Thursday, June 20, 2019

TOY STORY 4

Tom Hanks     Keanu Reeves     Christina Hendricks     Annie Potts
Joan Cusack     Tim Allen     Tony Hale     Madeleine McGraw     Emily Hahn 


     After the toys have said goodbye to their previous child, Andy, they are getting used to their new child, Bonnie (Hahn).  Woody (Hanks) is hurt that he is not the favorite toy for Bonnie like he was for Andy, but he still has protective feelings toward her, as he has come to have toward all the toys.  It’s kindergarten time for Bonnie, but she is loath to go. Woody sees that she will need his help, so stows away in her backpack to keep an eye on her.  Sure enough, after her parents leave, Bonnie is sad, and when a boy shuns her and grabs her art materials, she is really about to cry.  Woody steps up, rummages through the trashcan, and finds materials she can use to make something. It turns out, he has thrown on Bonnie’s table a fork and other little things like plastic eyeballs which she promptly makes into a toy.  She is so pleased and proud, she names her toy “Forky”.
     The problem is, Forky (Hale) doesn’t want to be a toy (something foreign to him) and keeps charging back to any trashcan he can find.  This will now be Woody’s primary responsibility:  Retrieving Forky for Bonnie every time he runs away. He also has to teach him many things about his new world.  Adventures follow when Bonnie’s family takes a trip in an RV, ending up at a park with a carnival.  Woody’s job is cut out for him, as Bonnie has become so attached to Forky and he keeps running away.  Not only are there adventures and challenges on the road and at the carnival, some of the scariest moments take place in an antique store!  Woody goes to the store when he recognizes a lamp in the window that reminds him of his old friend Bo Peep (Potts).
     Toy Story 4 comes through for children in its addressing—and making an adventure of—some of their deepest fears (abandonment, uselessness, rejection) and the means of coping with them (asking for help, turning to friends, being loyal to one’s own people).  Normal fears are countered with encouragement (“C’mon, you can do this!”) and, sometimes, (“Let it go; it’s not important”). And, ultimately, the film models the value in taking calculated risks in life for the goals of exploration of self and the world, and letting go of comfort and security, at least temporarily.  I have to admit that “Yes, we can-ada!” brought a smile to my face every time.
     Director Josh Cooley lives up to his reputation for Inside Out, Up, and Rataouille in making a film that is appealing to children and adults and, most importantly, speaking to children about important issues.  Production design by Bob Pauley and music by Randy Newman—along with the excellent cast—make this follow-up to previous Toy Storyiterations worthwhile.  
     Cooley and the producers must have had unbelievable influence to pull in A-list actors like Tom Hanks, Keanu Reeves, Jordan Peele, Annie Potts, Mel Brooks, Joan Cusack, Tim Allen, Laurie Metcalf, and Betty White for voicing the major characters.  Music by Randy Newman and production design by Bob Pauley, along with the animation and art crews boost the production to high quality film—shocking for a fourth version of a movie.  Cheers to Pixar and Walt Disney Pictures.

An adventurous, fun children’s movie with substantive messages for kids, and still entertaining for adults.

Grade:  A                                    By Donna R. Copeland

THE FALL OF THE AMERICAN EMPIRE

Alexandre Landry     Maripier Morin     Remy Girard     Louis Morisette     Maxim Roy     Pierre Curzi


     Nowadays, we seldom get an intelligent comedy—not only in the sense of being well constructed—but one sprinkled throughout with philosophical and literary references that are to the point yet still funny, at least in the way the main character quotes them, and to whom (like a bank teller who hasn’t the foggiest notion of what he’s talking about).  Witty statements and unexpected encounters will make you chuckle throughout the film, e.g., “Help me; I have too much money” and “I’m a delivery man with a Ph.D. because I earn more money driving a truck than I would teaching.”
     Alexandre Landry is key to the film’s appeal and success in his character as Pierre-Paul, who has a PhD in philosophy and has succeeded in internalizing his lofty education and applying it to the practicalities of contemporary life. That is, he quotes John-Paul Sartre, Martin Heidegger, and Jonathan Swift in one short conversation when he’s explaining how he looks at life today.  But he’s not just an intellectual nerd; the man volunteers at a homeless shelter where he has real conversations with the people there and genuinely seems to care about them and their stories.  His sincerity contrasts with the cynicism and duplicity shown by others.  Landry successfully pulls off the character of a well-educated man who can relate to everyone he meets and is still open to and chasing after new experiences.  (I figure most women will have a crush on him and his boyish charm and good heart by the end of the film.)
     The story is a cat-and-mouse game concerning a large amount of money being stolen, with both the police and gangsters trying to track it down.  When Pierre-Paul, the philosopher, is confronted with the temptation of large sums of money dropped in bags at the crime scene—where he just happened to be—this record-free good citizen succumbs, and stuffs two enormous bags into his delivery truck.  What happens to that huge amount of cash forms the central plot of the film.
     In the process of Pierre-Paul safe-keeping the cash and using an ex-convict (Curzi) an elegant call girl (Morin), and an esteemed hedge-fund investor to dispense with the money, writer-director Denys Arcand weaves in points about economic inequality, off-shore accounts and tax avoidance, immigration, and police misconduct in a riveting tale where the police and gangsters are constantly trailing the suspects (and doing horrible violence in some cases), but where social values pre-empt the nefarious strategies of law and crime.
     Arcand injects optimistic notes into his condemnations, like the generosity of lowly people versus the wealthy and the possibility of reform for ex-cons and call girls.  His basic message is about the corruption of values in favor of money that has led to the fall of the American empire, but he is not restricting it to the United States. The setting of the film is in Montreal, Canada.
     Much of the subtle intellectual humor may be lost on most viewers, but I found it deliciously entertaining, although a tad too long.

