Wednesday, December 12, 2018

IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK

Kiki Lane     Stephen James     Regina King     Diego Luna     Brian Tyree Henry     Dave Franco


     Ah, yes, if Beale Street could talk, what a tale it would tell—I mean tales.  Based on a novel by the highly respected James Baldwin, novelist and social activist (Notes of a Native Son), and directed by Barry Jenkins (who also wrote the screenplay), who won the Best Picture Oscar last year for Moonlight, this film is expected to be above the norm.  And in my estimation it is.
     The story is about an appealing, warm-hearted family forced by others’ mistakes to face the grim reality many African-American people face—that of being wrongly convicted of a crime.  The main character is young, bright, unassuming Tish (Lane); the story is about the troubles she faces when her just as innocent boyfriend Fonny (James) is identified as the rapist of a Puerto Rican woman.  Never mind that he has a verified alibi and lives far away from the scene of the crime, which occurred in the dark—he is identified as the perpetrator in a line-up.  (Although research has long shown the unreliability of eyewitness identifications, many police departments continue to use it.
     Early in the story, we see the fundamental bond that has developed between two kids from childhood, and see it blossom into a passionate romance that has more gentleness ingrained in it than in any other I’ve seen in a film.Prospects look great; Fonny will try to make it as an artist in woodworking, and Tish will work in a department store, and they will find an apartment (after some frustrations) to their liking. Then, out of the blue, we are dealing with the accusation tainted with much of the corruption in law enforcement and judicial processes that we’re all familiar with by this time.
     Barry Jenkins has proven himself as a significant American filmmaker, who works with a core team [Nicholas Britell, music; James Laxton, cinematography; Joi McMillon and Nat Sanders, editing; and Cindy Tolan, costumes) to produce films that are engaging to watch and carry potent social messages.  They’re framed in a way as to elicit as much empathy and understanding of the issues as possible, without alienating (if possible) skeptics.
     The movie is fast-paced except when it’s properly lingering over emotional scenes, presents a clear history of the characters—including their families—and maintains an air of mystery and suspense.  My one question while viewing it was why a mother went to Puerto Rico to find a woman, rather than a lawyer.  The final scene in that encounter shows a need for professional interrogation, but finances were likely a factor.

A very successful film in eliciting your interest and outrage.

Grade:  A                                    By Donna R. Copeland

Saturday, December 8, 2018

BEN IS BACK

Julia Roberts     Lucas Hedges     Courtney B. Vance     Kathryn Newton     Alexandra Park


     As can be seen in the trailer, Ben (Hedges) pays a surprise visit to his family at Christmastime, making everyone nervous.  His mother Holly (Roberts) is thrilled to have him and assumes an air of optimism, whereas his younger sister Ivy (Newton) and stepfather Neal (Vance) are wary.  The two younger children are the only ones greeting him with glee devoid of concern.  Because for all her optimism, Holly still proceeds to stow away drugs from the medicine cabinet and jewelry items, prompting quizzical looks and comments from her daughter. Ben has been in rehab for an addiction, but reports his sponsor gave him permission to leave.  
     What follows is 24 hours packed with emotional upheaval, distress, many questions and conflicts, and a sprinkling of happiness.  I get the impression that the film offers a realistic look at what families go through when their child(ren) develop a drug addiction.  The agonizing question revolves around trust: When do you trust them and when do you not?  How do you tell when they are telling the truth and when they are lying?  How closely do you observe their every move?  
     It gets even more complicated when the addict’s intentions are noble, but he puts himself and his family at risk.  It never occurs to Ben that a simple shopping trip to get presents for his younger sibs would prompt a string of events.  (He can’t just put his name on presents his mother has already bought; that wouldn’t be honest—honesty is a primary goal in rehab.)  Nor does it occur to him at first, or to his family, that there are extended “side effects” to his addiction, i.e., people in town who want revenge for what he did in the past.  Like many addicts, he had to support his habit by dealing.
     Writer/Director Peter Hedges knows exactly how to bring the viewer along on the experience of an addict’s family visit, by keeping you guessing about the same things family members are questioning, especially when family members themselves are not always telling the truth.  I had to smile at the number of times a family member takes off on his/her own refusing offers of help from someone else.  At one point, Neal says to his wife, “We’re supposed to be a team!”  But she’s afraid he will deal with the problem in a way she disagrees with, so she acts as if everything is under control.  Yes, it gets so complicated.
The plot is engaging, one cares about the family from the start, and there are many clenched-teeth moments.  
     This is a film that may frighten you and depress you, but it is worth the strain in that it is informative about a problem that is currently plaguing our country in an epidemic.  Like the story in Boy Erased, it demonstrates that even in upper middle class prosperous families addiction can be their undoing.  It’s no longer just the poor and disadvantaged who have these battles to fight.  Watching moves like these are not only drama and thrillers, they are informative and helpful to those who may be going through the same things now, in the past, or in the future.  I appreciate that in Boy Erased, it is the father who takes the predominant role in helping his son and that it is the mother who takes that role in Ben is Back.  Both are good models, and both make clear that unconscious forces sometimes make them less than effective.
     Lucas Hedges (son of Peter Hedges) has much to boast about for his role in this film as well as recent others: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri, Lady Bird, and Manchester by the Sea.  They all illustrate his acting range and quality of performance.  Here, he achieves a realistic mother/son connection with the acclaimed and experienced Julia Roberts, who can look beatific in gazing at her children, adopt a charming but genuine response to friends, and burst out with fury and determination in the face of dispute and conflict.  It’s a delight to watch her cast her spell on dozens of diverse roles.  
     Ben is Back is not a movie for everyone, but is for those who have social sensitivities and curiosity about the world around them.

