Thursday, October 17, 2019

THE ILLEGAL

Suraj Sharma     Schweta Tripathi     Iqbal Theba     Jay Ali     Hannah Masi


     Immigration and legal status of immigrants is a sensitive issue in the U.S. nowadays, and this film illustrates the extraordinary trials such people may have to go through in the application process—and even then it’s not a certainty; multiple snags can occur and the whole plan may fall through anywhere along the way.  
     This is a story from a young Indian’s point of view.  Filmmaking has always been what gives Hassan’s life meaning. When he finally gets accepted at an American university in film, he manages to get loans, and arrives full of hope with the expectation of staying with his uncle’s family.  On his first night in their home, however, he overhears a conversation that informs him of the uncle’s duplicity; the family doesn’t really have room for him.  
     Hassan (Sharma) is never one to impose in any way, so he sets out the next morning to make other arrangements, and at the end of an exhausting day, slumps down on a street bench with all his luggage, fighting disillusionment.  An astute, empathic waiter at an Indian restaurant sees him there and immediately surmises the story.  Having been in a similar predicament years earlier, Babaji (Theba) invites him in, gives him a meal, and serves as a constant, benevolent father figure from then on.  (The kindness of strangers!)
     But Babaji has his own burdens, and Hassan will have to figure out and solve any number of practical problems that will arise.  He’s a quick learner, hard working, and honest, but through no fault of his own (except maybe a little), difficulties crop up like weeds in a garden.  On the first day of classes, he is told to divest himself of a job, a girlfriend, anything that will stand in the way of the 24-7 that a degree in film will require.  Of course, he has to have a job in order to survive, and he will eventually meet a woman (Masi) who seems like someone of his dreams.  These are only some of the obstacles that Hassan will have to overcome, either by solving or compromising, along with stresses occurring at home that he can do nothing about.
     Director Danish Renzu and his co-writers (Tara Tucker, et al.) present an eloquent picture of the practical and emotional demands made upon someone like Hassan. It’s entertaining, moving, suspenseful, and with characters viewers will come to care for and appreciate. Eric Neveux’s music enhances the story in all its wanderings and variable situations.
     Suraj Sharma who plays Hassan made a big splash (pun intended) in his debut as Pi in Ang Lee’s Life of Pi (2012).  It’s well known by now that he got the part among 6,000 auditioning, and only because his brother talked him into accompanying him to the try-outs; he went simply on a lark.    Since then Sharma has been seen in a number of movies and television series, including “Homeland” and “God Friended Me.”  He’s a fine actor, who has a chance to show his range in Illegal, from na├»vete to moral outrage, to young love, and all of the personableness in between.  
     A resounding statement in the film suggests its essence:  “Hope deferred makes the heart sick.  It can even kill a man.”  We see the roller coaster ride Hassan takes, admire his fortitude, and realize the film has a hard lesson—not only for those with the hope of immigration to the U.S.—but just as much for those of us already here, living our comfortable lives.

An entertaining and heartfelt story about someone wanting to find the American dream, and the reality of his search.

Grade:  A                                    By Donna R. Copeland

MALEFICENT: MISTRESS OF EVIL

Angelina Jolie     Elle Fanning     Michelle Pfeiffer     Harris Dickinson    Chiwetel Ejiofor
Lesley Manville     Imelda Staunton     Juno Temple     Sam Riley


     Fairy tale land—one never knows what to expect as to what will come up.  In this version following on the previous Maleficent (2014) (both starring by Angelina Jolie in the title role), her goddaughter Aurora (Fanning) is grown up and falling in love with Prince Philip (Dickinson).  As expected, he has fallen in love with the son of the King and Queen of Ulstead, a human tribe with a history of conflict with the Moors, Maleficent’s land of the fairies.  An awkward dinner takes place initiated by Philip’s mother, Queen Ingrith.
     Maleficent is reluctant to go, but for the sake of Aurora, she agrees, and they all come together; but tensions abound, as happens when two very different cultures eat together.  Major conflicts ensue, with misunderstandings and subterfuge aplenty, and suddenly Maleficent disappears.  Where she goes propels the story forward and gives us insight into her origins and an explanation for what is to appear in the rest of the film.
     As before, Jolie embodies her character in all its dimensions and power, and Fanning provides balance in her tenderness and rationality.  Although she is a good actress, Michelle Pfeiffer as Queen Ingrith seems miscast in that she simply doesn’t come across strongly enough with the qualities called for by her character.  I can’t say any more so as not to spoil the plot.  Harris Dickinson as Prince Philip didn’t wow me as someone heroic, but I assume that is a function of the script, and the same goes for Robert Lindsay as King John.  Ed Skrein as Borra (one of Maleficent’s newly discovered tribe) is the only male who is a counterpart to Jolie’s and Pfeiffer’s female characters in strength.
     To me, the problems arising during this tale are related primarily to the unsuccessful attempt to insert actions that are clearly contemporary into a fairy tale. One example is Aurora coaching her mother on social manners.  Now, sophisticated Maleficent has been around the whole world and is familiar with such things as social graces, so having it seem as if she is being coached on what to do at a dinner party seems laughable.  I had the same impression when Aurora’s simple “woodsy” dress at one point is magically changed by Maleficent to one that looks like a contemporary Neiman Marcus creation.  Just as in the earlier film, the viewer is yanked back and forth between the fairy world and our reality-based one.
     As before in the 2014 version, the opening scenes in this sequel are so dark it’s impossible to know what is going on.  There is a battle, but who is who cannot be distinguished.  I still don’t know who the warring parties are.
     Finally, there is a disconnect between the ending of the earlier film and the beginning of this one in which Maleficent seems to have reverted to her previous maliciousness.  No explanation is given for this, or perhaps the viewers are just being led down a garden path. (More jerking around.)
     This second Maleficent doesn’t measure up to the first one, which is too bad, since there was an opportunity here to tell a story like a fairy tale that speaks to contemporary concerns (e.g., war vs. peace). But the way war and peace are dealt with here is no different from…how many movies and actual events?
     In the end, it’s not clear whom this film was made for other than the pockets of those invested in it monetarily.  Much of the story as presented will go over the heads of most children; and it is likely to be simplistic (meaningless?) to many adults.