Writer-director Arcand submits an impressive follow-up to his previous films (The Decline of the American Empire, The Barbarian Invasions, and Jesus of Montreal).

Grade:  A-                                    By Donna R. Copeland

Thursday, June 13, 2019

THE DEAD DON'T DIE

Bill Murray     Adam Driver     Steve Buscemi     Danny Glover     Selena Gomez
Rosie Perez     Iggy Pop     Chloe Sevigny     Tilda Swinton     Tom Waits     Carol Kane


     Normally, I love Jim Jarmusch films (Only Lovers Left Alive, Paterson, Coffee and Cigarettes, e.g.), but although The Dead Don’t Die starts out rather interesting—primarily because of the characters introduced and the wry humor—but when the zombies arrive…and stay on and on…the script becomes repetitive and surprisingly boring, even though the low-key humor is still sprinkled liberally throughout.
     The most entertaining part of the movie is the group of small-town Centerville characters that include Chief of Police Robertson (Murray), his deputy Ronnie Peterson (Driver), hermit Bob (Waits), farmer Miller (Buscemi), and hardware store owner Hank (Glover); but the standout is Zelda Winston (Swinton), the Samurai sword wielding funeral director of the Ever After Funeral Home and computer expert.  
     All is quiet and the usual peaceful in Centerville until strange things start happening.  It stays light more than usual, electronics don’t work like they’re supposed to, the same song keeps playing on the radio…and then zombies start appearing and proliferating, doing their thing. 
     It seems to be a well-known fact of zombie lore that to rid yourself of a zombie, you must “kill the head.”  Zelda has nothing to fear when she goes outside because of her unfailing aim. Ronnie is the only other one to have had some training in the past, but he can also wield a sword effectively. Robertson is good at blasting heads with a shotgun.  So how will it all turn out when zombies—even those recently departed—start appearing everywhere?  To quote Ronnie, “This is all gonna end badly”, but is he right?  Will everything turn out OK?  With some prompting, Robertson reassures dispatcher Mindy Morrison (Sevigny) of just that.
     Writer/director Jarmusch’s intention may be to highlight the narrator, who happens to be the hermit Bob.  From his comments on what he observes through his binoculars, we get the impression that Bob is fully informed about what is going on in the world—including in nature—and comes to certain conclusions.  He makes pronouncements from time to time that could be seen as a commentary about contemporary society, with its penchant for material acquisitions at the expense of environmental and humane values.  
     Which prompts us to ask,  “Are we the people the zombies of today who have the potential to kill off whole species—including our own—because of misplaced desires?  If so, does Jarmusch mean that “the head” must be dealt with for us to save ourselves?
     This is a film that doesn’t seem to amount to much on the surface, but thoughtful reflection may turn up seeds of wisdom.

Not your usual zombie move, but one that provides food for thought.

Grade:  C+                                    By Donna R. Copeland


AMERICAN WOMAN

Sienna Miller     Christina Hendricks     Aaron Paul     Sky Ferreira     Amy Maddigan


     American Woman reflects the lives of many middle-lower class Americans today who are not necessarily exposed to the “American dream” of getting an education and then proceeding on up the scale. No, it’s more a comment on the lives of these citizens as it is and, unfortunately, the dilemmas many women find themselves in when they have not been steered toward that education we hear so much about, along with self-sufficiency and independence.
     Debra (Miller) finds herself in the all too familiar situation of having to bring up her daughter on her own when she is still not really mature (e.g., rebellious, headstrong, impulsive, and angry), but she is doing the best she can. Somehow, even though her family relationships are studded with conflict, she believes they will support her when push comes to shove.  Debra clearly loves her daughter who is now a teenager and with a son of her own, and the mutual support and affection—even playfulness—between them is obvious.  Clearly, she is not prepared for what happens when her daughter doesn’t come home one night. 
     Along the way, Debra must make compromises in order for herself and her grandson to survive.  At first it’s “anybody who will pay the mortgage and other bills”, then it’s a charmer whose charms are not limited.  As she is fighting her way through these “significant others”, her family tries its best to support her, but she is not ready for that or tolerant enough of them to accept their offers.
     What will happen to this woman?  She has a better chance if she is attractive (which she is), but she also needs capabilities in maneuvering through grief, loss, unexpected responsibilities, and pure luck.  It’s especially disheartening when she becomes involved with Chris (Paul), seemingly a mensch, only to have him turn out to be less than.  Will “true grit”—also passed down as an American virtue—see her through?
     I pondered about why this British-produced film was entitled American Woman.  Is it that this woman’s experience is uniquely American?  I think probably not, but perhaps she embodies the stereotypical view of American women being unprepared for curve balls society might be throwing their way.
     Sienna Miller plays her role with all the flair and pathos it requires, and pretty much holds the movie on her own.  

The American story from a certain woman’s point of view.

