Thursday, December 12, 2019

UNCUT GEMS

Adam Sandler     Julia Fox     Idina Menzel     LaKeith Stanfield     Kevin Garnett     Eric Bogosian


     This film is billed primarily as a comedy—and that fits with the reputation of Adam Sandler, who stars here as a fast-talking salesman whose schemes leave destruction in their wake.  Although many have apparently found great humor in it, I didn’t laugh once, and in some scenes that brought laughter from the audience (a beaten man put naked into a car trunk), I found pathetic.  To each his/her own humor, I guess.
     Howard (with the apt last name of Ratner) is a jewel merchant in New York’s diamond district who doesn’t mind where his uncut gems come from.  He has managed to get a rock from Ethiopia that seems to have iridescent opals inside, which he thinks will fetch a million dollars at an auction.  When Kevin Garnett (renowned basketball player) visits his shop, Howard can’t resist bragging about it and showing it to Kevin, who is truly entranced, but Howard can’t sell it to him because it is scheduled for an auction.  He tells Kevin when and where the auction is, but Kevin sees the stone as a lucky charm, and insists on borrowing it for his game that evening until 9:00 the next morning when he will return it.  You can guess how that turns out.
     This transaction is especially dicey because Howard is a wheeler-dealer and gambler who can’t help himself from attending to both of those sides of his personality. The trouble beginning to loom up against him are debts he owes to unsavory characters, who are shaking him up (and more than that).  As soon as he thinks his wheeling-dealing is paying off, he gambles on his advances.  For instance, he is a baseball fan, and when he sees Garnett’s reaction to the stone, he places bets on that team winning with some money he got from pawning a “security” item.  
     The movie’s excitement derives from Howard’s bets and his attempts to evade debt collectors.  Part of the time, we’re pulled into it by watching Kevin’s basketball games; and part of the time we’re witnessing Howard’s excruciating, painful struggles with collectors advancing on him every time he makes a turn.
     Inserted into the drama (for reasons I question) are pictures of Howard’s colonscopy and family Jewish rituals, which are more forgivable, given his heritage. Yes, Howard has a family, and we see gratuitous scenes of him with his wife and children; but he also has mistress Julia (Fox) ensconced in an apartment.  We see scenes of that relationship as well.  But whatever his relationships—family, mistress, goons—Howard is the same scam artist trying to con all of them, none of whom believes him, at least not for long.
     Uncut Gems’ biggest failing is that it is not about anything really.  That is, the moral of the story is…?  Please fill in the blanks for me.  Also working against it are the incessant yelling, haggling, f-you sequences, which never come to an end.
     Adam Sandler plays his stock character well as always.  The only other actor who stood out is Kevin Garnett, whose demeanor and facial expressiveness may portend a second career for him.  

Uncut Gems appeals to the taste of a few, but is sorely lacking in any substantive meaning.

Grade:  D                                    By Donna R. Copeland

Wednesday, December 11, 2019

6 UNDERGROUND

Ryan Reynolds     Melanie Laurent     Manuel Garcia-Rulfo     Adria Arjona     Corey Hawkins
Dave Franco     Ben Hardy


     Six characters so closeted, when someone says, “Who are you?” the answer is, “No one.” They like to see themselves as “ghosts.”  Number One (Reynolds) (they use numbers, rather than names) who essentially functions as the leader (and founder, perhaps) has strict principles to live by, which precludes forming attachments, having cell phones, or leaving any digital trace of their footprints.  (This code is bandied about from time to time, with some squirming against it, and some openly questioning it; but One always defends it.)  They’re a “Delta” force doing risky, undercover work; but unlike the Navy Seals, for instance, they are not attached to a government.  It’s part of their creed that they take orders from no one and make their decisions to take action all on their own (vigilantes).  This also means that things like “due process” and written laws of justice are not a part of their value system.  They do believe that if they see broad social injustice—such as a despotic leader exploiting his people—they have a right/duty to intervene through whatever means it takes.
     This system presents a wondrous opportunity for filmmakers (Michael Bay, director) to devise a point-by-point account of the group’s derring-do against a backdrop of luxurious settings (e.g., Florence Italy and Hong Kong), on gigantic yachts, in elegant hotels, and so on.  It’s like a James Bond film, but here you have six/seven heroes/heroines to gaze upon.  Likewise, it’s an opportunity for a macho extravaganza of destruction.  (Thank goodness, they spared Michaelangelo’s David sculpture in Florence!)  It’s the cinematographer’s (Bojan Bazelli) job to show off the visual elegance of these scenes, accompanied by Lorne Balfe’s reverberating score.
     6 Underground is a libertarian’s wet dream about heroic acts being achieved outside the strictures of authority and government.  It’s likewise a video-game-like lavish display of machismo—executed by women (thank you very much!) as well as men.  I do appreciate females being portrayed with as much authority as the males. And it even shows their superiority at times when two males can’t keep from fighting like little boys.
     As in many action films, 6 Underground is heavy on the car chases and heroics at the expense of story and character development. Maybe this was meant to be more tongue-in-cheek than I got, but, to me, Ryan Reynolds did not fit with the hard-edged character he was meant to be.  Just to look at him physically, is to see a nice and gentle guy who could pull off Deadpool beautifully.  I think a more sharp-edged—going toward the cynical—look in the actor would be more apropos in this case.
     I can say that on the one hand, 6 Underground is entertaining in places and has unexpected elements, and I always like to see the evil man get his due.  On the other hand, envisioning a vigilante force outside of law exerting its judgment (including killing) without benefit of a lawful trial makes me uneasy.  I’m also against the wanton destruction shown during much of the film, especially when cars are careening every which way and bashing into other cars, buildings, and historical sites along the streets in Florence and elsewhere. These scenes become tediously repetitious.
     Aside from Reynolds—who I think was miscast, although he is a good actor—Melanie Laurent, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Ben Hardy, Corey Hawkins, Adria Arjona and Dave Franco enrich the plot and inhabit their characters well, especially Laurent, Hardy, Hawkins, and Garcia-Rulfo.  

