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

Thursday, April 2, 2020

NEVER RARELY SOMETIMES ALWAYS

Sidney Flanagan     Talia Ryder     Ryan Eggold     Theodore Pellerin


     The title?  It comes from a questionnaire the 17 year-old Autumn (Flanagan) is asked to respond to when she goes to New York for a medical procedure.  The questions are probing, and since she is not inclined to talk about her experience at all, they throw her for a loop.  
     This documentary-like drama written and directed by Elizabeth Hittman tells about a few days in the life of Autumn.  It’s up close and extremely personal; yet, paradoxically, we’re not given much information through dialog.  It’s a bit like watching a silent film and needing to infer what is transpiring visually.  Hittman has the unusual skill of giving the viewer just enough information about the characters and the setting to pique curiosity and keep you majorly invested in what happens.
     We meet Autumn right away as she is performing as a singer/guitar player at a small night spot.  Simply brief glimpses of this, her family situation, and her daily life previews for us the poignant, story that will unfold.  Autumn is extremely reticent, not even being forthcoming with her cousin and best friend Skylar (Ryder), who provides constant support and requires little explanation.  Somehow, the decision is made to go to New York from a community in Pennsylvania, neither girl apparently ever having been there before.  But they have a mission and go by bus to the city.
     In eliminating dialog for the most part, I suppose that Hittman is making a commentary about young people today who communicate primarily through their devices, and otherwise do not have extended, heart-to-heart discussions that most people of previous generations seem to do automatically.  It is somewhat of a relief to see medical professionals patiently asking Autumn questions, ones which require answers (ah…communication!).  Most of the time, though, Autumn and Skylar undergo and work through major dilemmas with little discussion.  One young man does engage them (primarily Skylar) on the bus to New York, which only serves to increase our concern for the girls.
     Another issue Hittman comments about is the absence of family support and government services available to teenagers with few resources.  We’re not actually told about Autumn’s family, but are given enough views of it to surmise what it is like.  Left to her own devices, Autumn seeks help from social services, but of course receives little that is useful.  Interestingly, she does get some empathy and some services in New York City (going against its reputation), but these are limited, and the girls have to be clever, brave, and assertive not to be abandoned altogether.
     I think this film is laden with social-psychological meanings and commentary, not only about families, but also about society’s insufficient readiness to meet the challenges that are presented by a new generation in a rapidly changing technological environment.  Are families (however constituted), society, and government prepared?  Food for thought.
     This glimpse of a few days in the life of a teenager left on her own (by her own choice) says so much about the current state of affairs viz a viz family complexities and limited social services available.  

A gripping film capturing a few days in the life of a teenage girl left on her own (by her own choice) but with the help of a steadfast friend.

Grade:  A                                    By Donna R. Copeland


Thursday, March 12, 2020

THE HUNT

Hilary Swank     Betty Gilpin     Ike Barinholtz     Wayne Duvall     Amy Madigan     Reed Birney     Emma Roberts


     A perfect allegory for the times.  The Hunt is a 20thcentury take on George Orwell’s novel Animal Farm, in which the animals rebel against their masters.  Only in this rendition, it’s the “Elite Liberals” against “The Deplorables.”  Its plot is not a straightforward telling of a story.  It starts out with a group chat on the telephone, then goes backward and forward in time.  (So keep track of the names, even though it will still be confusing because identities are frequently shifting.)
     Before (almost) everything becomes clear, we witness characters being restrained on a plane and later hunted with guns, arrows, and hand grenades in an open field or roadside station.  These are people from different parts of the country who have been kidnapped, anesthetized, and brought to…they don’t know what state they’re in.  They only hear references to “Manorgate” (parallel to Orwell’s “Manor Farm”), and two pigs wearing human clothes appear from time to time—clues for those familiar with Orwell’s work.)
     That’s enough of the plot; it will be more entertaining and engrossing the less you know about it.  
     Writers Nick Cuse and Damon Lindelof are to be congratulated for their creativity in adapting a novel published in 1945 about Russia and the Soviet Union and cleverly making it relevant to our country today.  Director Craig Zobel expertly films their script, making it come alive in ways that are simultaneously entertaining and appalling.  I always have a problem with movies shifting back and forth in time, and in this film, it’s especially challenging when characters disappear and reappear, and identities often shift (e.g., it is not always clear whether a character is one of the good guys or the bad guys)—all of which contributes to its formulation as an intriguing intellectual puzzle.  
     Betty Gilpin exquisitely plays a somewhat mysterious figure who seems at first to be a deadpan young woman from Mississippi.  But she is a formidable fighter and always seems two steps ahead of whomever she meets.  Gilpin deserves a nomination for this role.  She easily carries the story as a lead figure.  Hilary Swank is perfectly cast in her role, although she is not present in most scenes.  Supporting cast is likewise a talented group of actors who move the story forward with ease.
     My only criticisms are in too much shifting back and forth in time (a current fad in filmmakers’ trying to make their movie more exciting) and in the length of the final battle (as unbelievable as it is humorous).
     This is one of those films that come along every so often to remind us of the artistic, intellectual talent at filmmakers’ disposal.  When you see a work like this, you wonder again why this talent is not tapped more often, and we are offered remakes and sequels ad nauseam.  Oh, yeah…once again, it’s all about the money.

