Thursday, August 9, 2018

NEVER GOIN' BACK

Maia Mitchell     Camila Morrone     Kyle Mooney     Arisotle Abraham II     Joel Allen     Matthew Holcomb


     Never goin’ back?  I wish I’d never gone to this movie in the first place.  Think of every motif filmmakers use to transmit grossness—farts, poop, vomit—every silliness and foolishness in ideas and behavior—every cockamamie scheme ever cooked up—well, folks, it’s all here in this mish mash of a conglomeration about young adult misfits.  Other than the set-up of Angela (Mitchell) and Jessie (Morrone) fantasizing about going to Galveston for a holiday, there is no real plot; there are only scenes strung together in which the characters argue loudly (incessantly) and come up with harebrained illegal ways to get themselves out of one jam into another.
     The filmmakers’ (e.g., writer/director/editor Augustine Frizzell, editor Courtney Ware) lack of experience is evident, and I have to wonder what possessed the producers and whatever underwriters there were to approve it.  What is its point?  It doesn’t really have a story—just offensive vignettes—no characters show learning and transformation, and no lines are really funny. There are occasional reasons to gasp when you see what is immediately ahead, but the story actually has no suspense, and it’s obvious how everything is going to turn out in the end.
     It is the case that the two leads, Mitchell and Morrone, are well cast, and the best scenes in the film are when they are together dreaming their dreams, planning ahead, and just being goofy.  It’s when they or (heaven forbid!) the guys Dustin, Cedric, and Ryan (Allen, Abraham, Holcomb, respectively) try to cook up plans for easy money that the movie sinks (and, frankly, becomes offensive).  I was sympathetic with the character Brandon (very well played by Mooney), who is the only one capable of keeping a job and having some sense of the real world.  His negotiating a deal with the two girls is one of the few scenes that connote tenderness and sincerity.  Brandon provides some sense of reality in the story, whereas interchanges such as the one of a bigot in a grocery store yelling at Angela and Jessie and their yelling right back are ludicrous and not funny at all.
     Never Goin’ Back is a movie worth skipping.

This movie is no more than a bunch of foolishness with zero entertainment value.

Grade:  F                                    By Donna R. Copeland

THE MEG

Jason Statham     Bingbing Li     Rainn Wilson     Winston Chao     Ruby Rose     Page Kennedy


     The Meg has a lot going for it:  thrills, intrigue, humor, and fairly good character development.  It opens with a rescue mission that ends up with wins and losses, and Jones Taylor (Statham) being faulted for his role in it.  Five years later, the setting changes to a research station off China, run by Dr. Zhang  (Chao) and his daughter Suyin (Li).  They’ve made an amazing discovery that the floor of the ocean is deeper than previously thought, and they want to explore the boundary between our world and the one they hypothesize lies beyond.  Newly arrived to inspect the operation is its funder, billionaire Morris (Wilson).  He is impressed with what he finds and is gung-ho to proceed.
     The research group makes its initial voyage, and do seem to find something major that will be the find of centuries—a whole different ecological environment containing different species from our own.  But…they encounter something huge that rocks their water vessels violently.  They will soon discover that the entry they used to get to the new discovery has been used by a huge shark, a megadon believed to be extinct, to enter our system.  
     The rest of the story involves the threats posed by the animal and the team’s efforts to survive it and protect the rest of the world from its destructiveness. Within this context, a number of personal relationships complicate the story and provide interest beyond the adventure.  Some of the crew were in the previous mission with Jones Taylor, and still hold a grudge. One is a physician, and one is Taylor’s ex-wife.  In the current emergency, they all agree with Dr. Zhang that Jones is essential to the operation.  He will need to be persuaded to come, however, and if he does, interpersonal conflicts will have to be dealt with.
     While these “human interest” vignettes make the film more appealing, some have clearly been inserted simply for that purpose, and this is obvious.  One example is Suyin’s daughter who is present on the research station.  Her interactions with Jones especially have a false quality, particularly when her lines are not plausible “child-speak.”  Another is a romance sparked in the midst of disasters, which is OK, but once again, a little forced.
     Jason Statham nails his role as a hero bordering on super-hero on the one hand and a kind of charm on the other, even though mostly he is sardonic.  This is where the screenwriters have done a good job in developing his and some of the other characters into believable figures.  For instance, the Suyin character is interesting in her assertiveness and self-confidence, something not usually shown in Hollywood’s female characters.  But Li gives her spark and appeal so well she captivates.  Rainn Wilson is miscast in my opinion; I never could see him as a billionaire sponsor.
     The main “beef” I have with the film is that it extends the story too long, simply to add on special effects and more and more disasters and near-fatalities.  It could easily have ended after the first encounter with the megadon, rather than wearying us with additional emergencies.

A gripping tale that excites and captivates—up to a certain point.

Grade:  B                                                By Donna R. Copeland

BLACKKKLANSMAN

John David Washington     Adam Driver     Laura Harrier     Ryan Eggold     Topher Grace
Ryan Eggold     Jasper Paakkonen     Paul Walter Hauser     Harry Belafonte     Alec Baldwin



