Thursday, October 11, 2018

THE OLD MAN & THE GUN

Robert Redford     Casey Affleck     Sissy Spacek     Danny Glover
Tom Waits     Keith Carradine     Tika Sumpter     Elizabeth Moss


     Charming, but incorrigible, Forrest Tucker’s sociopathic personality comes through when he meets a woman in a diner, and quickly wins her trust.  The woman is Jewel (Spacek), a lover of the simple life, horses, and the rolling fields surrounding her property.  He is evasive when she asks his name and what he does for a living, and he gives her his real name, which, at this point, is not broadcast in the stories about him, and finally lets her know that instead of “makin’ a livin’”, he believes in “livin’”.  It’s obvious that he has an admirable way of blending together truth and fiction into a believable story.  And like many who encounter Forrest, many suspect he is lying, but it doesn’t seem to bother them…because he’s so nice!
     The truth is that Forrest is a bank robber who has been imprisoned and escaped 16 times, beginning when he was just a kid.  It’s noteworthy that all the tellers who get robbed describe him as “such a gentleman”, “very polite”, a “nice-enough fellow”, and “happy.” He’s always well dressed and charming, encouraging them, and thanking them for accommodating him.  He and his pals, Teddy (Glover) and Waller (Waits), manage to get away with thousands of dollars.  They’re in the news, and even the police shake their heads, finding it preposterous that these old men are so capable.  
     Detective John Hunt (Affleck) is the beleaguered policeman charged with apprehending Tucker.  Although he seems to be as obsessed with being a good policeman as Tucker is about being a good robber, he is different in his self-doubts and struggles with his occupation.  His wife and superiors give him room to quit the force, but he determinedly stays on.  Even when the FBI intrudes itself into the case and he has a chance to step back, he doesn’t. Then he gets a tip that tells him exactly who Forrest Tucker is.
     Robert Redford pulls off this role in his usual expert fashion; probably no one else would be up to his personal aptness and level of skill.  It’s rewarding to see Sissy Spacek again in a role that suits her to a T as well.  Finally, Casey Affleck likewise performs as the kind of brooding character he has done so well in other films.  Danny Glover and Tom Waits make great sidekicks for the Redford character.  I was a bit disappointed there is not one of Tom Waits’ songs in the music.  Elizabeth Moss has a wonderful cameo at the end.  In a way, this film reminded me of David Mackenzie and Taylor Sheridan’s Hell or High Water in the nobility of the robber, but it kept up a level of excitement and humor a little more than is the case for this film.
     The script for The Old Man & the Gunis based on a true story, which was written up for The New Yorker Magazine by David Grann, who subsequently penned the script for this film.  Grann has a way of capturing his audience’s interest and maintaining suspense in his writing, just as he did for The Lost City of Z, The Devil and Sherlock Holmes, and Killers of the Flower Moon:  The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI.  In Director David Lowery’s capable hands, the movie becomes worthy of Robert Redford’s distinguished reputation in filmmaking, and a fitting tribute if it is indeed his last acting role.  Daniel Hart’s lyrical, moving score puts finishing touches on this fine production.

Charm is the name of the game in this engaging, suspenseful story.

Grade:  B+                                              By Donna R. Copeland

Thursday, October 4, 2018

LOVING PABLO

Javier Bardem     Penelope Cruz     Peter Sarsgaard


    Despite its title, this film is not essentially about Pablo Escobar; based on the TV anchorwoman Virginia Vallejo’s memoir about her love affair with him, it covers her gradual realization of who he actually was and the ways in which their relationship affected her life.  In the beginning, she is so charmed by him and impressed with his philanthropic goals, she says to herself she doesn’t care how he makes his money.  But after his dangerous operations become more and more obvious, disillusion sets in.
     My understanding of the public’s continual fascination with Escobar through the years (as shown by the popularity of movies and TV series about him—such as El Patron, Paradise Lost, The Infiltrator, and Narcos, as well as more than 15 books—has more to do with interest in the risky business of selling drugs—especially in a cartel—rather than in the man himself.  Penelope Cruz as Virginia narrates much of the film in a voice-over, so it is clearly from her point of view.
     In this sense, Loving Pablo falls far short of previous renditions of the famed drug lord because it really is about the romance, and doesn’t get much into Pablo’s business dealings.  There are definitely very violent scenes (and one notable distribution scene that takes place on a blocked highway) meant primarily to illustrate what made Virginia Vallejo anxious, but these scenes are not explained very well, and Pablo (Bardem) is shown much of the time as a passionate lover and family man and his brief flirtation with politics.   
     The affair lasted for five years, but the movie omits some events and insights that could have made it more compelling.  For instance, there was the impression that Escobar was using Vallejo’s television popularity to advance his standing in the country and provide him with a philanthropic cover to conceal his drug dealing.  Second, one reason for their break-up was his becoming so incensed when he learned that she had other lovers, he refused to see her again despite her wish to reunite.  Finally, little is made of the fact that Escobar was married, although there are a couple of scenes where his wife expresses her discontent with the situation.
     As an account of an extra-marital romance, there is little of interest here, so viewers expecting more of the Pablo Escobar story will be disappointed.  As fine actors, Bardem and Cruz elevate the film to make it a little more entertaining, but there is not much of a reason to see the film. 

Pablo Escobar’s five-year romance with a popular television personality and what came of it.