Prepare to be entertained (likely) while being appalled (almost certainly) in this well-informed allegory reckoning back to George Orwell’s Animal Farm.

Grade:  B                                    By Donna R. Copeland


Saturday, March 7, 2020

ONWARD

Chris Pratt     Julia Louis-Dreyfus    Octavia Spencer    Tom Holland    Mel Rodriguez


     This is a fun animated movie that kids are likely to love (and some adults too, based on the guffaws I heard at the screening), with a couple of good messages.  Two brothers live with their solicitous mother, getting along fairly well (except maybe for the older one’s bossiness toward the younger, and his chaotic way of dealing with life).  Ian the younger (Holland) is imminently responsible and sincere, but painfully shy and woefully lacking in self-confidence.  His older brother Barley (Pratt) is just the opposite, never fearing where angels fear to tread, knocking things over and getting into trouble everywhere he turns.  But he is good-hearted, and thinks he is doing a yeoman’s job in helping Ian in the father’s absence.  Their mother Laurel (Louis-Dreyfus) does a heroic job in running interference and trying to bolster Ian’s self-image and tame Barley’s dominating bluster.  Just a typical American family, right?
     On Ian’s 16thbirthday, Laurel presents the boys with a gift from their father he wanted them to have when they’ve both reached age 16.  Come to find out, their father believed in magic, and gave them something that would pass on his love of the craft. Barley is a bit ahead, being familiar with the Quests of Yore fantasy game, so he coaches Ian every step of the way, even through the “Path of Peril”, with many adventures in between. Their quest is to find the Phoenix Gem that will allow their father to visit them for one day.  The quest constitutes the bulk of the movie, which is complicated by Laurel’s need to keep her boys from harm, and in doing so, she enlists the aid of Manticore (Spencer), a good witch.
     There are a number of clever—even funny twists—in the plot, such as a spell that gets interrupted brings only the bottom half of the father back, but still, he is able to impress the boys with his dance steps and witty communication.  Manticore is a hoot in her blustery problem-solving, grand sweeps, and funky dialog.
     Many symbols of magic are sprinkled throughout the story—as in a fantasy game—with the underlying thrust of helping the brothers come of age, Barley in learning the value of wisdom and thoughtfulness and Ian in developing self-confidence. Storytelling is done in such a way that I think kids will get the messages while still being entertained by the animated production.  
     This is typical Pixar, with stunning graphics and a decent story to go with.  It should be popular, but is not likely to make a big splash.

A tale about two brothers and how magic can bring them together and foster their development, overseen by their parents.

Grade:  C+                                    By Donna R. Copeland

Thursday, February 20, 2020

THE CALL OF THE WILD

Harrison Ford     Omar Sy     Cara Gee     Bradley Whitford
Karen Gillan     Dan Stevens     Colin Woodell


