Thursday, March 21, 2019

GLORIA BELL

Julianne Moore     John Turturro     Michael Cera     Alanna Ubach     Rita Wilson     Brad Garrett


     Chilean Sebastian Lelio’s films have been popular in the U.S., particularly Disobedience (2017) about a Lesbian Jewish couple and A Fantastic Woman (2018) about a transgender woman.  Gloria Bell is a remake of his earlier film, Gloria (2013) about a woman past her 40’s trying to develop a satisfying life. Played by Julianne Moore, Gloria looks for someone to share her life with.  Her two grown children, Peter (Cera) and Veronica (Ubach) are caught up in their own lives and clearly enjoy their independence.  Gloria is successful at her job in insurance, and for pleasure goes to dance clubs hoping to connect with a man.
She does connect with Arnold (Turturro) one evening, and they start an intimate relationship that is, unfortunately, punctuated with calls from his two grown daughters needing his assistance.  But to her credit, Gloria is patient and understanding and allows Arnold the space to attend to his family demands.  This is clearly a warning signal, but one she doesn’t attend to.
     When Gloria wants to introduce Arnold to her family, particularly to her son and daughter, her ex-husband and his wife are present as well.  When the Bell family gets to reminiscing and showing old pictures, it’s too much for Arnold, and he disappears.  The rest of the story is about whether Gloria and Arnold will make it as a couple.  
    It’s a “Will they or won’t they?” situation.  This has the potential to be interesting, but several factors keep it in a mundane, rather boring place.  First of all, the main character (much as I love Julianne Moore) captures little interest.  She comes across as lonely and dependent, but, worst of all, lacking any problem-solving skills.  For example, she can’t seem to keep someone else’s cat out of her apartment. I presume this was supposed to be comical, but I didn’t find the humor in it.  And there are numerous other times when her decisions make the viewer shake his/her head.  
     Secondly, the dialog and action of the story makes you hold your hand over your mouth and yawn.  When the couple of the story meet, their interchange is so stilted and uninteresting you want to leave the dance floor.  Throughout, secrets are kept unnecessarily, and it’s hard to see these people in our present-day culture.  
     I did see Lelio’s original film Gloria, and was unimpressed then; I had hopes that in this rendition Julianne Moore would change my mind about it, but it’s still a story about a repressed woman who can’t figure out how to get her needs met.  It is so unlike women of today, I couldn’t relate to it.
     Julianne Moore does accomplish her usual high level of performance, and John Turturro matches her well.  Michael Cera is striking in his ability to show discomfort in the company of an unintrusive but still annoying mother, and Alanna Ubach is wonderful as the daughter who is the antithesis of both her parents in being excited about exploring new horizons and acting upon it.
     This film is only mildly interesting, and is not likely to capture much enthusiasm among today’s audiences.

A woman’s core personality keeps her from living a life she thinks she desires.

Grade:  CBy Donna R. Copeland

US

Lupita Nyong’o     Winston Duke     Shahadi Wright Joseph    Evan Alex              
Elisabeth Moss     Tim Heidecker 


     I’m not a horror movie fan (my reality base usually takes me out of the drama), but Us was successful in keeping me engaged—mostly.  Tense moments are right in the beginning when Adelaide (Nyong’o) as a child wanders off at an amusement park and goes into a hall of mirrors.  She is curious and exploring until…she comes to a figure who looks just like her.  She runs out as fast as she can to find her parents, who are beside themselves with worry.  Her trauma is framed as PTSD, and she overhears her parents discussing her with others we don’t know, one of whom suggests she needs to turn to the arts to help her out of the trauma.  And indeed, she becomes a ballet dancer.  Much of the sense of doom here and later on in the film is provided by composer Michael Abels (who also scored Get Out by the same director), whose music will be a profound influence on the way you experience the film.
     Years pass, and Adelaide is now married to Gabe (Duke) and they have a daughter Zora (Joseph) and son Jason (Alex).  Gabe is fun loving and seems always to be trying to bring Adelaide along on whatever venture he comes up with.  But she is clearly uptight and fearful.  When Gabe proposes they go to the beach house (which is near the amusement park she visited as a child) with their friends, the Tylers (Moss, Heidecker), who will be nearby, she is equivocal about it, but eventually gives in.
     They get to the beach, but when they meet their friends, the Tylers, it’s clear that Gabe feels inferior to Mr. Tyler in his house/car/yacht.  And Adelaide doesn’t relate to Mrs. Tyler, who seems oblivious to Adelaide’s reticence, and barrels on with conversations that hold no interest to Adelaide.  Adelaide’s whole attention is concentrated on her children, especially Jason, who—unbeknownst to Adelaide encounters the same house that Adelaide visited years ago.
     Everything is fine until the family goes home to the beach house, when suddenly they see replicas of themselves standing on their front walk.  At first, they don’t realize the four figures look exactly like themselves, and Gabe, doing the father-protection thing, goes out to reason with the intruders.  They don’t respond in the way he expects, so he grabs a baseball bat to go out and confront them again.
     Now, from here, you will witness a stream of horrors that will scare you, leave you perplexed, and exasperate you.  At one point, we see someone holding a sign that says Jeremiah 11:11 (which is:  Therefore thus saith the Lord, Behold, I will bring evil upon them, which they shall not be able to escape; and though they shall cry unto me, I will not hearken unto them.” “Is this a prophetic statement?”, you ask yourself.
     Unfortunately, toward the end, the story drags and takes you out of heightened alert. Jordan Peele is a master at revving up the suspense and evoking all kinds of associations in the viewer, and most of the time he does that here.  But somehow, towards the end, his message doesn’t come through. 
     Symbolism is strong throughout, but its meaning is not always clear:  What do “hands across America” (Reagan era) and “It’s our time now” symbolize? Who do the doppelgangers represent?  It is possible to relish the film without bothering to deal with this aspect, however.

