Friday, November 23, 2018

EL ANGEL

Lorenzo Ferro     Chino Darin     Daniel Fanego     Peter Lanzani


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

About an angel with blond curls, but no halo.

Grade:  C+                                    By Donna R. Copeland

Thursday, November 22, 2018

MARIA BY CALLAS


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

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

Grade:  B                                    By Donna R. Copeland


Wednesday, November 21, 2018

AT ETERNITY'S GATE

Willem Dafoe     Rupert Friend     Oscar Isaac     Mathieu Amalric     Madds Mikkelsen


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

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

Grade:  B+                                    By Donna R. Copeland

THE BALLAD OF BUSTER SCRUGGS

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


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

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

Grade:  B                                    By Donna R. Copeland

CREED II

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


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

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

Grade:  C+                      By Donna R. Copeland

Thursday, November 15, 2018

FANTASTIC BEASTS: THE CRIMES OF GRINDELWALD

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


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

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

Grade:  C+                                    By Donna R. Copeland

WILDLIFE

Jake Gyllenhaal     Carey Mulligan     Ed Oxenbould     Bill Camp


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

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

Grade:  B+                                    By Donna R. Copeland 

WIDOWS

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


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

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

Grade:  A                                                  By Donna R. Copeland

GREEN BOOK

Viggo Mortensen     Mahershala Ali     Linda Cardellini     Don Stark     Sebastian Maniscalco


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

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

Grade:  A                                    By Donna R. Copeland

Friday, November 9, 2018

A PRIVATE WAR

Rosamund Pike     Jamie Dornan     Tom Hollander     Stanley Tucci


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

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

Grade:  C+                                     By Donna R. Copeland

ROMA

Yalitza Aparicio     Nancy Garcia Garcia     Marina de Tavira     Diego Cortina Autrey    Marco Graf


     Roma can be seen as a tribute to Alfonso Cuaron’s nanny/housekeeper when he was growing up.  He has said it is partly autobiographical, and the character Cleo (Aparicio) is truly someone to admire in her faithfulness, caring concern, diligence, and honesty.  Cleo works for a middle class family in a household with four children and a grandmother in a district of Mexico City called Roma in the 1970’s.  The father is a physician always on the run, showing little love or even attention to his wife or his children. Family members are used to having someone waiting on them, so Cleo’s time—all the time—is picking up after them, doing the laundry, bringing them treats, and helping Adela (Garcia), the cook.  The children clearly love her and show their appreciation for what she does.  The mother also seems to consider her part of the family—most of the time—seeing she gets medical care and bringing her along on vacations.
     Cuaron presents us with a cross-sectional picture of the family and the context in which they live during a year when the Mexican government is in conflict with student protestors and guerillas.  Although these events are going on around the family (military bands marching down their street, police/student fighting in the streets outside the hospital), they are mostly untouched, partly because they are going through their own dramas at home, like fire, earthquake, marital conflict, pregnancy outside marriage, car accidents, and near drowning.  The family is seen to be rolling with the punches and coping with whatever life throws at them.
     And I suppose that is the point of the story, that common ordinary people face traumatic events and manage to get through them despite the odds.  In the end, perhaps it poses the question as to whether governments do as well as their citizens. 
     Yalitza Aparicio has become a sensation since the film first debuted.  It was difficult for Cuaron to find the right actress after talking extensively with his childhood nanny, Libo, and searching all over Mexico, finally in small towns.  When Aparicio first appeared for an interview, her family was suspicious that it might be human trafficking.  But they allowed Yalitza, a schoolteacher, to proceed, and she has been a sensation ever since the film first previewed.  
     Cuaron can be proud of his own career, winning awards for Gravity, Children of Men, and Y Tu Mama Tambien, but Roma is his baby, both in its autobiographical aspects and because he has so many roles in producing the film:  writer, director, producer, cinematographer, and editor.  The skillful craft employed in making it is another of its distinctions.  It is flawless in many aspects and shows what dilemmas and paradoxes “maids”/”nannies” encountered at the time, but other films have also featured this, such as La Nana (Sebastian Silva, 2009), which shows the unique bond that can form between the employer's family and the maid/nanny.  

A heartwarming drama about a family in Mexico City in the 1970’s related eloquently within a black and white frame.