If you love a good fairy tale, stay away from this one.

Grade:  D                                    By Donna R. Copeland


PAIN AND GLORY

Antonio Banderas     Asier Etxeandia     Leonardo Sharaglia     Nora Navas     Penelope Cruz     Asier Flores

     Pedro Almodovar’s account of his early years and a low period in middle age when he was suffering with a host of bodily complaints, depression, and anxiety is a soul-baring, intimate look at his life.  Interestingly, he sets aside the years when he was becoming and had achieved fame as a world-renowned filmmaker, although the main character, Salvador Mallo, is portrayed as just such a person.  But except for giving us brief pictures of Salvador’s childhood, this story focuses on an aging man in the midst of an existential crisis marked by physical ailments and ennui.
     I love the way the movie opens with the young Salvador (played by the enchanting Asier Flores) and a group of boys being asked by the choir director at church to demonstrate their potential for singing.  His pitch is perfect, demonstrating promise, at least in singing.  But the child goes on from there in mastering his studies and earning a scholarship at seminary. (Make no mistake, though; he definitely does not want to become a priest!)
     The film jumps back and forth between Salvador’s young life [poor, encouraged by his mother (Penelope Cruz, who always livens up the scenes she’s in] and much later on when he is at his lowest point, being supported primarily by his good friend Mercedes (Navas), who manages to get him to medical treatment.   It’s the most depressing part of the film because not only is Salvador suffering from a paralyzing depression, but he’s gotten into heroin to ease his pain.  He has re-connected with an actor (Etxeandia) in one of his films whom he alienated at one point, and with his old lover Federico (Sharaglia) who appears by sheer chance.
     All this is suspenseful as to how it will turn out in terms of Salvador working through his significant difficulties.  
     The talented Antonio Banderas is a long-time friend and collaborator of Almodovar, so his portrayal of the Salvador character is hand-in-glove.  Some of the most refreshing scenes in the film are those in which Salvador as a child is shown to be so very bright, enthusiastic, and caring toward everyone he meets, he wins our hearts and stokes our belief that everything is going to be all right in the end.  
     These and other scenes of Salvador with his dying mother and his reunification with Federico are some of the most intimate and revealing moments in the film, showing Almodovar’s admirable understanding of human relationships and how and why they are so important.

A heartfelt, soul-baring account of significant periods in the life of a world-renowned filmmaker.

Grade:  A-                                    By Donna R. Copeland

Tuesday, October 15, 2019

PIPE DREAMS

Yuan Shen     Thomas Gaynor     Alcee Chriss III     Nick Cappozoli     Sebastian Heindl


   Competitions are generally fun to watch, and Stacey Tenenbaum (writer/director/producer) of Pipe Dreams has created a finely constructed and balanced production of the 2017 Canadian International Oregon Competition in Montreal, Canada, where the first place prize is $100,000.  Featured competitors comprise a diverse group, one from China, one from New Zealand, one from Germany, and two from the U.S.  Tenenbaum shows us vignettes of the personal lives and histories of these competitors, their attitudes toward organ music and their programs specifically, and their general preparations for the competition. After acquainting us with the group, their experiences before the contest are shown four months, two months, and then two weeks before the event, as well as during the first, second, and final rounds.
     Yuan Shen has a lot to prove even from birth, when her father hoped for a boy and got a girl instead.  Moreover, he is an accomplished organist who has been her teacher most of her life, and maintains an encouraging presence for her, even now. Performing Tai Chi together helps sustain a close relationship.
     Alcee Chriss is an African-American Texan who grew up in modest circumstances with gospel music and jazz.  He and his brother target practice with guns for diversion.  He lost his mother when he was in high school, and gets inspiration from remembering her during his practices.  He tends to get very nervous before competitions, so listens to guided relaxation scripts to calm himself down.
     Sebastian Heindl, the youngest of the competitors at 19, is from Germany, even the city of Bach, whose music is a major part of the CIOC.  He was regarded as a child prodigy and has grown up with Bach, often singing along as he is practices the organ. 
     Nick Cappozoli is highly controlled, according to his teacher, who encourages him toward introducing “ecstasy” and more “craziness” into his playing.  He is from Pittsburgh and enjoys playing miniature golf with his family.
     Thomas Gaynor, from New Zealand, travels around the world, sometimes for contests, where he has lost twice to Alcee, a particular competitor.  He has loved the organ as a child, being particularly fascinated with its mechanics.  
     By the time of the contest and learning that eight of twenty competitors will be eliminated in the first round; six of twelve will be eliminated in the 2ndround, and who the winner will be after the finals, the viewer has become invested in seeing who will come out on top and in hearing their individual reactions to the outcome.
     Pipe Dreams offers the opportunity to observe competitors in a contest that has a different flavor from our much more prominent athletic events and music award ceremonies.  Tenenbaum has done a fine job in showing the personal struggles and aspirations of a group of very interesting and admirable young people trying to do their best in a public display of their primarily solitary practiced talents. Clearly, the joy of what they do sustains them.
     Perhaps the only addition I would make to the film would be for a post-session in which knowledgeable people would help us understand the factors that were at work in the jurors’ decisions.  Were they primarily focused on technical expertise, choice of program, or some other considerations?  Obviously, to someone who was impressed with all the players, I’m curious about how the decisions were made—if it’s even possible to get those involved to discuss it.