A thriller with symbolism for the viewer to figure out.

Grade:  B+                                    By Donna R. Copeland

RUBEN BRANDT, COLLECTOR

Voices:  Ivan Kamaras    Csaba “Kor” Marton      Gabriella Hamori
Matt Devere     Henry Grant     Christian Niels Buckholdt     Butch Engle


This clever animation will be appreciated more by some than by others.  Informed art lovers will get a kick out of the references to and depiction of famous art works, and the psychologically minded will appreciate the fundamental connections made between nightmares and child-parent issues and patients’ transferences to their therapist. Those viewers might also be intrigued by the coincidental relationship between two opposing characters revealed toward the end.  But it’s also simply fun to watch the masterfully created figures in Ruben Brandt, accompanied by Tibor Cari’s sexy, intriguing score that mixes classical and popular music.  I might want to see it again in the mood of a child watching cartoons on Saturday morning.
Even though the basis underlying the plot is on the absurd side (patients stealing artworks to make their therapist’s nightmares go away), the creatively dynamic animations, colorful characters, and story compensate.  One of the characters, kleptomaniac Mimi, resembles the Pink Panther in her acrobatics and gymnastics; but she is much more attractive and has a taunting, superior air against her rivals.  When the heists are broadcast around the world, the therapist is dubbed “The Collector” because it’s reasoned that since the art works are too famous to be sold anywhere, the thief must be a collector.  
In the process of following the criminals lifting world-renowned art pieces from museums like the Tate, the Louvre, the Uffizi, MOMA in New York, and Chicago’s Art Institute, we are privileged to visit major cities in the world, with thrills provided by an art-informed detective Mike Kowalski (Marton) going after the felons in hair-raising car chases.  In addition to Mimi, there is the bodyguard Bye-Bye Joe (Devere), computer-savvy Fernando (Buckholdt), and “professional” bank robber, Membrano Bruno.  Mixing everything up by competing with this crew, is a mobster (Engle)
The fanciful animations are endlessly intriguing, many of them resembling Picasso’s Cubist paintings, for instance, the figures may have multiple eyes not necessarily aligned and abstract body shapes.  Car chases—one involving a forklift raising up a car on a three-lane highway—become scary and comical at the same time.  It’s not perfect; the connections are not always clear, so at times one must just “go with the flow”, trying not try to reason through the action, and simply enjoy the numerous clever references, such as those made to iconic figures like Alfred Hitchcock.  Witty references made by writer/director Milorad Krstic to both fine art and movies make up half the fun.
Krstic, a painter and multimedia artist with formidable knowledge of the arts, has created this fantasy as his first feature film.  He is almost surely up-and-coming, and I expect he will continue to imagine more adult cartoons to please and delight us.  I hope so!  This is a great first start, and I will look forward to seeing his future work.

An entertaining and clever animation for adults.

Grade:  A-                                    By Donna R. Copeland

THE MUSTANG

Matthias Schoenaerts     Bruce Dern     Gideon Adlon     Connie Britton     Jason Mitchell     Josh Stewart


     This is Director Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre’s first feature film, co-written with Mona Fastvold and Brock Norman Brock.  She has had a long acting career (including being in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly), and after she became interested in animal therapy for prisoners, she visited prisons and attended film laboratories at Sundance for advice and consultation in making the film.  This was not only to understand the process of the therapy, but also to see first-hand actual prisoners who are incarcerated.
     Cinematography by Ruben Impers (Beautiful Boy) is impressive right away in landscape shots of wild mustang horses on the prairie being herded by a helicopter into prison corrals where they will be tamed by prisoners.  It’s meant to be a dual process of both the horse and the prisoner learning how to contain negative emotions and express positive ones.  The latter is demonstrated so beautifully in one tender moment between Roman Coleman (Schoenaerts) and his horse Marcus after numerous out-of-control scenes.
     When we first meet Roman he is almost entirely non-communicative; he’s been in prison 12 years, in and out of isolation, and after some sessions with the psychologist (Britton), he is assigned to an “outdoor maintenance program”—literally shoveling horse s---.  Advocating for himself is completely foreign to him.  While working at that job, he keeps noticing a mustang kicking against the enclosure it’s in (no doubt expressing what he himself feels), he walks over and begins to bond with the horse.  When the chief trainer (Dern) observes this (he’s already had a few hostile encounters with Roman), he decides that this man and this horse are meant to be a pair, and suddenly Roman is in animal therapy.
     Parallel story lines help maintain fascination and suspense in the prison setting related to one of the trainers (Henry played by Mitchell), an affable black man who is successful in undercutting some of Roman’s hostility with gentle teasing, and Roman’s roommate, Dan (Stewart).  These are woven together well with the main story line, adding depth and scope to the tale.
     I liked pacing in The Mustang in giving the viewer time to get to know the characters and absorb the import of it, but revving up the tension and excitement from time to time, keeping you on the edge of your seat.  It is also a film that can be instructive in showing the commonalities between humans and animals and demonstrating the effectiveness of rehabilitative therapy training/for both. One tiny drawback that I saw was the filmmakers not showing the inevitable pain prisoners experience when they must inevitably part.  This is shown to some extent, but not as much as (to me) it is warranted.