Grade:  B                                                By Donna R. Copeland

RALPH BREAKS THE INTERNET

Voices of:  John C. Reilly     Sarah Silverman     Gal Gadot     Jack McBrayer
Jane Lynch     Alan Tudyk     Tariji P. Henson     Alfred Molina


     If you love animation and you don’t mind the shameless plugging of Disney, you are likely to enjoy this film.  Ralph (Reilly) and Vanellope (Silverman) remain fast friends, and have discussions about their attitudes toward their lives, such as that Ralph is completely happy and Vanellope finds day-to-day a little boring.  Racing is easy peasy (she has only three tracks now), although she still enjoys it.  After a bit of thought, Ralph is sure he can make her life more exciting by building a new track for her.  He does, and although it’s a bit dangerous, Vanellope is thrilled.  
     When they go into the Litwik Arcade, they discover that a player of Sugar Crush has broken the steering wheel trying to keep up with Vanellope’s rough ride. Now there’s a crisis, because a) a new one costs more than the game earns in a year; and b) the company has gone out of business so there’s no way to order a new part.  But wait!  Someone has heard of eBay (a name Ralph has trouble remembering, wanting to call it “eBoy”), and has found a new steering wheel for sale.   Neither of them is familiar with the internet, which has just gotten connected in the arcade, so the two sneak past the yellow ribbons barring entry and come upon the wondrous site of the internet.
     This is even glorious for the viewer to behold.  Disney has created a physical representation of the internet that captures the color and endless activities it contains, even including pop-up ads, pop-up blockers, and spam (owned by the Spamley family). (All of which is especially appreciated by adult viewers.)  Ralph and Vanellope find eBay without much trouble, and see the coveted steering wheel on auction.  Since they’ve never attended an auction, though, the two will learn a hard lesson from their mistakes here.  And learning that lesson will take them into adventures and eventually a test of their close friendship.
     In their efforts to earn enough money to buy the steering wheel, Vanellope is introduced to Shank (Gadot) and her thrilling Slaughter Race.  Ralph is introduced to internet social media a la Instagram, BuzzFeed, Tumblr, and Twitter, and becomes a hit guided by Yesss (Henson) of BuzzFeed.  By posting entertaining videos of himself doing all kinds of bizarre things (the more bizarre the better), he starts earning hearts that can be cashed in.  
     As he begins earning enough money to get the steering wheel, Vanellope has gotten involved in Slaughter Race, and making friends with Shank.  In agonizing scenes thereafter, Ralph and Vanellope will learn about internet viruses that spread from “insecurities” (double entendre here) and shut down games.
     A lot more will happen before they can join each other and even talk about their friendship.  This conversation has the most substance of any sequence in the film.

An entertaining film about the internet with a clever representation, spiked with prominent Disney product placement. 

Grade:  B                                    By Donna R. Copeland

Thursday, November 8, 2018

AGAVE: THE SPIRIT OF A NATION


     This is a documentary about the production of a spirit that captures the soul of a nation and inspires so many far beyond the borders of Mexico.  Directed by Nick Kovacic and Matthew Riggieri, it traces the distillation of the agave plant back 6,000 years in Mexico, predating the Spanish invasion. The Aztecs regarded it as sacred, and a means of communication with the gods.  In the film, spokespersons from three families involved in the production of tequila and mezcal express their passion for distilling the spirits, demonstrate some of the processes involved, and show how these are small family operations that continue to flourish.  This is despite issues such as the length of time it takes for an agave to mature and the fact that it’s difficult to interest younger people in the backbreaking work it requires.
     Distillers from Jalisco (Carlos Camarena) and Oaxaca (Graciela Angeles Carreno and Aguilino Garcia Lopez) show their operations and talk eloquently about the importance of protecting the land against overuse and lack of biodiversity, climate change, and people involved remaining loyal to their roots and traditions.  Camarena hopes that they don’t make the same mistake of full-scale industrialization that tequila producers have made; he sees a need to maintain a proper balance between heritage and industrialization.  In that vein, he brought back home two of his sons who had gone to the U.S. to work, convincing them they’d have a better life working in the family’s mezcal business.  They heeded his advice, and now everyone in the family works together, even the youngest son, still school aged.
     Agave:  The Spirit of a Nation would be an excellent way for someone unfamiliar with fine tequilas and mezcals to hear about its fascinating story and whet their taste buds to try some.  For those already convinced of their tantalizing flavors it will be fascinating to hear about their production techniques, and of their endless variety of tastes.

