Saturday, August 8, 2020

RIVER CITY DRUMBEAT

Edward “Nardi” White, Albert Shumake, Zambia Nkrumah


     In the midst of being submerged in reminders of all the atrocities and heartaches blacks have gone through for so many years, River City Drumbeat brings hope and a little comfort in seeing some of the heroes of that community trying to make things better by instilling fine values of caring, reverence, purpose, and accomplishment in young people who might be vulnerable because of their circumstances.  
     The documentary highlights the inimitable Edward “Nardie” White who recognized early on that there was too much emphasis on sports for young blacks, that some of them did not fit the mold and actually had artistic inclinations.  Noting that one of the first sounds an infant in the womb hears is the heartbeat of his mother, directors Anne Flatte and Marion Johnson introduce us to the work of White who, with his deceased wife Zambia Nkrumah, founded the drum corps in Louisville, Kentucky, over 30 years ago. They spent their lives guiding young people on a course that would be advantageous to them in the long run. The kids are given drum lessons that may start in early childhood and continue until they graduate high school.
     Always forward thinking, White began to train his successor some years before he planned to retire.  An original member of the corps, Albert Shumake, who is now a young father, has picked up White’s mantle with the same degree of commitment.  In watching them work with the drummers and hearing what the kids say about them, it becomes clear how kind they are and how the whole experience is therapeutic for the kids and their families.  Albert himself says that it saved him from the fate of many of his classmates who are now in prison or even dead.
     The film has footage of a few performance pieces, but mostly we get to observe the corps in operation and hear the touching stories of individuals. The primary message is loud and clear; that when a community moves in sync to better the lives of children at risk, it’s a success.

An uplifting account of a novel approach in improving the chances for a better life for thousands of children.

Grade:  A                                    By Donna R. Copeland

Thursday, August 6, 2020

A THOUSAND CUTS


     Presumably, this documentary is meant to and does serve as a warning to democracies around the world when democracy itself seems to be more and more fragile as time goes on, and more populist leaders become heads of increasingly authoritarian governments.  This is the story of how that process advanced in the Philippines with the 2016 election of Rodrigo Duterte for President, and his re-election for a second term in 2018.
     Most of the focus is on a journalist named Maria Ressa, the head of the publication Rappler, in her efforts to inform voters of Duterte’s stringent policies toward his single issue—drugs.  During the almost two-hour presentation, no other issue comes to the fore, giving me the impression that Duterte’s platform has been about nothing else except, of course, loyalty to him and his regime. He is called to task by journalists questioning his single-minded politics and its effects, to which he responds with insults and efforts to arrest and imprison them.  (He has no compunction about killing people on the street without giving them the benefit of a hearing.)
     Ressa gives numerous examples of how Duterte managed to gain his power, even though just before his first election he was considered a “wild card.”  One of his methods was to capture the media in a way that separated out disinformation media from traditional news reporting that has the aim of objectivity and facts.  Duterte used social media to distort the news (sometimes through fake accounts with the ability to fan out to millions of other accounts), and using a sensational pop star—Mocha Uson with millions of followers—to support him with nationalist-type messages advocating undivided loyalty to leaders in power.  Ressa calls these tactics the “weaponization of the internet”, which includes the use of algorithms in social media like Facebook that do not distinguish fact from fiction—all of which can undermine democracy.
     Duterte’s crudeness is shown by quoted statements such as, “If you end up dead, it’s your fault” (spoken to media).  In response to Ressa’s charge that he is supposed to be the protector of the constitution and the rule of law, his response is, “Because of the rule of law, there must be fear.”  This is an example of how he can distort the question by replying to another issue.
     A Thousand Cuts is basically a good documentary in getting the facts across; however, I do have a problem with Ramona S. Diaz’ direction and the other filmmakers involved.  Namely, they rushed through the production with too many items on the screen at the same time (e.g., billboards, footnotes) as the primary scene.  There is no way one could read and process all the information for the brief period it was on.  Even the single frames with written information didn’t stay on long enough. 
     In all, though, A Thousand Cuts does show how thousands of cuts to a democracy can kill it.  If we value our democracy, we should all be fearful.  Maria Ressa says we are in a time of existential crisis, and sadly I think she may be right.  

This film is a wake-up call to many democracies of today.

Grade:  B                                    By Donna R. Copeland







MADE IN ITALY

Liam Neeson     Michael Richardson    Lindsay Duncan


     Any movie with Italy in the title attracts me instantly because of the wonderful trips I’ve had there with incredulous landscapes, welcoming natives, and cultural milieu.  And this film does not disappoint in that sense.  The setting is mostly in Tuscany, among the rolling hills, luscious vegetation, and camaraderie of the Italians.   Provocatively, the story begins in a British art gallery where the owners are splitting up.  (Actually, the husband is being dumped by the wife whose family owns the gallery.)
     That is the underlying theme to begin with, but the crux of the story is about the young man—the husband above—who in desperation looks up his estranged father with the hope of selling a seldom-used property in Italy so he can buy the gallery in New York.
     Robert (Neeson) is surprised to hear from his son Jack (Richardson), but gamely travels to the property in Italy—actually a small estate—with the plan to sell it. As is often the case in old houses, memories abound, and it is there we get the back-stories of Jack and Robert. (Note that these are two men who are typically reticent, and their accounts are slow in coming.)  But in the meantime, the viewer can experience the richness of the Italian landscape and people.
     The story of the two men includes the sudden death of the older man’s wife and the younger man’s mother.  After that, the father tries to protect his son from painful memories and in so doing unwittingly closes off not only his relationship with his son, but also the child with his mother.  The beauty of the plot (although rather expected) is that in renovating the house, the two men restore their connection.
     Liam Neeson as the father is exemplary as always, and Michael Richardson fits the role as son extremely well.  Lindsay Duncan as the real estate agent brings genuine comic relief, and Valeria Bilello as the young restaurateur add color and interest to the plot.
     Made in Italy is a pleasure to watch, certainly for those who have been to Italy, but likely also for those with aspirations to visit.  I would recommend it as a pleasant evening entertainment.