Grade:  C+                                    By Donna R. Copeland

LATE NIGHT

Emma Thompson     Mindy Kaling     John Lithgow     Hugh Dancy     Max Casella     Denis O’Hare


     You know those movies that are so funny you miss some of the lines because people are laughing?  That’s what Late Night is; Mindy Kaling’s script is chock full of sharp witticisms along with plain common sense that provokes thought and consideration about topical issues that elicit ambivalence and the need to squirm.  Emma Thompson’s characterization of a gorgeous, haughty night show host who is dependent on her writing team’s jokes and who gets gobsmacked by an inexperienced, “factory worker” with a heart makes this comedy many steps above most.  Kaling has a lo-ooong career ahead of her. One of the most challenging assignments in movies and television is that of making a comedy that is really funny but thought-provoking at the same time.
     Katherine Newbury (Thompson) has won awards for her late-night television show of ten years, but it seems to be getting stale and not keeping up with the times. As so often happens, a sudden social pressure makes the show runners start scrambling.  Diversity is one such concept.  “Hire a woman!” comes the pronouncement for the writing staff, and that’s how a Native American woman with little experience in comedy and coming from a chemistry laboratory gets hired for the “Tonight” show. 
     How Molly (Kaling) fits and doesn’t fit into this group becomes part of the story. But another part of it is how Katherine has to change in response to all kinds of forces coming after her.  
     Molly represents frankness and truthfulness, which is revolutionary in the entertainment world.  Not only that, she doesn’t observe the tacit rules of engagement, especially toward superiors. But the beauty of the writing is that Molly is usually right—no matter how much resistance she gets—in ways the audience will understand.  “Never give up” is the motto she pins to the wall behind her desk, but even she is put to task for this a number of times.
     Katherine is a fine example of a narcissistic person who doesn’t bother to know anyone else, is extremely intelligent, goal-directed, and able to let the verbal jabs fly in a barrage against anyone in her way.  As a listener rather than the target, her retorts are actually funny and highly entertaining.  They appeal to baser urges that we are not able to express nearly so well.
     The two female leads have an armada of different kinds of foes that women all over will recognize.  For Molly, it’s the clutch of male writers jealously holding on to their turf—even if it’s the ladies room that hasn’t been used because there haven’t been any women around.  (The show does a fantastic job in depicting the lame defenses males and whites give for their behavior.)  But it’s also the female boss above Molly who has the same prejudices in many respects the male writers have.  For Katherine, it’s the icy, all-business Caroline Morton (beautifully rendered by Amy Ryan), owner of the network, who is taking a ratings-only approach to scheduling/cancelling a show.  But most of all it’s her public, which she hasn’t bothered to “read” and listen to for years.  An entertaining—and provocative—aspect of the film is its emphasis in so many ways on listening.  Paradoxically, not listening is highlighted to show its importance.
     Use of social media and managing it makes this film even more contemporary.  It models how to deal with it in a way that works for you, rather than allowing it to work against you.  I was reminded of one of my esteemed bosses’ pronouncements to us:  “When in doubt, tell the truth.”

I can’t think of anyone who would not be affected by this film and inspired to do better.  (Ahem…well maybe I can.)

Grade:  A                        By Donna R. Copeland

SHAFT

Samuel L. Jackson     Jessie T. Usher    Alexandra Shipp    Regina Hall    
Richard Roundtree     Matt Lauria     Titus Welliver



    This will be my guilty pleasure for the year.  Shaft’s script by Kenya Barris and Alex Barnow is sharp, witty, and even laugh-out-loud funny, and the plot is complex enough to be of interest and without too many implausible elements. Larry Blanford’s cinematography shows artistic sensibilities, including following a guy knocked off a building, then capturing his last bumps down with a final splat.  Slow-motion scenes with bullets and characters thrown into a glass wall are not new, but these have a kind of flair that puts them a notch above most.  Director Tim Story should be proud of his accomplishments in making this an engaging and thoughtful film, a cut above the usual action/comedy/crime drama.
     I like the juxtaposition of the traditional Jackson Shaft character (hard-core ex-cop who now has enviable street cred, specifically in Harlem) and his MIT-educated FBI son (beautifully played by Usher) whose mother (Hall) has tried her best to shield him from his father, with the result that he is regarded as charming and respectful in his current social circle, but regarded as a complete boob (i.e., sissy) by his father and his old-time cronies.  This humorous juxtaposition is carried along in the son’s high-tech skills versus his father’s “old school” ways, and is a divide that must be bridged for there to be a meeting of the minds.
     Life has a way of shaking up human plans.  Young John Shaft is vying for agent status at the FBI, but at present is a data analyst.  When one of his good friends dies under suspicious circumstances, John is compelled to make sense of it, which necessitates a trip to Harlem where his friend was found, reportedly from a drug overdose.  John knows that Kalim was not using when he saw him the day before. But one trip to Harlem when he attempts to meet a drug dealer who supposedly supplied the drug, lets him know he is out of his element, and so he needs to call on his father.  
     The rapprochement between father and son lends much of the comedic element to the film, but not without emotional valence; they approach one another with tons of misconceptions and biases, which are usually dealt with comedically, but (to the film’s credit) hard truths and petty biases command their attention, and to deal with them, it ends up transforming both men.  When John Shaft the first appears, we get the bonus treat of seeing three generations trying to cope with their differences. Love (although not immediately recognized) ends up being the bond that can cement their connections.
     All the actors bring home their roles, especially tried and true Samuel L. Jackson being his usual irreverent macho man; Jessie T. Usher expertly evoking the “white-i-fied”, gentle black man who has learned a thing or two about guns and hand-to-hand combat in his FBI training; Regina Hall as the outraged black mother attempting to “gentrify” her son; and finally Richard Roundtree playing the lovable-but-still-gnarly patriarch of men in a family thwarting conventional rules.  Not to be discounted is Alexandra Shipp, who excels in furthering female roles that go against stereotype.
     Considering Shaft contextually, as representative of a genre that is traditionally denigrating toward government (rules), women, and “outside” groups like Muslims, yet has some kind of truth and certainly humor that makes you want to forgive, it’s a good movie.  And hence, my seeing it as a guilty pleasure; I was entertained and could laugh and enjoy it so long as I remained in its “space”, not pondering about its contrast with actual values I hold dear.

Not to be taken too seriously, Shaft has soul and heart, and a comedic edge.