Grade:  D+                                    By Donna R. Copeland

Thursday, September 27, 2018

THE SISTERS BROTHERS

John C. Reilly     Joaquin Phoenix     Jake Gyllenhaal     Riz Ahmed     Rutgar Hauer     Carol Kane


     Intelligent western may be an oxymoron to some, but in this case, I think it fits. Director Jacques Adiard directed and co-wrote the screenplay with Thomas Bidegain, based on a novel by Patrick DeWitt.  That Adiard is French, and this is his first English language film, makes it even more impressive, because much of the content has wry humor, references, and interesting emotional connections that ring true for the American setting.
     The film begins with a darkened picture that becomes punctuated with gunfire bursts seen in the dark, the galloping of horses, and finally a house coming into view, with gunmen killing everyone they see, apparently cold-heartedly (cinematographer Benoit Debie created this striking opening scene.)  The two gunmen doing the damage are Eli Sisters (Reilly) and his younger brother Charlie (Phoenix).  They work for The Commodore, whom we only get two glimpses of, who has vast international business operations he has to protect. At one point, there is a pertinent argument between the brothers as to whether the people they shot are victims vs. bad guys who have stolen from The Commodore.  This is just one example of the philosophical/social issues subtly discussed among characters.
     Two other characters that will come in contact with the Sisters Brothers are an unlikely pair, in that one, Hermann Kermit Warm (Ahmed), is a chemist (who has a formula for extracting gold from California streams) and the other The Commodore’s effete detective, John Morris (Gyllenhaal), from an upper class background.  The latter has been charged with joining up with the Sisters Brothers to get the formula from the chemist—whatever it takes.  How he got into the job will come out later.
     In introducing these four characters, Adiard plays with the well-known contrasts between the educated and people like the frontier-hardened, skilled sharp shooters.  Tidbits about their backgrounds are inserted from time to time, allowing a more detailed picture of them, in terms of who they are and how they got to where they are. Further information is gleaned from incidents and conversations that occur throughout the film so that, by the end, a plausible account of how this group of four men got together, their backgrounds and personal stories, and how they end up is made clear.  
     The four main actors are stunning in their portrayals of brothers and unlikely connections that are formed for expediencies of the moment.  John C. Reilly, Joaquin Phoenix, and Jake Gyllenhaal can always be relied upon to bring potency and flair to their characters.  Riz Ahmed meshes perfectly with these well-seasoned actors to, likely, assure him of a bright future.
     The film was shot in Spain, but clearly looks like the American northwest. Debie’s cinematography transports the scenes to this country beautifully and convincingly.  Renowned Alexandre Desplat lives up to his reputation for capturing the essence of every scene with his music, and for his first western, he drew on strains of Charlie Mingus’ jazz and Nicholas Cage-type music.  I especially love his quiet piano accompaniment in emotionally charged segments; for instance, in a mother’s home.
     This film has many strengths beyond those mentioned.  Elaborating further, the interactions between the two brothers bring into play sibling rivalry, father issues, family loyalty, and the roles the two have come to own, such as the older Eli feeling and taking responsibility for the younger Charlie, who is more impulsive, more outgoing, more assertive.  But true to life, caretaking roles are switched now and then.  John Morris and Hermann Kermit Warm come together in a conventional way, in the spark created in their first meeting, and then through conversations in which they discover they have shared views about the world and how they might achieve a common goal.
     Another feature of the film that I appreciate is the way violence is portrayed in appealing to more artistic, sensitive tastes rather than eliciting shock through gore.  We are spared one shot and only see the body with a pool of blood on the floor.  Or it’s done in a kind of humorous way, such as an insect crawling inside a mouth and reproducing(!).  

This is a film for those who relish creative productions that can incorporate a modern take on a beloved genre, and still sketch out three-dimensional characters that resonate with most people today.

Grade:  A                                    By Donna R. Copeland


Sunday, September 23, 2018

THE WIFE

Glenn Close     Jonathan Pryce     Christian Slater     Max Irons     Elizabeth McGovern


     How many young wives have made the bargain of being a dutiful, adoring wife to their husbands with the tacit agreement that his career is top priority?  Countless, I would say, with most never realizing the long-term consequences of that bargain.  That’s Joan in the ‘50’s as a wide-eyed English student at Smith College taking a writing course from erudite Professor Castleman.  He praises her work—and asks her to babysit for him and his wife.  During that time, she is introduced to a female writer of some note—but not really famous—who advises her not to write, because publishers (who, at that time, are men) will not take women’s writing seriously.  Her books will end up only on university alumni shelves.
     It isn’t long before Joan and Joe are having an affair, and his divorce and their marriage come soon after.  But friction between them surfaces after she reads one of his manuscripts, which has been rejected by a publisher.  She critiques it honestly (and innocently), suggesting that the characters are “wooden” and the dialog “stilted”, and he goes into a narcissistic rage.  (Through the years, temper tantrums will continue to be one of his preferred methods for getting her to give into him.)  She responds by belittling herself and offering to “fix” the manuscript.  She is waiting tables at the time, and when she overhears men discounting writers who are women/Jewish, she runs home for “their” manuscript, gives it to the critical men, and sure enough, they agree to publish it.  Is there any mention of attaching her name as a co-author? No!  This is the fifties…
     The film opens on the cozy relationship between Joe Castleman (Pryce) and his wife Joan (Close), who have been married for years and have a daughter who’s pregnant with their first grandchild and a son, surly David (Irons), an aspiring writer. (Oedipal issues abound in the story, and are accounted for toward the end.)  Soon, jumping-on-the-bed rejoicing comes after an early morning call from Sweden informing Joe that he has won the Nobel Prize for literature. We get an “all is (almost) right with the world” vibe from the couple, and they head for Sweden along with their son David, who seems to be wishing he were anywhere else.  Clearly, Joan must constantly intervene in the men’s quarrels—which will make sense later on in the story.
     The rest of the film juxtaposes the luxurious Nobel surroundings and people with the Castleman family drama, one that realistically portrays the struggles families must undergo across time as new experiences and new events alter individuals in significant ways.  Everyone must adjust—some do so successfully, some not so admirably.  
     The Wife is based on a novel by Meg Wolitzer (screenplay by Jane Anderson) and skillfully directed by Bjorn Runge.  Although I usually don’t like films going back and forth in time, that arrangement works here in giving us some information in the present, then explaining it by showing past events.  The contrast between the Castleman couple’s coming together in the fifties and their experiences forty years later shows the turn of events that makes it seem topsy-turvy—but not if you pay attention to transitions.
     Humor, gut-wrenching interactions among characters, and apprehensions of all kinds keep the plot forging on while we sit transfixed, wondering how it will all turn out.  All this is beautifully dramatized by the actors.  Glenn Close is exemplary in her role as a woman of substance:  a delight, and a creative contributor, facilitator, arbiter, planner, and negotiator.  She is deserving of a major award.  As her foil, Jonathan Pryce is more than convincing as a self-obsessed dependent tyrant who has little insight in himself.  Max Irons is talented in portraying a range of characters, from FBI rogue agent (TV’s “Condor”) to disenchanted son with mountains of resentment; and Christian Slater is up to his usual portrayal of a formidable persona.