Pipe Dreams is for the music lover who wants to get caught up in a refined contest of organists. 

Grade:  A                                                By Donna R. Copeland

PIPE DREAMS was previewed for Austin Film Festival (Oct. 24-31).  It will be showing:

Thursday October 24, 2019 7:15pm - 8:33pm
St. David's Episcopal Church, Bethell Hall 301 E 8th St, Austin, TX 78701, USA

Wednesday October 30, 2019 5:45pm - 7:03pm
Rollins Theatre 701 W Riverside Dr, Austin, TX 78704

Visit austinfilmfestival.com for more information or call 1-800-310-FEST

Thursday, October 10, 2019

GEMINI MAN

Will Smith     Mary Elizabeth Winstead     Clive Owen     Benedict Wong     Ralph Brown     Douglas Hodge


     This is not your typical father-son drama, but that is one of the themes applicable to three characters in the film.  Clay Verris (Owen) dedicates himself to serving as a father figure for young men in training, seeing himself as a “loving, dedicated, present” father—words that will be thrown back at him at a later time.  Henry Brogan (Smith) is one he took under his wing, making him the top, universally acclaimed assassin in the world.  After Brogan became employed by the U.S. Government, Verris started his own company, Gemini, which specialized in DNA research and cloning. From the trailer, you know that he has made a clone of Brogan’s DNA, which Verris raises as his own son, calling him Junior (also Smith).
     At a certain point, Brogan has had enough and is ready to retire; after 72 killings, he’s feeling a “hurt” deep in his soul.  Just as he starts launching his boat to go fishing, though, strange things start happening, and he will gradually learn that he is being played by more than one party.  First of all, he spots a government agent working at the boat dock disguised as a kind of clerk, but he blows Danny’s (Winstead) cover in nothing flat, and because he appeals to her, they become partners in solving the mystery of what is going on behind the scenes and who it is who suddenly turns up, trying to kill him.
     The story has intrigue in being set and filmed in exotic places like Cartagena in Colombia, Budapest in Hungary, and even the southern state of Georgia, and it has thrills (a daredevil motorcycle chase in one of the cities, as well as extended physical fights with impossible maneuvers where the fighters get up repeatedly after looking like they’ve been killed), all of which resembles most action films.  It is appealing to see the warm and genuine Danny fight with the same ferocity as the men.
     Most of the drama consists of Brogan and his clone struggling with one another, one to kill, one to survive, and this is mostly entertaining (except for each encounter being extended for too long a time), but the real “meat” of the story is whether and how they will work through the curious position each is in, one being a clone of the other.  
     Complex relationships between characters has been Director Ang Lee’s forte (Brokeback MountainLife of PiCrouching Tiger, Hidden DragonThe Ice Storm), and I presume it was meant to be similar in Brogan and Junior’s relationship here.  It certainly seems like fodder for a rich characterization of the most complex relationship of all.  But with the director’s and writers’ focus on action rather than psychology, Gemini Man looks and feels a lot more like the generic action film than a psychological exploration of a futuristic relationship, which was not neglected, but was only minimally explored.

Gemini Man has an intriguing aspect, but this takes second place to the typical action movie thrills.

Grade:  C-                                    by Donna R. Copeland

Thursday, October 3, 2019

DOLEMITE IS MY NAME

Eddie Murphy     Kodi Smit-McPhee    Wesley Snipes    Keegan-Michael Key
De’vine Joy Randolph     Chris Rock     Craig Robinson     Snoop Dogg     Mike Epps


