Wednesday, June 20, 2018

EATING ANIMALS



     If you plan to see this film, make sure your menu plan for dinner does not include meat.  This informative documentary by Christopher Dillon Quinn (21 Up America, God Grew Tired of Us) and narrated by Natalie Portman is based on a book by Jonathan Safran Foer who helped write the screenplay.  All three are producers of the film that provides data about our food industry, about which I venture few of us are sufficiently knowledgeable.  Yes, I personally had heard about “factory farming”, but I had no idea of the extent of it nor of the gargantuan political weight of food manufacturing companies in making sure government regulating agencies do their bidding. (Not an unfamiliar state of affairs, unfortunately.)
     Eating Animals also does a fine job in highlighting the personal stories of farmers, ordinary citizen observers, and a former U.S. government-employed veterinarian about their lives and the costs to them and their families for speaking out.   These accounts lend considerable weight to the thrust of the documentary.
     Apparently, industrial farming began to dominate food production in the 1970’s when corporations became a powerful force in food production.  By that time, they had captured 99% of the market, after edging out independent farmers.  How did they do it?
     Partly by duping farmers into signing contracts that would keep them beholden for years (not informing them, of course, of how they would be housing thousands of animals under deplorable conditions, going into enormous debt to keep the whole operation going, and sickening them with the smells and state of the animals), and take away even their rights to protest.  One disheartening strategy is labeled “tournament farming”, in which stats are kept as to which farmers produce the most for the least cost.  “Winning” farmers get bonuses on the backs of “losing” farmers, and its forbidden for neighbors and friends to share information.  (The underlying strategy, of course, being to prevent neighbors from banding together.)
     Eating Animals is a commentary about another instance in which big corporations have bought off our Congressional representatives and regulatory agencies to do their bidding.          There are now “Ag-Gag” rules that prevent anyone from filming or talking about the abuses that go on in the food industry.  Taking a picture on a factory farm can be a felon.  
     This is a very even-handed account about the meat and dairy industry, being frank and illustrative without being preachy, and it shows how we all are complicit and will undoubtedly suffer the consequences further down the road.
     On the upside, there are U.S. companies coming up with plant-based protein, and China has announced its aims to decrease meat consumption 50% in its country by the year 2030.  

The unconscionable cost to animals and humans of a meat-based diet.

Grade:  A                                                            By Donna R. Copeland

JURASSIC WORLD: FALLEN KINGDOM

Chris Pratt     Bryce Dallas Howard    Justice Smith    Daniella Pineda    Isabella Sermon
James Cromwell     Geraldine Chaplain     Toby Jones     Rafe Spall     Ted Levine     Jeff Goldblum


     There is a lot going on in this movie, so pay attention. It’s a bit of a hodgepodge involving the threat of a volcano destroying the dinosaurs left on Isla Nublar (from the last Jurassic World); the reunification of Owen (Pratt) and Claire (Howard) and a bit of romantic tension; family issues among Benjamin Lockwood (Cromwell), his granddaughter Maisie (Sermon); her guardian Eli (Spall), and her nurse Iris (Chaplain); the trafficking of animals for use in genetic research and warfare; and, finally, the question of how important it is to save endangered species.
     Got all that?  OK, then hop on board for the set-up.   After the park closed in the last film, and the dinosaurs were left on their own, concern arises when a previously extinct volcano begins to erupt, threatening to destroy the dinosaurs’ world.  Lockwood is at the end of his life and wants to do something meaningful, so he has devised a sanctuary on his estate that is big enough for the animals.  He enlists the help of Claire and Owen in transporting the animals off the island to his sanctuary. 
     There is just one problem—a big problem.  His overseer Eli has let his “business opportunity” self and obsessiveness about wealth get hold of him, and has developed other plans—namely, breeding dinosaurs for specific purposes and selling them as exotic animals in the international market.
     All of this engages the audience emotionally (and audibly during the screening I attended), as they experience fears of animals and humans, outrage, compassion, excitement, and all the sentiments evoked in emergency situations.  It’s quite a contrast between these events and the dry exhortations of the congressman Ian Malcolm (Goldblum) urging Americans to accept things as they occur without trying to intervene.
     J. A. Bayona (The Impossible, A Monster Calls) has realized on film the Michael Crichton novel in a manner that is engaging, tense, and to some extent thought provoking.  After throwing out so many pointed issues, however, the ultimate resolution is left open, from the fate of the dinosaurs, to the future of the main characters, to the fate of the world as we know it.  Perhaps this is a good thing, in that it reflects succinctly our own times of upheaval.  But the last 20 minutes/half hour is a little bit too much overkill (pun intended); it should have been condensed.

Jurassic World:  Fallen Kingdom will immediately draw you in and keep you on the edge of your seat

Grade:  B                                                By Donna R. Copeland


WON'T YOU BE MY NEIGHBOR?