An engaging and informative account of what makes agave spirits special.

Grade:  A                                                By Donna R. Copeland

THE GRINCH

Voices of:  Benedict Cumberbatch     Cameron Seely     Rashida Jones     Tristan O’Hare
Angela Lansbury     Kenan Thompson     Pharrell Williams


     This production of the well-known story pleased the audience I was with, and there were lots of audible reactions from the kids, with applause at the end.  I think it might be a hit at Christmas-time.  The colorful animations, sets, and CGI effects; the Christmas messages that put presents and material things into perspective; and liberal doses of humor and good cheer make it the kind of film that appeals to children and their parents. Noteworthy for our times is its message about forgiveness of those who do wrong.  Although I never saw it, there was a 1967 version of the story (How the Grinch Stole Christmas) that was a huge success, which makes me question once again why remakes are made of already successful movies.   Has the technology progressed so much since 1967 that a new version is called for?
     At any rate, the expressive voices of the actors contribute to the overall quality of this version of The Grinch.  Although I had difficulty “placing” Cumberbatch’s Grinch, he did very well as usual, covering a range of emotions from a grouchy “Bah, Humbug!” to the lost, lonely boy of young Grinch, to his grudgingly being brought to heel about the whole Christmas thing.  This version of The Grinch accounts for his attitude based on his history.  Cameron Seely’s Cindy Lou Who is a stand out performance that makes us love and appreciate her spunkiness, caring, and leadership.  Bringing his comedic talent to bear, Kenan Thompson perfectly captures Bricklebaum, who sees/hears/speaks no evil, always putting a positive spin even on Grinch at his worst.  Finally, Pharrel Williams’ narration comes in at just the right times, with a clear voice to move the story along.
     Congratulations to screenwriters Michael LeSieur and Tommy Swerdlow for preserving the wholesome messages of the Seuss book, and my own special appreciation for their refraining from the usually obligatory fart and poop jokes in most movies for children.  It could be I missed something, but I think they avoided references to such things completely.  The music of Danny Elfman and the art direction of Colin Stimson further embellish the qualities above.  Directors Yarrow Cheney and Scott Mosier can be proud of the team they assembled and their leadership in making the movie sing (actually and metaphorically).  
     I don’t know whether kids will pick up on this or not, but it seems like they might ask where the real Santa was all this time. The Whos wake up on Christmas morning to find their holiday decorations trashed and their gifts missing. Where was the real Santa? Of course, the film is for those old enough to know that it’s the parents who bring the gifts to the house. Maybe small children who still believe in Santa shouldn’t see the film.  Parents, be warned.

Can the Grinch steal Christmas from Whoville?

Grade:  B                                    By Donna R. Copeland

Wednesday, November 7, 2018

BOY ERASED

Lucas Hedges     Nicole Kidman     Russell Crowe     Joel Edgerton


     Joel Edgerton is someone in the film world to pay attention to.  The Australian is well known to Americans for his acting in LovingThe Great Gatsby, and Black Mass, and as well for his writing/directing/producing talent in The Gift.  Now, he comes out with an award-worthy production informing us about conversion therapy, based on a memoir by Garrard Conley about his real-life experience.  Edgerton impresses us with his talent for telling a story with elements of experience and perspective from multiple points of view.  By the end of this movie, we have a real sense of the individual, family, religious community, and programmatic aims and aspirations of the participants.
     Lucas Hedges as Jared Eamons lives up to his promise as an actor who can play complex characters with subtlety and poignancy.  Here, he is a budding college student who is curious about the world, is compassionate and sincere, loves his parents, and wants to please them.  You see him naively trying to follow the script written for him in love, marriage, and career, primarily by his father, a pastor, and secondarily by his mother who goes along with her husband most of the time.  The beauty of the film is in its focus on Jared’s discoveries and transitions he must make on his own journey.  
     Boy Erased does just as well in depicting what a program in conversion therapy involves, which, to me, is essentially a brainwashing process.  Participants are coerced into revealing their innermost secrets and actions, which are labeled as sins, and then they are shamed and manipulated to behave in ways their “trainers” envision is “right.”  
     Nicole Kidman and Russell Crowe as Jared’s parents exquisitely capture the essence of shock and anguish so many sincere, loving families undergo when they’re not prepared for the news and have been taught that homosexuality is vile and a sin.  These parents, like so many others, are not prepared for the paradox they must face: the child they know and love does not sync with their fundamental beliefs of what is good and honorable.
     Of course, Edgerton nails Victor Sykes, the head of the conversion program—part suave salesman, part corporate chief, and part pseudo-therapist—primarily interested in his investment.  He gives out clues about himself that are born out over time, another example of Edgerton’s skill.
     Music by the team Danny Bansi and Saunder Jurriaans plays a significant role in enhancing the dramatic ups and downs of this important film that is difficult to watch at times.  But sticking with it pays off.