     Spike Lee has given us a chilling, eloquent picture about race relations in America, based on an autobiographical account by Ron Stallworth, a former police officer in Colorado Springs, Colorado, who led an undercover operation to infiltrate the Ku Klux Klan in the 1970’s.  It plays like a suspense-filled thriller, with the viewer sweating through many scenes where it is uncertain whether cover will be blown and whether characters will be killed.
     Ron Stallworth (adeptly played by Washington) is the first black police officer in Colorado Springs; to be a policeman was always his dream—particularly if he could be an undercover agent.  His first assignment is as a records clerk, which he loathes; then the opportunity comes to cover a speech by a controversial figure at a local campus, Stokely Carmichael, who has changed his name to Kwami Ture, a name that sticks in the throats of the law enforcement community.  Ron does such a good job, he is assigned to the intelligence service when he comes up with a plan to go undercover in the just-forming Ku Klux Klan in Colorado Springs.  
     After answering an ad for recruiting members for the local KKK by telephone, he convinces his police captain to send in a white police officer, Flip Zimmerman (Driver), to pose as “Ron Stallworth” and learn what the Klan is up to in the area. Stallworth actually calls David Duke (Grace), “Grand Wizard” of the Klan, to expedite his membership card. Duke is so impressed with Stallworth, he goes to Colorado to induct him personally into the Klan.
     In addition to the tension surrounding the undercover operation and maintaining anonymity, there is also conflict in the romantic relationship Ron has rather naively formed with one of the black protestors, Patrice (Harrier), who looks exactly like Angela Davis, and who is constantly trying to find out who he really is. There is also the Klansman Felix (spookily played by Paakonen) who is suspicious of Flip, (he thinks he has spotted him as a Jew) and performs tests of his identity and commitment. We’re also on edge, waiting to see if any of the threats picked up by the police department and the FBI(?) will come to fruition.
     BlacKkKlansman will most likely come to be considered as Spike Lee’s best film so far.  It won the Gran Prix at Cannes this year, and Lee received a standing ovation at its premier.       This seems well deserved in consideration of the overall production including screenplay, direction, actors, music, and cinematography—and its topical relevance.  One of the jewels is the juxtaposition of a Klan meeting showing a disgusting racist film and a black protest meeting, in which an account delivered by Harry Belefonte tells about the horrific mistreatment of a black child.
     As stunning as the film is, it is long; and there are a few scenes that could have been shortened, and one at the end that could have been cut altogether; it’s a telephone call informing a major character about the law enforcement subterfuge.  Perhaps this actually occurred (I have not read Stallworth’s book), but it looks more like the filmmakers simply wanted to vent their spleen.

BlacKkKlansman is a meritorious addition to the films that are making statements about us that we should take seriously.

Grade:  A                                    By Donna R. Copeland

PUZZLE

Kelly Macdonald     David Denman     Irrfan Kahn     Bubba Weiler     Austin Abrams     Liv Hewson


     This is a coming-of-age story not of a teenager, but of a devoted housewife and mother.  (About time, don’t you think?)  It’s significant that the film opens with Agnes (Macdonald) preparing a birthday party—and it turns out it’s her own.  Doing for others is the mantra of her life, and she rarely takes herself into account.  She is surrounded by a loving family, her husband Louie (Denman) and her two sons, Ziggy (Weiler) and Gabe (Abrams).  They are all appreciative of her, and although Ziggy has some inkling of her self-sacrifice, Louie is clueless.  He’s a big, huggable teddy bear who thinks telling her she is “cute” is a compliment when he is in fact putting her down.  He claims the traditional role of father (boss) in the family who is supposed to “protect” his wife from important decisions.  Gabe, who has given her a phone for her birthday—which, of course, she shies away from—keeps trying to pull her into modern times.
     Never underestimate the upheaval the liberation of a woman(women) can create.  In this case, it comes about through jigsaw puzzles.  Agnes has always been fascinated with math and patterns, and when she opens her presents by herself the day after the party, she tosses the phone aside and shakes the puzzle out of its box, a fateful step.  She quickly works it out and begins seeking out other puzzles. (Figuring out puzzles is clearly a theme for this whole story.)
     This takes her to New York City to find more where, once again, fatefully, she sees a notice “desperately seeking a partner for a puzzle competition.”  This connects her with the eccentric puzzle-master, Robert (Kahn), a disaster-obsessed Indian who has become wealthy off a patent he invented.  Here, too, the strait-laced Catholic woman who firmly believes in causality and human control bumps into the Eastern philosopher who says whatever happens is meant to be and outside our control.
     In a way, I think this is what the film—and Agnes, ultimately—are wrestling with: free will versus determinism. While Agnes is discovering the powers of free will (which also involves the concept of sin and guilt), she confronts Robert’s observations about fate and determinism, sidestepping the pain of guilt.  When this is considered, the way the film ends makes more sense, in that the filmmakers are making a point about this issue.  It’s slightly ironic, however, in its support of Robert’s philosophy until the end, when I found the worn “I’m sorry” remark as hollow.
     Puzzle is a quiet film, but make no mistake in assuming it is a “nice”, calm (boring) story about an ordinary family.  It is raw in depicting the emotional ravages that can occur within the family and among people in general when new ideas and ways of seeing the world and people are introduced at a gut level.  But it is sympathetic both to those wanting to hold onto the old and those who anticipate change.
     Praise is due for all involved in the filmmaking of Puzzle.  Director Marc Turtletaub has proven his value in producing the soulful hits Little Miss Sunshine, Loving, and Safety Not Guaranteed; Screenwriter Oran Moverman is credited with Love & Mercy, The Messenger, and I’m Not There; Dustin O’Halloran’s music uncannily syncs with the ambience of each scene; Kelly Macdonald is a tour de force in portraying her lead character, well supported by the exotic and mysterious Irrfan Kahn and the sometimes quietly, sometimes demonstrably emotive David Denman.  I absolutely loved the way all characters are presented sympathetically, avoiding the all-good/all-bad connotation.

Puzzle wrestles with the questions of free will versus determinism in a real-life family drama.

