Wednesday, June 28, 2017

OKJA

Tilda Swinton   Paul Dano   An Seo Hyun   Lily Collins   Shirley Henderson   Jake Gyllenhaal   Giancarlo Esposito

     A live pig sold for a golden replica serves as the metaphor for this film about a young girl in South Korea and her soul mate, a huge pig she’s named Okja.  Mija (Hyun) is devoted to her pet and is unaware of the contractural agreement her grandfather signed 10 years earlier.  Thinking he is doing the right thing, the grandfather is ready to return Okja to the American company who gave it to him for 10 years, in exchange for the gold piece.   But he is mistaken in thinking Mija is going to value the gold more than the pig.  His bargain illustrates how capitalist schemes can appear so appealing to na├»ve peoples.  When Grandfather proudly gives Mija the golden relic and she realizes what he has done, she races after the truck carrying Okja away.  In this, the film likewise illustrates the betrayal of the younger generation by the older.
     The background story is about a wealthy American family with a multi-national food tech corporation that is unmindful of its responsibility to humankind and is single-minded in its profit motive, as lived out by the Mirando twin sisters (Swinton).  Lucy, who has always seemed to be in a one-down position, has dreamed up a contest that she is sure will win over her sister and bring her respect and love from the general public.  This is done by giving poor people around the world a genetically altered pig to raise for 10 years, with the ultimate aim of having a contest as to which one could feed the most people in the world (example of genetic experimentation and conflict of interest perhaps?).  Mija’s grandfather was one of those given an animal.  In the meantime, Okja is Mija’s only companion, and has even saved her life once.
     What follows is a rather fantastical madcap story involving international travel, daring car/truck races on the highways, the involvement of animal rights advocates (Dano, et al.), the pig competition, and, ultimately, the slaughterhouse; but Mija has her head about her and extraordinary smarts, and is out to bring Okja home.
     Writer/director Bong Joon Ho (Snowpiercer, Mother) is a master at depicting dramas that pose ethical and socio-political situations for the audience to ponder, and here he makes it clear that we all have some responsibility for the state of affairs, either knowingly or by default.  That is, the grandfather is myopic as to his granddaughter’s wishes and ultimate welfare, the animal rights advocates are well intentioned but rather narrow-minded and inept, and the Mirando corporation has dual purposes topped off with petty rivalry among the owners. 

     Swinton is virtually unsurpassed in her ability to portray any character she’s presented with, and has a particular knack for odd, quirky personalities who have just enough plausibility to intrigue us.  Playing her character here and her chiding twin is entertaining in itself.  Young An Seo Hyun is captivating as a purposeful, devoted adherent to her principles.  Dano is gifted in his portrayal of appealing, sincere proponents of a cause, and he comes through here.  I was disappointed to see one of my idols, Jake Gyllenhaal, play such a buffoon role that seemed to have no purpose in this drama.  He executed it well, but I can’t see the reason for having such a character, who is shown as a self-inflated blowhard.

The purpose of this well executed film seems to be in having us contemplate where our food comes from, something we usually don’t want to do.

Grade:  A-                                    By Donna R. Copeland

Monday, June 26, 2017

WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES

Andy Serkis   Woody Harrelson   Steve Zahn   Karin Konoval  
Terry Notary   Amiah Miller   Ty Olsson   Aleks Paunovic   Devyn Dalton



