Wednesday, October 21, 2020

LOS HERMANOS THE BROTHERS

 


     This is a most remarkable, captivating story exemplifying political impact on families when countries enter into fractious relations amounting to a cold war. Ilmar Gavilan and Aldo Lopez Gavilan were born in Cuba six years apart, after the U.S. had already placed an economic embargo on Cuba after the revolution there in 1959.  The boys’ parents were both musicians, and when Ilmar showed his talent on the violin, it was arranged for him to study in Russia.  He and his mother, a concert pianist, were there for a year, after which, Ilmar settled in New York to continue his studies.  Meanwhile, back in Havana, Aldo was following in his parents’ footsteps in becoming a pianist like his mother and a composer like his father, and he was able to study in England, but returned to Cuba to start a family.  Each Gavilan son progressed to international fame separately, almost never being able to play music together, until President Obama began to open doors between the two countries.

     The documentary guides us through the brothers’ lives, contrasting the major differences of their experiences as a function of the two nationalities.  Music is the incredible strain that unifies almost every aspect of this story.  Ilmar marries a Korean cellist; Aldo marries a Cuban conductor. Clearly, music—as well as being a tie between them—is the most important value of everyone involved.  

     For that reason, the reunion of the brothers in Havana when travel between the two countries becomes possible, is thrilling for them—and the same for us vicariously. Throughout the film, viewers get generous helpings of the music performed by the Gavilan brothers and their associates (Ilmar’s Harlem Quartet), family members’ concerts, and others, even with American violinist Joshua Bell.  

     The directors who put all of this together, Ken Schneider and Marcia Jarmel, should be applauded for their vision, their assembling of a skilled crew, and the ability to convey profound messages about the importance/influence of music and politics on humankind.  Part of the charm and fascination of the film—(as if the family isn’t enough!)—is the cinematography, eloquent and entertaining in its own right.  The list of cinematographers is long among both the U.S. and Cuban contributors, but the two main ones leading the pack (Roberto Chile from Cuba) and Dave Sperling (from the U.S.), are evidence of the artistic energies and collaborative richness that pervade the film.  Both in landscape and in musical performances, the cinematography awes, instructs, and inspires.

     Another element running through the film are the genuine emotions expressed within families and across cultures and musical genres.  If only politics would get the message!  Toward the end of the documentary we hear the disappointing voice of current President Trump increasing restrictions and sanctions against Cuba—just a fraction of the damage he is doing around the world, but aptly illustrative of what we have to lose if he remains President. 

 

A film for all to see who wish for a world united, freedom for families, and love and respect for the power of music.

 

Grade:  A                                    By Donna R. Copeland

REBECCA

 Lily James     Armie Hammer     Kristin Scott Thomas     Tom Goodman Hall     Sam Riley


     The film starts out to be the intriguing, guilty pleasure that the novel on which it was based was.  Daphne Du Maurier’s book was a hit from the beginning of its publication in 1938, described by a publisher as “everything the public could want”, and, even currently, it’s considered a “marvelously gothic tale with a good dose of atmospheric and psychological horror” (Critics for The Independent, “The 40 best books to read during lockdown”, 8/22/2020).  The book has never been out of print since its first publication.  

     This rendition in film (coming after Alfred Hitchcock’s Academy Award winning film in 1940 and various others less notable) has a talented cast, beautiful production, costumes, and music, and for most of it keeps the viewer liking this kind of drama engaged.  

     The captivating story is about a rather naïve, unnamed companion (Lily James) to a dowager, bumping into a wealthy widower, the famed Maxim de Winter (Hammer) by accident several times in Monte Carlo.  He is taken by her and pursues her on clandestine dates to the point of proposing marriage.  She’s very appealing both in her naïvete and her passion for adventure and knowledge.  He’s gallant and honorable, and after a couple of weeks proposes, after which they settle on his estate well known as Manderly, a property passed down in the family for 300 years.

     That’s when the mystery starts, as there is a ghost hanging over the mansion in the form of the former, now deceased, Madam de Winter perpetuated by the entire staff led by Mrs. Danvers (Thomas), the housekeeper.  Most people know the story well, and the film adheres very closely to Du Maurier’s novel.