Grade:  A                                                By Donna R. Copeland

Thursday, August 2, 2018

CHRISTOPHER ROBIN

Ewan McGregor     Hayley Atwell     Bronte Carmichael     Mark Glass
Voices of:  Jim Cummings     Brad Garrett     Nick Mohammed     Peter Capaldi     Toby Jones

     A clever blending of fantasy and reality makes this film engaging and funny, while still honing in on an essential need for children and adults—that of play and of staying in touch with the childhood experience.  Grown-up Christopher Robin (sympathetically played by Ewan McGregor) is being overworked and de-valued at the Winslow Luggage Company where he is an efficiency manager.  Although he doesn’t live up to his own counsel for other people, Robin’s boss, Giles Winslow (Glass), thoughtlessly keeps urging Robin to work harder and make sacrifices for the company.
     In this sense, Robin is a pushover, only meekly protesting and eventually giving in to his boss at the expense of family time and leisure.  He is a workaholic who doesn’t even like his job very much, and he is starting to simply “go through the motions” with his wife and daughter.  Evelyn (Atwell) reasons very convincingly in wanting him to take a different perspective on life, but Christopher ignores her.  Even his daughter Madeline (Carmichael) cannot pull his heartstrings to devote some time for her.  When he does make attempts, it is clear that he is clueless and has lost any sense of what childhood is—or should be.  Tellingly, he keeps pushing Madeline to work harder at her studies so she can go to a boarding school where she herself doesn’t want to go.
     This is all the set-up for the major thrust of Christopher Robin, which is adventures for all, with little homespun truths coming now and then from Winnie the Pooh (Cummings).  The above is all “reality”, and a bit dull until Robin and Pooh happen upon each other in one of their old haunts.  Thereafter, the story takes a quick left and we become reacquainted with the characters in the Hundred Acre Wood.  In addition to Pooh, there are Eeyore (Garrett) the endearing pessimist, Tigger (Cummings) the frolicking optimist, Piglet, Owl, and the rest of the “Winnie the Pooh” beguiling gang that children everywhere have loved.
     Not all films of this type (elaboration of beloved children’s stories) succeed, but this one expertly directed by Marc Forster should be a hit with children and adults.  It has internal validity in projecting how the sincere young Christopher, who always wants to do good (as in pleasing adults) is, as an adult, taken in by a taskmaster and exploited.  It illustrates how far away he has grown from that imaginative, affectionate, spontaneous youth he once was.           
     Who helps him get back in touch and make some revisions in his life, and how, is the crux of this tale.  The impressively seamless transition from childhood to adulthood may be attributed to the screenwriters (Alex Ross Perry, Tom McCarthy, and Allison Schroeder) who have written a continuing story that could logically and developmentally follow from the original works and characters conceived of by A. A. Milne and Ernest Shepard.  It is likely that Tom McCarthy has provided much of the substance in the material because of how it resembles in tone and thoughtfulness his earlier successes (Win Win, The Station Agent, The Visitor, Spotlight, and Up).  He has a way of mixing wisdom, humor, and emotion into a story in the most delightful way.  
     Partly because of this, Christopher Robin the movie retains much of Milne’s original charm and humor with Pooh’s wise pronouncements [such as, that doing nothing sometimes achieves better results than doing something] and the other Milne characters’ humorously doing what they’re remembered best for.  

Christopher Robin has grown up, but still needs some helpful guidance from Pooh and his old friends.

Grade:  A                                    By Donna R. Copeland

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

TEEN TITANS GO! TO THE MOVIES

Voices of:  Scott Menville     Kristen Bell     Nicolas Cage     Tara Strong     Will Arnett
Khary Payton     Hynden Walch     Stan Lee     Patton Oswalt     Jimmy Kimmel


     In our narcissistic age, it’s fitting that we have more films for kids about its consequences, particularly when Hollywood has such a draw.  This animated film is about a “sidekick, a nobody” who has aspirations for greatness like the known superheroes enjoy.  Robin (Menville) is chafing about his insignificance in the superhero world, and his team’s references to his small hands only makes it worse.  (Wonder where the filmmakers got the idea that small hands has some significance in a film about hubris…)  So he begins to whip up enthusiasm among his team of Teen Titans, consisting of Raven (Strong), Cyborg (Payton), Starfire (Walch), and Beast Boy (Cipes), for making a superhero movie with them as stars.
     They proceed to Hollywood with high hopes of getting a contract, and wonder about who would be their nemesis, which all superheroes have.  Not surprisingly, one appears in the form of Slade (pronounced ‘slade-a’ to give it more oomph and voiced by Arnett). His power is in mind manipulation, and we see all kinds of manifestations of that in the story, except those times when Robin is onto him and doesn’t succumb to some of his mis-directions.  But Robin is susceptible to thinking about his own interests without regard to his team.  He keeps chanting that he wants “a movie all about me.”
     In the meantime, the Titans go to Warner Brothers and try to enlist the interest of director Jane Wilson (Bell).  [As an aside, much of this film is spoofing not only Hollywood, but superhero films in general, and this includes DC and Marvel comics.  Stan Lee of Marvel Comics has two wonderful cameos.] Wilson comes across as a caricature of director stereotypes, dismissing the Titans initially for their inconsequentiality.
     Eventually, though, the movie will get made, but at considerable cost; Robin will have to make compromises (like dispensing with his team) and learn a life lesson—one that will be to the edification of children in the audience.
     Clever references to previous superhero movies will please those knowledgeable about DC and Marvel Comics.  At one point when Robin wants to take him in, Slade reminds him that superheroes’ archenemies never go to jail—instead, their next plan gets foiled in the next movie by a superhero.  
     Teen Titans is clearly geared toward children, both in its humor (yes, farts and poops) and in its attempts to convey good principles such as thoughtfulness toward others and the pitfalls of pride. But with its running commentary on super hero figures and the comics behind them, it’s entertaining for adults as well, particularly those familiar with the genre.
     The core group responsible for the “Teen Titans Go!” TV series are at work in the movie version as well, for instance, directors Aaron Horvath and Peter Rida, production designer Dan Hipp, and musician Jared Faber.  The design, animation, and graphics match up nicely with the action, creating a unified whole.  Actors’ voices are apt for their parts, and special shout-outs go to Scott Menville as Robin and Will Arnett as Slade who are onscreen the majority of the time.

High Jinks and fanciful animations keep this production entertaining for children and adults.