An uplifting and inspiring film for just about everyone, with a powerful performance by Schoenaerts.

Grade:  A                                    By Donna R. Copeland

Friday, March 15, 2019

CAPTIVE STATE

John Goodman     Vera Farmiga     Ashton Sanders     Jonathan Majors


     Writer/director Rupert Wyatt and his co-writer Erica Beeney have boasting rights for a movie that leaves the audience mystified until the very end.  In the meantime, viewers sit and wonder what the h--- is going on and try to figure out who the characters are. This takes place on a darkened screen where much of the action is hidden, just like the characters. By the time it starts to become clear—as one viewer observed—you’ve become disengaged and have little investment in the outcome.  There’s a major twist after the fog, but it’s too little too late to be exciting or satisfying.
     The beginning scenes and text inform the viewer that Chicago has been taken over by aliens and that everyone has an identity chip and is followed constantly by cameras with monitors behind them.  
     We see more of John Goodman in the Chicago police station as a district commander than anyone else.  He clearly has an investment in Gabriel (Sanders), the son of his deceased partner, but this kid doesn’t want to have anything to do with him.  Gabriel and his older brother Rafe (Majors) have had a hard time after their father’s death, but clearly don’t see the commander as any kind of mentor.  The commander has been studying and following events closely for nine years since the invasion, and he is convinced that something major is about to happen. No one seems to take him seriously, including his supervisor, who sees him as a little crazy.  
     Another thing we see is a group of characters who have united together with plans to escape (to where, we’re not told). Much of the story involves their various ruses to become anonymous and get out of Dodge...Chicago.  They’re seen as insurrectionists by the police, who have been cooperating with the aliens in a compromised position.
This leads up to the twist, which I will not reveal.  
     I generally admire John Goodman’s performances, which are almost invariably excellent; but in Captive State, the script shows him to be something of a gumshoe, uninteresting and run-of-the-mill. He sometimes seems to have a conscience, sometimes not; and to genuinely care, sometimes not.  So as the lead actor, it’s not easy to get behind him and cheer him on.  Vera Farmiga is wonderfully mysterious—as she is supposed to be—making enigmatic pronouncements that are worth paying attention to.  Ashton Sanders (Moonlight) is a young actor to pay close attention to; he captures all the nuances shown by a young man being pulled in different directions and learning about the paradoxes of life.  These performances are about the only aspect of the movie to savor; otherwise, there is not much. 
     Captive State had potential for being a provocative, currently relevant story; however, the execution failed to deliver, mostly by keeping the audience confused and in the dark most of the time.

If you want sci-fi, you won’t get it here.  If you want thriller, it comes too late for you to care.

Grade:  D+                                    By Donna R. Copeland


FIVE FEET APART

Haley Lu Richardson     Cole Sprouse     Moises Arias     Kimberly Hebert Gregory


     Although not groundbreaking (c.f., Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, The Fault in our Stars, and Miss You Already and many others through the years), Five Feet Apart can be seen as an engaging story that is uplifting despite sad and disappointing turns of events. Director Justin Baldoni clearly knows of what he speaks (presumably from past experience) in a film about teenagers, the restrictions placed upon them by an illness (cystic fibrosis or CF), and how personality, past experience, and connections with others are all in play.
     The normalcy in this film about illness involves its two main characters, Stella (Richardson) and Will (Sprouse), who are polar opposites in personality and outlook on life finding common ground as they fall madly in love with one another. Each is good for the other. Stella’s self-described “OCD”, commitment to treatment, and a rosy outlook on life are juxtaposed against Will’s acerbic outlook and casualness toward treatment that frequently pushes boundaries.  They both have cystic fibrosis (and you will learn much about the disease in seeing the movie), which requires frequent hospitalizations, daily treatment regimens, and the proscription of contact with another person with CF; that is, they can have physical contact with family and friends, just not with fellow patients.
     The entertainment comes from the push-pull of the two developing real appreciation and caring for the other.  The dialog (writers, Nikki Daughtry and Tobias Iaconis) is both snappy and thoughtful while maintaining a reality base so that it doesn’t sound morbid or like something written for stand-up comedy.  This includes the fussiness of Nurse Barbara (Gregory) as she tries to keep the slightly rebellious teens in tow after getting “burned” once before (“Not again on my watch”, she proclaims), interactions among the CF patients, and messages from the medical staff to families.  
     Different kinds of guilt become a running theme woven into the main story.  Stella suffers from “not being there” at the right time for her sister.  Barbara feels guilty about loosening restrictions on two previous patients. One CF patient expressed distress about the burden of his illness being placed on his family.  In the course of the story, these troubles are sensitively addressed.  This is another example of how the film moves beyond the “death and dying” issue to deal with everyday concerns.
     One drawback of the film is toward the end when the filmmakers tease and pull the rug out from under the viewer.  Just how many last-second saves should be in any script?  But above all, Five Feet Apart demonstrates the importance of physical touch to all of us.  Not only is abstinence a strain when expressing delight, but it’s crushing in moments of grief.  We see how much Stella’s and Will’s minds and eyes have to make up for the absence of even the slightest physical connection.
     Haley Lu Richardson (Support the Girls, Columbus, The Edge of Seventeen) clearly lives up to her acting promise in portraying a complex teenager with major challenges behind and ahead of her.  Cole Sprouse, whose claim to fame rests primarily on the TV series, “Riverdale” in which he plays a lead role, shows a range of emotional sensitivities and ease with his character in this production that should prove his dramatic talent.  Essential to the success of this drama is Poe, expertly played by Moises Arias.  He is an important third in the Stella/Will drama in his contrast with Stella and Will and in his tempering/uniting their differences.
     Musicians Brian Tyler and Breton Vivian composed a wonderfully provocative score that captures and enhances so well the varying moods of Five Feet Apart.  