If you’re up to a video-game kind of movie, this will please you.  But if you have a problem with vigilantism and absurd car chases, find another film to watch.

Grade:  D+                                    By Donna R. Copeland






Tuesday, December 10, 2019

RICHARD JEWELL

Olivia Wilde     Sam Rockwell     Paul Walter Hauser     Jon Hamm     Kathy Bates


     This is a horror story, but it’s actually a dramatized account of what happened to the security guard who recognized the possibility of a bomb being in an abandoned backpack at the 1996 Olympics Games in Atlanta, Georgia.  After being called a hero for three days, the FBI got a tip from a local college president about a security guard he had fired. It’s unbelievable that such an elite group would place so much confidence in it, but they apparently did, and Richard Jewell (Hauser) was relentlessly pursued for almost three months, not only by the FBI, but as well by media outlets competing with one another to get the biggest scoop, and in such a hurry, they did not check their sources as they were supposed to.  The film focuses on one over-ambitious reporter (Wilde) who had unethically obtained a leak from one of the agents and wrote a front-page article identifying Jewell as the prime FBI suspect.
     The script by Billy Ray, based on a Vanity Fair article by Marie Brenner, follows the true story closely and is taut and suspense-laden, but also carries with it humorous (not derisive, but sympathetic) portrayals of Jewell and his mother Bobi (Bates).  They are a Southern middle-class mother and son who live together in a neat apartment.  He has aspirations to be a police officer, but has a habit of taking his job too seriously, following the letter of the law (of which he is well informed by his own reading), without an understanding of practical/political considerations. He’s not taken seriously by local enforcement, but to their credit, when he points out a suspicious backpack, they indulge him, only to find that there is indeed a bomb inside.  The area is evacuated as quickly as possible, which does save lives when the bomb explodes.
     Along with the fine script, the actors are superb.  Hauser gives such a realistic portrayal of Jewell, the viewer is drawn in immediately with his combination of folksy charm, innocence, and commitment.  Sam Rockwell (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, MissouriThe Way Way BackFosse/Verdon) is one of my favorite actors; he always nails whatever character he is portraying, and here he is a complex Southern lawyer with anti-authoritarian attitudes, just the right person to defend a social outcast with principals.  Kathy Bates plays Jewell’s soulful, devoted mother with just the right touches of dedication and commitment to make it believable that Richard is her progeny.  
     In his 50-year career, Clint Eastwood is a phenomenon in entertainment spanning television and movies in different roles of actor, director, producer, and even composer.   His films are generally well received, especially Million Dollar Baby, Unforgiven, Bird, and Mystic River.  His most recent films in 2018 (15:17 to Paris and The Mule) were largely panned, but it is likely that Richard Jewell will represent a comeback to his usual solid form.  It may be over the top in some places, but seems to adhere closely to Marie Brenner’s magazine article.

A story about how self-serving machinations of the FBI and media outlets can ruin an innocent man’s reputation and torture him and his family for months.

Grade:  B+                    By Donna R. Copeland


Thursday, December 5, 2019

MARRIAGE STORY

Scarlett Johansson     Adam Driver     Laura Dern     Ray Liotta     Alan Alda
 Azhy Robertson     Julie Hagerty     Merritt Wever


      A heartbreaking story—but not so much that a couple’s paths in life take them in different directions—but that their whole separation becomes contaminated by external factors.  Geographical separation is commonplace in families nowadays, and is one of the factors in couples’ not being easily able to maintain an intimate relationship, especially when husband-wife careers’ pull them in different directions.  Nevertheless, upsets could be worked out amicably between the two parties, but so often third parties intervene in ways that are damaging.
     For example, Nicole (Johansson) and Charlie (Driver) are enjoying their marriage and professional collaboration in New York when she gets an offer for and accepts a starring role in a television pilot in Los Angeles.  That is where she is from and where her family is, and so she has always wanted to return.  Charlie gives lip service to her desires, but his career is taking off in New York, so he figures that she will go “do her thing” for a while, then return with their son Henry (Robertson), who has gone with her.  She kind of thinks this too; however, while she is there she begins to think about her marriage, and comes to feel that Charlie dominates her life too much.
     She then takes a fateful step in engaging canny lawyer, sharpshooter Nora (Dern) who is expert in pulling Nicole into her web, reinforcing her reservations about Charlie and working hard to exploit the case to the fullest extent (of her bill, of course).  This will set the ball rolling so that it will no longer be Nicole and Charlie working out their own solutions, but a legal battle between Fanshaw and Charlie’s attorneys, first Bert Spitz (Alda) and later when the going gets rough, Jay (Liotta).
     Writer-director Noah Baumbach knows very well of what he speaks.  The story is loosely based on his own separation from Jennifer Jason Leigh, his first wife, who apparently approves of this production.  (Baumbach is now with Greta Gerwig, director of Lady Bird and Little Women).  He is to be praised for a valiant attempt to present both sides of the contentious splintering in a fairly objective way. As presented, though, I had more sympathy for Charlie than for Nicole; but that may be partly because Nicole’s position and actions are not as well articulated, such that we don’t feel for her as much as we do for Charlie.  Except in the last court scene, she is not “rained on” by the lawyers as much as Charlie is.
     The two leads, Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver, are fundamental in telling this story.  They give such seamless, authentic representations of their characters the film looks almost like a documentary.  Laura Dern as a lawyer is brilliant in capturing the persona of someone who knows how to beguile while delivering cutthroat blows.  Alan Alda, but more especially Ray Liotta, as Charlie’s lawyers are very good, but do have lines that match the lethality of Fanshaw.  Julie Hagerty and Merritt Weaver as Scarlett’s mother and sister provide some great hilarity to offset the heavy drama. 

