Thursday, June 27, 2019

TONI MORRISON: THE PIECES I AM



     This is a really fine documentary worth seeing whether or not you’ve read the notable American writer’s novels.  Toni Morrison’s beginnings were humble (her father read the Bible when it was illegal for a black man to do so, and moved north from Georgia to Ohio after witnessing two lynchings).  After her sister taught her to read when she was three years old, she amused herself by writing words on the sidewalk, and reading as much as she could.  When she got a job at the local library stacking books, she said she was slow because she couldn’t resist reading the books as she was putting them on shelves.
     After having grown up in Ohio, she enrolled in Howard University in Washington D.C., where she encountered segregated restaurants and buses for the first time. Even at Howard, she found one sorority for lighter skinned black women and another for darker skins.  
     After earning a B.A. at Howard University and an M.A. at Cornell University, Morrison taught English for a year at Texas Southern University in Houston, Texas. Thereafter, she became an editor at Random House, where she began getting praise for her work, and eventually started becoming known for her fiction.  Even after she won the Nobel Prize, she was criticized for writing only about the black experience, referring to it as “narrow” and “provincial.”  She defends herself by taking pride in writing to people of color rather than to white people; and, indeed, Hilton Als reported in The New Yorker that Morrison was influential in changing the writing of black authors.
     Toni Morrison’s achievements have been as novelist, editor, and teacher, having now attained the rank of professor emeritus at Princeton University. In addition to literary prizes (Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, Nobel Prize for Literature, and American Book Award), Toni Morrison received the National Humanities Medal, and President Obama bestowed upon her the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
     Morrison’s life has been colorful—difficult at times (such as when raising two boys on her own)—but inspiring and rewarding for the most part, according to the documentary.  She notes that she has always been able to count on family, and she finds great peace in rising at dawn and writing for several hours on a pier by her lake house.
     Director/Producer Timothy Greenfield Sanders’ film about an American icon contains artistic renditions of scenes, entertaining comments from the famous Oprah Winfrey, Fran Lebowitz, Angela Davis, and others, as well as an intimate, warmly human picture of an amazing woman likely to be venerated for years to come.  If you haven’t already sampled some of her books, you are sure to want to after seeing this film.

An artistic and resonant portrait of a celebrated American writer.

Grade:  A                                    By Donna R. Copeland

SPIDER-MAN: FAR FROM HOME

Tom Holland    Zendaya    Jon Favreau    Jake Gyllenhaal    Samuel L. Jackson
 Marissa Tomei     Cobie Smulders     Jacob Batalon     Angourie Rice


     At first, it looked like this, the seventh rendition of Spider-Man as the central figure, was going to have a clever twist, and it did for a while, but the follow-through was less inspired. Nevertheless, the action is captivating as usual (except when the battles go on too long), and the special effects are especially grand.  Peter Parker has always been a kind of “aw, shucks” kind of guy, but that trait is more emphasized here—perhaps because he has been charged with an assignment he is not quite ready for, at least in terms of self-confidence and other concerns.  That tendency wears thin over time.
     Peter (Holland) has a burning love interest, and he is beside himself with anticipation for the science trip his class is scheduled to take in Europe, when he plans to romance and declare his feelings for Michelle Jones (“MJ”) (Zendaya). So like many teenagers called to duty, when Nick Fury (Jackson) needs Spider-Man asap, Peter stalls, trying to get out of serving.  
     Hearing more, his enthusiasm for the task waxes and wanes, depending on who is talking to him, and although Fury goes with Peter’s resistance, he has a way of inserting his will at strategic times.  One of the incentives Peter is given is a set of special eyeglasses from Tony Stark that gives him access to technology that he can summon at any time without regard to cost.  Of course, Peter is thrilled; this is something he was yearning for in 2017’s Spider-Man Homecoming, to be Stark’s successor. But, curiously, deep down Peter now feels unworthy of the inheritance.  
     That, coupled with his adolescent passions, causes him to make a decision, the implications of which he is completely unaware.  Until later.
     Peter is far from home, jaunting off to Venice, Italy, the Austrian Alps, Berlin, and London.  With filming taking place in all those sites, the visuals are heightened.   But Peter will not be on a sightseeing tour; danger and intrigue erupts at every stop.  He is relieved to find a potential ally in one of the heroes from another dimension named Quentin Beck/Mysterio (Gyllenhaal), who suddenly appears on the scene and who is able to thwart a huge new shape-shifting “elemental” threat that creates tornados and earthquakes on earth.  Gyllenhaal and Parker have a natural chemistry that charges up every scene they’re in together.  In all the goings on, Peter is caught up in complexities that take a while for him to figure out.
     Interestingly, beginning with the 2017 film when Peter’s friend Ned (Batalon) learns about his identity, MCU has decided in this version to be more public about who he is.  This makes for charming interchanges between Peter and MJ.  Zendaya’s character is so interesting in her deadpan expressions; and their pairing is a delightful part of the story.