Ignore its potentially saddening subject; Five Feet Apart is an uplifting and inspiring film.

Grade:  B                                    By Donna R. Copeland


Wednesday, March 13, 2019

BIRDS OF PASSAGE (PAJAROS DE VERANO)

Carmina Martinez     Jose Acosta     Jhon Narvaez     Natalia Reyes


     When the drug trade in Colombia began, indigenous people got involved, which marked the beginning of their end in many cases despite their having successfully resisted the Spanish invasion long ago and were never colonized.  Doyens of the tribes attempted to bridge their culture with that of drug trading, but the corruption of money and greed rendered this impossible.  
     This is a story about that time.  Ursula (Martinez) belongs to the remote Wayuu matrilineal community, which adheres to traditional beliefs, so Ursula has strict requirements for her daughter Zaida’s (Reyes) suitor Rapayet (Acosta) to come up with a huge dowry. He can manage to meet her demands only because he acquires a newly thriving business selling marijuana to Americans, which he gains access to through his assistant Moises (Narvaez), a wheeler-dealer par excellence who not only disregards traditional beliefs, but assumes there is a work-around for any law; and, he is hot-headed and impulsive. 
     Birds of Passage is as much an anthropological account of the indigenous tribes in Colombia as it is about the drug trade, although the two become intermixed.  Traditional beliefs butt up against the ruthless capitalist drug trade, and who wins is predictable.  But the movie is visually beautiful, the characters are understandable if not always admirable, and the plot is interesting enough to keep the viewer engaged.  It spans over a decade in time (the 1960s-70s), to illustrate the gradual erosion of the family and community, punctuated by periodic crises and violence.  It is also in that period of time when there was a global interest in psychoactive drugs, many of which were processed in Colombia.
     Directors Cristina Gallego and Ciro Guerra took care in how the Wayuu people are represented, partly by having natives make up 30% of their crew, who were active consultants in assuring the validity of the characters.  They were also interested in portraying the Colombian drug trade from the perspective of a family rather than from that of drug lords, as in most films about the drug trade.
     A standout in her performance as Ursula, Carmina Martinez plays the matriarch in a convincing way, showing authority as well as affection.  Jose Acosta as Rapayet shows well the struggle he has in trying to maintain cultural beliefs amidst the compromised values in the drug trade.  He shows pained sincerity when his friend/assistant gets out of line.

Birds of Passage manages to be a beautiful, educational film, poignantly portraying the inevitable friction that develops when a drug trade encroaches upon a native culture.

Grade:  A                                    By Donna R. Copeland


WONDER PARK

Voices of:  Brianna Denski     Jennifer Garner     Matthew Broderick     Norbert Leo Butz     John Oliver
Ken Hudson Campbell     Mila Kunis     Kenan Thompson     Ken Jeong


     Wonder Park is a wonderful mixture of adventure, risk and daring-do, problem solving, optimism in the face of setbacks—even some philosophical musings (especially on the part of porcupine Steve in the voice of Oliver) and journeys into grief and depression.
     Ten year-old June (Denski) has a vivid imagination, which is encouraged by her mother (Garner) and father (Broderick).  (Seldom in kids movies are parents shown to be so reasonable and nurturing.)  She and her mother have built a glorious Wonder Park populated by animals June is close to as well as fanciful rides.  She gets a bit rambunctious at times, once laying waste in the neighborhood, for which she must suffer the consequences.  But she is not to be discouraged about rebuilding what is broken; her mother expresses supreme confidence in her ability and imagination.
     Soon after, her parents have some distressing news, which is that the mother is ill and must go away for treatment.  June is devastated and angry, and becomes overly solicitous (bossy) of her dad, and is rude to a visiting aunt and uncle.  She throws a tantrum and throws one of her presents into the fireplace.  She will discover some of the consequences of this behavior later, first in the form of a blueprint flying about by the wind in a forest.  
     Suddenly, June stumbles upon an abandoned train car, and finds herself traveling to parts unknown.  What she happens upon is a curious Wonder Park that is real, but that looks a lot like hers.   Moreover, this Wonder Park is in deep trouble.  It’s been invaded by Chimpanzombies who are in the process of destroying everything, along with a giant dark cloud that periodically appears, bringing the darkness.  She learns this after she encounters some of her old friends like Boomer (Campbell), Steve, Gus (Thompson), Cooper (Jeong), and Greta (Kunis).  But Peanut (Butz) is missing!  The animals explain to her that Peanut knew that the key to restoring the Park is the Clockwork Swings; he had gone to fix it, but never returned.  Now June knows that her job is to find Peanut and fix the Clockwork Swings.  On her way, she’ll have to deal with all the threats in Wonder Park causing problems and endangering her and her friends.
     Along with the brilliant animation and voices, the story is one of the strongest assets of Wonder Park.  In telling the entertaining, suspenseful tale, it manages to maintain a sense of adventure while dealing with grief and depression, trust, self-discovery, social concerns for community and fellow citizens, conscience and redemption, and maintaining a positive outlook on life—a tall order for a children’s movie.  Principal credit for all this goes to the story authors and screenwriters, Josh Appelbaum, Andre Nemec, and Robert Gordon, and additionally to composer Steven Price, cinematographer John Garcia Gonzalez, and all of the artistic and animation crews.  Apparently David Feiss became the director late in the production after the original director was dismissed.

