Wednesday, August 21, 2019

THE PEANUT BUTTER FALCON

Shia LeBeouf     Dakota Johnson     Zack Gottsagen
John Hawkes     Thomas Haden Church     Bruce Dern


     Tyler (LeBeouf) and Zak (Gottsagen) make a most unlikely pair—almost as implausible as peanut butter and falcon.  But all of it comes together in this charming tale of overcoming the odds and living in the moment—against the background of catchy folk music tunes.
Local thief Tyler, holding a lot of anger and depression, is on the run when his path crosses that of Zak, an orphaned runaway from the nursing home, with Down’s Syndrome.  Zak has hidden away in Tyler’s boat, not realizing that Tyler is being chased by the men he stole from.  On Zak’s tail is his caretaker Carolyn (Johnson) from the home.  But after a touch-and-go start, Tyler and Zak have figured out a way to survive in the wild, and they’ve become bro’s with a special handshake.
     Having grown up with an older brother, now deceased, who was his mentor, Tyler is basically honorable and doesn’t have the heart to leave Zak behind. Instead, he becomes Zak’s mentor, something that Zak is sorely in need of after a life of being over-protected. His hunger for masculine influence is expressed by a burning desire to meet his idol, Salt Water Redneck (Church), and attend his wrestling school.  Tyler encourages him in this pursuit, promises to take him there, teaches him survival skills like swimming (after Zak had almost drowned), and even begins training him for wrestling by building up his strength. When Zak is indulging in peanut butter one evening, Tyler says he needs to pick out a wrestling name, an “alter ego.”  Zak thinks of a falcon, and somehow the peanut butter gets mixed in, and the name “Peanut Butter Falcon” is celebrated.
     Meanwhile, the dedicated Carolyn, who has become something of a mother figure to Zak, is canvassing the countryside with a picture of Zak and questioning whether anyone has seen him.  When she finally locates him and Tyler on the beach with their makeshift raft, she gets drawn into their adventure, and the duo becomes an even more unlikely threesome (a “family!” Zak proudly proclaims).
Their journey to Salt Water Redneck will be filled with folksy adventures and danger in the form of Tyler’s determined pursuers.  These travels are entertaining and frequently amusing as we see them accommodate to one another, develop insights, and form a close bond.
     Peanut Butter Falcon is enjoyable as light entertainment with some soul and human truths that give it some substance, and a number of close calls that create excitement.  The cast is probably the most impressive quality it has. Applause is in order for Zack Gottsagen for his convincing portrayal of his character with a combination of pluckiness, determination, likeability, and sheer joy.  Tyler is a different role for Shia LeBeouf, one that is more intimate and emotional than his usual, and he pulls it off nicely.  John Hawkes, Thomas Hayden Church, and Bruce Dern all cinch the entertainment value of their distinctive cameos, for which they are perfectly cast.

Suspend disbelief and take in this fanciful, heartwarming film.

Grade:  B                                    By Donna R. Copeland

Monday, August 19, 2019

THE NIGHTINGALE

Aisling Franciosi     Sam Claflin     Baykale Ganambarr     Michael Sheasby


      The Nightingale in this story is an Irish woman with a lyrical, clear-as-a-bell voice caught up in the colonization of Australia 1825.  Having served a prison term, she needs papers from her husband’s superior to absolve her of her crimes and be free.  She has an infant and she and her husband are trying desperately to escape to parts unknown.  The problem is Leftenant Hawkins (Claflin), who has a hold over both Aiden (Sheasby) and Clare (Franciosi), has no qualms about exacting services from her against her will.
     I wanted so much to love this movie.  The writer/director Jennifer Kent, cinematographer Radek Ladczuk, and musician Jed Kurzel all worked together on the well received Babadook (2014) in which a woman is forced to deal with supernatural forces.  In contrast, in this film the main protagonist, Clare (Franciosi), must confront and deal with a real man whose ethical/moral principles never seem to have registered.  We admire her fortitude and perseverance in overcoming one obstacle after another, only to find herself trudging through the Australian outback, guided by an Aboriginal, Billy (Ganambarr).
     My primary issue with the film is in the character of Clare, a woman tough as nails in some scenes, but sinking into passivity in others when real action is required.  It’s an inconsistency in character that is simply not plausible.  I didn’t necessarily expect her to be super-hero heroic—as in recent films attempting to highlight the power of women—but I would expect the fire that propelled her toward vengeance and fuel her stubbornness toward her black guide would last to the end when she finally confronts her tormenter.  But she freezes at significant times, which is inconsistent with how she is portrayed earlier in the film.  There are also lapses in judgment, which seem uncharacteristic for someone of Clare’s temperament.
     The Nightingale is beautifully filmed, but would have benefitted from more judicious cutting of violent scenes that go on too long and some of the scenes where the actors are trudging through brush.  Aisling Franciosi makes a wonderful Clare, showing her honesty, solid values, and fortitude in the face of adversity.  Sam Claflin captures the smooth sleeze of a lieutenant who has been promoted beyond his capabilities and has no compassion for others, but only for his own advancements.

A beautifully rendered film about a convicted Irish woman’s struggles in surviving and maintaining her family in Australia.