     Here’s a way for black people to get into their groove and for those of us unfamiliar with Rudy Ray Moore (aka “Dolemite”), the “Godfather of Rap”, to jive a little with him and his cohorts when he is just getting started in show business in the 1970’s.  In the beginning of this story, he’s trying to make it as a comedian in L.A. when he has an inkling that there are black audiences who are not being served in the entertainment industry.  He finds in his stand-up routines that black people can appreciate a certain kind of humor, so he cagily puts out three bawdy records that sell well—much to others’ surprise, and even to his own.  
     It turns out that what was regarded by most of America at that time as profane—even porn--black people found in it a particular kind of humor (as in “Yo daddy’s a freak, and yo mama’s a whore”—the beginnings of the rap genre).  This encourages Rudy—who has stellar aspirations to add singing, acting, and film producing to his resume.  He is determined to satisfy the appetites of his people without regard to conventions (primarily white people’s), running up against not only white “shirts”, but (middle/upper class?) blacks in the arts and in production, who have been going in the direction of “refinement” as they envision it.  Rudy crashes right through all of that, while bringing many of those people on board with him.
     Rudy Ray Moore (expertly rendered by Murphy) is a fascinating individual with the unusual ability to sell his visions (and he is a master salesman) to producers who will back him so that he can give full vent to his creativity, first and foremost in comedy with music (what would eventually become rap), but as well in business (managing to get funding, construct a studio, act in and produce a movie).  How Rudy got started in show business is remarkable.  After serving in the Armed Forces, he was working in a record store, trying to get the DJ (Snoop Dogg) to play some of the records he’d made, which were based on a homeless man’s lewd limericks.
     We get to go along with Rudy on a major part of the making of his first movie, Dolemite, its significance being that it’s the first of what came to be known as Blaxploitation films. The filming of it has hilarious scenes where ineptness is clearly visible, but in Rudy’s hands becomes a delightful farce, helped along by Wesley Snipes (stunning!) as director D’Urville, Keegan-Michael Key (socompetent) as writer, Kodi Smit-McPhee (respectful, how-old-is-he? cinematographer), and Lady Reed (Randolph), Rudy’s creation of a saucy character from a self-deprecating, disillusioned woman. 
     Rudy is a complicated character in whom people have little faith; but in actually possessing talents in salesmanship, sensibility about black folk, and astute judge of character, he was able to pull it off, not only by proving his worth to the powers that be, but also recognizing traits in others that could be encouraged and brought out to serve his purposes.  A prime example is Lady Reed (Randolph) whom he decides after talking to her in a bar that she could be a funny sidekick in his comedy routine.  Writer Jerry Jones (Key) helps in coaching Rudy in script writing.  Rudy plucks his reluctant, snobbish director D’Urville Martin (hilariously played by Snipes) out of a strip club.  He accepts a new graduate (Smit-McPhee) from film school to be his cinematographer.  His old friends Ben Taylor (Robinson), Jimmy Lynch (Epps), and Daddy Fatts (Rock) are his reliable stand-bys.  
     In Dolemite is My Name, Eddie Murphy and Director Craig Brewer revive this character with apparently similar sensibilities about the world today as Rudy had about his people at the time.  It may seem a bit slow to viewers in the beginning, but that is partly because it takes a while to get oriented in another world—at least for many of us.  This was certainly true for me, as I had not seen previews and knew nothing about Rudy Ray Moore.  But after a time it became fascinating and truly funny.  

An entertaining account of the beginnings of rap popularized by a remarkable figure in showbiz.

Grade:  A-                                                            By Donna R. Copeland


Wednesday, October 2, 2019

WHERE'S MY ROY COHN?


     A good documentary places events in context, and demonstrates how they are relevant today.  Director Matt Tyrnaur has done just that in Where’s My Roy Cohn? as he did in a previous documentary, Citizen Jane:  Battle for the City.  In both productions, he effectively uses interviews and film clips to give the viewer an inside look at his subject and his/her essence and passions. The earlier film shows the power and effectiveness of a citizen taking on a respected figure (Robert Moses) whose plans for the infrastructure of New York City disregarded the importance of neighborhoods and the people within them.  This film shows the influence of a man whose primary purpose in life is to exert control over others, one who wishes to be a “puppeteer”, as some said of him.
     Tyrnaur’s vignettes about Roy Cohn’s early life clearly mark the path he was to take as an adult.  Born of Jewish parents with connections in New York, he was adored/worshipped by his mother, who had aspirations for him to become important. In this, we see the first inklings of the split between image and reality.  From childhood, he was the center of her attention, while his father was a judge and influential in Democratic Party politics at the time. He was extremely intelligent and facile in using it to his advantage.  Agendas seem to have been set when his mother—who was not very attractive—was betrothed to his father in exchange for a judgeship. In this, we see the seeds of the darker side of his personality:  The use of tactical ways in getting others to bend to his will and the absence of limits as to what he would do to win.
     His “fame” began as Senator Joseph McCarthy’s chief aide, when he was known as a bully for getting information in any way he could, to the point where an Army General asks him, “Have you no decency?”  From there, the absence of moral principles and ethics becomes even more apparent as he takes on corrupt clients from the underworld, woos the rich and powerful into his web, makes friends with certain members of the press, and advocates for Republican Presidents (Nixon, Reagan, Trump).  Donald Trump was an easy mark for him to take on and instruct on defending himself:  “Never apologize”  “Never admit you’re wrong.”  
     In the end, this is a fascinating account of the making of a sociopath—e.g., superficial charm, above-average intelligence, rational, lack of remorse/shame, antisocial behavior—who was able to “develop” into someone who could deny his own sexuality and condemn others for it, let alone take pleasure in condemning the innocent.  “I hate hypocrisy” is a statement he makes early on that gives a lie to his whole life.
     There are little details in this film that epitomize who Roy Cohn was, such as a boat named “Defiant”, and his penchant for wrapping himself in the U.S. flag and declaring, “God bless America” illustrating the degree of his hypocrisy. 

An illuminating picture of a true sociopath with difficulties in distinguishing between image and reality.

Grade:  A                                    By Donna R. Copeland




JOKER

Joaquin Phoenix     Robert De Niro     Zazie Beetz     Frances Conroy     Brett Cullen