     There has probably not been a more committed public figure in defending children and voicing their needs than Fred Rogers, the man who brought the television show, “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood” into American homes for 30 years to talk to children about everything.  He could make children feel good about who they are, and be reassured about things they might be worried about—all done in a soft, matter-of-fact way using play, song, puppets and mini-dramas.  No subject was off limits, including death, illness, and national tragedy.  He demonstrated that when such things are discussed in ways that children can comprehend, ask questions, and learn, they can be guided toward valuable means of coping.  
     Mr. Rogers’ childhood experiences likely influenced his thoughts and ideas about children and his choices for professions as an adult, in that he was often sick (scarlet fever, for example) and had long periods of time when he used his own imagination to entertain himself; he was introspective, and thought about existential concerns; and he was bullied some at school (“Fat Freddie”).  As an aside, he was very proud that he had kept his weight at 143 all his adult life—showing him that he had some control over his own life.  His playfulness is shown in his relating the number 143 to an address for a puppet on his show, and one of his messages, “I love you.”  (I has 1 letter, love has 4 letters, and you has 3 letters).
     The documentary was in the hands of Morgan Neville (writer/director of Best of Enemies:  Buckley vs. Vidal, and 20 Feet from Stardom), an accomplished documentarian who captures the essence of what Fred Rogers was about in this film.  It moves at a good pace, bringing in Rogers’ family, friends, and associates to give life to the man and his work.  I was especially struck by Yo-Yo Ma (famed cellist) telling about his first meeting with Rogers, who immediately engaged him, got him on his show, and who later performed at his memorial service.
     I was also moved by Neville’s including the part where Rogers pulls in “Officer Clemmons”, a black police officer on the show but an opera singer/actor/playwright in real life, to share a wading pool with him just when the ‘70’s civil rights struggles were ongoing, a main bone of contention being “blacks’” rights to swim in “whites’” pools.  Mr. Rogers talks him into cooling his weary feet, lends him a towel, and helps him dry off his feet.  
     Fred Rogers felt strongly about television being a model and teaching tool for children, particularly in his criticism of its frenetic pace and introducing super heroes to children, which were to him, a distorted fantasy that was misguiding for children.  He decried the fact that television for children was far too busy and loud, not allowing for contemplation.  Rogers purposively used silence as a tool in his programs.
     The film has many accounts by Rogers’ family, friends, and colleagues, talking freely about the man, how they saw him, and what he taught them.  It was interesting to hear about some of the fantasies about him—that he was gay, that he was a former Navy Seal, that he had tattoos—all of which seem to have been projections from people’s minds.

An inspiring account of a man who dedicated his life to teaching and modeling good principles for children.

Grade:  A                                                By Donna R. Copeland

Thursday, June 14, 2018

TAG

Ed Helms     Jon Hamm     Jeremy Renner     Jake Johnson     Hannibal Buress
Isla Fisher     Annabelle Wallis     Rashida Jones     Leslie Bibb


      Five guys are ultra serious about their game, having played it since 1983 when they were kids, convinced that it will keep them young.  And they do seem like little boys playing their macho games. After they grew up, they did restrict it to the month of May, but during that month any one of them—or group of them—could appear at any time to tag someone.  The one who is “it” gets to tag, and then that one becomes’ “it”, just like in the childhood game.
     This particular May is special (and the reason why changes across time), but Hoagie (Helms) rounds up three of them (having no compunction about interrupting a Wall Street Journal interview or even a therapy session), saying that Jerry (Renner) is getting married and dropping out after this year.  Callahan (Hamm), Randy (Johnson), and Sable need little convincing to hop in the car and head to Jerry’s hometown.  The stakes are soooo high because Jerry is the champion who has never been tagged.
     Jerry is the best part of the story, in that he is ingenious in anticipating every move of the conspirators, preparing for them in comedic ways, and—by the way—being a master in what looks like martial arts; he can foil every attack and then escape without being detected.  Renner actually broke a couple of bones in doing his stunts.  He is impressive to watch, and although this is not nearly the caliber of Hurt Locker—for which he is perhaps best known—the role is similar in the character’s canniness and attraction to risk.  It’s certainly different in the mischievous eye of Jerry.
     Other main characters are in roles familiar to us.  Ed Helms is the ambitious achiever who often misses the mark by just a little bit.  Jon Hamm is the suave CEO of a large, successful company.  Jake Johnson is the slightly manic talker with a talent for saying the wrong things.  Unlike these, Hannibal Buress’ character isn’t like his previous roles; here, he is thoughtful, speaks in convoluted sentences, and is more than a little paranoid—a clever addition to the cast of characters.
     Females seemed to have been “tacked on” in stereotypical roles:  the aggressive Anna (Fisher) dying to be a part of the guys’ game and being a female version of a guy.  Susan (Bibb) being the beautiful ultra feminine bride wielding her power behind the scenes.  Rebecca (Wallis), the reporter so intrigued by her subject’s life, she abandons her intended story to follow him on a tangent.  The most realistic character is Cheryl (Jones), who expertly fields two suitors from high school, maintaining her equilibrium and sense of self throughout.
     Tag reflects the backgrounds of the director (Jeff Tomsic) and writers (Rob McKittrick and Mark Steilan) being in television, although they based the story on Russell Adams’ account of the original group of men in the Wall Street Journal.  It plays like an extended sitcom with a bigger budget.  The audience I was with in the screening laughed heartily in the expected places, but I doubt this film will appeal to those interested in wanting comedy to push forward in a wave of creative expression that speaks to the contemporary frame of mind.

A light comedy about a group of men extending their childhood game into macho competitions in adulthood.