One day in the life of a family blessed(?) with a surprise visit from one of their own.

Grade:  B+                                    By Donna R. Copeland

VOX LUX

Natalie Portman     Jude Law     Willem Dafoe     Jennifer Ehle     Raffey Cassidy     Stacy Martin


     “Don’t let your kids grow up to be rock stars” could be the theme of this film. Natalie Portman is her usual stunning self in this glittering picture written and directed by Brady Corbet (previously an actor in Martha, Marcy, May, Marlene, Clouds of Sils Maria, and Force Majeure), and now venturing into directing.  The picture starts with a tragic scene in a school in which Celeste (Raffey Cassidy as the younger and Portman as the grown-up) is shot, injuring her spine.  She is a talented, thoughtful young Christian, and to cope with the tragedy, composes a song with her sister Eleanor (Martin), which offers encouragement and solace to all those involved.  
     Celeste undergoes rigorous rehabilitation, and during this time, the song has become a hit not just in their hometown, but across the nation as well, all of which results in bids from people wanting to be Celeste’s manager, one of which is “The Manager” played by Jude Law.  A publicist played by Jennifer Ehle is engaged as well.  
     A bit of sibling rivalry between Celeste and Eleanor runs through the story, but for named reasons, Celeste becomes the star and Eleanor goes with her as her older sister/caretaker, but who remains active in writing songs.  She also becomes a kind of foster mother later for Celeste’s daughter Albertine (Cassidy again in this role).  Plausible family dynamics are woven into the story of Celeste’s rise to fame, enriching the plot.  But while Corbet pays attention to this important aspect, the main thrust of the story is Celeste’s meteoric rise in popularity, her physical/psychological/social vulnerabilities, and the penultimate outcome. Penultimate, because the ending leaves you guessing.
     Natalie Portman gives her all to this performance, as she did in Black Swan, a role which is similar to this one in its story of a talented young woman being exploited by people in the entertainment business.  Both films are left open-ended as to the ultimate outcome.  Here, we see the arc of a rock star’s fame, the erosion of her values and central core, and the question as to whether her family (sister and daughter) can buffer her from the consequences of the path she has chosen.
     A curious omission in this film is the absence of the mother.  She is nowhere to be seen in the film, and her absence is not explained.  This is unfortunate in that her absence could potentially account for some of Celeste’s journey and her relationship with her sister.  But we are given no information.
     The film contains large gaps in time, requiring the viewer to fill in information [e.g., we’re not told about Celeste’s pregnancy; we see her daughter for the first time after she has grown up in the last half of the film (Cassidy in this role too, which is a nice touch)].  The narration delivered with gravitas by Willem Dafoe that occurs periodically helps a great deal in this respect and in making psychological/philosophical sense of Celeste and events in her life.
     Significant assets to the film include the luscious, probing cinematography of Lol Crowley and the score supplied by Scott Walker, with songs by Sia, which are the ones Celeste sings onstage.  The finale is something to see in music and cinematography, and in peak emotionality.  A grande finale indeed, after you’ve thought that disaster was just around the corner.

A rock star born, launched, and riding the peaks and valleys of fame.

Grade:  A-                                    By Donna R. Copeland

Thursday, December 6, 2018

MOWGLI: LEGEND OF THE JUNGLE

Voices of:  Cate Blanchett     Christian Bale     Benedict Cumberbatch     Peter Mullan 
 Andy Serkis     Tom Hollander     Naomie Harris     Freida Pinto
Rohand Chand as Mogli and Matthew Rhys as a researcher


     I’m a bit puzzled as to why this movie was made, following so closely upon the very successful 2016 film, “The Jungle Book”, a Disney production based on the Rudyard Kipling novel directed by Jon Favreau.  This version, with a screenplay by Callie Kloves and directed by Andy Serkis, pretty much follows the same story of a child being brought up by the animals when his parents are killed in the jungle by a tiger named Shere Khan (Cumberbatch).  Mowgli (played here by Rohand Chand) tries valiantly to keep up with his “pack” (tested in a race), but when he starts to come of age, it is clear that he can’t keep up and that he is becoming more and more like a human man. His two main advisors, panther Bagheera (Bale) and bear Baloo (Serkis), see to it that he joins the group of villagers who live nearby.  That’s not the end of the story; heroics will follow.
     The strongest asset of this Mowgli lies in a stellar cast.  Cate Blanchett as the initial narrator and embodied as the python Kaa delivers authoritative/threatening/protective lines in a voice that conveys the message very clearly.  Christian Bale and Andy Serkis serve as the wise overseers of the pack and of Mowgli that connotes both patriarchy and loving concern.  Benedict Cumberbatch issues ferocious, lip-smacking threats that seem even more threatening with a British accent. And finally, Rohand Chand is successful in convincing us of a feral child gradually becoming acquainted with his own tribe.  
     Aside from this version of The Jungle Book being an unnecessary, less successful remake, it does have a plot that is engaging and offers some good counsel to children in its message about the importance of social groups and cooperation to achieve goals, “specialness” not necessarily being an asset, and the value of wise counsel even when it feels uncomfortable. On the other hand, inserting the character John Lockwood (Rhys) as an alcoholic, boorish researcher having no human interest in his subjects, is offensive and disrespectful to the many anthropological/sociological scientists who have given us valuable information. I have no idea why this character was included.
     I expect that children may enjoy the color and the story about a child brought up in the jungle, but it is probably not one that will stay with them for long.  And it probably won’t engage their parents at all.  