     First, to the fine cast.  Lily James (Downton Abbey, Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again) is a gifted actress who is adept in her convincing characterizations, and is so appealing here in transforming the well-read but experience-deprived pretty blonde into an assertive, intelligent detective. As Maxim, Armie Hammer (Call Me By Your Name, The Social Network, J. Edgar) delivers his usual excellence in craft, playing a very different role as a wealthy gentleman.  Kristin Scott Thomas (The English Patient, Four Weddings and a Funeral, Gosford Park, Only God Forgives) is almost a legend in capturing diverse roles and coming across as a powerful figure.  She is truly intimidating here when she is wanting to come across as either formidable, helpful, or vindictive.  Actors like Sam Riley, Tom Goodman Hall, and Beatrice Lacey fully support these stars in their bringing us a well-known story.

     The place where I think the production declines in value is toward the end, when it seemed like the filmmakers were just eager to end the project in whatever way possible.  The biggest offense in this to me is when we see Madam de Winter lighting up a cigarette as she reflects on her transformation.  The tobacco company who helped fund the movie must have paid a fair amount to have this be a part of her reflection.  I don’t recall the character ever smoking throughout the movie.  Was that supposed to convey that she is sophisticated now? Give me a break.  This whole ending of the film seems tinny and out of character with the preceding drama, and the abrupt change in the ingénue into a sharp-minded sleuth and fighter turns out to be jarring.

 

Guilty pleasure probably best describes this production.  The pleasure mostly comes from cast performances and from the timelessness of the story, one to which so many of us are susceptible.

 

Grade:  C                                    By Donna R. Copeland


THE WITCHES

Anne Hathaway     Octavia Spencer     Chris Rock     Jahzir Bruno     Stanley Tucci


     When the witches are away, the mice will play.  This is a fun piece narrated by Chris Rock and starring him and two excellent actors, Octavia Spencer and Anne Hathaway, in a fantasy based on a Roald Dahl novel.  Kid-friendly, of course, but with suspense that is likely to be enjoyed by adults as well as children.  

     It starts out tragically, but Spencer’s warm presence as a grandma is soothing, and she has her work cut out for her with her grandson’s (Bruno) grief and, later, his dilemma.  To help him with his grief, Grandma (Spencer) brings home a pet mouse for her grandson, which does indeed spur him to move on to the next step.

     After the boy encounters a witch in the store, Grandma decides they need to go stay in a fancy hotel where the wealthy white people stay.  (This is on the premise that Witches only seek out minorities—e.g., the blacks—and the disadvantaged.)  Grandma knows this from losing her childhood friend in just such circumstances, and she informs her grandson about witches.  They are demons made to look like humans. They have no toes, no hands, no hair—and must compensate for this with gloves, wigs, high-heeled shoes, etc. When they go out in public, they look like regular society women.  

     By coincidence, the International Society for the Prevention of Cruelty of Children is having a convention at this very hotel.  Crossing of paths between this group (which is a front for the Grand High Witch played by Hathaway and her coven) and Grandma and her grandson forms most of a plot filled with nail-biting suspense, along with some horror and comedy.  Mice-phobic people might want to stay away—but should see—this escapade.

Special effects (Adrian Bennett, Fernando da Silva et al.) take center stage in showing what happens when magic appears to spice up the action in the story. Here it is used to engage the audience as much as the plot and the actors.  And it is so satisfying!

     Co-writer and director Robert Zemeckis, with the help of Alphonso Cuaron and Guillermo del Toro (Mexican filmmakers we all know and love), has assembled a cast and crew that elevate this film from a run-of-the-mill children’s movie to one that is capturing and entertaining, but has important messages related to acceptance of others, regardless of their appearance, the importance of family, and simply enjoying life, whatever happens.  


The film can be seen on HBO MAX beginning 10/22/20.

 

A film for the times in terms of its message and as a vehicle to escape momentarily the concerns of the day.