     In giving children a dose of nature without so much of the cruelty and violence to dogs that are in the novel, this movie succeeds.  The dogs and wolves are beautiful and the Alaskan scenery is gorgeous. (Kudos to cinematographer Janusz Kaminski for the photographic beauty as well as filming maneuvers.)  The dog Buck’s experiences are models of behavior that can be beneficial to kids, such as the kindness he shows even to strangers, and a logical separation towards the end of the story.  Adults may not take to the film as much as children because of the overly human-like appearance and behaviors of the animals, especially Buck, and the lack of suspense in figuring out what will happen.
     In the beginning, Buck is shown to be rambunctious, not suitable for the genteel life of his owner on plantation-sized property.  This is patient Judge Miller (Whitford) who gently chides him for charging through the house and town and knocking things over—including the mailman.  After one hectic day, the judge makes him sleep on the porch at night “to think over” what he has done.  This gives a local thief the opportunity to dog-nap Buck and sell him. 
     From there, Buck’s adventures are with various masters, the first one cruel and Buck manages to run away, then he is bought by a couple with a dog sled delivering mail, then by another couple with an outsized hunger for gold (this is during 19thcentury gold rush times) the husband (Stevens) being not only selfish and cruel but stupid as well.  Harrison Ford as John Thornton narrates the story and appears from time to time in Buck’s life as someone with normal sympathies for the oppressed.  Thornton and Buck end up together and prove to be good pals, despite Thornton’s reluctance in the beginning, and each must rescue the other on critical occasions.
     Based on Jack London’s continuing successful novel of the same name, The Call of the Wild movie in 2020 is the seventh film rendition of the story, not including a TV series.  Complaints about it center mostly around the computer-generated dog Buck, which the viewer may find a little creepy, especially when he reacts and communicates so much like a human figure and very un-dog-like. Another criticism is about this being simply another repeat of the story on film.  How filmmakers can justify it is beyond me.  How much better it would be for them to use their resources to create something new.  After all, the film industry is replete with talented people.

A coming-of-age story for the dog Buck who travels from a genteel southern plantation to the snow covered Alaskan Yukon with life-changing events along the way.

Grade:  C                                    By Donna R. Copeland

EMMA

Anya Taylor-Joy     Tanya Reynolds     Josh O’Connor     Bill Nighy     Johnny Flynn
Mia Goth     Miranda Hart     Gemma Whelan     Rupert Graves     Amber Anderson     Callum Turner


     Based on a novel by Jane Austen and set in the nineteenth century in England, Emma. is a view mostly of the upper class. The character Emma (Taylor-Joy) embodies the period as a highly admired lady of the town who has been so indulged she comes across as superficial and vain.  Yet she fancies herself such a good judge of others’ character, she rushes into matching her friends up with one another.  Not only does she introduce them, but takes an active role in furthering their romantic relationships.  
     As one would expect, Emma makes some fateful mistakes along the way, misjudging who will be with whom.  Much of the story plays out like an English country dance with constantly changing partners.  That is, we see presumed partners through Emma’s eyes—until reality overcomes fantasy and all is settled in the end.  The one most surprised will be Emma herself.
     Emma. is so well cast, it becomes the film’s strongest asset, helping keep such a mannered story from becoming rather boring to the modern eye.  Taylor-Joy is beautiful and captures Emma’s personality in its mixture of well-intentioned kindness and condescension that stems from over-protection and indulgence.  Still, she maintains an aura of authority in her role as mistress of her father’s house.  
     Co-starring with Taylor-Joy is Johnny Flynn (as George Knightley), the epitome of a gentleman.  Knightley owns a manor brimming with fine art, but is sensitive and always kind and merciful. A neighbor and in-law of Emma and her father, he sees them daily and is Emma’s only critic.  Flynn is perfect for the role in his looks (not so handsome he becomes suspect) and his low-key, personable manner.
     Other prominent roles are carried by Mia Goth as Harriet, a naïve young woman Emma has decided to take under her wing to “make a lady” of her; Rupert Graves (as Mr. Weston) is an appealing “Mr. Nice Guy”, who is social and charming; Bill Nighy as Emma’s hypochondriacal father proves again his effectiveness in being a character actor; and Amber Anderson as the mysterious Jane Fairfax attracts the eye and plays the piano with flourish (Anderson is an accomplished pianist as well as an actor).
     For me, the music provided by David Schweitzer and Isobel Waller-Bridge (composer for “Fleabag” and sister of Phoebe Waller-Bridge) is a high point, coming in unexpectedly at times, religious choral music at other times, and lyrically sweet songs, such as the duet by Jane Fairfax and Johnny Flynn, “The Last Rose of Summer.”  
     I don’t think we really needed another remake of Emma, but director Autumn de Wilde and screenwriter Eleanor Catton have produced a worthy rendition of the Jane Austen classic.  Lovers of Austen’s work will likely be pleased with this update.  Others will not be so impressed.

Emma. is worthy of your attention if you are drawn to period pieces.