More tales of a feral child and his adventures in the jungle.

Grade:  C                                    By Donna R. Copeland

THE FAVOURITE

Olivia Colman     Rachel Weisz     Emma Stone
James Smith     Mark Gatiss     Nicholas Hoult     Joe Alwyn


     I must confess, I did not love The Favourite.  It is easy to discern why others are entertained, but I tired of the portrayal of a moody, whimsical queen so easily led on by her ladies in waiting.  Most refreshing in the story are her sudden flashes of insight on occasion that take her subjects—particularly these very ladies—by surprise.  But I tired of their duplicitous fawning while concealing their own driving ambitions for power. It reminds me too much of the typical perception of women in power being easily duped, often by close [female] associates.
     The production, directed by Yorgos Lanthimos based on a screenplay by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara, is a farce about the royal court in 18thCentury British aristocracy when Queen Anne (Colman) reigned, at first with the private counsel of her “lady of the bedchamber”, Sarah Churchill (Weisz), Duchess of Marlborough.  In this story, the Duchess wields considerable political power, along with her husband, the Duke of Marlborough charged with directing the army. 
     Enter a relative of the Duchess, Abigail (Stone), who has fallen upon hard times, and being intelligent, educated, and ambitious, she begins to maneuver her way into court.  Sarah is well schooled in handling intruders, and immediately puts her in her place. What she doesn’t anticipate is an equal capable of challenging her and winning over the queen.  What follows is a battle of wits between the two women and the unpredictability of the Queen’s favor.  
     Right off the bat, the three actresses, Colman, Weisz, and Stone, prove their considerable talents and carry the film.  Colman perfectly captures a person in charge who only sporadically wields her power, while being susceptible to flattery, attention, and physical comfort.  She can whine with the best of them and then turn on a dime and exert autocratic power.  Weisz plays the most interesting character in her blending of political knowledge, skill in the art of manipulation, and an apparent genuine caring.  Stone does a great portrayal of an interloper who knowingly scans the territory, assesses where different powers lie, and can convey sincerity without warmth.  These actresses are already being slated for nominations and have actually received awards for their performances.
     Clearly The Favourite will be a 2018 favorite, maybe even more so than Lanthimos’ previous films that were hits, The Lobster and The Killing of a Sacred Deer, both of which I loved. My problem with this film is as I stated above, is that it is a little too pat in portraying women’s records of power and their relationships with one another.  It turns out that whereas earlier accounts of Queen Mary’s reign emphasized her illnesses and other weaknesses, subsequent historians have given her more credibility.  She attended more cabinet meetings than those who came before or after her; more artistic literary, economic, and political advancements were made during her reign; and she supported the union of England and Scotland, which became Europe’s largest free trade area at the time.  No weak willed Nellie she.  It’s something of a pity that she is portrayed so weak in a 20thCentury film.

For a romp in an 18th Century royal court where intrigue is rampant and women compete for power, go see The Favourite.

Grade:  B                                    By Donna R. Copeland

Friday, November 23, 2018

EL ANGEL

Lorenzo Ferro     Chino Darin     Daniel Fanego     Peter Lanzani


     This movie is Argentina’s submission for an Oscar in foreign film.  It’s based on the story of a young criminal in the 1970’s, Carlos Robledo Puch, who started out as a “house cat” (someone who enters empty houses without a gun and takes things), then evolved into a ruthless killer, who has now spent more than 45 years in prison.
     As dramatized in the film, we see Carlos (played by novice Lorenzo Ferro) portrayed as an angelic, baby-faced boy with full, alluring lips and blond curls that make him look innocent and trustworthy, but lies easily slide out of his mouth without even a flash of hesitation.  When asked by his mother about things he’s brought into the house, like the motorcycle out front, he tells her a friend leant it to him. He’s always ready with a sensible explanation for any question by anyone.  
     Curiously, these sociopathic characteristics are mixed in with something like a conscience.  When asked by an older woman if he would like to sleep with her, which he looks like he would, his reply is, “No, I like your husband.”  Another time, someone asks if he has stolen anything from a house they just visited, and he says, “No, he asked me not to” (which the man actually had).
     When he’s in high school, Carlos wants the attention of a fellow student, Ramon (Darin), who has rebuffed him.  But we see Carlos’ charm working on Ramon, and before long he finds out that Carlos is a thief.  “You’ll have to meet my dad, then”, says Ramon.  His dad Jose (Fanego) is an ex-con who still does “jobs.” Jose introduces Carlos to guns—a thrilling experience—and the three become a small ring.  But there is conflict right away, because Carlos is shown to be reckless.  He thinks it would be a great idea to rob a gun store.  They stake out the place, Carlos goes in while the other two wait outside, and brings out a large haul; still then insisting on stretching their luck by going back in and picking up ammunition, which he had forgotten.
     Later, both Jose and Ramon caution Carlos about his behavior, but it has little effect on him.  He and Ramon become close friends, merrily doing jobs together, sometimes with Jose, and amping up the violence.  After a time, as a result of one of his friendships, Ramon gets aspirations to become an actor and give up thievery.  Before very long, tension builds up, they become a bit estranged and do jobs with another ne’er-do-well, Miguel (Lanzani), and things become even more violent and conflicted.
     As interesting as this film is, there is a problem, which is that no connection is made between Carlos’ background and his early onset sociopathy.  Since it’s based on a true story, the filmmakers should have inserted a few details about the real killer’s background that would give some accounting for his personality.  As it is, the message seems to be that a kid with law-abiding, honest parents could turn out to be a killer.  This doesn’t fit with what we know about criminals.
     In fact, having the character say flatly, “I was born a thief”, suggests such a thing simply happens for no reason.  We do see that when newspapers report on a heinous crime, they inevitably find people who say, “He seemed like such a quiet, nice kid”, but then later we learn there are some traits/behaviors that makes their criminality more understandable.  Antecedents to criminal behavior have been well documented, and researchers have found significant associations between childhood abuse and adolescent and adult criminality.  So it makes no sense to me that Carlos is shown to be brought up under very good circumstances, with no evidence of neglect or other kinds of abuse.
     I understand that the actual case is still fascinating to the Argentine public, and that El Angel was a box office hit there. It seems to me the film plays on the public’s admiration of lawlessness, which is troubling, in that the real Carlos Robledo Puch was found guilty of 11 murders and numerous sexual assaults. 

