Thursday, October 31, 2019

HARRIET

Cynthia Erivo     Leslie Odom, Jr.     Janelle Monae     Joe Alwyn     Jennifer Nettles     Clarke Peters


     This story about the American hero, Harriet Tubman, who risked her life many times, first to save herself, then to save others, is a sobering account.  Its strength—not a singular one—is in showing how despicable slavery is to the human body and soul and the strength and assertiveness of one woman in rebelliously going against a whole society in her efforts to free slaves.
     The movie begins showing Harriet as a young woman married to a free man.  It becomes apparent to her when the prospect of being sold arises, that there is a way out, and she’s ready to take that step (literally, a “Give me liberty or give me death” move). Leaving her reluctant husband behind, she runs, swims, gets surreptitious help along the way, and somehow manages to get 100 miles north of her home in Maryland. Although she can’t read, she’s very good at following directions and locating people she is told will help her.  That is when she is directed to and reaches an organization in Philadelphia that runs the Underground Railroad.  
     Not content to make a life of her own at that point, Tubman continues to return home to help family members escape.  Her first trip to bring her husband with her results in some disappointing news, but she is able to rescue other family members.  She develops such a passion for freedom, she continues to help people get to the underground railroad, soon being named a “conductor” among the abolitionists.
     Cynthia Erivo is exemplary as Tubman, and I don’t know if the real Tubman sang, but when Erivo belts out a song at meaningful times, her voice is beautiful. Strong support is lent by Leslie Odom, Jr. as a major abolitionist for the Underground Railroad and Janelle Monae in a cameo role, as an ally who helps Tubman present herself as a free woman.  Also strong in a ferocious way is Joe Alwyn, as the slave owner’s son, who has loving memories of Tubman caring for him when he was gravely ill, but has self-entitlement so ingrained it gives him more impetus to catch her, with the aim of …you can guess.
     I kept feeling like I should like this film better than I did.  It was depressing, as tales of slavery always are and that’s understandable, but when evil or heroism are being portrayed, it lacks the “zip’ that would make it a moving experience.  This may be attributed to Kasi Lemmons’ direction along with the editing by Wyatt Smith.  Two other detractions related to implausibility are the depictions of Tubman’s visions, which I found hard to believe, and a scene in which Alwyn could have easily picked up his gun and stopped the fleeing Tubman.  It’s too bad the story ended when it did, leaving out Tubman’s later career in spying for the Union Army during the Civil War and her continued assistance to others.
     It is a good thing that Harriet Tubman’s story is—finally—being told.  I hope that other films follow with more of an in-depth look into what an extraordinary person she was.

A story about the American heroine Harriet Tubman that, unfortunately, lacks dramatic weight.

Grade:  C                                    By Donna R. Copeland

THE KING

Timothee Chalamet     Joel Edgerton     Robert Pattinson     Ben Mendelsohn     Thomasin McKenzie    Lily-Rose Depp


     The King presents an interesting picture of King Henry V of England I in the early part of the 15thCentury.  The script, co-written by Joel Edgerton and director David Michod, draws some from history, more from Shakespeare’s plays, Henry IV and Henry V, and then elaborates on all sources.  The viewer should regard it as primarily a dramatization only loosely drawn from history and Shakespeare.
     As it turns out, the filmmakers have rewritten their sources to create a story about a “reluctant prince” who has major conflicts with his father, King Henry IV (Mendelsohn) about the constant wars the father has waged.  Henry V (Chalamet) is presented first as a playboy who has no desire to be a king, and doesn’t even want to attend to his ailing father. 
     It’s a bit of a stretch that such a person could suddenly turn into an admirable figure as he does in the film, but that’s the drama of it.  After the sudden change, Henry is shown to be a skilled and ferocious opponent in swordplay, a man who is astute and listens carefully to arguments presented to him, and makes shrewd decisions based upon his deductions.  He is not susceptible to indignations purposed upon him by others; he can take decisive, even ruthless, action when he suspects someone is lying or outright betraying him; and he keeps a cool head in negotiations with opponents.  Of course, he is also very handsome and appealing.
     The way Henry V becomes king is his take-charge stance after his father has chosen second son Thomas as his successor, someone who seems not to be a match for his brother, either intellectually or physically.  Henry tries to save him and avoid another war, but Thomas is recalcitrant, and after a series of events and time, the reluctant Henry becomes king.
     The rest of the story is about Henry’s being drawn into war, despite all his efforts against it, his need to identify those around him he can trust, and resorting to finding his old friend and caretaker John Falstaff (Edgerton) to be his primary advisor and strategist (especially in war) and supporter.
     The French don’t come across very well in this story; both the dauphin (Pattinson) and his father, King Charles VI, are disdainful and insolent toward Henry, refusing to go along with the ways he presents to avoid war.  Although they are partially redeemed by their eloquent--rather audacious—princess Catherine (Depp) who stands up to Henry in a very entertaining contretemps.  
     The craft of The King is admirable in Michod’s direction, the music (Nicholas Britell) and the cinematography (Adam Arkapaw), and the actors capture their roles well for the most part, especially Chalamet, Edgerton, McKenzie, and Depp.  Editing (Peter Sciberras) can be faulted for extending the battle scene far too long in a movie that is already over two hours in length. The scenes are effective in showing the bloodiness, muck, and brutality, but become tiring halfway through.
     I liked the Michod and Edgerton’s elaboration on historical events to present a character who is admirable in so many ways, trying to achieve peaceful resolutions, but mindful of counteracting forces.  This Henry V is someone we can admire, but viewers should not go with the expectation of seeing a production up to the level of a play by Shakespeare.

Henry V is an entertaining take-off of Shakespeare’s version, this one having a message of peace and the value of unity.

