Wednesday, March 30, 2016

I SAW THE LIGHT

Tom Hiddleston     Elizabeth Olsen     Bradley Whitford     Cherry Jones

          When the movie first opened, I was captured with Hank Williams (Hiddleston) singing “Cold, Cold Heart” without accompaniment and the chiaroscuro effect in the scene.  The mood was just right, and it was deeply moving.  Unfortunately, two basic flaws in I Saw the Light emerged soon after, which I attribute to Marc Abraham’s screenplay and direction.  He has primarily worked as a producer without much experience in writing and direction, hence, the movie sags almost every time there is dialog.  It doesn’t matter whether the conversation is between husband and wife in intimate moments or band members talking to one another or to agents—he puts the audience to sleep.  I marveled at how such an interesting person’s life could be made boring.
       The other problem I had with the film is the number of scenes where neither the issue nor the personalities involved are explored; they’re simply left unresolved.  A particular example is Hank and his agent Fred Rose (Whitford) visiting the MGM Studio, and their host wants Hank to take off his hat.  Hank refuses, and we don’t know why it’s so important to the MGM producer or to Hank.  We don’t even know whether he actually took it off or didn’t.  And we don’t know whether the incident ruined Hank’s chance to be supported by MGM.  With so many of such scenes in a film, it becomes unsettling.
      Hank Williams was decidedly a fascinating, complex person with a markedly eventful life, and whatever interest is maintained in the movie is because we’re curious about him and want o understand him and because Hiddleston aced the role.  Even though we’re presented with event after event in his life, it’s more like a chronicle; there is not much exploration into Hank’s character in the larger sense of the word that would essentially help us understand him. 
      On the other hand, Tom Hiddleston has done the seemingly impossible, converting his British accent into American country, learning to sing on pitch and play the guitar (tutored by Rodney Crowell), and moving his body like a person with spina bifida—all for this movie.  I had to smile when in an interview he said that he had heard a few Hank Williams’ songs before he got the role, but was more intrigued with the word ‘honky tonk’; he had no idea what it meant, but he loved the sound of it.  Hiddleston put on the Williams persona so completely and convincingly, it fit like a body suit.
      The talents of other main actors were fine supports:  Elizabeth Olsen as the disillusioned but shallow wife; Bradley Whitford as the agent-like-a-father Fred Rose; and Cherry Jones as the cloying, possessive mother of Hank.  I had anticipated seeing I Saw the Light, so was disappointed that it contained so little “fleshing out” of the characters. 
     On the other hand, Tom Hiddleston’s performance is worth the price of a ticket to the movie theater.  The last song, “Your Cheatin’ Heart” is a perfect ending.  After seeing important events in his life, he could just as well be singing the song to himself as to someone else. 

A reminder that good writing and direction are essential, although sometimes an actor’s performance is worth a viewing.

Grade:  D+                                    By Donna R. Copeland

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

REMEMBER

Christopher Plummer     Martin Landau     Dean Norris     Henry Czerny     Jurgen Prochnow

            The star of Remember is Zev (Plummer), an elderly man with dementia.  He is in a nursing home, and has trouble remembering that his wife recently died.  He has made friends with another resident, Max (Landau), who has secretly sent him in search of a Nazi who was a block commander at Auschwitz, someone they both knew during WWII and feel is responsible for killing Max’s and Zev’s families.  The man named is supposed to have stolen a Jew’s identity after the war in order to leave Germany and settle in the U.S. as ‘Rudy Kurlander.’  Max has tracked down four people with the name ‘Kurlander’, given Zev detailed instructions on how to get to each one, and when he recognizes the man they are looking for, Zev is to kill him. 
            The film has a number of problems, the most salient being that the character as written, Zev, is not convincing as someone with dementia.  He remembers a number of things, such as who his son is, and somehow manages to travel by train, bus, and taxi to four different cities—even one in Canada where he must navigate the border.  I think that even those in the beginning stages of dementia would have major difficulties in managing such a trip, all the while keeping track of Max’s letter and cash and following his instructions.  Contradictions like these abound; at times, he cannot even remember who Max is, and has to have someone read the letter to him.
            The cast is good—particularly Plummer, who is the whole reason for seeing Remember.  He is captivating, even with the faulty script and editing.  The film does a good job in “leading the audience on” in such a way that you’re intrigued as to exactly what Zev’s mission is, and including scenes with drama and even playfulness when Zev is talking to children.  Landau is also very good in conveying critical importance to the mission he sends Zev on and reminding him to honor his promise.
            Atom Egoyan is known for his earlier work (The Sweet Hereafter, Exotica), for which he received awards, but his films since then have not been acclaimed.  His collaboration here with writer Benjamin August is not much help, and is more of a step away from quality filmmaking.  The plot simply does not hold together. 
            The surprising turn of events at the end of Remember make for a climactic conclusion, but it’s a little rushed and is not related enough to the rest of the story to make it logically grounded.