About an angel with blond curls, but no halo.

Grade:  C+                                    By Donna R. Copeland

Thursday, November 22, 2018

MARIA BY CALLAS


     Just as many people were drawn to and repelled by the great opera singer, Maria Callas, I had a similar reaction to this documentary.  It’s by turns inspiring (in its giving us extended samples of her voice and her personality) and frustrating (in its provoking questions without providing answers).   Perhaps it accurately reflects the artist and her life in all its fullness, ambiguity, and fame, but I found myself turning to Wikipedia (yes, I admit it) to fill out the information about Callas.
     Not being an opera fan, but still aware of major news in music, I had heard about Maria Callas for years and my interest had been piqued, but I couldn’t fully appreciate the person she was or the effect she had on the world of opera and beyond.  The documentary by Tom Volf fills out this incomplete impression, but still left questions I wanted answers to.  
     For instance, the film only mentions Callas’ early upbringing briefly, and I understand it had a huge influence on her life.  Her parents were not happily married and had significant conflicts. Maria’s mother was frustrated by the loss of a son and her own thwarted ambitions.  So early on when she spotted Maria’s talent, she decided Maria would have a singing career.  When the mother was fed up with her husband, she left him and took her two daughters back to Greece, their country of origin, and saw that Maria was enrolled in a conservatory of music.  The film glosses over this—probably in the interest of space—but this and the fact that her mother favored Maria’s “more attractive” sister over her and tried to influence her (sometimes in disturbing ways), leaves the viewer to wonder why such important determinants were left unexplained.
     To its credit, Maria by Callas highlights the ups and downs of a brilliant, enormously talented individual, the kinds of challenges she faced, and the personally damning effects of media coverage in which the truth is less important than the “story.”  It covers the early impressive demonstrations of her talents, some of the instances in which she was (perhaps unfairly) labeled “the tigress” and “tempestuous”, her being hired and fired and then rehired by the New York Metropolitan Opera, her marriage, her relationship with Aristotle Onassis and its significant effect on her across time, the media’s intrusions into her life, and her sincerity in expressions of gratitude to those who helped her, including her audiences.
     On the whole, I think this is a good documentary by Tom Volf in its abundant reflection of the Callas voice juxtaposed with her everyday life and fame.  (That is, her operatic performances are presented audibly while pictures of her navigating through events in her daily life are shown.)  Its most deserved praise is for conveying the essence of the woman and her considerable—although it’s controversial—talent.  
     Two quotes I found online fill in the impact of this woman, one by Sir Rudolf Bing (New York Metropolitan Opera]:  “Once one heard and saw Maria Callas—one can't really distinguish it—in a part, it was very hard to enjoy any other artist, no matter how great, afterwards, because she imbued every part she sang and acted with such incredible personality and life. One move of her hand was more than another artist could do in a whole act” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maria_Callas.
     The other quote is by Antonino Votto(Italian operatic conductor).  In his words, Callas was “The last great artist. When you think this woman was nearly blind, and often sang standing a good 150 feet from the podium.  But her sensitivity! Even if she could not see, she sensed the music and always came in exactly with my downbeat. When we rehearsed, she was so precise, already note-perfect... She was not just a singer, but a complete artist. It's foolish to discuss her as a voice. She must be viewed totally—as a complex of music, drama, movement. There is no one like her today. She was an esthetic phenomenon.

A media phenomenon from an earlier time who can still be appreciated today.

Grade:  B                                    By Donna R. Copeland


Wednesday, November 21, 2018

AT ETERNITY'S GATE

Willem Dafoe     Rupert Friend     Oscar Isaac     Mathieu Amalric     Madds Mikkelsen