Grade:  C+                                    By Donna R. Copeland

READY OR NOT

Samara Weaving     Mark O’Brien     Andie MacDowell    Adam Brody     Henry Czerny


     The entire premise on which this film is based is that family myths are true and their precepts must be heeded when, by now, we all know that everything your family tells you is not necessarily so.  The picture opens in a huge mansion with everyone running around with masks on.  It looks intriguing, but don’t hold your breath.
     Thirty years later, the Le Domas family myth lives on and the rituals are still observed, an excellent time to teach young children the traditions.  After having been somewhat estranged from his family, the oldest son and heir to the family fortune, Alex (O’Brien), has brought his bride home for their wedding.  Grace (Weaving) is a bit intimidated by the family, but sees their tradition of a game to welcome new members to the fold as amusing, and she’s ready to play along.  
     Little does she know what she’s in for; Alex has not divulged to her the bizarre aspect of “games” in their household.  He gives her a chance to back out, but she thinks he’s being silly, and goes ahead and draws the card that will indicate the game they will play:  Hide and Seek.  She’s a little puzzled, but immediately goes to look for a place to hide; the family will play the part of the seekers.  Foreboding dawns immediately when Grace elects to hide in a dumb waiter.
     That much will suffice in giving the reader a hint as to what the story will be about. Horror buffs may revel in this production filled with gore to the laughable stage.  It offers a “thrill” a minute; just leave your logic at home.  Grace will be running and fighting for her life for the next hour.
     It seems to me, the hinge on which everything depends, the script by Guy Busick and Ryan Murphy, falls short in providing material that this group of fine actors could exploit, nor does it engage the viewer in reacting to the horror and mystery.  It is something of a hack job (pun intended) where one impossible event follows another. For instance, one is not meant to question how a character can use her hands that have been shot and pierced with a nail to scale an iron fence, choke a pursuer, and use them for other means of escape.
     Samara Weaving performs admirably, showing real strength beneath a veneer of blond beauty, along with strength of will, even when it looks like she’s done for. Her feats are not always plausible, but they elicit interest and some degree of satisfaction.  Adam Brody as the loyal brother of Alex, also brings expertise to his role.  The other actors, including Andie MacDowell and Henry Czerny, are solid back-ups for the main stars.

Ready or Not is a film for horror fans who enjoy the action without having to think through the logic of the plot.

Grade:  D                                    By Donna R. Copeland


LUCE

Naomi Watts     Tim Roth     Kelvin Harrison, Jr.    Octavia Spencer
Norbert Leo Butz     Andrea Bang     Astro     Noah Gaynor


     Complexity is an understatement in this film about weighty topics ranging from race, privacy, security, trust, secrets, and communications that are misread because of listeners’ presumptions and conscious or unconscious wishes.  Luce’s strength is in illustrating how much anxiety and pain come to bear when there are no easy answers.  It’s a story that is worthy of much discussion after the movie among those genuinely moved by the events depicted.
     Initially, the Edgar family seems so admirably ideal.  Amy (Watts) and Peter (Roth) adopted a 10 year-old survivor of abuse and former child soldier in African Eretrea, and seem to have brought up a black-skinned child with all the privileges typical of privileged white children.  Named ‘Luce” (meaning “light”), the child is so gifted, personable, and emotionally balanced, he arouses expectations of fame, not only from his parents, but teachers and even other students—which, ironically, becomes a burden to him when he sees how favorably he is treated compared to fellow classmates.D 
     In high school, Luce has a diverse group of friends and easily recognizes the bias with which some are treated, while he is excused.  He has a highly ambivalent relationship with his favorite teacher, Miss Wilson (Spencer), who is one of those who, he feels, expect him to be perfect.  He and the history teacher have sparring sessions fraught with a mixture of respect, overt politeness, and outright barbs.  It’s hard for the viewer to sort out the truths in this relationship, just as it is for the protagonists.  In a clever bit of script writing, the two people at different times make the statement, “Unfair doesn’t make it untrue.”
     During the course of the drama, we learn more about the Edgars’ conflicts with each other and between them and Luce.  It’s clear that husband and wife differ in their relationships with Luce.  As best as she tries to keep her private life confidential, Miss Wilson’s family history is exposed in a most unsettling way.  Luce’s diverse group of friends provides further intrigue and muddying of the waters.
     This production, directed by Julius Onah and co-written with J. C. Lee is fascinating in its grasp of contemporary issues that are not easily sorted out, all while being engrossing and entertaining.  Kelvin Harrison, Jr., as Luce performs expertly, portraying a character a bit too facile in his explanations and studied politeness.  However, at 25, he just can’t be convincing as a high school teenager.  (My ongoing gripe is the casting of young adults to play teenagers when there is an abundance of qualified younger actors in that age range.  Age discrepancy is highly disconcerting to those of us well acquainted with teenagers.  All of the “teens” in this film are in their mid-twenties, and one is 30 years old.)
     Octavia Spence is one actor continually worthy of praise.  She has recently branched out into roles where the character is a mix-up of good and bad qualities (e.g., Ma), all captivating, and highlighting her ability to portray conflicting personality characteristics.  Naomi Watts and Tim Roth also have nuanced performances that are convincing as real people going through major self-exploration and adaptation.  
     Julius Onah is early in his career as director and producer (this is only his second full feature film), and with Luce, he shows promise as a sensitive filmmaker knowledgeable about human frailties and strengths, and expert in storytelling.  Contributing to the quality of Luceare writer J. C. Lee, musicians Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury, and cinematographer Larkin Seiple.  

Combining mystery, intrigue, and entertainment with topical issues of race and privilege, Luce challenges viewers to question what is truth in the story and ways in which our own biases may come into play.