Plummer as someone with dementia is a testament to his acting skills, but weak screenplay and editing detract from the film Remember.

Grade:  C                                    By Donna R. Copeland


Monday, March 28, 2016

EYE IN THE SKY

Helen Mirren     Aaron Paul     Iain Glen     Alan Rickman     Barkhad Abdi


          This is a different thriller from most; the tension is mostly in the inaction rather than the action.  Helen Mirren is the no-nonsense Colonel Katherine Powell in London and in direct command of the U.S. drone operators who are waiting to pull the trigger on a target in Kenya.  She is logical and decisive while still being compassionate, unlike some of her superiors who cannot seem to think through problematic situations and come up with a plan.  Clearly, many of them have sat at a desk through most of their careers.  That is unlike Lieutenant General Frank Benson (Rickman), however, who immediately comprehends Powell’s reasoning and is prepared to give his authorization of a strike.  He is a military man.  It is the political officials who may not have had direct experience in war who struggle with making a decision.
         There are agonizing moments as we watch two suicide bombers get fitted with their vests while we wait for multiple authorizations (these have been “kicked upstairs” or over to U.S. officials to avoid personally taking responsibility).  Since this is spur-of-the-moment, many of the authorities are otherwise occupied, and are stunned about making such a decision at all, much less on the fly.  The salient issue has to do with weighing the cost of one innocent casualty versus the potential of killing 80 men, women, and children.  It becomes much more potent because everyone can see a particular little girl who could be caught in the explosion.
         It is instructive for nonmilitary people to see the kind of agony that decision-makers must go through during a war—especially the newly appointed and young drone operators.  In this instance, it is just as agonizing for the audience to sit through long sequences waiting for the higher-ups to make up their mind.  And we have to listen to considerations that have more to do with political fall-out and “covering one’s butt” than humanitarian and ethical concerns, which makes it even more nerve-wracking. 
       During and after this long process, instructions are given as to how to report the incident, and the quote at the beginning of the film becomes applicable:  “In war, truth is the first casualty” (Aeschylus).
          Director Gavin Hood and writer Guy Hibbert have created a fine picture of substance that will grab your attention and pull you right in with the feeling of being a part of the action.  They shed light on the new arena of drone warfare and help us understand some of its complexities.  The cast is part of the excellence of the film, headed up by the ever-perfect Mirren who seems to be able to convincingly play any role.  She and Rickman (May he rest in peace) make a good team, in sync with one another in timing and emotional space.  Aaron Paul subtly evinces the conscience-ridden drone operator who has no experience in actual “kills”, and knows enough about the law that he can request reconsideration of an order.  Barkhad Abdi reprises his role as a Somalian (Captain Phillips), but this time he is one of the good guys—well played. 

Eye in the Sky will make you squirm and groan about wartime decision-making.