Painful, hard truths and emotional ups and downs in this film will move you deeply, and for those who have gone through a divorce it will bring sharp remembrances.

Grade:  A                                                By Donna R. Copeland

Thursday, November 28, 2019

DARK WATERS

Mark Ruffalo     Anne Hathaway     Tim Robbins     Bill Camp     Bill Pullman     Victor Garber


     Robert Bilott (Ruffalo) is a promising young attorney who has just made partner in a respected corporate law firm.  He has a number of key supporters as a result of his work defending chemical companies, who believe he will distinguish himself (and them) because of his deliberateness and passion for the law.  He will indeed live up to this faith, although not in the way his supporters think.
     Soon after starting this phase of his career, Rob is personally visited in his office by a West Virginia farmer, Wilbur Tennant (Camp), wanting representation. He has been referred by his neighbor, Rob’s beloved grandmother.  Rob patiently explains that he is a civil lawyer and not likely to serve the client well.  Tennant leaves in a huff, feeling that all his antagonism toward authorities is justified.  
     But Rob is conscientious, and visits his grandmother for more information. She reminds him that as a boy he used to go to the Tennants’ farm every summer (to swim and learn to milk cows!) and thoroughly enjoyed it.  Rob does a bit more investigation, looking at a landfill near the farm, and being shown by Tennant some of the devastation, which he thinks is perpetrated by the DuPont company (DuPont de Nemours, as they prefer to be called).  
     After doing more research into the company and getting the EPA reports, it begins to dawn on Rob that there is something to investigate (like water and air contamination, as well as animal/human organ damage.  The Tennants do not have the money to hire him, so he discusses with his boss Tom Terp (Robbins) the possibility of taking on pro bono what they foresee as a short-term project.  Terp reluctantly agrees on the basis that it will promote the Taft Law Firm’s good name.
     What is in store for them is (literally!) mountains of data for Rob to go through, unsatisfying responses from the DuPont company to his inquiries, and later on, major resistance and obstruction as a defense by DuPont, despite ever-mounting evidence against them.
     I wish I could describe to you a heroic story in which legal and political action made a decisive difference.  Although I cannot, I nevertheless urge the public to see this film (updated/extended from the Erin Brockovich) for its application to contemporary environmental and political concerns.  It’s a bit like a detective story that must accumulate data over a long period of time, and becomes a drama that is all too familiar today.
     Mark Ruffalo does an exemplary job portraying a man trying to overcome a compromised history by committing himself to helping the disadvantaged.  This comes at a cost, and we see his, his wife’s (Hathaway) and their family’s sacrifices.  Noteworthy (and perhaps award-worthy) is Bill Camp’s performance in playing a West Virginia farmer who is astute but not given credit for it by virtue of his accent, his class, and where he is from geographically (West Virginia). He successively endears others, and distances them because of his extreme (but well justified) anger. He is a significant supporting actor.
     Todd Haynes continues to surprise with his explorations into varying subjects and he and cinematographer Edward Lachman’s foray into innovative techniques in WonderstruckFar from Heaven, Carol, and this film, show their abilities to portray the poetic as well as the meaningful in their joint works.  I want to give a shout-out to composer Marcelo Zarvos, whose music has a paradoxical effect of being soft and lyrical, but with ominous overtones, even from the beginning.  Those tones let you know this will not be a romp through the park.  
     The movie gets into substantive issues relevant today about environmental concerns, corporate power, and the costs of social advocacy, while engaging you emotionally into the drama.

Dark Waters turn out to be toxic.