Grade:  B+                                    By Donna R. Copeland

Friday, August 16, 2019

HONEYLAND


     I was struck by Hatidze’s face when she first appears on screen.  She has one of those visages that reflect life experiences; and the fact that the wrinkles all up her cheeks seem to be from smiling gives us a clue as to her personality.  Of course, it’s also obvious that wrinkles from worry are there as well. As an aside, it turns out she is only in her early 50’s, but looks more like 80, a reflection of the life she has had.
     At first, it seems like Hatidze and her aging, ailing mother are leading reasonably comfortable lives, except that the mother is bedridden and losing her sight and hearing.  They bicker, but convey to each other as well their devotion.  The mother is sympathetic with Hatidze, knowing that she is a burden, and she clearly seems ready to die, but life persists. As the youngest daughter in the family, Hatidze takes seriously the custom that she is to take care of her mother until she dies, even though she has numerous brothers.  Hatidze shows only traces of resentment about this, and consistently tries to do the best for her that she can.
     A significant event occurs when a large family with seven children settles in next door. Hussein and his wife Ljutvie seem to be industrious, fixing up abandoned crumbling structures on the land and raising animals.  The kids do a lot of tumbling around and wrestling with one another, but they also help a great deal with whatever chores come up.  
Since Hatidze has always had an isolated life, she is thrilled to see the family and immediately bonds with the children, singing, playing, dancing, and teaching one boy about beekeeping, her primary occupation—her livelihood really.  
     Hussein shows an interest in beekeeping, and Hatidze freely shares with him her considerable knowledge about it.  
     In addition to the cross-cultural aspects of Honeyland, the theme of human interactions with nature is strong, first showing up in demonstrating how Hatidze relates to the bees, singing to them, and expressing her gratitude for their honey, always leaving them half for themselves.  Hussein represents the modern way of thinking that nature (and anything else in reach) must be conquered and grabbed.  [I wanted to scream at him like Ygritte to Jon Snow in Game of Thrones:  You know nothing, Hussein!].  But unlike Jon Snow, Hussein does not learn from experience or others’ guidance.  Greed and a tempter get the best of him.
     What follows is conflict and tense conversations between Hussein and Hatidze.  
     The film ends on a thoughtful note about how this story plays out, leaving the viewer with the sense that Hatidze’s inner strength and strong character will see her through to the end, without which it might be a bleak story.  A follow-up interview with the directors and their comments about Ljutvie and her innate talent for being in front of a camera is further testament of her strength and fortitude.
     Directors Tamara Kotevska and Ljubomir Stefanov present an illuminating—and entertaining—picture showing the enculturation of diverse groups and the delicate balance between nature and humans.  Hatidze represents love of nature and other human beings; Hussein, the self-serving capitalist who ignores the importance of both.  Cinematography by Samir Ljuma and Fejmi Daut is breathtaking from the vast expanse of the surrounding countryside to the intimacy of daily life in a family.  
     The film seems as much a drama as a documentary, and the real people portraying themselves is truly remarkable.  Also remarkable is the fact that the story is the real story of what transpired.  Neither of the directors speaks the language of the protagonists, and the work was filmed in real time.  For instance, they were unaware beforehand that the large family would arrive while they were there.  Cinema Veritè at its best.

Take a trip to the beautiful, remote countryside of Macedonia in Turkey for an interesting excursion into human struggles and joys and their relationship with nature.

Grade:  A                                    By Donna R. Copeland




THE CHAMBERMAID (LA CAMARISTA)

Gabriela Cartol     Teresa Sanchez


     The life of a chambermaid is not one most of us can imagine, but writer (with Juan Marquez) and director Lila Aviles gives us a vivid lacerating depiction of what it is like from the point of view of one who walks that path.  First of all, surprises abound when the maid opens the door to a room.  She might even find a guest under a bed!  She may have to tidy a room in an extraordinary mess and figure out how to remove stains.  The film will bring up memories of Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma about the devoted housekeeper of his childhood, as well as the well-publicized incident of Dominique Strauss-Kahn, head of the International Monetary Fund, being charged with sexual assault of a Sofitel Hotel housekeeper.  All charges of aggression against him were dropped, but he only denied the aggression against her.  The implication is that some guests presume that housekeepers should be at their bidding.  
     It’s noteworthy how workers so often are regarded by guests as automatons who can be “strongly requested” to perform all kinds of services, such as babysitting an infant so the mother can take a shower.  In this case, the wealthy mother seems to take a personal interest in Eve, but leaves the hotel without notifying Eve or following through with offers made to her.  It’s clear many guests never really lookat the women; they’re part of the furniture.
     But the well-heeled are not the only ones willing to take advantage of others or make empty promises.  Eve’s co-workers are shown to be just as self-serving and exploitative as her superiors.
     But this story is just as much an in-depth look at the main character, Eve (Cartol), a dedicated, hard worker at a hotel in Mexico.  She clearly comes from modest circumstances, but has solid moral values and is more intelligent than she seems at first.  In following her on her daily routines, we get a picture not only about her character, but those of her superiors and guests at the hotel as well.  This is a sociological-political cross-section of the society Eve lives in.  We see the aftermath of guests’ messy—even horrifying--nocturnal activities, the challenge in swiftly cleaning up the rooms, the political manipulations of co-workers and supervisors, and the suddenness with which privileges are revoked.  It makes it brilliantly clear how difficult it is for some to move up in the world, despite their talents and good nature.
     Just as The Chambermaid will be compared with Roma, Gabriela Cartol will be compared with actress Yalitza Aparisio’s portrayal of Cleo.  She captures the essence of the modern-day “servant” who is sincere and energetic in fulfilling her duties, and is a real person behind the mask she is forced to wear.  Also, as in Roma, pulses of humor and lightness keep the film from becoming too heavy.
     As the world seems to be moving toward widening gaps between the rich and the poor, this engrossing, expertly rendered film will assume even greater relevance. Lila Aviles is a director to keep your eye on.