Grade:  B                                    By Donna R. Copeland

THE LAST BLACK MAN IN SAN FRANCISCO

Jimmie Fails     Jonathan Majors     Tichina Arnold     Rob Morgan
Danny Glover     Jamal Trulove     Mike Epps     Finn Witrock


     You will be surprised when you go see this film; it is oozing with creativity from start to finish.  It felt to me like I was captured by a painting set to music, luckily for me, there is someone close by who tells me a story about it.  
     Opening scenes give full vent to the music by Emile Mosseri (modern brass sounds at first, then Greek and operatic choruses and popular tunes later) and cinematography by Adam Newport (stunning portraits of 19thcentury houses with the sea as a backdrop, and later with close-ups of expressive faces and other captivating scenes).  Two young men wait for a bus that may not arrive while they listen skeptically to a street preacher.  The script blithely trips along as it wends its way along the streets of San Francisco, occasionally with tinges of nostalgia, but mostly with the bustling of teeming humanity and sometimes jeering clutches of black men jiving with each other under a shade tree.  
     The two men waiting for the bus, Jimmie and Mont, play the two leads in the film, expertly rendered by Jimmie Fails and Jonathan Majors.  They make cynical, half funny observations of what is going on around them, with most of their focus being on a particular house that Jimmie says was built by his grandfather.  He and his parents lived there, but had to leave abruptly and the family split up, with Jimmie being sent to a home.  Mont draws scenes and people around him continuously with the intention of writing a play.  Jimmie maintains a sense of ownership toward the house, even taking it upon himself to do minor handyman jobs and making plans for the garden—to the dismay of the white woman living there.  
     Until one day, it becomes obvious that the house is empty.  Jimmie sees this as a dream come true, and he and Mont settle into it on the assumption that it will be their home.  As the story proceeds, it becomes imminently clear that Jimmie is a dreamer and that the house carries such a weight of symbolic meaning for him, that he will pursue it regardless of anything else.  This seems to be the crux of the film: Dreams that, as impossible as they may appear, can sustain a person—and someone close to him—through all kinds of obstacles.  As viewers, we latch on as well, and become comfortable in the house.
     The metaphor of a dream extends to the images of waiting on a bus that may or may not come.  Does one continue to wait patiently, or take it upon oneself to skateboard to the destination? Either way, the dream may still live on.
     Along with its many qualities, The Last Black Man in San Francisco goes against stereotype by depicting two black men who are gentle in spirit and in deed.  No matter what is going on in the film, when they are in a scene, it is peaceful and relaxed.  Well, except for times of extreme frustration, when feelings may be vented violently, but on a skateboard.  The connection between the men continues as a puzzle—it’s unclear exactly the nature of their relationship—which is another aspect that keeps us engaged, to the film’s credit in its expertise of intrigue and ambiguity.
     How much do I love this film?  I think you can guess that I am entirely smitten with its broad expanse of artistic representation of the human condition and our urban environment, its visual and auditory pleasures, its commentary about dreams, and a unique view of homelessness that is unmatched.

Very likely to be my best film of the year for its sheer creativity mixed with realism.

Grade:  A                                                By Donna R. Copeland


MEN IN BLACK: INTERNATIONAL

Tessa Thompson    Christopher Hemsworth     Kumail Nanjiani     Liam Neeson
Emma Thompson     Rafe Spall     Rebecca Ferguson

     
     This is Men in Black:  International; so it will take place in Brooklyn, Paris, London, Marrakesh, and “Riza’s fortified fortress of sheer death”—wherever that is.  Following the High T’s (Neeson) maxim:  “Always remember:  The universe has a way of leading you to where you’re supposed to be, at the moment you’re supposed to be there”, Agents H (Hemsworth) and M (Thompson) will travel the world to uncover the Hive enemy or (God forbid!) a mole within their own organization.
     Molly has been interested in coming to know “the truth of the universe” since she was a child and visited by an alien.  She protected said alien from the authorities looking for him, and upon fleeing he made a promise to her in his own language, although she didn’t understand what he said.  Subsequently, she always took note when strange happenings occurred, and when she was grown up, she began looking seriously for ‘them’ (Men in Black). She actually does find them, much to the chagrin of Agent O (Thompson), who reluctantly gives in to her pleas and assigns her the name of ‘M’, sending her on assignment under the supervision of Agent H to find and destroy the enemy.
     Although Agent H has an excellent reputation and is tapped to take the High T’s place when he retires, at this time, he appears to be “vaguely inept, arrogant, and reckless”—in the words of M after she has come to know him.  But he is experienced.  She, on the other hand, seems gifted with both a sixth sense and logical reasoning in solving problems.  These two:  What a combination for a team, but there’s an underlying “like” for each other that keeps them working together.
     The main plot for this film is weak; that is, we don’t get much invested in the intrigues and struggles of the Men in Black until, maybe, the very end when the mole is revealed.  But there are some creative insertions along the way that help keep us engaged.  One is a tiny being who has lost his queen and becomes attached to M.  She names him Pawny (voice of Nanjiani), and he becomes her protector, as well as the arbiter in M’s conflicts with H.  He is also the resident comedian.  Another is M’s unexpectedly encountering the alien she protected years before.
     I think this film is a victim, like so many remakes and sequels these days, of a “been there; done that” reaction.  It appears that business aims are taking precedence over creativity in films like this.  They’re reasonably well done in terms of craft, but the mark of “retread” is unmistakable.  In this instance, there is not much that is new and creative to make us go, “Wow!”

Think of this film as simply another retread in the genre of “action, adventure, comedy.” 