 

Grade:  A                                    By Donna R. Copeland



Thursday, October 15, 2020

WHITE NOISE

 

     The film written by Niall Johnson and directed by Geoffrey Sax is interesting, but a disappointment in that it highlights three publicly visible figures of the alt-right in America without defining exactly what the alt-right is supposed to mean.  The three figures are all highly individualistic—even critical of one another—and about the only thing that unites them is their white supremacy beliefs and support of Donald Trump.  Are the filmmakers implying that alt-right is a disparate group that cannot be defined in any uniform belief?  

     The two things that unite the three lead characters is their privileged status in America (one in Canada) and their advocacy of white supremacy (although one is compromised enough about this belief that a slightly colored mate is fine) and hatred of Islam.  One complains about suppression of males after the advent of the feminist movement, but this fades as time goes by, and he is shown to be happily married to an Iranian woman.  Although the three attach themselves to the “alt-right” movement for a time, it becomes clear that each is really out for him-herself.

     The purpose of White Noise is unclear to me; we’re shown intermittent scenes of each of them pursuing their individual goals, but there is not really anything—other than whiteness values—that unifies their belief systems.  Perhaps—as shown in the title—this is the purpose, to show how strong the wish for our country to be “white” (although there really is no such thing) supersedes so many other considerations.

     I was hoping for a production that would help define and delineate the alt-right as a group and how it became effective in electing Donald Trump President of the United States.  Beyond that, the filmmakers should maybe have speculated what the potential is for the alt-right to influence the next election of the President in 2020.

 

An interesting picture of some figures in the alt-right who support Donald Trump as President, but the execution is very poor.

 

Grade:  F                                    By Donna R. Copeland

TIME

 

     A young married couple desperate to make it and get ahead, go against everything they’ve been taught, and try robbing a bank.   As the teller of the story says, “Desperate people do desperate things.”  Not being experienced criminals, the two involved in the robbery are apprehended, of course. Sybil Richardson plea-bargains and gets 12 years and, by the way, she is three months pregnant with boys. Robert gets 60 years.  This is the story primarily about Sybil bringing up their six boys on her own, maintaining a strong connection with Robert, and using family and friends as well as her own considerable resources to survive.  She is relentless throughout in her efforts to get Robert released early, despite the restrictions of his sentence:  No parole, probation, or suspension of sentence.

     Always with an eye for the future, Sybil recorded videos to show her husband of the family’s daily life when/if he gets out of prison.  These videos and additional photography by Nisa East, Zac Manuel, and Justin Zweifach, along with Sybil’s input are used by Director Garrett Bradley to comprise the movie.  The photography is iffy at times, such as the amateur videos of family life.  The camera jumps radically in some scenes, making it hard to see what is going on.  But the film is shot in black and white, which lends authentication to the basic story, and the photography provided by the professionals is extra fine.  Music (Edwin Montgomery, Jamieson Shaw) is another plus, especially the piano in the background (Emahoa Tsegue Maryan Guebrou).

     Another problem with the film is the editing (Gabriel Rhodes), which is choppy and fails to keep the viewer oriented.  We see people whom we haven’t been introduced to or it’s not clear which child is in the camera (not being chronological, we can’t keep track of who is who).  This is particularly bothersome when we see an older son, but have no idea whether it is Remington, Justice, or Freedom.  The film notes that Sybil was rearing six sons, but I could only identify four; if Laurence and Maklik on the IMDB list of performers were in the film, I missed them.

     Many questions arise about details during the film.  It was only an hour and 21 minutes, so the filmmakers could have included details such as how the robbery was conceived, what were the discussions about it, and the specific plan of actually doing it.  Did the protagonists have any criminal records? Who took care of the children while Sibyl was incarcerated?  We assume it is the maternal grandmother, but we see no scenes of that period of time.  A considerable part of the film shows Sibyl lecturing, but we’re not told what groups she is talking to.  She seems to have landed a job as a car saleswoman, but no details are given about when/how she got the job and how long she had it.