     
     This is truly a creepy movie.  To the film’s credit, even from the beginning, I had a cloying, uncomfortable feeling primarily related to Phoenix’s character, Arthur Fleck, aka the Joker.  His portrayal—excepting the sometimes over-dramatization—essentially captures the psychosis he portrays, not only in the “craziness”, but as well in the selective kindnesses and gentleness he sometimes chooses.  The story is eloquent when it shows that time and again, people do not recognize Arthur’s lethality, dismissing him as “just quirky.”  His impassioned speech toward the end about being ignored, not seen, not given credence is, often, reality-based for people considered odd by most others.
     In addition to Phoenix’s uncannily accurate, award-worthy portrayal, the origin story is one of the film’s strongest points.  Director Todd Phillips and co-writer Scott Silver were perhaps acquainted with preconditions that could produce a character like the Joker, and they have come up with a good example.  It would be a spoiler to go into much detail, so I won’t say any more than that, except to quote the Joker’s musing, “My whole life I didn’t know if I really existed.”
     Joker tells a story about a misfit who has a medical condition that involves laughing or crying uncontrollably (yes, I looked it up and there is such a condition, Pseudobulbar Affect).  The irony is that this joker is, indeed, not usually very funny, but aspires to be a stand-up comedian.  His compromised mother (Conroy) specifically asks him why he wants that job “because, you’re not funny.”  He works for a company that hires out clowns, and is assigned to be a clown at a local pediatrics unit in a hospital.  He’s very successful until… and then he is fired from his job. 
     Desperate, he tries his calling at being a stand-up comedian, attracting the attention of a talk-show host, Murray Franklin (De Niro).  Franklin’s show was not to be missed by Arthur and his mother (for fantastical reasons as much as entertainment), and Arthur has had fantasies of actually being on it.  His mother also has significant fantasies about its host, Murray Franklin (De Niro).  Sure enough, when it turns out that Fleck’s performance failure at stand-up receives praise on social media, Franklin asks him to make an appearance on his show. This is a culmination of all that Arthur has dreamed of, but by this time in the movie the viewer will have justified apprehension.
     The Joker has been featured in many DC Comics presentations, and this attempt to reveal an origin story can easily stand on its own for the viewer; one needn’t have seen all the previous renditions.  As well as the film has done what it set out to do, there are a few reality-check moments that don’t work and coincidences in the story that may be a little over the top, such as Arthur being able to keep his job as a clown as long as he did and his path crossing so many times with wealthy benefactor Thomas Wayne (Cullen).  Additionally, his brief relationship with Sophie (Beetz)—as well acted as it is—is preposterous.  
     On the whole, I really got into this film for the drama and psychology, and appreciate its commentary about the consequences of the ever-widening gap between the wealthy and the middle-lower classes.  The clown as a metaphor is brilliantly played out in a thriller as well as a wake-up call to contemporary times (e.g., widening gaps between the haves and have-nots, urban decay, and guns in the hands of the mentally unstable).  

Is the Joker a joke or a powerful metaphor?

Grade:  A-                                    By Donna R. Copeland


Thursday, September 26, 2019

MONOS

Moises Arias     Julianne Nicholson     Sofia Buenaventura    Julian Giraldo
Karen Quintero     Laura Castrillon     Delby Rueda     Paul Cubides     Sneider Castro

     
     Filmed in the lush countryside of Colombia by the artistic Jasper Wolf, Monos’ story perplexes and shocks against the backdrop of green mountains, dense jungles, and rushing waters or clear lakes and streams.  Some of the water scenes are breathtaking in capturing its myriad beauty while filming the chases and conflicts among the characters beneath the surface.  These scenes are in direct contrast to the typical roaring chases in most action films; the silent struggles taking place here are much more suspenseful and jarring.
     Director Alejandro Landes co-wrote the script with Alexis Dos Santos from a story he conceived.  It’s a disturbing account of a group of rebels in an unnamed South American country who are attacked repeatedly by the militia, necessitating frequent maneuvers to hide their location.  But as in any group, conflicts arise, sometimes based on competition either in love or war—or even by accident--but these are perhaps more striking and moving because this is a group teenagers.  An overseer comes by now and then to shape them up and strengthen their resolve, and they have frequent contact with leaders via radio communication.
     The first leader of the small group designated by the overseer is Wolf (Giraldo), who has also gotten permission to “partner” with Lady (Quintero), e.g., sleep together.  [Landes has named his characters with some humor; i.e. Wolf, Lady, Rambo, Bigfoot, Smurf, Dog, and Boom Boom.]   Perhaps this is intended to help us keep track of who is who, but I think most viewers will have to make some effort to remember all of them and their personalities and roles.
     At any rate, an eventful moment—perhaps an accident—results in tragedy, and consequently Bigfoot (Arias) is then put in charge.  
     In addition to fighting the militia, the group is charged with keeping a prisoner, a woman called La Doctora (Nicholson), an engineer who has been kidnapped by the rebels, but is persistent and courageous in trying to escape in the mountains, in the jungle, and in the rivers.  
     Sprinkled into a story with high tension, there are moments of humor, admirable skill and courage shown, as well as honesty.  During radio communication, members of the group are asked to comment, sometimes with surprising candor, but mostly glossing over truths.  
     Altogether, Monos is a photographic wonder, with a sometimes haunting, sometimes melodic, score by Mica Levi.  The plot by Landes and Dos Santos is intriguing and astute about humankind, but occasionally takes a fill-in-the-blanks approach, leaving the viewer to sort out the players and speculate about the plot.  This is especially true at the end, when significant threads are left hanging.
     Despite this, I applaud the movie’s creativity, beauty, and truth, and its presentation of colorful characters that are highly entertaining.

A picture about a group of colorful young rebels doing what they are known to do against the backdrop of war and abounding nature.