A family story outside the norm for “housewives.”

Grade:  A                                    By Donna R. Copeland


Friday, September 21, 2018

THE CHILDREN ACT

Emma Thompson     Stanley Tucci     Ben Chaplin     Fionn Whitehead     Rupert Vansittart


     The Children Act, based on the great British writer Ian McEwan’s book and screenplay, weaves a beautifully moving story told in a unique way, exploring the agony and the depths of differing perspectives involved in critical decision-making.  It could be the basis for one of the ethics workshops we’re all being required to attend these days.  Hopefully, in such events, it will be pointed out how helpful good psychotherapy could have been for the characters in this drama.
     The film stars the award-winning actress Emma Thompson as Milady (as female judges are referred to in Britain) Fiona Maye, a judge who must rule in difficult child cases using The Children Act, Britain’s guide for adjudicating in the interest of children.  We’re first told about a set of conjoined twins where the issue is to separate them or not.  Separation would mean that one would likely die, but not separating puts both lives in jeopardy.  I especially like that the film allows enough time for the audience to consider the arguments for and against in this and the following case.
     The next case we hear about is that of Adam Henry (Whitehead), a teenager (not yet 18 years old) whose Jehovah’s Witness adherent parents want to deny him treatment that would involve transfusion of blood, strictly forbidden in that religion.  Without it, he is not only likely to die, but it would be a painful death.  We see once again that Judge Maye is sincerely considering all the arguments in a fair and reasoned way, with the law firmly in her mind.  
     In this instance, however, in her commitment to making a reasoned decision, she breaks precedent and goes to visit Adam in the hospital to determine for herself that he is not being unduly influenced by his parents or church elders.  She is caught off-guard by the young man, who is obviously flattered by her visit and responds eagerly to her probing questions, clearly affirming his belief in the religion.  Beyond that, he is a budding guitar player (four lessons so far!) who insists on demonstrating his delight in what he has learned to the judge, who, unbeknownst to him, is an accomplished pianist.  She vocalizes the Yeats poem he has played the notes for, and he is clearly inspired by her presence and her knowledge.  
The visit is not entirely compliments and fun; when she asks Adam what he will think if she rules in the hospital’s favor, he quickly responds with “I would think Milady is an interfering busybody!” which brings a spontaneous, hearty laugh from her.
     Little does Milady realize how much she has touched Adam—and he, her—and what will ensue as a result.  It will hit chords in her that have remained long dormant.  The story is not just about her cases, Fiona is going through a trying time in her marriage to Jack (Tucci).  It seems her supreme dedication to her work is bringing up other considerations for him.  He has been patient (in a completely endearing way) with her total commitment to her work, but now, even though he still loves her dearly, he wants something in exchange.  In the interactions between them that we see, it is clear that her priority is her work, and she expects to continue on with their life as it is.  
     Through all this, it’s remarkable how closed Fiona is to emotional pulls from her husband or from her new admirer.  This, of course, makes her emotionally vulnerable, and the two relationships, juxtaposed as they are, will have profound effects on her.  Compliments to writer McEwan; all of what transpires is not only engaging, but reflects true human conditions and beliefs.
     Emma Thompson should be at the top of award lists this year for her performance in The Children Act; it’s demanding in its requirement for portraying a complex character with nuance and believability. Thompson hits every note and makes them vibrate in her hot and cold assessments of cases, her unexpected discovery of what ‘wild and free’ means, her genuine love for meaningful attachments, and her playfulness despite all the seriousness.  Stanley Tucci is a perfect foil for her character in his portrayal of a male who is loving but not useless (which some in the film complain about men in general, and might apply to some sentiments in today’s world), and one who is wise in matters of the heart.  Young Fionn Whitehead has earned some of his stripes in Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, and increases them here in his portrayal of a passionate teenager who knows his own mind. He made the character of Adam entirely believable and sympathetic.
     Richard Eyre’s direction of this masterpiece in blending so many elements is spot-on, including the perfect backdrop of Stephen Warbeck’s piano music and Andrew Dunn’s cinematography capturing expressiveness in human faces and a range of interior and exterior spaces in which the action takes place.

This is a perfect movie in which to see the human complexities professionals in law and healthcare face in their day-to-day work, but it’s also a thoroughly engaging story.

