work (Coraline, ParaNorman, The Boxtrolls), and Kubo and the two Strings represents their best in my opinion.  The visual beauty lies mostly in the sheets of paper that float or spin around and then are instantly formed by origami into magical figures.  But they are not just magical, their identities are revealed in time, and provide a way for a young child to come to terms with the loss of his parents.  The stop-motion animation could be entertaining and appreciated even without the drama, but that’s the icing on the cake.
            The film opens with an undulating sea and a tiny figure in a boat saying mantras to herself to keep her boat on course.  She ends up being tossed on shore and asleep or unconscious.  A baby’s cry awakens her and she runs over to find her infant son wrapped in a blanket.  He has a patch over his left eye.  The full story about them and how they got there unfolds during the course of the film, but in the interim, we see mother and son residing in a remote cave carved in a huge rock formation.  The mother appears older and frail, and her devoted son, Kubo (Parkinson), feeds her and comforts her when she has nightmares.  She tells him wonderful stories, his favorites being about his father.  He has many questions about him, but is always left hanging when his mother forgets.
            During the day, Kubo runs down to the village and tells the same stories in the city square which are illustrated with his magical papers and origami figures.  Plain sheets of colored paper are magically transformed into figures as he relates a tale.  Now, Kubo has been warned many times by his mother not to stay out after dark, but when he hears that during a certain festival people light lanterns and talk to their departed loved ones in the cemetery, he makes his own lantern and tries to talk to his father, not noticing that the sun has set and it’s dark.
            From there, the story becomes an adventure in which Kubo is visited by his ferocious aunts (Mara), witchlike figures out to capture him; thrown with a monkey (Theron), a beetle (McConaughey), and his origami action figures and their weapons, all while being actively pursued.  There are close calls, harrowing battles on land and sea, and a quest.  Kubo eventually learns who the witches are, why he has only one eye, and the full story about his parents.  In the process, it becomes a hero’s journey toward enlightenment and manhood.
            Themes include the value of stories, magic, family, and overcoming evil, mixed in with plenty of humor and adventure.  The interchanges between the monkey and the beetle are wonderfully entertaining in the midst of real threats.  Of deeper import are the observations about death and how memory (the “most powerful magic there is”) in the form of stories keeps loved ones alive forever.  And finally, there is a poignant sequence where an evil man is transformed by making him forget his meanness and defining him as someone charitable and good, giving credence to the idea that the attributions of others influence who we are.
            In addition to the wonders of Laika and Travis Knight’s animation, the voices of Theron, Parkinson, Fiennes, Takei, Mara, McConnaughey, and the Japanese actors provide additional color and meaning to the story.

Animation and story at their best, a film for all ages.

Grade:  A                        By Donna R. Copeland

Thursday, August 18, 2016


Daniel Radcliffe   Toni Collette   Tracy Letts   Nestor Caronell   Sam Trammell   Pawel Szajda   Seth Numrich

          Daniel Radcliffe plays an uncover FBI agent, Nate Foster, whose charge is to mingle with neo-Nazis and gain their trust.  His supervisor Angela (Collette) is certain that they are planning a major event that will risk the lives of many people.  She thinks the Harvard educated, ex-Marine, and personable new person in the department would make an excellent choice for the job.  Her boss, Tom Hernandez, who doubts her judgment in this case, frequently makes disparaging remarks about her, and thinks Nate is not ready for such a job, so he initially nixes the operation.  But with pressure, Angela gets her way and Nate embarks on a dangerous mission.
        The men comprising the Skinheads make a motley crew, with different shadings to their beliefs and prejudices.  Some are fundamental Christians, some are simply angry at the world, and some have more of an intellectual reason for joining the movement.  One is a hothead who Nate thinks it’s only a matter of time before he is arrested.  They’re all united in their belief, however, that “diversity” equals white genocide and that the white race deserves supremacy.  (They’re obviously unaware that race cannot be biologically defined.)  I found it enlightening to get a picture of what these people are like and the differing motives they have for joining the group.
       It’s also interesting to see how the FBI creates an uncover sting in and what the experience of being such an agent is like.  He has to be convincing in feigning beliefs he doesn’t hold, possess special knowledge so he appears as smart as or smarter than the others, be likeable to most of them, and be quick to change the script in a flash if something is about to go wrong.  Radcliffe achieves this persona, and the script is snappy enough to maintain the action.  Writer/director Daniel Ragussis has successfully adapted the true story on which the film is based to the screen.  That story with the same title was written by Michael German.
      Toni Collette, Tracy Letts, Sam Trammell, and Pawel Szajda provide excellent supporting roles in helping to make Imperium an interesting, exciting, and sometimes disturbing thriller.  It will be in limited release as well as VOD August 19, 2016.