Grade:  B                                    By Donna R. Copeland


Wednesday, September 25, 2019

JUDY

Renee Zellweger     Jessie Buckley     Rufus Sewall     Michael Gambon     Finn Wittrock


     Judy Garland’s reputation for the heights of talent and performance and the depths of despair and catastrophe are all keenly represented in this docudrama, with Renee Zellweger ably capturing the starring role.  The film is strengthened by giving snapshots of the young Judy’s life being dictated by the MGM movie studio, pre-child labor laws (e.g., 18-hour days, no lunch breaks, strict diet, caps on her teeth and discs to reshape her nose), and Louis B. Mayer’s depiction of her as being unattractive, all of which affected her self-image for life.
     But she was clearly talented and had become a star by the time she was 18, earning the Academy Juvenile Award.  During the height of her career, she won Academy and Golden Globe awards for acting and Grammy awards for singing.  Behind the scenes, however, her personal and professional life seemed to pivot from one catastrophe to another, some of the studio’s and, later her own making, as the direct result of drugs and alcohol. But on top of that there was an accumulation of stresses and strains extending from childhood to the end of her life.
The movie Judy mostly focuses on the later years of when Garland was separated from her children and living in London.  It shows her being out of control much of the time with a patient “handler” (Rosalyn Wilder, played by Buckley) using every strategy she can think of to get Judy on stage.  Grieving from the separation from her children, who are with ex-husband Sidney Luft in the U.S. (custody rulings forbid their being taken out of the country), Judy throws herself into another marriage—to Mickey Deans (Wittrock).  However, that relationship is short-lived because of her disappointment in his not coming through with a promised business deal that would relieve her of concert touring and allow her to return to the U.S.
     Zellweger’s performance is noteworthy, and may signal a rousing comeback after her Oscar win in Cold Mountain (2003), which was followed by a series of insignificant roles in minor films. Here, she captures the star’s high emotionality, charm, and voice in the later years of the star’s life. Jessie Buckley as the assistant who often gets Garland on stage is the exemplar of a dogged pusher who uses a world of patience and clever strategies to manager her charge—and still show that she actually cares.  Likewise, Finn Wittrock portrays a young husband desperately trying to be a support for Judy, but ending up mystified in dealing with her dependency and rapidly fluctuating moods.  Rufus Sewell is effective as the fifth of Judy’s husbands, Sid Luft, as is Michael Gambon as the British theatrical impresario responsible for her London appearances.
     I imagine that the experience of seeing this film resembles what it must have been like for the people surrounding Judy Garland during her adult life, particularly the later years, when it is obvious how trying, even exasperating, she could be, while still showing beguiling charm.  Its strength is in Zellweger capturing so well the full range of Judy Garland’s personality and emotionality, and, above all, a voice that entertained millions all during her 45-year career.

A moving chronicle of the later years in the life of a beloved but damaged star, Judy Garland.

Grade:  A-                                    By Donna R. Copeland


Sunday, September 22, 2019

ABOMINABLE

Voices of:  Chloe Bennet     Tenzing Norgay Trainor     Albert Tsai     Eddie Izzard     Sarah Paulson     Tsai Chin


     This is a kid-friendly adventure with a delightful mixture of pure fantasy, thrills, magnificent scenery, and good-natured playfulness, while reminding viewers of the importance of home, family, memories, and paying attention to grief and hardship—all substantive values we want our children to learn.
     “Abominable” is a reference to a mythical creature supposedly living in the mountains of Asia.  His other name is “Snowman”, which the filmmakers have exploited for visual purposes by presenting him as a big furry snowball to detract from his yeti reputation of being a dangerous character.  
     In this story, a yeti appears out of nowhere into a teen girl’s life quite by accident. We’re not told immediately how he got to where he is, but he’s in a big city when he spots a travel billboard with a picture of Everest on it and runs toward it, thinking it is his home.  But he’s actually in Yi’s rooftop secret playhouse.  As they get acquainted with each other and begin to be able to communicate, the threat of a helicopter with a bright light looms overhead, and Yi realizes it is searching for “Everest”, as she has named him.  The yeti has enormous eyes and is somewhat clumsy, but he has a quick mind and an eye for danger. When he keeps gazing longingly at the Everest billboard, Yi (Bennet) knows he is wishing to go home, and she intends to get him there.  And as one character says in the course of the story, “When Yi sets her mind on something, nothing is impossible.”
     Getting Everest home will be a journey with obstacles no one on the trip could predict.  Two other kids manage to come along; Jin (Trainor), Yi’s responsible cousin, and his little brother Peng (Tsai).  But the major concerns for them are Mr. Burnish (Izzard), a collector of exotic animals, and his colleague, Dr. Zara (Paulson), a zoologist, who are in hot pursuit.  The intentions of these two are questionable right from the start.  They will be tailing the small party, trying desperately to trap them for various purposes, but primarily in the interest of their reputations—(just one of the many enlightening models offered by the filmmakers for children’s benefit).
     Yi is depicted as grieving for a now absent father and trying to compensate for the loss by earning extra money, honoring his dream of taking her to exotic places in the world, and being the best violin player she can be with his violin left to her.  Jin is portrayed at first as a fashion-absorbed teenager who seems to be preoccupied with popularity and appearance, but later, is shown to have protective feelings toward his cousin (unbeknownst to her; she will only discern this much later) and his little brother.  Peng is a typical child who recognizes the yeti as a peer, letting Yi realize that Everest is only a child who misses his mommy and daddy.
     The Abominable story is engaging for all ages of children, providing excitement, mystery, and enchanting fantasies—a delightful “action film” for them, with models for learning rather than violence for thrills so common in action films for adults.  As with today’s action figures, Everest has special abilities he introduces with a humming sound that transport the kids out of danger more than once.  Blueberries are used in one trick, which produces tittering delight from the audience.
     Writer Jill Culton and her co-director Todd Wilderman are to be congratulated for such an exciting, very contemporary, story that contains many gems of truth. Main characters voiced by the children (Bennet, Trainor, and Tsai) and adults (Izzard and Paulson) are snappy and fun, with well- drawn and animated forms.  Really fine production design (Max Boas), music (Rupert Gregson), and cinematography (Edward Crawford) fit right in with this quality mix to help make it a hit.

An action film for kids with heart, spirit, and delightful humor.