Grade:  A                                    By Donna R. Copeland


MARGUERITE

Catherine Frot     Andre Marcon     Christa Theret     Michel Fau     Denis Mpunga     Sylvain Dieuaide     Aubert Fenoy

          Delusion is sometimes shared—even among a whole crowd of people—but it’s seldom  perpetuated in one individual by everyone around her, as in this film, Marguerite (performed expertly by Catherine Frot).  Marguerite’s husband, Georges (Marcon) is convinced that it would kill her to learn the truth—that is, that she sings noticeably off key.  And it’s astounding to see the lengths to which people will go to maintain her delusion.  (She does not appear to have any insight into her failing.)  Some are paid to flatter her, which is perhaps more understandable than when it’s done without recompense.  
           Marguerite is from a wealthy family and has married a baron, Georges.  She has a passion for music and says she sings 4-5 hours a day.  She seems to want mostly to please her husband, but somehow, his car is always breaking down and he arrives late to her concerts performed in their mansion.  At one point, some unscrupulous young men see an opportunity to exploit her, and arrange for her to sing in more public places and to engage a voice teacher (Fau) for her.  She is so flattered and touched by the attention, she seems to blossom, even though her voice gets no better.
          She becomes ill a couple of times, and Georges tactfully tries to get her to rest her voice and stop singing, but her doctor says that’s not necessary; however, this is before he hears her sing.  After the doctor attends a concert, he and Georges devise a plan that is supposed to convince her to stop performing.  However, it does not turn out exactly as they hope.
         French director Xavier Giannoli wrote the screenplay and directed this farce/drama that is taking place in the 1920’s.  It is well done, keeping its audience engaged—though antsy during Marguerite’s songs—and with a fine cast.  I think it would have been better if the bad singing had been made less pronounced; as it is, it’s rather absurd, especially since Marguerite recognizes good musical performances of others.  The film is based on a true story, but I doubt the real woman (Florence Foster Jenkins) sang this far off key. 
      Catherine Frot maintains a wide-eyed look and ebullient personality throughout, although she certainly has some thoughtful moments.  But she is basically an optimist who looks on the bright side of life.  Her faithful butler Madelbos (Mpunga) almost worships her and takes countless photos of her, but he too cannot resist hoping to realize a profit from the pictures one day.  Marcon shows his character to be genuine and mostly sincere and honorable; he just doesn’t seem to know what to do with the situation.

A farce about a woman of ambition who can’t hear herself singing off key.


Grade:  B                                   By Donna R. Copeland


Wednesday, March 23, 2016

BATMAN V SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE

Ben Affleck   Henry Cavill   Amy Adams   Jesse Eisenberg   Diane Lane  
Laurence Fishburne   Jeremy Irons   Holly Hunter   Gal Gadot



          It’s a common human failing to mistake proximity for causality, and that is how the action in Batman v Superman begins.  Superman (Cavill) has been present in or associated with tragic events in Metropolis, so he is being regarded by some as a pariah, taking the law too much into his own hands and needing some oversight.  Senator Finch (Hunter) feels so strongly about it, she heads up a committee to investigate Superman.
          Bruce Wayne (Affleck) is also convinced Superman is a danger to society and feels honor bound to set things right.  Thus develops a fierce rivalry between the two. Wayne’s trusted technician/adviser Alfred (Irons) tries to dissuade him from taking on such a battle, but Wayne seems to be a tormented soul who frequently feels he hasn’t done enough to protect humankind. 
           Another figure on this complicated chessboard is Lex Luthor, a megalomaniac, who is seeking to extend his power in the world by absconding with precious metals and engaging in other nefarious activities.  Wayne senses he is up to no good and does some investigating at his company. 
       Shadowing in the background for much of the story until the very end when she suddenly appears as a fighter for the good is Wonder Woman (Gadot).  What brings her out is a Kryptonite monster seemingly capable of destroying anything, including Superman. 
         One should go to this film expecting that it is mostly about the CGI accompanied by deafening sound effects with repeated urban devastation, fierce battles that seem to go on forever (Batman v Superman, and both of them with Wonder Woman v the monster), and near death experiences for Lois Lane (Adams) and Martha Kent (Lane).   It is filled with a jumbling hodge-podge of scenes that make it hard to follow the storyline. 
       Remarkable to me in this rendition is the number of self doubts voiced by its two heroes, Batman and Superman, which made me wonder if perhaps their differences with one another would have been lessened if each were more confident.  But that is me in fantasy; I think Director Zack Snyder and the other filmmakers purposefully set up this struggle because they thought it would make a better story for those who favor action movies.

A CGI spectacle with hand-to-hand combat scenes going on for 40 minutes or so nonstop.