Grade:  C-                                    By Donna R. Copeland

INCREDIBLES 2

Craig T. Nelson     Holly Hunter     Sarah Vowell     Huck Milner    Eli Fucile
Catherine Keener     Bob Odenkirk     Samuel L. Jackson     Brad Bird     Isabella Rossellini


     I am always partial to Brad Bird, and think that his production of Incredibles 2i s just that—impressive enough to be regarded as incredible, and a film that is likely to appeal to all ages.  One of Bird’s strengths is in mixing lavish visual and special effects with an entertaining story of substance. Beyond the entertainment, values come through with respect to “doing good”, fulfilling civic duties, living up to one’s potential, and being a good parent (at times being equated with having super-powers—which I found very amusing andrealistic).
     The Parr family is a trifle at sea since super-powers have been outlawed (you get a real sense of loss of purpose from them), and their reputation is on the decline after their last job not turning out very well—at least in the public eye. Helen (Hunter) is flexing and saying they need to adapt, but her husband Bob (Nelson) is protesting.  Then something unexpected happens; a wealthy man, Mr. Deavor (Odenkirk) who is convinced super-powers are needed, has a plan for getting the law changed, and approaches the Parr family.  Well, specifically, he is asking for Elastigirl (Hunter), observing that she does less collateral damage in her heroics than her husband.  
     Of course, this creates a crisis in the Parr household.  Bob (Mr. Incredible) has trouble getting his head around the fact that someone would be preferring his wife over him, and Helen feels torn about leaving her family, even though it’s to save them.  Moreover, she and young Violet (Vowell) question the wisdom of breaking the law, even if it is to do good.  But Bob (to his credit) urges his wife to take up the mantle and perform a heroic act to save people and demonstrate the usefulness of super-powers.  After much soul-searching, all she needs is a fancy motorcycle delivered to her garage, and she is off.
     Mr. Deavor is in partnership with his sister Evelyn (Keener), who has designed new suits for the Parrs that have cameras installed, as a way to publicize their achievements.  What they do can be featured on the news, thus everyone will see their value, and public opinion will be successful in effecting change.
     There will be any number of major challenges to the Parrs, close calls, and a significant betrayal, which make the movie entertaining and provoke thought all the way through.  In the process, important contemporary issues are dealt with about men vs. women and their roles, about adherence vs. protest of laws, about trust vs. betrayal, about inventors vs. sellers of a product, and even about kids vs. parents.  I liked the way kids are portrayed, both needing guidance and nurturance and being listened to for their opinions.  
     A number of clever and humorous scenes are incorporated, revealing writer-director Bird’s ingenuity, such as inserting the role that he himself voices of Edna, the woman Bob turns to when parental duties have worn him out.  The interactions between her and the baby with emerging super powers, Jack-Jack (Fucile), are hilarious and heart-warming.  The cartoon figure looks exactly like Linda Hunt (NCIS-LA), who is the wise and supportive leader of undercover operatives with a blunt-cut pageboy hairdo on CBS TV. Jack-Jack, who is gleefully playful, manages to don just such a hairdo to win her heart.

An enthralling animation that will keep the whole family spellbound.

Grade:  A                                    By Donna R. Copeland

Thursday, June 7, 2018

OCEANS 8

Sandra Bullock     Cate Blanchett    Rihanna    Sarah Paulson    Mindy Kaling    Awkwafina
Anne Hathaway     Helena Bonham Carter     Richard Armitage     James Corden    Dakota Fanning


     This clever, fun heist movie will engage you, intrigue you, and keep you entertained. Debbie Ocean (Bullock), sister of Danny (George Clooney) in previous Oceans movies, is just being released from prison after serving five years. She bounds out in the same outfit as when she went in—dressed for the evening in a trendy black outfit—assured that she can go anywhere and do what she wants with the $45 in her pocket. And we see how she begins to do just that with her light fingers and made-up stories as she ensconces herself into a fancy hotel and gets in touch with her seven specially talented friends and accomplices, the first being Lou (Blanchett), an Australian motorcycle enthusiast and sharp observer of human behavior  
     Debbie has used her time in prison well, figuring out detailed plans for living up to her family name, exacting a delicious revenge, and getting a ticket to the high life for life.  Debbie and Lou flesh out a strategy for a major heist of jewelry at one of THE social events of the year, the Met Gala, hosted by the iconic Vogue Magazine editor and artistic director of Conde Nast publications, Anna Wintour who appears as herself in the film.  
     Debbie and Lou assemble a motley team of thieves, smugglers, fashion and jewelry designers, forgers, and computer geniuses to play their roles in an intricately choreographed dance designed to net them all a sizeable share. What are they after? Cartier’s 150-million-dollar diamond necklace.  It will involve managing to get just the right celebrity to wear it to the ball.  
     Some of the funniest scenes include the eccentric fashion designer Rose Weil (Carter) flattering the always-aspiring celebrity Daphne Kluger (Hathaway) to go along with the plan to wear the necklace.  (Not hard at all, once she sees it.)  To watch Hathaway acting out preening and self-love in brilliant red lipstick in front of the mirror as she tries on various necklaces (the real diamond one is held out as a tease) will surely make you groan and laugh at the same time.  
     Also engaging are glimpses into the current lives of the fellow co-conspirators. Tammy (Paulson) is a contented mother who buys tens of bicycles on eBay when she has only one child.  Nine Ball (or “Baller”, if you prefer) (Rihanna) is a wizard on the computer, and most of the fun here is seeing others having to catch up with her; and like any good Asian has a relative, April (Midori Francis), to come through at a crucial time.  Mindy Kaling, as Amita, the jewelry designer, is trying to find a partner on an internet match site, but she will amuse and impress you with her rather naïve pronouncements coupled with design efficiency.  Constance (Awkafina) always shows up just in time, and even though she is simply collecting and sorting things, you smile at her dedication.  
     In Oceans 8, Director Gary Ross demonstrates his sensitivity toward women’s important issues, his delight in mixing up craftiness and comedy, and his flair in infusing excitement into a rather predictable plot.  The journey there is the point, and it will serve as a good time to relax and simply enjoy.
     This Oceans’ cast impresses with its unwavering skill and art.  The major protagonists and supporting actors deliver what we hope for and expect in a film of this kind.  Bravo to all!

This is a great movie for kicking back, relaxing, and letting the irony and truthfulness amuse you.