     This is an instructive film for American citizens to see, and much of it is well done.  Sybil Richardson and her family are all attractive and well spoken (not the stereotypes of incarcerated people), and it’s clear they are “well brought up”; when she talks on the phone trying to get information from the justice system, Sibyl is inevitably patient, polite, and tactful, even when she is exasperated with its seeming apathy.  The family as a whole—including the maternal grandmother—are well portrayed and come through in a good light, as well they should.

     The positive aspects of Time (an apt title) make this a film I think every American should see, in its highlighting the need for judicial reform, how the system as it stands is completely unfair to some, and the unnecessary destructive effects on whole families that can result when sentences are too harsh.  Despite its flaws, the nobility of the Richardson family and how they have coped are an inspiration. 

     Films like this should be shown in schools and detention facilities so that young people can see how a foolish mistake when you are young can have devastating consequences, and how important it is not to get caught in that trap.  Granted, that people of color are much more vulnerable than whites are to this dilemma.

 

This movie cries out for judicial system reform.  Overuse of incarceration is a problem for our country, and this film literally brings home the harmful effects of it on families, as well as what it takes to deal with it.

 

Grade:  B-                                    By Donna R. Copeland

MARTIN EDEN

Luca Marinelli     Jessica Cressy     Vincenzo Nemolato     Marco Leonardi     Carlo Cecchi


     A period drama (early 20thCentury) that may not appeal to viewers of today. Although it might.  In the film, young Martin Eden (Marinelli) goes through struggles in his young and later adult years that involve wrestling with individualism vs. socialism—a contentious subject that is prominent in current news, with the Republican administration claiming (unfairly) that the Democrats are planning to usher in socialism.  Republican adherents are pulling out their guns (unnecessarily) against peaceful protesters of clearly obvious injustices.

     The film depicts contentious arguments for and against unions, conflicts between the wealthy and the poor, and the ultimate value in education.  Maybe the story is not so far afield from today.

     Martin is a man from a poorer background who has found the life of a sailor appealing to his sense of adventure and interest in the world.  One day by the seashore he finds an older man abusing a younger man and intervenes, knocking the older man down.  It turns out that the young man—Nino (Nemolato)—is from a wealthy family, who shows him gratitude by inviting him to stay for lunch, where each member of the family expresses appreciation.  On this occasion, Martin is introduced to Nino’s sister Elena (Cressy), whereupon he falls in love at first sight.  

     The story then follows their relationship, with her encouragement of him in educational pursuits, and his idolization of her and her status.  He wants to “come up” to her level in society and be worthy of her.  Education is an unpredictable mistress, however, and as Martin becomes more informed, he is pulled into a quandary more than once.

     Perhaps stemming from his background, but also simply a function of his personality, he is hotheaded and often gets into scuffles.  Someone he meets who encourages this—at least in an intellectual sense—is Russ Brissenden (Cecchi), a hard-core socialist.  They become close friends, and Russ gives him a manuscript that he wrote in which he drew upon Martin’s work.

     Martin Eden (script by Mauricio Braucci) is based upon a Jack London novel in which he claims to be critical of a Nietzschean individualistic point of view, but admits that most people regarded the novel as defending Nietzsche’s view against socialism.  The waters are muddy, as perhaps they are today in American politics.

     The Martin Eden character is clearly a cynic, which might not appeal to the general audience.  The cast is strong (Luca Marinelli especially), but the writer and director (Pietro Marcello) were not successful in making succinct, clear statements about the plot and the characters.  

 

This film will appeal primarily to those interested in period dramas with emphases on political thinking.

 

Grade:  C+                                    By Donna R. Copeland 



DAVID BYRNE'S AMERICAN UTOPIA

 


     This is a (truly) feel-good musical.  It’s David Byrne’s way of playing a small part in bringing together a country fractured by politics, the pandemic, and social unrest.  The production is beautifully done, blending together meaningful lyrics, interesting music with ear-catching sound effects, choreography by Annie-B Parson that resembles a kaleidoscope, sophisticated production design by Alex Timbers and a rhapsodic spirit.  It’s so creative throughout, the time flashes by as you try to soak in all the elements.  

