Sunday, October 29, 2017

AN ORDINARY MAN

Ben Kingsley     Hera Hilmar     Peter Serafinowicz


     “I will never hide, and I will never be taken”, states The General (Kingsley), the last one responsible for war crimes in Czechoslovakia who hasn’t been captured.  The General is being hidden by his loyalists, transported from place to place for varying lengths of time to keep him away from the authorities.  But The General is not easily corralled; he will not go gently into anonymity.  He longs for some stability and thinks maybe he has found it when his protectors find him an apartment rather than a seedy hotel.
     This man is extremely well experienced in counter intelligence and sniffing out potential enemies.  He covers the apartment thoroughly, examining every inch.  But one day someone uses her own key and lets herself in.  He immediately has a gun aimed at her, and she explains that she is the housekeeper for the previous tenant.  He grills her as if it were an interrogation, and her responses fascinate him.  She is obviously poor, has no parents, family, or boyfriend, to which, he says that she is like him, a ghost.  They don’t really exist.  But he “owns” her, she is his, and he will pay more for her than her previous employer did.
     The attraction between these two is some of the most interesting material in the film.  Tanja (Hilmar) (or “Maid!” as he calls her) is enigmatic, giving cryptic answers to his probing questions.  She is about the age of his daughter with whom he no longer has contact, so an added complication in the story is his identifying Tanja with her.  The more silent she is, the more he projects onto her his perceptions of his own daughter.  Subsequently, he asks Tanja surprising questions and does surprising things for her, and she remains as mysterious to him as all the women in his life he has known.  It’s a challenge to him to “pierce her veil” and discover who she is.  (The association to his daughter is not to be missed.)
     As time goes on, his association of Tonja with his daughter becomes clearer, as he teaches her to cook, buys her clothes, advises her, and defies her when he has a different agenda.  But she is not to be outdone, and surprises him at critical times.  Nevertheless, he has his own plans, and seems to take particular delight in evading those who are charged with capturing him.  This very unusual cat and mouse game, where both identities keep changing, makes the film.  This “ordinary man” may not be so ordinary after all.
     Ben Kingsley is well cast as the mischievous, but very experienced and bright, military man.  Hera Hilmar plays her character to a tee, whether it is as the underprivileged no-life maid or the woman she turns out to be.  Writer/director Brad Silberling has produced an intriguing, playful film that should please those interested in war stories and devious plots.  Ben Kingsley is delightful as he always is in playing mischievous-authoritarian characters (not an easy thing to do) with an almost invisible eye to the camera.  Hera Hilmar as the maid-plus is perfectly cast in her simple, unaffecting beauty and her ability to appear mysterious and competent at the same time. 

A cat and mouse game different from most any you have seen before.

Grade:  B                                    By Donna R. Copeland

Saturday, October 28, 2017

PLEASE STAND BY

Dakota Fanning     Toni Collette     Alice Eve     River Alexander     Patton Oswalt


       First of all, it helps to be reminded of what the title of this film means.  A common term in media productions, it refers to a problem that is being fixed.  And it’s a perfect mantra to calm young Wendy (Fanning) down, a teenager with autism who, astonishingly, is writing a Star Trek screenplay.  She is well versed in what the term means, and her primary caretaker, Scottie, has picked up on that and wisely incorporates it as a calming technique in her therapy.  Wendy has advanced so far in managing her symptoms, she has actually written 400+ pages, with the aim of entering a contest announced on TV in which she could win $100,000. 