Grade:  B                                    By Donna R. Copeland

HEREDITARY

Toni Collette     Alex Wolff     Gabriel Byrne     Millie Shapiro     Ann Dowd


     The set-up for Hereditary is truly chilling—not too much to be unbelievable and just enough to make it plausible. The Graham family—father Steve (Byrne), mother Millie (Collette), son Peter (Wolff), and daughter Charlie (Shapiro) appear normal enough.  They live in a picturesque setting in a large old house in what looks to be a small town.  There are hints that strange things are going on in the scattering of dollhouses around the house (that will only become creepier later).  But also noticeable is something in Charlie’s eyes and behavior. For instance, she doesn’t say much, sometimes makes a clicking noise with her tongue, is seen drawing portraits of those around her incessantly, and once, we see her do something destructive to an animal as she casually eats a candy bar.     
     Millie’s mother has just died, and Millie wonders why she doesn’t feel like crying, but after she sneaks away to a grief-counseling group and her history tumbles out, we can see why.  Sadly, she feels a bit ashamed about attending, and keeps it from her family. Millie is an artist who is trying to meet a deadline for a project that involves figures she must paint so intricately, she needs glasses like jewelers and watch repairmen wear—just another touch to add to the eeriness of the story.  
     One evening, Peter asks to use the car to go to a party, although he presents it as a school function.  His mother gives him permission, making sure there will be no alcohol, and insisting he take his younger sister Charlie along.  This is one of the first set-ups typical of horror filmmakers—something that doesn’t make sense, but is needed for the plot later on.  That is, why would a mother force a teenager to take a 7 year-old to a social function when neither of them wants it? At any rate, they are compliant children, and they go along.
     This is where the movie takes a weird turn.  A tragedy occurs in which Charlie is killed, and the mother is not the same ever since.  This in itself is not unusual (no one is the same after losing a child), but in a horror story like this, the occult is introduced more overtly, where there were only hints before.  
     Millie’s chance (or not so much coincidental, as shown later) encounter with a member of the support group who hails her down at the shopping center, asks how she is doing, lets Millie know that she too has lost a son and grandchild, and gives Millie her address and phone number “if you need someone to talk to, because we all do.”  Millie makes light of this, once again, significantly, not telling her husband about Joan (Dowd) or the subsequent séance that she will experience in which Joan is able to conjure up her grandchild.
     After this, the film goes over the top in typical horror-film paths, introducing ever more fantastic events that have the audience gasping (or laughing, depending on individual perceptions).  Some of these scenes are effective (such as when Millie and Peter start to work on their issues—painful as they are.  But then, the turn is to more conventional horror motifs that have little to do with reality, i.e., Paimon, a king of hell, makes his appearance.
     This is a more than admirable first feature by writer-director Ari Aster, and one of which he can be truly proud.  His script and direction, the superb acting—particularly that of Collette—and the cinematography, music, and the rest of the crew make this a noteworthy film.  The music (Colin Stetson) and camera (Pawel Pogorzelski) are visible enough to be characters in being so present in telling the story even when no actors are present.  

Horror films come and go, but you should take notice of this one.

Grade:  B                                    By Donna R. Copeland

HOTEL ARTEMIS

Jodie Foster     Sterling K. Brown    Sofia Boutella     Jeff Goldblum
Jenny Slate     Dave Bautista     Charlie Day     Brian Tyree Henry


     There is no honor among thieves—true most of the time.  But that adage is disproven now and again in Hotel Artemis.  The hotel was created as a gesture of honor years before 2028 when this story takes place, one among many interesting twists in the narrative about a kind of hospital for wounded criminals, administered by The Nurse (Foster). Riots about the shortages of water are flaming in Los Angeles, which makes the hospital very busy.  But a few clear-cut rules have been designed to establish order, e.g., only paid members admitted, no cops admitted, no weapons allowed, no serial killers or pedophiles admitted, no real names used, etc.  Each person is called by the name of his/her room, e.g., Waikiki, Honolulu, Acapulco, Nice. (One of the clever little features that elicits a smile from us.)  Nurse runs a tight ship aided by her trusted Everest (Bautista), who towers above everyone else, is completely devoted to his job and to Nurse, and is handy in managing the electrical generators and being a bouncer when called upon.    
     On a particular Wednesday night during the riots, only one room is vacant when Nurse is handed a dilemma that will cause her to break one of her own rules, and coincidentally, other infractions happen for various reasons, and then suddenly a call comes from the owner of the establishment needing to be admitted. This happens to be Wolf King (Goldblum), crime boss of the city.  Beyond the main events, sub-plots are interwoven involving activist Waikiki (Brown) and his brother Honolulu (Henry), the assassin Nice (Boutella) and her fluctuating relationships with Waikiki and Acapulco (Day), a loud-mouth American full of bluster and entitlement, and a mysterious patient (Morgan) with a significant past connection to Nurse.
     Drew Pearce, writer/director, and his team have produced an unusual take on a crime story with elements of mystery, suspense, and intrigue; colorful but entirely believable, complicated characters (the most complex being Foster’s “Nurse”); Cliff Martinez’s expressive score; Chung-Hoon Chung’s guiding cinematography; and all the others involved in making the film a work of art.  And we must not omit the many, many modes of humor and plain laugh-out-loud moments sprinkled in here and there. Quotable quotes run rife. “You work with what you got; not what you hoped for.”  [My dad] lives in Florida; life took him out already.”  “They bought your death; don’t give them your dignity for free.”  And finally, “Getting out is always tougher than getting in.”
     This is likely to be another star in Jodie Foster’s star-studded acting crown, easily measuring up to a host of award-winning performances in Silence of the Lambs, The Accused, Taxi Driver, and Contact—just to name a few.  It was personally gratifying to see her physical appearance reflecting her life of grief and servitude rather than her being “prettied up.”  Gray-haired and wrinkled, and relying on inspirational tapes to manage her anxiety, asthma, and other maladies, Foster delivers on-point perfection in giving us an in-depth look at her character with a significant past.
     Also notable are Sofia Boutella (always mesmerizing), Sterling K. Brown as an honorable “criminal” loyal to his brother to a fault, Dave Bautista as a bouncer with a heart, Charlie Day as an American stereotype who talks too loudly and too much, and Jeff Goldblum as an astute crime boss who’s disappointed in his youngest son for being too soft.