Grade:  A                                    By Donna R. Copeland

Thursday, September 20, 2018

BEL CANTO

Julianne Moore     Ken Watanabe     Sebastian Roch     Ryo Kase     Maria Mercedes Coroy    Christopher Lambert


     A well-known American opera singer, a wealthy Japanese businessman, and South American politics all get mixed up together in this tense drama when the singer, Roxane Cross (Moore) is invited to give a concert in an unspecified Latin American country in honor of businessman Katsumi Hosokawa (Watanabe).  They all arrive at Vice-President Ochoa’s mansion—Japanese translator Gen (Kase)—in tow, barely get settled in the ritzy hacienda, and Roxane is just beginning her concert, when they are rudely interrupted by a guerilla group aiming to kidnap President Masuda.  The problem is that the President preferred watching a telenovela at home, so he isn’t present.  In that case, the commandos say, they’ll just wait for the others to fetch him.  
     This begins a long stint of the hostages being trapped and in a panic, even if it is in an elegant mansion.  Not only are we privy to constant negotiations, but as happens in such situations, relationships begin to form.  Katsumi is an avid opera fan, particularly of Roxane, so much so that when he was invited to the country in the interest of his establishing a company there, he had the foresight (nerve?) to say he would come only if Roxane would agree to give a concert.  When the two meet, sparks fly, and he becomes fascinated by more than her art.  Another developing attraction emerges between translator Gen and one of the guerrillas, Carmen (Coroy), which is obviously risky for her.  
     My book club read Ann Patchett’s novel, Bel Canto, which we found to be an entertaining thriller, and I expected the movie to be just as appealing.  However, I found it to be lacking slightly in the thrill aspect.  Certainly the accidental killing of one of the hostages early on creates tension, and Roxane’s invitation to sing in order to calm down an escalating situation at one point is intriguing.  In addition, Moore and Watanabe are at their usual level of excellence, and the dubbing of the voice of Renee Fleming for Roxane was so good.  In addition, the romance between Gen and Carmen carries excitement and curiosity.  Yet, something was lacking.
     Somehow, in the direction of Paul Weitz and the adaptation (Weitz and Anthony Weintraub), the story loses some of the “grab” of the novel.  I would guess that focusing more on the “romances” than on the negotiations is at fault.  

Bel Canto the movie strives to match the power of the novel, but falls just a bit short.

Grade:  B                                    By Donna R. Copeland


THE HOUSE WITH A CLOCK IN ITS WALLS

Jack Black     Cate Blanchett     Owen Vaccaro
Kyle MacLachlan     Renee Elise Goldsberry     Sunny Suljic


     In 1955, in an old mansion in New Zebedee, Michigan, strange and eerie things are going to happen.  Ten year-old Lewis (Vaccaro) is going to be moving in with his Uncle Jonathan (Black) after his parents were killed in a car accident, and he has no idea his uncle is a warlock. The house is sumptuous with a large bedroom for him—impressive!--But he will soon learn that things go bump—or something else—in the night.  He is alarmed at times, but he is a brave child, and even goes to investigate at times with his flashlight.  
     Then, Lewis is alarmed one night to see his uncle hacking into the wall with an axe, and even though his uncle’s strange neighbor Mrs. Zimmerman (Blanchett) urges Jonathan to reveal “secrets” to Lewis, that doesn’t happen.  It’s a bit strange anyway to hear Mrs. Z and Jonathan exchange insults (hilarious name-calling), but not in anger, and they immediately get back to solving problems.  Well, there is one big one that they have been wrestling with for ages.  
     Lewis is a bookish child (loves dictionaries and learning words like indomitable, which causes him to sound like an effete child) with silly goggles on his head, and even so while he comes across at school as a nerd, he is able to make a friend (at least temporarily).  But this bookishness turns out to be just what he needs to follow in his uncle’s footsteps, something he sorely wishes for after Jonathan’s demonstration of magic in the garden when it comes alive in the most delightful way.
     Reluctantly, Jonathan agrees to help Lewis become a warlock.  There is just one rule in the house, which is not to open a certain cabinet.  Lewis is an obedient child and he fully intends to comply, but neither he nor his uncle anticipate what might happen when Lewis invites his one friend, skeptical Tarby (Suljic), over to the house to impress him with what he’s learned about magic.  
     What follows is a major struggle that is exciting for children and adults to watch, and, gratifyingly for me, carrying positive messages.  They will see children and adults persisting in the face of adversity, staying on the side of good, and seeing that children need to be informed about what is going on in their lives and, moreover, including them in solutions.  Yes, children should be more respected.  
     Another positive piece of good modeling in the film is the egalitarian relationship between Jonathan and Mrs. Z.  He openly acknowledges her value to him and the impressiveness of her skills. She is portrayed as skillful, motherly, and a wise sage.  Jonathan is open both to her as a female and to Lewis as a child.  He models for men the value of listening to women and children, and then being willing to make changes.
     With the aid of screenwriter Eric Kripke, director Eli Roth has done a good job in adapting John Bellairs’ novel to the screen.  Music (Nathan Barr), cinematography (Rogier Stoffers), and production design (John Hutman) are of similar quality.  Jack Black nails every role he plays, as does Cate Blanchett, and their inclusion in any cast will elevate the film.  Young Owen Vaccara pulls for attention, although I have to confess I kept wanting to see Jacob Tremblay (Room) in that role.  Kyle MacLachlan and Renee Elise Goldsberry were wonderfully effective as villains.
     House with a Clock is a bit silly at times—which is not unusual for this type of film—but general audiences will enjoy it; there was applause for it afterwards at the screening I attended.  The special effects are good, but parents might note that it could be scary for young children who are afraid of the dark. 

A good choice for those who like a mixture of fantasy, comedy, and a bit of horror.

Grade:  C+                                    By Donna R. Copeland


LIFE ITSELF

Oscar Isaac     Olivia Wilde     Annette Benning     Samuel L. Jackson
Mandy Patinkin     Jean Smart     Antonio Banderas
Laia Costa     Sergio Peris-Mencheta    Adrian Monner    Alex Monner    Olivia Cooke