     All this is with the backdrop of muted colors—mostly shades of gray—and everyone barefoot.  Aptly, it shows children’s drawings first (going back to our roots), then David Byrne holds up one of those brain models you’ve probably only seen in college classes.  He points out the part that survives even when it is disconnected from the other parts, and highlights those parts that provide clarity or confusion, parts that process sound, and those related to hallucinations.  He observes that babies’ brains have millions of connections, but as we grow, only those that are meaningful to our experience remain, that place where the world makes sense. He will come back to referencing the ethos of America and our ways of changing and making sense of life as the show goes on.

     In his songs, David Byrne attends to the universal experiences of loneliness, awkwardness, feelings of not belonging, love for people, aspirations, senselessness, displacement, violence, and much more.  He has songs about the experience of soaring along and then suddenly wondering, “How did I get here?”  And afterwards, realizations that “it’s the same as it ever was.”  So…what are we to do? His answer has to do with valuing other people, dancing, being sensitive to what is around us, and being alert to possible dangers.  

     There is a topical, very moving number toward the end—Janelle Monae’s “Hell You Talmabout”, in which the singers repeat the names of blacks Emmet Till (1955), Eric Garner (2014) and others more recently killed at the hands of the police. But many oldie favorites of Byrne’s songs are sprinkled throughout.

     American Utopia is a beautiful collaboration between Spike Lee and David Byrne in converting Byrne’s Broadway stage show (which had to stop performing live when the pandemic hit) into a movie whose songs—some old, some new—continue to resound in your brain long after the ending.  The same happens with the many different moods brought up by the production.

 

A musical rare in its encompassing so many elements of human existence, particularly in these troubling times, ultimately leading to a sense of healing and peace.

 

Grade:  A                                    By Donna R. Copeland

Tuesday, October 13, 2020

TOTALLY UNDER CONTROL


The title is taken from President Trump who repeatedly claimed that the COVID pandemic was totally under control during January, February, and March of this year; when, in fact, it was raging to the point that so far over 200,000 U.S. citizens have died from it and over 30 million jobs have been lost.  Alex Gibney, famed documentarian (Scientology and the Prison of Belief; The Story of Wikileaks; Enron:  The Smartest Guys in the Room; The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer; Casino Jack and the United States of Money; Taxi to the Dark Side; Citizen K) with his co-directors Ophelia  Harutyunyan and Suzanne Hillinger, gives a detailed account of an important issue; in this case, the COVID pandemic in the United States this year, and how President Trump and his administration have handled it. It’s a very sad story that may usher in a period when our status in the world is different from any the United States has ever known.

     We’re introduced to the many government officials and scientists trying their best, along with those putting in stumbling blocks every step of the way. Most of what comes through is that the people with experience in infectious disease and public health are continually undermined by those with no experience in either area and, sometimes sincerely and sometimes disingenuously, negate what is recommended.  

     There are a multitude of instances put forth about events during the pandemic, which make it complicated, but the central theme is one pitting concern about public health against economic interests and the power of the Presidency to orchestrate policy.  Overall, it shows how the absence of good leadership undermined all the efforts made to combat the pandemic, from denying the seriousness of the illness to the states being put into a competition with one another—and with the Federal government(!)—to secure health supplies.

     It’s a sad story in many ways, in that a comprehensive plan for what to do to prepare for a pandemic was begun under President Bush and was passed on through the years to subsequent administrations.  President Obama used it to ward off the H1N1 flu outbreak, and his administration passed on to the Trump administration a warning about the possibility of a pandemic and gave Trump the 69-page playbook about what to do if one hit.  Unfortunately, the plan was chucked, and sometime later the Global Health Security, considered an elite biodefense team within the Nationall Security Council, was disbanded.

     The filmmakers have done an excellent job in recruiting scientists, journalists, and government officials here and abroad, to provide a detailed summary of how the pandemic has been managed in the U.S.  What happened here in just the first half of 2020 is in sharp contrast with South Korea, a country where their first case of COVID19 occurred at the same time as ours.  But the South Korean politicians put their scientists in charge of managing the pandemic, emphasizing the importance of comprehensive testing and tracking, isolation measures, and amassing a store of medical equipment that has met their needs.  Consequently, they have not had to shut down societal organizations, and their economy has prospered.