Grade:  B+                                    By Donna R. Copeland


THE TWO POPES


Jonathan Pryce     Anthony Hopkins     Juan Minujin


     It’s fascinating to hear two popes we’ve all seen on television having intimate conversations about their lives and about the Church, and showing in detail how the transition between the two leaders came about.  They met three times in the Vatican before the transfer of the papacy from Benedict to Francis.  Anthony McCarten based his script on his book, written after careful research and interviews with both popes (both of whom live in the Vatican). Director Fernando Meirelles says that all the lines in the script come from these interviews or conversations reported in the book.  It should be noted that the actual meetings are not likely to have taken place.  This is a dramatization based on McCarten’s work.
     But because the dialog is based on interviews with the real popes, the film conveys a sense of authenticity, helped along by the skills of the two actors and their genuine pleasure in one another’s company.  The story begins with the election of Joseph Aloisius Ratzinger, who took the name of Pope Benedict upon his ascension.  The name of one of the other candidates was the always-reluctant Jorge Mario Bergoglio.  Ratzinger did not care much for Bergoglio, who was fairly openly critical of him, as was Bergoglio of Ratzinger.  And indeed, the two held starkly contrasting views about the Catholic Church.  In general terms, the earlier pope was much more conservative than the progressive latter one, who became the present Pope Francis.
    The two could not have been more different, one coming from Germanic beliefs about society and conventional order, and the other from a passion about the sacredness of the priesthood in following the teachings of Jesus in terms of humility and equality.  Ironically, what brought them together were their Christian beliefs and their devotion to the Catholic Church.
     The conversations and flashbacks remind or inform about the sex and financial scandals that surfaced in the Catholic Church during Benedict’s term and the political history of Bergoglio when he was a Jesuit priest first, then bishop, in Argentina.  In trying to help during the junta and subsequent “Dirty War”, he made some political mistakes, for which he paid dearly, but subsequently believed that the experience was helpful to him morally.  Benedict came to realize that he had not acted judiciously and promptly to address scandals.
     In this somewhat haunting—but always interesting—tale, all of the components of filmmaking are top-notch.  Writing, direction, and editing move the story along at a good pace, maintaining the viewer’s keen interest, and flashbacks and changes of location are smooth and logical.  Cinematography is stunning at times and simply gorgeous at others, and the music is in turns wondrously sacred, dancing, or playful.  (References to ABBA and the Beatles are sure to bring chuckles).  
     One of the most impressive scenes I’ve seen in a film occurs in The Two Popes during an especially sensitive event, when there is an ethereal ray of sunlight, soft religious music, the speaker’s voice seeming to go into a tunnel, then everything abruptly stopped, and what we see is the stark midsection of a closed wooden door.  
     One of the most touching sequences in the film is the progression of the two characters’ frank distaste toward and disagreement with one another to a place of intimacy, acceptance, and above all understanding.  It is clear that in the end, each learned from the other. Each acknowledged a change of heart and belief in a way that should inspire us today in our time of extreme antagonism and suspicion among groups.  

This is a film for everyone in its inspiration for overcoming discordance in a fractious time and its artful, even humorous, portrayal of a beloved, sacred system.

Grade:  A                                    By Donna R. Copeland

Thursday, November 21, 2019

A BEAUTIFUL DAY IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD

Tom Hanks     Matthew Rhys     Susan Kelechi Watson     Chris Cooper     Christine Lahti


     In this film, “Mr. Rogers”, the television personality is portrayed as someone who will change the life of a reluctant expository journalist sent to interview him for a “hero” piece in a magazine.  Lloyd Vogel (Rhys) is shown to be absolutely myopic and abrasive in human interactions (and in his writings), even with his wife Andrea (Watson) and their infant child.  But after his abbreviated times with Rogers, he makes a miraculous transformation.  
     I think I understand what the filmmakers had in mind in making A Beautiful Day, which is to show how effective Mr. Rogers as a television personality could be in the real world with a grown-up.  But having had some personal interactions with the real Fred Rogers, and from my experience of the show when my daughter as a young child was transfixed by it, I came away from the movie rather taken aback.  This is a completely fanciful account of Mr. Rogers and the way in which he related to people outside his show.
     To be specific, when I was a psychologist in Pediatrics at M. D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Texas, we invited Fred Rogers to our annual Mental Health Conference1.  He came and gave a moving presentation about how he worked with kids. During his stay, we had a number of conversations with him.  I want to say that at no time when he talked with us as adults, did he use the same tone as he did on his show with children or use a style of probing someone's psyche, as is shown in this film particularly when talking to the journalist Lloyd Vogel. 
     My misgivings with the film have mostly to do with the dialog.  Writers Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster have written dialog that sounds artificial, as if someone who isn’t Mr. Rogers is trying to sound just like him, and then applying it unrealistically.  The real Rogers—or anyone with psychological sensitivity—would not ask probing questions of a journalist as if he were the man’s therapist.  Fred Rogers was much more sophisticated and psychologically informed than that.
     As far as the acting, Tom Hanks does a marvelous rendition of Fred Rogers’ manner, voice, and demonstrative concern.  Even his singing is engaging.  It was especially provocative to see Matthew Rhys (such an astute, insightful character in “The Americans”) come across as an acerbic, obtuse character who seems completely ignorant of everyday niceties and needs of others.  The rest of the cast including the always effective Chris Cooper as Lloyd’s father and Susan Kelechi Watson as his wife are top-notch.
     In my way of thinking, the writers and director Marielle Heller should have gotten more consultation about the essence of Fred Rogers and his “Neighborhood” show before embarking on the project.  Their backgrounds in Can You Ever Forgive Me, Maleficent, and A Walk among the Tombstones are not adequate preparation and experience for a movie about a master of subtlety and guidance of children.

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is not likely to encourage reminiscences about Mr. Rogers or his show for children.

Grade:  D                         By Donna R. Copeland

1Rogers, Fred.  Growing with Children.  In Donna R. Copeland, Betty Pfefferbaum, Allison Stovall (Ed.) The Mind of the Child Who Is Said To Be Sick.  Springfield, IL: Charles C. Thomas.  1983, pp. 5-12.  


FROZEN II

Voices of:  Kristen Bell     Jonathan Groff     Evan Rachel Wood     Jason Ritter
Idina Menzel     Sterling K. Brown     Josh Gad     Alfred Molina