     “Life itself is an unreliable narrator”, states this film in so many ways so many times, it becomes the major theme, with the corollary, “Life will always surprise you”.  So life is an unreliable narrator because we never know what is going to happen next.  What may seem like tragedy and death can be deceptive, particularly if one has the fortitude to pick oneself up and continue on.  So life itself can sometimes trick us.  
     That these philosophical “underpinnings” to the narrative are bounteously entertaining and thought provoking becomes the surprise of this well conceived, well told film.  When initial reviews I read were negative in light of the stunning cast, I wondered how so many fine actors signed on to do it.  Now that I’ve seen Life Itself, I can well understand; when they read the script, they “got it.”  What I understand less is how a thoughtful, philosophically minded viewer could miss the gold within it—and maybe those who are turned off by it simply miss—or do not care for—the point.
     The story shows how life’s “accidents” may be fateful, and actually may bind people together in surprising ways.  I especially liked how it reflects the good intentions of people in general and how they (most of us) are unaware of the long-term consequences.  In Dan Fogelman’s fine script and direction, Life Itself views the long-term picture within a family, even though each generation’s story is sufficient for a whole movie—which is what we are most accustomed to in contemporary times.
     But here, we first have Will (Isaac) and Abby (Wilde) in a romantic relationship. He vows that, “I will love you however you’re best equipped to handle it.”  How generous is that?  They have a girl-child named Dylan (because Abby is obsessed with Bob Dylan's Time out of Mind album).  Life happens, and we switch to another time and place to Isabel (Costa) and Javier (Peris-Mencheta), who have a son, Rodrigo (Adrian and Alex Monner), and a special uncle, Mr. Saccione (Banderas). How life goes full circle will keep you suspended and entertained if you are willing to be puzzled, and then pick yourself up and continue to the end of the film.
     The strong cast paired with a substantive story that goes beyond the superficial and looks at generations of families across time is the kind of production that keeps me going to movies.  This is a film I will make sure to see again at least once to have the advantage of hindsight, and a chance to reflect further on its truths.  Every single actor fits perfectly in his/her role in an infectious and appealing manner.  Music by Federico Jusid is integral, and itself very entertaining.

See this for the delightfully pictured romantic relationships, but for a full experience, keep in mind its philosophical undercurrents.

Grade:  A                                    By Donna R. Copeland

Thursday, September 13, 2018

WHITE BOY RICK

Matthew McConaughey    Jennifer Jason Leigh     Richie Merritt     Bel Powley
Rory Cochrane     Eddie Marsan     Bruce Dern     Piper Laurie     Brian Tyree Henry

     
     Recipe for disaster:  A lower middle class family living in Detroit in the ‘80s near a predominantly African-American section of town; FBI agents who are aware that the father is dealing guns illegally (although they’re not pursuing him) and that the son is developing friendships with the drug dealers in the black community, recruit Rick (Merritt) to become an informant for them.  
     What could go wrong?  A lot.  The trouble is, there are additional unanticipated factors and events that will complicate the picture.  The father, Richard Wershe (McConaughey), is an eternal optimist (“I’m a glass-is-half-full kind of guy”) who hasn’t done well, but sustains his dream of owning a string of video stores that will make him rich and able to take care of his kids, Rick and Dawn (Powley), and no longer need financial help from his parents.  He is good at communicating with his son about his business plan of selling guns (which he is clearly overly attached to) to get capital for his dream, but doesn’t seem to have the foggiest notion about guiding Rick or Dawn in sensible behavior and avoiding pitfalls and destructive temptations.
     So a lot goes down, with Rick getting more and more entrenched in shady dealings, Dawn making poor choices in the company she keeps, and Richard trying desperately to hold everything together.  It’s a statement about unmet needs, skimpy education, and desperate plans that have slim chances of success.  But the film also takes punches at black-white disparities in the criminal justice system, unethical practices of government agencies, and the inability of government to deal with economically ravaged cities such as Detroit in the 1980’s.  
     This is a difficult, painful film to watch from beginning to end, in its exquisite picture of flawed parenting, inadequacies in government service, seductiveness of drugs in distressed populations and the resultant crime, and the disparities in black vs. white lifestyles and communities and the criminal justice system.  The only positive element in all this mess is the example of family loyalty, which would be the primary support sustaining Rick for the rest of his life.
     White Boy Rick is a realistic picture of the 1980’s, but, unfortunately, shows that we have not made as much progress in social welfare and justice as we should have (or as I wished we would have). It could have made sharper connections between family dysfunction, social services, and the legal system, and how factors in all areas had such an impact on a young man’s life.
     The esteemed actor Matthew McConaughey clearly holds this film together in his ability to make the screen come alive when he is present, and then have this presence echo in the scenes where he is absent.  For his first film, Richie Merritt makes an impressive appearance, at home with his character and able to show a range of emotion.  Although not much more than a cameo, Bruce Dern and his brilliant blue piercing eyes gives us an extra treat.  Max Richter’s score with its doomsday tones and dramatic thrusts is a worthy accompaniment.

I realize that films like this need to be made, but they are painful to watch because of their realistic commentary about contemporary life.

Grade:  C                                By Donna R. Copeland


MANDY

Nicholas Cage     Andrea Riseborough    Linus Roache    Ned Dennehy      Olwen Fouere     Richard Brake


     Barbarism reigns supreme in this gory tale about a horrific brutality for which Red (Cage) is determined to avenge wrongs that have destroyed his idyllic existence.  He and Mandy (Riseborough) are blissfully happy in their country abode when a pack of crazy cultists named “Black Skulls”, who get their kicks from torture and destruction, descends upon them.  Actually, their cult leader Jeremiah (Roache) considers himself a god ever since The Chemist (Brake) mixed up a drug that instantly evokes in the coterie all their burning rage and hatred.  They dress in black, ride black motorcycles, and travel at night to wreak their devastation on unsuspecting souls.
     The film contains many acts of agonizing, bloody violence which, although I’m inclined not to care for such horrors, are, paradoxically, beautifully expressed in Benjamin Loeb’s cinematography, accompanied by Johann Johannsson’s score, and realized in Hubert Pouille’s production design and Ilse Willocx’s sets.  Panos Cosmatos, writer/director, has taken a fairly simple story about revenge and displays it against a backdrop of rich colors, design, and special effects.  A bit of humor is included during a battle of chain saws (of course, the second one pulled out is much more phallic than the first one) and a scene in which Red literally squeezes a head until the eyes and brains pop out.
     There is little character or story development; Mandy is primarily a series of vicious acts that are nevertheless artfully presented.  Nicholas Cage is at his peak in showing indignant rage about his loss (yelling and sobbing uncontrollably about the senselessness of the crime while downing a full bottle of vodka) and fierce determination to hunt down the perpetrators and exact his own punishment.  In contradiction to some of his recent work (e.g., The Humanity Bureau, Inconceivable), this role proves once again his acting talent and skill.  