Grade:  B                                    By Donna R. Copeland


Thursday, February 13, 2020

DOWNHILL

Julia Louis-Dreyfus     Will Ferrell


     Contrasts--some bordering on contradictions--are the hallmark of Downhill (captivating music and cinematography against marital conflict, Americans vs. Europeans, and the two main characters, Peter and Billie, individually across time.)  This is the American version of Force Majeure (2014) by the Swedish director, Ruben Östlund.  Writer Jesse Armstrong with writer-directors Nat Faxon and Jim Rash follow the original script quite closely, but have “Americanized” the family in its conflicts and in its relationships with Europeans.  But the ending in the European version is more ambiguous, less clear-cut.
     The story is that Billie (Louis-Dreyfus) and Peter (Ferrell) and their two boys are on a European skiing vacation, purportedly because Peter is grieving the recent loss of his father, and actually so they can boost up their relationship, which seems to be in a bit of a slump.  The couple is valiantly trying to maintain a cheerful togetherness when a “controlled” avalanche occurs while they are eating on the deck of a restaurant.  Billie’s and Peter’s versions of what happened next comprise another hallmark of the movie, contrast and contradiction.  How this is dealt with, interspersed with other events is the rest of the story.
     I was a bit intrigued by the filmmakers’ portraying Europeans and Americans in stereotypically obnoxious terms, such as Americans’ readiness to sue and their—to Europeans—Puritanical values, and caricatures of the sexually uninhibited Europeans.  But in the end was turned off by both.  Such European and American stereotypes in the American version of the film are intended to be funny, but I find them excruciating.  
     Julia Louis-Dreyfus brings her considerable talent to her role, which is in stark contrast with her famous television personas in television’s “Seinfeld” and “Veep.”  Here, she is “wifey”, although she is skilled in manipulation.  And in contrast to that, Will Ferrell is a good choice for a husband who is unintentionally comedic, impressionable, and lacks a gram of self-reflection.  
     I did especially like the music of Volker Bertelmann, which captures the mood of every scene so expertly it and the cinematography of Danny Cohen transport us trenchantly to the snow-covered alps setting and the drama unfolding in its midst.  
     It’s too bad when American filmmakers do not trust their own creativity and resort to remakes of fine European films.  Downhill is an example of just that.  Directors Nat Faxon and Jim Rash have made beautiful films of their own (The Way Way Back and The Descendants), and there is no reason for them to “borrow” European films for a remake.

Given a choice, you would be better off seeing Force Majeure, a 2014 French film.

Grade:  C+                                    By Donna R. Copeland

THE ASSISTANT

Julia Garner     Matthew Macfadyen     Jon Orsini     Noah Robbins


     In interviews, Kitty Green, the writer/director of The Assistant, states that her intent is to point out systemic issues within the entertainment industry where so many seem to turn a blind eye to abuse and exploitation.  She doesn’t focus on one perpetrator (for instance, we never see the boss; we only overhear him on the phone berating his employees), but instead shows the experience of a young college graduate (played by Julia Garner) hired to be a production assistant for a powerful executive. One way she illustrates her point, I think, is naming the woman a generic “Jane” and, as I recall, not having that name spoken once in the movie by other characters (primarily men). 
     Another way is to show in detail the assistant’s tasks for one day, which slows down the action considerably to the point of being rather boring.  For the first hour, we primarily see her typing, reading or listening to instructions, opening mail, tidying up, arranging for transportation and accommodations for her boss, and not much else.  Garner manages to keep the viewer interested with her ability to show depth of character nonverbally and portray a sense that something is about to happen.
     Although Green’s points come across very well, it’s hard to imagine a job in film production involving primarily secretarial and housekeeping chores. Especially since Jane is told numerous times that her work is good, that her boss is aware of how hard she works, and that she has a great future in the company.  But we never see her doing anything that is related to production training.  The other two assistants (male) seem to have more elevated tasks, although their work seems mostly to be on the telephone.  
     Another aspect of the film that lacked believability to me is that Jane is a graduate of Northwestern University with a 3.8 GPA.  She’s timid, doesn’t stand up for herself, and constantly apologizes.  It’s easy to see why she’s being eaten alive in a cutthroat industry.  But that surely is not typical of a female Northwestern graduate.  I adored Julia Garner’s cheeky, brash character in Netflix’s Ozark, and it’s a bit of a letdown to see her in this role as someone unable to speak her mind.  
     Overall, though, the film aptly portrays the “culture of silence” that typically exists in an abusive industry, and Green is quick to say it extends far beyond the business of entertainment.  She purposefully made a “quiet” film to illustrate her point; however, this became a drawback to me, and it would have helped the film to have a bit of drama inserted here and there.