     Frozen II is enchanting in the way fairytales are supposed to be, with thrilling visual effects, inspiring story, and imaginative characters—some endearing, some fearful, and some odious.  The film jumps back to when Elsa and Anna are children, and their father tells them the story of Arendelle and his role in it. Arendelle was friendly to another group in the Enchanted Forest and things were peaceful, until something happened to put them at war with each other.  This caused the four spirits of Air, Water, Fire, and Earth to create an impenetrable mist to descend on the forest, so that neither group could live there any more.
     Jump forward to the present when sisters Elsa (Menzel) and Anna (Bell) are grown up and thriving in their beloved Arendelle.  But Elsa, who has special powers with ice and snow, starts hearing voices in song calling to her.  She eventually feels it so strongly, that she is determined to enter the Enchanted Forest (described to her by her father) now covered in mist. Anna begs to go with her, and she finally relents, but suddenly, Kristoff (Groff)—trying desperately to protect Anna—riding on Sven the reindeer, and Olaf (Gad) the snowman are in the entourage.  
     On the treacherous journey, they’ll encounter numerous obstacles that will test their courage and strength.  Right off the bat, when a few try to penetrate the mist, they are abruptly thrown back on their rears.  They will have to go through the spirits of air, water, fire, and earth and use them to their advantage in order to get the answer they’re seeking and return home.
     At one point, Elsa decides she has to persist on her own, and takes off, leaving the others behind.  After forging through harrowing obstacles, she encounters family members of the past, learns crucial information about what happened, and solves the problem.  Not without her sister, however; one point of the story is the importance of working together and communicating to one another.  
     I imagine that most children will love this story, and it has many gems for them about the importance of history, human needs for family and friends and their communication and cooperation in achieving tasks, and the value of hope. 
     Frozen II, like the previous Frozen, is a musical, with characters breaking out into song, always expressing the character’s experience and furthering the story.  Christophe Beck, composer, has played an essential role in this, which is one of the eloquent aspects of the story.  All the writers (directors Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee, Kristen Anderson-Lopez, Robert Lopez, Allison Schroeder, and Marc Smith) deserve artistic credit for weaving a captivating story with heart and soul.

Do take your children/grandchildren to see Frozen II to delight, inspire, and thrill them.

Grade:  A                                    By Donna R. Copeland

HONEY BOY

Shia Le Beouf     Lucas Hedges     Noah Jupe


     The poster of a boy after getting pie thrown in his face is eloquent in captivating the story behind Honey Boy.  In reality, the picture was made during a filming sequence when the child actor, Shia LeBeouf, was hit in the face with a pie. Metaphorically, it could denote LeBeouf’s childhood when he was living with his father and all kinds of things landed on his head.  At the time, he is a successful child actor who actually pays his father to be his chaperone [his parents are divorced, and with a criminal record, James Lort (LeBeouf) has difficulty finding a job].  
     Honey Boy is a largely autobiographical account written by LeBeouf about his childhood.  He plays the role of his father, whereas Noah Jupe plays “Otis” when he is 12, with Lucas Hedges taking on the role as an adolescent. All three actors give praiseworthy performances.
     It’s a heartfelt rendition, showing the pain of discovery in the young Shia and his agony around the consequences later on.  James Lort is an unorthodox parent, to say the least.  It’s clear he has no inkling about how to be a father or how to guide his son either through role modeling or sage advice. It’s clear he has his own issues that spill over onto his son.  Although he’s desperate and is forced in some ways to have his son support him financially, it is humiliating for him.  
     As happens in such cases, the child takes on a parental role in comforting his father, reasoning with him, soothing his fears and unrest, and trying to coach him on how to be a better parent.  But, of course, this falls on deaf ears and escalates Lort’s discomfort and shame.  It’s so sad to see a child being so direct and clear about his needs and know that the parent cannot possibly understand because he himself has not experienced good parenting.
     Honey Boy represents an honest effort to relate what transpired in Shia LeBeouf’s early life that led to his desperation as a young adult to come to terms with it and work through the consequences. It’s interesting to see elements in the father’s personality that have been transmitted to the son, such that his way of coping resembles his father’s—but only partially.  He gets help (that was likely inaccessible to his father), which appears to get him on track for recovery.  As good as the film is, directed by Alma Har’el, I wish she and LeBeouf had given us more information about the mother.  We only overhear her in phone calls. 
     LeBeouf’s performance as his father has almost an eerie quality to it in its perceptiveness and emotional understanding.  There is nothing like real experience to inform an actor about a role, and nothing like a talented actor capturing a real experience.  Lucas Hedges consistently gets praise for his varied roles, and here he conveys so well the “waking up” of a person beginning to probe his early life and relationships and being horrified at the enormity of the task.  Noah Jupe shows great promise and will surely always be remembered for his graphic portrayal of a young boy trying desperately to understand a parent continually giving him mixed messages.  He manages to show in his face all the turmoil that is going on inside him, and the agony that follows when there seems to be no way out.

Delving into one’s extraordinary past as a child movie star living with an abusive father takes courage and Shia LeBeouf shows he has that courage and willingness to share it with others as catharsis and possibly as a model for others from similar circumstances.

Grade:  B+                                    By Donna R. Copeland


KNIVES OUT

Ana de Armas     Jamie Lee Curtis     Toni Collette     Chris Evans     Don Johnson    Katherine Langford
Daniel Craig     Michael Shannon     LaKeith Stanfield     Jayden Martell    Christopher Plummer     Frank Oz