Grade:  A-                                    By Donna R. Copeland

MISSION IMPOSSIBLE - FALLOUT

Tom Cruise     Henry Cavill     Ving Rhames     Simon Pegg     Rebecca Ferguson
Sean Harris     Angela Bassett     Vanessa Kirby     Michelle Monaghan     Alec Baldwin


     Apparent impossibilities is a running theme in Mission Impossible movies, and this one just about maxes out on them: Careening car chases on busy city streets, a glass and wall smashing brawl in a brilliantly lit men’s room leaving blood everywhere, reverberating near-miss gun shots (although many make their mark, of course), shifting identities (friends turn out to be foes and vice versa—who’s to trust?), multiple players with agendas of their own, complex nuclear bomb dismantlement, and literal cliff hangers make this an exciting, nail-biter of a story.
     Ethan Hunt (Cruise) is given the assignment of sabotaging a plutonium deal that is likely to end up as a nuclear weapon in the wrong hands.  He smarts at CIA head Erica Sloan’s (Bassett) last-minute instruction that one of her agents, Walker (Cavill), accompany him on the mission. Hunt gets a sample of Walker’s rashness and ineptness early on in the mission, and it takes all his patience to stomach him, especially when he seems not to have any inkling that Hunt has rescued him early on in a dive out of an airplane at high altitude.
     Never mind.  They get right to the business of identifying the parties involved in the plutonium trade, which is more complicated than they imagined.  They will encounter men with ideals to change the world order [Dr. Nils Debruuk (Kristopher Joner) and Solomon Lane (Harrison)]; British Ilsa Faust (Ferguson), perhaps of MI6 and well known to Hunt, who is mystified when she appears on the scene; and periodic reappearances of Sloan and Hunley (Baldwin).  In the process, accusations and proofs of loyalty abound.  
     Cruise is up to the role as always in his rendition of the Hunt persona and in his continuing bravery in doing as many of his own stunts as possible.  (He suffered an ankle injury during the filming.)  But the number of times he is hanging onto a ledge gets to be almost humorous.  It’s hard to see Henry Cavill (of Superman fame) play the role of thoughtless agent and possibly something worse, a bit of miscasting, since he is not always able to achieve the sinister threat of such a character.  Rhames and Pegg not only contribute fine supporting performances as Hunt’s loyal team; they finely and convincingly execute welcome comedic lines when the going gets tense.  Other supporting actors (Ferguson, Harris, Bassett, Kirby, Baldwin, and Monaghan) perform admirably in their roles, although scenes between Hunt and Monaghan’s character are unnecessary and way too saccharine.
     There are so many chases and characters to follow in this breakneck-paced action movie, the viewer can easily lose track, but the main thrusts come through, and you can count on getting the main points by the end.  Sprinkled in here and there are clever little motifs that bring chuckles (for example:  In tense moments a character will ask, “How…?”  The reply:  “I’ll figure it out.”)  At any rate, director Christopher McQuarrie (Mission Impossible:  Rogue Nation) seems to have maintained the series’ good reputation, and perhaps may even have improved on it.  

Be prepared for hair-raising ride—literal and metaphorical--in this action thriller.

Grade:  A-                                    By Donna R. Copeland

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

DON'T WORRY, HE WON'T GET FAR ON FOOT

Joaquin Phoenix     Jonah Hill     Rooney Mara     Jack Black     Beth Ditto


      I have never given a high grade to a film that was so hard to watch.  Don’t Worry is hard to watch for its realism in depicting addiction and flogging one’s way through it to some kind of resolution.  I have to admit, I had to take breaks while seeing the screener sent to me at home.  For a long while, the viewer has little sympathy for its protagonist John Callahan, beautifully and perfectly rendered by Joaquin Phoenix.  He’s an alcoholic, self-centered, entitled, and dismissive of all rules.  He will get his comeuppance, though, from a car accident after a night of heavy drinking, after which his driver Dexter (played by the inimitable Jack Black in a chameleon role) walks away unscathed, and he becomes a quadriplegic.  
     The film is about what happens after that, which is a long, steep climb.  John is still bucking against society’s rules every step of the way when somehow he stumbles into an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting.  He’s a little taken aback, but the leader that day, Donnie (Hill), captures his attention. What follows is the expected journey of an alcoholic through all the steps of that organization, to forgiveness—of course, the hardest step of all.
     Adopted at birth, John is poignant remembering three things he had learned about his mother:  She was Irish American, red-haired, a schoolteacher—and then the fourth thing:  “She didn’t want me.”  That made such an impression on him, he used it as an excuse to himself and to others for his behavior for years.  “I am an orphan”, he whines.  When he gets to AA, his claim is challenged, partly from questions he can’t answer and partly from stories that are obviously more tragic than his.
   The film is a marvel—and unique—in its depiction of how groups like Alcoholics Anonymous work, in their tedious exploration of each person’s story, confrontation by peers, and wise observations of the leaders.  I was impressed by how so much of it rang true and how helpful  the feedback is from group participants and leaders, a rarity in Hollywood movies.  It shows not only the emotional journey, but as well, problems in dealing with administrative obstacles, including beneficiaries’ trying to exploit the system and myopia of those in charge, e.g., if one is earning money from cartoons, he/she should no longer be deserving of benefits.  
     Gus Van Sant has a reputation for making good movies that reflect social order, populist opinion, and dealing with political issues (Milk, Promised Land, Elephant).  He is good at getting down to the nitty-gritty and showing the fundamental premises.  Here, he shows sensitivity again in his understanding of the psychological underpinnings of addiction and what it takes to overcome its hold.  
      Phoenix is a natural for this kind of role (quirky and resistant, but thoughtful in the end), balanced well by Jonah Hill, slimmed down and in an unusual role for him of a guru-type of figure.  I did not buy the Rooney Mara figure of a stunningly beautiful woman who gives her all to someone like John Callahan. First of all, she is portrayed (although it is not clear) as some kind of therapist, who is so attracted to a man in a wheelchair she goes all in.  If that happened for real, I’m glad in a way, but if it is “added in” to the storyline as a come-on, I’m turned off.