     This artistic, painterly film created by painter/director, Julian Schnabel (The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, Before Night Falls, Basquiat), reverberates in its portrayal of the essence of Vincent van Gogh and his internal experiences and stated intentions to bring nature and life to people through his art.  In defending his approach to Paul Gauguin, who is critical and lectures him about how he should paint, he retorts that he goes outdoors to paint because ‘the essence of nature is beauty.”  He is always trying to capture that beauty, thinking that he and others can always learn from it.
     As shown in the film, van Gogh leads a tortured life, always questioning himself and his brother Theo about whether his art is really good.  Despite his brother's reassurance, others are frank in telling him it is not; “It’s ugly”, declares a priest.  Beyond these doubts, van Gogh worries about his sanity, saying that people tell him later what he has done, but he doesn’t remember.  Moreover, he confides to his brother that he has hallucinations.  Townspeople find him strange, and he admits that he is always alone, sometimes not talking to anyone else for days.
     Vincent’s nurturing brother, Theo, pays Paul Gauguin, a friend of Vincent’s to go to Arles, France, and stay with him, thinking that Gauguin will be a positive influence on him.  And apparently he is, and it proves to be a productive time for both artists; but after some months, Paul tells Vincent he must return to Paris to attend to his own career.  This sends Vincent into such a tailspin, he cuts off his ear.  The event, along with his alcoholism and at times irrational behavior, results in psychiatric hospitalizations, which seem to be helpful.  But he continues his prolific painting throughout his confinements.
     The care with which At Eternity’s Gate was made is truly impressive, such as Schnabel teaching Willem Dafoe, the star, how to paint so he could give an authentic representation, Dafoe soaking up everything he could learn about van Gogh (e.g., running through the fields, with cinematographer Benoit Delhomme tracking him), and capturing his mood swings, social awkwardness, and sincerity.
     Dafoe—always a good actor (most notably in The Florida Project last year)—probably gives his best performance to date in conveying with subtlety and grace the intricacy, shading, contradictions, and volatility of an artistic personality, all the while conveying the absolute sincerity characteristic of van Gogh.  Its authenticity comes through to me in my past experience in working with people who were in a psychiatric inpatient service.
     Oscar Isaac’s optimistic presence as Paul Gauguin gives a welcome air of freshness to the production, and his performance is right on.  Mathieu Amalric as the psychiatrist-friend who is the most helpful to Vincent conveys just the right amount of empathy and astute inquiry.  
     This film is noteworthy in its artistic approach [most frames are teeming with artistic touches, such as blurring or pulsating the image (Benoit Delhomme, cinematographer) to the beat of the music by Tatiana Lisorkaia], its emotional and social valence, and historical elucidation.  It will not appeal to everyone, but will certainly be a hit with the art house crowd.

A film that captures the agonies of van Gogh’s life, along with the regret we all feel that he never received the validation he so deserved while he was alive.

Grade:  B+                                    By Donna R. Copeland

THE BALLAD OF BUSTER SCRUGGS

Liam Neeson     James Franco     Tim Blake Nelson     Tom Waits     Zoe Kazan     Grainger Hines
Harry Melling     Brendan Gleeson     Jonjo O’Neill     Chelcie Ross     Tyne Daly     Saul Rubinek


      Ethan and Joel Coen have chosen to produce a western anthology containing six stories for their latest film.  Most of the main characters in each are loners, and there is at least one death in every story, but there are surprises in every one, particularly for the victims.  Characteristic of the Coens as well, humor—even if it’s sick—pops up from time to time. The music by Carter Burwell and cinematography by Bruno Delbonnel increase the artistic quality of the western stories significantly.
     In the first story titled “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs”, Tim Blake Nelson is Scruggs, a singing cowboy, who receives a dare everywhere he goes.  He’s a sharp shooter who can even hit his target looking backward through a handheld mirror—which doesn’t exactly jive with his crooning talents.
     In “Near Algodones”, Cowboy (Franco) looks up to see an isolated bank in Tucumcari, New Mexico, thinking it will be an easy target, especially with only one old man as a single teller.
     In “Meal Ticket”, Impresario (Neeson) carries a paraplegic “Thespian orator” (Melling) through western towns to deliver poems and addresses based on the Bible and Abraham Lincoln’s speeches to the local townspeople.  The two support themselves by taking up collections at the end of each performance.  Then, the impresario discovers that a chicken might be just as entertaining.
     The next two stories are the best.  In “All Gold Canyon”, Tom Waits is a prospector panning for gold.  He mumbles constantly—either to his horse or to a deity, or someone else, not sure which—but after panning doggedly for gold, he finds a mother lode.  But…someone has been following him all this time and sees what he has discovered.
      In “The Gal Who Got Rattled”, Alice (Kazan) and her brother are in a wagon train headed for Oregon, where he has a business opportunity and the hope that his partner will want to marry Alice.  Unexpected events occur, which means that Alice is on her own and must make decisions for herself.
     Finally, in “The Mortal Remains” five travelers are in a stagecoach headed for Ft. Morgan.  It’s a motley group: Two bounty hunters, a French gambler, the wife of a minister, and a trapper.  They have rather tedious arguments about humankind (“There are two types, hale and frail”, “No, there are the upright and the sinners”). The trapper says he has only one kind, the dead, “but they’re different…” he allows.  The fears of death among three in the group are readily apparent when it’s time to stop, and the “bounty” of the bounty hunters is carried out in a bag and inside and up the stairs.  They have to force themselves to go inside.   
     The “surprised by death” theme is one thing that connects all the stories, except for the last one in which we’re left with not being sure whether or not the three passengers have something to fear.  At any rate, death is on their minds.  And, by the way, the Coen meanings/points/connections between the stories are not obvious in the least.  

More quirky, thoughtful, humorous tales from the Coen brothers.

Grade:  B                                    By Donna R. Copeland

CREED II

Michael B. Jordan     Sylvester Stallone     Tessa Thompson     Florian Munteanu     
Dolph Lundgren     Wood Harris     Phylicia Rashad