     This elegant pastiche fulfills its intention of laying out an ingenious plot with all the usual motifs of detective stories, tossing in blocks of humor and human foibles to keep you thoroughly entertained.  Writer/director/producer Rion Johnson (known for awarded works like Star Wars VIII:  the Last Jedi, Looper, and Brick) outdoes himself here, not only in his own efforts, but in assembling a formidable cast as well, most notable being Daniel Craig as private detective Benoit Blanc with a Texas twang.
     The set-up is Marta Cabrera (Armas) working as a nurse for aging Harlan Thrombey (Plummer) a wealthy book publisher.  Thrombey has numerous family members he is supporting, some of whom live in his mansion.  Tragically, one night after his 80-something birthday celebration, he is dead the next morning, apparently from a suicide.
     Enter Lieutenant Ellliott (Stanfield) and his trooper, along with a mysterious figure who sits to the side, Benoit Blanc.  As they question family members (paying homage to all the detective stories you’ve ever seen), we become acquainted with the motley group. Eldest daughter Linda (Curtis) is married to Richard Drysdale (Johnson) and they have a son Jacob (Martell). Son Walt (Shannon) thinks he is next in line to manage his father’s company, and is given something else to manage in the meantime.  Then there is the youngest son Ransom (Evans) who has a reputation for not working and hasn’t even appeared for the funeral.  Finally, there is daughter-in-law Joni (Collette), who is still part of the family in widowhood, and her daughter Meg (Langford), who is attending college, paid for by Harlan.  All of these actors shine in portraying their eccentric characters.
     Marta, the nurse who will be at the center of the drama, has a mother and sister from another country (humorously, family members always forget exactly which country), and much is made of their origins, and these facts are even used in threatening ways at times.         The crux of the story involves medications Marta administers to Harlan, his penchant for developing published fictions, and a major investigation, with everyone suspect.  Armas is a delight in her wide-eyed innocence and showing in her face her struggles to be a good person in a context of potential exploitation.
     Knives Out is likely to appeal to everyone who likes a good detective story.  This one delivers while still spoofing all those that have come before.  

Knives Out is a smart, entertaining look at deviousness, innocence, and human nature that can go either way.

Grade:  A                                    By Donna R. Copeland

Thursday, November 14, 2019

WAVES

Taylor Russell     Kelvin Harrison, Jr.    Alexa Demie
Bill Wise     lucas Hedges     Renee Elise Goldsberry    Sterling K. Brown


     Trey Edward Shults is considered one of the up-and-coming writer-directors whose two previous features (Krisha and It Comes at Night) were well received, the former about a family dealing with one of its mentally disturbed members, and the latter about two families dealing with an alien invasion. Now, with Waves, Shults has chosen to portray family relationships in a middle class black family trying its best to achieve aspirations primarily defined by the father.  “We cannot afford to be average”, he admonishes his son when he is encouraging him to work harder.
     The story is complex, reflecting Shults’ keen observations of family dynamics in ordinary as well as stressful situations.  
     Ronald (Brown) drives his son hard in his chosen sport of wrestling, coaching and working out with him and playfully competing.  Tyler (Harrison) is a sensitive young man who is attentive to his mother and plays the piano.  But he is also a fierce wrestling competitor with a future, it seems. This will all be made more complicated by his romantic attachment to Alexis (Russell).  When they have a major disagreement about an important decision, she breaks up with him, throwing him for a loop.
     This is not Tyler’s only stress; he has developed a shoulder injury that threatens to end his hopes in wrestling.  The seriousness of the injury is explained to him by the doctor, but Tyler, in the family mode of keeping worries to himself says nothing to his parents.  Neither—interestingly—does the doctor call and talk to them about it.  (It’s unclear in the film whether Tyler is yet 18.)
     And this is a place where I get on my bandstand about filmmakers repeatedly telling stories in which people don’t talk to one another about major events in their lives.  I realize this is not uncommon in real life, but films have a chance to model for their viewers the miraculous effects of open communication.  For instance, the tragedy that takes place in Waves could have been avoided had Tyler discussed what he was going through with his parents.  In the beginning scenes of the film, we have been set up to think that this closely-knit, affectionate family with good communication would have supported him emotionally and helped him in problem solving.  
     In a similar vein, it was unbelievable to me that this particular family would not have discussed birth control with their children.  When even vomiting is graphically portrayed, why would we not hear of birth control discussed with either adolescent in the family? Not much is said in the beginning about Tyler’s sister Emily (Russell), but after the tragedy, she becomes the focus in her relationship with Luke (Hedges).  Their friendship is portrayed as much healthier (although still no evidence of birth control), starkly contrasting with the one between Tyler and Alexis.
     The actors are really fine in this film, some noteworthy for their previous accomplishments.  Sterling K. Brown (most notable for his award-winning performances in the TV series “This is Us” and “American Crime Story”) is convincing as a father wanting his family elevated to their true potential.  Renee Elise Goldsberry (known primarily for her Tony Award winning performance in Broadway’s “Hamilton”) plays the devoted mother and wife who takes loss so hard, she almost loses everything.  Lucas Hedges (nominated for supporting roles in Manchester by the Sea and Ladybird) brings a kind of peace and understanding to the story in his portrayal of a male who is sensitive, kind, and unbiased.  
     The two main characters in the first part of the movie are portrayed by Kelvin Harrison, Jr., and Alexa Demie, with Taylor Russell highlighted in the latter part. All of these actors, who are supposed to be in high school, are 25 years old.  There are enough talented teenagers to play these parts in movies, so I don’t understand why filmmakers consistently cast older actors to play their roles.  When the discrepancy is so obvious, it’s highly distracting.  
     Another distracting (and irritating) element in this film is the assault on the senses with sudden bursts of sound coming from whistles, voices, music, horns, and the quick cuts between scenes that have nothing to do with one another. Cinematographer Drew Daniels has inserted beautiful pure color scenes that enhance the mood of the film. These should be the guiding light for the editors (Isaac Hagy and Shults himself) in future endeavors.
     Like many interested others, I will be following Trey Edward Shults in his future endeavors.

A gripping drama that highlights a black family’s struggle to achieve their aspirations.