An apt illustration of systemic characteristics in a production company dominated by an overly aggressive, entitled male.

Grade:  C-                                    By Donna R. Copeland

THE PHOTOGRAPH

LaKeith Stanfield     Issa Rae     Kelvin Harrison, Jr.    Chanté Adams
Rob Morgan     Lil Rel Howery     Courtney B. Vance


     The most unusual technique in this film is that the life of the mother of one of the main protagonists is highlighted in accounting for a love story that transpires years later.  It works because the mother’s personality and her decisions (advanced for the time) are so fascinating.  Christine Eames (Adams) leaves her home (and the man she loves) in New Orleans to pursue her dream of making a name for herself in photography in New York. She leaves without saying goodbye to her love, Isaac (Morgan), assuming that he will be there when she returns.
     We learn about that couple off and on in flashbacks.  But the immediate story is about Michael Block (Stanfield), a reporter for a magazine in New York, The Republic.  He is assigned to do a story about Eames, and goes to New Orleans, to interview Isaac, who talks about Christine and shows him some of her photographs.  That leads him back to the Queens Museum in New York where Mae Morton (Rae) is the assistant curator.  
     Much of the rest of the story is about Michael and Mae in a “will they or won’t they?” kind of scenario.  The fascinating part is how writer/director Stella Meghie weaves the two generational stories together in themes of missed opportunities that seem fated and the suggestion of a larger role that fate plays in humans’ lives.
     The acting is exemplary for the most part.  Issa Rae in particular evokes mystery and beauty seemingly effortlessly. I have always loved LaKeith Stanfield, especially in Sorry to Bother You, but in this role he is not as effective, primarily because of the script, which has made his character less desirable (sort of shifty, unwilling to commit, unable to express emotion).  Writer/director Stella Meghie has created lead characters, both of them having a difficult time expressing themselves.  The characterizations of Issa’s mother and Isaac (played by Chanté Adams and Rob Morgan), as well as step-father Louis Morton (Vance) evoke our interest and make us want to know more about them.
     I think the story presented is very romantic but in a muted form.  It moves a bit slowly, and is probably not the best choice for a Valentine’s date, although it will be opening on Valentine’s Day.

A “will they or won’t they?” romantic drama that is made more interesting by weaving in the parents’ stories.

Grade:  C+                                    By Donna R. Copeland


Thursday, February 6, 2020

BIRDS OF PREY

Margot Robbie     Rosie Perez     Mary Elizabeth Winstead    Ewan McGregor
Chris Messina     Ella Jay Basco     Jurnee Smollett-Bell