     Pride goeth before a fall, but that doesn’t mean you can’t pick yourself up and fight even harder, which is just what Adonis/Creed (Jordan) does in taking up the gauntlet to avenge his father’s death at the hands of Ivan Drago a Russian heavyweight.  Creed feels pressure within himself to take on the son of Drago, Viktor (Lundgren) and defend his world championship title.  His longtime trainer and the one who had defeated Ivan Drago 30+ years before, Rocky Balboa (Stallone), sees Ivan’s physical advantage, and presses Creed to search within himself for the reason he wants to take on the challenge.  Rocky is not up to training him (he is still battling leukemia), so leaves that in the hands of Little Duke (Wood Harris).  
     In addition, there are other important things going on in Adonis’ life, and these, along with his own personal challenges, enrich and complicate his life. He’s involved romantically with the lovely singer Bianca (Thompson), who is a huge support to him, but also has aspirations for her own career.  She would like to move from Philadelphia to California for that reason, and points out that Adonis’ widowed mother Mary Anne (Rashad) lives there. The introduction of real-world considerations marks a plus for Creed II; it’s not just about heavyweight fighting, but reflects as well the kinds of considerations and dilemmas contemporary families have to face in deciding such things as where to live and whose career takes precedence at what time.  
     Over and over, screenwriters Sylvester Stallone and Juel Taylor, have the characters wrestle with parenting, family issues, and emotional attachments.  These scenes are not simply “tacked on”, but are well integrated into the primary action of the story.  (And are definitely a saving grace for this reviewer who has an aversion to boxing because of potentially life-changing injuries.) Relationships between Creed and Bianca, Rocky, and his mother; between Viktor and his father Ivan; and in the ring between Creed and Viktor Drago are rich with emotional valence.  And the bitterness Adonis experiences during one period is palpable.
     Michael B. Jordan has proven his skill in Fruitvale Station, Creed (2015), and Black Panther, and lives up to that reputation in this film.  Sylvester Stallone comes across as an anchor, not only for his parts in the Rocky and Creed films, but as one for Adonis in this film, Creed II.   I get the impression he has provided much of the heart that is a part of the series.
     One aspect of the film that detracts from its freshness is the predictability of the storyline.  Almost from start to finish, the viewer can guess what’s ahead.  If that doesn’t bother you, and if you like to see physical struggles against extreme adversity, this might be the movie for you.

This film is for devotees of the Rocky and Creed series of heavyweight championship films.  

Grade:  C+                      By Donna R. Copeland

Thursday, November 15, 2018

FANTASTIC BEASTS: THE CRIMES OF GRINDELWALD

Eddie Redmayne    Katherine Waterston     Dan Fogler     Jude Law     Johnny Depp
Zoe Kravitz     Allison Sudol          Ezra Miller     Credence Baregone     Carmen Ejogo


     The second installment of the Fantastic Beasts series tells about the renewed threat from the dark wizard Grindelwald, who has escaped from the custody of the MACUSA (Magical Congress of the United States of America) and has a devious plan to create a new world wherein non-magical beings will be subservient to the wizards who have pledged loyalty to him.  In this framework, one is either for or against him, and he demands a declaration of loyalty.
     The alarm goes out in the wizard world about this new threat, and Dumbledore (Law) charges Newt Scamander (Redmayne) with joining forces to stop him.  Newt is handicapped a bit by MACUSA’s forbidding him to travel internationally, but he is managing to get around that in his and friend Jacob’s (Fogler) journey searching for their loves, sisters Tina (Waterston) and Queenie (Sudol)
     One of the drawbacks of the film is in the script with its multiple plot lines involving so many people it’s hard to keep track of everyone and all the sub-plots involved.  There are the relationships between Jacob and Queenie, Newt and Tina, and Credence and Leta; there is the historical relationship between Dumbledore and Grindelwald; there is the relationship between Newt and his beloved beasts (quote:  “Newt has never met a beast he didn’t love”); there is the question of the true identity of Credence (Miller); and, finally, there is a question of who among all these characters will take up with Grindlewald and help him in his master plan.
     Director David Yates has collaborated with J. K. Rowling (author of the books on which all the Harry Potter and Fantastic Beasts films are based) on the last six productions, and she has written the screenplays for the two Fantastic Beasts films.  This partnership, along with other consistent members of the team (Cinematographer Philippe Rousselot, Production Designer Stuart Craig), returning actors Redmayne, Waterston, Fogler, Sudol, Miller, and Depp, and the visual and special effects artists contribute a kind of consistency in quality that make the series popular with general audiences.  However, many viewers—possibly more discerning—are picking up on the repetitiousness and “tent-pole” characteristics of these creations.
     Eddie Redmayne’s talented acting is a plus in the Fantastic Beasts series, although whether it can endure the number of upcoming productions remains to be seen.  It’s been agreed that he will remain in his role.  In this film, he, Waterston, Fogler, Law, Kravitz, and Sudol pull off their roles admirably.  

This latest offshoot of the Harry Potter series is attempting to hold onto its popularity with the general public.