Grade:  B                                    By Donna R. Copeland

THE REPORT

Adam Driver     Annette Bening     Corey Stoll     Jon Hamm     Linda Powell     Maura Tierney
Douglas Hodge     T. Ryder Smith     Joanne Tucker     Michael C. Hall     Matthew Rhys


     The dramatization of the U.S. Government’s reaction to 9-1-1 is outlined in Scott Burns’ movie, The Report, which focuses on the report prepared by Senator Dianne Feinstein’s Intelligence Committee, delegated to David Jones, one of her aides.  It shows the dogged five-year efforts of Jones to wrest documents from the CIA related to its practice of detention and enhanced interrogation techniques (EITs) to get information about when/where the next attack would be.
     Gathering data for the report was impeded from the very beginning by CIA officials who refused to share most of their files. Adam Driver embodies the Jones character, eloquently expressing his patience, his diligence, and his intelligence in reading and interpreting reams of material amidst all kinds of setbacks.  Setbacks that never came from his boss, California Senator Dianne Feinstein (Annette Bening), however; as deliberate and politically aware as she was she was also clearly aware of Jones’ honesty and capabilities, so protects him and guides him in negotiating shark-infested waters.
     The film charts Jones’ journey, highlighting his findings despite obstructions, the strategic use of subterfuge to make sure the report was seen and circulated, and the horrifying examples (some presented graphically) of what he found, including clear-cut examples of torture. The two psychologists hired as consultants—James Mitchell (Hodge) and Bruce Jessen (Smith)—had no experience in interrogation, at a time when the country had teams of FBI agents who were experts and should have been in charge of the program.  But, instead, Mitchell and Jessen were put in charge, implementing their unproven methods with virtually no checks or oversight.
     It’s sadly ironic to learn that as early as 1978, the CIA had concluded that brutal tactics are not effective in getting detainees to talk; moreover, they typically result in false answers. The report showed that in their desperation following the 9-1-1 attacks, leaders in the CIA willfully ignored its own earlier findings. 
     I think this documentary is valuable in illuminating a part of our government’s history in which major miscalculations were made, hundreds were made to suffer—some to die—and there were proven injustices committed.  It’s pertinent to present-day situations, and one hopes we will be mindful of and remember what we learned previously.
     My difficulty with the film’s presentation is the rapidity with which major players in the drama are introduced (without clearly identifying who they are).  Moreover, some subtitles meant to give the viewer context fly by so quickly, its difficult to see them and simultaneously follow conversations that are ongoing.  Although I think the film is basically a good one, director Scott Burns and editor Greg O’Bryant should have picked up on this during postproduction.  
     Adam Driver is consistently admired for his acting skills in many different kinds of roles including this one.  He conveys the carefulness shown by Jones, as well as his agony when he is being blocked and questioned.  Annette Bening is likewise highly skilled, but not as often recognized for it as she deserves.  Here, as Senator Dianne Feinstein, she captures the politically astute Congresswoman’s quiet, confident demeanor and decisiveness in tense situations, despite trying to navigate successfully through the sensitive politics of the situation.  These two leads are backed up by a strong cast including Jon Hamm, Maura Tierney, Linda Powell, Corey Stoll, Ted Levine, and others.

A real-life drama depicting the reactions of Washington’s politicos to the 9-1-1 disaster. 

Grade: B                                                By Donna R. Copeland

THE IRISHMAN

Robert De Niro     Al Pacino     Joe Pesci     Anna Paquin     Bobby Cannavale
Harvey Keitel     Ray Romano     Jack Huston     Jesse Plemons


     Martin Scorsese and screenwriter Steven Zaillian used Charles Brandt’s book as the primary source for the movie.  Typical of Scorsese, the story takes 3½ hours to tell.  I was surprised that it held my interest the entire time, which is a testament to the fine storytelling and acting.  I have not read the book, which Brandt wrote [I Heard You Paint Houses, 2004, after he interviewed Frank Sheeran (played by De Niro) at the end of his life]; but the film is convincing in describing the different groups and characters involved in the whole Jimmy Hoffa (played by Al Pacino) mystery and intrigue.
     In the film, Frank delivers meat to restaurants for a living.  When he is accused of stealing some of it, his lawyer, who has connections with a mob, gets him off, and thus begins Frank’s budding career in doing favors for crime bosses Russell Bufalino (Pesci) and Angelo Bruno (Keitel).  Then, Russell tells Frank that Hoffa is interested in him, and Hoffa uses him as his right-hand man for years, sometimes putting Frank between him and Russell.  Frank’s delicately stepping through these waters is something to see and admire.
     Al Pacino as Hoffa stands out as a highly complex figure whose strength is in reading people; this puts him in a slightly paranoid stance at times, but he is often right; and this is a fine line for an actor to pull off.  Robert De Niro shines as the star of the film, showing his sincere loyalties, his ambivalences, and his measured approach to any difficult situation.  His character’s face is impassive, revealing little of what he is thinking, which makes it a somewhat easier role, perhaps.  Joe Pesci is able to show the power of persuasion that Russell has in getting so many people to do his bidding, including Sheeran, involving him in fundamental betrayals.
     The movie goes into details about the struggles between the unions at the time and big business and government, a time when the unions have been victorious, but whose leaders are now in bed with the mob and cavalierly using workers’ pension money in their own games of roulette.  A schism develops between Hoffa and Russell specifically around their differing views of the Kennedys, particularly toward the Attorney General, Robert Kennedy, who is bringing cases against them both of them and the Teamsters, which ultimately triangulates Frank and tests his loyalties.
     Scorsese lives up to his reputation for composing and orchestrating a major production with precision, excellent casting, and editing.  Music by Robbie Robertson and production design by Bob Shaw help create the essentials in mood and look of the 1950’s. Spanning a period of 40 years, using aging techniques for the actors’ appearance is impressive.
     That being said, I personally would have preferred a more abbreviated version of the story, as noted by others.  In my opinion, the 3½-hour length could have been reduced without sacrificing the quality of filmmaking.  