Grade:  C                                    By Donna R. Copeland


Tuesday, June 11, 2019

ROLLING THUNDER REVUE: A BOB DYLAN STORY BY MARTIN SCORSESE


     Devotees of Bob Dylan and his songs will likely be pleased with this special production by Martin Scorsese.  There are many personal touches and background events that are likely to be new to many, and overall the film underscores the sociopolitical force that Dylan represents within a background of protests in America during his peak times of popularity.  (For example, President Jimmie Carter would quote him in speeches, and the famous playwright Sam Shephard observes that “rock and roll is a kind of medicine for hard times”).  Scorsese has included a large collection of songs that were gleaned from 57 concerts during Dylan and his band’s two “Rolling Thunder” tours in 1975 and 1976, a generous helping for fans of the music.
     The Rolling Thunder tours did not become notable because of their box office; Dylan had in mind to play in smaller venues where he would have a more intimate connection to his audiences.   And they were successful in that respect.  As one taxi driver expressed after going for the first time to any concert, that he had never seen or thought about before the dynamic connection between the performers and the audience that he witnessed in a Rolling Thunder concert.  But the promoter of the tour states outright that the investors lost money.
     Dylan apparently thrived on chaos (or as Shephard expressed his own reaction, “a feeling of being alive”) and along the way, if the band was in a city where there was a major performer, he/she might be invited to perform, which happened to Joni Mitchell, who ended up staying with the tour for its last three performances.  Dylan was so charismatic, that some would join/stay with the tour even if they weren’t performing. Two notable examples are the poet Allen Ginsberg (an accomplished dancer and aspiring singer) who, when he was cut out of the show stayed on as a baggage handler and the actress Sharon Stone (before she got famous, but after Dylan noticed her twice) joined the tour as a costume helper.
     We get glimpses of Dylan’s interactions with others—his avoidance of answering questions as much as possible, his reticence in general, and in the words of the promoter, his keeping to himself.  We also get vignettes related by band members like Joan Baez and colorful sword-carrying violinist Scarlet Rivera.  In one intimate scene, Dylan is telling Baez how he was sorry she got married and left the band, to which she gently retorts that he got married first—without even telling her.  But he has high praise for her, and we get a glimpse of her at some point dressing up and talking just like him as a joke.   
     Most enjoyable in the film are Bob Dylan’s abundantly performed story-songs—most familiar and some not so well known—that often leave you wondering exactly what they’re about, which says something about the enduring fascination with this life poet.  Live recordings of the tour will be released on June 7 in a 14-CD boxed set.
     Rolling Thunder Revue:  A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese will appear in select theaters and on Netflix June 12.

A story well told by Scorsese, accompanied by generous helpings of Dylan songs and interesting background revelations.

Grade:  A                                    By Donna R. Copeland



ECHO IN THE CANYON



     Jakob Dylan and his band create an echo in Laurel Canyon when they perform some of the major hits that were recorded there in the mid-60’s, e.g., the Byrds, Buffalo Springfield, the Beach Boys, and the Mamas and the Papas.  Also appearing in interviews and chats are Tom Petty, Ringo Starr, Eric Clapton, Stephen Stills, David Crosby, Beck, and Neil Young.  Andrew Slater filmed this documentary after he heard that his friend Jakob Dylan was going to record an album made up of songs of the period.  Slater includes archival clips and pictures from the Laurel Canyon years, along with footage from the 2015 L. A. tribute concert.
     It’s entertaining and interesting to hear the bands perform, to hear about the studios recording them, and the neighborliness of the musician residents who lived in the Canyon at the time, who even welcomed drop-in visitors and sat down for impromptu jam sessions on the spot.  Byrds’ front man Roger Guinn who was a local resident, supplies many of the interesting descriptions in the film.  You also hear a bit of gossip (for instance, about David Crosby, some of which he owns up to, along with the reasons he was asked to leave the Byrds) and a lot of reminiscing about the good vibes and easy lifestyles of the time.  Of most interest is hearing how much the groups borrowed or got inspiration from one another’s songs. Many were inspired by Brian Wilson’s “Pet Sounds”, including the Beatles.  The “Sargeant Pepper” album was apparently one of the cross-pollinations.   
     Jakob Dylan’s pieces are smoothly interspersed in the other musicians’ performances, and he conducts some thought-provoking interviews.  Curiously, he often has an almost blank expression on his face and shows little response during the conversations, but presumably he is making an effort not to detract from the main focus of the scenes.  After learning that he is Bob Dylan’s son, I found myself studying his looks and demeanor to find resemblances between the two, which was my own distraction.  (Similarities are there, but not pronounced.)
     Overall, this is an entertaining, reminiscent look at the captivating music of the time.

Something to enjoy if you like mid-60’s music.

Grade:  C+                                    By Donna R. Copeland



Thursday, June 6, 2019

THE SECRET LIFE OF PETS 2

Voices of:  Kevin Hart, Tiffany Haddish, Harrison Ford, Patton Oswalt, Eric Stonestreet
Jenny Slate, Lake Bell, Hannibal Buress, Nick Kroll, Dana Carvey, Ellie Kemper