     In the 2014 rendition of the Planet of the Apes series, Caesar as the beloved leader of the ape colony, tries to protect it from the encroachment of humans on their territory.  Because he and some reasonable humans are able to negotiate terms, the humans are allowed to work on a dam that will provide for desperately needed electrical power.  The truce is disrupted by distrustful parties on both sides—Dreyfus, one of the leaders of the military, and Kobo, the ape who retains resentment toward humans for the years he was held as a research subject.  Terrible betrayals and battles ensue, with the result that even though peace was attained, Caesar has been warned that the military is planning another attack on the ape community.
     This rendition is a battle of wills between the Colonel (Harrelson) and Caesar (Serkis).  The army led by the Colonel has attacked the ape colony, leaving devastation in its wake.  Caesar tries repeatedly to negotiate and reason with the Colonel, but the Colonel has gone slightly off his rocker, with a God complex and the firm belief that if he doesn’t wipe out the apes, they will wipe out the human race.  Caesar even tries to communicate with him simply by staring at him (hoping to shame him), but to no avail.  The Colonel is impervious.
     Caesar wants to go after the Colonel on his own, advising the colony to stay put, and leaving his young son Cornelius with Lake, but Maurice and a couple others insist they go with him.  Along the way, they come upon a girl and a dying solder who are mute and they have to figure that out, but Maurice is adamant about not leaving the girl behind by herself, so she becomes part of their small band.   This character seems extraneous to me, and I wonder about the purpose of its inclusion.
     What they eventually discover is that most of the ape colony has been captured and enslaved by the Colonel, who has one of the traitorous apes around to manage the enslaved, Rex (Olsson), a Kobo follower.  They hope to get inside and rescue everyone, and once again, Caesar insists on going in alone while the others wait a distance behind.  Unfortunately, Caesar gets captured, and it looks like all hope is lost.  But with a little luck and the reconnaissance of Maurice et al., dramatic things are about to happen.
     Director Matt Reeves and his writing partner Mark Bomback are a winning team in bringing fresh ideas to the franchise to keep it exciting and filled with tension.  They highlight the ethical dilemmas and flaws of leaders who may or may not understand the implications of their actions.  They underscore the importance of strategy in a conflict and the elements that go into eliciting the loyalty of one’s team.  They also seem to be keenly aware of the combination of luck and skill that go into military victories.
     Technological wonders in the series continue with the action capture of Serkis’ Caesar and the visual effects by Weta Digital most striking.  The extended battle scenes do become tedious in places, and I suspect they are primarily to show off the technology. 
     Humor is lavishly inserted in this version by the character “Bad Ape” (Steve Zahn), who is a different species from the apes and one who escaped an American zoo, avoiding Simian flu.  Softness is provided by the lovely mute girl with the luminous eyes and expressive face played by Amiah Miller.  She shows much needed tenderness toward the apes and lends meaningful aid, although I do not think this important enough to have included the character..

Despite this being the fifth in a series, the filmmakers keep the story of the apes interesting and fresh.


Grade:  B                        By Donna R. Copeland

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

TRANSFORMERS: THE LAST KNIGHT

Mark Wahlberg   Anthony Hopkins   Josh Duhamel   Laura Haddock   Isabela Moner   Stanley Tucci   John Turturro   Peter Cullen
Reno Wilson   Gemma Chan   Jim Carter


     We start out with a bit of history of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table—with the addition of “knightly” autobots who stand behind each knight and who will help the English save their country from the Dark Age invaders.  They’re at a standoff with the invaders and are calling for Merlin the Magician, for aid.  He is on his way to engage a dragon—ancestor of the autobots—to align with the English to renew their partnership and save England.
     Fast forward to modern times.  The hero-bot Optimus Prime is missing, and autobots—which have been outlawed on earth—keep falling mysteriously from the sky.  Some land in a Bot junkyard overseen by Cade Yeager (Wahlberg), who regards the autobots as friends.  He is trying to repair their injuries by restoring lost parts.  Unbeknownst to him, a young girl Izabella (Moner) has lost her family and is now living in the junkyard, having made friends with the bots, especially Squeeks, trying to restore them just like Cade is.  But when he discovers she’s there, he tries to get rid of her, saying she is just a kid.  Little does he know, she is his persistent heir apparent, and will turn up intermittently throughout the film.  Needless to say, in this testosterone-filled fantasy, it takes him a long time to realize her value.
     Earth is in a state of panic now as it has realized that the autobots are attacking earth, and doesn’t really know why.  We the audience do; it has something to do with intrigue among the Bots.  Optimus Prime is devastated to find his beloved planet Cerberon—his home—has been destroyed.  Quintessa (Chan) the sorceress tells him that to save his planet he must go to earth, where a valuable artifact is buried.  If he brings it back to her, Cerberon will be restored.  He is bewitched, so although his reclaiming the artifact will destroy the earth, his ally, he proceeds to recapture it.
     Back on earth, Cade gets a message that he is to meet with Sir Edmund Burton (Hopkins) in London, and is transported to his estate by his trusted Bot Cogman (Carter).  The earl Burton explains his historical connection to a family descended from Merlin, one of whose ancestors has passed down the power of the artifact sought by the Autobots.  She is Vivian Wembley (Haddock).  She and Cade, who has a significant medal picked up from the junkyard wrapped around his arm signifying that he is the last knight, must recover the artifact, thereby saving earth.
     Just as in all action movies these days, multiple intrigues and battles ensue between the autobots and earth, the central struggle being the recovery of the artifact to the rightful heir. 
Michael Bay has directed all five of the Transformers renditions, and his experience is evident in this production, in that the film perpetuates the theme of humans vs. robots, has impressive special effects, and recruits fine actors to play the roles.  Where it lapses is its repetition of well-worn themes and too many battles in which the protagonists are not well defined.  This rendition could have been reduced from its 148 minutes by eliminating extraneous elements, such as the Izabella character trailing after Cade and the spoof of a bad scientist.  Why discount science in this day and age??!!  Humor bits could also have been eliminated:  Vivian’s mother and aunts trying to marry her off and wise cracks made by many characters are tired jokes that fall flat.
     Parents, please don’t bring your children to this movie unless they’ve shown a particular interest in robots and have loved previous Transformer movies.  A measure of interest for children is the 20+ exits/entrances during the movie by people from my row, mostly by children. 