Except for one new element, Far from Home resembles previous versions; but for Spider-Man fans, this one is likely to be fun and exciting.

Grade:  B                                    By Donna R. Copeland

FRAMING JOHN DELOREAN

Alec Baldwin     Morena Baccarin     Josh Charles


     This is a fascinating documentary about perhaps the most famous wannabe carmaker in history, John Delorean.  Well, he was able to produce some cars, but when he thought he was hitting it big, most of the Deloreans being produced had major flaws.  Couple that with sudden competition from Japan’s Volkswagens (and the trend toward smaller cars) and a major change in British government (enter Margaret Thatcher) when he had taken his company to Ireland, he is in a tight spot.  
     It’s a tale of a golden boy destined to be the head of General Motors, the major car company of the time.  He moves up rapidly from a simple engineer, taking calculated risks like producing and marketing the Pontiac GTO, (aka, “muscle car”), which other GM executives thought would never sell.  It did, big time.  Now, GM is in a dilemma; Delorean is GM’s biggest moneymaker for the company, but the elders cannot condone his lifestyle (party boy).  There is a move to oust him from GM, and when one of his planned speeches gets leaked to the public, he is let go.  However, Delorean being who he is, turns the fracas into a hero win for himself.
     It gives Delorean the opportunity to go off on his own, taking one of GM’s foremost engineers, Bill Collins, with him, and forming the Delorean Motor Car Company. It’s when Delorean starts having financing troubles that he begins to cut corners and abandon any ethical principles he had before.  He makes a deal that involves a new engineer, Colin Chapman (edging out Collins) and a shady financing company, and decides to locate his company in Belfast, Ireland.  
     Once again, time pressures were on to build the factory, hire workers, and turn out a quality product.  But although the company was able to turn out thousands of DMC-12s, the cars had major flaws.  Moreover, there were other concerns related to a change in UK government (enter conservative Margaret Thatcher) that would not grant them the government concessions they had been promised before and were counting on. 
     Delorean’s desperation coinciding with President Ronald Reagan’s war on drugs is epitomized in his being arrested for drug trafficking, a deal set up by U.S. agents, but he is not convicted by a jury which objects to the government’s interventions.  Delorean does not escape home free; other charges will be filed about his financial shenanigans. 
     This is a story about a rising star with all the promise to succeed big time, but events partly of his own doing and partly having to do with an international economy, thwart his fondest dreams.  
     The decision of documentary filmmakers to insert actors into a documentary is puzzling.  For instance, the efforts in showing the make-up necessary to convert Baldwin into the visage of Delorean is interesting, but turns out to be more of a distraction and beside the point than a help, because there is so much archival footage available.  I can see more the usefulness of having Morena Baccarini portray Delorean’s wife, Cristina Ferrare, because we need to see the beauty that must have captivated Delorean and caused him to divorce his first wife, but this addition is not really necessary either.
     In sum, Framing John Delorean is an interesting foray into an examination of his personality and the inside and outside forces that determined his ultimate fate.

An examination of a man who could be king but for human flaws.

Grade:  B                                    By Donna R. Copeland

YESTERDAY

Himesh Patel     Lily James     Kate McKinnon     Ed Sheeran     Joel Fry


     Clever fantasies require a little bit of tongue in cheek, and if you can go with it, you’re in for a treat.  In this one, something major happens all over the world that creates holes in people’s memory, such as for Coca Cola, cigarettes, and the Beatles. The Beatles?  Only one man, a failing British singer-songwriter, remembers them or their songs.  When his friends don’t seem to get his references to them, he sings “Yesterday”; but indeed, not only do they not recognize it, they think it’s great.  
     Many things happen by chance rather than design in this story, partly because the man who remembers, Jack Malik (Patel), is so unassuming and artless.  All he has to do is play a few songs and they catch on like wildfire (a testament to the Beatles’ music).  He maintains an air of disbelief throughout.  Soon, he is contacted by Ed Sheeran (the real Sheeran), runs with his group for a while, and gets to Hollywood, with the aptly named Debra Hammer (McKinnon) as his agent.  All these interactions are funny, because they capture some of the real world of entertainment today. 
     Most notable in this respect and ultimately the star of these sequences, Kate McKinnon as the Hollywood agent is sizzling in her best Saturday Night Live persona. I have to wonder if she contributed to some of her lines.  In this movie, she helps propel Jack to world stardom, but always with hilarious ways of expressing herself, e.g., to Jack’s parents, she asks, “And when did you learn your son was too good for you?”  Always a put-down within a show of support.  Double meanings are a McKinnon specialty.
     In the story, Jack becomes a world sensation backed up by the Hollywood machine, and plays to screaming fans in the thousands.  He’s more than a little bewildered, is racking his brain constantly to remember all the songs, and has pangs of conscience, but it’s like a moving train propelling him forward.  Himesh Patel (known for his work on British television for “Eastenders”) embodies his character seamlessly, showing his talent in music as well as acting. 
     The film elicits many chuckles, such as the times Jack tries desperately to Google anything connected to the Beatles and only comes up with “Beetle”, and for John and Paul he gets “Pope John Paul.”  Another time, when he is asked how he comes up with so many songs so quickly, he replies with sincerity, “I don’t know; it’s almost like they’re written by someone else.”
     During the film, I wondered how the filmmakers would wrap up this incredible fantasy. They did it partly by incorporating a triangular love story involving Lily James as Ellie, Jack’s first agent—which I thought could have been dispensed with—but the resolution of which, for some, might be the point.  But the way in which they wrapped up the Jack Malik’s career story is paramount, most of which I think is very clever, minus a few maudlin scenes with a couple and someone from the past.
     Directed by the admirable Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire), Yesterday can be praised for its clever premise written by Jack Barth and Richard Curtis, its renditions of Beatles music by Daniel Pemberton, and its casting actors Patel, James, and McKinnon.  A Beatles fan like me can just sit back and enjoy the music and the jokes without dwelling on reality considerations.