     The problem is, of course, that no one really takes her seriously, and Scottie has never been a Star Trek fan.  However, she has made it clear that she is serious about entering the contest, has worked diligently to finish her script, typed it in the proper format, and fully intends to submit it to Paramount Pictures by the deadline.  She’s gifted like some autistic persons in savant-like knowledge—in this case of Star Trek—as demonstrated in a comical scene in which skeptics devise questions about Star Trek they are sure she can’t answer, until after she wins a fair amount of money off them.
     Wendy has had top-notch training at Scottie’s facility on how to navigate the real world, memorizing rules (such as crossing a busy street only when it shows the icon for it), and making detailed notes for herself in a notepad suspended on a string around her neck.  She has been trained well enough to hold a job at Cinnabon, even advancing from a greeter to icing duties.  She knows about how to count money and shop in stores.
     Then a crisis happens, associated with a visit from her sister Audrey (Eve), which blows up when no one seems to understand the importance of mailing in the script that very day, and she learns she will not be going home with Eve and taking on the role of an aunt to her newborn niece.  She has a tantrum, Audrey leaves, and Wendy refuses to adhere to her normal routine.  But her mind is working during the night, and she resolves to take the manuscript herself to Los Angeles, slipping out of the building at dawn.
     Now, the excitement and suspense builds, as we see Wendy go through all kinds of obstacles in reaching her goal.  It’s not clear at all whether she will make it.  Unfortunately, the film lapses into implausibility at times, although it is not enough to seriously affect the viewer’s enjoyment of the film.  One example I’m talking about is the scene where an elder care employee rescues her from a con, and then offers to have the retirement facility van take her to Los Angeles driven by a very old driver, which doesn’t turn out so well.  Another is Wendy being able to navigate a number of situations involving skilled problem solving that an autistic person would likely not be able to master.  Still another is that when police bulletins are sent out they cannot locate her, and don’t even bother to check with bus stations along the way.  
     As a whole, though, this is a delightful film with entertainment, suspense, and warmly humorous encounters, and the accompanying music (Heitor Pereira) enhances whatever mood is being portrayed.  Dakota Fanning is convincing as an autistic person, and pulls in the viewer’s empathy and admiration for her right away.  Toni Collette is consistently good, as she is here.  Patton Oswalt’s cameo at the end is priceless.

An engaging film with a view of autism rarely seen in dramatic works.

Grade:  B+                           By Donna R. Copeland

Friday, October 27, 2017

LADY BIRD

Saoirse Ronan     Laurie Metcalf     Odeya Rush     Beanie Feldstein     
Lucas Hedges     Timothee Chalamet     Tracy Letts


     There is always a challenge for comedies to have substance as well as humor, and writer/director Greta Gerwig has achieved just such a balance in Lady Bird.  Comedy runs throughout, but underlying it are observations about mother-daughter relationships, adolescence, male-female relationships, friendships, truthfulness, religion, and economic hardship, all presented naturalistically and with precise timing.  The characters speak as real people expressing themselves, as opposed to a series of comedy routines.
     Young Christine (Ronan), who has adopted the name of “Lady Bird”, is in the throes of first loves, struggling to make good grades in high school so that she can go to a “good” college and get out of Sacramento, and slogging through multiple applications to college.  Interestingly, she has more faith in herself than does anyone around her.  And true, she has committed some infractions and does not always have the self-discipline she needs, but she is reasonably smart and knows what she wants—to break out of living on the wrong side of the tracks and all that implies.  She is not unsympathetic to her parents’ economic problems, it’s just that she is optimistic about being able to do better.
     Her mother Jenna (Rush) has no such high hopes; she is a practical, organized woman who is appalled about things like a messy room and disrespectful behavior, but is sorely lacking in emotional responsiveness and psychological insight, although she does appear to be some kind of counselor in her job.  She doesn’t have enough empathy to see how similar she and her daughter are.  Fortunately for both mother and daughter, the father (Letts) acts in a positive way as mediator.  And fortunately for both, they always manage to maintain some degree of understanding and love for each other.
     Then there is Lady Bird’s life with her friends at school, where there’s a bit of a caste system between those who live on right and wrong sides of the track.  She and her very best friend (super bright but overweight and perhaps not as creative as Christine) Julie (Feldstein), are tight and have great fun together until Lady Bird begins to branch out and think she can be on the “right side of the tracks” if she manipulates situations.  She is attracted to a fellow Thespian, Danny (Hedges), and when that doesn’t turn out, she goes for Kyle (Chalamet), and it’s interesting to observe her exploring different ways of being in her romantic relationships and in different social classes. 
     This well written story has a beginning, middle, and very satisfying end.  The acting is superb, starting with Saoirse Ronan in a different role from her usual that highlights her considerable talent.  Odeya Rush and Trace Letts as Christine’s parents are skilled actors whose strengths are readily  evident in their very different relationships with their daughter.  I found Beanie Feldstein’s performance as Christine’s best friend right on, and I appreciated its truth about very bright, chubby girls not getting the recognition from society that they deserve.  The two young men, Lucas Hedges and Timothee Chalamet, who play Christine’s boyfriends, live up to their promising reputations for achieving their potential as actors.
     In addition to the quality of writing, directing, and acting, Jori Brion’s music aptly evokes the period in which the movie takes place, the 1990’s (e.g., The Monkees, The Doors), in expressing the mood of each scene.