Mandy is for diehard horror fans who thrill to see blood-gushing wounds, severed body parts, and dreadful vengeance.

Grade:  B-                                    By Donna R. Copeland

A SIMPLE FAVOR

Anna Kendrick     Blake Lively     Henry Golding
Ian Ho     Joshua Satine     Jean Smart     Rupert Friend


     Ah yes, a simple favor indeed.  This comedic drama is fun to watch with all the baits and switches leading down one path and then another and with plenty of comedy that stays just short of slapstick.  The entertaining novel by Darcy Bell, on which Jessica Sharzer has based her screenplay, has been translated to the screen by the multi-talented director Paul Feig. It maintains the Gone Girl type of intrigue and suspense about a missing woman, with crafty plotting that keeps the viewer rapt in trying to figure out what is what and who is who.  
     But most ingenious is the casting of Anna Kendrick to be the na├»ve do-gooder/housewife-vlogger who ends up also being an astute detective and sly manipulator. We knew Kendrick could be funny, as in Drinking Buddies, and could show dramatic flair, as in Up in the Air; but her skill here in being an endearing figure you initially smile at but one who will eventually be a sharp-witted, rational plotter, and sexy is truly impressive.  Blake Lively is very much a counterpart foil playing the attractive, cold, bad girl who feels free to say and do anything she pleases.  When the two are onscreen together, sparks fly—sometimes in attraction, sometimes in competition. Clearly, the two actors are having fun with their acting skills in every scene.
     The story begins in a grade school setting with Stephanie (Kendrick) being the stereotypical mom who is known for her cooking, crafts, and enthusiastic volunteering and, by the way, has her own vlog in which she cooks and throws out helpful hints and other thoughts about—anything.  When her son Miles (Satine) makes friends with Nicky (Ho), she and Nicky’s mother Emily (Lively) are drawn together, Stephanie to Emily’s worldliness (no rules, no “I’m sorry”s) and Emily to Stephanie’s innocence (“You’re so nice I don’t know how you’ve survived this long”).  As you would expect, Stephanie’s son is polite and well behaved, whereas Nicky is volatile and freely uses the f-word. Ian Ho’s acting-out role allows him to show his theatrical talent, which he does very convincingly.
     The relationship between the two women is fascinating throughout in its mixture of mutual awe, admiration, wonderment, and daring.  This is the aspect of the film I appreciated the most. Both women represent the typical American woman with many layers and dimensionality in their personalities.  With his keen understanding of women, this drama is a perfect one for Paul Feig to direct.  We immediately recognize Stephanie, but we need background information about Emily to develop even a modicum of sympathy—and respect—for her. We get that with the well conceived script and story line.
     A Simple Favor keeps going on and on until it becomes absurd toward the end, but it doesn’t lose any of its entertainment value even so.

 A movie with laughs, intrigue, and thrills that will make you chuckle afterwards, even while you shake your head.

Grade:  B+                                    By Donna R. Copeland

Thursday, September 6, 2018

THE NUN

Demian Bichir     Taissa Farmiga     Bonnie Aarons     Charlotte Hope     Ingrid Bisu     Jonas Bloquet


     This is a film to please most fans of scary dramas related to ghosts and the mysteries of the Catholic Church.  There are such strange and curious things happening in the Abbey of St. Carta in Romania that the Vatican sends Father Burke, an expert in exorcisms and miracles to investigate and restore its sanctity.  He is to be accompanied by a young novice Irene (Farmiga) because she is one who has had visions that have given her experience in dealing with mysteries.
     Most significant at present is the recent suicide of a nun who hanged herself from a high window and landed on the entryway.  A local delivery boy named “Frenchie” (Bloquet) discovered her body, and is aware of the fact that her blood that spilled never dries. He moved her body to the ice house with the thought that she would be better preserved there.  To his surprise, when he takes Father Burke and Irene to see her she is sitting up; whereas he had last seen her lying down.
     This is the least of the weirdness the three will encounter during their visit; i.e., nuns, some hideously frightening and threatening, suddenly appearing or simply observed as shadows; Father Burke being confronted by a boy he previously exorcized but was injured in the process, then the Father being suddenly blown into a casket underneath the ground; and even the appearance of the incarnation of Valak (whom Burke describes as “the marquis of snakes”) in the form of an evil nun.  
     The task that becomes clear for Father Burke and Irene, is to seal up the gateway to evil—the portal to Hell—but first, they have to find it.  This will take many “prayers of perpetual adoration” for the nuns, and for Burke, exorcism and re-sanctification.
     The audience in the screening I attended clearly got into the drama with audible sighs, nervous giggles, gasps, and uh-oh’s.  I was entertained for a time with the mystery, but as more events occurred that strained my reason, my attachment waned.  
     Apparently, The Nun is a prequel to the two Conjuring movies that have preceded it, and related to additional films: The Amityville HorrorAnnabelle, and Annabelle:Creation—all having to do with attempts to neutralize paranormal events occurring in houses and, in the case of The Nun, in a convent. The shows have been mostly popular among horror fans, at least for those familiar with the Christian faith, particularly Catholicism.  It seems like much of the thrust is lost among those who, like me, do not adhere to that set of values and are not well versed in the mythologies/stories associated with them.  Additionally, one of the characteristics of this film and horror movies in general, is people tempting fate, so to speak; that is, going downstairs to a darkened cellar after hearing suspicious sounds.  In The Nun, Father Burke and Irene repeatedly go off on their own during times of increased threat.  Wouldn’t you think they would want to stick together?  They were apart one whole night, during which time, the Father ends up in a casket and Irene is locked away in a far-off room.
     For horror fans—especially those loving the previous films—and not bothered by such things, The Nun could be an exciting thriller, with good acting and special effects.