This is one of the best movies for children ever to come along.

Grade:  A                                    By Donna R. Copeland

CLIMAX

Sofia Boutella


     Please deliver me from such absurdity as this movie.  It starts out not too bad, with dancers responding to interviewers’ questions about their thoughts, feelings, and dreams.  Some come across as very young and inexperienced, but some are thoughtful and humorous in their responses.  Other than their all being young, it’s a diverse group with a wide range of values and points of view, setting the stage for what will come later.
     But first, some 20 or so dancers engage in a spirited dance that shows off their talents and is enjoyable to watch until their moves tend to get repetitive and the scene becomes tiresome.  It is strenuous effort, so afterwards the spent cavorters get to have a party. Refreshments have been set up, and one dancer expresses her pride in offering sangria, implying that it’s a special treat.  She seems not to know—as does no one else, apparently, except for one—that it has been laced with LSD.  
     One of things human beings can do for a power trip is to drug another person without their knowledge or consent.  That is what happens here, and much time is spent in trying to figure out who the culprit is.  Needless to say, accusations fly right and left, some escalating into physical fights.  It's very sad, especially when you remember that some of the dancers  have no experience with drugs.
     Of the many distortions in the plot, one of the most egregious is the mischaracterization of the effects of LSD, which is still being used therapeutically under the proper conditions.  But even under “normal conditions”, the mind-altering experience is usually pleasurable, even though some people can have negative reactions.  The distortion in this movie is that just about everyone has a bad trip—none of Timothy Leary’s “tune in, turn on, and drop out”.  I kept wishing that everyone would just go to bed.  Instead, they keep hanging around one another engaging in gossip and personal fantasies, becoming more and more paranoid.
     Of course, it could be that in writer/director Gaspar Noe’s fantasy everyone got huge doses, and that accounts for bizarre behaviors.  But I seriously doubt that a group of people would go bonkers like these people do; i.e., peeing in the middle of the floor, a character kicking a pregnant woman in the stomach, another pushing a woman into a candle that lights her clothes on fire, etc.  Absolute mayhem ensues.  Much of the time is spent in characters trying to push others away.  
     To make matters worse—and even more uncomfortable for the viewer—a child on the premises, awakens after his mother put him to bed and tries to join the party.  His not-the-best mother locks him in a room to keep him “safe”, whereupon he yells and screams during most of the rest of the evening, adding to the din of the loud ear-grating music.
     This film has no redeeming value in the slightest.

For the sake of all your five senses, avoid Gaspar Noe’s Climax.

Grade:  F                                    By Donna R. Copeland

Wednesday, March 6, 2019

TRIPLE FRONTIER

Oscar Isaac     Charlie Hunnam     Ben Affleck     Pedro Pascal     Garrett Hedlund     Adria Arjona


     It’s curious how this movie directed by J. D. Chandor (Most Violent Year, Margin Call, All is Lost) and written by Mark Boal (Hurt Locker, Zero Dark 30, Detroit) with Chandor as co-writer could have such a flawed plot.  The story is about retired special-forces operatives who are brought together around a scheme to get their hands on millions of dollars. The actors are top-notch, but the script has the characters making one mistake after another.  They are retired, but that doesn’t cause a person to lose professional judgment and common sense.  
     The set-up has potential.  “Santiago” (Isaac) has been living in a tri-border area in South America and learns of a drug lord whose house serves as a virtual safe to guard his money. Santiago has a strong code of ethics, which is the reason he is where he is, helping the police.  But he is discouraged when he realizes he has had little effect on the local community.  (BTW, The Triple Frontier refers to a tri-border area along the junction of Paraguay, Argentina and Brazil, where the Iguazú and Paraná rivers converge. Wikipedia)
     He comes up with an idea that would require the help of three of his old colleagues and the brother of one, who is a professional fighter.  He goes to visit each one with his proposal. The previous captain of their team, “Redfly” (Affleck), has split up with his wife and has two daughters who need to go to college, but he is an unsuccessful real estate agent, and wonders how he can swing it.  “Ironhead (Hunnam) and “Catfish” (Pascal) are in similar circumstances—none seem to have managed to make their pensions sufficient for their needs. Ironhead seems satisfied with his job as a military instructor, and he shows fondness for his brother (Ben, played by Hedlund), the fighter, who is asked to come along on the venture as well.
     Santiago has learned from his close friend Yovanna (Arjona) about the drug lord’s habits, because she is his trusted employee.  The retired operatives carefully plan a heist in which no one but the criminal will be killed.  They think they have thought of everything; but they haven’t, of course, taken into account some of their own personality characteristics and unexpected events that could occur.
     Every man except Santiago is reluctant and ambivalent about going, but in every case rationales can be thought of to justify their going ahead with the plan: Pensions aren’t high enough, they served their country selflessly in danger to their lives, and families are depending on them.
     Transportation is arranged, concluding with a boat that will take them out of the country and back toward home.  What could go wrong?
     Much can go wrong and does, with the result that what could have been a dashing, exciting adventure becomes frustrating when the esprit de corps that special forces are known for fades very quickly, especially under the leadership of a weak captain.  His major misjudgment in the house results in a chain of disastrous problems.  
     I always admire Oscar Isaac in a film; when he is on the screen, not only does he have charisma and a certain degree of mystique, but he knows how to convey trust in his moral decisions (e.g., A Most Violent Year), except, of course, when he is a villain (X-Men:  Apocalypse), and he does that well too.  Charlie Hunnam also comes across strong in this film as a numbers guy, but one with a keen sense of ethics and who maintains a close relationship with his brother.  Cinematography by Roman Vasyanov is an artistic aspect of the film to admire; the scenes of the Colombian landscapes and the indigenous families transport you to a faraway land.
     All things considered, I’m not sure who will see Triple Frontier in a positive light.  Neither the character Santiago nor the actor Isaac are enough to compensate for flaws in the plot and inconsistencies in the other characters. 