      Whereas in the first rendition of The Secret Life of Pets, a relatively simple story with lots of excitement is told, in Secret Life 2, the filmmakers opted to have three loosely related story plots alternating with one another.  One story is about the main character Max having to adjust to his owner’s new baby and going for a visit to a farm where he encounters an intimidating bigger dog named “Rooster” (Ford), although Rooster isa dog.  Another is about Max’s friend Gidget (Slate) trying to retrieve Max’s favorite toy, “busy bee”—which he entrusts her with while he is out of town—when it bounces away and ends up in a cat-filled apartment.  The third story is about Snowball (Hart) feeling like a super hero when his owner dresses him up in an action figure costume, and his friend Daisy (Haddish) asks him for help in rescuing a circus tiger from its abusive trainer Sergei (Kroll).  
     In my opinion, this structure becomes a near fatal flaw, because it fragments the plot and literally lurches through three very different settings and intrigues. Max is trying to brave it up on the farm; Gidget and her friend Chloe (Bell) are frantically trying to wrest “busy bee” from one huge snarling cat in a house full of cats, and Snowball and Daisy become action figures in outwitting and outfighting the evil Sergei for the tiger. Try as the filmmakers might, the three stories don’t really come together in the end; we just get a sample of endless chases modeled after adult action movies.  Bravery seems to be the element tying all this together, but by the end, we feel like we’ve seen three different movie shorts.
     The actors voicing the animals do a great job highlighting their characters’ personalities (Harrison Ford, Tiffany Haddish, and Nick Kroll are welcome additions to the first team), the animation and special effects are entertaining, and Alexandre Desplat’s music is an apt accompaniment.  
     Children in the screening I attended giggled and laughed at expected times and seemed to enjoy the film overall; I just wonder how well the younger ones especially followed and kept track of the three plots.

Another peek into the pet world, where challenges and intrigues are aplenty.

Grade:  C                                    By Donna R. Copeland


Wednesday, June 5, 2019

DARK PHOENIX

Sophie Turner     Jennifer Lawrence     James McAvoy     Michael Fassbender
Nicholas Hoult     Tye Sheridan     Kodie Smit-McPhee    Jessica Chastain


     Enter the world of super powers where the X-Men need only concentrate—perhaps with furrowed brows and taut faces—and the most formidable foe or metal structure can be violently repelled or disintegrated into a puff of smoke.  When you get a whole cast with these powers it can be dizzying, but that doesn’t keep you from being engaged in the story.
Jean is a child in the back seat of her parents’ car tooling down the highway, complaining about the music they’re listening to.  Suddenly she’s in a hospital asking where her parents are. Dr. Charles Xavier (McAvoy) appears and gently verifies her fears that her parents are dead.  It will be OK; Dr. Xavier has a school that might be just right for her, since she is “special” (which she scoffs at). But seriously, he says, it’s a place where children are taught to take pride in their differentness.  It’s clear from this short introduction that Jean has realized that she is different, and can harm others, so despite her misgivings—which voices later on—she agrees to enroll in the school.
     That’s Jean’s childhood; now she is almost grown up (played by Sophie Turner) and has joined the Xavier’s X-Men, albeit still in training.  She’s chosen to go with the group to rescue the NASA space flight of Endeavor, which has run into trouble.  During this mission, she is asked to do a heroic save in the last few seconds, and it’s apparent when she barely escapes with her life that she is changed.  That is, her powers are much stronger.   
     How this happened is a puzzle, although another character later on explains that “it” was given to her for a specific purpose.  The rest of the story is about these powers and the havoc they create for Jean, along with anyone around her.  The story hearkens back to Dr. Xavier’s when he first met Jean; that is, that such “gifts” to someone can be used for good or ill.  The person receiving them can make the decision as to how to exert them.  Although Dr. Xavier will be discredited from time to time, many of his principles will come back to Jean when she is in dire turmoil and pulled in two directions.
     Directed and co-written by Simon Kinberg, who was a producer on previous X-men films (X-Men:  Apocalypse, X-Men:  Days of Future Past, X-Men:  First Class), the film moves along at a fast clip, doesn’t overstay its welcome (less than two hours long), and incorporates substantive moral/ethical issues and emotional truths into an engaging story.  That is, it depicts remorse for mistakes, tensions around the use of power, the importance of “family”—however constituted—and the construction of an identity that “fits.”  
     Following her “Game of Thrones” success as a girl/woman undergoing numerous transformations, Sophie Turner proves she is ready for big-time movies and a starring role.  Aided by creative special effects, as Jean she is transformed into a “phoenix” (mythologically, a bird that regenerates) with powers that overwhelm her at first until she can figure them out.  Here, her upbringing—such as it was—will guide her in making decisions about who she wants to be.  Turner personifies these subtleties in good and evil to a tee.
     An unnamed character, a deliciously evil being without a soul and preoccupied with a quest for power, then appears to try to swing the odds.  She has in mind to use Jean to resurrect the power of a race in decline.  Jean has been a surprise all along, so we wonder what she will do…
     Fine casting strengthens this film’s success in storytelling.  James McAvoy embodies the person who has achieved acclaim but has to come to terms with mistakes he’s made.  The remorse shown is palpable.  Michael Fassbender’s initial befuddlement and subsequent resolve helps keep the tension at an optimum level, and supporting actors, Nicholas Hoult, Tye Sheridan, and Kodie-Smit-McPhee contribute significantly to the drama.
     Although knowledge of previous X-Men films will help in making sense of this rendition, it’s not a strict necessity, except perhaps in identifying the characters.

An exciting journey into the X-Men universe, with women holding their own—even starring.