Made in Italy will take you there for a pleasant visit.

Grade:  C+                                    Donna R. Copeland

RED PENGUINS


     This documentary offers a lesson in why not to get involved in conducting business in a culture one doesn’t fully understand.  The particular men who got involved in the venture can be forgiven, in that their dealings with the Russians occurred at a turbulent time in history—the fall of the Soviet Union, the rise of Yeltsin, Putin, and ambitious Russian oligarchs out to exploit this situation and anything else they could, but it illustrates as well the optimism with which Americans have so often ventured into other cultures with high hopes.
     In the early 1990’s, Russia’s premier hockey team, the Red Army, began looking for a partner to boost the team’s standing in the world.  Their popularity was declining, and audiences were waning. At the time, Howard Baldwin was the owner and chairman of the Pittsburgh Penguins, and he and Tom Ruta, a former owner, got the bright idea of making a coalition with the Russian team and came up with the idea of the “Red Penguins.”  
     They got a buy-in from the Red Army coach, Viktor Tikhonov, and manager Valery Gushin, and launched what they hoped would be a viable partnership with the ultimate goal of bringing capitalism to Russia as it was transitioning from Communist Soviet Union, where Mikhail Gorbachev had come into power, into a potential ally of the U.S.  As Americans, Baldwin and Ruta figured that the best person to set this up would be a PR person by the name of Stephen Warshaw.  
     Warshaw went in with all tools blasting, and it seemed at first that the Russians were just as susceptible to American marketing as we are.  Warshaw seemed to have no limits—e.g., strippers for cheerleaders, live bears serving beer, even to children.  The arena began filling up again, fans abounded with great enthusiasm, and the partners were super excited about the interest of Disney buying into the partnership.  
     But alas. The country was in great turmoil—as one Russian businessman (oligarch) commented, Russians were simply unprepared for capitalism (floods of cash) and democracy.  And when red flags began to appear in the form of bookkeeping irregularities and huge political upheaval in the country itself (Boris Yeltsin replaces Gorbachev, then Vladimir Putin appears), Baldwin and Ruta were slow to catch on.
     Gabe Polsky’s (writer, director), documentary proceeds like a drama, with factual information spiced up with intrigue and suspense.  The exploits of Warshaw and his far-out ideas and derring-do add much to this, along with the humor he introduces.  
     I am not a sports fan, and although this is about hockey teams, clips from actual games are minimal.  On the upside, I thoroughly got into hearing about this foray into Russia by hopeful—and rather na├»ve--Americans that held so much promise, although ended up with such heartbreak.  It’s a lesson in business, as well as being educational and entertaining.

A documentary about hockey teams that is more about culture and business than sports.

Grade:  A-                                    By Donna R. Copeland



Thursday, July 30, 2020

SUMMERLAND

Gemma Arterton     Gugu Mbatha-Raw     Lucas Bond     Penelope Wilton     Tom Courtenay     Dixie Egerickx


     The film is immediately engaging in telling a war story about displaced children and those sheltering them when London was under siege in WWII.  Alice (Arterton) is one of the shelterers, although one initially rejecting the idea and agreeing to do it only for a week until another home can be found.  Alice is a writer who jealously guards her time, and is known as the local witch because of her acerbic personality and avoidance of friends or even friendly chats at the grocery store.
     What happens is that the child assigned to her, Frank (Bond), manages to worm his way into her heart, as most children will eventually.  When Alice discovers that Frank can actually be interested in her work as a researcher studying mythology, a bond is formed that takes Alice completely by surprise.  But the moments of joy and understanding will soon be interrupted and seriously threatened.
     One of the elements that makes the story so appealing is the attractiveness of the two main characters, played by Gemma Arterton and Lucas Bond.  Even when they’re first becoming acquainted, the actors are able to convey a special kind of connection that makes the story even more meaningful by the end.  Arterton is skillful in portraying the prickliness of Alice at first, and then her gradual transition into someone more “normal.”  Bond is a natural in playing a child who is reacting to trauma, but has a firm base of security coming from a good home with caring parents.
     Tom Courteney as head of the local school and Dixie Egerickx as Philip’s classmate and friend both give delightful performances that lighten the, sometimes heavy, drama unfolding.  The part played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw is primarily in flashbacks that fill us in on Alice’s history, and she also provides levity and depth of character.
     Writer/director Jessica Swale does a fine job in flashbacks that make Alice in particular, with her quirky characteristics, believable.  The story she tells is fanciful—too implausible perhaps for some—but I think the information given toward the very end made it all come together and be more plausible, although still a bit unlikely to some extent.  Swale’s writing is beautiful with memorable lines such as, “Planes crash, Frank; what matters is how you deal with it.”  Some of its power is in it serving as a theme for the movie as a whole, along with another apt saying that “stories have to come from somewhere.”
     Summerland has much appeal, particularly for the time we are living in; but it is a story with richness and depth in characterization as well.