The life of a chambermaid is far from boring, but not necessarily in a positive sense.  

Grade:  A                                    By Donna R. Copeland


Wednesday, August 14, 2019

WHERE'D YOU GO, BERNADETTE?

Cate Blanchett     Billy Crudup      Trojan Bellisaro     Kristen Wiig     Laurence Fishburne     James Urbaniak


     For a fun and rewarding experience, Bernadette fulfills the promise that most Richard Linklater films do. It’s about marriage, parenting, and family, but branches out further into “kookiness”, self-actualization, neighbor relations, and adventure, and with some scenes shown against the breath-taking seascapes for which Antarctica is famous.  Along with the seascapes, there are wonderful Escher-like shots that are meant to disorient the viewer, compliments of cinematographer Shane F. Kelly (A Scanner Darkly, Boyhood). 
     The first half of the story is a bit unnerving, with Bernadette (Blanchett) at her most manic, alternating between being a comedian and a complete nut job. Her husband Elgie (Crudup), a Microsoft techie, adored her initially when she had just won a “genius” award for architecture, but now seems incomprehensible of her frantic leaps in everyday living.  They have a daughter Becky (Bellisaro), who is very mature and astute at the young age of 12, and it’s clear that she has a closer relationship with her mother than her father.
     After visits with a psychiatrist (Greer) and an FBI agent (Urbaniak), Elgie tries to make things right, but he is not fast enough:  Bernadette has disappeared.  And this will not be the first and only time. Intrigued?  You should be.
     Linklater has a knack for bringing in the viewer as if he/she is a part of the family.  We identify with Bernadette and her need for privacy and alone time, with Elgie’s befuddlement/attraction to her, and the child Becky’s better understanding of the adults than they do of themselves.  All this brings the story alive for us, and we become invested in the outcome. 
     Cate Blanchett is a wonder to behold as an actress who can mesmerize while bringing home the truths of her characters.  In this case, she plays to Billy Crudup’s strengths as an actor who lives in his character to best advantage.  Kristen Wiig is perfect as a locally admired mother who, like Elgie, is mystified by women going against type.  Wiig has a way of bringing authenticity to her characters in a way that makes us laugh and cry at the same time.  This must be Trojan Bellisaro’s break-away moment playing an astute teenager who is thoughtful, loving, and perceptive to its best advantage.  I’m sure we’ll be hearing more about her in the years to come.

An award-worthy picture of contemporary personal/family drama that propels us forward.

Grade:  A                                    By Donna R. Copeland


Thursday, July 25, 2019

ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD

Leonardo DiCaprio     Brad Pitt     Margot Robbie     Dakota Fanning     Timothy Olyphant     Al Pacino
Austin Butler     Kurt Russell     Luke Perry     Damian Lewis     Emile Hirsch     Bruce Dern     Lena Dunham


     How about a movie that changes history…but in a way we would applaud rather than criticize?  Once Upon a Time in Hollywood accomplishes that and more. It’s homage to famed Italian filmmaker Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America and his "spaghetti western", Once Upon a Time in the West.  But Quentin Tarantino’s films are usually about more than just one thing, and here, in addition to the reference to Leone, he expresses broader references/reverence to movies and TV programs in the 1960’s in California and its culture (dress, music, radio ads, cars, actors, and disgust of “Hippies”). These are used as backdrop to the central story about a fictional movie/TV icon, Rick Dalton (DiCaprio) and his stunt double Cliff Booth (Pitt). 
     Rick’s story is that he has a home on the same street as Sharon Tate and Roman Polanski, whom he has only seen once.  He is currently preoccupied with his fame as a badass hero in movies and television coming to an end and he is desperately trying to change its course, going so far as even traveling to Europe and making films (and money) over there.  His cool best friend/stunt double/caretaker Cliff seems to go along with whatever he comes up with and, importantly, helps boost his self-esteem when he is down on himself.  
     Their stories take different trajectories when Rick is in Europe, and Cliff is house sitting and just hanging out.  At one point, he takes a young seductive hitchhiker to Spahn Ranch where he and Rick used to make movies.  He decides to look up the owner, George Spahn (Dern), and pay him a visit. Unbeknownst to him, this is where the Manson Family has taken over, and this is how Tarantino weaves in the Manson/Tate story.  He has a different take on it, however, in a way that you will discover when you see the movie.
     Tarantino has done something remarkable in weaving together so many entertaining themes—some quite disparate from others—and including a dozen cameos of well-known actors and real people (especially noteworthy are those of Bruce Dern and Dakota Fanning).  It’s wonderful to revel in moviedom as you watch the film and bask in its rich history; the more knowledgeable the viewer is about movies, the more he/she will appreciate it.  But the story about the two main characters is likewise intriguing. DiCaprio and Pitt play off each other very well, and come across as true “Bros.”  Their characters, Rick and Cliff, have a friendship to be admired, and yet…when we hear Rick’s account of the last evening’s events, somehow, Cliff is not mentioned.
     There are several other observations I made that seem a bit curious.  One is prominent scenes in which women are snoring (is this a joke?).  Another is the disgusting scenes of Rick coughing/hacking/spitting from smoking when smoking is mostly portrayed as cool and sexy.  It makes me wonder if cigarette companies provided some of the funds, but filmmakers don’t necessarily approve of smoking. 