Triple Frontier is just too implausible to regard as a well crafted film, although the acting and cinematography are noteworthy.

Grade:  C-                                    By Donna R. Copeland

THE KID

Ethan Hawke     Chris Pratt     Jake Schur     Leila George     Dane DeHaan


     Although pretty much a typical western, The Kid has a few surprising twists and turns.  Rio (Schur) is a 14 year-old boy without a good father figure on which to pattern himself.  But he has read about Billy the Kid (played here by Dane DeHaan) and has a huge case of hero worship.  When he and his older sister Sara (George) are on the run after a tragic encounter with their uncle Grant (Pratt), whom should they meet on the way but Billy the Kid.  Sara, knowing the dangers of information, has cautioned Rio against telling anything about their story, so he doesn’t confide in Billy when they get holed up in an isolated house on the New Mexico prairie, despite Billy’s famous friendly chatter.  Rio does let him know a little of his story, and Billy is immediately touched, identifying with him and giving Rio a memento of their connection.
     Sheriff Pat Garrett (Hawke) has gotten a tip about where the bandidos are hiding, and appears on the scene, capturing Billy and his cohorts.  When Rio and Sara suddenly appear, it’s a surprise to the lawmen.  Sara tells the sheriff that they “got separated” from their father, and are on their way to Santa Fe to find their mother’s friend, and the sheriff—a clearly honorable man with a conscience—offers to let them ride with his train to the place where they will drop off one of the prisoners.  Then he will take them to Santa Fe before proceeding to Lincoln County with Billy.
     Most of the story takes place on these eventful rides, with Sara’s, Rio’s, and even Sheriff Garrett’s lives threatened here and there.  One of the most threatening is when Uncle Grant finds Rio and Sara and kidnaps her.   
     Sheriff Garrett senses that Rio is hiding something, and asks him over and over if he has anything to tell him; but Rio always says no and glosses over the real story.  
     The Kid has all the usual western tropes of gun slinging, posses, a sheriff who attempts to bring justice, etc.; but it also has:  The unlikely friendship between a wanted criminal and a boy who’s trying to figure out morality in life; men talking emotionally about their first kill; and periodic philosophical musings from a sheriff [e.g., “It’s the world we’re in“ (i.e., we’re not in control of everything); "It’s not intelligence; it’s lack of fear”, “It doesn’t matter what’s true; It matters the story they tell when you’re gone.”  
     Director Vincent D’Onofrio and writer Andrew Lanham have created a story with all the excitement and color of a western, but have inserted little elaborations that make it interesting, such as the thoughtfulness and humanity of the sheriff, reflections by men about their experiences of killing, the thoughts of a boy about life’s dilemmas, and the devastation of sexual exploitation upon a young woman.
     Outstanding actors include Ethan Hawke—always superb in his portrayals--Jake Schur as the impressionable but thoughtful Rio, Dane DeHaan as the crafty, teasing Billy the Kid, and Chris Pratt of the Jurassic World, Avengers, Guardians of the Galaxy, and Passengers world, becoming a bad guy in a western.  

For westerns fans, The Kid has something to offer beyond the usual fare.

Grade:  B                                 By Donna R. Copeland

CAPTAIN MARVEL

Brie Larson     Gemma Chan     Ben Mendelssohn    Samuel L. Jackson     Lee Pace
Jude Law     Annette Bening     Djimon Hounsou     Colin Ford


     This female Captain Marvel lights up the screen—literally, in brilliant bursts of light—and in her noble beliefs in truth and justice and her aim to be a bridge between Earth and space.
     The story opens with her/Carol Danvers (Larson) as a former U.S. Air Force fighter pilot suffering from unexplained amnesia when Yom-Rogg (Law), member of the notable Kree military group known as Starforce, rescues her after a plane crash.  He gives her some information (leaving out significant bits), and informs her that he will be training her to be a Kree warrior subsequent to her DNA being fused with that of a Kree during the accident.  This has given her superhuman strength and other super powers, such as photon blasts from her hands.  He puts her through rigorous fight maneuvers, attempting to train her away from her human emotional reactions to become more like the unemotional Kree.  The Krees are in the midst of a war with another alien group, the Skrulls.
     When “Vers”—the name she is to go by—is ready for her first mission, she is visited by the Krees’ Supreme Intelligence (Bening), who tells her she is ready to be a warrior, gives her instructions and then disappears.  At this point, she can’t really recall her own history.
In her mission, Vers will encounter the bewildering, green-skinned Skrull shape shifters led by  Talos (Mendelssohn) to keep them from stealing a light speed engine invented by the Krees and banish them from the universe.  It gets complicated because the characters and the viewers cannot always tell who is really who they say they are, which also provides the opportunity for humorous scenes in which characters are asking one another factual bits and incidents in their past that a shape shifter wouldn’t know. It also means that who are the “good” guys and who are the “bad” guys frequently shifts.  Since the viewer is in the dark too (unless well informed about Marvel comics), this becomes a teaser in the film, which may capture your interest or seem tedious.
     Brie Larson in a completely new role for her has just the right mixture of sassiness, bravado, playfulness, and fierceness to be convincing as an action figure, Captain America.  It was fun seeing a woman in that role, like it was with Gal Gadot in Wonder Woman, although Captain Marvel doesn’t seem as bad-ass as Wonder Woman.  Jude Law, Samuel L. Jackson, and Annette Bening are all comfortable in complex roles where their characters are seen in different lights at different times.  The arc of Gemma Chan’s role as Minn-erva, Carol Danvers’ best friend/sister, and an ace pilot is gratifying to see.  
     Boden/Fleck as writers/directors (and their co-writers) can be pleased with their new Captain Marvel, which entertains, is well paced, and sustains suspense with brilliant special effects, music (Pinar Toprak), and cinematography (Ben Davis) that complement the story and the characters.  