Grade:  C+                                                By Donna R Copeland

TERMINATOR: DARK FATE

Arnold Schwarzenegger     Linda Hamilton     Mackenzie Davis     Natalia Reyes     Gabriel Luna


     Opening the film is an apparently normal teenager in Mexico making out with her boyfriend in an isolated area when they see a woman fall off a high bridge. They investigate and determine that she needs medical help, but when they’re approaching potential assistance from policemen who have appeared, they’re seen as suspicious and the police are ready to take them in.  But something amazing happens.
     Be prepared.  Shortly after that, this film directed by Tim Miller, a special effects artist, proceeds with a half-hour(?) of that which is dear to his heart:  All kinds of vehicles (including a plow truck driven by an AI and a pick-up driven by a modified human with a mission) sensationally chasing and crashing into one another on freeways and country roads, with the AI having the ability to throw out a black tar-like substance that magically transforms into a weapon and even his own reconstitution.
     Gradually we hear about the background leading up to this moment.  Cryptically, Grace (modified human majestically portrayed by Mackenzie Davis) has been sent to protect Dani, the teenager (Natalia Reyes), from the AI Rev-9 Terminator (stoically played by Gabriel Luna). They will meet up with characters from previous renditions of the Terminator, a grieving Sarah Connor (Hamilton) and her nemesis T-800 (Schwarzenegger).
     It continues the Terminator theme of man vs. machines, with the message that even though it seems like a losing battle, one should never give up hope of human supremacy.  In the dream world created by the screenwriters of this gem (David S. Goyer, Justin Rhodes, and Billy Ray), where anything can happen and need not have a smidgen of reality or logic attached to it, yes, they can make it happen.  The only problem is that the writers’ imagination is not very imaginative and the dialog is so trite, that after 2+ hours the film becomes tedious to watch:  It’s essentially a series of special effects.  
     Inconsistencies that can be bothersome to a viewer based in reality are frequent, such as Grace being able to bound 50 feet into the air and swoop down with the speed of lightning, but when boarding a train, she walks gingerly up the steps. Sometimes the characters do miraculous feats, yet other times, those same feats are not available to them.
     One of my biggest problems with the film is the glorification of guns, even though they’re often shown to be woefully ineffective.  Still, what is shown is meant to appeal to gun-rights champions.  The joke was on me at one point when the small group of fleers realizes they need weapons—lots of them.  It’s then revealed they’re in Texas, and I laughed, not catching on (thanks to my colleague) to the fact that many in the audience were laughing for opposite reasons than I was.  Was it a laugh at or a laugh with Texas? 
     The only sequence of substance that I picked up on was T-800 Terminator (Schwarzenegger) describing what transpired in him after he became inactive.  He spent the time learning to be human, i.e., having a purpose, seeing the value of caring for others; and learning what a conscience is, which he acts out behaviorally even though the experience is beyond him.  This is a clever bridge between technology and humanity.
     This film is obviously for viewers who love an emphasis on special effects and are less interested in human interactions and the value of well-written dialog that illuminates beyond thrills and chills.

Terminator devotees will likely find the film satisfying; others are likely to find it tedious and boring.

Grade:  D+                                    By Donna R. Copeland


MOTHERLESS BROOKLYN

Edward Norton     Willem Dafoe     Gugu Mbitha-Raw     Bruce Willis     Alec Baldwin
Dallas Roberts     Leslie Mann     Bobby Cannavale     Michael Kenneth Williams     Cherry Jones


     Picture New York City in the 1950’s with a gumshoe detective following clues to weed out the killer of his life-long mentor.  Or at least picture one of the detective films you’ve seen—or heard on the radio—from that time (e.g., Mr. Keen, Tracer of lost personsDragnet), with the smokiness of the rooms, the seediness of the neighborhoods, and the persistence of a committed private detective.  That’s the movie Edward Norton has written (based on Jonathan Lethen’s novel), produced, directed, and starred in, in Motherless Brooklyn.  Norton and his cinematographer Dick Pope capture this period’s mood and effluence of city corruption that ends up being a crime thriller, complete with car chases, goons, and the pressure of rescuing an endangered damsel.
     The extra intriguing twist to this story is that the main character Lionel Essrog (what a name!), played spot on by Norton, has Tourette’s Syndrome (a disorder involving involuntary tics and utterances).  It’s not really relevant or essential to the story, but adds a touch of color.  Lionel works in a private detective agency headed by his lifelong mentor Frank Minna (Willis).  From the time Frank took pity on and rescued Lionel from bullies in a boy’s home, he has continued to protect him.
     But Frank is also mysterious about jobs he’s working on, giving Lionel and the others only sketchy details about it, but explicit instructions about how to keep an eye out and what to do if…  The movie begins with just such a job, during which Frank is killed.  What ensues is Lionel following the slim clues he’s been given or picked up to find the killer.
     This leads him into major city politics and Frank’s role in it; Moses Randolph (Baldwin), who seems to be in charge of major city “improvements”; a homeless man (Dafoe); activist    Gabby Horowitz (Jones); and a mysterious “black woman” Laura Rose (Mbitha-Raw).
     The novel—and consequently the film—seem to be at least loosely based on true historical events in the 1950’s, documented in a 2018 film, Citizen Jane:  Battle for the City, when Robert Moses, a city planner, began to dismantle city neighborhoods to construct freeways and bridges through them without regard for the people affected.  That is what is happening in this film, but it’s put into a drama that is exciting and will pull at the heartstrings.  
     This is a fun movie for those who can get into period dramas from not too long ago and follow leads and cues the detective Lionel chases—all while explaining his “brain problem.”  The cast is superb (what a juxtaposition of Baldwin’s Moses Randolph and his “Saturday Night Live” Trump impersonations), with Norton capturing the Tourette-plagued Lionel, Mbitha-Raw as an attractive, accomplished woman with a dark history, Willem Dafoe as the mysterious homeless man with a significant background, Bobby Cannavale as a compromised man, and Leslie Mann, Michael K. Williams, and Cherry Jones all providing star-quality performances.