Hotel Artemis:  A place like you’ve never seen before, with goings on that thrill, chill, pull the strings of your heart, and make you chuckle.

Grade:  A                                    By Donna R. Copeland

FIRST REFORMED

Ethan Hawke     Amanda Seyfried     Philip Ettinger     Cedric the Entertainer     Michael Gaston     Victoria Hill


     This is one of those independent films that you hope will be coming up regularly forever. It takes an issue and argues it with eloquence and passion, showing both sides.  That is, the audience is expected to take some responsibility for thinking about something important and reasoning through it to conclusion. Pastor Toller (Hawke) has a known past of having a son he talked into going into the military (generations of his family had attended VMI)—against his wife’s objections—and, unfortunately, Joseph was killed in Iraq.  The burden of this kind of guilt is the subject of the film, and it’s put into larger contexts related to political activism, religious beliefs and meaning, and, fundamentally, hope and despair.
     Pastor Toller seems to be experiencing PTSD (post-traumatic stress syndrome), and trying to work through it, using scripture and group therapy, and a diary that is to be destroyed in one year.  Adding to the pressure is that he is pastor of a 250 year-old church, which tries to survive by joining a much larger congregation, the Church of Abundant Life, led by Pastor Jeffers (Cedric the Entertainer).  They’re all gearing up for the celebration of the re-consecration of First Reformed.  Here, we see the issues of original conceptions of religion played out against the current capitalist conceptions of a religion paired with financial backing.
 The First Reformed Church has to collaborate with the Church of Abundant Life in planning.  At first, there doesn’t seem to be much of a problem; Pastor Toller has met with Pastor Jeffers a number of times, and they seem to be on the same page.  But the primary contributor to the Abundant Life Church is a businessman with a moral center that differs significantly from Pastor Toller’s.
     And inserted into all of this is a major complication in the form of parishioner Mary (Seyfried) asking for help from Pastor Toller for her husband, Michael (Ettinger).  He is an activist for the environment, and has strong feelings about bringing a child into the world.  (Mary is pregnant with their child.)  He wants to abort the child, but Mary does not.  
     Pastor Toller is drawn into this dilemma, which exquisitely connects with his own dilemma he is already dealing with; that is, a parent’s responsibility for a child’s life.  Michael is troubled that he is bringing a child into a world that will eventually kill him, because of environmental neglect.  (The oceans rising several feet, for instance.)
     Paul Schrader, the writer/director of this film, eloquently outlines the agonizing questions of our day related to climate change, personal responsibility, and political activism, and demonstrates how individuals and families can be affected.   The ending of the story is drawn out, culminating in a conclusion that may be dissatisfying for many.  
     First Reformed is an outstanding production overall.  Schrader is an expert in storytelling and visual effects.  He and cinematographer Alexander Dynan open the film with an old white-boarded church scene suffused in a pale blue light; and these colors are seen throughout, with accents of black, bright red or other colors inserted for maximum emotional effect in certain scenes.  Ethan Hawke—in his usual fine form—gives one of the best performances of his career, complemented by Amanda Seyfried as a sincere young parishioner and Cedric the Entertainer as an experienced pastor of a large, well-connected church.  

An impressive film in all aspects of filmmaking.

Grade:  A                                    By Donna R. Copeland

Thursday, May 31, 2018

HOW TO TALK TO GIRLS AT PARTIES

Elle Fanning     Nicole Kidman     Alex Sharp     Ruth Wilson
Abraham Lewis     Ethan Lawrence     Allison Saxton     Tom Brooke