Grade:  C-                        By Donna R. Copeland

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

MY BIG FAT GREEK WEDDING 2

Nia Varalos     John Corbett     Michael Constantine     Lainie Kazan     Andrea Martin


          This film will probably be a hit with any ethnic family, as I assume they can all identify with it, not just those of Greek origin.  There are the expected generational and nuclear family conflicts and arguments presented with flair—and many audience members will get a big kick out of them—but there is not much here that is fresh and original or especially insightful.  Movies showing the soul, drama, and comedy that seems to be inherent in many ethnic families, as least the stereotypic ones, have abounded—one I can think of is Moonstruck with an Italian family.
       Nia Vardalos, the writer for the first Greek Wedding (2002) and this one and lead actress in both, is talented, but this 2016 version is so similar to the 2002 version, I question why the second one needed to be made.  There is no particular flair or creative treatment of the material that makes it stand out. 
         In this update, Toula (Vardalos) has become the go-to person in the family to intervene in any situation.  She seems to take after her Aunt Voula (Martin), who is also called upon, and between the two of them all problems get solved.  Two current predicaments include where Toula’s daughter is going to college (the family is unanimously for local Northwestern) and the other occurs when it’s discovered that the marriage of Toula’s parents isn’t legal because the priest neglected to sign the certificate.  Toula’s mother (Kazan) has some conditions her father (Constantine) has to agree to even before any wedding plans can begin.
        Director Kirk Jones, the cast, and the crew all do a fine job, and it’s likely audiences will enjoy seeing it.  I think the script just needed something more to take it to the next level.

An updated version of My Big Fat Greek Wedding (2002)


Grade:  C                                      By Donna R. Copeland

Sunday, March 20, 2016

GET A JOB

Miles Teller     Anna Kendrick     Bryan Cranston     Alison Brie     Marcia Gay Harden


          If you value quality filmmaking, stay as far away from this film, Get a Job, as you can.  It’s about a heart-breaking event that far too many people are experiencing today—losing their job—and this movie wants to make a comedy of that; moreover people’s getting jobs in the end has no logical bearing on their attempts to get a job or their performance once landing one.  It’s a shame that it wastes an excellent cast on a silly story. 
        A group of guys live in a rented house smoking bongs, playing video games, reading porn, drinking beer, and in between applying for jobs.  Will (Teller) is one of these and in a serious relationship with Jillian (Kendrick) who has just secured a job she is excited about.  She is not featured much in the film, except that when she comes to live in the house she is stereotypically cleaning it up and eventually gets drawn into the boys’ activities. 
        Will is set up to be one of the wonder boys in the action, and although it doesn’t appear he does much of substance, he gets hired by a boss who was impressed with one of his videos about a pimp, and he is subsequently promoted by a controlling, flirtatious, bossy woman (again, a stereotype) (Harden).  He has doubled his salary in no time.
        To pull in the older crowd, we learn about Will’s father (Cranston), who loses his senior position after 30 years at a company, and Will begins to offer his videotaping services to assist him in his search for something new. 
      Get a Job doesn’t really have a message—at least I couldn’t detect one.  There is a harangue about school children getting awards for doing nothing, a glance at someone developing an app that allows someone to stalk someone else, and a bit about one of Will’s roommates making it big on Wall Street and being told not to worry about losing 50 million dollars—just to get back to work and earn it back.  The final outcome seems to be that you can make it big if you work in the porn business.

Get a Job needs to be canned.


Grade:  F                         By Donna R. Copeland

EMBRACE OF THE SERPENT

Nilbio Torres     Jan Bijvoet     Antonio Bolivar     Brionne Davis     Yauenku Migue