Grade:  A                                    By Donna R. Copeland

Thursday, May 30, 2019

THE SOUVENIR

Tilda Swinton     Honor Swinton Byrne    Tom Burke
Jack McMullan     Richard Ayoade     Tosin Cole


     I don’t recall ever wanting so badly for a movie to be over.  Right from the beginning, it’s obvious how the story is going to go, with the star having no capacity to make decisions or assert herself, or even stand up for herself when she is being taken advantage of. She doesn’t bill a roomer who should be paying a share of housing, and tolerates a sponger who contributes little to nothing in the relationship or anywhere else.  And when there are clear warning signs glaring at her, she remains passive, and asks for forgiveness for being so “mean.” She seems like an anachronism in today’s world, in which women are tuned in and wanting to establish themselves in their personal and professional pursuits.  The film is set in 1980’s London, but I see no purpose in harking back to those mores.
     Julie (Byrne) attends film school with aspirations for being a filmmaker. We see only snatches of her work, but it appears she is both writing and directing her first feature.  She is still dependent on her mother (Swinton), and although they appear to be close at times, Julie never seems to confide in her, even when she is in crisis.  We don’t see any conflict between them; we only see her asking for money from her mother.
     Anthony (Burke) appears on the scene, and although he isn’t romantic in any way—in fact, he’s rather cynical and critical—Julie falls for him. Anthony purportedly has some kind of job in the government (the Foreign Office, he says), but it’s not clear exactly what he does.  He tells Julie stories about it, but then says, “Oh, I’m just kidding.” He conveys very clearly that she is not to ask him questions about his life, past or present.  If she does, he responds with, “You’re inviting me to torture you.”  His presence in her life distracts her from her studies, and as things go from bad to worse as she catches him in lie after lie, she doesn’t seem to know what to do.  What?!?
     Although written and directed by a woman, Joanna Hoff, and being something of a memoir, Souvenir (named for a painting of the same title by Jean-Honore Fragonard that Julie and Anthony bonded with during a trip to the museum) is surprising in its foreshortening characters to little more than stick figures, limiting conversations to little more than trivia so that we learn very little about who the characters really are, and in its lacking any semblance of intimacy in any of the relationships depicted.  A case in point is when the couple looks at the painting, has slightly different interpretations of it, but neither is given a chance to expand on his/her point of view. This was apparently an intimate, meaningful moment between Julie and Anthony, but it’s not made explicit for the viewer.
     Editing (Helle le Fevre) doesn’t help much; scenes pop up in which the viewer has to figure out who the people shown are and what they are about.  Prime example is a scene in a parking lot with a van waiting for people to board—the last person being Julie.  Finally, when we see her we know that this is her film crew getting ready to travel somewhere.  There are only snatches of Julie’s filmmaking, so the people boarding the bus are not immediately recognizable.
     Acting by the three stars, Honor Swinton Byrne, Tilda Swinton, and Tom Burke, saves this film from being a complete washout.  Although the film has initially been well received, to me, its point of view is one of detachment, with little introspection and psychological exploration or explication of the characters.  Scenes are more often than not cut short before we can see the players’ emotional reactions to what has just happened.  Primarily because of these characteristics, I lost interest in the story early on.

A naïve young woman, aspiring to be a filmmaker and getting involved with an older man is a story with potential, but curiously lacks much passion in the telling or in the enactment.

Grade:  D                                    By Donna R. Copeland


ROCKETMAN

Taron Egerton     Jamie Bell     Richard Madden     Bryce Dallas Howard     Gemma Jones     Tom Bennett


     For such a flashy performer, it’s surprising that Reginald Dwight (aka Elton John) grew up in an emotionally bleak household, with everyone crying out for love and not getting it, which they all sing about).  Well, except for Reggie’s grandmother (Jones), who recognized and accepted who he was and was responsible for helping him get a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music.  His father refused to hug him—ever—and his mother only expressed mild interest in him.  All this is presented to help us understand the grown-up Elton who at the prime of his fame saw no limits to his flamboyance.
     The structure of the film reflects sensitivity and psychological awareness on the part of the director, Dexter Fletcher, and writer, Lee Hall.  We see Elton first in full regalia entering into a group therapy session in which his stories of his life are seen in flashback, starting with his childhood, his entry into the music world, the acme of his career, then the inevitable slide down as his indulgent lifestyle catches up with him.  Themes reflect those early experiences of shyness, insecurity, loneliness, and the sense that everyone will leave him.  It’s only after heart-breaking experience and therapy that he begins to get insight into his own role in disappointing relationships with others.
     The thrilling scenes in Rocketman show the incredible, rapid rise of this multi-talented star in singing and piano playing, along with his glittering showmanship.  The music and the visual presentation are glorious.  Likely, as a response to the bleakness and need for love, a brilliant imagination took hold and carried Elton soaring into the intoxicating reaches of fame.
     Taron Egerton embodies Elton John ideally, in that we forget we are seeing him rather than Elton.  Taron captures the voice (perhaps not the piano playing, but it’s still convincing) and personality of Elton, in all its resplendence, recklessness, anguish, pouting, and joy. Jamie Bell’s performance as his trusted longtime lyricist, loyal collaborator, and friend works so well as a contrast to the showman, while capturing the genuineness in his feelings toward a superstar.  Other actors deserving mention are Richard Madden as the irrepressible agent resembling Elton’s father in his ultimately unemotional business self, Gemma Jones as the savior-like grammy, Bryce Dallas Howard as the self-preoccupied mother, and Tom Bennett as the step-father who gets on board and manages to contribute in a dysfunctional family.
    Musician Matthew Margeson, cinematographer George Richmond, and costume designer Julian Day and their teams contribute significantly to the artistic presentations that dazzle us and keep us entertained throughout the film.
     I’d like to recognize and applaud Elton John’s willingness to have his life portrayed in all his glory, pathos, and self-centeredness.  Only those who have achieved confidence and satisfaction with themselves could afford such a revealing picture.  It’s eloquently embodied in one of the last scenes of the film, when the adult John is finally able to embrace the child Reggie. Insight and therapy can achieve such wondrous results!

An unusual film about a major rock star who eventually finds redemption from excessiveness.