     Don’t let the title mislead you; this is not a “how-to” (except maybe as irony) lesson, but one of the weirdest movies you are likely to see.  It starts out with three punks careening on a single bike on the streets of London circa 1977, then it goes to a loud punk-rock concert and eventually evolves into an alien cult doing what looks like performance art, but is much more than that.  The three punkers take pride in their weirdness, and groove away at the concert.  When they aren’t invited to the after-party, they seek it out to crash it.  Mistaking it for the after-party, they come upon a truly weird group doing what looks like a performance art thing.  But the first clue is that they all belong to certain colonies that are fundamental to their society.
     The three punks are adept at crashing concerts and parties, and when a sexy woman answers the door, one of the punks, Victor (Lewis), uses his flirty charms to get her to escort them in.  They go their separate ways, seeking to score, and Victor begins following through with his line at the door to his greeter; his reaction to what happens after that is just one of the comedic elements of the film.  
     John (Lawrence) finds his place singing and dancing, but Enn (Sharp) connects with Zan (Fanning), who is extremely alluring and interesting.  He tells her about his band, “Virus” (attempting to infect everyone to fight fascism and conformity), and she is fascinated. Before he knows it, she has invited herself to his “punk colony”, using an odd phrase (“How do I further assess the punk?”), and saying something about having 48 hours to learn more.  By this time, nightlife has closed down, and Enn must take her home, where she meets his mother the next morning and visits his “tree temple” (tree house).  As time goes on, it becomes obvious that Zan is very different from Enn and his British mother, although they get along beautifully. (Enn’s mother thinks she is from California!)
     At first, I wasn’t sure I could sit through this film, but after it began to appear to have some meaning behind it, I got interested and was greatly entertained by the action, sets, costumes, and story.  But it has a message as well—about the importance of staying connected with one’s roots (family) and discussing parent-child relationships (Are you going to “eat” them, or allow them to go when they’re ready?).
     I think this movie is intriguing as well in the way it presents us with something shocking, then seduces us into appreciating and valuing differentness in culture and ways of being.  Nothing is static:  “Adapt or die” is its message, and shows that in the process of adapting, seemingly miraculous things can transpire.
     Elle Fanning is superb as some kind of being that is seeking out new experiences and answers to life’s questions, and Alex Sharp is a worthy co-star who shows his character being awed, but still willing to go with the flow.  I haven’t mentioned Nicole Kidman (Queen Boadicea), queen mother of the punk Dyschords, but she measures up to her Eyes Wide Shut performance, extended several octaves. 
     The ending of the film seems alien (pun intended) to the story we’ve just heard—that is, it’s pretty standard Hollywood-ish compared to the rather bizarre scenes that go before.  It is effective in bringing us back to reality after an out-of-this world surreal experience.

A taste of punk as it is being introduced in London in the 1970s.

Grade:  B                                    By Donna R. Copeland

ADRIFT

Shailene Woodley     Sam Claflin


     Imagine yourself on a sailboat on stormy seas for over a month, when it’s often touch-and-go as to whether you’ll make your destination.  It will take all your skill and ingenuity to survive (if you do).  If these kinds of movies are thrilling and wondrous to you, you should go to Adrift.  
     I, on the other hand, get exhausted and feel inadequate as I watch the characters perform all kinds of brilliant jerryrigging with whatever they have to make do.  But actually, that is just one of the strong points of this film (setting aside my own hang-ups), particularly well executed by Shailene Woodley.  The actress is a wonder in being onscreen almost the entire time, and needing to show a huge range of all different kinds of emotions and physical feats.  She has clearly proven her mettle as an actress here, even as much or more as in her award-winning roles in The Descendants, The Spectacular Now, and Divergent.  
     Another issue I have with the film is a favored technique of directors nowadays—jumping back and forth in time—although by the end of the story I could see why it might have been useful in this particular case.  The opening scenes are jarring in that we don’t know what has happened—but clearly it’s something major.  Then we’re tossed back and forth through past and present events that are intended to tell the story of these two people, Tami (Woodley) and Richard (Claflin), falling in love.  Interspersing the love story into the unmitigated, harrowing boat scenes may be necessary for balance and to keep the audience engaged throughout.
     These two people are portrayed in a very appealing light—another plus in the film—both adventurous and slightly devil-may-care, gentle, respectful and admiring of each other, and just naturally drawn together.  It’s an easy coming together of two contemporary young adults who can goof around, but have good sense and substance when need be.
     In basing his film on the true story about a couple getting caught in a hurricane and stranded in the Pacific Ocean without communication or navigation tools, director Baltasar Kormakur (Everest, Reykjavik) and his crew including cinematographer Robert Richardson (JFK, The Aviator, Hugo, Django Unchained), composer Volker Bertelmann (Lion, “Patrick Melrose”), and production designer Heimir Sverrisson (The Oath, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty) have created a beautifully rendered, stunning account of an unanticipated adventure.  

Bottom Line:  A thriller on the open seas, with the boat’s creaking sounds remaining with you long after.

Grade:  B                                    By Donna R. Copeland

ON CHESIL BEACH

Saoirse Ronan     Billy Howle     Emily Watson     Samuel West     Anne-Marie Duff     Adrian Scarborough


     It’s the 1960’s in England, and Florence (Ronan) and Edward (Howle) have just met in a love-at-first-sight moment.  They joke with each other, have fun, and talk about things that are important to them.  She’s a classical musician and he is a history expert, but has a wealth of knowledge about the world around him.  They seem to have a lot in common despite their different backgrounds—hers upper class, his working class.  His father is headmaster at a school and his mother an artist, so they are educated, but she had a brain injury that has resulted in odd behavior.  Florence’s family is rather snobbish, so it takes a while before they can accept Edward.  But things are coming along; Florence loves Ed’s family and they love her. 
     The day comes for them to be married.  This is a very long day, but director Dominic Cooke breaks it up by interspersing scenes from their childhood and the early days of their courtship, which helps to make sense of what happens on their wedding day.  Their honeymoon is in a fine hotel on Chesil Beach, known for its distinctive rocks, which serves as a metaphor for the rocky time their relationship will have.
     The book on which the film is based is by the acclaimed novelist, Ian McEwan, who wrote the script as well.  Many of his novels have been adapted to film, including Atonement, which won an Oscar.  His characters are well conceived, with psychological depth and a kind of realness that reminds us of people we know or can imagine.  That’s the strength of this film, along with the actors who play the main characters, Ronan and Howle.
     Although the director has done well in many respects, the film sags in its lingering on Florence’s obsessiveness and need to be in control and to be controlled in her every move (thanks to an overly critical father), making the audience squirm and look at their watches.  Another drawback is the loud rock and roll/rhythm and blues blasts that occur during opening scenes and periodically throughout.  It frequently drowns out the dialog, and makes it stand out in a bad way.
     But another strength of the film is its brilliant illustration of how important sex education is.  Although not unusual for the 60’s, these young people have not been taught the basics—either formally or informally—and your heart will go out to them in their pain and inability to express themselves or get any guidance.  A minister and a father offer their help, but the young people have been taught to suppress emotions and concerns, so can't discuss the issue.  
     Cinematographer Sean Bobbitt deserves praise for his camerawork, which captures the landscape contrasted with the emotional turmoil and shots that express so well the agitation and angst of the characters.  There has probably never been a wedding night scene quite like this one in film—although I have no doubt it has occurred too many times in real life.
     Saoirse Ronan is a consummate actress skilled in playing young, cheeky characters; and here she demonstrates her skill in portraying a woman truly afraid. Billy Howle is newer to film, but shows up extremely well here in a complex character who is trying to integrate his aggression, tenderness, and competitive feelings, and develop patience.  He made the picture of humiliation and regret come alive on the screen.