A good summertime movie to counteract some of the stress of current times.

Grade:  B                                    By Donna R. Copeland

THE SECRET: DARE TO DREAM

Katie Holmes     Josh Lucas


     Sweet, syrupy, pure fantasy—I loved this movie!  The joke’s on me, because it’s not the kind of film that I usually take to at all—in fact, I’m often averse to this kind of thing.  Yet, there was something about it that moved me and sustained my interest the whole time.  It’s basically a tension between ultra-realism and pragmatics vs. determinism—everything happens for a reason and beyond one’s control. (So just relax, and everything will work out.)  I think it is the subtlety with which these ideas are presented that makes this film “excusable” to me.  
     The story is set up right away showing a life that seems hopeless.  Miranda (Holmes) is a struggling widow with three kids.  Her house is falling apart, she is forgetful, and her kids are so keenly aware that they can’t afford the kinds of things kids want, it continually reminds her of the loss of their dad.  On the positive side, she has a secure job where the owner of the restaurant, Tucker (O’Connell), is attracted to her and a mother-in-law who—though bossy—is someone she can depend upon and truly cares about her and her children.
     One day, when Miranda is arguing with her daughter in the car coming home from school, crash! she rear-ends someone in a pick-up truck.  But the driver is one of those individuals who is intuitively sympathetic and empathic—so much so, he offers to repair her bumper, the only thing damaged.  (Note:  This is a continuation of the tension between optimism and pessimism.)  Brad (Lucas) stays on the scene, helping her and her kids both emotionally and in practical things, like repairing the roof after a storm…all set up to continue the parable of self-determinism and fate.
     The film is very well directed by Andy Tennant from a finely written script, and the actors led by Katie Holmes and Josh Lucas make the story zing.  Yes, you’ll have little surprises along the way, although some of you will chafe at the predictability.  But there are little tweaks that take it beyond the ordinary.  For example, the mother-in-law (expertly executed by Celia Weston) is shown in stereotypical ways (i.e., obnoxious), but also with genuine caring and concern for her daughter-in-law.  She represents the “good sense”, “practical” side of the story’s argument, along with her favorite, Tucker, who faithfully pursues someone he cherishes.
     But Brad represents the figure who, after a traumatic event, alters his life toward one of acceptance and hope, taking in stride whatever happens and making the best of it for others as well as for oneself.  This attitude is shown to be inspiring to kids as well as adults, and is the central message of the film.

The Secret turns out to be a nice surprise, and one that could stimulate more serious discussion later.

Grade:  B                                    By Donna R. Copeland


Saturday, July 25, 2020

RADIOACTIVE

Rosamund Pike     Sam Riley     Anya Taylor-Joy


     In an extraordinary production directed by Marjane Satrapi and starring Rosamund Pike as Madame Curie, we hear the story of an eccentric scientist who won two Nobel prizes through much conflict and a certain amount of public hatred. She was the first woman to win a Nobel, notably being relatively unimpressed with it, but at the same time fighting for her role in it.
     Madame Curie (nee, Marie Slodowska) was having a difficult time holding onto a lab to do her work—both because of her being a woman trying to do science and because of a rather cantankerous personality.  It was most fortunate that her path crossed that of Pierre Curie who recognized immediately that they could achieve much more working together. It was likewise fortunate that he knew how to “handle” her, which included being conscientiously careful in seeing that she received every credit she was due in their partnership. For instance, initially, the Nobel committee was intending to give the prize to him alone, but he would only accept it if they gave it to both of them.
     The story is fascinating in a number of ways; first of all in seeing the hurdles she had to jump over in even being able to be a scientist, but secondly because of a quirky, prickly personality.  She was highly complex in her make-up, having a phobia about hospitals, being ambivalent about recognition yet ferociously insisting on getting credit for her achievements, and giving in completely to the love she had toward her husband.  She and her husband were also unusual in their communication with one another and in the family. Sensitive topics were never out of bounds for discussion, and they could have heated arguments, then easily switch back to a loving relationship.
     Pike is well known for her talent and skill in acting, and here once again she captures what I presume is the essence of who Marie Curie really was.  It should be a career high for her.  (I have not read Lauren Redniss book on which Jack Thorne based the script, but would guess that the film is a fine representation of Redniss’ work, which was a finalist for the National Book Award in 2011.)  Sam Riley as Marie’s husband makes a good match with Pike, and the scenes they’re in together are electric.
     Another aspect to marvel at in this production is Anthony Dod Martle’s artistic cinematography, which he uses to further the story and accentuate the dramatics. I think it’s a case where one could look at and revel in the pictures alone without the sound.  Transitions, close-ups, and the blending of visuals are striking in their own right.
     Personally, I was very moved by Radioactive in that when I was a psychologist at M. D. Anderson Cancer Center, much of my research was about identifying the effects of central nervous system radiation on children’s ability to learn years after they received it.  Kudos also to the film for showing the positive and possible negative effects of scientific knowledge—about which Madame Curie eventually became all too aware.  Her redemption came partly from the effectiveness of radiation that was helpful even at that time, and in her daughter’s continuing discoveries of its use in medicine and on the battlefield.
     Radioactive is a film I wish all young people could see for its modeling of simple passion for science, the challenges that arise in the tension between family life and career, and the prejudices that can appear from a general public that is not educated or well informed enough to override petty concerns.  The film is most timely in all these aspects.