The emergence of a female Captain Marvel and the war between two alien groups make for an exciting, colorful ride, with a revealing twist toward the end.

Grade:  B+                                 By Donna R. Copeland

Sunday, March 3, 2019

THE BOY WHO HARNESSED THE WIND

Chiwetel Ejiofor     Maxwell Simba     Aissa Maiga     Lily Bande


     Take a trip to Africa to revel in the scenery, the music, the costumes, and the culture. Talented actor Chiwetel Ejiofor’s first venture in directing a feature film should assure him of a promising future in this aspect of moviemaking.  His selection of story, timing of plot progression, and, in partnership with the producers, assembling a team for casting, music, cinematography, and other artistic components are optimal.  
     With Ejiofor’s own script based on William Kamkwamba’s memoir with the same title, Dick Pope’s cinematography, Antonio Pinto’s music, Bia Salgado’s costumes, and Alexa L. Fogel’s casting, the viewer is able to experience what it was like in 2001 Malawi when young William was struggling to introduce the windmill to his village.  It was in the middle of a drought when his family and the villagers were suffering in a famine after poor decisions  were made by governments at all levels and by the world economic slump following the 9-1-1 terrorist attack.  And these aren’t the only tragedies in the family story; others involve beatings, stealing, and a runaway teen.  
     On a lighter note, it’s fun seeing William and his friends rummaging through the scrap yard looking for wires, pipes, wood, and metal without our knowing exactly how he’s going to put it all together.  The hardest to come by are bicycle wheels and other parts, and some of the saddest scenes are when William asks his father if he can have his bicycle, the family’s only transportation.  The father is so incredulous, it’s clear he thinks his son has lost his senses.
     I had seen and enjoyed Ben Nabors’ and Tom Rielly’s very fine 2013 documentary, William and the Windmill, but this feature gave me the opportunity to experience William’s discoveries emotionally and learn more about his family and where he grew up.  At least for me, it’s a real tearjerker—in a good way.  One is inspired as much by the child’s fortitude and his family’s struggles as touched by the sadness and tension of his story.
     In his first major acting role, Maxwell Simba captures well the child William’s excitement, self-confidence, and ups and downs in trying to cling to his school studies and inveigle ways to carry on independent research in the tiny local library for his project.  His acting skill—likely honed by the director—is especially notable in scenes with the experienced Ejiofor, who plays his father.  The father initially has no faith in his son’s capabilities, calling earlier versions of the windmill model “toys”, and insisting on William’s helping him more in the farm fields.  
     The film ends on a high note that emphasizes the family’s solidarity and William’s vindication, support from their friends and the townspeople, and a glimpse of William’s life thereafter.
     As a follow-up, it’s satisfying to learn that as a result of his invention, William was able to graduate from college, receive funding from venture capitalists, and achieve no small amount of fame.  He has spoken at T.E.D. conferences and appeared on television, and in 2013 was named by Time Magazine as one of 30 People under 30 Changing the World.  He continues his community service by consulting worldwide on projects that explore renewable energy sources, and agricultural, water, and sanitation improvements, along with being involved in providing educational help and resources for students. Most of all, he exemplifies a young man who retains the commitment to community service and assistance for everyone around the world.  

The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind will surprise and inspire you, pull on your emotions, and astonish you in witnessing the confident, creative genius of a child.  On Netflix.

Grade:  A                                    By Donna R. Copeland

Thursday, February 28, 2019

GRETA

Chloe Grace Moretz     Isabelle Huppert     Maika Monroe     Stephen Rea     Zawe Ashton

     Like many thrillers, Greta has a benign start in someone showing kindness to another.  Francis (Moretz) finds a purse left on the subway, with ID, cash, etc., inside.  Her roommate Erica (Monroe) sees it as an opportunity for a spa day, but Francis is an honest, kindhearted soul who sees it as a duty (and a privilege) to return it personally to its owner.  That is Greta Hideg (Huppert), a charming widow who is very grateful and offers Francis tea and company.  They chat, and Francis learns that Greta has not only lost her husband and her dog, but her daughter is in France.  Out of genuine empathy, Francis offers to help Greta find another dog.  This is politely refused; however, soon after they part, Greta calls on the phone and takes Francis up on her offer.  
     Francis does indeed help Greta, and as they spend some time together, they become friends.  This is somewhat to the chagrin of Francis’ roommate, Erica, who finds that Francis’ time with Greta means less time with Erica.  “Why do you want to spend so much time with an old lady?” she asks, and suggests that Greta stands in for Francis’ mother who passed away the year before. Francis is dismissive of this charge; however, when she is at Greta’s soon after, she finds something disturbing, and decides to end her friendship with Greta.
     Ah, things are never so simple in a thriller.  As she tries to extricate herself, Francis confronts a needy, controlling stalker who is determined to hold onto her. Stalking is only the beginning of the horrors that are in store for Francis.  
     This is the place where I had problems with the movie; at this point, it piles on so much, more and more, it loses its appeal, and becomes a laborious slog to get to the end.  Before it does wrap up, there are entertaining scenes with Erica back in the picture to enliven it. 
     This film pales against Huppert’s previous film, The Piano Teacher, partly because it does not delve into the perpetrator’s psychological past.  We see that Greta is lonely and that she has a checkered past, but we’re not shown the antecedents to her obsessions.
     Isabelle Huppert is her inimitable witchy threat who sends chills up your spine with her craftiness and manipulative ways.  Moretz has her character match Greta’s terror with her innocence, naïveté, and compassionate willingness to help others.  This juxtaposition is one of the strongest assets of the film.  Stephen Rea’s cameo offers additional thrills, and Maika Monroe’s savvy solution to the problem is clever.  One of the biggest faults of the story, however, is her character’s suggestion to Francis to apologize to Greta and take responsibility for a “misunderstanding.”  This is a weak plot turn that seems stupid on its face, in view of the severely disturbed character they are dealing with.

