Thursday, February 18, 2016

RISEN

Joseph Fiennes     Tom Felton     Peter Firth     Cliff Curtis     Maria Boto


          Risen offers a good rendition of the time during Christ’s crucifixion, resurrection, and transcendence as seen through the eyes of a skeptical Roman tribune who is charged with seeing that the crucifixion is carried out.  Next, he’s to assure that the cave where the Nazarene’s body is placed has a huge stone rolled up to the entry by seven men to assure that the body is not stolen.  His followers are suspected of trying to steal it, hide it, and claim that Yeshua (Jesus) arose from the dead.  The Roman Prefect is especially nervous about quelling all unrest among the Hebrews because of the imminent visit of the emperor.
       As he works to carry out the orders, Tribune Clavius (Fiennes) is watchful and thorough in going to all lengths in ferreting out the body.  When he finds that the tomb is indeed empty the next morning, with the stained shroud left behind, puzzlement and doubt begin to have an effect on him. He overhears prophecies and tales of miracles that make him uncomfortable; and then he is given apparent proof that what the disciples are saying is true.  This is a critical crossroads for him. Earlier, the Roman Prefect commented on his ambition and inquired about what he was seeking.  The reply was to go to Rome, become an important figure, and have “position, power, wealth, a family, a house in the country—and, finally, peace—days without death.”  Currently, with all the uprisings and the government’s response, his every moment is steeped in death, ugly deaths.  Clavius is not heartless; he clearly shows his pain in the face of cruelty and suffering, and he is measured in his judgments.
       The disciples truly believe that Yeshua has risen from the dead and that he will reappear in Galilee, so they take off after him, hoping to see him again and be touched by his presence, and to witness again his miraculous works.  The Prefect instructs his soldiers to follow them, capture Yeshua, and “kill him again.”
         The filming of this well-known story with the added twist of a Roman soldier is nicely related and well paced by writer/director Kevin Reynolds and writer Paul Aiello and made visually beautiful by Lorenzo Senatore’s camera.  Special effects are used judiciously in battle scenes, earth-shaking events, and turbulent seas. 
         Fiennes grabs your attention in every scene he’s in and holds onto it with nuances in expression and maintaining a certain degree of mysteriousness that keeps you guessing as to what he is thinking.  Supporting actors Tom Felton and Peter Firth give informed performances, and Cliff Curtis is perfect in his role as Yeshua; he has something of an unearthly aura about him that is most fitting.

What does a Roman soldier do once his conversion to Christianity begins?

Grade:  C+                                        By Donna R. Copeland

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

THE WITCH


Anya Taylor-Joy     Ralph Ineson     Kate Dickie     Harvey Scrimshaw     Ellie Grainger     lucas Dawson


             The Witch is a horror film par excellence.  Beginning with the dirge-like cello music that gradually transitions into dissonant screeching of the violins, the opening scenes are ones of dispute in which a family is essentially driven from a shared plantation sometime in the 1600s in New England.  They go willingly, holding to their principles, and have smugly pleased faces when they come upon what will be their own place, a verdant field next to a forest with a stream.  And suddenly a house and barn, crops, and domestic animals appear, and it seems that all will be well.
      William (Ineson) and Kate (Dickie) have five children, Thomasin (Taylor-Joy), Caleb (Scrimshaw), Mercy (Grainger), Jonas (Dawson), and the baby Sam.  They all seem to pitch in with chores, although Mercy and Jonas (twins) clearly favor playing, dancing, singing, and horseplay to work.  Both Thomasin and Caleb are serious, thoughtful children who take their parents’ religion seriously.  It’s a fundamentalist type of belief, in which they must always be praying to have their sins forgiven.  Guilt is rife in the parents who frequently attribute negative occurrences to God’s testing their faith and punishing them for sins, and the two older children have internalized these lessons all too well.
       The forest has a mystical, ghostly appearance to the family, especially to the mother, but of course it is seductive, and several family members cannot withstand its temptation.  This is especially poignant, since Sam suddenly disappears one day, never to be seen again, and it is assumed that a “wolf” has absconded with him.  This is torture for the parents who believe that he might not have gone to heaven.  Perhaps they thought he ought to have had “last rites” before he died, but I’m not sure.  They don’t even know if he’s dead or not.
       Sam’s disappearance is only the first of many progressively horrible experiences the family will endure.  The film, written and directed by Robert Eggers, depicts so eerily well the gradual disintegration of minds into psychosis.  Accusations of sin and witchery abound, particularly focused upon Thomasin.  After this relatively long (but very good) set-up of family dynamics, really strange and horrifying things transpire, culminating in a truly fantastic scene.  Eggers has done an admirable job in managing the tension between reality and fantasy/metaphor, which keeps the viewer transfixed, wondering how it will all turn out, but—until the very end—it all holds together in the realm of plausibility (the place where most horror films lose me).  The horror and mystery here lies more in psychological phenomena than in material destruction—although that’s also present.  Eggers well deserves his award as Best Director at Sundance in 2015.
       The main actors are gifted (and presumably well directed) in playing their roles, with Ineson as the father looking like a Jesus figure, Dickie as the mother a long-suffering wife, and Taylor-Joy as a young woman whose fertile imagination gets her into trouble and makes her the target of accusations.  Scrimshaw, Grainger and Dawson are naturals in their roles as younger siblings trying to understand the world around them.  Mark Korven’s music is uncanny in leading the viewer into scene after scene,  emotionally.