     Girl power.  This movie’s got it. Coming off a breakup with the Joker, Harley Quinn (Robbie) is having to face all the people she pissed off when she was with him.  Seems like she can’t go around a corner without bumping into one of them. She can’t even down a much coveted egg sandwich for breakfast.  But she’s still a badass even though she’s in a bit of a dilemma adjusting to newfound independence and deciding what she will do next.  Birds of Prey has an answer for that.
     I can’t enumerate all the enemies Harley has made, but one of them is a cop (Perez) who is resentful about always getting the short end of the stick.  Renee Montoya has an almost clairvoyant knack for figuring out crime scenes, which her chief (ex-partner who took credit for her work) fails to recognize.  (He’s not as smart as she is.)  She is soon to be separated from her badge and gun, when narrator Harley Quinn, who is inclined to make sage observations about what is going on, says, “No cop ever gets anything done until they’re suspended.”
     What will bring Montoya and Quinn together?  (Montoya as a cop is chasing Quinn during most of the story.) It will take a common enemy and some other allies for them all to get fed up and work together.  These allies include Black Canary (Smollett-Bell) and The Huntress (Winstead).  Mixed in is young Cass (Basco), a street pickpocket who unknowingly picks up a valuable package.
     The common enemy is Roman Siomis (Ewan) who owns a nightclub but has aspirations to run Gotham City on his own, especially since the Joker is gone.  Roman shows his true colors in his temper tantrums, sadistic bent, and vulgarity.  He has employed a singer with a “killer voice” (Smollett-Bell) who has a history with Montoya, and whom he has now made his driver.  At first, he is unaware of her martial arts skills. 
     The film does a good job in giving back stories of all the characters so that what they’re doing and how they developed their skills make sense.  We hear enough even about the bad guy to understand why he does what he does (quick, on-the-spot analysis by now Dr. Quinn psychiatrist) and his father issues.
     Although I’m not usually a fan of the genre, I was entertained by Birds of Prey, remained engaged throughout, and—I must confess—had my feminist heart quickened by the female characters savaging all the bigger, “stronger” men—at least the bad men; I was less pleased with downing policemen and prison guards.  
     Margot Robbie must be praised for the wide-ranging characters she has played so well (designing ice skater in I, Tonya, ingenue broadcaster in Bombshell, movie star in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, and a queen in Mary Queen of Scots).  And here she is in a comic book action movie, which is a sequel to Suicide Squad.  It seems like she can tackle just about any role.  
     Supporting actors Jurnee Smollett-Bell, Rosie Perez, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Ewan McGregor, and even young Ella Jay Basco all stand out as well.  Music by Daniel Pemberton and choreography by Matthew Libatique complete the assembly of talented professionals director Cathy Yam has brought together.
     The production extends a bit too long, especially the repeated fight scenes. Although they are well executed and filmed, it’s too much of a good thing.  Writer Christina Hodson can be praised for the dimensionality of the characters she has drawn, but the number and length of time spent in bashing one another could have been shortened.

A fanciful—but satisfying—comic book thriller where it’s the women who kick a---.

Grade:  B+                                                By Donna R. Copeland

CITIZEN K


     I applaud this film most for demonstrating so clearly how a dictatorship can evolve in a country newly liberated from Communism and asking for government to be more accountable, to be hijacked, a lesson for many democracies in the world today.  Citizen K (Mikhail Khodorkovsky) is about a man whom we will all recognize.  He’s flawed—at least among even some sympathetic observers—but he speaks and works for the democratic principles we have come to value.  I had heard about the Russian oligarchs who exploited the demise of the USSR to enrich themselves in outsized proportions, but Alex Gibney’s documentary gives us detailed descriptions of the billionaires who surfaced during that time, the consequences of their achievement of power, and the one (not the only) man who learned from his experiences and maintained fundamental democratic principles throughout.  He’s Citizen K, who is pitted against the dictator Putin who ultimately comes to power.
     First, comes a brief history of Russia after communism and the USSR in the early 1990’s.  Boris Yeltsin emerges talking about his visions for a more democratic system and the advantages of capitalism.  Feeble attempts (like vouchers) are made to introduce people to a different kind of government, showing how little Yeltsin and his advisors understand the dynamics of a capitalist system.  So little does he foresee:  That people do not know how to use the vouchers given to them, the chaos that will ensue following the socialist state, and the opportunity for those cagey enough to exploit the situation to their own benefit.  This is what happens, which results by the mid-1990’s in seven oligarchs controlling 50% of the Russian economy, and the rest of the population in dire stress.  The government runs out of funds, and is not able to support all the economic and social programs it has in the past, and the economy bottoms out.
     In the meantime, Yeltsin has become a hopeless alcoholic and gravely ill when he tries to negotiate with the oligarchs for the country’s benefit.  He makes a “Faustian” bargain with them in which they will loan the government huge sums.  Of course, when the government is unable to pay back the loans, the oligarchs have a huge menu of government enterprises and assets they can pick up on the cheap.
     Enter an unknown but scheming small bureaucrat with a history of being in the KGB, who manages to get close to Yeltsin and become his heir apparent.  Vladimir Putin is astute and recognizes that he must bargain with the oligarchs, which he does.  They will be ignored for any lawbreaking if they will concentrate on their businesses and stay out of politics.  This goes well until Khodorkovsky begins to feel more and more passionate and outspoken about Russia becoming a democratic country.  
     This man, the Citizen K of the movie, is fascinating on a number of counts, which makes the crux of the documentary so powerful.  He came from modest circumstances, although his parents were engineers.  He was crafty and unabashed in his pursuit of wealth and reading the signs of opportunistic possibilities, but somewhere along the way, he maintained a fundamental belief in equity, honesty, and human rights.  A testament to his sincerity are the numerous people close to him unwilling to testify against him after his arrest to lighten their own sentences. That is, he is willing to sacrifice himself to what he believes in.
     Citizen K clearly stands as a lesson for people in western democratic countries today.  The forces and events across time can serve as critical points when we the people have to be aware and stand up to subtle or not so subtle threats to a democratic system of government.  This film is certainly a demonstration that those who opt for chaos (someone to “shake up” the government, “clear the swamp”) may be disillusioned and will pay the price, along with the rest of us, later.