A fun and entertaining movie, especially for film buffs who can pick up on a plethora of references to films and film history and for those who can appreciate the exquisite quilt made by the stories within it.

Grade:  A-                                    By Donna R. Copeland

THIS CHANGES EVERYTHING




The film is available for home streaming on demand through iTunes, Amazon, VHX, Xbox, TK. The film is not yet available on Netflix.
     Gender inequality:  And the best way to fight this is?  Of all the voices I appreciated in this documentary, it was Mel Brooks’ “This is their time (meaning women’s)!”  It’s long past time, but this documentary shows that the battle is far from won.  It traces the inching progress that women have made in finding a voice in film, whether it’s acting, directing, or producing. It’s not as if women have advocated decimating males; they have simply wanted an equalplace at the table.  1918 statistics show that of the top grossing films, 85% of the writers were males; of domestic releases, 92% of the 250 domestically released films were male-directed.  
     There are many discouraging/heartbreaking stories here about the struggle for women simply trying to get a seat at the table.  Women haven’t been asking for any favors—or even decimating the men in the privileged seat—they’re just asking for equality, just as the American soccer players of today are advocating equal pay for their achievements—which have been considerably more than their male counterparts’.  
     It’s hard to believe how long this struggle has been going on, considering that when films started being made, there were far more female filmmakers than male. This documentary shows that this began to change when sound was introduced—which required funding—and which brought in banks, an already established male hierarchy and consolidation of power, and also when unions fought to keep women out.  Around this time, the Directors Guild of America was founded—by all males.
     Subsequent attempts to stem the tide legally were met with discouragement.  When Title VII (the Civil Rights Act forbidding hiring on the basis of race, color, or national origin) was invoked in 1969, charging discrimination in the film industry, the Federal Government intervened, disallowing the claims, and allowing gender inequality to continue in Hollywood for decades.
     Despite Geena Davis’ efforts to advocate for equality—even in children’s films—today, only 15.6% of directors in the Directors Guild are women.  When the Directors Guild filed a lawsuit against studios about the issue in 1983, the female judge threw out the lawsuit on the grounds that directors themselves were not hiring women.  Even an ACLU suit in 2013 didn’t bring much success.  
     What will it take?  I’ve said that it was easier to elect a black President than it would be a woman, just as blacks gained the right to vote before women did.  The apparently deep-seated antagonism toward women is hard for me to comprehend.  

A no-holds-barred look at women’s roles in film and the consistent discounting of them.

Grade:  A                                    By Donna R. Copeland



Friday, July 19, 2019

THE FAREWELL

Awkwafina     Shuzhen Zhao     Diana Lin     Tzi Ma


     To tell or not to tell.  That is the question in this arguably groundbreaking film that juxtaposes American and Chinese points of view about illness and death.  It’s not weighty at all, but covers all ranges of emotions and personal quirks of the characters. I first heard the story on a 2016 This American Life podcast, and it stayed with me ever since.  My worries about the film not living up to the real story were quickly assuaged. In the hands of writer/director Lulu Wang, Farewell takes normal, everyday family life and transports it to an elegant and highly entertaining level, skillfully weaving through potential “edict-like” waters and throwing the question up to the viewers.  
     Billi (Awkwafina) is a Chinese-American who moved to the U.S. with her family when she was a toddler. She is now grown up, and wants to go back to China when the extended family is gathering for her cousin’s wedding, a major ruse concocted primarily to get everyone to gather after the beloved grandmother Nai Nai (Zhao) has been diagnosed with cancer, which everyone assumes is a death sentence.  But in China at that time, a diagnosis of cancer was hidden from the patient.  So that’s the set-up of the story:  The Chinese custom vs. the American way of discussing major illness frankly.  In this story it is only Billi who takes the American point of view, and she has been strictly forbidden by parents and other relatives to speak frankly to Nai Nai.  Even the Chinese doctor trained in the UK, whose policies are the same as Americans’, takes the Chinese approach.
     At this point, the film entertains us with cover-ups all around within the family—which are left for you to experience first-hand, because they underlie the fun of Farewell, so spoilers should be withheld.  But there is more to the film than the humorous; it poses numerous facets of “truth” and “lies” that provoke thought, and it draws on emotions that I assume people around the world will recognize and re-experience.
     The Farewell should be a testament to Lulu Wang’s creativity and ability to tell a story not easily forgotten, but as well to assemble the whole talented cast and crew to make a film that is likely to be on award nomination lists at the end of the year.  Along with Wang’s perceptive script, Alex Weston’s music elevates the action of the film, giving it even more eloquence by expressing in Eastern and Western modes universal emotions.  It is one soundtrack that is likely to be prized for its expressiveness. I attribute the priceless wedding pictures—and other good picture qualities—to cinematographer Anne Franquesa Solano.
     Awkwafina has been a hit every since Crazy Rich Asians, and she captures a starkly different role here in being a different kind of “misfit.”  Here, she must show more emotional depth, uncertainty, and diffidence, which she pulls off with expert facility.  She deserves whatever nominations she may receive. Noteworthy as well is the delightful Shuzhen Zhao as Nai Nai.  Presumably, she is not a professional actress, but she steals the show on more than one occasion, eliciting our love for her as if we’re part of the family, and providing a strong draw toward the Chinese way of thinking.  Not to be discounted are all the other major players in this drama, such as Diana Lin and Tzi Ma as Billi’s parents.