This is a continuation of the theme of humans vs. robots in the Transformers series.

Grade:  C                   By Donna R. Copeland

Thursday, June 15, 2017

BAND AID

Zoe Lister-Jones   Adam Pally   Fred Armisen


    This is how a comedy should be:  Laugh out loud funny with substance and truth underneath.  Zoe Lister-Jones is the current wonder woman who has written, directed, produced, and starred in a groundbreaking (to me) film about a couple who fights constantly, and playfully come up with the solution to their problems.  I say “groundbreaking” because Lister-Jones gets so much of the psychology right.  It won’t be anything new to therapists who have understood this for a long time, but artistic expression to address real feelings and manage conflict is therapeutic.
      Anna (Lister-Jones) and Ben (Pally) argue constantly about all kinds of things—dishes in the sink, complaining, laziness—and it seems hopeless for their marriage.  Then one day when they are attending a godchild’s party (to which they came simply as an obligation), out of boredom they sit in the sandbox, pick up toy instruments, and start playfully setting their fights to music.  It’s fun for them for the first time in months.  They gingerly try it again when they’re at the beach getting stoned.  They discover that “fighting” in song actually helps.  Later on, when they find their old guitars while cleaning out the garage they decide to be a band. 
     A neighbor drops by to chat and sees that they have guitars and have just formed a band.  He lets them know he plays drums, and waits expectantly for them to invite him to join them.  Awkward silence, so he leaves.  It’s not long, though, until the couple realizes they need a drummer, so they knock on his door.  All the scenes with Dave (Armisen) and his two roommates are so surprising and fun, despite a few believable rough spots, they put the film over the top in my opinion.
     Cleverness, dialogue, and comedic timing make this film a winner.  Lister-Jones is truly gifted in all aspects of her creation, and I will always make sure I see her future work.  I assume she must have been primarily responsible for recruiting the cast (since I don’t see a “casting by” category on IMDB), because they are so in sync with her character, especially Adam Pally.  Like Lister-Jones, he has had considerable experience in writing, directing, and producing, as well as acting.  Fred Armisen is well known as a kind of odd-character comedian, and does some of his best work in this film. 
     The musical group Lucius scored the catchy tunes in Band Aid, but in collaboration with Lister-Jones.  She wrote the lyrics into the script, then worked with Kyle Forrester of Lucius on putting them to music.  She said in a Washington Times interview that she and Pally thoroughly rehearsed them, but “Fred needed no rehearsals because he’s like a legitimate drummer” (http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2017/jun/12/zoe-lister-jones-writer-director-band-aid-hired-al/).
     There is one more important discovery (with the help of Ben’s mother) the couple makes, which is the value of finding out what is really bothering them, talking about it, and grieving together.

An Indie film about marriage that includes a novel way to work through conflicts.