A cloak and dagger story harking back to the 1950s with the added twist of a detective with Tourette’s, but possessing a formidable memory.

Grade:  B                                                By Donna R. Copeland

JOJO RABBIT

Roman Griffin Davis    Taika Waititi    Thomasin McKenzie          Scarlett Johansson     Sam Rockwell     
Rebel Wilson     Archie Yates     Stephen Merchant     Alfie Allen


     What an ingenious anti-war film!  Taika Waititi has invested all of his creative energies into putting viewers into the mind of a child to take the journey from hope and hero worship on to despair and disillusionment, then full circle to hope, in a most unusual coming-of-age story set in Germany during the end of WWII.
     It begins (significantly, with a Beatles song “I want to Hold Your Hand” in German) with Jojo (incredibly portrayed by Davis in his first film), a gung-ho young German attending a youth camp for Nazi training.  He’s so into it, he has his [imaginary] friend Adolph Hitler (Waititi) by his side, bolstering him up when he’s discouraged and urging him on to a promising future as the bravest of Nazis.  There are signs, however, that Jojo might be too tenderhearted, and that’s how he gets his nickname, Jojo Rabbit.  (Jeers on all sides from his trainers and fellow recruits—except for one Captain “K” (Rockwell) who, uncharacteristically among Nazi soldiers, seems to have some empathy for him.)
     Jojo’s kooky-on-the-outside mother (Johansson) has a way of supporting her son while at the same time glossing over his stated fears.  In a way, she entertains him out of these concerns, but always with an underlying steadfastness that proves her worth.  She’s a mysterious character who appears to have important things going on, but Jojo doesn’t really know where she is when she’s gone from home.
     Which, because he is alone, is how he discovers an extra person in the house, “Elsa” (McKenzie) named, for purposes of subterfuge, after his dead sister, a young Jewish girl Jojo’s mother is hiding.  Jojo’s and Elsa’s interactions provide a context for Jojo to spout out all that he has heard of Jews (having never met one) and a framework for Waititi to illustrate how stereotypes vanish when actual people meet actual people, the distance shrinking as they become friends.
     Seldom have anti-war movies covered the scope of Jojo Rabbit.  It portrays the internal experiences of a young Nazi in training ushering us on through his figuring out “Jews”, his encountering primal fears of home searches, his observing people he trusts of glossing over facts for humanitarian concerns, and his discovery of who important people in his life really are, including his mother and his ever loyal friend, Yoki (Yates).  But beyond all of that, it has its comedic moments, e.g., reverse psychology is rephrased as “backwards mind power”, and the name of Jojo’s “book” about Jews he is writing is entitled, “Yoo-hoo, Jews”).
     I thoroughly enjoyed Jojo Rabbit, and hope that viewers will grasp all the underlying messages in it about children and about war.  It’s a satirical spoof, a heart-warming drama, a comedy, and horrifying picture of the costs of war.

Jojo Rabbit is not to be taken lightly, although it is a comedy, along with being a satirical spoof and heart-warming drama.

Grade:  A                                    By Donna R. Copeland

Thursday, October 24, 2019

THE LIGHTHOUSE

Willem Dafoe     Robert Pattinson     Valeriia Karaman


      In a creaky old lighthouse, two men, one subordinate to the other, ride out a storm—and are much worse for the wear. Thomas Wake (Dafoe) is the “wickie” (name ascribed to lighthouse keepers who have to change the wicks) in charge, and he has a new, taciturn assistant (Pattinson) who needs the job but is clearly not happy to be in this particular place.  We get the impression right away that Wake is an irascible taskmaster who gives his assistants menial chores and has a high turnover in assistants.  Reportedly, the last one went nuts.  Wake attributes that to the loneliness of their job, and the isolation is just too much for some.  Or is it him?  The conumdrum persists throughout the story.
      It does seem to have affected Wake; he’s an odd duck who garbles out seafaring poetry, is generally disdainful, insists on being the only one who can go upstairs and tend the lighthouse light, and farts with abandon.  His assistant Winslow seems to have a chip on his shoulder, but he gives so little away about himself, he’s a bit of a mystery—at least in the beginning. Much—although not enough for this viewer—will be revealed in “giving his beans” to Wake when they’re drunk.
     One day, Wake expresses apprehension about the wind changing, which is a harbinger of a major storm on the way.  As is usual, Winslow brushes this off; he frequently expresses his skepticism toward Wake and even accuses him of lying, if for no other reason than to provoke Winslow.  
     But the storm does indeed arrive and stays for days.  Envision these two men cooped up together with alcohol and dwindling supplies. Writer/director Robert Eggers has envisioned that in a much more grotesque way than you would likely ever imagine.  Wake goes off on rambling, indistinct tangents of poetry about the sea and bonny lasses, Winslow seems to work hard (not according to his boss), with escalating resentment, and by the end, in drunkenness, hurling insults at Wake with vivid imagery.
     As the storm rages on, the scene inside the lighthouse gets weirder and more bizarre, which is the major part of the movie.  Is this simply a picture of what happens to people when they are mashed together in a small space for too long of a time?  Is this the outcome of one person literally driving another crazy?  Is it that Winslow’s dark past is having repercussions in the form of hallucinations and paranoia?  Is it about Winslow killing a gull, which Wake had specifically warned him against because of the dire consequences? 
     As you might have guessed, The Lighthouse is difficult to watch—not the least of which (for me) are the dark screens in which you can’t see what’s taking place.  This is one of my pet peeves about current cinema:  It’s frequently too dark!!  If I go to see a movie I expect to be able to see it.  But it’s also difficult to watch because it’s stomach-curdling (scenes of a dirty hovel, drunkenness, gaucheness, and disgusting violence). Just as the darkness of the scenes obscures meaning, the muffled speech of the actors is frequently indiscernible, especially Dafoe’s (whom I usually love).  Robert Pattinson is a great foil in his challenging mysteriousness and barebones ability to show his character in the raw.  These two actors are the best of the movie.
     The script by Eggers and his brother Max constitutes the weakness of the film in its inability to convey some kind of meaning beyond that of two men under certain circumstances making a toxic combination.  Perhaps if the background of both characters had been made more explicit, the story would be more meaningful.   