Grade:  A                                    By Donna R. Copeland


Thursday, September 19, 2019

DOWNTON ABBEY

Maggie Smith     Hugh Bonneville    Elizabeth McGovern     Michelle Dockery     Laura Carmichael     Penelope Wilton     Allen Leech
Geraldine James     Simon Jones     Kate Phillips     Imelda Staunton    Tuppence Middleton     Harry Hadden-Paton    
 Matthew Goode     Jim Carter     Phyllis Logan     Joanne Froggatt     Lesley Nicol     Sophie McShera     Robert James-Collier    Brendan Coyle


     For those who followed the television series, how the movie of Downton Abbey would be the same as or different from the series is a burning question.  Having been a devotee of the series, I can say that Julian Fellowes (writer of both) and director Michael Engler were highly successful in bringing in new mysteries and intrigues while maintaining the family drama as we have come to know it and have become attached to the characters. Fellowes is a genius in creating figures we can all recognize, whether they are among the aristocrats or the common people, and make them live and breathe as if they’re a part of our own family, and make us love them.  He is also witty and skillful in giving life to age-old arguments, such as between systems of monarchy and social hierarchies versus more progressive/liberal/democratic forms of government—topics still on the contemporary mind.
     Having the King and Queen of England (played by Jones and James) come to pay a visit at Downton Abbey provides the perfect opportunity to explore these issues. As would be expected, the royal entourage consists of people much more condescending toward the locals than the royals themselves.  That means that the staff members at the Abbey will be shunted aside by the snooty royal butler (although he has a fancier title), chef, valets, dressers, and other attendants.  But never underestimate the power and finesse of the more democratic system in Downton Abbey, where the Crawleys seem to be moving decidedly in the direction of more progressive societies.  How the Downton staff manages this insurgency is part of the intrigue and mystery in the production.  
     Subtly, Fellowes presents alternative ways of rebelling against a social order, one violent, others more clever and foregoing any violence.  This is one aspect of the film that will keep veteran watchers of the series glued to the action.
     Fellowes and Engler astutely placed the dowager Countess Grantham (in the inimitable form of Maggie Smith) at the center of the conflict, pitting her against a member of the royal staff, Lady Bagshaw (Staunton), cousin of Lord Grantham (Bonneville), with whom she has had an ongoing struggle for decades. Maggie Smith has remained the most visible character in the series for her sharp, acerbic, and always humorous witticisms, so it is both fitting and smart to put her center stage and frame her specific conflicts within the larger issues about social order.
     Other key roles in this drama include Lady Mary (Dockery) and her quandary about whether and how long to maintain the traditional house; her lady in waiting, Anna (Froggatt), who uncovers a crime and uses it to advantage, along with helping mastermind the resistance against the royal staff; and Tom Branson (Leech), an Irish commoner and relatively new member of the family clearly establishing his loyalty to them, along with the reasons why.  Each of the other beloved characters gets a slice of the story, which works to keep it moving (and, I suppose, satisfy veteran watchers as well as newcomers).
     To me, this production is unbelievable in its mastery in incorporating so many important elements of the series into the movie and still presenting a serious argument about social class and government from many different points of view. All this is accomplished while preserving a real sense of humanness and delightfulness in the characters. I still thrill to the sound of musician John Lunn’s theme song as soon as I hear it.  He has been with the production throughout its existence, beginning in 2010, and has made a substantive contribution to its success.

If you’re a Downton fan, run—don’t walk—to the movie.

Grade:  A+                                   By Donna R. Copeland

AD ASTRA

Brad Pitt     Liv Tyler     Ruth Negga     Tommy Lee Jones     Donald Sutherland     Anne McDaniels     Loren Dean


     A space journey.  And what a journey. Ad Astra is a captivating experience both in terms of travel in space and in the distinctly human journey its main character, Roy McBride, undergoes.  This may be one of Brad Pitt’s most significant roles, even given so many others such as Moneyball, Inglorious Basterds, and Fight Club.  Here, on “mental health exams” given to him by the U.S. Space Command, he reflects on himself and what has happened to him in his life in an honest, forthright manner that allows us to see him as a real person, a committed, sometimes troubled man with doubts and fears.  Yet, he has a reputation for being the coolest of cool in any emergency, and we will see that manifested brilliantly in the course of the film.
     The ways in which space travel is presented by the filmmakers becomes so realistic the sense of being out there remains long after leaving the theater.  Directors James Gray, cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema, production designer Kevin Thompson and their crews portray so vividly the atmosphere, the views, the instrumentation, and the tumbling/floating/falling that are inherent in space travel, afterwards, you really feel like you’ve been there.
     The story is interesting, pulling in themes of father-son relationships, government policies and projects, military command hierarchies, and conspiracy issues. Roy McBride has become an astronaut following in the steps of his heroic father Clifford McBride, head of U.S. Space Command’s Lima Project, but who has been missing for years.  Roy assumes he is dead.  
     But when the Space Agency discovers that Clifford may be alive, it calls on him to go on a mission to find his father.  The concern is that he may be responsible for the majorly disruptive, unpredictable global power surges currently wreaking havoc in the world. Roy is ambivalent for personal reasons (he has a hard time seeing his heroic father as a rogue), as well as evidentiary.  His doubts are based on what he knows about his father and the weak evidence against Clifford presented by the agency.  Roy feels sometimes that he is being “pulled down the same dark hole” as his father.  Not only Roy, but the viewer too is likely to wonder about the evidence.  It suggests that Clifford has become a megalomaniac who has gone off the deep end.  But the evidence presented seems very slim.
     Despite his misgivings, Roy is dogged in following the command given to him. In the process, he has to make difficult decisions and potential sacrifices—not only those of his own, but those of others as well—to resolve the problem he was presented with. Some of these are the nail-biting episodes where life and death are in the balance.