          Anyone remotely interested in anthropology and other cultures should check out Embrace of the Serpent, now open in select theaters.  The writers Ciro Guerra (also director) and Jacques Toulemonde Vidal drew from the diaries of two German scientists exploring the Amazon looking for a sacred plant, yakruna.  German Theodor Koch-Grunberg was there in 1909, and American Richard Evans Schultes in 1940.  Both have the same shaman, Karamakate (Torres as the younger and Bolivar as the older), the last surviving member of his tribe guiding them and sometimes treating them for illness.  Theo also had a younger traveling companion whose freedom he bought from a plantation to assist him, Manduca (Migue).
        The story involves a beautiful scenic trip down the Amazon, with stops for supplies at native settlements and a mission.  Some of the stops became dangerous when the natives regard them as enemies.  Theo encounters child abuse at a mission where the priest recruits young boys and beats them severely if he thinks they have attracted the devil.  At the same stop many years later, Richard has to deal with a man who has decided he is the Messiah who keeps tight reins on his people and demands to be worshiped. 
But dramatic attention is also given to the testy relationship between each scientist and Karamakate, who is convinced that whites are evil and destroy every living thing in their path. 
       “Whites bring hell and death to the earth”, he says at one point.  He derides the western scientists for cherishing their possessions, especially when they weigh down the boat on the river, their primary means of travel.  Karamakate tries to get the scientists to appreciate and respect nature, whereas the scientists attempt to use logic and reasoning with him.  They try to go along with his “treatments” but underneath are skeptical.
      David Gallego’s rich, black and white photography and Nascuy Linares’ music are as enjoyable as the story.  Guerra is successful in presenting the different cultures in such a way, we can value aspects of both, although he is much more critical of the white man for destroying indigenous people’s lives and knowledge.
        Embrace of the Serpent won the Art Cinema Award in the Directors' Fortnight section at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival, and it received an Academy Award nomination for Best Foreign Language Film of 2015, the first such honor for a Colombian film.

An enlightening journey back in time and space.


Grade:  B+                          By Donna R. Copeland

Thursday, March 17, 2016

MORRIS FROM AMERICA

Markees Christmas     Craig Robinson     Carla Juri     Lina Keller


          Growing up is hard to do, but for a black American kid in Germany whose father has not modeled communication—except maybe rap style—it’s a puzzlement.  Morris’ father Curtis (Robinson) is coach of the local soccer team in Heldelberg, Germany.  They’ve just arrived, and Morris (Christmas) is struggling with German lessons and feeling the beginnings of adolescent surliness.  He’s basically happy living with his father, and has only distant stirrings of a wish for friends his own age.  But when he has the opportunity, he goes for adventure and peer acceptance, and his father has to adapt.
          Morris’ German tutor, Inka (Juri), does her best to draw him out playfully, and luckily for him, he bonds with her, although he would deny it.  He’s not much of one to want help. 
          The other woman in his life (his mother is dead) is Katrin (Keller) a blonde beauty he meets at school and is quickly smitten by her.  She is flirtatious, but mostly out of curiosity.  She and the others—including a teacher—think he is the stereotypic black.  What?  He doesn’t play basketball?  He doesn’t dance?  Is this marijuana cigarette stub his?  Then he lets her know he is a “gangsta rapper” (his current aspiration), and he has made it in her eyes; she is an avid music fan, and does everything she can to induce him to perform. 
         Katrin is the most interesting character in the film.  She goes out of her way, at the mystification of her friends and the horror of her mother, to engage Morris.  She plays cat and mouse games with him, invites him to parties, and even gets him onstage at one of her boyfriend’s concerts, where he is a hit.  At first, it seems like she is regarding him as a toy, a novelty, and that she actually has little regard for him.  However, in one of the last scenes, she proves that she has more genuineness than was apparent, and that she has simply been like someone her age when commitments are not necessarily permanent.
        Writer/director Chad Hartigan has created a plausible story about the persistence of racial stereotypes across different countries and a picture of adolescence in that context.  I applaud his portrayal of a teenager who is thoughtful and has good judgment most of the time, but is susceptible to temptation out of loneliness and curiosity.  Morris makes mistakes and needs rescuing, but that’s what growing up is all about.

A true-to-life story with well-cast, talented actors.