This lighthouse doesn’t give off much light, either literally (it’s mainly dark gray) or metaphorically.

Grade:  D+                                    By Donna R. Copeland


PARASITE

Kang-ho Song     Hye-jin Jang     Woo-sik Choi     So-dam Park
Sun-Kyun Lee     Yeo-Jeong Jo     Ji-so Jung     Hyun-jun Jung
     Bong Joon Ho’s stories take you into another world so that you have to re-orient yourself into real life after you come out of a screening.  He has the ability to get you so engrossed in the characters, their environment, and the events—and keeping it all straight—you’re in something like a trance immediately afterwards.  This is especially so when you think you’ve seen the major part about halfway through, then he lowers the boom, taking your breath away once again.  The movie is full of surprises.
     The story begins with the Kim family (mother, father, adolescent son and daughter). They live in a slum, barely getting by because jobs are scarce, but they all seem to be resourceful and industrious (how much becomes part of our fun later on.) Son Ki-Woo (Choi Woo Sik) has a friend who is tutoring a child in a wealthy family, and when he has to go abroad for a study period, he convinces Ki-Woo to take his place while he’s gone because he trusts him more than his college buddies.  Ki-Woo takes it on and it’s working out very well, when he learns that the family’s young son is artistic and hyperactive.  He realizes the child Da-song could use an art teacher, so recommends someone he says he knows (actually his sister Ki-jung) to the mother, Yeon-kyo (Yeo-Jeong Jo).
     The farce begins when every Kim family member is working for the Parks under assumed names, not revealing their relationships.  Granted, to achieve this, the Kims have to resort to ruses that are considered illegal/unethical.  Here is where the writers (Ho and Jin Won Han) nudge us a bit.  By this time, we have sympathy for this poor family; how much do we tolerate their means of achieving a better living?
     The Park family is interesting for very different reasons.  The father (Sun-kyun Lee) is a successful businessman devoted to his family.  His wife, good-hearted Yeon-Kyo (Yeo-Jeong Jo), is an easy mark for deceit, welcoming each new addition to the staff with open arms.  Daughter Da-hye (Ji-so Jung) develops an instant crush on her new tutor, and son Da-song (Hyun-jun Jung) is in his own world, able to be tamed only by his “art teacher”, Ki-jung (So-dam Park).
     Bong Joon Ho likes to juxtapose the “haves” and “have-nots”, just as he has done in Snowpiercer, and, to some extent, Okja.  This time, he does it in ways that allow one to be sympathetic to both sides.  He does portray the Parks as preoccupied in their own world with little/no awareness of the suffering around them.  They are both easy marks for “clues” planted by the Kims, especially in a hilarious scene of step-by-step paranoia related to a pair of panties in their chauffer-driven car.  Ho is a bit easier on the poorer family, coming close to excusing their sociopathic strategies to achieve basic needs for food and housing and the education necessary to acquire them.
     Bong Joon Ho has solid backing from his composer Jaeil Jung and cinematographer, Kyung-pyo Hong.  The music and visual contrasts between the lives of the Parks and Kims and where they live are accentuated to show the desperation of the Kim family and the Parks’ sense of entitlement and lack of awareness of what is happening beyond their secure gates.  The pictures are eloquent in saying what Bong Joon Ho intends for us to infer about the ethics and values involved on both sides.

This film will make you squirm, tense up, and chuckle, even horrify you—all reasons enough to see it.

Grade:  A                                    By Donna R. Copeland


Thursday, October 17, 2019

THE ILLEGAL

Suraj Sharma     Schweta Tripathi     Iqbal Theba     Jay Ali     Hannah Masi


     Immigration and legal status of immigrants is a sensitive issue in the U.S. nowadays, and this film illustrates the extraordinary trials such people may have to go through in the application process—and even then it’s not a certainty; multiple snags can occur and the whole plan may fall through anywhere along the way.  
     This is a story from a young Indian’s point of view.  Filmmaking has always been what gives Hassan’s life meaning. When he finally gets accepted at an American university in film, he manages to get loans, and arrives full of hope with the expectation of staying with his uncle’s family.  On his first night in their home, however, he overhears a conversation that informs him of the uncle’s duplicity; the family doesn’t really have room for him.  
     Hassan (Sharma) is never one to impose in any way, so he sets out the next morning to make other arrangements, and at the end of an exhausting day, slumps down on a street bench with all his luggage, fighting disillusionment.  An astute, empathic waiter at an Indian restaurant sees him there and immediately surmises the story.  Having been in a similar predicament years earlier, Babaji (Theba) invites him in, gives him a meal, and serves as a constant, benevolent father figure from then on.  (The kindness of strangers!)
     But Babaji has his own burdens, and Hassan will have to figure out and solve any number of practical problems that will arise.  He’s a quick learner, hard working, and honest, but through no fault of his own (except maybe a little), difficulties crop up like weeds in a garden.  On the first day of classes, he is told to divest himself of a job, a girlfriend, anything that will stand in the way of the 24-7 that a degree in film will require.  Of course, he has to have a job in order to survive, and he will eventually meet a woman (Masi) who seems like someone of his dreams.  These are only some of the obstacles that Hassan will have to overcome, either by solving or compromising, along with stresses occurring at home that he can do nothing about.
     Director Danish Renzu and his co-writers (Tara Tucker, et al.) present an eloquent picture of the practical and emotional demands made upon someone like Hassan. It’s entertaining, moving, suspenseful, and with characters viewers will come to care for and appreciate. Eric Neveux’s music enhances the story in all its wanderings and variable situations.
     Suraj Sharma who plays Hassan made a big splash (pun intended) in his debut as Pi in Ang Lee’s Life of Pi (2012).  It’s well known by now that he got the part among 6,000 auditioning, and only because his brother talked him into accompanying him to the try-outs; he went simply on a lark.    Since then Sharma has been seen in a number of movies and television series, including “Homeland” and “God Friended Me.”  He’s a fine actor, who has a chance to show his range in Illegal, from na├»vete to moral outrage, to young love, and all of the personableness in between.  
     A resounding statement in the film suggests its essence:  “Hope deferred makes the heart sick.  It can even kill a man.”  We see the roller coaster ride Hassan takes, admire his fortitude, and realize the film has a hard lesson—not only for those with the hope of immigration to the U.S.—but just as much for those of us already here, living our comfortable lives.