A mostly inspiring story about an obnoxious man who was rehabilitated by life events.

Grade:  B+                                                By Donna R. Copeland

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

MAMMA MIA! HERE WE GO AGAIN

Lily James     Amanda Seyfried     Meryl Streep     Dominic Cooper     Pierce Brosnan     Stellan Skarsgard
Christine Baranski     Colin Firth     Cher     Julie Walters     Jeremy Irvine     Andy Garcia


     I think the best things about this film are ABBA’s songs from the first Mamma Mia and Meryl Streep’s reprise at the end.  Oh, well, and yes, the local woman telling a young man where to get off after he “did a woman wrong” and then wanted to return to her arms. She is a lovable, wise character who makes you chuckle at her and cheer her on at the same time.  Although Benny Andersson, a member of ABBA, and two colleagues, Anne Dudley and Bjorn Ulvaeus (also involved in the first production), supply most of the music here, it doesn’t have the draw the earlier rendition had.  Part of the responsibility may lie with the director and co-writer, Ol Parker.
     The filmmakers have valiantly tried to recapture the moods, atmosphere, and humor of the first Mamma Mia! (2008) and even 2016's La La Land, but never quite achieve the lyrical magic of those productions.  Instead, I found it to be jarring in its disjointed cuts from one scene to the next without natural transitions; the songs appear to be inserted haphazardly, even though they’re clearly intended to wedge the viewer into an emotion of the moment.  The dialog is unnatural and even vacuous at times, such as, “Nothing is that simple.” “Everything is, when you break it down.”  Everything: really?  People fall in love instantaneously, and sometimes when they break up, the songs reflect a much deeper relationship than could possibly have occurred. 
     The story is a continuation of the first Mamma Mia!  Donna (Streep) has died, and her daughter Sophie (James, Seyfried) wants to refurbish Donna’s villa and stage a party that will honor her mother. She is still grieving her mother’s passing, and invites her three fathers (Brosnan, Skarsgard, Firth) and Donna’s closest friends (Baranski, Walters) to come to the villa on a Greek island for the special occasion.  Sophie is engaged to Sky (Cooper), whose business has stationed him in New York, leading them to the decision to suspend their engagement.  The party is all set up, but in the interim, there will be a storm that damages the villa and other distractions, namely, Sophie’s becoming involved with various suitors ([her engagement to Sky (Cooper) has been suspended.]  Somehow, even though Sophie goes on boat rides and long walks, she still manages to keep the villa intact, perhaps because of the efforts of one of her fathers, Sam (Brosnan).
     At any rate, the party does take place, old acquaintances/loves are renewed, and a surprise guest (Cher) suddenly appears, with a touching rapprochement between her and Fernando (Garcia).  In the end, Donna is duly honored, and everyone present feels gratified.  

This is a musical without the exquisite blending of fantasy, reality, and art that some of its predecessors (e.g., La La Land) have achieved.

Grade:  D+                                    By Donna R. Copeland

Thursday, July 12, 2018

SORRY TO BOTHER YOU

Lakeith Stanfield     Tessa Thompson     Armie Hammer     Terry Crews     
Danny Glover     Steven Yeun     Jermaine Fowler     Omari Harwick


     “Sorry to bother you” starts out with a telemarketer’s spiel to customers. Cassius Green (Stanfield) has to learn to stay on script and adopt a “white voice” so he will be successful and be promoted to “Power Caller.”  Cassius is starting out at the bottom, living in his uncle’s garage with his artist girlfriend Detroit (Thompson), where he is behind on his rent and driving a beat-up car given to him by the same uncle.  He has to make it at this job, not only to survive but just as much to preserve what little self esteem he has left.
     He is naïve, and you wonder how he is going to make it at all, but he gets advice and encouragement from fellow workers like Langston (Glover) who clues him into adopting a white voice, Squeeze (Yeun) who is organizing a union, his friend Salvador (Fowler), and others.  Indeed, he does well and is promoted with much fanfare.  
     But there’s a mysterious air around the Power Caller work site situated beyond double gold elevator doors, and things get increasingly bizarre, starting off with the strange woman orienting him (note that she has to punch in about 50 numbers to get the elevator to rise—an example of the many clever little comedic frills inserted by writer-director Boots Riley).  Suddenly, Cassius has a new elegant apartment and car, and he gets completely preoccupied with his job, which is making increasing demands upon him.
     This is where the movie turns really bizarre and presses on into the macabre. The head of the company, Steve Lift (Hammer), takes notice of Cassius, and invites him to his office with an offer almost impossible to refuse.  He simply has to commit for a certain period of time and agree to participate in the Worry Free company’s treatments and he will get a ginormous salary.  Worry Free has devised a way to make employees much more productive and submissive.  (The company won’t have to worry any more about the labor protests wreaking havoc in the city of Oakland at this moment.)  What helps Cassius make up his mind is what he encounters when he enters the wrong door to the men’s restroom. What he finds there is a preview of the ultimate outcome of Worry Free’s venture.
     I found the story rather ho-hum in the beginning, as I could envision what Cassius was getting himself into, recognizing a kind of hope that is more than likely to turn into disillusionment.  The reason it is so easy to spot is the apt metaphors Boots Riley uses to depict the seduction of capitalistic companies that have little regard for humankind and quality of life.  I think about all those who have bought into corporate enticements only to discover there is a price they hadn’t expected.  (I got a special kick out of Lift’s promise that the “treatment” results in a huge organ--guess which one).  Riley creates a concrete example of the transformation that corporate ascenders experience as they rise up the ladder.  Of course, there is a message here that only some of us will appreciate.
     Sorry to Bother You gives us a picture of the enticements of a kind of capitalism that is oblivious to human needs but is extremely seductive for the few who can actually reap huge benefits from it. It serves as a counterpart to Jordan Peele’s Get Out, in its references to genetic experimentation with individuals in the service of ulterior, selfish, and misguided interests.