A thriller related to its predecessors—Conjuring, Annabelle, and similar films.

Grade:  C                                    By Donna R. Copeland

MADELINE'S MADELINE

Helena Howard     Miranda July     Molly Parker


     If you ever wondered how experimental theater works—which you probably haven’t—but just in case you have, you can go see Madeline’s Madeline, and it will give you a good demonstration of what it could be in the wrong hands.  Most of the production is ad lib, and in this case the director (of the troupe and the movie) played by Josephine Decker, devises general outlines of scenes and gives them to the actors to act out, but we never really see a regular story with a beginning, middle, and end.  That’s not to say there isn’t any plot at all; it is primarily a description of a mother-daughter relationship.  In what story is there, Director Evangeline seems completely enthralled by one of the young actresses, Madeline (Howard), singles her out from among the cast members, and gleans information from her about her real life.  She then incorporates these tidbits into scene after scene in her film as she hears about them.
     Evangeline makes no secret about the fact that she is revealing intimate details about Madeline’s life; in fact, when Madeline’s mother, Regina (July), drops her off for rehearsal one day and comes into the room, Evangeline has her take part in the improvisations.  Evangeline’s devices turn out to be rather cruel, because Madeline, a teenager, and her mother have significant conflicts.  
     Madeline is a strange girl, adeptly personified by Helena Howard.  This is Howard’s first film, and she has become quite a sensation already.  She is captivating onscreen, and easily mimics any kind of character that comes into her head or one she is instructed to portray.  She is a natural for improv, and the only saving grace of this film. Regina, her rather incompetent, overly protective mother, can be sugary sweet one minute but then humiliate her daughter the next.  For instance, she reveals to Madeline’s friends that Madeline had been in a psychiatric hospital at one time.  She is clearly afraid of her daughter, and this often spills out into the open.  But this is not really the cruel part of the film; Regina does love Madeline, she just doesn’t seem to know how to handle her.  There is no mention of a father.
     To me, the cruel part of the story is Evangeline exploring these conflicts with Madeline, observing them when she sees daughter and mother together, blithely inserts a wedge between them when she can, and to top it off, has the troupe act out the conflicts with full knowledge that it is about Madeline and her mother.  The expression on Madeline’s face during some of the scenes is heartbreaking.  Eventually, the disbelief and horror among the cast is likewise evident.
     But Madeline is no weakling like her mom and is decidedly a match for Evangeline. She knows how to play the same games, one of which she tries out on Evangeline’s husband at a party, and, ultimately, one-ups Evangeline in a way that evens the score.
     At a time when women are trying to be nicer to other women, this film set us back, with its emphasis on things we have seen too many times in Mean Girls and similar films.  Evangeline is as much an adolescent as the actors in the troupe she is directing.  Just because this is being called an “art house” movie, shouldn’t mean that common decency and ethics should be thrown out, or that we should continue to pit females against one another.  Moreover, with all the emphasis on privacy in contemporary culture, this film bulldozes right over it, disrespecting the actors and women and mothers in general.  

 This is a film that perpetuates outdated myths about women working with women.

Grade:  D                                    By Donna R. Copeland

PEPPERMINT

Jennifer Garner     John Gallagher, Jr.     Juan Pablo Raba     Richard Cabral     Annie Ilonzeh


     What a birthday when you and your mom are insulted by another mom in a parking lot, no one comes to your party, and your whole family is shot after a fun night at the carnival.  Your mom, Riley (Garner) does survive, however, and now there is hell to pay. This woman is angry!
     But she will get angrier when the case comes to court, and the D.A. and the judge let the perpetrators, whom she has accurately identified, go free and send her off to the psychiatric hospital.  Yeah, “something’s rotten in Denmark.” But the powers that be haven’t the faintest idea of what Riley North is capable of.  She manages to avoid the hospital and disappears. Effectively.
     When Riley does reappear, it is not the “simple” bank teller and nurturing mom everyone thought they knew.  Suddenly, people across the city are being killed mysteriously—not the good guys, but the bad guys who betrayed the Rileys.  She becomes a heroine on social media, especially when she does in the corrupt players in the justice system and the cartel-friendly crooks on Skid Row.  She's become a vigilante (and the movie could be faulted for glorifying this dubious role.)
     If you ignore that fact, the story is exciting and holds your attention for the most part.  Jennifer Garner has appeared primarily in light fare, and seldom as the lead.  In the unfortunate Elektra as a female ninja, it got her nowhere, but she gets more of a chance to show her lead actress skills in Peppermint as an enraged woman who spends much time, attention, and careful planning to earn her super woman bona fides. The problem is, the story strains credulity when she disappears and suddenly returns as a completely different woman.  The filmmakers should have shown how she went around the world training to be the fighter she is shown to be in the last half of the movie, an expert shot, familiar with military grade weapons, and the ability to wipe out beefy goons who attack her physically.
     So while I applaud the movie for highlighting a strong woman capable not only of admirable foresight and planning, but in execution as well, I find fault in its not making it more believable by showing how she achieved these capabilities.  These things don’t emerge simply from anger; as many who have trained diligently in gyms, shooting ranges, and intelligence will tell you; it takes drive, commitment, and time to become an expert in combat and counterintelligence.

For a different take on typical crime movies, you may find this a novel and exciting diversion.

