Thursday, September 13, 2018

WHITE BOY RICK

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

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

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

Grade:  C                                By Donna R. Copeland


MANDY

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


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

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

Grade:  B-                                    By Donna R. Copeland

A SIMPLE FAVOR

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


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

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

Grade:  B+                                    By Donna R. Copeland

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

THE WIFE

Glenn Close     Jonathan Pryce     Christian Slater     Max Irons     Elizabeth McGovern


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

A family story outside the norm for “housewives.”

Grade:  A                                    By Donna R. Copeland


Thursday, September 6, 2018

THE NUN

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


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

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

Grade:  C                                    By Donna R. Copeland

MADELINE'S MADELINE

Helena Howard     Miranda July     Molly Parker


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

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

Grade:  D                                    By Donna R. Copeland

PEPPERMINT

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


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

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

Grade:  C+                                    By Donna R. Copeland