Now appearing on Amazon Prime, this is a story that will entertain, inspire, and inform anyone who sees it.

Grade:  A                                    By Donna R. Copeland

Friday, June 26, 2020

MY SPY

Dave Bautista     Kristen Schaal     Parisa Fitz-Henley    Chloe Coleman    Kim Jeong


     This mildly entertaining “spy story” is formulaic and predictable, although it’s the kind of movie many families love, with a cheeky kid, a little romance, some danger, and an uplifting message.  The bad guys are truly evil, the hero is flawed but teachable, and there are enough tense situations to produce a bit of sweat.
     Dave Bautista as JJ, a CIA agent, is charged with protecting a widow and her daughter after the woman’s husband is killed and his brother is likely to come after them, looking for valuable information hidden in a missing external drive. This is a comedown for JJ, who has just taken out a whole cluster of criminals in Paris the CIA was hoping to get information from—a mistake of overkill, literally.  Moreover, in this new assignment, he is sent to partner with Bobbi (Schaal), a tech backup who has a bad case of hero worship and aspirations to become a full-fledged spy.  JJ is disdainful of such foolishness.
     But JJ is unprepared for the child and mother he is supposed to protect.  Nine year-old Sophie (Coleman) is shown to be cagey beyond her years, and immediately identifies something her dog uncovers in their apartment—a camera (heh-heh; thank you, Internet!). The rest of the plot thereafter involves JJ’s and Bobbi’s management of the case and the appearance of a real threat.
     Young Chloe Coleman as Sophie is the best part of the movie, primarily for her acting skills, not so much for the script, which has her spouting out lines that are obviously written by an adult.  But despite the artifice, the actress pulls it off and is entertaining throughout.  
     As a former wrestling champion with ups and downs, Bautista easily conforms to the brawny, slightly wooden CIA character with a grieving heart who can be manipulated by a smart kid.  Kristen Schaal and Parisa Fitz-Henley are given roles that first present as softies, but I appreciated the fact that the writers and directors gave them some aggressive tools to use at critical moments.
     My Spy is clearly a family film meant to inspire without getting too far into controversial issues.  It’s mainly a light, fun film for those looking for just that.

A film meant for those wanting a feel-good story with some excitement.

Grade:  C                                                            By Donna R. Copeland

Thursday, June 25, 2020

HOUSE OF HUMMINGBIRD

Ji-hu Park     Sae-byeok Kim     In-gi Jeong     Seung-yeon Lee


     House of Hummingbird is a mood piece, beautifully filmed, teeming with depth of feeling, and a story that keeps you guessing.  It’s clearly from a culture so different from my own, but so engaging it felt like I was in that country (Korea).  Penned, directed, and produced by young filmmaker Bora Kim, it’s remarkable in its sophistication, both in terms of filmmaking and in storytelling.  There are instances in the film in which it’s so clear that Kim is psychologically attuned to the human condition and the experience of young people as they’re trying to make sense of the world.
     The story centers around Eun-hee (Park), an eighth-grader in Seoul, Korea, in 1994. She’s considered unattractive and “odd”, not only in her family, but at school.  In a poll conducted by a terrible teacher asking the class to designate which of their classmates was most likely to be a delinquent, Eun-hee “won.”  Then we get some pictures of her family at home, where father and mother are in discord, but inexplicably make up after a violent argument, Eun-hee is flogged by her brother, and her sister comes and goes at all kinds of hours and asks Eun-hee to cover for her.
     In addition, the movie recounts interactions and conflicts involving mother’s brother, Eun-hee’s brother and sister, some of her friends, and—most heart-warmingly—Eun-hee’s tutor, Miss Yong-Ji (Kim).  In this sea of non-communication, the tutor is presented most eloquently and meaningfully to Eun-hee—and to us.
     This is primarily an evocative illustration of the lack of communication in the Korean culture.  Major issues are skirted around, and even when someone is bawling out loud, you see no signs of comfort—even a hand on a shoulder—even within a family.
     Then Eun-hee encounters Miss Yong-Ji, who takes over tutoring after the poll-taking a—hole is let go.  How—you wonder—did this woman discover/develop the almost uncanny ability to teach in a way that will be therapeutic to her students?  For instance, in answer to the question about “whether you ever hate yourself”, Yong-Ji responds with, “It takes some time to learn to like yourself.” That demonstration will be the kernal of truth and beguilement central to this beautiful movie.
     The last scene captures the quality of the film by a poignant attempt to reestablish reassurance and hope.
     I feel sorry that many will not appreciate House of Hummingbird because of the pace; this is not really a criticism of the work, but a comment about what we demand of films nowadays.  But if viewers will stay with the filmmaker, they will be rewarded with a sensitive, beautiful rendition of this family’s life, and this girl’s in particular.

A beautifully filmed story to savor and become enthralled.