Grade:  A-                                    By Donna R. Copeland


Wednesday, May 29, 2019

MA

Octavia Spencer     Diana Silvers     McKaley Miller     Juliette Lewis     Luke Evans
Corey Fogelmanis     Dante Brown     Gianni Paolo     Allison Janney     Tanyell Waivers


      Successfully blending chilling horror, high comedy, and serious drama with intelligence is a rarity in the world of filmdom.  But director Tate Taylor, writer Scotty Landes, and actress Octavia Spencer have together achieved just that in Ma.  It’s cleverly paced, so that the characters are a bit puzzling in the beginning—especially Spencer’s lead character Sue Ann—or they seem to fit a well-known trope that makes you think they will be predictable.  
     But not much is predictable in this horror-farce; it’s delightfully surprising almost every step of the way.  Even the ending.  As the story gets more and more complicated, one wonders how the filmmakers are going to resolve it, and they did a good job.  
     Maggie (Silvers) and her mother (Lewis) have moved back to the mother’s hometown after a sojourn in California.  Maggie is a teen and a bit apprehensive about the first day of school.  She first meets a shy classmate in a wheelchair and helpfully gives her a push when she needs it before entering her own class.  There, she is immediately welcomed by extrovert Haley (Miller) who treats her like an old friend, invites her to a party, and disparages her for declining in favor of going to a concert with her mother.  When the concert falls through, Maggie gets back on board for the party, and is immediately taken in by Haley and her three friends.  
     They’re a raucous high school group all ready to party and drink.  They have a ruse for getting drinks by asking a passerby outside a liquor store to buy them liquor.  This is where Sue Ann comes in and refuses at first to oblige them, lecturing them about drinking.  But just as she will any number of times, she later pulls the “Just kidding” routine, and even has them come to her basement to party rather than going to a favorite place for teens outside of town where they might get caught.  
     This is all great fun, with Sue Ann joining them and becoming close so that one teen slips and calls her “Ma”, which she seems to like.  But gradually, things start becoming weird.  The teens attempt to distance themselves, but they have no idea whom they are dealing with.  We the audience are privy to some of her actions, but even we won’t know the half of it yet.
     Octavia Spencer lives up to her award-winning performances, and this is likely to be one of her “best yet.”  She is new to the horror genre, and proves that she is well up to a starring role as a psychologically complex figure who displays a range of temperaments, antagonisms, and personal qualities.  Hopefully, she will be recognized at awards time for her brilliance in this role.  
     One of the intelligent features of Ma is its illustration of precursors in Sue Ann’s life that helped form her current personality, including when we get an inkling of Munchausen syndrome. It highlights the destructiveness of teasing, along with the obliviousness of active and passive participants to its cruelty.  So the movie is more than thrills, chills, and entertainment; it touches on elements of peer pressure, over-reactive parents, drug use, and taking action in an emergency.  It’s also about the sins of a father being visited upon his progeny.
     Not to be ignored are the numerous truly funny scenes that take place, sometimes during horrific incidents.  Just two prime examples are in addressing one character’s talkativeness, and the other in infusing a bestial character with sera meant for a dog. But also, Allison Janney’s Dr. Brooks, a veterinarian with an acerbic air who is Sue Ann’s boss is priceless; a perfect cameo.

Who would not want to see such an intelligent horror-comedy with a heavy dose of drama?

Grade:  A                                    By Donna R. Copeland

Thursday, May 23, 2019

ALL IS TRUE

Kenneth Branagh     Judi Dench     Ian McKellen     Kathryn Wilder     Jack Colgrave Hirst


     Not so much rings true (I don’t think) in this fantasy written by Ben Elton and directed by Kenneth Branagh—also its star—but it is interesting.  All is True deals with the period immediately following the fire that destroyed the Globe Theatre, primary venue for William Shakespeare’s plays. Immediately after, Shakespeare retired and never wrote any more.  
     The film shows Shakespeare (played by Branagh) returning home and planting a garden, although, admittedly, he was not very good at it.  In settling back in with his wife and two daughters—one of whom is married—Shakespeare is presented as being glad to be home, devoted to his family, and still grieving the loss of his son Hamnet at age 11.  In this drama, Hamnet’s twin, Judith (Wilder) reveals her own story of how the child died. 
     Most of the drama delves into the hypothesized dynamics of the Shakespeare family, in which William’s wife Anne (Judi Dench in predictably fine form) voices her resentment about his extended absences and other affections he has expressed in his poems.  She is cranky, but mostly forgiving.  His daughter Judith (Wilder) echoes her mother, but her complaints have an additional edge; she is convinced that her father values his dead son over his daughters, particularly her.  The Shakespeares’ daughter Susanna is married to a Puritanical physician, and it’s implied that he takes a self-righteous, accusatory stance on most issues.  The movie shows Judith eventually marrying after she and her father resolve their conflicts, although it is not under the best of circumstances.  All is True suggests that both daughters were involved in local scandals.
     I found the film rather strange in its presumed knowledge of history and its attempts to be currently relevant.  For example, the film clearly conveys its respect for Shakespeare, but it also comes down hard on male privilege and upper class self-entitlements, as well as absent fathers out to make their mark on the world.
     Not being a Shakespearean scholar, I was constantly wondering how much the film is based on historical fact.  Elton and Branagh include any number of hypothetical interactions and events that may veer far from the truth, however plausible they might be.  In this respect, I’m opposed to dramatic liberties taken by filmmakers who seem to go off on their own tangents, simply to entertain/thrill audiences.  On the other hand, if the screenwriter is a real scholar, and makes educated guesses about, say, how it was for Shakespeare to “come home”, I’m a bit more forgiving.
     At any rate, for aficionados of the period and Shakespeare, the film is likely to be entertaining.  For those not particularly interested in historical details and atmosphere, you can skip it.

An unusual look at William Shakespeare and imagining his life in retirement.

Grade:  B-                                    By Donna R. Copeland