This is a story where the hero takes things into his own hands and makes something of them, gleaning hard facts and drawing insightful conclusions from what he learns.  

Grade:  A-                                    By Donna R. Copeland

Thursday, September 12, 2019

THE GOLDFINCH

Nicole Kidman     Ansel Elgort     Oakes Fegley     Jeffrey Wright 
Luke Wilson     Sarah Paulson    Finn Wolfhard     Aneurin Barnard


     This movie is full of surprises, most of which I loved.  Above all, the characters fascinate the viewer while the rest of the cast seem to take them all in stride, a kind of lesson in acceptance.  Storytelling hits that sweet spot in which information comes through gradually, punctuated by significant details, but giving one time to savor the plot.  The central character, Theodore (beautifully rendered by Oakes Fegley playing the younger and Ansel Elgort the older Theo), reminds of “Baby” in Baby Driver (also played by Elgort), actors able to convey mystery as they become endearing and grow on their acquaintances.
     The story begins with tragedy, when Theo’s mother is missing after an explosion in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.   His alcoholic father disappeared long ago, so he needs someone to take him in.  When he names the mother of a classmate whom he has befriended, as at least a temporary solution, Mrs. Barbour (Kidman) steps up to the plate and brings him to her family, which is both wealthy and dysfunctional.  She ends up really caring about him, and it looks like he may be with them for a long time.  
     But… (This story is filled with twists and turns, continually bringing up questions about coincidences versus fate/predetermination).  That juxtaposition is one of the themes of the film, coupled with questions about what is fake and what is real, both in relation to art as well as in human relationships as portrayed.  
     The movie Goldfinch is mesmerizing during Theo’s growing-up years when we observe him to be so well balanced and well behaved, managing his losses and compensating for them in healthy ways.  It gives us a realistic picture of trauma (in other characters as well as Theo), its after-effects, and how people manage it.  The characters introduced make the story come alive, such as different family members in the Barbour family, Hobie (Wright) who takes Theo under his wing and educates him about artistic furniture and reproductions, and the reappearing father (Wilson) and his girlfriend (Paulson) who whisk him off to sandy, bleak Las Vegas.  
     Unfortunately, the film loses its way and tries to become a thriller toward the end, with drug dealing, mobsters, and other unsavory characters introduced into the mix.  This is where it lost me, although I did appreciate attempts to show all the characters to be a mixture of good and bad qualities, most of which with good intentions; but the ending was just too fantastical for me to go along with it.
     For the most part, director John Crowley, the actors, cinematographer Roger Deakins and composer Trevor Gureckis have created a beautiful work of art, capturing the qualities of the Goldfinch painting and its history, while prompting us to consider different philosophies of life.

A captivating story with meaningful characters, derailed by superfluous drama seemingly “tacked on” toward the end.

Grade:  B                                    By Donna R. Copeland


HUSTLERS

Jennifer Lopez     Constance Wu     Julia Stiles     Keke Palmer     Cardi B     Lili Reinhart


     Hustling pays off—sort of—according to this movie about a group of strippers in New York eventually conning the likes of Wall Street bankers.  It’s a dramatic account based on a true story as reported by one of the screenwriters (with director Lorene Scafaria), Jessica Pressler ( "The Hustlers at Scores: The Ex-Strippers Who Stole From (Mostly) Rich Men and Gave to, Well, Themselves". The Cut. 2015-12-28).  It’s said that truth is stranger than fiction, and this is one of those cases where the saying applies.  I’m sure some of the conned men might say, “You can’t make this thing up.”
     At any rate, Scafaria and her crew have put together an entertaining comedy that has rings of truth all over it, making it more substantive than simply humorous.  Comedy flows in one-liners such as a graphic artist commenting on an education-aspiring stripper’s handwriting:  “You’re handwriting is so beautiful!  You could be a font.”  The substance is about truths found in human beings’ continual wishing for more (often the source of their vulnerabilities) and the sisterhood found in so many female groups, an aspect mostly ignored in fictional portrayals.  
     Jennifer Lopez as Ramona and Constance Wu as Destiny form a consummate pair of conniving women driven by life circumstances to cut certain corners simply to survive.  Their on-screen attraction (toward each other and ours to them) drives Hustlers’ momentum, which I attribute to their acting skills and charisma.  As in many close friendships, the characters Ramona and Destiny differ significantly from each other, while their skills and values are complementary; Ramona is the “people person” able to talk down any complaier and Destiny is the organized, business-minded one with basic human values.  (She has her limits as to how far she will go in getting clients to submit and a practical, “business” sense.)  
The film gives us a picture of strip clubs at the time—the tremendous amount of money flowing in, the exploitation of the strippers by the club owners, the “art” of attractions like pole dancing, and the special kinds of relationships the strippers had with their clients. 
     Then comes the recession of 2008, which results in the abandonment of the clubs by wealthy men, the introduction of cheaper Russian girls willing to perform whatever is requested, and Ramona and Destiny realizing they need to adopt a better business model.  They are astute in figuring out how to benefit the clubs—their source of support—along with themselves.  They will “go fishing” for men in smaller venues like bars to bring to the clubs.  This is imminently successful until…
     Towards the end, the story gets a bit absurd, but mostly it shows a very clever ruse.

Thanks to director Scafaria and the stars, Hustlers ends up being an entertaining romp with substance to boot.

Grade: B                                    By Donna R. Copeland