Grade:  A                                    By Donna R. Copeland

THE BOOK OF HENRY

Naomi Watts   Jaeden Lieberher   Jacob Tremblay   Sarah Silverman   Dean Norris   Maddie Ziegler   Lee Pace


      This is a very different version of the single mother bringing up two boys on her own than we usually see—either in real life or in the movies.  Susan (Watts) is unconventional in her being consistently late in picking up her boys from school, whistling to them from the car, playing videogames, and so on; but she is quite conventional in her “good mother” role of warmth and nurturance and being able to play and have fun with her kids—the more important things, really.
     Henry (Lieberher, previously in Midnight Special) is a very (unbelievably, maybe?) precocious child who not only knows more facts than most adults, but reasons at an adult level.  In addition, he has a keen sense of fairness and ethical principles.  He’s not obnoxious, though, because he’s so sincere and thoughtful of others.  His younger brother Peter (Tremblay, previously in Room) is a great counterpart in his sweetness, but it’s nice to see his spunk and competitiveness with his older brother. 
      So this family is tumbling through life, mostly enjoying it, and trying to be helpful to others.  Susan has a co-worker at a coffee shop (Silverman), who clearly needs her support.  Henry has to rescue his brother from bullies at school.  But what puts the intrigue of the story in motion is Henry’s observation of his schoolmate Christina (Ziegler) next door with her stepfather, Mr. Sickleman (Norris), the city’s police commissioner.  From what Henry can glean from his online searches and books, Christina is suffering from abuse.  There has already been an incident in the grocery store observed by Henry and his mother, where a man was being abusive to a woman, and Susan advises Henry not to try to intervene by telling him, “It’s not our business”; it could provoke more violence.  But Henry is not convinced, saying that apathy, not violence, is the worst thing in the world.  He then proceeds to devise a plan whereby Christina can be rescued.
      Something happens, and Henry cannot enact his plan, but he has given Susan the most detailed instructions as to how she can see to it that Christina gets the help she needs.  This is the action of the story, filled with suspense, and keeping the audience on edge.
Director Colin Trevorrow (Jurassic World, Safety Not Guaranteed) knows very well how to direct movies with drama that have some thrill to them.  His team of Michael Giacchino (music) and John Schwartzman (cinematographer), along with others, add measurably to the production. 
      Although the script is very good in terms of entertainment and capturing the imagination, I think Gregg Hurwitz made a mistake in putting adult words and concepts into a child’s role, and making him, in psychology parlance, a “parent child.”  This doesn’t usually work out so well in real life as it does in this film.  The script is also weakened by the gaps in Henry’s story.  I can’t say more, but that was jarring to me.  On the other hand, the insertion of precursors like Susan’s whistle, her penchant for videogames, and Henry’s class report on legacy are clever in their prescience.
      Naomi Watts is a solid performer who consistently gets good reviews, and she deserves it as well for her work here.  She’s such a natural in relating to children, and her tremulous standing up to Mr. Sickleman is outstanding.  To be commended are the two boys playing her sons, Jaeden Lieberher and Jacob Tremblay.  They seem to understand intuitively what is called for, and they produce it naturally.  Dean Norris knows very well how to play the villain (“Under the Dome” and other TV series), and his portrayal of the bully and reactions of surprise and concern ripple through his face so tellingly.  I’m not sure why the Silverman character was included; although she played her part very well, the character seemed extraneous to me.
     Although I liked The Book of Henry in many ways (directing, music, cinematography, actors, entertainment), there are parts of it that seem over the top.  For instance, I mentioned the portrayal of children.  The most galling was catapulting poor Henry (basically, a wonderful boy) back in the traditional role of a dominant husband over a submissive wife.  “I must tell you exactly what to do and you must follow my instructions implicitly.”  “Pay attention to our finances!  You don’t even know what we are worth.  I’ve made all this money so you don’t have to work any more.”
      This movie will be applauded by those taken in by the romantic story that children can be as wise as adults, but don’t you believe it.  Even the writer of this script hedged on that.

An entertaining—even exciting—movie, if you don’t think too hard.