Grade:  C+                                    By Donna R. Copeland

WILDLIFE

Jake Gyllenhaal     Carey Mulligan     Ed Oxenbould     Bill Camp


     After demonstrating his acting abilities in acclaimed movies (e.g., There will be Blood, Little Miss Sunshine, Love & Mercy), Paul Dano decided to try his hand at directing a movie based on a book written by Richard Ford, which brings us to Wildlife.  The book spoke to Dano, reminding him of his own experience of his parents’ separation, in which, as an only child, he was inclined less to rebel and act out, and more to try to hold everything together.  He was the responsible one, the “parent child” in psychological parlance.
     In the film, we see the family first as having just moved from Lewiston, Idaho, to Great Falls, Montana.  Joe (Oxenbould), a teenager who has felt uprooted with the move, is trying to satisfy his father’s wish for him to become a football star.  His father Jerry (Gyllenhaal) has aspirations to become a force in golf at the local club where he works.  However, he gets fired—in his own words—because he is so good with the customers.  When the club has second thoughts and wants to re-hire him, the narcissistic wound of rejection prevents him from accepting.  Instead, for some reason (visions of greatness?), he decides instead to fight forest fires raging in the nearby forests, which will take him away from the family for several months.
     Incensed, Jerry’s wife Jeanette (Mulligan), rails at him for the stupidity of his plan.  In the meantime, she has decided to ignore Jerry’s wish that she remain a housewife and has taken a job as a swimming coach.  This will introduce her to a different world from that she has been trained for and is used to, and brings her in contact with people in the town; one of her students is a wealthy widower, played by Bill Camp.
     The story is about what happens in this interim when the parents are separated, and Joe, feeling the tension between them, tries his best not to take sides and accommodate to an altered world.  But in fact, in Dano’s description, he is a “kid being kicked out into the wild [and told], “This is the real world.”  In other words, get used to it.  
     The rest of the story is about Joe’s experience of being with his mother, completely cut off from his father, and having to somehow make sense of it all.  In the role of this character, Oxenbould, a young Australian actor, perfectly captures the basic dilemma and the multiple awkward positions his mother places him in during the course of the movie.
     Problems with the film could be with the way the parents communicate with Joe. It seems to me they relate to him in ways that are unrealistic, asking his advice at strange moments (“Joe, what do you think I should do?”; “Joe, how do I look?” [for an interview or for a date], and always turning to him in moments of crisis.  I haven’t observed any parents being this blatant, but given that Dano is basing this partly on his own experience, maybe it happens.
     This is probably the “meatiest” role in Carey Mulligan’s career, and she takes to it with all she has.  She is brilliant.  Her character’s common sense arguments/putdowns of her husband’s decisions are careful not to attack him directly and personally, but clearly she conveys she is her own person and not willing to subject herself to anyone for any reason.  
     I never have enough words of praise for Jake Gyllenhaal; he inhabits all different kinds of characters in ways that are always believable.  I had a hard time at first seeing him as a passive/aggressive figure who is fiercely independent, assuming his family would be waiting for him with open arms when he returns, but of course he does just that with all the authenticity the role requires.  
     Paul Dano should be very proud of his new direction (and a script in collaboration with Zoe Kazan); he has all the makings of a good director who has an eye for the overall picture and knows characterization well enough to cast fine actors for the roles.  I congratulate him and his collaborators for a film in which a kid succeeds despite his parents’ utter disregard for him.  Let’s all hail the promise of the human spirit over adversity.

An example of how a teenager can master the challenges his family—and life—can throw at him.

Grade:  B+                                    By Donna R. Copeland 

WIDOWS

Viola Davis     Liam Neeson     Robert Duvall     Colin Farrell     Michelle Rodriguez
Elizabeth Debieki     Cynthia Erivo     Brian Tyree Henry     Daniel Kaluuya


     Hold onto your seat; despite the leading title, this movie will keep you on edge—and on your toes—throughout the two-hours-plus time.  Rapid cuts between love scenes and major crime in the beginning shake you and disorient you, and then you must figure out who are all the characters thrown at you in the first few minutes.  
     Basically, if you’ve seen the previews, you know that the widow of a slain criminal contacts the other widows of her husband’s accomplices with a plan to secure their future after she finds the notebook he made sure she would get. As happens a lot in this film with men and women, he has underestimated her feminine wiles and will.
     In a role made for her, Viola Davis as Veronica uses her head after she is threatened by a rival gang, the Manning brothers (Henry and Kaluuya), who demand money from her that her husband Harry Rawlings (Neeson) stole.  Jamal Manning is determined to join the wealthy of the world, using his brother Jatemme as a fearsome hit man with no limits as to what he will do.  
     Corruption in city government is intertwined with criminal elements, assuring that interconnections among the characters will inevitably occur.  For example, Tom Mulligan (Duvall) and his son Jack (Farrell) are corrupt city officials who mete out city contracts to their friends.  Jack is currently running for city comptroller against Jamal Manning. All of them were well acquainted with Harry Rawlings when he was alive.  
     The main characters in this well-conceived plot are after the money that is now missing (burned up?) from the Rawlings caper that went down.  You will know who, if any, will end up with it only after many thrills and chills along the way.  The women occupy the stage most of the time, and actually, the men don’t come across well at all.  We see honor and care among the women who are following in their husband’s footsteps, but not in the same way.  The male characters are shown to be duplicitous, violent, and reactionary. 
     Writer-director Steve McQueen (12 Years a Slave, Shame) and screenwriter Gillian Flynn (Gone Girl) based the movie on the popular British television series written by Lynda La Plante of Prime Suspect fame.  With this much talent, it’s not surprising that their production is of such high quality.  No cheap thrills here, every inch of it is solid and has internal consistency and believability.  Hans Zimmer’s score and Sean Bobbitt’s cinematography provide an additional degree of excellence.
     Quotable quotes:  “You reap what you sow”; the reply:  “I hope so” and “If something goes wrong, I want my kids to know that I didn’t just sit there.” 

For an exciting, invigorating, suspense-filled evening go see Widows.