An award-worthy production that marks the accomplishment of its writer-director, Greta Gerwig.

Grade:  A                                    By Donna R. Copeland

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

ALL I SEE IS YOU

Blake Lively     Jason Clarke     Danny Huston     Ahna O’Reilly     Miguel Fernandez


       I see little value in this production, except for the cinematography, which is stunning right from the beginning in its visual artistry.  Matthias Koenigswieser cleverly indicates Gina’s (Lively) blindness by adjusting the camera to show a blurry, whitish image with vague spots when scenes are from her point of view.  Many of his scenes are impressionistic and/or like an abstract painting that attracts our attention.  He varies the framing in close-ups, such as when the doctor is examining Gina’s eyes, to sweeping land- and seascapes around Barcelona, Spain.  (The picture was filmed in Thailand and Spain.)  Gina and her husband James (Clarke) live in Thailand, so we also get views of that country with its colorful markets, interesting architecture, and lush parks. 
       Koenigswieser is well known for his use of lighting, camera technology, and instincts to achieve artistic effect.  Here is a revealing quote: Atmosphere and lighting go hand in hand for me. I feel it makes everything more natural and relatable. In nature as well as interiors you have a different atmosphere all the time which in turn makes for a certain mood. Different weather conditions, light in different countries and continents, a variety of street light on a clear night, fog or rain. Smokey interiors, and open window next to the ocean and a setting sun. The varieties are endless and the best lighting school is nature (https://fstoppers.com/video/what-we-can-all-learn-beautiful-world-cinematographer-mattias-koenigswieser-2920).
     Gina and James are very much in love, trying to have a baby, and exploring the possibility of eye surgery that will restore her vision after she lost it in an accident.  He is devoted to her, and patiently serves as her visual aid.  She does have to assert herself sometimes in doing things for herself, such as putting in her own eye drops, which she is clearly capable of doing.  Then she undergoes the surgery, which restores her vision in one eye. 
     It is delightful to see her rediscovering colors and all the visual complexities of daily life.  He likewise shows pride and joy for her, and in celebration arranges for a trip to Barcelona to visit her sister and her family and to revisit the places they enjoyed on their honeymoon there.  Unrest begins to creep in, though, when she shows dissatisfaction with how she looks (no makeup) and dresses (conservative, bland), and begins exercising her creativity in changing her appearance.  James clearly expresses ambivalence toward these changes, and begins worrying about losing her to someone else.  He starts getting testy and more possessive and controlling.  It doesn’t help when they get to her sister’s, where Gina’s brother-in-law is an artist with few boundaries or restraint.  James begins to resist joining the others in their escapades, and is seen as a wet blanket.  The situation doesn’t get any better once the couple arrives home, and Gina wants to find a new place to live, just another change that is upsetting to James.
     Despite ramping up the intrigue and mystery in the last half of the film, co-writer (with Sean Conway) and director Marc Forster have delivered a film with a largely predictable plot that comes to resemble a daytime television show.  The two stars play their roles well; Blake Lively is believable as a blind person and one who regains her sight, and Jason Clarke captures well the Type-A personality confronting change that will lessen his control and reveal the insecurities underneath.  Lively herself is more controversial, with sharp contrasts between the “love her” “hate her” camps.  Clarke is more consistently regarded as a talented actor since his most famous role in Zero Dark Thirty. 

See this film primarily for the impressive cinematography.