Once again, documentarian Alex Gibney tells it like it is, and brings us along on an introspective journey that is highly relevant to politics across the world today.

Grade:  A                                                By Donna R. Copeland



Thursday, January 30, 2020

THE RHYTHM SECTION

Blake Lively     Jude Law     Sterling K. Brown

     
     Is there something called violence porn?  I got the idea while watching this movie; the script calls for one formulaic violent scene after another, with all the expected moves, a lot of tension, a little torture, and some thrills, then the climax.  This kind of scene is one repeated at least five times in the film, always with the star, Stephanie (Lively—though none too lively here, at least in the beginning), involved in hand-to-hand combat with men much stronger than she is.  
     Stephanie has PTSD after all members of her family died in a plane crash. She’s a mess and surviving in a brothel when a reporter comes calling, wanting to talk to her because he has information that the crash was a terrorist attack.  (It had been reported as mechanical failure.) She has vengeance on her mind, but…  And this is the worst part of the movie, showing how she reacts and the consequences.
     Soon, Stephanie begins to perk up, fueled by anger, and ends up in Scotland, looking for the journalist’s source.   He is actually already onto her and who she is, and tries everything he can to dissuade her from getting involved, because they’re dealing with an international terrorist group.  Iain Boyd (Jude Law) tests Stephanie’s will and strength mercilessly. When he feels she’s ready, she is sent on one assignment after another, always with the ultimate intent of identifying and taking out the perpetrator(s) of the crash.
     The film directed by Reed Morano (Mark Burnell, writer) lacks all the imagination and creativity of a Knives Out or The Gentlemen, just released.  The first part sags because Stephanie is portrayed so much as a loser and a klutz, you’re repelled.  That she is miraculously transformed so soon after to be an Amazon fighter is implausible.  [And of course my biggest complaint is that she is directed to scream (like “a woman”) during a perilous car chase.  When have you ever heard a male actor scream as he is careening through traffic?]  The rest of the story becomes tedious as one expects the same scenario over and over.
     The best segments are those in which Jude Law and Sterling K. Brown are involved. These two fine actors are able to transcend the script and capture your attention with their believability and power.  Unfortunately, Blake Lively at this point does not possess those levels of skills.  As much as the filmmakers intended to portray Stephanie as a “bad ass”, they and she are not able to convince us.  More positive in The Rhythm Section are the music by Steve Mazzaro (and Hans Zimmer had some involvement) and cinematography by Sean Bobbitt.  

You are likely going to want to skip The Rhythm Section.

Grade:  D+                                    By Donna R. Copeland


Thursday, January 23, 2020

THE GENTLEMEN

Matthew McConaughey    Charlie Hunnam    Michelle Dockery     Hugh Grant
Jeremy Strong     Colin Farrell     Henry Golding     Eddie Marsan