     Totally Under Control lends comprehensive, authoritative, and accurate information in its account of what happened when a pandemic hit one of the most powerful countries in the world.  It behooves every U.S. citizen to watch it and use it as a guide in evaluating our government leaders—perhaps especially in making decisions before the upcoming national election.

 

Alex Gibney, master documentarian, nails it again in this account of why the U.S. has been the worst hit of all the nations confronting the COVID pandemic.

 

Grade:  A                                    By Donna R. Copeland 




Thursday, October 8, 2020

THE WAR WITH GRANDPA

Robert De Niro     Uma Thurman     Rob Riggle     Oakes Fegley     Christopher Walken     Cheech Marin

 


     More than being funny, the movie’s to be admired more for the “arms” grandpa and grandson use to wage their war.  Peter (Fegley) is incensed when his mother (Thurman) decides that it’s too risky for her father to remain in his own home, and forces him to move in with her family.  For this to happen, Grandpa (De Niro) is going into Peter’s room, and he will be put up in the attic. After the boy pulls a few tricks on his grandfather to protest, Grandpa agrees they are at war, so based on his own experience in military service, he draws up rules of engagement that he and Peter agree to abide by.

     That’s when the “fun” begins as each side pulls in buddies who egg each of them on. Part of the pact is that it stays secret; no one in the family is to know about it—war secrets in other words. Grandpa has in mind that this will be an educational lesson for Peter, and is unaware of his own competitive streak—even toward a kid.

     Warfare involves what seemed to me to be fairly sophisticated electronics, mechanical knowledge (Grandpa is a former home builder), and, to them, hilarious booby traps involving a drone, manipulation of music LPs, remote control cars, rearranging snacks, spiking coffee, a snake, and on and on.  Sometimes by accident, the antics miss their target and affect other people.  But since Peter and his Grandpa haven’t revealed their war, no one knows they’re behind the tricks missing their mark.  In one satisfying sequence, the school bully who is consistently commandeering Peter’s backpack gets a trick blow-up in his face.

     Tim Hill of SpongeBob SquarePants fame directs this film written by Tom J. Astle and Matt Ember, based on a book of the same title by Robert Kimmel Smith.  It succeeds but, as I say, more for the fascination of the warfare tools than for comedy; unless you’re one of those people who invariably laughs at pratfalls, and if so, you will find comedy here.

     The film is not without some heartfelt scenes of family love, friendship, and honor. These are well done and are not too treacly, and often show the character learning something from experience.  

     Oakes Fegley (Wonderland, Pete’s Dragon) again proves his acting skills such that he was able to hold his own with the proven versatile skills of Robert De Niro.  The two together have a wonderful dynamic reflecting an emotional bond.  Uma Thurman chews up a role like this as easily as a practiced tennis shot.  She is convincing as a daughter, wife, and mother always steering a family sometimes going awry.  Not her fault but a flaw in the writing was one of the last scenes showing her tackling a teenager.  After her husband’s (Rob Riggle) multiple deferential statements about her, this was overkill.  

     I imagine this film will delight many families who like this kind of set-up and humor. I find it more in the realm of the kind of entertainment that appeals to many Americans more than more substantive fare.  For those liking movies like Meet the Parents, this will be a hit.

 

A war unlike any you’ve seen before.

 

Grade:  C+                                    By Donna R. Copeland



Thursday, October 1, 2020

EPICENTRO

Oona Chaplin

     

    In this documentary, writer/director/cinematographer/narrator Hubert Sauper aims to represent his views about reality as depicted in photography, storytelling in voice and song, cartoons, and the cinema itself, which he calls “the machine of dreams.” He starts out by showing the USS Maine docked in a Havana harbor in 1858 and by various accounts got blown up. History is not clear as to what actually happened, but from Sauer’s point of view, it was an instance of the U.S. posing as liberators of a country in order to occupy and control it. The U.S. claimed that it was exploded by the Spanish—which ignited the Spanish-American War—but subsequent investigations have cast doubt on that explanation.  Nevertheless, Sauer has done additional research and sticks with his view.

