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