Grade:  C+                          By Donna R. Copeland

THE HERO

Sam Elliott   Laura Prepon   Nick Offerman   Krysten Ritter   Katharine Ross


      In this movie, the term ‘hero’ has layered connotations:  It refers to a movie that made Lee Hayden (Elliott) famous, it refers to the father in a film script he is auditioning for, it refers to Lee’s attempts to salvage his relationship with his daughter, and finally it refers to dealing with a life-threatening illness and facing with dignity the possibility of death.  Lee is different from the usual hero we encounter in movies; he is taciturn but sensitive; he shuns the spotlight, generously ceding his lifetime achievement award to a stranger; and is loathe to divulge to others the burden he is carrying.  Instead he copes in a low-key kind of way with alcohol and drugs he gets from a best friend Jeremy (Offerman), who’s also supportive.
     It’s at Jeremy’s that Lee meets a client named Charlotte (Prepon), a much younger woman who is cheeky and outspoken.  Lee is attracted to her, partly because she challenges him, but also they are very different from one another, which appeals to him.  Whereas he is cautious and thoughtful, she is gregarious and impulsive and a little careless.  Although their first encounters are a bit awkward, they form a tenuous relationship that later gets threatened by something she does. 
      Director Brett Haley, co-wrote this script and I’ll See You in My Dreams with Marc Basch, and both films have the quality of being subdued, but still engaging enough to capture our interest and wonder how the story lines will turn out.  It’s a film provoking thoughtful consideration of the issues Lee is dealing with, issues that are likely to strike a touching chord in most viewers.  Hero continues the themes from Dreams about the complexities of emotional attachment, age differences in people’s perspectives, and living in the moment versus working toward goals.
      Consistent with many roles he has taken in his acting career, Sam Elliott here portrays a character who is good looking with a distinctive resonant voice, and one who prefers a low-key life.   Most of the actor’s work has been in both television and movies, but although he is the lead in this film, he typically eschews leading man roles, and accolades he has received are for supporting character portrayals.  He prefers to keep his usual distinctive white hair and handlebar moustache in his movies, consistent with his preference for roles that are similar to him in real life.  He loves westerns because they have “something to do with integrity and a man’s word and honor and all that kind of stuff—values, morality…”  The part was written for him, and fits him hand-to-glove.
     Early in her career Katherine Ross (Lee’s ex-wife in The Hero, but his actual wife in reality) won an Oscar, two Golden Globes and a BAFTA, but for some reason, she stayed away from feature films for ten years.  She still has a captivating presence on film without necessarily speaking very much, and as Val, she sets just the right tone when she encounters Lee.  Laura Prepon overacts a bit in her role as Charlotte, although it may be at Director Haley’s behest.  Krysten Ritter is just right as Lee’s daughter, with tones of longing, anger, and tenderness toward her father.  Offerman and Elliott have an easy camaraderie with one another, and their scenes represent strong, affectionate male bonding.
     What appealed to me most about this film was the quiet drama unfolding in the lives of plausibly constructed characters and the playfulness of conveying many different meanings to the word ‘hero.’  I do object to what is now so prevalent in films—the over-use of alcohol and drugs.  I presume it’s related to filmmakers’ need for funding and the manufacturers’ benefitting from the coverage, but it’s not a good model at a time when we’re all urged to be more moderate in our consumption.

A quiet, contemplative film with a bit of comedy and romance to spice it up.

Grade:  C+                                    By Donna R. Copeland

BEATRIZ AT DINNER

Salma Hayek     Chloe Sevigny     John Lithgow     Connie Britton     Amy Landecker     Jay Duplass     Dave Warshofsky