Grade:  A                                    By Donna R. Copeland


Thursday, June 18, 2020

IRRESTIBLE

Steve Carell     Rose Byrne     Chris Cooper     Mackenzie Davis



     Jon Stewart (writer, director, producer) is at his best in comedy mixed with high drama, while ultimately making killer points about issues within a larger scope. Fine acting from the principal players makes it all work.
     The scene opens in a small town in Wisconsin that has lost its main industry and is dying.  The mayor and other city leaders have a proposal that appears not to be in the interest of the town of Deerlaken or its citizens.  The measure has almost passed when in strides local farmer Jack Hastings (Cooper) with a passionate argument against it.  However, he appears not to be making much headway with the leaders or the townspeople.
     When Democratic political consultant Gary Zimmer (Carell) hears about the situation and Hastings, he has the bright idea to shape Hastings into becoming a mayoral candidate in the upcoming election, who is confident he can “turn” Jack and the whole Republican town into Democrats.  
     Gary’s colleagues are extremely skeptical, but he has such confidence in his judgment and skills, he takes off for Deerlaken with high hopes, only to be consistently shocked by the nature of a small town versus a city like Washington D. C. (Example:  He only has to order lunch at the local watering hole, and meet a couple of people, for everyone he meets immediately after to know him by his new nickname, “D. C. Gary”, and he is greeted by everyone he meets as if they’ve known him forever.)
     Gary is successful in convincing Jack to run as a Democrat, and the campaign forges ahead.  There will be jolting upsets when Gary’s archrival, Republican Faith Brewster (Byrne), hears what he is up to and likewise descends upon Deerlaken.  But she is supporting the re-election of the mayor (Brent Sexton), backed by big bucks.  This, of course, results in Gary intensifying his fund-raising efforts.  The subsequent no-holds-barred rivalry of the two serves as part of the production’s entertainment.  
     Chris Cooper is ideal as a countrified character with an “aw-shucks” attitude overlaying a canny, strategic mind, and his background includes being a war veteran.  Gary sees that the principles underlying his arguments adhere perfectly with explicit aims of the Democratic Party.  A widower, Jack has a grown daughter Diana (Davis), who is devoted to her father, and enthusiastically joins his campaign.  
     The odds favor first one campaign then the other, with Faith shown to be a ball-busting flirt without principles and Gary handing it right back to her and gradually increasing his edge.  But as time goes on, the two factions are portrayed more even-handedly, and the viewer is shown more clearly the source of the problem.  Nice wrap-up!  But since I think the very ending is surprising and masterful, I won’t reveal more than that.
I have sorely missed Jon Stewart’s Daily Show on the Comedy Channel, so was highly gratified with many of the lines appearing throughout the film that are signature for him and truly funny and provocative, e.g., “Good people have to do s----- things in service of the greater good” and “We’re spending to start something; they’re spending to stop something.”      More substantively, Jon interviews Trevor Potter (whom I became acquainted with on the Steven Colbert Report show), former Chairman of the Federal Election Commission and current President of Campaign Legal Center stating how it is legal to hide billions of donations to a campaign that later can be diverted to other projects.  Thank you, Supreme Court, for the Citizens United ruling.

For political enthusiasts, this film hits home in the most delightful ways—all to make a provocative statement about the United States today.

Grade:  A                                                By Donna R. Copeland

BABYTEETH

Eliza Scanlen     Toby Wallace     Ben Mendelsohn     Essie Davis


     This romanticized fabrication of the cancer experience is likely to dismay those who have actually gone through it—especially when the patient is a child.  As someone who worked in a cancer center in Pediatrics as a psychologist for almost 25 years, I found little in the film that resembles any of the hundreds of families I encountered.  
     The backdrop of the film features a family (clearly made up by filmmakers) in which the father Henry (Mendelsohn) is a psychiatrist, the mother Anna (Davis) a musician, and the daughter Milla (Davis) a quirky teenager with cancer. (This is only revealed after a time.)  She chances upon Moses (Wallace) at the train station when she is in some kind of stupor and doesn’t board with her classmates.  Moses has just almost run over her trying to make his train, but she is in a daze.  (No indication as to why.)  He is doing some kind of stretch on the platform when she comes to and he speaks to her.  (Ding ding ding, you should hear the bells sounding.)  
     They speak briefly, and the connection is made (if you believe in fate).  Milla (not one of the in-group in her high school) is smitten at first glance.  What develops is an unlikely story about Milla bringing home this drug dealer who exploits her attraction to him (he from a home that he has been kicked out of) to take advantage of her family who is well off.  But he is not a clear-cut sociopath.  During the course of the story, he often makes sense more than almost anyone else, and clearly matures in due course.
     The film goes into detail in describing the parents.  Henry is a pill-pushing psychiatrist who has little regard for psychotherapy and is easily distracted during his practice.  (Moreover, as a clear-cut ethical violation, he treats his wife in his practice.)  As a result of his prescriptions (the recommended dosage of which she ignores), Anna has become a pill-popping zombie at times.  At one point, Anna states, “This is the worst possible parenting I can imagine”, and I agree.  The parents’ clearly stated pronouncements are never followed up, and they often come across as helpless in the face of life in general.  An example is when Milla goes missing one night, it is ludicrous to see Anna canvassing the city with a picture of her, asking if pedestrians she sees on the street have seen her.
     Milla is portrayed as a cheeky teenager who mostly has a clear idea of what she wants, but is often flummoxed by her parents.  Something in her recognizes what stability Moses has to offer—despite his background—and she clings to him as a lifeboat in a storm. She is realistically portrayed as a thoughtful, sensitive teenager who is trying to make her way despite her parents.
     The whole story of this film seems so made up with unlikely and unconvincing attachments and events, I could not take it seriously.  The actors do a fine job—particularly Eliza Scanlen and Toby Wallace as the young couple—and serve as the strongest features of the film. Ben Mendelsohn has a succession of fine acting roles, but this script doesn’t allow him to exercise the same talent.  Essie Davis as the convincing heroine in Babadookalso gets little here to show off her talent.
     An example of looseness in the integrity of Babyteeth are insensible titles of sections, the whole of which offer little clue to the scenes that follow, including:  Insomnia, Breakthrough, A Little Bit High, Nausea, Fuck this, Romance (part I and II), The Shower Routine, Sleeptalking, Seasons Greetings, What the dead said to Milla, Everyone Was Invited, A Beautiful Morning, and The Beach.
     Although Babyteeth has been well received by critics, I cannot think of anyone I know who would want to see this movie.