A story about when a serious bicycle accident and stroke of fate coincide to provide the opportunity of a lifetime.

Grade:  C+                                    By Donna R. Copeland

Tuesday, June 25, 2019

ANNABELLE COMES HOME

Vera Farmiga     McKenna Grace     Patrick Wilson
Madison Iseman     Katie Sarife     Michael Cumino


     There is really not much to be said about this version of Annabelle, so much of it is seeing people walking around the house in a scared state.  There are a few real, jolting scares along the way, but mostly there are just weird incidents.   Most of the action is only during the last half-hour.   
     The film starts with Lorraine and Ed Warren (Farmiga and Wilson) coming home at night with Annabelle in the back seat, when they have to take a detour and their car breaks down.  Ed knows how to fix it, but they are by a cemetery, and we become apprehensive when “ghosts” appear from time to time.  But the Warrens make it home just fine, and the priest is there to exorcise the demon inside Annabelle and bless the house.  She is secured in a locked cabinet to “contain the evil.”
     Soon, the Warrens have to leave again, and have engaged their usual babysitter Mary Ellen (Iseman) to look after their daughter Judy (Grace).  After a newspaper lauding the Warrens for their work in the occult, Judy is getting teased at school, and Mary Ellen’s friend(?) Daniela (Sarife) seems to have an uncommon interest in the Warrens and their house. Mary Ellen has let her know she is not invited to come over, but she barges in anyway, and invites herself to stay.  She soon manipulates Mary Ellen and Judy to go out skating while she has free run of the house.
     Now, the Warren’s have a workroom in the house with a sign on it clearly warning of danger and forbidding anyone to enter.  Daniela is not one to follow rules (plus we learn that her father has died and she has a burning interest in contacting him; hence, her curiosity about the Warrens and their house).  You can guess what follows.  Daniela snoops, and havoc ensues.
     In addition to there being long periods of nothing happening, as with many horror movies, we have to watch people doing stupid things.  First off, why would the knowledgeable Warrens leave a high school student in their landmine of a house to babysit their daughter? Why wouldn’t the responsible Mary Ellen call the Warrens at the first sign of weird goings on?  Why wouldn’t she as an asthmatic not keep her inhaler with her constantly?  
     Another problem I have with the film is depicting Daniela as someone you are eventually supposed to feel sorry for, aftert she has committed all kinds of infractions that make us thoroughly dislike her.  And seeing Lorraine Warren let her off the hook after all the pain and fear she has caused, also does not make sense.
     It seems that a young Lothario is inserted just to spice things up.  He’s Bob (Cimino), the na├»ve nerd with a crush on Mary Ellen—stoked by Daniela—who comes to serenade her, egged on by the pizza deliveryman.  He also gets terrorized, but this insertion is just another sub-plot that makes no sense, and is probably included for purely fan-pandering reasons.
     The young actors (we really don’t see Farmiga and Wilson much at all) are probably the only strong points of this film.  McKenna Grace, Madison Iseman, Katie Sarife, and Michael Cimino (as lovesick Bob) fill their roles nicely; it’s just the script by writer-director Gary Dauberman that lets the production down.  Well, that and he and the producers thinking they can milk the Annabelle story so many times (seven, I think!).
     Unless the viewer is a never-say-die fan of theAnnabelle movies—regardless of their content—I would recommend staying away from Annabelle Comes Home.

One more time—the 7th—to see the infamous Annabelle doll do its damage.  Still Interested?

Grade:  D+                                    Donna R. Copeland

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