A look at conversion therapy and a family’s experience of it.

Grade:  A                                              By Donna R. Copeland


Thursday, November 1, 2018

THE NUTCRACKER AND THE FOUR REALMS

Keira Knightley    Mackenzie Foy    Morgan Freeman    Helen Mirren
Misty Copeland     Matthew MacFadyen     Jayden Fowora-Knight


     The Nutcracker and the Four Realms is just as enchanting as it should be, and involves a twist.  In this case, the traditional hero’s journey is undertaken by a girl named Clara, the girl in Tchaikovsky’s popular “Nutcracker” ballet.  The script is based on E. T. A. Hoffman’s 1816 story (“The Nutcracker and the Mouse King”), in which the young girl Clara has a very special Christmas.
     The film opens with the Stahlbaum family preparing to go to the grandfather’s for their annual Christmas party.  The mother, Maria, has died, but has left presents for each of the three children.  Mr. Stahlbaum (MacFadyen) is clearly grieving, but is trying to make the best of it.  Louise and Fritz are thrilled with their gifts, but Clara (Foy) is puzzled by hers.  It’s some kind of egg, and as pretty as it is, Clara, a very smart inventive girl like her mother, sees that it requires a key, which she doesn’t have.  Enigmatically, there is a note from her mother, noting, “Everything you need is inside.”  Then Clara brightens; her grandfather very likely made it and gave it to her mother.  He should have the key.  Now, the socially shy girl is excited about going to the party.
     It’s after that the adventures start.  First, when Clara runs to her grandfather (Freeman) looking for the key, she solves a problem for him and presents him with hers.  He lets her know that she must search, saying, “Some locks are harder to pick than others.”  That will be an understatement!  As she is wont to do, Clara begins wandering around, and comes upon a whole new world, snowy and beautiful, and a certain tree that is lit up like no other.  She spies a key, but then…pesky mouse!
     As she continues her journey through this strange world, she comes upon Phillip (Fowora-Knight), a guard who warns her about going to the fourth world, which is very dangerous.  She’s still curious, and wants to forge on, and the guard is skeptical, but goes with her, more willingly when he discerns that she is a princess.  She knows nothing about that, but along the way, they meet the heads of the three realms:  Lands of Snowflakes, Flowers, and Sweets, and are entertained with a ballet that explains the realms, the fourth being one that belongs to Mother Ginger (Mirren) who has mice attending her and a reputation for being fearsome.
     A ballet is performed to tell the story of the four realms, with New York City American Ballet Theater's Misty Copeland making her debut in a movie as the lead dancer.  She was able to bring in the ABT choreographer, Liam Scarlett, and Director Lasse Hallstrom welcomed their input into which dances from the traditional Tchaikovsky Nutcracker Ballet to include and supplement them with more contemporary choreography.
     The bulk of the story is told by the Sugarplum Fairy (Knightley), from the Land of Sweets.  Whereupon, Clara—who is feeling more and more like a princess and even a queen—decides it is her duty to solve a mystery and do what she can to unite the four realms.  It’s exciting to see Clara come into her own, figuring out what is going on in the four realms, showing bravery in overcoming obstacles and betrayals, and achieving her goal and reuniting with her family as a changed person.
     Disney is often criticized for its shallowness in productions, but I think their story here should inspire young girls while it entertains with enough intrigue, captivating graphics and special effects to please its audience.

An inspiring story with a superb model for young girls.

Grade:  A                                        By Donna R. Copeland