     Still waters run deep, and Beatriz (Hayek) is a fascinating combination of a diffident but fearless woman whose passions burst out in full force when she is outraged.  After a turbulent childhood in Mexico and losing her family, she has devoted her life to the healing arts, working in a cancer center.  She is revered by the mother of one of her teenage patients who is alive and well, and Cathy (Britton) continues to have her come to her elegant home for massages after her daughter has gone to college.  Cathy is very gracious, and when Beatriz can’t start her car one day after an appointment, she urges the therapist to stay for dinner.  Her husband, Grant (Warshofsky), thinks this is not a good idea for a business dinner, but accedes to her wishes.
     What no one realizes is that the evening will be a huge, head-on clash of values and cultures.  When the evening starts, it’s a little awkward, with the society women showing their squeamishness about a medical condition and treating it as a gossip item (off-putting for someone working at a cancer center), and incredulous about Beatriz having a pet goat (“Did she say ‘goat’?), but all are trying very hard to be understanding and politically correct. 
Unfortunately for the evening, one of the guests, Doug (Lithgow), pushes every button in Beatriz’ psyche.  He is dominating, condescending (asks Beatriz to bring him another drink after mistaking her for one of the help, probes her status as an immigrant), boastful about his riches, and openly advocates going for whatever is best for oneself.  He is a businessman to the core, and to h--- with anyone (protesters, regulators, environmentalists) standing in his way.  He has and will handle them all.  This doesn’t sit well with someone who lost her family and her whole town in Mexico when American developers came with empty promises of jobs and wrecked the village and its environment. 
   One of the things I loved about this story is a humble person being fearless in circumstances where she is among very wealthy people.  The art of the creative team of writer (Mike White) and director (Miguel Arteta) here is in taking a neutral stance between two deeply divided sides.  We don’t just have empathy for the immigrant health care worker filled with compassion, whose life has been so difficult, we also come away with some understanding and identification with the privileged guests and hosts as well.  They’re clearly shown to be trying to do the politically correct thing, and trying to understand what Beatriz stands for and is advocating.  [This excludes Doug, whom I saw as a big blow-hard with little capacity for appreciation of anything beyond his self-interest.  The most he can do is shake his head in reaction to Beatriz.  Despite her confrontation and a tender touch (massaging his tense shoulders, did impress him), nothing she says ever really gets through to him.]
     In all this seriousness, there is great comedy.  It is the best of comedy, that which has substance underlying it.  We chuckle at the words of both Beatriz and Doug; they have a ring of truthfulness in their absurdity.  And the ending of the film is truly creative in its loyalty to the gist of the story, its grounding in reality, and its surprise.
   Salma Hayek does a bravura performance, with her intense focusing eyes, her engagement with the other characters with different emotional valences, and her range of states of being—at home, meditating, doing therapy, friendliness, encountering strangeness, and experiencing outrage.  Supporting actors add to the colorful mix of personalities, and the experienced, talented Lithgow is especially good in counterpoint to Hayek.
     Cinematographer Wyatt Garfield follows the story visually to enhance every scene, then he goes into wonderful artistry when he shows a flock of white birds suddenly flying out over a waterway enclosed with greenery and when he gives us an image onscreen of what Beatriz is visualizing when she is fantasizing/meditating toward the end.

An artful film about a clash of cultures and values, but with much appreciated humor.

Grade:  A                                    By Donna R. Copeland

Thursday, June 8, 2017

THE MUMMY

Tom Cruise   Russell Crowe   Annabelle Wallis   Sofia Boutella   Jake Johnson   Courtney B. Vance


     The Mummy is another showcase for Tom Cruise to dominate the action by performing impossible feats, bare his physique, and rescue a beautiful woman, usually blonde.  Here, the story in the beginning casts him as Nick Morton, a soldier supposedly on a reconnaissance mission getting distracted from his duties in the interest of stealing antiquities and selling them on the black market.  Far from being an admirable fellow, he is a thief, having stolen, in addition to artifacts, an archeological map to reach a Mesopotamian (now Iraqi) site that holds antiquities he can sell.  When he ends up having to be rescued by his commanding officer, Col. Greenway (Vance), he lies without blinking an eye. 
     Accompanying Greenway is archeologist Jenny Halsey (Wallis), who is keenly interested in the site (guess where Nick got the map), and insists on exploring it after a bomb made a huge pit exposing valuable artifacts from Egypt (most unusual) in a tomb far from Egypt’s borders.  Greenway sends Nick and his sidekick Vail (Johnson) down into the pit with her—presumably for protection—and gives them only a limited amount of time.  Nick and Chris are like two boys in a candy story trying to nick (pun intended) every bauble they can grab.  Appropriately, Jenny scolds them, but a far more threatening force has been unleashed by the violation of the tomb.  They have unearthed (thanks to Nick’s careless use of his gun) a sculpture of a god that was not meant to be disturbed.
     As background, we are told about an ancient Egyptian ruler named Ahmanet, who made a deal with the god of death, Set, when her father bore a son who would eventually usurp Ahmanet’s reign.  She is punished and mummified for killing her father and his son, but by disturbing the site in the way he did, Nick is now cursed.  The mummy of Ahmanet has risen and has decided that he is her “chosen one”, Set, so she tries to persuade him to join her in death to be a god.  He is not very tempted, but she is able to “get into his head” in a way that propels him to go in directions he does not intend.  It is only through sheer will that he is able to thwart her.
     It turns out that Jenny the archeologist works with a Dr. Jekyll (Crowe) in London, who has grandiose plans of his own.  Nick ends up there when Jenny realizes that he has been cursed, and she wants him to see a doctor.  Here, Nick learns that Dr. Jekyll has actually captured Ahmanet as part of his plan and she is in chains.
     Interspersed in all this are mummies turning into zombies, endless struggles by Nick and Jenny to break free (he’s now become, magically, a more honorable figure) of the curse, with Ahmanet pursuing them relentlessly, seeming to have superhuman powers.  The film ends with a clear-cut set-up for sequels.
     The best part of this film is watching Ahmanet, who is fascinating to look at, eerie and forceful in her actions, and relishing her evilness.  She is abhorrent and beautiful in a surrealistic way, and about the only creative force in the film.  Cruise plays his usual role; Annabelle Wallis is competent in rendering what she is given by the script, and Jake Johnson plays as well as he can his completely irritating character Vail, who is transformed into a zombie.  Russell Crowe can certainly play conniving baddies, but the script he is given here makes his character neither convincing nor understandable because his “plan” is not well articulated. 
     Although there was a low-key applause at the screening I attended, it is doubtful this film will catch the fire that the studio and filmmakers hope for.  It’s no longer interesting to see unending fights, despite the hope for CG effects to elevate them. 