A fantastical tale of a teenager with cancer.  No, the ending does not redeem it.

Grade:  D                                    By Donna R. Copeland


Thursday, June 11, 2020

TOMMASO

Willem Dafoe     Christina Chiriac     Anna Ferrara



     Scenes from a man’s life.  The Italian writer/director Abel Ferrara has written an apparent partial autobiographical account of his life—seemingly (my interpretation) as expiation for things in his past about which he has/is experiencing guilt. The story moves rather slowly across events, with forays into past events and, presumably, symbolic and metaphorical fantasies that encompass external as well as internal experiences.  The main character masterfully delivered by Willem Dafoe is a filmmaker with a younger wife and small child.  We get an insightful cross-section of significant elements and happenings in his life, with the fantasies serving to illustrate unconscious factors underlying his actions.
     We learn that Tommaso (Dafoe) is a recovering addict living in Italy with his wife Nikki (Chiriac) and daughter Deedee (Ferrara) in an apartment that must be entered through a series of locked doors/gates/elevator, suggesting from the outset preoccupations with security and control.  Indeed, these do become issues across time for Tommaso.
     The movie shows pictures of their daily life, the enjoyment and delight Tommaso gets in taking care of his daughter, the intense relationship between mother and child, the different versions Tommaso and Nikki have of what married life should be, significant events in their early lives that contributed to their adult personalities, and Tomasso’s internal experiences of all of this. The film becomes even more striking in the fact that Ferrara’s real wife and daughter play their characters, filmed in Ferrara’s and Chiriac’s actual apartment.
     The complex character presented as Tommaso has Dafoe at his finest, capturing all the subtleties and self-doubts of Ferrara as he sees himself.  He is a recovering drug addict, religiously attending AA meetings, having a keen interest in those around him, dealing with the most disturbing information he witnesses on one occasion, taking on an overbearing role in his marriage, and still finding the time and wherewithal to deal with a loud drunk out on the street disturbing the neighborhood peace. The latter ends up with a warm chat and a handshake as Tommaso sends the man on his way.
     The production clearly fits in the category of an art film in its pace and the inclusion of metaphor and symbolism.  It could be criticized as being a bit too long, but this is a minor criticism. Seldom do we witness such a film with the writer’s openness and keen insight into his own character.  It is helped immeasurably by this and by Dafoe’s, Chiriac’s, and Deedee Ferrara’s perceptive representations.

A moving depiction of the inner and outer experiences of a man and his family.

Grade:  A-                                    By Donna R. Copeland


Sunday, June 7, 2020

SHIRLEY

Elisabeth Moss     Michael Stuhlberg     Odessa Young     Logan Lerman


     Based on a novel written by Susan Scarf Merrrell about the horror/mystery writer Susan Jackson, this film portrays the underside of the lives of women finding themselves trapped in what appears to be an inescapable situation and the ambivalent relationships that develop as a result between women and between men and women.  It’s complicated and mysterious, yet leaves the viewer in thoughtful reverie afterwards.  I was mostly repelled by the characters at first (that’s why I use the word ‘underside’), but as the story progresses they become more likeable and people whom I could identify with, at least to some extent.  For instance, I think any woman who during some of her life has been “just a housewife” (wifey), will quickly understand Rose Nemser—and to some extent Shirley herself, both women caught in dominating relationships. 
     Rose (Young) is newly married to Fred (Lerman), and they are anticipating their move to a college town, he with bright prospects in academia, and she hoping to return to college when they’ve established themselves.  They are greeted effusively by Stanley (Stuhlberg), Fred’s professor, who has offered to put them up at his house when they first arrive.  A raucous party is underway when the young couple arrives, which is somewhat confusing, especially when Stanley offers room and board for them if they will do him a favor:  Cooking, cleaning, and looking after his frail wife Shirley (Moss).  Of course, we are all aware this means that Rose will be the one taking on that burden.
     Rose has a shattering first encounter with Shirley as she is ascending rather shakily up the stairs to go to bed while the party is in full swing.  Shirley’s uncannily perceptive and caustic comments send Rose into a spin.  But later, discussing it with Fred, he makes it clear that his position with the professor and the potential it holds for his career should take precedence—which it does, of course.
     Two couples living under the same roof is always a tricky situation, especially when they’re newly acquainted, so we are immediately intrigued about what is going to transpire.  And we will find that it takes us straight into the horror genre.
     The older couple in their individual ways exert cruel demands on the young couple who are trying their best to succeed.  Double binds abound, and we can admire (mostly) how Rose and Fred accommodate. It’s just that they are no match for old hands at the trade.
     The strengths of Shirley lie in the source material (Shirley Jackson’s work and Susan Scarf Merrell’s novel), the script (Sarah Gubbins), and the actors, all knowingly assembled by Director Josephine Decker (Madeline’s Madeline, Collective: Unconscious).  All of these elements combine to capture your interest—sometimes in curiosity, sometimes in horror, and sometimes in something disturbing that you might not understand.  This is enhanced by the casting of look-alike Young to play someone closely linked to Susan, played by Moss.  I’m sure it was intentional on Decker’s part, to highlight author Susan’s linking the subject of her novel to the real woman, Rose, who was caring for her.
     This is another in a long line of coups for Elisabeth Moss (“Mad Men”, “The Handmaid’s Tale”, “Top of the Lake”), for which she should have won more awards. Here, she sinks her teeth into a role that displays a completely different character from the others she has played and nails it—as she always does.  Supporting her, Odessa Young and Michael Stuhlberg bring their considerable talent to bear in character elucidation of those held in her thrall.