Unless you’re a diehard crime story enthusiast who much prefers a big screen, I suggest you wait for the Netflix edition of The Irishman premiering on November 15.

Grade:  B                                    By Donna R. Copeland


THE GOOD LIAR

Helen Mirren     Ian McKellen     Jim Carter     Russell Tovay     Lily Dodsworth-Evans


    There are lies and damn lies (we’ll leave out “and statistics”, which is part of the popularized quote about three kinds of lies), which this clever film has aplenty.  Best not to sort them out in a review, because lying is one of the most entertaining aspects of The Good Liar.  It’s based on the same entitled thriller novel by Nicholas Searle, with screenplay by Jeffrey Hatcher, and it’s very cleverly written.  Director Bill Condon has exploited its strong points by leading the audience where he wants us to go with good pacing and information doled out in strategic bits.
     Of course, the two main actors (Mirren and McKellen) are a major part of the show, bringing all their impressive experience to bear in portraying characters who are themselves acting, although not apparently so.  They meet on an online dating site with assumed names, but soon reveal themselves to be Betty and Roy, who have lost spouses fairly recently.  
     She is taken by his charms, much to the chagrin of her grandson Steven (Tovay), whom she regards as overly protective.  She makes it clear that even though she is a simple widow, she is in charge of her life. So when Roy makes her feel so special, she is ready to make life plans with him, disregarding her grandson’s warnings.  
     How will this turn out?  It’s clear that she is a wealthy woman who appears a bit na├»ve, and he has some kind of past that keeps bubbling up, but they seem to have worked out an arrangement.
     But this is only part of the story.  The last 45 minutes of the film delves into material you probably wouldn’t have surmised.  The denouement brings in a history not imagined, although the viewer might be suspecting certain outcomes.  
     At any rate, The Good Liar is a deliciously conceived thriller that entertains throughout.  Music by Carter Burwell heightens the mood of the time and the action on the screen, transporting us into a thriller we can invest in.

An entertaining, intriguing story lit up by charismatic actors in a delightful ruse.

Grade:  B                                    By Donna R. Copeland


FORD v FERRARI

Christian Bale     Matt Damon     Caitriona Balfe     Jon Bernthal
Tracy Letts     Josh Lucas     JJ Field     Noah Jupe


     Yes, this film is about car racing, but it’s also about corporate culture and how it wields its power, showing how one major player can influence major events; and it’s about the friendship between two men, both of whom fit the emotional reticence of “macho” men, yet remain extremely close to one another. Thankfully, the wife and son of one of them provide balance to a testosterone-filled drama.
     Carroll Shelby (Damon) has a significant reputation as a racecar driver, but when his health forces him to stop, he becomes a designer of racecars, pulling in his good friend and driver, Ken Miles (Bale).  Shelby has a successful business designing and assembling sports cars, partly by virtue of his salesmanship and negotiating talent. Ken, on the other hand, is prickly, often offending others, and his car repair business is failing.
     When Lee Iacocca (Bernthal) of the Ford Motor Company begins to have aspirations of competing with Ferrari, current winner of multiple Le Mans races, he approaches Shelby, who has been the only American to have ever won the race.  He wants Shelby to partner with Ford to make a car that will give Ferrari competition.  
     What follows is the conflict between the creativity of Shelby and Miles with the Ford Corporation’s executive layers and its insistence on employees toeing whatever line it sets.  In addition, we see the struggle between middle-class “good ‘ole boy” war heroes and the upper crust of society.  We also get a glimpse of treachery that is sometimes characteristic of overly ambitious sorts and the self-entitlement of those born into wealth.
     The film tells an exciting, gripping story (more-so for those who are fascinated by cars and racing), written by Jez and John-Henry Butterworth and Jason Keller, based on Anthony Pritchard’s book (2011) about the Le Mans 1966 competition, pitting Ford versus Ferrari.  It’s well directed by James Mangold, but the jerky editing—especially in the beginning—detracts from its success.  The roar of sports cars around town accompanied by a soft “Chica Chica Boom Boom” rendition is fun, but when the races are full on, on the track, it is hard on the ears and head for those of us less enamored by the sport.
     Along with the excitement provided by a story about racing and personal conflicts, Christian Bale and Matt Damon are the hallmarks of the film.  They are the big draw, and lend their well-deserved stardom to boost the appeal.  Bale shows his range in all the different roles he has played (as a fighter in The Fighter, to an action figure in The Dark Knight films, to the Vice President of the United States in Vice, to name a few), and here as a cantankerous but brilliant race driver who keeps a cool head and is willing to take risks.  Damon’s Texas accent and persona come across as authentic, and it looks like he thoroughly enjoys savoring it the whole time. This role resembles his award-winning performance in The Martian, in its ingenuity and being able to think on his feet.  
     Lovely Caitriona Balfe as the wife of irascible Ken Miles, adds dimension to the story, and her pluckiness and daring is also one of the high points of the film. Most endearing, of course, is Noah Jupe as Peter Miles, Ken’s son.  Jupe mixes childhood reverence and joy showing keen perception on what Peter is learning, which, like the Molly Miles character, provides some levity to the male competitiveness.

Ford v Ferrari will be appealing primarily to car racing enthusiasts who will be fascinated by what went into the 1966 Le Mans race.

Grade:  B                                    By Donna R. Copeland