One of the best in the horror genre.

Grade:  A-           By Donna R. Copeland

Saturday, February 6, 2016

DEADPOOL

Ryan Reynolds     Ed Skrein     Morena Baccarin     T. J. Miller     Stefan Kapicic     Brianna Hildebrand


          This latest Marvel Comics production is sure to please the fans.  Loaded with heroics and physically impossible altercations and gun battles, it mixes in plenty of humor, excitement, and pathos.  Wade Wilson (Reynolds) was a Special Forces operative who was experimentally treated for cancer by Ajax (Skrein), which left his face woefully disfigured, although he is given super powers that seem to compensate very well.  He has taken the name of Deadpool, and is out to wreak revenge on the perpetrator, while as a mercenary, he dispenses with bad guys. 
         Meanwhile, he has fallen in love with the beautiful Vanessa (Baccarin) and plans to get right back to her after he has taken care of his enemy.  He will need to have help, primarily from the Colossus (Kapicic), who is still trying to persuade Deadpool to join the X-Men, and Colossus’ sidekick Negasonic Teenage Warhead (Hildebrand) who can transform herself into a fiery cannonball, leaving violent explosions in her wake.  Moral support comes from Deadpool’s old friend and barkeep, Weasel (Miller). 
        Director Tim Miller and his colleagues have used special effects to great advantage in the action scenes that in addition to countless hand-to-hand combat also involve screeching car crashes on freeways, explosions, and huge buildings taking a giant slide down the hill.  Composer Junkie XL has provided a musical score that blends well with the action scenes and tender moments—sometimes with a little humor.
     Reynolds holds his own in the lead role, and Ed Skrein makes a fearsome evil counterpart.  The love scenes between Reynolds and Baccarin have just the right mixture of sexy and funny to keep up entertainment value.  Kapicic and Hildebrand as the Colossus and partner provide extra color and interest.

Marvel Comics fans will consume this concoction with relish.


