Wednesday, December 12, 2018

IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK

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


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

A very successful film in eliciting your interest and outrage.

Grade:  A                                    By Donna R. Copeland

Saturday, December 8, 2018

BEN IS BACK

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


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

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

Grade:  B+                                    By Donna R. Copeland

VOX LUX

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


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

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

Grade:  A-                                    By Donna R. Copeland

Thursday, December 6, 2018

MOWGLI: LEGEND OF THE JUNGLE

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


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

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

Grade:  C                                    By Donna R. Copeland

THE FAVOURITE

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


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

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

Grade:  B                                    By Donna R. Copeland