Rescuing hope that’s on the road to disillusionment.

Grade:  B+                                    By Donna R. Copeland

LEAVE NO TRACE

Thomasin McKenzie     Ben Foster     Dale Dickey


      Indie movies at their best weave an engaging story that pulls you right along the whole way, making you question and wonder and fills your heart with nostalgia and inspiration.  That’s what Leave No Trace does.  It’s a quiet film, following a father and daughter as they live contentedly in Forest Park, a nature preserve in Portland, Oregon. They live a simple life, with him home-schooling her, foraging for their food, and sleeping under the stars or under a makeshift lean-to in bad weather.  The father has schooled the daughter in leaving no tracks so they can remain undetectable in a secluded park in the Oregon countryside.
     Of course, this idyll cannot last, and before long they are detected (gracefully, by kind-hearted officials), and a kind-hearted benefactor who seems to understand their kind of thirst for independence, gives them a house, employs the father, and the girl is enrolled in school.  This is after they have both undergone numerous evaluations that indicate that they are both smart and she has been well schooled.  
     However no one seems to take into account that the father Will (Foster) is experiencing PTSD stemming from military service, and this is the way he has adamantly chosen to deal with it.  He is a model parent to his daughter Tom—as in Thomasin—(McKenzie), and they fare very well when left alone.  But society encroaches; it is no longer possible to be truly alone in our world with a degree of connectedness that has never been seen before.  
     Even as an Indie film, Leave No Trace is unusual in its portrayal of so many people being so open and kind to the unusual strangers Will and Tom, providing them with shelter, work, education, and friendship. They are polite and appreciative, but their benefactors are especially kind and giving.  Such a thing is actually very nice to see in our divided world where most strangers are regarded with suspicion, warranted or not.  
     The filmmaker Debra Granik (Winter’s Bone) clearly has her finger on the pulse of American life, and her portrayal of the Will and Tom duo (based on the novel by Peter Rock) should be praised for its attention to PTSD and how those affected cope in different ways. Clearly, some need to pursue their own lonely path and should be free to do so.  I especially liked the way the film ends—not with everything resolved—but with a realistic picture of how these things can be worked out.  It leaves you with the tender thought that two people so well connected are not likely ever to be separated permanently.
     Obviously, I took to this film and respect the messages it conveys.  But I couldn’t keep from noticing that everyone in it is white and fits the norm for our country.  We all know the trajectory of the story would be significantly different had the main characters been another color, ethnicity, sexual orientation, etc.  But perhaps that is for another movie.  We can appreciate here the soulful representation of very real characters in life.
     Ben Foster has achieved a reputation particularly for extraordinary performances in 3:10 to Yuma and Hell or High Water, but here he’s in a very different role—a taciturn but thoughtful wounded man—which he manages just as well.  Thomasin McKenzie is known primarily for her television roles, but she establishes her talent for film features here in her character’s perceptiveness shown on her face and in her body as she struggles with the tension between her father’s outlook and her own observations of society.  Like most teenagers, she sees something she likes and has few qualms about going after it.  The uniqueness of this film lies in her emotionally rational and healthy reasons for going on her own path (as opposed to avoiding conflict) and her father’s willingness to allow her this without anger and without putting much pressure on her.

Differing perceptions about living on the edge, unseen.

Grade:  B+                                                By Donna R. Copeland

HOTEL TRANSYLVANIA 3: SUMMER VACATION

Voices of:  Mel Brooks     Adam Sandler     Selena Gomez     Andy Samberg     Kathryn Hahn
Fran Drescher     Steve Buscemi     David Spade     
Keegan-Michael Key     Chris Parnell     Molly Shannon


     For a little background information, Dracula (Sandler) is a widower with a grown-up daughter called Mavis (Gomez) who has decided they both need some R&R and more family time.  So for a surprise, she has arranged for all of them to go on a trip, without telling them it will be a cruise—which Drac would never agree to beforehand. Their party will consist of Mavis’ human husband Johnny (Samberg), and their child Dennis (Asher Blinkoff)—along with a trail of friends:  Wayne (Buscemi), Griffin (Spade), Frank (James), and others.  
     They go on a harrowing plane trip, and are dropped off in the Bermuda Triangle (a place where only the adults will sense the danger), where they board the ship, the Legacy.  (The name is something of a pun in that Drac and the Van Helsing families have been archenemies for generations, and both have an interest in continuing their legacy.)  Drac has had a lot of anxiety about the trip, and Mavis has wisely kept the cruise as a surprise. Now, it’s all she can do to convince him to board the ship for the sake of the family.
     Drac goes into a funk because he hates being on a boat.  In his despair, he has given up on having the “zing”, thinking one can only experience that once in a lifetime, and he had that with his wife. So, of course, much to his surprise, when the captain of the ship, Ericka (Gomez), appears, his heart goes thumpedy-thump, and he gets the zing.
     The thrills and chills of the story will stem from Erica’s heritage:  Her great grandfather is a Van Helsing, and he is on board the ship and counting on her to use the stowed away “instrument of destruction” to do away with Drac.  From what her ancestors have told her, Erika is already chomping away at the bit to do away with him, is delighted when she sees he is attracted to her, and begins to plot his demise.  But Van Helsing instructs her to wait until she can use the special instrument. She proceeds anyway to try to do him in, but neither she nor her great grandfather have anticipated the power of the zing.
     Sony Pictures has created an impressive production design and animation with special effects, and there is a lot of cartoon-like action throughout the film, which will please many viewers.  I thought it odd, though, that for a children’s movie, the thrust of the story would be about love, murder, and generational grudges—more adult-type of subjects.  It does end with a positive message about acceptance of differences and the unity that should exist among all living beings on earth—whether human, animal, monster, or whatever.  And this is done cleverly with music from three songs (“Good Vibrations”, Don’t Worry; Be Happy”, and “Hey Macarena”).  Everyone should have an opportunity to experience the zing.