Grade:  C                                    By Donna R. Copeland

SUBURBICON

Matt Damon     Julianne Moore     Oscar Isaac     Noah Jupe


     Suburbicon is like round 2 of the Coen Brothers’ Blood Simple, lots of gore and misfires, and most everyone being unscrupulous and/or not very bright to the degree it makes us laugh, no matter how much gore.  In this case, at least the kid Nicky (Jupe)—whom no one ever listens to—has some smarts and ability to plan ahead. 
     Right from the beginning, the story is a bit confusing and we have to look twice at two of the characters, then we learn they’re twin sisters, and it takes a few scenes before we know who is who.  That’s a bit disorienting.  The script is good (writers, the Coens, director Clooney, Grant Heslov) in doling out key facts gradually, upping the suspense and requiring the viewer to play the role of detective.  But it also calls upon us to decipher the sociological messages contained in it.
     The horror begins when two men come into the Lodges’ home one evening and hold them hostage.   Gardner (Damon) looks terrified, but seems incapable of putting up any resistance.  Soon, he, both sisters, and Nicky are tied up and put to sleep by holding a cloth (soaked with chloroform?) over their noses.  The family situation changes after that, with Gardner’s sister-in-law Maggie (Moore) assuming more of a maternal role.
     Threats to the Lodge family continue, and we get clues as to what the source of the problem is, but simultaneously there is a curious theme of prejudice against a black family, the Meyers, who have moved into Suburbicon, right next to the Lodges.  The Lodges have no problem with this, and even encourage Nicky to make friends with their son; but the rest of Suburbicon is outraged. 
     What proceeds is the simultaneous undoing of the Lodge family and destructive rioting against the Meyers family next door.  The only sense of this juxtaposition that I can make is that it’s a contrast between culpability and innocence.  The Meyers have done nothing wrong and are being persecuted; whereas there is rampant dishonesty and cruelty in the Lodge family, extending to virtually all of Suburbicon.  In fact, the thrust of the story may be to refute the common belief that most crimes are committed by people of color; whereas, the story here is that every white person, except for the child, is corrupt in some respect.  Two families in the city suffer, but for very different reasons.
     The three main actors, Damon, Moore, and Isaac live up to their reputations as fine actors; I would give an edge to Isaac, who lights up the plot when he is on and who shows considerable power in evoking his character.  Mention should go to the child actor Noah Jupe, whose face conveys all the profound confusion, fear, and resolve Nicky is experiencing, as well as the child-like openness to new friendships. 
     Suburbicon, directed by George Clooney, may not have the look of black film noir which so many expected, but I think it points to a major problem in this country, the deterioration of values in many segments of our society and the unjust scapegoating of a minority.  Clooney has transfigured a Coen script to make it more sociologically relevant today.  Unfortunately, the message is not as clear as it should be.

A stark contrast between white-against-white crime and white-against-black crime, one more culpable than the other.

Grade:  B+                                    By Donna R. Copeland

GOODBYE CHRISTOPHER ROBIN

Domhnall Gleeson     Margot Robbie     Kelly Macdonald     Will Tilston     Alex Lawther     Geraldine Somerville