An entertaining and heartfelt story about someone wanting to find the American dream, and the reality of his search.

Grade:  A                                    By Donna R. Copeland

Playing at the 2019 Austin Film Festival:
Saturday October 26, 2019 1:15pm - 2:40pm | Rollins Theatre 701 W Riverside Dr, Austin, TX 78704
Tuesday October 29, 2019 3:15pm - 4:40pm Galaxy Highland - Screen 5 6700 Middle Fiskville Rd, Austin, TX 78752
On Story interview with Director Danish Renzu:  http://www.onstory.tv/filmmaker-interview-the-illegal 

MALEFICENT: MISTRESS OF EVIL

Angelina Jolie     Elle Fanning     Michelle Pfeiffer     Harris Dickinson    Chiwetel Ejiofor
Lesley Manville     Imelda Staunton     Juno Temple     Sam Riley


     Fairy tale land—one never knows what to expect as to what will come up.  In this version following on the previous Maleficent (2014) (both starring by Angelina Jolie in the title role), her goddaughter Aurora (Fanning) is grown up and falling in love with Prince Philip (Dickinson).  As expected, he has fallen in love with the son of the King and Queen of Ulstead, a human tribe with a history of conflict with the Moors, Maleficent’s land of the fairies.  An awkward dinner takes place initiated by Philip’s mother, Queen Ingrith.
     Maleficent is reluctant to go, but for the sake of Aurora, she agrees, and they all come together; but tensions abound, as happens when two very different cultures eat together.  Major conflicts ensue, with misunderstandings and subterfuge aplenty, and suddenly Maleficent disappears.  Where she goes propels the story forward and gives us insight into her origins and an explanation for what is to appear in the rest of the film.
     As before, Jolie embodies her character in all its dimensions and power, and Fanning provides balance in her tenderness and rationality.  Although she is a good actress, Michelle Pfeiffer as Queen Ingrith seems miscast in that she simply doesn’t come across strongly enough with the qualities called for by her character.  I can’t say any more so as not to spoil the plot.  Harris Dickinson as Prince Philip didn’t wow me as someone heroic, but I assume that is a function of the script, and the same goes for Robert Lindsay as King John.  Ed Skrein as Borra (one of Maleficent’s newly discovered tribe) is the only male who is a counterpart to Jolie’s and Pfeiffer’s female characters in strength.
     To me, the problems arising during this tale are related primarily to the unsuccessful attempt to insert actions that are clearly contemporary into a fairy tale. One example is Aurora coaching her mother on social manners.  Now, sophisticated Maleficent has been around the whole world and is familiar with such things as social graces, so having it seem as if she is being coached on what to do at a dinner party seems laughable.  I had the same impression when Aurora’s simple “woodsy” dress at one point is magically changed by Maleficent to one that looks like a contemporary Neiman Marcus creation.  Just as in the earlier film, the viewer is yanked back and forth between the fairy world and our reality-based one.
     As before in the 2014 version, the opening scenes in this sequel are so dark it’s impossible to know what is going on.  There is a battle, but who is who cannot be distinguished.  I still don’t know who the warring parties are.
     Finally, there is a disconnect between the ending of the earlier film and the beginning of this one in which Maleficent seems to have reverted to her previous maliciousness.  No explanation is given for this, or perhaps the viewers are just being led down a garden path. (More jerking around.)
     This second Maleficent doesn’t measure up to the first one, which is too bad, since there was an opportunity here to tell a story like a fairy tale that speaks to contemporary concerns (e.g., war vs. peace). But the way war and peace are dealt with here is no different from…how many movies and actual events?
     In the end, it’s not clear whom this film was made for other than the pockets of those invested in it monetarily.  Much of the story as presented will go over the heads of most children; and it is likely to be simplistic (meaningless?) to many adults.

If you love a good fairy tale, stay away from this one.