Summer vacation can mean many things, including one with monsters aboard a cruise ship.

Grade:  C                                    By Donna R. Copeland

SKYSCRAPER

Dwayne Johnson     Neve Campbell     Chin Han     Pablo Schreiber     Roland Moller     Noah Taylor


     Stay away if you have vertigo; The Pearl Hotel is 3,000 feet high.  A large pearl (curiously resembling a baseball) rests delicately at the very top. When the architect/owner Zhao Long Ji (Han) takes his new building security expert (Johnson) on a tour, they pass through architecturally stunning halls, some with optical illusions, such as a room with dozens of reflecting mirrors, and end up on what appears to be the top of the city of Hong Kong—a “bit of heaven”, the owner comments.  They are walking on what appears to be a glass pane that covers the entire city.  It’s digital within a digital movie.
     The story is set up cleverly with scenes from 10 years earlier in Minnesota when Will Sawyer (Johnson) is with the FBI, which gives us the antecedents to the events that are about to occur.  Now, Will is excited and a bit nervous about interviewing for the job at the hotel.  After leaving the FBI, he has done well as a security analyst, and Zhao has asked him to inspect and review the systems he has had installed.
     Unbeknownst to either of them, but soon to appear, are dangerous, ruthless saboteurs who will do their best to wreak havoc on the building, the people inside, and especially Zhao.  Eventually, of course, Sawyer will be drawn in and will entertain you with his harrowing feats and brushes with death by falling or burning or gunfire, all to try to rescue his wife and two children trapped in the burning hotel. It’s Dwayne in all his considerable glory.
     To its credit, the film portrays the family as not only brave and heroic, but clever and wily in standing up to the bad guys.  Neve Campbell as Sarah, the mother, is given the opportunity to use her intelligence as a surgeon and as a shrewd woman to solve puzzles, even electronic ones.  The two children might be quaking, but they too are given actions that reflect bravery and quick thinking.  All this is in the midst of encountering an evil man (or woman) at every turn.  A cameo role for Hannah Quinlivan as Xia shows her talents for reflecting a cold, cunning Asian woman, robotic-like in fulfilling her assigned duties.  
     Skyscraper delivers on its promise of thrills and chills, impressive special effects, and Dwayne Johnson’s stunt capabilities. His long-time stunt man double is his cousin Tanoi Reed, but Johnson is proud to say that he performed one amazing leap on his own in Skyscraper.  (You’ll recognize it when you see it.)  But the movie is unremarkable in forging anything new in the genre, and it’s very clear how everything is going to turn out in the end.  
     Rawson Marshall Thurber, the writer and director, manages well a formulaic rendition of thrillers that are like a dime-a-dozen nowadays, complete with sequels in the offing.  (The dime-a-dozen is clearly an ironic metaphor for films that cost millions of dollars.)  We still have the ominous threat of Zhao Long Ji’s archenemy still lurking in the background. 
<”pant!  pant!”>  I can hardly wait.  
     I think the movie achieves what it set out to do.

Dizzying heights are reached in this thrilling tale, although well-grounded viewers may not be transported.

Grade:  C                                    By Donna R. Copeland


Thursday, July 5, 2018

ANT-MAN AND THE WASP

Paul Rudd     Evangeline Lilly     Michael Pena     Walton Goggins     Bobby Cannavale    Michael Douglas
Judy Greer     Michelle Pfeiffer    Laurence Fishburne     Randall Park     Hannah John-Kamen     Abby Ryder Fortson
     Paul Rudd is one of my favorite actors, so I was already inclined to like this Marvel Comics film, and I wasn’t disappointed—especially when he as Scott Lang is playing a fantasy game at home with his daughter Cassie (Fortson). (He is on home arrest following his mistakes in Captain Marvel: Civil War). Right off the bat, though, we get a little surprise, which sets up the rest of the story nicely.  Overall, it’s appealing in its parent-child exchanges, its pairing up emotional connections with scientific inquiry, its attention to the needs of different characters, its portrayal of characters who change across time and bridge the gap between them and their competitors, and its insertion of humor that fits in seamlessly with the action (a somewhat rare feature in action films).  The humor stems from the well-developed characters and their predictable tendencies, rather than being tacked on by a jokemeister.
     The film follows up on its two previous stories about Ant-Man, Ant-Man(2015) and Captain Marvel:  Civil War(2016). In his plea deal with the FBI, Scott has agreed to be on house arrest with an ankle bracelet and have no contact with Dr. Hank Pym (Douglas), the designer of suits that can shrink/grow a person to tiny or huge personifications, or to Hank’s daughter, Hope (Lilly), who as Wasp collaborated in the previous adventures.  Dr. Pym and Hope have suffered similar consequences.  They only agree to collaborate with Hank at this point because he may have something essential they are seeking.
     The intrigue in this story involves this skittish relationship between Scott and the Pyms; Scott and the FBI monitors led by Jimmy Woo (Park)—although, sadly, the FBI does not come off looking very good in this story; the bad guys who want to steal Hank Pym’s technology, led by Sonny Burch (Goggins); and Ava (John-Kamen), a “ghost” character who is also after the technology. Additionally, we see an old rivalry surface between Dr. Pym and his previous colleague, Dr. Bill Foster (Fishburne).  
          Part of the fun is listening to the scientist characters (the Pyms and Foster) reel off technical jargon that we can only imagine their meaning, such as “the quantum realm”, molecular disequilibrium”, and “wasteland beyond the quantum void.”  These are probably defined in the Marvel fiction—and they may be currently accepted terminology—but this reviewer simply enjoyed the hints about their meaning, and Scott’s impatience in trying to understand them: “Do you really just put the word quantum ahead of everything?”
       Outstanding to me in Peyton Reed’s production are the colorful, descriptive sets and special effects, the music (Christophe Beck), and the actors.  Oh, the actors!  Rudd, Douglas, and Fishburne perform at their usual fine level, and it’s refreshing to see less well-known actors deliver.  The Wasp played by Evangeline Lilly (Ant-Manand Hobbitmovies) shows a range of emotions and good chemistry with Rudd. Walton Goggins is appropriately cunning and sly as a thief.  Abby Ryder Fortson is delightful as Scott’s child Cassie.  And stand outs are Hannah John-Kamen (Game of Thrones,Ready Player One) in her mysteriousness and physical abilities and Michael Pena as Scott’s hilarious current business partner and wannabe hero.