A movie everyone across the world is likely to appreciate.

Grade:  A                                    By Donna R. Copeland


Thursday, July 18, 2019

MARIANNE & LEONARD: WORDS OF LOVE



     Anyone who is a fan of Leonard Cohen’s music is sure to want to see this documentary about his life and the woman who became his muse despite their disconnections through the years. It’s a love story, but likely more unconventional than any other told before, perhaps partly because of the times (1960’s-70’s) and partly because of who Leonard Cohen was in his soul and eventually came to be as a result of his stardom in the era of free and open love.
     Leonard came from a well-off, well-educated Jewish family in Montreal.  His father died when he was nine, but he was close to his mother, from whom he got his love of and talent for music. Unfortunately, he got something additional, which was depression, which seems to have run in the family. He himself was plagued with it throughout his life, although not to the degree he needed to be hospitalized. His stint in a monastery for five years in the 1990’s was very likely beneficial to him, not only in terms of mental problems, but in spiritual guidance as well, which centered him.
     Leonard meets Marianne on the Greek island of Hydra in 1960, when she is married to someone else, but the union is falling apart.  He is a writer, not a singer at the time, and has come there to join the artist colony and write novels, spending hours in the hot sun slaving away.  As their friendship increases, Marianne is attentive in bringing him whatever he needs, and eventually becomes his muse—a role she will play for the rest of his life.
     His first novel, Beautiful Losers, doesn’t sell and is panned by the critics, after which he has a breakdown.  He emerges from this with the resolve to go into music, even though he doesn’t play an instrument and doesn’t think he has a very good voice.  But when he goes to New York and visits Judy Collins, she recognizes his talent and pushes him forward in performing his own songs.  At this point one has to wonder how much of a role simple fate is playing in his future, because his career takes off.  
     The film by Nick Broomfield gives us highlights of Cohen’s folk star years, his music and personal relationships, the mostly ups—and some downs—of his career, his indulgence in drugs (LSD, speed, and alcohol), his unfortunate connections with Phil Spector, and eventually, his entering a monastery to find peace. It’s well done in giving the viewer a picture of the person and all the elements and people in his life that were influential.
     All the while, the film keeps us up to date about Marianne’s life and hers and Leonard’s intense attraction and “easy love” for one another, something that with geographical distance eventually transforms into increasingly infrequent communication.  However, the love story is in their always maintaining some kind of connection despite distances, and that at the end of her life, he sends her a poignant telegram that expresses what she has always meant to him.  At some point, Cohen confesses that, “I overthrew them (Marianne and her son Axel, for whom he had become a father figure) for an education in the world.”  It’s a decision that is arguable from almost anyone’s point of view, but one that is surely to arise in many relationships.

A tender, poignant recap of Leonard Cohen’s life in all its color, reflecting the cultural times.

Grade:  A                                    By Donna R. Copeland


THE LION KING

Voices of:  Keegan-Michael Key     Seth Rogen     Donald Glover     Chiwetel Ejiofor     James Earl Jones
John Kani     Billy Eichner     Alfre Woodard     Beyonce     Amy Sedaris     John Oliver     JD McCreary


     What hard lessons for a cub to learn, especially when malevolence is involved! Simba (McCreary as the young Simba) is so proud to be next in line for king, but is so young he doesn’t understand the responsibilities that are part of such an honor.  He sees it initially as more freedoms for him, without regard for others.  He’s impatient, and easily led astray by Uncle Scar (Ejiofor), going where he shouldn’t go and being susceptible to outright lies.  Fortunately, the pride looks out for him, the best they can, especially the hilarious mother hen, Zazu (Oliver), but sometimes, Simba is too much for him, even.  The story contains high risks and tragedies, and although adults are likely to be entertained, it may be a little too heavy for young children.  
     The filming is spectacular (VFX by Rob Legato, cinematography by Caleb Deschanel, production design by James Chinlund), and the varied pace gives the viewer times to simply soak up being in the wild with exotic animals.  Hans Zimmer’s score made up of mixed genres is a definite highlight, sometimes being background and sometimes center stage.
     The story (screenplay by Jeff Nathanson) is mostly captivatingly suspenseful, but has interludes showing community solidarity, loving family life, and Simba’s coming of age experiences and his relationship with his father Mufasa (Jones).  There is plenty of humor too, such as the warthog Pumbaa (Rogen) and his sidekick Timon (Eichner) providing funny “stand-up” routines while being protective of Simba (with an ulterior motive, of course).  
     Romance is supplied by Mufasa and Sarabi (Woodard) in their continuing loving relationship, and the preadolescent/young adult attraction between Simba (Glover) and Nala (Beyonce) when they’re teenager/young adults.  The latter has its humor in the preadolescent phase, when the two friends cannot fathom being married (Ewww!), but then later on clearly being attracted to one another.  
     The Lion King has good modeling for kids, as well, showing them what it means to have community solidarity, nurturance by the older for the younger, and the importance of truthfulness.  I also appreciated their illustrating to children that adults do lie sometimes, so all of them cannot be trusted.  

Hard lessons learned in the transition from cub to king.