Even today, this film might be relevant for couples considering marriage.

Grade:  B+                                    By Donna R. Copeland

Thursday, May 24, 2018

THE SEAGULL

Annette Bening     Saoirse Ronan     Billy Howle     Corey Stoll     Elisabeth Moss
Brian Dennehy     Mare Winningham     Jon Tenney     Glenn Fleshler


     Unrequited love and artistic aspirations take center stage in this production based on Anton Chekhov’s play written at the end of the 19thCentury and performed onstage in the U.S. numerous times—a demonstration of its popularity. Director Michael Mayer indicated in an interview that he wanted to do a film version of the play, because it would allow audiences to get into the “soul” of the characters more than they could when it is performed onstage.
     And what a mix of characters!  Annette Bening plays the role of Irina, a successful and still adored actress, who has come to rely on her success and popularity to the extent that she finds it difficult to empathize with troubles of those around her, even those of her son Konstantin (Howle).  He is an aspiring writer/producer of plays, struggling to make it in the world his mother has mastered.  To add insult to injury, she has bonded with Boris (Stoll), a successful writer who seems oblivious to what Konstantin is trying to achieve.  Konstantin finds himself consumed in jealousy, not knowing whether he can ever become as accomplished as either of them. 
     The action takes place at the summer home in the country owned by Irina’s brother (Dennehy), so the majority of the characters are local to that area. One of the locals is the daughter of a wealthy neighbor named Nina (Ronan), whom Konstantin adores.  But the daughter of the manager of his estate, Masha (Moss) is hopelessly in love with Konstantin. (She contributes much of the comedy in the film, snorting coke and gulping vodka while making statements like, [the reason I only wear black is that] “I’m in mourning for my life.”  [Actually, that may be another theme of the film:  mourning for one’s life as it has turned out.]  The one longing after Masha is a schoolteacher (Fleshler), who isn’t very smart, “but is a good man.”  When they meet at this vulnerable time, Nina becomes star-struck and smitten with Boris, Irina’s mate.
     You can see, this is all set up to be a farce of shifting romantic liaisons; but it has more depth than that in its examination of art (idols are not necessarily to be worshipped and the issue of how much one is supposed to sacrifice human relationships for art); the challenge of continuing to pursue dreams and cope after rejection; and how much to “settle for” to have an intimate relationship.
     The actors are the strength of The Seagull, with Bening securing her place as a star performer. Impressive as well is Saoirse Ronan, always right on, and especially in her delivery as an ingénue in the film’s play by Konstantin (If I didn’t know better, I would swear she had never acted before!).  Billy Howle plays the young tortured artist with skill and pathos.
     The weakness lies in the film’s not being able to wrest itself from a staged performance.  It’s usually difficult to make this transition, and, unfortunately, this—along with other movies before it—does not succeed.  Why does this matter?  I’ve thought about it many times, and have concluded that seeing real actors onstage is very different from seeing actors in a film.             The former is more realistic because the actors are “real” people; whereas in a film, the reality shifts to a much broader field, all of which must be incorporated into the “realness.”  Plus, it also seems that actors deliver their lines very differently in a play vs. in a movie. 
This is a film primarily for those who love classical theatre and plays.  

Romantic charades in a beautiful country home setting.

Grade:  C+                                    By Donna R Copeland

SOLO: A STAR WARS STORY

Alden Ehrenreich    Joonas Suotamo    Woody Harrelson    Emilia Clarke    Donald Glover
Thandie Newton     Paul Bettany     Jon Favreau     Linda Hunt


     The origin story of Han Solo of Star Wars fame zips along at a fast pace, with special effects galore, which becomes tiresome even though they are very striking.  But they dominate the picture so much they look like an advertisement for the companies producing them (i.e., Lucas Films, Walt Disney Pictures, and eight special effects makers).  At the same time, the screen is so dark—especially during dramatic scenes when special effects are minimal—it’s difficult to follow the story closely, the darkness perhaps the fault of he theater rather than the film itself.  Dramatic scenes are few anyway, and next to special effects, incessant gun battles and space chases dominate the story in a video-game-like manner.  
     There is a story, mostly of Han (Ehrenreich) trying to escape where he is and getting into trouble doing it—more than once. But he is a fast talker, and manages to argue his way into places, convincing the person in charge to allow him to do a job.  In the beginning, he is with his love Qi’ra (Clarke), but they get separated early on, and years go by before they will be reunited.  By then, much has changed, at least for her.  She is now a lieutenant for Dryden Vos (Bettany), a crime lord.  The two run into each other after Captain Beckett (Harrelson) becomes Han’s ambivalent mentor following after Han is kicked out of the military for insubordination.  Beckett and Vos are engaged in a major caper to steal a valuable mineral, and Beckett allows Han to be a part of it.  
     What follows is like a “Who’s on First” (Abbot and Costello) routine.  That is, who’s in charge and who has the cards shifts, including a surprise group of natives who charge white people with stealing their natural resource.  At times, it seems like Han is on top, but then, maybe it’s Vos, oh, but there’s Beckett, and then, maybe Lando Calrissian (Glover), and Qi’ra surfaces from time to time.  These change-offs provide some tension and thrill to the story, but since it’s basically predictable, you find that there are few surprises.  Most basic, of course, is that Han Solo will survive and journey on.
     If you are a hard-core Star Wars fan, this film might be thrilling for you.  For those somewhat removed, it is not likely to impress.  It would have been a much more powerful film if it had a deeper message and heightened dramatic power.