     This film is enchanting in the depiction of a father and son suddenly left on their own forging a bond through imaginative play.  This is the best part of the story that would eventually become the beloved Winnie-the-Pooh stories for children.  But the film covers more troubling times, such as A. A. Milne’s military service in WWI, which left him with what sounds like our current understanding of PTSD, his beautiful wife Daphne who bore a son “who almost killed me” out of a sense of duty and was drawn toward London society, and their son, Christopher “Billy” Moon, whose imagination helped his father with his mental turmoil and provided inspiration for the Winnie-the-Pooh stories, but became a publicity-fueled nightmare.
     We’re introduced to Alan Milne (Gleeson) and his wife Daphne (Robbie) at a ball where he is obviously uncomfortable (having just returned from military service), but is easily cheered/charmed by his lovely wife.  When she gets pregnant soon after and gives birth to a boy (much to her disappointment, since she figures he will go to war eventually), a nanny (Macdonald) is engaged to take care of him.  She is essential, since the Milnes are away from home frequently in the evening and traveling.  Christopher (Tilston) comes to love “Nu” as much as his parents, but when she must leave for a time to attend to her ailing mother and Daphne feels compelled to leave their country home for London city life, the awkward father and precocious son are left to their own devices.
     It turns out that Christopher is just what the frustrated, war-scarred writer needs to get past his writing block (he is writing a book against war) and become productive.  The child seems to understand intuitively what is bothering his father, and talks about it in a way that will help Milne redefine his hallucinations into something nonthreatening.  Milne does eventually write and publish the book Peace with Honour, but before that, he turns the fantasies that he and his son weave together on their walks in the woods into a children’s book that goes all over the world.
     The rest of the story illustrates the all-too-frequent perils of publicity on children and families.  When the book becomes famous, the Milnes are na├»ve in setting no limits on campaigns and interviews involving Christopher, even when the knowledgeable nanny tries to enlighten them.  They will only “get it” when their son becomes so resentful and alienated from them, he enlists in the armed services, and they fear they have lost him forever.
     The writers Frank Cottrell Boyce and Simon Vaughan and director Simon Curtis have produced what I think is a story for our current times.  We have witnessed countless young people who have been compromised by the adulation of the public, which can literally swallow up an unprotected, unsuspecting celebrity.  Some survive to go on, but some don’t. 
     But as valuable as this segment is, it is only a small portion of the film; the first part is entirely enchanting, with the three main actors being a joy to watch.  Gleeson is top-notch in every role he plays (my personal favorite is in Ex Machina), and it’s only a matter of time before he receives major awards.  Here, he is the sensitive artist who has some difficulty navigating the real world, but is a wizard in creative endeavors.  Margot Robbie was perfect casting for a woman who is beautiful and engaging, but more suited to promotional endeavors than motherhood.  (The evidence of her versatility is in her role as Ann Burden in Z is for Zachariah.)  Young Christopher Robin is played by Will Tilston, who is captivating with his dimples, but shows considerable acting talent when he is required to be fanciful, loving, desperate, and demanding.  The switch in actors to Alex Lawther is unfortunate in its lack of continuity; he looks and acts completely different from the earlier character.
     Carter Burwell’s music entertains and supports the story in its different periods of time, and David Roger’s production design carries the viewer right into early 20th Century homes and cities. 

For an enchanting, nostalgic evening with contemporary issues to ponder, this film will serve you well.

Grade:  B+                                    By Donna R. Copeland

THE KILLING OF A SACRED DEER

Nicole Kidman     Colin Farrell     Raffey Cassidy     Sunny Suljic
Barry Keoghan     Alicia Silverstone     Bill Camp


    The Murphy family looks like a sea without a ripple in it.  It appears that everything is under control, with little friction, and ever-polite conversation about mundane matters making up the family’s conversations.  Even lovemaking has a ritualistic quality to it.  And yet, occasionally one of them will burst out with some extremely personal information.  Steven Murphy (Farrell) is a heart surgeon, and his wife Anna (Kidman) is an opthalmologist and head of a clinic.  Teenager Kim (Cassidy) is bright, with an interest in music, and younger Bobby (Suljic) is also very bright, but has yet to show particular talents.  They live in a large, orderly house with neatly tended gardens.  What could go wrong?
     For some reason—we initially don’t know why—Steven befriends one of his daughter’s classmates, Martin (Keoghan), who is the son of one of his patients who died some years back.  Knowing that Martin and his mother are struggling financially—or perhaps for some other reason we don’t know—Steven treats him to meals and gifts.  Gradually, Martin begins insinuating himself into Steven’s life, appearing at the hospital, calling him on the phone, and meeting him in the hospital cafeteria.  He even invites Steven to his house for dinner with his mother, which, curiously, Steven accepts.  However, while there, he encounters a situation that makes him leave abruptly.
     But Martin does not leave him alone; he has fantasies in the form of predictions that, when he voices them, are weird and shocking, but understandable psychologically from what we know of him.  What we don’t understand until the final scenes is the power he comes to have over this family.  And is it his power?  We are left to speculate on the events that transpire during the last half of the film, which have curious resonance with what Martin has predicted will happen to Steven and his family.  And these are dire predictions. 
     We’re given a clue about the film’s title by learning that Kim wrote an essay at school for which she received an A+.  It was about the Greek myth of Iphigenia, Agamemnon’s daughter who had to be sacrificed because of Agamemnon’s offense of killing a sacred deer that belonged to Artemis.  Without this sacrifice, Artemis would interfere with the winds Agamemnon needed to sail to Troy. 
     This is a successful truly horrific film that keeps the viewer engaged in trying to figure out what is going on.  The acting is superb, with Farrell and Kidman lockstep in their talents portraying people who are conventional on the outside and with deep recesses in their core personalities.  The “gossip” that surrounds them (and helpful “friends” are only too happy to inform them) raises suspicions, but we never know whether these are reality-based or not.  Barry Keoghan evokes the teenager you definitely don’t want your daughter to date; he portrays a threatening eeriness that you can’t quite put your finger on, and although what he says might be hogwash, a part of you will believe it.
     Director Lorgos Lanthimas and writer Efthymis Filippou have collaborated on previous films (The Lobster, Dogtooth, and Alps) that tend toward the mysterious and bizarre, and this is no different.  It will intrigue you and repel you at the same time.  Perhaps Lanthimas selected the music for the soundtrack, which is mostly classical and modern orchestral and choral music—dissonant, even screeching at times, to accompany the feelings of dread and eeriness of the script.  In addition, there are a couple of popular tunes sung by Kim.
     The Killing of a Sacred Deer will not be to everyone’s taste, but for those who value creativity and insight into the human condition, it will be a gratifying experience. 