Perhaps not a movie you will “enjoy”, but one that will shed light on female-female and female-male relationships in our recent past—and perhaps, even today.

Grade:  A                                    By Donna R. Copeland

Saturday, May 30, 2020

UNCORKED

Courtney B. Vance     Mamoudou Athie     Niecy Nash     Sasha Compere


     What a delightful surprise to see a winner from a relatively new filmmaker, Prentice Penny, writer and director.  We don’t usually think of a black middle-class young man with a future in his father’s business wanting to become a sommelier (not a Somalian, as envisioned by some in his circle). But Elijah (Athie) is a dreamer, and something caught his fancy when he first heard of experts in wine tasting. 
     All will not be well on the home front.  Blessed with an empathetic, insightful mother, Elijah was encouraged to pursue his calling, which turns out to be a bitter disappointment to a father (Vance) who had sacrificed his own dreams in order to please his father and keep up the family’s BBQ business.  As so often happens, father Louis has so repressed his own wishes, he does not recognize putting his son in the same bind he encountered as a young man. I admired the mother’s ability to still the turbulent waters of the two men’s relationship, and maneuver through treacherous waters—superbly acted by Niecy Nash.
     But there is much more going on in this story; the main thrust is Elijah’s enrolling in school and trying to master a course that few manage to pass, to become a Master Sommelier.  It would have been rewarding to learn more about his three other fellow students, who similarly had stories to tell, but we have to be content to get only glimpses into their personalities and background.  
     This is primarily a family drama that entertains as much in that as getting insights into the wine business, which will be intriguing to wine lovers unacquainted with the profession.  As in quality filming, it has additional themes of overcoming tremendous odds to achieve a dream and father-son conflicts that appear to be unresolvable. 
     Writer-director Penny should be congratulated on his ability to give us a picture that is skillful in intertwining family dynamics and a profession that is potentially interesting to most people.  Speaking of which, the movie is likely to attract wine lovers, but may not speak to those who have other favorite drinks.  When the students are required to describe wines and their essences and come up with grapes and region of origin (from Europe to the Americas to the world over), as well as the date, we realize what an art and a science it is.
     Along with the script and direction, the cast is extraordinarily good.  Vance is well known for his proficiency in television’s “American Crime Story”, and that is clearly apparent here, but the other actors are less well known.  As the lead, Mamoudou Athie comes through with a fine performance of a young man torn between loyalty to his family—especially his father—and pursuing an exciting opportunity.  But as noted, Niecy Nash as his mother, Sasha Compere as his steadfast girlfriend, and the actors playing his classmates are superb.

Lots of heart and soul in this story about a young man with a dream against all odds.

Grade:  A-                             By Donna R. Copeland

Saturday, May 23, 2020

THE PAINTER AND THE THIEF

Karl Bertil-Nordland    Barbora Kysilkova


     True stories make the best dramas by far.  This Norwegian documentary shows the actual painter and the two actual thieves who stole two of her paintings.  After going to one’s trial and meeting him, Barbora developed a most unlikely friendship with Karl.  He had no memory of the theft—except that he loved the paintings—but he was on drugs at the time.  Not only did he have no memory of the event, he never had any contact with the other thief again.
     This is a fine documentary by Benjamin Ree, a young filmmaker with extraordinary insight into the psychological make-up of the two figures, highlighting the concept of forgiveness that runs throughout the amazing story.  The craft of storytelling is supported by the music of Uno Helmersson and the brilliant cinematography of Kristoffer Kumar and Benjamin Ree himself.  Stark images of winter scenes and wreckages are counterbalanced by warm human connections, vivid colors, and the magic of painting.
     Characteristic of provocative documentaries, The Painter and the Thief keeps the viewer engaged in two mysteries: How the friendship will play out and where the paintings are now.  The more entertaining of these is getting to know the two characters, each of which has significant background (childhood) experiences that propel them into their individual lifestyles.  The common bond turns out to be abuse of different kinds leading each into self-destructive behaviors.  Once again, there is a paradox.  Hers has to do with being a rescuer; his with addictions that threaten not only his relationships but also his life.  Here’s where it works.  She is steadfast in a way he has never known in his life; he gives her genuine praise for all kinds of things, which raises a lifetime of low self-esteem and self-worth.  
     Seldom in life or in dramatic films/plays/literature is there a story about two self-destructive figures forming a therapeutic relationship, and further, creating a lasting bond.  Noteworthy in this documentary are the demonstrations of the efficacy of psychotherapy and rehabilitation in prison and in personal lives.
     Your experience of this film is likely to be fascination, curiosity, and mystery—not necessarily woven into many documentaries—along with a renewed appreciation for forgiveness. 