Special effects upon special effects, but with a thin story.

Grade:  C                                     By Donna R. Copeland

BEAST

Jessie Buckley     Johnny Flynn     Geraldine James     Charley Palmer Rothwell     Trystan Graville


     Beast is a nifty thriller that sneaks up on you, leading you to think it’s about a maladjusted young adult woman who is rebellious because of how her family treats her.  Moll (Buckley) is clearly a misfit at home as she was earlier at school.  At school because of a murky incident in her past, at home because she has been labeled as “all bad” and her sister as “all good.”  Her sister is beautiful and living what seems to be a charmed life, which makes it easy for her to be charming.  On the other hand, Moll has more depth, is difficult to understand, and always looks as if she is hiding something—all of which combined makes her an easy target for others’ projections.
     For Moll’s birthday, her mother (James) has organized a big party, which Moll is enjoying, until her sister preempts it with the announcement that she and her husband are expecting twins.  The spotlight pivots in that direction (apparently something that has happened all too often in the family history), and Moll shrinks away.  She leaves the party, walks on the beach, and goes dancing at a bar until morning.  When she is walking toward home, she is waylaid by a man she was dancing with earlier, who pressures her to continue partying.  She is having trouble getting away from him when suddenly another man with a gun appears and chases him away.
     This is Pascal (Flynn), who immediately gives her the kind of attention she has craved all her life.  He seems to understand her without knowing much about her, boosts her self-esteem, and is funny and charming.  The problem is, he’s not in the same social class as Moll, and when he meets her family, her mother is disdainful.  But Moll and Pascal seem to have a special empathic connection with one another, perhaps because he is a current suspect in local murders, and Moll was once charged with threatening a fellow student.
     The beauty of this picture, written and directed by Michael Pearce, is the way in which this empathy between the two plays out over time.  The filmmakers keep the viewer in suspense until the very, very end of the story.  Buckley gives an artful performance in portraying a resentful, troubled woman, and Flynn is the embodiment of a male protector with the ability to sense whatever is needed and provide it with charm and sincerity, in an oily kind of way.  
Beast offers an entertaining, suspenseful ride that will keep you engaged while it touches on deeper psychological yearnings that make a person vulnerable to influences which may lead down a garden path…or may prompt surprising, decisive action.

Beast is a thriller with intelligence and creativity behind it.

Grade:  A-                                    By Donna R. Copeland

Thursday, May 17, 2018

BOOK CLUB

Diane Keaton     Jane Fonda     Candice Bergen     Mary Steenburgen
Andy Garcia     Craig T. Nelson     Don Johnson     Richard Dreyfuss

     This bit of froth proceeds just about as expected, given the cast and the topic. Older women do daring things and after ups and downs, (almost) everything turns out groovy in the end. The characters are rather stereotypical, except maybe for Vivian (Fonda), who chose career over marriage and has become a wealthy woman.  Sharon (Bergen) is a Federal judge who’s been divorced for 18 years.  Diane (Keaton) lost her husband a year ago, and has two daughters who are rushing her into the grave and overly parenting her, or trying to.  Carol (Steenburgen) is happily married to Bruce (Nelson), but he has shut down since his retirement.  Their relationship needs a shot or something in the you-know-where.  
     The four women have been friends for years, their connection currently centering on their book club.  Vivian decides to spice things up, and when it’s her turn to choose the book, she passes around E. L. James’ Fifty Shades of Grey.  Her friends are horrified, but each one (guiltily) charges through it, and it seems to have a unique effect on each one, egged along by more frank discussions about how the women really see each other.  Basically they all need to get out more, out of their particular rut.  Sharon is prompted to go to an online dating site; Diane piques a fellow traveler’s interest by reading her book on the plane, after she has literally fallen into his lap getting into her seat; and Carol tries sexual come-ons in the book to arouse Bruce’s interest.  Vivian doesn’t “try” anything; she is convinced she has found the key to happiness.  Then an old school chum, Arthur (Johnson), surfaces and begins provoking her.
     Bill Holderman (director and co-writer with Erin Simms) has created a crowd pleaser (going by the reactions of the audience in the screening I attended) that contains sit-com humor, predictable complications, and a fanciful ending. Another idealistic treatment is reflected in the highly attractive appearances of most of the characters—certainly the women, and arguably for the men, as there was audible panting when Andy Garcia appeared.  
     There is little of substance in the story; the best dialog comes toward the end when the friends become more open and realin their conversations.  But for the most part, the story is more pie-in-the- sky than anything based on reality.  The best part of the movie is seeing the abundantly talented well-cast actresses doing what they do best—acing their roles as written for them.  If only the writers had opted to portray a more realistic picture of this stage in a woman’s life; I assure you, it would contain many more shadings and nuances, and likely be a much more interesting film.

A rather skewed, fanciful view of the lives of women past a certain age.

Grade:  C                                                By Donna R. Copeland