Vulnerability to human weaknesses can help explain this drama.

Grade:  A                                    By Donna R. Copeland

Thursday, October 19, 2017

THE SNOWMAN

Michael Fassbender     Rebecca Ferguson     Charlotte Gainsbourg     J. K. Simmons


     The best thing this film does is illustrate how important good direction is to movies, because this seems to be the main flaw in The Snowman.  No matter how fine the actors are (e.g., Fassbender, Gainsbourg, Simmons, Ferguson) nor how artistic the cinematography (Dion Beebe), editing (Thelma Schoonmaker), and writing (Peter Straughan, Hossein Amini), a film can still be so deficient in the key function of directing (Tomas Alfredson), the other arts simply cannot make up for it.  It’s puzzling in this case, because Alfredson has had two successes in English language films (Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and Let the Right One In), and it’s surprising that he had such a lapse in this case.  He has responded to criticisms by explaining that when they got the go-ahead to begin filming, they did not have enough time to shoot all the scenes in the script, and when they started editing, this was all too apparent.  This helps explain some of the gaps, but doesn’t account for the lack of coherence or the apparently significant departure from the successful novel on which the story was based (by Jo Nesbo).
     This partially explains why there are so many scenes, especially in the beginning, where one has no idea who the characters are or, later, how they fit in with the story.  At any rate, it’s difficult for the viewer to piece together the sequence of events.  Part of the problem is that extraneous scenes are included, serving only to confuse, such as the scenes where Fassbender’s character Harry Hole is stone drunk.  This has nothing to do with what transpires; later another detective has the same problem, but we are not told how they are related to one another. 
     As much as I could glean, the story is about a series of murders across many years in which a snowman appears just before the murder of a mother with a young child.  Hole, the leader of the crime squad, and Katrina (Ferguson), his assistant, are charged with finding the serial killer.  There are a number of false leads, and when we learn who the killer actually is and what happens to him, it lacks the “Oh, I see” moment of a good detective story when the reader/viewer realizes there were clues that he/she missed.  In this film, there appear to be few if any logical connections with which to give the plot coherence.
     I don’t recall a time when a film that has this much potential falters so badly.

Sadly, The Snowman is not worth the price of a ticket to see it.

Grade:  F                                    By Donna R. Copeland

MARK FELT: THE MAN WHO BROUGHT DOWN THE WHITE HOUSE

Liam Neeson     Diane Lane     Marton Csokas     Josh Lucas     Michael C. Hall   
 Bruce Greenwood     Tony Goldwyn     Tom Sizemore     Julian Morris


     FBI agent Mark Felt was profoundly disturbed by his knowledge of the White House’s involvement in the 1972 break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters in the Watergate Hotel in Washington, and felt impelled by his conscience to do something about it anonymously.  He had been an agent for 30 years, and was completely devoted to its principles and solicitous of its integrity.  When J. Edgar Hoover died unexpectedly, there was a shake-up in leadership, and because President Nixon and his staff wished to have more control over the agency, they chose to pass over Felt, the #2 man with a spotless reputation, and put in the director’s place L. Patrick Gray, who would be more of an ally to them.