Grade:  B+                                                 By Donna R. Copeland


Wednesday, February 3, 2016

THE LADY IN THE VAN

Maggie Smith     Alex Jennings     Jim Broadbent



          Old age—something universally feared with dread; and when The Lady in the Van starts, the lady (Smith) is kinda funny and kinda repulsive at the same time.  There are two significant scenes in the beginning that are a bit mystifying, but all is made crystal clear in the end.  One is a piano concert; the other an ear-piercing car crash.
           We get mostly the down side of aging in the first part of The Lady in the Van, but stay with it because it becomes more and more interesting about the lady, as well as her “landlord”, Mr. Bennett (Alex Jennings).  For instance, the lady’s name is Mary—or it could be Margaret—one of the many quirky details sprinkled throughout the movie.  Similarly, since Bennett is known to talk/argue with himself constantly, he’s pictured as dual figures. 
          Mary/Margaret is a proud, eccentric woman who lives in her van and tries out different parking places on a street in Camden before she decides on the one out Bennett’s front door.  She seems to despise music, so the house a few doors away with children paying musical instruments is definitely out.  All the neighbors are watching and struggling with conflicting emotions toward the woman, antsy about which spot she will eventually choose.  But consistent with her keen sensibilities about people, she chooses Bennett’s, which then becomes a continuous argument between his two selves about what to do about it.  The agreement is that she will only park there temporarily.
         Another clever device in the plot has to do with the parallels between Bennett’s own mother and Mary.  Bennett’s mother is aging and gradually weakening, and he only grudgingly gives her as little as he can get by with.  Ah, but Mary has a sneaky way of stealing into his good graces, as, for instance, getting him to allow her to park her van in his driveway—give or take a few years, say, 15.
          Maggie Smith is so perfect for this role, this is her third rendition; she was previously in the 1999 original theatrical production and in the 2009 BBC adaptation of the play.  As Bennett describes her character, she has “a bit of vagabond nobility about her.”   So Smith’s range extends from the highly privileged dowager in television’s “Downton Abbey” to the role of a homeless old lady in this film—although the haughtiness, clever wit, and self-entitlement remain intact throughout.  She is the consummate actress.
      Direction (Nicholas Hytner), music (George Fenton), and cinematography (Andrew Dunn) round out the fine talent involved in this British production.  It touches so many aspects of aging, caretaking, human foibles, and interests, its relevance is underscored. 

The Lady in the Van is possibly someone you might like to know.

Grade:  A                                    By Donna R. Copeland

HAIL, CAESAR!

Josh Brolin   George Clooney   Alden Ehrenreich   Ralph Fiennes   Tilda Swinton   Frances McDormand   Scarlett Johansson   Channing Tatum


           When the Coen Brothers are having fun, we’re having fun.  And I can just imagine how the whole crew of Hail Caesar! had loads of good times making this film.  As a matter of fact, Roger Deakins, the DP, mentioned that in an interview.  The Coens let their imaginations run wild here, and managed to successfully throw in all kinds of references to movies (mostly), philosophy, politics, history, and American culture, spoofing all.
          The central figure is the beleaguered “fixer” at Capitol Pictures in Hollywood, Eddie Mannix (Brolin), whose long days are spent putting out fires on the multiple sets of films like Hail Caesar!, On Wings as Eagles, Merrily We Dance, and Lazy Ole Moon (Coens came up with the titles, of course).  In addition, Mannix tries hard to pay attention to his family, consider a lucrative offer, and go to Catholic confession frequently. 
           One of his dilemmas now is that his most famous star, Baird Whitlock (Clooney), has gone missing.  A little sleuthing and a phone call reveals that Baird has been kidnapped and the culprits are asking for $100K ransom money.  This is not much of a problem—demonstrating how cash was like play money in Hollywood in the ‘50s—but who is responsible is a testament to the Coens’ wit and fancy in even dreaming it up, but also in its touching a bit on reality.  It’s a motley crew of disgruntled writers and left-leaning professors in a “study group” (I won’t say more).  When the actor comes to after being drugged and learns of the plot, he asks to have a share of the spoils, but the professors quickly say that that would be unethical; ransom money is not for the victim! 
         I thought Brolin and Clooney would be stand-outs, and Brolin is a perfect fit for his part; however, as good an actor as Clooney is, it was difficult to see his character without seeing the Clooney persona, despite his always being in ancient Roman garb.  A surprising standout is the aw-shucks Southern cowboy played by Alden Ehrenreich as Hobie Doyle.  Hobie can stand on his head while riding a galloping horse, do lasso tricks, and sing.  He has a little trouble with the verbal part of acting, but with a little coaching, his timing in saying, “It’s…complicated” is perfect.  And it turns out that he is much smarter than he sounds, but always sincere and honest.
         The film is more like a revue with little vignettes, always light and entertaining and lovely to look at.  Shining in their parts are Scarlett Johansson, Frances McDormand, Tilda Swinton, Channing Tatum, Ralph Fiennes, and Jonah Hill.
         With the Coens, Cinematographer Roger Deakins and Composer Composer Carter Burwell round out this supremely talented filmmaking team

Sit back, chuckle, wonder, and be entertained in Hail, Caesar!


Grade:  A                                                  By Donna R. Copeland