Go to Imperium to be thrilled and chilled.

Grade:  B                                    By Donna R. Copeland


Jack Huston   Toby Kebbell   Rodrigo Santoro   Nazanin Boniadi   Ayelet Zurer   Pilou Asbaek   Morgan Freeman

          This story of Ben-Hur is derived from the 1880 novel by Lew Wallace entitled Ben-Hur:  A Tale of the Christ, with a screenplay by Keith R. Clarke and John Ridley, who also wrote the screenplay for 12 Years a Slave.  In this film version, the plot diverges here and there from the novel.   Previous films based on the book were made in 1907, 1925, 1959, and 2003, the most famous of which was William Wyler’s in 1959 starring Charlton Heston and Stephen Boyd, which won 11 Academy Awards and became the top grossing picture of 1960.
           In 2016 Ben-Hur, Judah (Huston) and Messala (Kebbell) are brothers, Messala being rescued by the Ben-Hur family when he became an orphan.  This sets up an intense bonding/rivalry between the two, the latter fueled by the mother’s antagonism toward Messala, and her efforts to place a wedge in the obvious attraction between Messala and her daughter.  Embittered and feeling justified in his actions, Messala accuses Judah of treason against the empire and betrays the family who sheltered him.
         Like a coming-of-age hero who must undergo numerous trials, Judah is arrested by the Roman soldiers (he wasn’t guilty and tried to protect the zealot he had rescued who betrayed him), put in a Roman ship’s galley to row for five years, manages to escape during a battle at sea, and is washed ashore near the camp of a wealthy African sheik (Freeman). After saving the sheik’s sick and dying horse, the sheik sponsors Judah’s entry into the chariot race of his life with Messala being his primary competitor.  Messala has now become an important Roman officer in the army.
        Huston and Kebbell show their acting skills in achieving a detectable ambivalence toward one another that comes through as a deep, complex relationship.  Judah is the more secure and insightful brother who was born naturally into a noble family, whereas Messala has stored up years of resentment at their social inequality, despite Judah’s assurances that he is truly a member of the Ben-Hur family.  Messala has coped with his situation by joining the Romans in their brutal campaign to crush uprisings that seem to be proliferating in conquered dominions.  Morgan Freeman as the sheik has the same gravitas that he brings to all his roles.  The actresses are beautiful, but are primarily ornaments without much of a role, except maybe Esther (Boniadi), who is paired with Judah and asserts herself easily when she thinks Judah is not listening to her.
          The story of Ben-Hur is well told with OK special effects, but I see no need for the 3-D version.  For those who are sympathetic to the Christian religion, it is likely to be inspiring as well as entertaining. 

Brother against brother in brutal Roman times.

Grade:  C                                    By Donna R. Copeland


Mike Birbiglia   Gillian Jacobs   Keegan-Michael Key   Kate Micucci   Tami Sagher   Chris Gothard   Katie Rediger

         The Commune is an improv comedy troupe in New York City, with member aspirations to make it big by being chosen to write or perform on the popular television show, Weekend Live.  It’s a close-knit group of people, some of whom have been together for a long time, and they see themselves as a family.  They live, eat, breathe skits-in-the-making constantly, and seem to assume that they will always be together.  They’re very open, feeling free to criticize someone’s performance or how they’re behaving.  Although writer/director Mike Birbiglia is a comedian, as are many of the actors, Don’t Think Twice is as much a drama as it is a comedy.
        The drama comes when it dawns on everyone that they have individual aspirations, and some will succeed and others won’t, at least for a time.  It puts a strain on the group, and they have to work through the congratulatory high-fives, the envy, the disappointment and the realization that they indeed will not always be together.  Interestingly, some actually blossom, and some find other avenues of satisfaction, such as personal relationships and new venues. 
         It’s a strength of Birbiglia’s writing and direction that the drama has depth and realism and goes beyond pure comedy.  It covers competitiveness in the workplace, coping with limited funds, intrusions of events and people in the outside world, problems in finding/keeping a venue, and personal relationships.  Not that the comedy isn’t funny; it is.  I especially like the beginning when a history and definition of improv is outlined, with its three basic rules:  Say yes (building on what your partners create), remember it’s about the group—not one individual, and don’t think (get out of your head).
         The improv moments are funny within a backdrop of a group of young people who are wrestling with the realities of life in show business.

The heartbreak of not being chosen.