    This was a period of time when the FBI and the White House engaged in a number of clandestine activities such as bugging the offices of political rivals, activist groups, or just anyone it considered suspicious.  One of Hoover’s agents, Bill Sullivan, was especially skilled in these nefarious activities, and when the White House realized he could be useful even after Hoover had already dismissed him, the White House appointed him head of its own intelligence office.
    Soon after this film begins and Felt (Neeson) is passed over for the directorship in favor of Gray (Csokas), Sullivan (Sizemore) is appointed to the White House.  Felt sees this as very bad news, knowing that it would compromise the independence of the FBI.  In fact, the White House was successful in pressuring Gray to suspend the FBI’s investigation of White House involvement in the Watergate break-in.  As he witnesses the increasing erosion of democratic government, Felt begins to use what power he has to expose what is happening through the media.  He was able to keep his actions secret for 30 years.
    With all the secret machinations and intrigue going on in so many areas of the government during the time, this story should keep you on the edge of your seat.  It doesn’t.  Moreover, the story is not well told in the sense that characters are introduced without any explanation as to why they are, so by the end it’s not clear who is who, how they got to be where they were, or any of the intense emotions they must have been experiencing.  The only emotion in evidence is in a side story inappropriately inserted about Mark Felt’s missing daughter. 
    Neeson and the other main characters—Marton Csokas, Josh Lucas, Tom Sizemore—play their roles well; it is the script that lets them down.  Another example is Diane Lane, a fine actress who plays Felt’s wife.  We see brief glimpses of her and can tell she is very unhappy, but little about their marriage and family is elucidated, except, of course, about the daughter, which is still sketchy and seems only an excuse for the filmmakers to introduce some affect into a rather plodding script.
    Director Peter Landesman adapted the screenplay from Mark Felt’s book, which I have not read, but wonder if it is as dry as the film.  I wish I had come away from it with a good understanding of what happened, relate it to present-day events, and feel inspired by Mark Felt’s adherence to principles at not inconsiderable cost to himself.

This film will not give you a clear picture of the events surrounding the Watergate scandal.

Grade:  D                                    By Donna R. Copeland

ONLY THE BRAVE

Josh Brolin     Miles Teller     Jeff Bridges     Jennifer Connelly     James Badge Dale     Taylor Kitsch


     Only the Brave tells the story of the Granite Mountain Hotshots from Prescott, Arizona, a scrappy group of fighters who have to overcome city politics to become certified as official firefighters.  Their supervisor (“Supe”) Eric Marsh (Brolin) has been trying for years to be able to use his skills and talent with authority.  His mentor Duane (Bridges) coaches him on political maneuvers, and sure enough he is given a chance to have his team evaluated for certification.  He does need to hire a couple more men, and decides that even though Brendan (Teller) has a drug and felony history, his wish to parent his newborn child and give her the father he never had as a child convinces Eric to give him a chance.
Brendan will undergo an initiation into this special “fire fighting fraternity”, which will test his loyalty and endurance, and we will see whether he makes it or not.  It’s a challenge because of his history and the fact that his ex-girlfriend is pregnant. 
     We will witness a number of fires (spectacularly filmed by Claude Miranda), learning a bit about the science and technology of fighting them.  But to its credit, Director Joseph Kosinski and his writers Ken Nolan and Eric Warren Singer go behind the fire scenes and show us what the personal lives of these fighters is like.  Brendan’s challenges are made more poignant by his being away from home so long his infant daughter doesn’t want to have anything to do with him, which makes him question his occupation, even though it has been rehabilitating.  Another character has to make a decision about staying with his passion for fighting fires and taking on the responsibility of having a child.  These real-life issues give spark and life to the film, balancing the emphasis on the technology of fire-fighting with moving human stories.
     A minor drawback of the film is that it isn’t always obvious why certain tactics are taken, and I ended up questioning whether the pilots in the planes spraying fire repellant work at all with the fighters on the ground, who get sprayed from time to time.  Dialog was difficult to decipher sometimes as well.  On another positive note, the music by Joseph Trapanese is truly fine.

This dramatization of a real group of firefighters is most interesting—especially since fires in the west are a topic of conversation now in the U.S.—as well as exciting and touching.

Grade:  A-                                    By Donna R. Copeland