Grade:  A                                                  By Donna R. Copeland

GREEN BOOK

Viggo Mortensen     Mahershala Ali     Linda Cardellini     Don Stark     Sebastian Maniscalco


     It’s fascinating to see how filmmakers are able to turn stereotypes on their heads so shrewdly and wittily, which can be funny, heartbreaking, or insidious.  Here, the director (Peter Farrelly) and writers (Nick Vallelonga, Brian Hayes Currie, and Farrelly) have woven a tale based on a true story showing how a slightly condescending African-American who is wealthy, mannerly, and educated can somehow bond with a white working class man, a bouncer at the Copacabana in New York, with clear hostilities toward minorities.  In their concert tour, they confront southerners with major prejudices, field workers gawking at a black man in a suit being driven by a white man who has to fix the car, and self-contradicting southern traditionalists who invite a black artist to perform for them, but will not allow him to use their bathroom or eat in their dining room.
     Part of the delight of Green Book (referring to a guidebook used by blacks designating restaurants and motels/hotels in the south that would accept them as patrons) is observing how, with the right provocative experiences many can change, even though some will be impervious. And that is the lofty goal of Dr. Don Shirley (Ali), to change the world and make it a better place.  He succeeds beautifully and heartwarmingly with his driver Tony (Mortensen)—as he himself is transformed in the process. And we hope that he leaves change in his wake as he protests with dignity the injustices he encounters on the road.  
     Another delight is seeing the different perspectives of the two men crashing into one another, usually in the car on the road.  They have pointed conflicts that are only settled by Don being Tony’s boss.  Yet, Tony gets his jabs in from time to time.  Tony is proud of his life-long designation of “Tony Lip”, which came from his reputation at an early age of being a good bullsh*ter. When Don labels it as simply lying, Tony is offended.  He sees it as getting people to do what he wants them to.  And both learn from the conversation as Tony ponders what Don has said and Don along the way sees how Tony’s bulls*ting gets them out of jams.  It expresses in an exquisite way the truth in both their views.
     Another beauty of this film is to see the two actors, Mortensen and Ali, at work. They are masters at conveying subtle signs of all kinds of thoughts and emotions.  They have perfect chemistry with one another and will always praise the other’s skills.  They’re not just being polite; both approach their roles in a perfectionist way, wanting most of all to convey accuracy and authenticity.  Ali’s piano playing is a wonder to see, and I was curious to know if he could actually play that well.  It turns out that he had a coach and sometimes double, but the rendition on the screen looks like it is all Ali.
     This is a very different Farrelly film from his past collaborations with his brother Bobby (e.g., There’s Something about Mary, Dumb and Dumber, Shallow Hal) in its being more than a comedy, something of a character study, and taking a political point of view with regard to race and class.  He should be proud of the venture in its depth of commentary and essential substance, along with the comedy.  At its most eloquent, Don agonizes, “I’m not black enough, not white enough, not enough of a man—so who am I?”  Stereotypes limit us; diversity frees us.  That’s the message of this film, which won the audience award at the Toronto International Film Festival.
     Despite the two-hour run time, I didn’t want the story to end; I wanted to stay with these people.

A wonderful film that moves you, prompts you to ponder, and makes you laugh.

Grade:  A                                    By Donna R. Copeland

Friday, November 9, 2018

A PRIVATE WAR

Rosamund Pike     Jamie Dornan     Tom Hollander     Stanley Tucci


     I don’t know if other people will have the same experience in watching this film as I did, but to me it was like listening to television news stories from Sri Lanka, Iraq, Aphganistan, Libya, and Syria one after the other, highlighting mangled, bloodied bodies and cries of misery.  Our heroine, Marie Colvin—a journalist and real person—(played eloquently by Rosamund Pike) seems to be drawn to war zones, even as she hates them.  She says at one point, “In covering war, can we really make a difference?”  In her own mind, that is what she is about, trying to get the world to care.  And she is successful, at least in her editor’s mind, when he compliments her:  “You have the God-given talent to make people stop and care.”  I wish the story had moved me to a greater extent, but it didn’t, which I will address below.
     We first get a bit of background on Marie, at home in London with her husband David, a professor/novelist, when she is early in her career.  He makes a comment about her being away from home so much, and clearly doesn’t appreciate the passion she has for her work.  When she gets seriously injured in Sri Lanka and begins showing signs of PTSD, he tries to get her to change directions.  But after a stint in a mental hospital, in a couple of years she is headed to Iraq.
     That is where she will meet the photographer Paul Conroy (Dornan), who is awed by her and eventually becomes a devoted partner in covering war stories.  He sticks with her throughout, being a kind of protector (which she allows it) and pal.  They end up in Libya during the Arab Spring, and meet with Gaddafi—whom she has met before—and she asks him hard questions, which he responds to with heart and humor.  
     By this time, Marie is showing signs of serious alcohol problems and issues with Sean, her editor (Hollander).  She has met someone who—if anyone could—inspire her to rest on her laurels, but at this point, Sean tries to reel her in to continue.  She comes back with the argument that what she does protects him (and her readers).  “I see it so you don’t have to”, she says; whereupon Sean comes back with, “But if you lose your convictions, what hope do the rest of us have?”  That kind of guilt trip will always get to Marie, and she travels on to Syria and Assad’s bombing of civilians there.  
     I was taken with director Matthew Heineman’s previous films, which were documentaries: Cartel Land, City of Ghosts.  Here, he attempts to dramatize Marie Colvin’s life (based on Marie Brenner’s article in “Vanity Fair” magazine, with a screenplay by Arash Amel) as a gutsy, committed journalist whose life-long wish was to appeal to populations of the world to help those in desperate need.  But, surprisingly, the film doesn’t leave the viewer with a clear understanding of Marie herself.  Why did she keep chasing war stories to the point that it was almost—if not in fact—suicidal?  Did her editor, Sean Ryan (Hollander), try to keep her out of harm’s way—until the sensational story became more important?  Nor does the film pull us in emotionally so that we’re cheering at the end.  No, it’s missing the heart and soul that his documentaries captured so well.
     That being said, Pike’s performance is flawless and moving throughout.  She clearly understood and appreciated the character of Marie Colvin, in ways that I could not in seeing this film.

This is about recent wars and intended as an anti-war film.

Grade:  C+                                     By Donna R. Copeland