Grade:  B                             By Donna R. Copeland

IN A VALLEY OF VIOLENCE

Ethan Hawke     James Ransone     John Travolta     Taissa Farmiga     Karen Gillan


          Boy!  What a nice surprise for my last film at SXSW this year in Austin, Texas.  Ti West (Roost, The Innkeepers) has ventured into the western genre and devised some imaginative tactics to enrich the experience of a western film.  I really think the cleverest is inserting arguments among men in the midst of gunfights.  That is, it’s a different kind of humor than we normally experience to see the town Marshal arguing and negotiating terms with the rebel in logical discourse—while the gunfight is taking place!  Another feature that I fully appreciated is the inclusion of principles underlying revenge.  Revenge is sweet, but use your head!  The Marshal (Travolta) is wise in instructing his no-good son/deputy Gilly (Ransone) not to make another mistake in following someone “passing through” after having made a big one with him already.  Finally, it also illustrates how some people who, like Gilly, don’t hear good advice—such as “Get away from the window” during a gunfight.  West is a master, like Tarantino, in synthesizing violence with humor to make a point.
        Ethan Hawke is coming more and more into his own as an actor and as filmmaker (Good Kill, Boyhood, the Richard Linklater series, and as director of a documentary, Seymour:  An Introduction).  Here, he plays Paul, a taciturn loner bound for Mexico with his beloved dog Abby.  He is not looking for a fight, but he knows how to defend himself.  Hawke seems to know this character deep down in his psyche; Paul has been reduced by trauma and guilt to talking mostly to his dog Abby (one of the stars in the film).  We hear of his past only in bits and pieces, usually when Mary Anne (Farmiga), the co-owner of the inn in town, forces it out of him.  But Paul is not only intelligent, he is well trained (something the Marshal recognizes, but his son doesn’t), quick, and sure in his reactions.
        James Ransone makes an interesting bad guy; he has a handsome “Hollywood” face with beautiful eyes and an attractive dimple, but as his personality emerges, those characteristics become more and more sinister.  Taissa Farmiga and Karen Gillan look enough alike to be real sisters; in the movie they manage an inn while their father is dying in a bedroom.  They are chatterboxes—another clever idea by Ti West—but one is rather hysterical and the other more levelheaded and goal directed.  John Travolta is perfect for the role of town Marshal, and he makes the character much more complex and even appealing than is generally the case in westerns. 
      In a Valley of Violence was filmed in Santa Fe with its captivating landscapes by Cinematographer Eric Robbins.  His work enhances the mystery and action of the film.  
       In a Valley of Violence is about revenge, and challenges us to question the concept.  When is revenge justified?  Clearly, getting revenge for a narcissistic wound is likely to be foolhardy.  But when someone is unjustifiably cruel and likely to continue in it, we are likely to cheer, as when Paul vows, "Those men left me with nothing; I'm going to leave them with less."  Few of us are Gandhi.  Yet, even when it seems justified, revenge often results in unintended damage.

A finely crafted western outside the usual fare.

Grade:  A                                    By Donna R. Copeland

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

RAINBOW TIME

Linas Phillips     Timm Sharp     Melanie Lynskey     Tobin Bell     Jay Duplass


     Rainbow Time, written, directed, produced and starring Linas Phillips, is a mess in picturing a dysfunctional family using measures that serve to increase problems rather than solve them.  Shonzi (Phillips)—because his name is Shaun and he loves Fonzi—is a sex-obsessed young man with no social skills and a ton of rage.  He had a prenatal brain injury that resulted in some damage to his brain, but my impression is that most of his issues are related to his family not setting limits with him and their general habit of making insincere statements, such as “I’m sorry”, when they’re not really, or “You’re great; everything’s fine” when they’re totally frustrated with one another.
     Shonzi is clearly frustrated in not being able to have a girlfriend and is envious of his younger brother Todd (Sharp) whose girlfriend is Lindsay (Lynskey).  Much of the story is Shonzi trying to come between them—which is supposed to be funny—but because of the way he does it and the family deals with it, I cringed over and over.  Case in point, Shonzi is inappropriate with Lindsay, and her solution is for him to stay with her while Todd goes to work, and maybe he could give her a back rub right now.
      Much of the plot is taken up with making videos, something of interest to Shonzi that he and Todd have bonded over.  But some of these are of Todd and Lindsay in intimate moments, and Shonzi manages to see these as well as nude photos of Todd’s ex-wife. 
Miraculously, Shonzi does improve, but there is nothing we’re shown that would make that a logical transition.

There aren’t many rainbows in Rainbow Time.

Grade:  D                                    By Donna R. Copeland