Grade:  A                                    By Donna R. Copeland

Thursday, July 11, 2019

STUBER

Kamail Nanjiani     Dave Bautista     Natalie Morales     Betty Gilpin     Jimmy Tatro     Mira Sorvino     Iko Uwais


     Straightaway you will be able to guess how this story plays out.  What you may not expect—unless you’ve seen the previews—is that the L.A. policeman going out for the big sting cannot see (from Lasik surgery) and that neither he nor the Uber driver can drive (that is, really drive).   Understand that a large part of the action takes place in cars.  The numerous “jokes” in the film are an attempt to make all this funny, but only one in about twenty made me chuckle.  Two were worthy, one being when the policeman is taking a perp to a hospital, he directs the Uber driver to an animal hospital. “He is an animal!” is the justification.  The other is in telling the policeman who gives his daughter a gun for protection when she is pleading for attention, the Uber driver scolds him with, “You give people glocks instead of love.”
     The story is that Vic (Bautista) of the LAPD has been tracking a major criminal for years, and just when he has a chance to capture the kingpin, it’s just after he has had eye surgery and on the very night of his daughter’s (Morales) art gallery opening.  The day before, Vic’s daughter has made sure he will get to the opening (he has a reputation for not showing up) by reserving an Uber to pick him up and take him there.  The Uber arrives, driven by Stu (Nanjiani), a loquacious, desperate to please (and earn good ratings), conscientious driver (albeit, not adept at all in making U-turns). Vic is extremely confident in taking on both tasks—capturing Teijo (Uwais) and attending the gallery opening.
     Think of all the things that can go wrong in this scenario, and you will probably be right; they do, and it turns out to be more frustrating than entertaining before it descends into something you’ve expected all along.  Stuber actually had the potential to be a really good spoof (for example, Stu the Uber driver); but the execution just doesn’t bring it home. Attempts are made by showing off Bautista’s physical strengths (macho) juxtaposed against Nanjiani’s emotional sensitivity (“effeminate”), which ties in with one of the overall aims being to make Vic become more sensitive and Stu more assertive, which the film achieves, but it follows from a script based on clichés and improbable events.
     All of this is supposed to come together in a romantic ending where heroes can be named, loves can be declared, and justice is served.  You can be the judge as to whether this happens.

A clever beginning concept of Stu being the uber driver devolves into absurd hi-jinks and cliché jokes that may not leave you laughing.

Grade:  D                                    By Donna R. Copeland

MAIDEN


      Maiden:  A film beautifully directed by Alex Holmes, that should be seen by boys and girls, men and women, to counteract misconceptions about supposed differences between males and females.  In addition to Holmes’ direction, Katie Byer’s editing brings the viewer along on the race at a well planned pace, so that it becomes a mystery as to how this Whitbread Around the World Ocean Race will turn out.  The journey before and during the race is just as interesting.
     By the time Tracy Edwards was a teen, she didn’t show much promise for achieving anything.  Her life started out well with loving parents, but when she was 10 years old, her father died suddenly.  Her mother had been a good influence in pressing the envelope of what was expected for females, but when she tried to take up her husband’s business after he died, she began to run into obstacles and wasn’t able to keep it going.  She then made an unfortunate match after that, wedding a man who turned out to be an abusive alcoholic.  
     Tracy had run-ins with him, and after being expelled from school departed home for a backpacking trip in Europe.  She ended up in Greece, first becoming a barmaid, then realizing that she wanted to be on a sailing ship, took a job as cook (and cleaner) on the sailboat of a friend who went against the grain by allowing a woman on the boat as part of the crew.  It was during this period Tracy learned to sail, which was all “about freedom”, she said, and as soon as she heard about the Whitbread Ocean Race, she began having aspirations to enter.
     Little did she realize beforehand what she would run into, but quickly became aware of the negativity and skepticism she would encounter as a woman, let alone getting a sponsor, a boat, and a crew (an all-female crew, she decided).  As often happens, some luck is involved, and when Tracy, almost by accident, crosses paths with King Hussein of Jordan, he is impressed with her and her efforts to enter a “man’s world”, and they stay in touch.  In the end, after being turned down by hundreds of companies who will not sponsor her, Tracy appeals to the King, and he agrees to help her.  
     At this point, Tracy has manages to buy a used boat, hire a crew to help her refurbish it, and enter the Whitbread race.  She runs into trouble even before the race begins with a personnel problem, so ends up taking over the First Mate’s duties herself.  This proves to be a test of her own leadership as to whether the crew will remain.  
     Throughout the 33 thousand mile journey around the world, it’s exciting and sometimes terrifying (Cinematographer Chris Openshaw exposes us to choppy seas, gigantic waves, ice bergs, and more to give us a sense of really being there), touch and go with the sailboat competitors, and the emotional and physical toll the trip will make on the crew—sometimes as a result of trauma on another sailboat.
     Documentaries are not generally exciting, but this one is with its moment-by-moment coverage in dangerous situations.  If one is not experienced in sailing, this is a good time to learn what is involved—the physical demands; the engineering knowledge of the boat and how it’s constructed; and the leadership, determination, and true grit of pulling off such a demanding race.
     The film does a good job in highlighting Tracy Edwards, both in her early life, which shaped her into the young adult she became, and in her experiences and insights later on that guided her in making her choices.  

For the thrill of the race, Maiden comes through with excitement, mystery, and true grit.