Grade:  D                                    By Donna R. Copeland


PAIN AND GLORY

Antonio Banderas     Asier Etxeandia     Leonardo Sharaglia     Nora Navas     Penelope Cruz     Asier Flores

     Pedro Almodovar’s account of his early years and a low period in middle age when he was suffering with a host of bodily complaints, depression, and anxiety is a soul-baring, intimate look at his life.  Interestingly, he sets aside the years when he was becoming and had achieved fame as a world-renowned filmmaker, although the main character, Salvador Mallo, is portrayed as just such a person.  But except for giving us brief pictures of Salvador’s childhood, this story focuses on an aging man in the midst of an existential crisis marked by physical ailments and ennui.
     I love the way the movie opens with the young Salvador (played by the enchanting Asier Flores) and a group of boys being asked by the choir director at church to demonstrate their potential for singing.  His pitch is perfect, demonstrating promise, at least in singing.  But the child goes on from there in mastering his studies and earning a scholarship at seminary. (Make no mistake, though; he definitely does not want to become a priest!)
     The film jumps back and forth between Salvador’s young life [poor, encouraged by his mother (Penelope Cruz, who always livens up the scenes she’s in] and much later on when he is at his lowest point, being supported primarily by his good friend Mercedes (Navas), who manages to get him to medical treatment.   It’s the most depressing part of the film because not only is Salvador suffering from a paralyzing depression, but he’s gotten into heroin to ease his pain.  He has re-connected with an actor (Etxeandia) in one of his films whom he alienated at one point, and with his old lover Federico (Sharaglia) who appears by sheer chance.
     All this is suspenseful as to how it will turn out in terms of Salvador working through his significant difficulties.  
     The talented Antonio Banderas is a long-time friend and collaborator of Almodovar, so his portrayal of the Salvador character is hand-in-glove.  Some of the most refreshing scenes in the film are those in which Salvador as a child is shown to be so very bright, enthusiastic, and caring toward everyone he meets, he wins our hearts and stokes our belief that everything is going to be all right in the end.  
     These and other scenes of Salvador with his dying mother and his reunification with Federico are some of the most intimate and revealing moments in the film, showing Almodovar’s admirable understanding of human relationships and how and why they are so important.

A heartfelt, soul-baring account of significant periods in the life of a world-renowned filmmaker.

Grade:  A-                                    By Donna R. Copeland

Tuesday, October 15, 2019

PIPE DREAMS

Yuan Shen     Thomas Gaynor     Alcee Chriss III     Nick Cappozoli     Sebastian Heindl


   Competitions are generally fun to watch, and Stacey Tenenbaum (writer/director/producer) of Pipe Dreams has created a finely constructed and balanced production of the 2017 Canadian International Oregon Competition in Montreal, Canada, where the first place prize is $100,000.  Featured competitors comprise a diverse group, one from China, one from New Zealand, one from Germany, and two from the U.S.  Tenenbaum shows us vignettes of the personal lives and histories of these competitors, their attitudes toward organ music and their programs specifically, and their general preparations for the competition. After acquainting us with the group, their experiences before the contest are shown four months, two months, and then two weeks before the event, as well as during the first, second, and final rounds.
     Yuan Shen has a lot to prove even from birth, when her father hoped for a boy and got a girl instead.  Moreover, he is an accomplished organist who has been her teacher most of her life, and maintains an encouraging presence for her, even now. Performing Tai Chi together helps sustain a close relationship.
     Alcee Chriss is an African-American Texan who grew up in modest circumstances with gospel music and jazz.  He and his brother target practice with guns for diversion.  He lost his mother when he was in high school, and gets inspiration from remembering her during his practices.  He tends to get very nervous before competitions, so listens to guided relaxation scripts to calm himself down.
     Sebastian Heindl, the youngest of the competitors at 19, is from Germany, even the city of Bach, whose music is a major part of the CIOC.  He was regarded as a child prodigy and has grown up with Bach, often singing along as he is practices the organ. 
     Nick Cappozoli is highly controlled, according to his teacher, who encourages him toward introducing “ecstasy” and more “craziness” into his playing.  He is from Pittsburgh and enjoys playing miniature golf with his family.
     Thomas Gaynor, from New Zealand, travels around the world, sometimes for contests, where he has lost twice to Alcee, a particular competitor.  He has loved the organ as a child, being particularly fascinated with its mechanics.  
     By the time of the contest and learning that eight of twenty competitors will be eliminated in the first round; six of twelve will be eliminated in the 2ndround, and who the winner will be after the finals, the viewer has become invested in seeing who will come out on top and in hearing their individual reactions to the outcome.
     Pipe Dreams offers the opportunity to observe competitors in a contest that has a different flavor from our much more prominent athletic events and music award ceremonies.  Tenenbaum has done a fine job in showing the personal struggles and aspirations of a group of very interesting and admirable young people trying to do their best in a public display of their primarily solitary practiced talents. Clearly, the joy of what they do sustains them.
     Perhaps the only addition I would make to the film would be for a post-session in which knowledgeable people would help us understand the factors that were at work in the jurors’ decisions.  Were they primarily focused on technical expertise, choice of program, or some other considerations?  Obviously, to someone who was impressed with all the players, I’m curious about how the decisions were made—if it’s even possible to get those involved to discuss it.

Pipe Dreams is for the music lover who wants to get caught up in a refined contest of organists. 

Grade:  A                                                By Donna R. Copeland

PIPE DREAMS was previewed for Austin Film Festival (Oct. 24-31).  It will be showing:

Thursday October 24, 2019 7:15pm - 8:33pm
St. David's Episcopal Church, Bethell Hall 301 E 8th St, Austin, TX 78701, USA

Wednesday October 30, 2019 5:45pm - 7:03pm
Rollins Theatre 701 W Riverside Dr, Austin, TX 78704

Visit austinfilmfestival.com for more information or call 1-800-310-FEST

Thursday, October 10, 2019

GEMINI MAN

Will Smith     Mary Elizabeth Winstead     Clive Owen     Benedict Wong     Ralph Brown     Douglas Hodge