Despite minor weaknesses, this is a tight thriller that will entertain you.

Grade:  C+                                    By Donna R. Copeland


Thursday, February 21, 2019

HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON: THE HIDDEN WORLD

Voices of:  Jay Baruchel   America Ferrera   F. Murray Abraham   Cate Blanchett   Gerard Butler
Jonah Hill   Kristen Wiig   Kit Harrington   Craig Ferguson



     The opening of this film set me up for disappointment with an extended battle in dim light in which the characters are not recognizable.  Suddenly, there looms a glorious, colorful view of the island of Berk, and things began to look up.  What follows, however, is the least interesting story of the three Dragon movies.  
     Here, the challenge for Hiccup (Baruchel) and Toothless, his dragon, is to meet the threat posed by Grimmel the Grisly (Abraham), a dragon-hunting warlord who has a nefarious plan to capture Toothless and make him the leader (alpha) of all the dragons he has captured.      He will send out his captive white Fury to beguile Toothless and bring him to Grimmel.
     In the meantime, since Berk is becoming overpopulated with dragons, Hiccup is trying to find the utopia for dragons that his father had told him about, the Hidden World.  If he could move the population there, they could live happily ever after in safety from the dragon hunters.
     Unexpected events happen in both Hiccup’s and Grimmel’s plans, the most profound being that Toothless and the white Fury stumble upon each other and it is love at first sight.  
     Writer/director Dean DeBlois has chosen different themes for this version of Dragons.  It’s partly about how true love involves dealing with loss and letting go of a loved one at the proper time.  Loyalty and heroism get woven in as guiding principles in love.  Hiccup retains his original concerns for the social good and acts upon them.  
     I did not find the story as compelling as in DeBlois’ previous two Dragon productions, but Gil Zimmerman’s cinematography and John Powell’s music are as impressive as they were in their earlier work.  

Dragon training and the search for utopia is interrupted by love.

Grade:  C+                                    By Donna R. Copeland





ARCTIC

Mads Mikkelsen     Maria Thelma Smaradottir


     Iceland’s bitter cold and isolation are constant companions in this film about a man whose cargo plane has crashed in the Arctic, and who only has flares to signal passing aircraft that he is there.  We don’t know how long he’s been there, but he’s clearly knowledgeable in rigging together ways to save his life, e.g., an SOS sign planted in the snow, a contraption designed to bring in fish from water below the snow for food, and a signal transmitter to connect with aircraft.  We are told nothing about him; we glean whatever information we have from observing him for days carrying out the business of surviving in hopes of being rescued.
     Little does he know what’s ahead.  His hopes are dashed when he signals a passing small plane to stop.  No one inside seems to detect him…but then, it starts circling back.  His hopes are renewed by this sight when, horror of horrors, the plane crashes.  Upon investigation, he finds the pilot dead, but the co-pilot, a young woman, is still alive. He gently takes care of her wound, and carries her back on a sled made from the plane’s door, to his own wrecked plane, which has become his temporary home.  He has found a photograph in the downed plane of the woman with her husband and son looking out happily at the camera, which he places before her as a way of encouragement.  He always reassures her, “They will come for you.”  “It will be all right.”
     This introduction gives the viewer a sense of this unusual story and how it will play out.  It becomes an excruciating drama about the seduction of hopeful events, a hero’s dogged response and determination, and the seemingly endless frustrations a man encounters in trying to fulfill his moral imperatives.
     The inveterate Mads Mikkelsen (Jagten, At Eternity’s Gate, The Hunt, TV’s “Hannibal”) gives a tour de force performance in playing out the single-minded, grounded Overgard, who manages to meet every conundrum thrown to him by fate.  The entire movie hinges on what happens in the end. Has he been successful? Will he get rescued?  Will his charge whom he has taken upon himself to rescue be reunited with her family?
     Not every one of these questions will be answered.  The writers (director Joe Penna and Ryan Morrison) have achieved excellence in giving skeletal details underlying a major heroic story while keeping the viewer on the edge of the seat.  Tomas Orn Tomasson’s cinematography evokes awe and mystique in the polar landscape, while still capturing the intimacy of the inside-plane scenes of Overgard trying to feed the found woman and find out anything—anything!—from her.  

This is a film for the outdoors person who loves adventure and challenges involving a quiet hero following his conscience.  

Grade:  C+                                    By Donna R. Copeland