Documentaries that come across as dramas renew our faith in the saying that truth can be stranger than fiction.

Grade:  A                                    By Donna R. Copeland

Thursday, May 21, 2020

THE TRIP TO GREECE

Steve Coogan     Rob Brydon


     As striking and lovely as the land- and seascapes are in this buddy movie, if you’ve seen The Trip to Italy and The Trip to Spain, you’ve seen The Trip to Greece.  Despite it being a different country, there is little contrast between this and the earlier versions.  This film has the same format as the other two, in which Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon take trips to exotic places, tooling around in boats and cars, kibitzing with one another along the way, having brief interactions with others, and dining in restaurants with fine cuisine (e.g., mussels with expresso powder dust) and breathtaking views.  
     Conversations range from take-offs on beloved characters in movies, referencing historical characters and facts about the country they’re in, and competing on who is better at…anything.  They might take dips in the seas and join up with old acquaintances or current friends, and occasionally, we hear their conversations with loved ones at home.  
The films are primarily improvisational, but real events in the actors’ lives are woven in.  This one in particular shows significant events taking place at home, along with a reunion of husband and wife who are very much in love.
     I enjoyed this version of the Coogan-Brydon trips less than the others, partly because of its repetition, but also because it seems more rushed. Writer-director Michael Winterbottom really made a mistake in showing only glimpses of the kitchen staffs preparing elegant dishes without going into detail about what they consist of and something about the people preparing them.  They focus on one waitress who delights them, but that’s the extent of highlighting the people who serve them.  
     Just listening to Coogan and Brydon for such long stretches becomes tedious at best. We tire of them by the end of the film.  Another issue is that many of the references they make in their impersonations of Hollywood figures and Greek historical figures are likely to go over the heads of most viewers.  Most will be saying, “I don’t get it…”
     With the rich history of the worlds explored and the movies discussed in these films, it is puzzling to see the lack of creativity and potential for humor that is missed. 

Looking at a travelogue about Greece will be more exciting and informative than this film.

Grade:  D                                    By Donna R. Copeland


Wednesday, May 13, 2020

MILITARY WIVES

Kristin Scott Thomas     Sharon Horgan     Gaby French     India Ria Amarteifio


     People don’t usually think much about the wives of military personnel, so to see a film about them as a group is a treat. Written by Rosanne Flynn and Rachel Tunnard and directed by Peter Cattaneo, the story revolves around group dynamics when a bevy of not-likeminded souls are thrown together, and then teased/cajoled/pressured to see themselves as a group with an identity.  Obviously with a clear understanding of how groups coalesce, the writers and director create a realistic account that is entrancing for the viewer, and based upon a real story. 
     The vehicle through which this group identity comes about is singing (first), which evolves into an actual choir.  We are introduced first to the colonel’s wife, Kate (expertly—as always—played by Kristin Scott Thomas), who uses her station on the base to influence and command respect.  But she is a newcomer, and attempts to over-ride Lisa (Horgan) who is put in charge of the wives’ activities, especially when their husbands are away on a mission.  Kate quickly gets the impression that Lisa is not an experienced leader, and is ready to impose her more “cultural” will on the group.  Their initial interactions make the viewer (at least this female reviewer) cringe, dreading the usual “cat fight” that follows in so many films. 
     It’s like two cultures coming at each other gangbusters, but with a feminine veneer. I say “veneer” because that is how the conflict is typically portrayed of women.  But these characters have more substance.  And the processes through which they do come together ring unbelievably true.  It’s rewarding to see two women work out a complicated relationship through the essential give-and-take that working through requires.
     It is seeing how those processes go forward that constitute the humor and drama of Military Wives.  We may guess how everything is going to turn out, but it’s the journey there, along with the human truths displayed, which makes the film a joy to see.
     Kristin Scott Thomas has had a long career in successful films, one of which (The English Patient) received an Academy Award for Best Picture, along with a number of personal awards for her accomplishments.  I have always gotten the impression she chooses the films she is in for a reason, either its meaningfulness to her personally or its message for its audience.  She has always been one of my favorites so much so that I will see any film in which she appears.  Here, she once again does a masterful job in evincing the gradual changes that occur in a character over time when dealing with social/emotional issues that will humanize her.
     Thomas’ co-star, Sharon Horgan as Kate’s primary competitor fully meets her halfway, and the two of them achieve such anin-sync performance it’s entertaining just to watch them perform.  I’m not as familiar with Horgan’s work—which has been primarily in British television—but she demonstrates quality in nuance and range in this film that attests to her skill.
     Other characters in Military Wives are colorful and hold your attention, such as the reluctant but talented singer played by Gaby French, the cheeky teenage daughter played by India Ria Amarteifio, and the wife of a new recruit played by Emma Lowndes.  
     What two leaders of a military base choir accomplished made such an impression, the idea spread throughout the military, with over 75 choirs now active across UK bases.

Altogether, Military Wives is an entertaining, uplifting film that will engage you, entertain you, and sometimes make you cry in depicting human truths.

Grade:  A                                    By Donna R. Copeland