     This is not your typical father-son drama, but that is one of the themes applicable to three characters in the film.  Clay Verris (Owen) dedicates himself to serving as a father figure for young men in training, seeing himself as a “loving, dedicated, present” father—words that will be thrown back at him at a later time.  Henry Brogan (Smith) is one he took under his wing, making him the top, universally acclaimed assassin in the world.  After Brogan became employed by the U.S. Government, Verris started his own company, Gemini, which specialized in DNA research and cloning. From the trailer, you know that he has made a clone of Brogan’s DNA, which Verris raises as his own son, calling him Junior (also Smith).
     At a certain point, Brogan has had enough and is ready to retire; after 72 killings, he’s feeling a “hurt” deep in his soul.  Just as he starts launching his boat to go fishing, though, strange things start happening, and he will gradually learn that he is being played by more than one party.  First of all, he spots a government agent working at the boat dock disguised as a kind of clerk, but he blows Danny’s (Winstead) cover in nothing flat, and because he appeals to her, they become partners in solving the mystery of what is going on behind the scenes and who it is who suddenly turns up, trying to kill him.
     The story has intrigue in being set and filmed in exotic places like Cartagena in Colombia, Budapest in Hungary, and even the southern state of Georgia, and it has thrills (a daredevil motorcycle chase in one of the cities, as well as extended physical fights with impossible maneuvers where the fighters get up repeatedly after looking like they’ve been killed), all of which resembles most action films.  It is appealing to see the warm and genuine Danny fight with the same ferocity as the men.
     Most of the drama consists of Brogan and his clone struggling with one another, one to kill, one to survive, and this is mostly entertaining (except for each encounter being extended for too long a time), but the real “meat” of the story is whether and how they will work through the curious position each is in, one being a clone of the other.  
     Complex relationships between characters has been Director Ang Lee’s forte (Brokeback MountainLife of PiCrouching Tiger, Hidden DragonThe Ice Storm), and I presume it was meant to be similar in Brogan and Junior’s relationship here.  It certainly seems like fodder for a rich characterization of the most complex relationship of all.  But with the director’s and writers’ focus on action rather than psychology, Gemini Man looks and feels a lot more like the generic action film than a psychological exploration of a futuristic relationship, which was not neglected, but was only minimally explored.

Gemini Man has an intriguing aspect, but this takes second place to the typical action movie thrills.

Grade:  C-                                    by Donna R. Copeland

Thursday, October 3, 2019

DOLEMITE IS MY NAME

Eddie Murphy     Kodi Smit-McPhee    Wesley Snipes    Keegan-Michael Key
De’vine Joy Randolph     Chris Rock     Craig Robinson     Snoop Dogg     Mike Epps


     Here’s a way for black people to get into their groove and for those of us unfamiliar with Rudy Ray Moore (aka “Dolemite”), the “Godfather of Rap”, to jive a little with him and his cohorts when he is just getting started in show business in the 1970’s.  In the beginning of this story, he’s trying to make it as a comedian in L.A. when he has an inkling that there are black audiences who are not being served in the entertainment industry.  He finds in his stand-up routines that black people can appreciate a certain kind of humor, so he cagily puts out three bawdy records that sell well—much to others’ surprise, and even to his own.  
     It turns out that what was regarded by most of America at that time as profane—even porn--black people found in it a particular kind of humor (as in “Yo daddy’s a freak, and yo mama’s a whore”—the beginnings of the rap genre).  This encourages Rudy—who has stellar aspirations to add singing, acting, and film producing to his resume.  He is determined to satisfy the appetites of his people without regard to conventions (primarily white people’s), running up against not only white “shirts”, but (middle/upper class?) blacks in the arts and in production, who have been going in the direction of “refinement” as they envision it.  Rudy crashes right through all of that, while bringing many of those people on board with him.
     Rudy Ray Moore (expertly rendered by Murphy) is a fascinating individual with the unusual ability to sell his visions (and he is a master salesman) to producers who will back him so that he can give full vent to his creativity, first and foremost in comedy with music (what would eventually become rap), but as well in business (managing to get funding, construct a studio, act in and produce a movie).  How Rudy got started in show business is remarkable.  After serving in the Armed Forces, he was working in a record store, trying to get the DJ (Snoop Dogg) to play some of the records he’d made, which were based on a homeless man’s lewd limericks.
     We get to go along with Rudy on a major part of the making of his first movie, Dolemite, its significance being that it’s the first of what came to be known as Blaxploitation films. The filming of it has hilarious scenes where ineptness is clearly visible, but in Rudy’s hands becomes a delightful farce, helped along by Wesley Snipes (stunning!) as director D’Urville, Keegan-Michael Key (socompetent) as writer, Kodi Smit-McPhee (respectful, how-old-is-he? cinematographer), and Lady Reed (Randolph), Rudy’s creation of a saucy character from a self-deprecating, disillusioned woman. 
     Rudy is a complicated character in whom people have little faith; but in actually possessing talents in salesmanship, sensibility about black folk, and astute judge of character, he was able to pull it off, not only by proving his worth to the powers that be, but also recognizing traits in others that could be encouraged and brought out to serve his purposes.  A prime example is Lady Reed (Randolph) whom he decides after talking to her in a bar that she could be a funny sidekick in his comedy routine.  Writer Jerry Jones (Key) helps in coaching Rudy in script writing.  Rudy plucks his reluctant, snobbish director D’Urville Martin (hilariously played by Snipes) out of a strip club.  He accepts a new graduate (Smit-McPhee) from film school to be his cinematographer.  His old friends Ben Taylor (Robinson), Jimmy Lynch (Epps), and Daddy Fatts (Rock) are his reliable stand-bys.  
     In Dolemite is My Name, Eddie Murphy and Director Craig Brewer revive this character with apparently similar sensibilities about the world today as Rudy had about his people at the time.  It may seem a bit slow to viewers in the beginning, but that is partly because it takes a while to get oriented in another world—at least for many of us.  This was certainly true for me, as I had not seen previews and knew nothing about Rudy Ray Moore.  But after a time it became fascinating and truly funny.  

An entertaining account of the beginnings of rap popularized by a remarkable figure in showbiz.