Grade:  B                        By Donna R. Copeland

Tuesday, August 16, 2016


Haruka Ayase     Masami Nagasawa     Kaho     Suzu Hirose

          I love the sheer humanness of this Japanese film with deliberate exposition and minimal music, which highlights the visual beauty on the screen and eloquent mindfulness of the dialog.  Writer of the screenplay and director Hirokazu Koreeda has adapted Akimi Yoshida’s diary into a “moviescape” [I don’t know how else to put it] in which daily living among sisters is put into focus.  Our Little Sister is a simple story in a way, about the daily lives of three sisters living alone in a big house, but told with all the depth and complexity that human lives entail. The sisters’ mother moved out when their father had an affair and moved to another town, and neither had much contact with their daughters for years.  When they hear of their father’s death years later, the sisters decide to go to the funeral where they meet a half-sister they had not known about. It says something predictable and genuine about Suzu (Hirose) when she meets them at the railroad station and expresses her gratitude for their attendance.  They are duly impressed.
          Another complexity is introduced when the father’s third wife, Suzu’s stepmother, is introduced, but is so broken up, she is unable to address the people attending.  That responsibility then falls to the oldest sister Sachi (Ayase), who is used to it; she had taken over their mother’s role with the two younger sisters, Yochino (Nagasawa) and Koda (Kaho) when their parents moved away.  The sisters are so entranced with Suzu and she is so appealing, they end up inviting her to come and live with them, since it’s obvious she is not close to her stepmother.  This is against the advice of the great aunt and others.
          Unfolding from this beginning is a detailed description of the sisters’ personalities, their relationships with others in the family and their friends, and their individual challenges and struggles at home, school, and work.  By the end, we feel we know this family very well.  The exposition is so natural, reflecting their dreams, conflicts, and dilemmas in such a quiet way, it seems to be reflecting the lushness and beauty of the landscape surrounding them.  The dialog is sprinkled with little gems such as “I’m jealous of your parents; they left a treasure like you behind on this earth”, and “Beauty still looked beautiful to her” (as she was dying).
          Our Little Sister was appreciated in Cannes for its quality by being nominated for the Palm d'or.  Although probably unfamiliar to American audiences, the main actors are obviously skilled and deliver fine performances, showing ways they are individuals as well as sisters, and the townspeople shown—many of whom are children—come across as realistically natural and appealing.  The story has depth in that a number of conflicts arise that put the characters in dilemmas they have to resolve.

A thoughtful, beautiful story about sisters.

Grade:  A                                    By Donna R. Copeland

Friday, August 12, 2016


Meryl Streep     Hugh Grant     Simon Helberg

              Stephen Frears has created a farce about a woman who is tone-deaf, but imagines she can sing beautifully—something someone might see on television’s “The Voice”, actually.  But the difference here is that thousands are taking part in her delusion in a folie à deux-mille.  Granted, at one concert it requires a brassy woman from Brooklyn to whistle at everyone who’s laughing, and make them shush and listen with respect.  This is one of the finest moments in the movie when she makes clear what the film is about:  That matching Florence’s own generosity and warm-heartedness should be returned in full.  This film is based on a true story in which a wealthy woman insists on giving concerts when she has no talent.  But she was surrounded by her people—some who were sycophants and some who genuinely cared for her—and we’re told at the end of the film that the recordings made by Foster Jenkins are some of the most requested from the Carnegie Hall Archives.  So the woman’s popularity is not made up.  I think this is the only instance in movies I’ve seen that generosity and warm-heartedness trumps critical opinion and analysis.  (Bravo! Florence Foster Jenkins!)
         For someone who can really sing, pulling off an off-key performance must be extremely difficult, but of course the ever-talented Meryl Streep has no problem.  As Florence, she screeches, whinnies, and groans like the worst of them (bad singers)—all with an earnest face and magnanimous heart.  I understand from one of her interviews that she actually had to learn to sing the arias the right way before she began to sing them purposefully off key.  She and Hugh Grant make a loving pair in a union with perhaps the same level of denial that is shown toward her voice:  Of course, it’s perfect!  They play the two characters like the old pros they are.
              Almost as much of a star in this film as Streep is Simon Helberg, who plays the role of pianist for Foster Jenkins.  His facial expressions are something to behold, from the time he first hears Florence sing to the end when disbelief and feeling aghast evolves into surrender and love.  We laugh at his horror about as much as we laugh at Streep’s voice.
        Earlier this year, I saw another rendition of the Florence Foster Jenkins story (Marguerite, a French-Czech-Belgium production directed by Xavier Giannoli and starring Catherine Frot.)  Frears has clearly gone for more of a comedic touch—a hearty laugh compared with Giannoli’s smile.  I like both treatments—they make for interesting contrasts—but in both I wearied of listening to the grating sounds that come from the actress’s voices.  Is there anything worse than bad singing of operatic arias? 

Allow yourself to be drawn into a delusion.

Grade:  B                                    By Donna R. Copeland