This is an uninspired attempt to revive The Mummy franchise.

Grade:  D+                                    By Donna R. Copeland

HELL ON EARTH: THE FALL OF SYRIA AND THE RISE OF ISIS

Airing on the National Geographic Channel on Sunday, June 11, 2017


     This documentary is a careful reconstruction of events in the Middle East leading up to the eventual interventions of the U.S. and Russia this year.  It articulates and gives coherence to a host of observations made by government officials and specialty journalists involved in that part of the world for years, highlighting specific events and other factors that allowed or encouraged ISIS to gain a foothold in the area.  This film organizes the opinions and observations into a coherent account.
      Factors considered and explained include the so-called “Arab Spring” when protestors in a number of Middle Eastern countries began speaking against corruption in government, such as Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya.  When Bashar al-Assad of Syria began to take note of the protests he took action against the demonstrators in his country decisively and without restraint, including torturing and imprisoning kids.
     Another factor was the formation of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), some members of which were defectors from the Syrian Army who began to recognize its brutality; others were simply volunteers.  Some were actually jihadists whom Assad had freed and who subsequently joined ISIS.
      As the situation worsened, and help from the west was not forthcoming, special interest groups began funding militias, which had abounded in the area, with no central control.  The revolution then became a civil war.  After rebels attacked government military bases in Aleppo, stealing weapons from warehouses and liberating Aleppo, Assad began bombing the city nonstop.  Iran through Hezbollah gave support to Assad, while the Kurds, Turkey, and the Arab Gulf States began supporting the Syrian resistant forces.
     Something that will be debated for years to come is President Obama’s setting a “red line” that if Syria crossed by using chemical weapons, the U.S. and its allies would react with military force.  Revolutionaries and human rights groups were incensed with this statement, in that they saw it as sanctioning every other kind of weapon.  To make matters worse, when Assad did indeed start using chemical weapons, Obama backed down after he and the British, whose Parliament had voted against airstrikes, withdrew military action at the last minute.  Their idea was to talk Assad into destroying chemical weapon stockpiles.
     American troops withdrawing from Iraq in 2011 is considered another factor contributing to the rise of ISIS, in that it gave Assad the opportunity to work with ISIS, especially against the FSA.  Although in the beginning, ISIS was an Iraqi organization, it began a global reach by taking over villages and their businesses in Syria, instituting Sharia law, beheading resistors, and setting up training camps for all kinds of immigrants to join.
     The film goes on to put ISIS’ actions into a historical context and outline further steps ISIS has taken to gain power, making Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi its leader, making propaganda videos, and using social media to stir up fear as a way of controlling any resistance. 
There are some hopeful signs, such as that ISIS has lost much of the territory and revenue that used to be under its control, the U.S. has made some airstrikes, and Iraqi and Kurdish armies have made some progress again ISIS.  Global effects of Assad’s and ISIS’ campaigns include the deaths of 400,000 Syrians; the displacement of over half of its population, and as a result, over one million are now refugees living in Europe.
     Sebastian Junger (Restrepo) and Nick Quested have done an admirable job in organizing and presenting such a complex web of factors that helped ISIS along.  It’s a heartbreaking story in many ways (and it is R-rated for its disturbing images), but one that needs to be told to help us make sense of radicalism and what is happening to our world.

The disturbing story of how ISIS came to be.

Grade:  A                                    By Donna R. Copeland