Grade:  A-                                             By Donna R. Copeland


Wednesday, October 2, 2019

WHERE'S MY ROY COHN?


     A good documentary places events in context, and demonstrates how they are relevant today.  Director Matt Tyrnaur has done just that in Where’s My Roy Cohn? as he did in a previous documentary, Citizen Jane:  Battle for the City.  In both productions, he effectively uses interviews and film clips to give the viewer an inside look at his subject and his/her essence and passions. The earlier film shows the power and effectiveness of a citizen taking on a respected figure (Robert Moses) whose plans for the infrastructure of New York City disregarded the importance of neighborhoods and the people within them.  This film shows the influence of a man whose primary purpose in life is to exert control over others, one who wishes to be a “puppeteer”, as some said of him.
     Tyrnaur’s vignettes about Roy Cohn’s early life clearly mark the path he was to take as an adult.  Born of Jewish parents with connections in New York, he was adored/worshipped by his mother, who had aspirations for him to become important. In this, we see the first inklings of the split between image and reality.  From childhood, he was the center of her attention, while his father was a judge and influential in Democratic Party politics at the time. He was extremely intelligent and facile in using it to his advantage.  Agendas seem to have been set when his mother—who was not very attractive—was betrothed to his father in exchange for a judgeship. In this, we see the seeds of the darker side of his personality:  The use of tactical ways in getting others to bend to his will and the absence of limits as to what he would do to win.
     His “fame” began as Senator Joseph McCarthy’s chief aide, when he was known as a bully for getting information in any way he could, to the point where an Army General asks him, “Have you no decency?”  From there, the absence of moral principles and ethics becomes even more apparent as he takes on corrupt clients from the underworld, woos the rich and powerful into his web, makes friends with certain members of the press, and advocates for Republican Presidents (Nixon, Reagan, Trump).  Donald Trump was an easy mark for him to take on and instruct on defending himself:  “Never apologize”  “Never admit you’re wrong.”  
     In the end, this is a fascinating account of the making of a sociopath—e.g., superficial charm, above-average intelligence, rational, lack of remorse/shame, antisocial behavior—who was able to “develop” into someone who could deny his own sexuality and condemn others for it, let alone take pleasure in condemning the innocent.  “I hate hypocrisy” is a statement he makes early on that gives a lie to his whole life.
     There are little details in this film that epitomize who Roy Cohn was, such as a boat named “Defiant”, and his penchant for wrapping himself in the U.S. flag and declaring, “God bless America” illustrating the degree of his hypocrisy. 

An illuminating picture of a true sociopath with difficulties in distinguishing between image and reality.

Grade:  A                                    By Donna R. Copeland




JOKER

Joaquin Phoenix     Robert De Niro     Zazie Beetz     Frances Conroy     Brett Cullen

     
     This is truly a creepy movie.  To the film’s credit, even from the beginning, I had a cloying, uncomfortable feeling primarily related to Phoenix’s character, Arthur Fleck, aka the Joker.  His portrayal—excepting the sometimes over-dramatization—essentially captures the psychosis he portrays, not only in the “craziness”, but as well in the selective kindnesses and gentleness he sometimes chooses.  The story is eloquent when it shows that time and again, people do not recognize Arthur’s lethality, dismissing him as “just quirky.”  His impassioned speech toward the end about being ignored, not seen, not given credence is, often, reality-based for people considered odd by most others.
     In addition to Phoenix’s uncannily accurate, award-worthy portrayal, the origin story is one of the film’s strongest points.  Director Todd Phillips and co-writer Scott Silver were perhaps acquainted with preconditions that could produce a character like the Joker, and they have come up with a good example.  It would be a spoiler to go into much detail, so I won’t say any more than that, except to quote the Joker’s musing, “My whole life I didn’t know if I really existed.”
     Joker tells a story about a misfit who has a medical condition that involves laughing or crying uncontrollably (yes, I looked it up and there is such a condition, Pseudobulbar Affect).  The irony is that this joker is, indeed, not usually very funny, but aspires to be a stand-up comedian.  His compromised mother (Conroy) specifically asks him why he wants that job “because, you’re not funny.”  He works for a company that hires out clowns, and is assigned to be a clown at a local pediatrics unit in a hospital.  He’s very successful until… and then he is fired from his job. 
     Desperate, he tries his calling at being a stand-up comedian, attracting the attention of a talk-show host, Murray Franklin (De Niro).  Franklin’s show was not to be missed by Arthur and his mother (for fantastical reasons as much as entertainment), and Arthur has had fantasies of actually being on it.  His mother also has significant fantasies about its host, Murray Franklin (De Niro).  Sure enough, when it turns out that Fleck’s performance failure at stand-up receives praise on social media, Franklin asks him to make an appearance on his show. This is a culmination of all that Arthur has dreamed of, but by this time in the movie the viewer will have justified apprehension.
     The Joker has been featured in many DC Comics presentations, and this attempt to reveal an origin story can easily stand on its own for the viewer; one needn’t have seen all the previous renditions.  As well as the film has done what it set out to do, there are a few reality-check moments that don’t work and coincidences in the story that may be a little over the top, such as Arthur being able to keep his job as a clown as long as he did and his path crossing so many times with wealthy benefactor Thomas Wayne (Cullen).  Additionally, his brief relationship with Sophie (Beetz)—as well acted as it is—is preposterous.  
     On the whole, I really got into this film for the drama and psychology, and appreciate its commentary about the consequences of the ever-widening gap between the wealthy and the middle-lower classes.  The clown as a metaphor is brilliantly played out in a thriller as well as a wake-up call to contemporary times (e.g., widening gaps between the haves and have-nots, urban decay, and guns in the hands of the mentally unstable).  

Is the Joker a joke or a powerful metaphor?

Grade:  A-                                    By Donna R. Copeland