     Interestingly, in this film, Sauper focuses on Cuban children to tell much of the story of Cuba by their reciting what they’ve learned and singing the Cuban national songs.  As he does this, he follows them with his camera and we get something of a documentary of daily life in Cuba, reasons for their hostility toward the U.S., and a sense of their zest for life and desire to be free.  (Jabs at President Trump’s immigration policies are made several times and in various ways, e.g., referring to the U.S. placement of the flag on the moon and subsequent pictures of its barrenness, there’s a call “to make the moon great again.”)  So humor is inserted now and then.

     Many interviews are conducted on the street as Sauer follows the children around, showing Cubans’ ideas about travel, American vs. Cuban culture, and—in my view—conflicted attitudes about the U.S.  They love Disney and the movie stars, but their resentment centers on capitalism and how much uncaring it can produce.  They’re certainly not wrong about that.

     Sauper exploits in a good way the participation of Oona Chaplin in the film.  She is the daughter of Geraldine Chaplin, the granddaughter of Charlie Chaplin (whose film clips are shown at the end), and great granddaughter of Eugene O’Neill.  She interacts with the children in the film, even in a skit in which a mother and daughter are literally fighting one another.  This is rewarding partly because the encounter is so realistic and partly because the child is an aspiring actress who gets a window into the fantasy-reality connection.

 

This is an unusual documentary that depicts an artistic account of the US/Cuba history, with operatic background music, Cuban songs, and what appears to be everyday life in Cuba today.

 

Grade:  B+                                    By Donna R. Copeland



 

A RAINY DAY IN NEW YORK

Timothee Chalamet     Elle Fanning     Liev Schreiber     Jude Law     Diego Luna

Selena Gomez     Rebecca Hall     Cherry Jones

     Completely fanciful.  Woody Allen’s latest film comes straight from his brain—probably on a rainy day in New York.  In the beginning, the dialog, the music, Chalamet’s character—everything is so enigmatic of the creator that it’s hard to put Woody out of the story.  And he still stays for much of the story, but as it gets more and more madcap, he recedes a little bit.

     Two upstate New York college students are off to New York City for her, a budding journalist, to interview a well-known filmmaker about his latest film for the college newspaper.  She is definitely star-struck, and he is simply excited about going back to his hometown to revisit places like MOMA, the Carlton, Restaurant Daniel, and his favorite piano bars.  Allen seems well aware of males in such situations to make her trip his trip.  They head out, happily in love; he greeting the rainy weather as a welcome friend and romantic opportunity.  (One of the things I found hilarious about the movie is the constant rain and characters’ different reactions to it.)

     The differences in their expectations make up the heart of the movie.  Very soon after they arrive, Ashleigh (Fanning) and Gatsby (intended reference), played by Chalamet, are on very different arcs of experience.  As evidence(?) of her southwestern U.S. routes, she is carried along by people she’s impressed with, with little will of her own.  He, being the cosmopolitan New Yorker, is constantly thrown to his own devices, which is de rigueur for him, and he orchestrates his own way, keeping a well balanced eye on who he is.  She loses herself completely in situations; he is constantly aware of who he is wherever he is, even when new experiences come his way.

     Ashleigh confronts a famous film director’s (Schreiber) existential crisis, his writer’s (Law) dealing with marital infidelity, and a film idol’s (Luna) disingenuous flirtation.  Actually, they’re all smitten with Ashleigh—I suppose, to make a point in that it’s almost a cliché now.  She embodies that wish that they all have of a young, beautiful woman who’s always sympathetic and adoring.

     On the other hand, Gatsby deals with not being adored all the time, having to interact with an ex-girlfriend’s little sister (Gomez) who is clearly not impressed with him and apprises him of her sister’s low ratings of him.  When he ends up having to attend his mother’s (marvelous Jones, as you’ve never seen her) hated society bash and he has a real conversation with her, the film gets down to the bottom line of what I think it’s about—which is, biases that separate people on trivial grounds and the importance of going beyond the apparent and digging deeper into situations and people.