     It takes intelligence and wit to create a drama that successfully mixes satire with extreme violence a la Quentin Tarantino (Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Inglorious Bastards, and Pulp Fiction), and Guy Ritchie has done it here in giving us an entertaining spoof on the underworld of crime.  The characters must be colorful, are sometimes admirable, but do outrageous things and--most important—the script is key in smartly pulling it all together.  Ritchie, with co-writers Ivan Atkinson and Marn Davies, has woven together a complicated plot that fits together like a jigsaw puzzle.  It requires the viewer to pay attention and keep in mind intricate connections and multiple plots.
     The center of the action is legendary Mickey Pearson (McConaughey), who has established a multi-million dollar business in drugs, with the key element being that his operations are all top secret. His astute second, Ray (Hunnam), is entirely trustworthy and runs interference for him.  Mickey is devoted to his gorgeous wife Rosalind (Dockery), who has her own automobile business on the side.  All is humming along smoothly until word gets around that Mickey is ready to retire and pursue the good life.
     Enter sleazy Fletcher (Grant), a reporter who has been sent by his publisher (Big Dave) to take Mickey down by blackmailing him.  How he is trying to accomplish his assignment constitutes the major action of the story, which involves one of Mickey’s upper-class peers, Matthew (Strong); “Coach” (Farrell), a petty criminal trying to rehabilitate young bad boys; and numerous henchmen with brute strength on all sides.  This is a “guys’” movie in which all the main characters have brawn and lightning-quick reaction times, except for a few of the bad guys, who are shown to be quite puny.
     Casting is a strong asset, with cool McConaughey playing the good bad-guy, Hunnam being the canny one who must figure it all out, Grant being the smarty-pants who thinks he has it all figured out, and Farrell in a gem of a character role in which he is a little like the McConaughey figure—good and bad rolled up into one.  Michelle Dockery goes completely against her Downton Abbey persona to be a smart woman who has come up from the sticks with a Cockney accent.  Maybe I’ve been too swayed by HBO’s “Succession” drama, but Jeremy Strong—for all his good acting skills—just doesn’t seem quite believable as the evil Matthew.  Other supporting actors like Henry Golding and Eddie Marsan are excellent.
     Although the film is meant to be an entertaining spoof about different kinds of bad guys in the crime world, it does make some canny observations. One is that it goes against the common assumptions that upper class implies honesty and uprightness, while crime is more prevalent among the lower classes.  Ritchie mixes them all up in this drama.  Another point illustrated is that all drugs are not the same; some really do destroy lives and families, and other normally benign drugs can be contaminated.  Still another is that honor (and dishonor) can be found among all kinds of humans and their endeavors, and that even hideous violence can sometimes be supremely satisfying.
     BTW, I was especially gratified that there are no car chases in this action movie. Vehicles are used in various ways, and there are car accidents, but the generally obligatory car chase in most action movies is nowhere to be seen (satisfied “sigh!”).

This is an entertaining action movie with plenty of brawn, but one in which different wits are pitted against each other in a cat-and-mouse game.

Grade:  B                                    By Donna R. Copeland


Thursday, January 16, 2020

BAD BOYS FOR LIFE

Will Smith     Martin Lawrence     Vanessa Hudgins    Alexander Ludwig    
Charles Melton     Paola Nunez     Jacob Scipo


     At one point, a character says to another, “Now it’s time to be good men.”  In the meantime, though, Mike (Smith) and Marcus (Lawrence) are going to be bad boys—really bad boys—and take pride in it.  Forget about codes of conduct, following orders from superiors, or reasonable driving in a car chase (car chases are obligatory for any action movie) through heavy traffic. Such codes are for sissies and “quitters” to use Mike’s term.  I shudder when I see the fare that is put out there for young people to consume.  In the first five minutes, the filmmakers show us the some of the poorest sides of men (a hair-raising ride through crowded streets) and women (murder of a public official), and that’s only the beginning of the glorification of might and brawn winning out over fundamental values.  Religious beliefs, family considerations, and acknowledgement of limitations are scoffed at.  Oh, and all of this is supposed to be hilarious—and indeed is, for some people, apparently.
     As to the story, detectives Mike and Marcus have been partners in Miami for years, with the code “bad boys for life” (fist bump).  Marcus is having some reservations about continuing and is ready (eager) to embrace retirement.  But Mike is incredulous, seeing Marcus as simply giving up, and he frantically attempts to dissuade him.  After Mike is drastically injured, even the captain of the police force tries to persuade him to let go, and absolutely forbids him to investigate his own injury case.  But no; brain and all brawn is the theme of Bad Boys, and we have an idea that might will get its way in the end, and Mike will get what he wants.
     What follows, is the typical good guys against the bad guys battles between the Miami police force and the mysterious (to them) force against them. Significant figures in the law enforcement community are being killed—high crime, it turns out, with a very personal message.  We will learn about that in the last half-hour, a close-to-maudlin twist that ends up in an inferno in Mexico City ruins.
     The one thing good I can say about this film is the cinematography by Robrect Heyraert. His depiction of the street scenes, the shoot-outs, and the eerie beauty of the Mexico City ruins are all exquisite.  Likewise in artistry—which the script sorely lacks--Lorne Balfe’s music captures the haunting, raucous, and enigmatic moods of changing scenes in the movie.

How long, oh how long, must we endure films lauding the macho man at the expense of humanitarian values…and even technology?

Grade:  D                                    By Donna R. Copeland