This fast-paced entertaining story should keep fans of Marvel superheroes happily engaged.

Grade:  A                                    By Donna R. Copeland

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

THE FIRST PURGE

Y’lan Noel     Lex Scott Davis     Marisa Tomei     Joivan Wade     Patch Darragh


       How a whole franchise could be built on a false premise is more than a mystery to me; it’s exasperating.  The premise is that stored up anger can be released during sanctioned violence—and it will be effective within a 12-hour time period.  Oh, sure!  
     Apparently, a psychologist, Dr. Updale (Tomei), has dreamed up this “experiment” (which, incidentally, would not be approved by any review board in the country, a requirement for all research protocols) as a way to demonstrate that such an opportunity would lower the crime rate to less than 1% for the rest of the year.  The filmmakers apparently think this is possible, because, initially, when the purge period starts, most people are celebrating at “purge parties.”  
     But that would make this boring, so James DeMonaco (writer and producer in this version and director of the previous three) inserts dirty tricks by having the “chief of staff”, Updale’s supervisor, stack the deck.  Arlo Sabian (Darragh) was hoping the experiment would result in people in poor neighborhoods massacring themselves. He is a member of NFFA (New Founding Fathers of America), which is funding the research that, if successful in their minds, will reduce the number of people needing Federal assistance. When that does not happen, he sends in his recruits to increase the violence, which, of course, will give him points in the NFFA.  
     What are we to make of this film?  On the one hand, it reflects the strong sense of community among people in poor neighborhoods, their solidarity, intelligence, and awareness, and the dual role gangsters have (partly protective, partly exploitive) in their lives.  On the other hand, it plays into fears about “psychology”, “research”, and government that can unjustifiably undermine trust in those areas.  That is the main problem I have with this film.
     The First Purge gets higher marks from me in its social commentary on the solidarity of minority communities, the manipulations of some in power who can swing the tide against them for selfish reasons, and the exquisite bind experienced by drug dealers in their influence for good and ill in their communities (also seen in Moonlight, last year’s Oscar winner).  In First Purge, Staten Island kingpin Dimitri (expertly rendered by Y’lan Noel) is truly a hero, managing to fight off dozens of killers to rescue those closest to him, one of whom is his sweetheart Nya (Davis), who intrigues us with her fierceness in protecting her own.  She has a younger brother Isaiah (deftly played by Wade) briefly seduced into participating in the purge at first.
     This film does not differ enough from its predecessors to continue as a franchise.

A false premise acted out enough already for us to have gotten the message.

Grade:  C-                                    By Donna R. Copeland

Thursday, June 28, 2018

SICARIO: DAY OF THE SOLDADO

Benecio Del Toro     Josh Brolin     Isabela Moner     Jeffrey Donovan    Catherine Keener
Elijah Rodriguez     Manuel Garcia     Matthew Modine     Bruno Bichir


     Taylor Sheridan is a writer whose fascination with the western ethos has prompted him to write screenplays highlighting the cultural (and cross-cultural) tugs and binds for people living in the spirit of the American West (Sicario, Hell or High Water, Wind River).  And now comes Sicario:  Day of the Soldado, where he picks up on the Mexican-American border and cartel issues seen in the first Sicario.  Our familiar protagonists, Alejandro (Del Toro) and Matt Graver (Brolin) are charged with pitting two Mexican cartels against each other to stem the tide of human trafficking to the U.S., which has now become the most valuable commodity for them.  
     The immediate plan is to kidnap the daughter of the Reyes cartel “king”, Isabel (Moner), and use her as leverage with the Matamoros cartel.  Things don’t go as planned, of course, and when Isabel escapes amidst gunfire and strikes out on her own, Alejandro goes after her, telling Matt to meet him at the border.  It will not be an easy task.  In the interim will be an encounter with a deaf-mute (fortunately, Alejandro knows sign language), identification of Alejandro and his charge by a sharp young trafficker at the border (Rodriguez), and no communication with the American agents.
     The film purposefully leaves us hanging in its last scenes, and sets us up for the inevitable sequel, which we all get tired of, but which will nevertheless be foisted upon us anyway.  Word on the street is that Emily Blunt will be featured in the third edition, but I hope that Sheridan will figure out how to write a role for her that will show strength and resourcefulness without the stereotypical “female” characteristics, which he seems to be stuck on.  
     One of the things that bothered me most in this film was to see Isabel portrayed in the beginning as a bully-female, beating up a fellow student and showing a narcissistic kind of entitlement when confronted by her school principal.  This scene kept me from sympathizing with her when she got kidnapped.  Yes, a privileged child might behave that way, but how much more inspiring and creative it would be to show her evolving as experience and time transpire.  The film shows a bit of this when she takes up for her captor at one point, but in this case, like with many of Sheridan’s female characters, it’s not a full-blown effect. It would have been better to give her more charisma and feistiness, making her someone the audience could delight in.
     Another underwritten character is Cynthia Foards (Keener), the supervisor of Graver.  She seems to follow her upper-level consultants mindlessly, without any creativity or assertiveness.
     Del Toro and Brolin play their roles as written with expert finesse, being the talented actors they are, but Del Toro can show much more frightening intimidation in his character and Brolin much more calculating bravado than they are given a chance to show here.  
      This is a good film, but seems to be another one in which the filmmakers are so focused on sequels they slight the film they are making.

Border patrol intrigue with twists.

Grade:  B                                                By Donna R. Copeland