Grade:  C+                                    By Donna R. Copeland

Thursday, August 30, 2018

JULIET, NAKED

Rose Byrne     Ethan Hawke     Chris O’Dowd     Azhy Robertson


     What a delightful and entertaining rom-com this turned out to be!  It has smart, funny dialog, along with a lot of heart and truthfulness.  Based on a Nick Hornby novel, the screenwriting (Evgenia Peretz, Jim Taylor, and Tamara Jenkins) syncs well with Jesse Peretz’s direction, and the actors (Byrne, Hawke, O’Dowd, and Robertson) hand it to us on a silver platter.  
     The story centers around Annie (Byrne), a modest anthropologist and curator, who lives with a self-preoccupied film professor named Duncan (O’Dowd), whose music idol is a washed up singer named Tucker Crowe (Hawke).  Crowe is not only his idol, he has a school boy-like obsession with him; e.g., pictures, posters, and other Crowe memorabilia line the walls of his study at home—a little creepy, right(?), which is what we are supposed to feel.  Understandably, Annie finds this insufferable, but she tolerates it as best she can.  (She’s had a life that steered her toward patience.)  Then one day, her exasperation surfaces, and she responds to Duncan’s effusive compliments about one of Crowe’s songs on his blog with a negative review.  
     Much to her shock, of course, Tucker writes back about how much he agrees with her critique.  They have a back-and-forth online which blossoms into a friendship.  Meanwhile, Duncan has been prey to a new faculty member, succumbs to her charms, and subsequently gets kicked out of the house.  In Tucker, Annie has discovered someone who is interested in her and what she has to say, a novel experience for her. Of course, in her innocence, she regards this as a platonic friendship, but she does realize that Tucker makes her feel good about herself.
     What follows elaborates on Tucker’s history (He’s like the old woman in a shoe—he has so many children he doesn’t know what to do.) and his way-extended family, he and Annie meeting in London [him, with his lovable child Jackson (Robertson) in tow], hilarious encounters with Duncan, and working through the complex set of relationships.
     It’s clear that much thought and consideration of many current issues went into this production.  It touches on how professional women are regarded in the workplace and in their personal lives; it demonstrates how fame can lead a star down paths that have lifelong repercussions that can be both regrettable and shameful; it shows the pain and consequences for those who are in the star’s path and perhaps left behind; it gives an example of how one of those stars attempts to compensate for previous weaknesses; and shows the self-actualization one woman experiences when she finally realizes she has aspirations and choices she needs to heed.  None of this is ground-breaking, of course, but the way it all comes together is novel.
     On the surface, Juliet, Naked could be regarded as simply light entertainment—the usual.  But it doesn’t take much to scratch below the surface and glean many basic human truths within it.

I congratulate the novelist and filmmakers on their success in upgrading a genre from a “That’s nice!” to an examination of human strengths and foibles.

Grade:  B+                                    By Donna R. Copeland

SEARCHING

John Cho     Michele La     Debra Messing     Sara Sohn     Joseph Lee


     Searching is more and more an apt title as you begin watching the film (mostly reading messages online and watching videos), then stick with it to the end, which doesn’t come as soon as you think. After all, it starts with home movies (haven’t we all sat through those at friends’ and on Facebook?), then it moves to interchanges between a father and daughter—the usual fare (“Clean up after yourself!”).  The next scenes pick up, showing a father trying to connect with his daughter after she went to a study group one evening.  He has missed calls she made to him, and she doesn’t respond to his numerous texts or phone calls.  He doesn’t know whether to be worried or be annoyed with his daughter.
     That’s about enough for you to know to avoid giving away spoilers.  David Kim (Cho), the father of Margot (La), eventually reports his daughter missing to the police, whereupon Detective Rosemary Vick (Messing) picks up the case and does her best to reassure him.  Kim is facile with the computer, and immediately runs searches about her to evaluate her qualifications.  She is apparently dedicated and noteworthy, and he relaxes a bit.  However, he keeps searching online for more and more information, something he does throughout the story, and the viewer sees the same information he finds online.
     This movie is about many things.  It’s certainly about how much we can find out online by searching.  But it’s also about what we may do with the information we find there.  We see that one can jump to (false) conclusions on specific bits of data. We see the important distinction between presumably objective professionals (like detectives) conducting such searches and someone emotionally involved in interpreting the data.  We see that sometimes the emotionally involved nonprofessional person can spot things or know things a professional might not know or might miss.  The filmmakers seem to be quite aware of the tension and paradoxes here and exploit them knowingly.
     At first, I was turned off by the approach taken by writer-director Aneesh Chaganty and his co-writer Sev Ohanian.  My thought was something akin to:  “I spend hours a day on the computer, do I have to do the same thing in a movie?”  I love actors and sets within real-life dramas; reading a story online is off-putting.  But the storytellers were not through, and I would eventually be taken to a familiar place of action and human drama.
     In this film, we’re gradually given more and more information that makes a ho-hum drama turn out to be intriguing and even exciting.  It’s a victory for the Internet and plainly shows how substantive intellect applied to it can be invaluable.  The story also ends up being a thriller as we discover incrementally leads that end up nowhere but one in particular that nails the case.
     John Cho as the father and the one who essentially carries the movie with impressive skill exemplifies going through every imaginable emotion as he tries to sort out whether his daughter ran away from home, as he discovers how little he really knows about her life, as he gets into trouble for over-reacting and drawing false conclusions, as he deals with his brother Peter (Lee) who apparently knew his daughter better than he did—Cho captures the whole range. Debra Messing competently steps out beyond her sit-com role in TV’s “Will and Grace” to embody a very different character in Detective Vick.  
     This is a fascinating movie, not only for the content, but also in its focus on the Internet’s role in our lives today.  My experience was one of ambivalence about the techno aspects initially, and by the end, when high drama was so lavishly thrown in, I felt a bit like I had been jerked around.  A good detective story gives out clues all along that one might see (preferably) only in retrospect; this script throws in twists and turns that have simply been added on for dramatic effect.

A surprise thriller that starts out slow and gradually builds up to something you can really care about.

Grade:  B                                    By Donna R. Copeland