Grade:  A                                    By Donna R. Copeland




Wednesday, July 3, 2019

WILD ROSE

Jessie Buckley     Julie Walters     Sophie Okonedo


     Ah, the struggle of making it in life after having two kids before age 18 and serving a jail sentence, but also nursing a burning desire to make it big in country music when you live in Scotland.  A tall order!  Rose (Buckley) is just such a girl who seems not to have much, but is richly blessed with a mother (Walters) who is far from indulgent but provides a loving home for Rose’s children when she is away.  Upon returning home, Rose finds her children distant—another challenge—and no means of supporting herself, much less her children as well.
     She gets a job cleaning for a local woman of means, Susannah (Okonado), who comes home unexpectedly to find Rose vacuuming and singing at the top of her lungs. She immediately recognizes that Rose has talent, and begins to help her in pursuing her dreams.
     But psychologically Rose is not ready.  And this is the sobering part of her story.  She has come upon adulthood without much education, training, or even coaching on practical matters.  Furthermore, she has a serious issue with self-esteem.  We sympathize with Marion, Rose’s mother, in wishing and waiting for Rose to connect with her children.  When she doesn’t right away, Marion takes a “tough love” approach and exits the home, with the hope that Rose will figure out and accept her most important responsibility of being a mother.  But this is exactly when Rose is pursuing a singing career, so things get pretty hairy.
     Will Rose step up to the plate with her children?  Will she fulfill her dream of getting to Nashville and become a famous country singer?  The beauty of the film is in its treatment of these apparently conflicting issues, demonstrating that choices have to be made by individuals, which have long-term consequences.  What it works out in this case seems to me a sensible resolution that takes into account both dreams and responsibilities.
     Director Tom Harper and writer Nicole Taylor have a good grasp of the psychosocial parameters in such a human story and treat them with a sensitive touch. However, I wish they had provided more of a back-story to Rose’s and Marion’s lives, to enrich and make more understandable their current circumstances.  
     Jessie Buckley is likely to be a rising star in entertainment with both musical and acting talent.  She makes her character be appealing, spunky, vulnerable, or aggressive, depending on the circumstances.  Julie Walters is her usual lovely, attractive maternal figure whose assertiveness waits for the right moment to arise before lowering the boom.  Sophie Okonedo exemplifies culture with elegance and soul, and I was grateful the filmmakers remained loyal to that persona.

An inspiring look at a music star in the making with significant hurdles to overcome.

Grade:  B                                    By Donna R. Copeland


Tuesday, July 2, 2019

MIDSOMMAR

Florence Pugh     Jack Reynor     Will Poulter     William Jackson-Harper
Vilhelm Blomgran     Archie Madekwe     Ellora Torchia


     Midsommar brings to mind romantic associations to a festival, summer/winter solstice, and cultural traditions.  How much writer-director Ari Aster (Heredity) depicts actual traditions in this film and how much he embroiders them with his own fantasies, I’m not sure, but suspect that most of what is seen in the film is from Aster’s own imagination. The film certainly goes way, way out in its characterizations and plot, so that by the end you know you’ve seen a freaky, quintessential horror show.  It’s helped along by Pawel Pogorzelski’s eloquent, captivating, and beautifully composed cinematography and The Haxan Cloak’s music that draws from genres ranging from the medieval to the hauntingly eerie to the most dissonant modern.  
     Midsommar begins as a thoroughly American kind of drama, with a couple, Dani (Pugh) and Christian (Reynor), who are going through ups and downs.  She is very needy, especially after a tragedy in her family, and his friends urge him to ditch her for someone else.  A trip to Sweden might be the answer.  Pelle (Blomgran) has invited his close friends [Christian, Mark (Poulter), and Josh (Jackson-Harper)] to go with him to his native Sweden for the Midsommar festival.  He grew up in a commune, so they would all be welcomed by his huge family. They hadn’t counted on Dani going with them, but she wangles an invitation, and Pelle lets her know how happy he is that she is coming along.
     The American group arrives in Sweden, and are taken to country fields sprinkled with people who turn out to be part of Pelle’s large family.  He introduces them all—ever the gallant host—and his friends are awestruck.  They will be even more awestruck when they impulsively decide to trip on drugs supplied by the communal community.  Dani is reluctant to imbide, but under peer pressure gives in; only to re-experience the tragedy she just endured.  But she gets hold of herself, and proceeds with the others to Pelle’s commune, where there are throngs of people all dressed in white.
     The rest of the story is about what the friends encounter and experience there, which ranges from the simple (helping cook meals) to the esoteric (engaging—not necessarily willingly—in bizarre rituals).  The viewer likely will experience what most of the American characters experience—a curiosity followed by unease and anxiety, even hysteria, and, finally, horror.
     Some may find comfort in preordained events—at least from godly figures (there’s nothing you can do about it, so you can’t be blamed)—but when they’re orchestrated by controllers with an ulterior motive, it can be the most unsettling and horrible experience one can imagine.  That is what Ari Aster does with this film.  He subjects his characters—and maybe viewers as well—to events they’ve never dreamed of, prompting us all to wonder what we would do in those circumstances.
     After her stint as Katherine in Lady Macbeth (2016) and here, Florence Pugh establishes herself as an actress with range and talent.  That being said, her role, as written, does not provide much of a showcase moment.  It’s actually true for all the characters; actors are not given opportunities to shine. Aster’s intention appears to be emphasizing story over characterization, specifically in the contrasts between cultures.  He jabs Americans a bit in their general disregard for tradition and in their inclination to break rules (a bit of “ugly Americans”), but the Swedes’ traditions as shown here evoke strong opinions about attitudes about death and individual agency.
     The film’s two-hour twenty-minute length may stretch the viewer’s tolerance; certainly, some of the over-the-top last scenes could have been cut, and making a better film.

A cross-cultural trip like one you have probably never seen.

Grade:  B                                    By Donna R. Copeland