     Woody Allen is one of our most gifted filmmakers who is able to attract the best actors, keep his Oscar-winning cinematographer Vittorio Storaro (too many awards to name) on board, and provide music that captures every moment of every scene.  Artistry abounds in every component of his films.  Yet, something has happened that A Rainy Day in New York is met with only mediocre ratings by critics.

     Maybe it’s too much Woody?  His genes are in the story from start to finish, to be sure, and this starts to feel like a tired joke.  And much of the action recalls too many of his previous works.       This is all true.  Beyond that, my personal reaction was against his casting a woman from Arizona as stereotypically naïve/uninformed/rather stupid. Numerous jokes about non-New York people were made as if anyone outside New York City is naïve at best and uneducated and uncouth at worst—all reflecting the old joke that New Yorkers don’t recognize anything beyond its borders.   

 

Ya have to be a Woody Allen fan to enjoy this movie; otherwise, you may be nonplussed unimpressed, or even offended.

 

Grade:  C+                                    By Donna R. Copeland


ON THE ROCKS

Bill Murray     Rashida Jones     Marlon Wayans     Jenny Slate


     On the Rocks succeeds like Sofia Coppola’s films usually do; they are well composed with fine actors, music, and cinematography.  They are also low-key, although excitement does build here with the detective elements and fine locations spicing things up.  Even though it is somewhat predictable, it is enjoyable and would make a fine date movie.

     Laura (Jones) is a writer and young housewife whose young children occupy a good deal of her time.  Her husband Dean (Wayans) is often away from home, trying to build up a new company that has a lot of promise.  They seem very happy together, but when a couple of odd things happen, Laura confides in her father (Murray), a debonair art dealer who seems to engage every woman he meets in whatever circumstance—even ordering a meal at a restaurant.  Not only that, he is a world traveler and has made contacts everywhere he goes, from concierges to wealthy prospective and past clients.  He’s a lesson in making sure one keeps track of and remembers everyone crossing his path. Even when he is stopped by a traffic policeman in his red sports car, this information comes in handy.

     When Laura talks to her father about the “odd things” happening, in his response, as well as his philosophy about men and life, we see a tinge of self-projection in his perceptions, and that becomes part of the mystery of the film. As he drags his daughter around to all kinds of luxurious settings, we’re like Laura in wondering where reality ends and fantasy begins.  But whereas we can enjoy the experiences, she is usually on edge and in doubt.

     Rashida Jones portrays the young woman very well; indicating the sense of responsibility that Laura grew up attaining, but not having fully developed a sense of self-worth and confidence that would tide her over in writing blocks and questions of trust.  Murray plays his role like the pro he is with the ability to charm/wheedle/reason his way through any situation while still listening attentively to another point of view. Marlon Wayans does an excellent job in portraying a husband mostly oblivious to the emotional turmoil around him, but clearly having a zest for life.  His good looks and affability feed into the possibility that he has other things on the side.

     I loved the insertion (for comedic relief, I guess) of the Jenny Slate character, Vanessa.  She serves essentially as a stand-up comedian capturing Laura in the line to take their kids into school, pressure-talking about her own interests without regard to anyone else, even her own children, who seem to be an after-thought.  I figure that’s an experience everyone will recognize.

     Additional aspects of the film that are impressive include the musical score by Phoenix, always capturing the mood, and the cinematography by Philippe Le Sourd. Some of Le Sourd’s urban images—especially at night—reflect thrilling creativity.  Also, the mixing up of the races within a family was refreshing to see.

 

An enjoyable escapist film for ones isolated during these trying times.

 

Grade:  C+                                    By Donna R. Copeland 



KINGDOM OF SILENCE

 


     On the two-year anniversary of the death of the Saudi Arabian and Washington Post journalist, Jamal Khashoggie, a documentary by Rick Rowley, written by Lawrence Wright, will be appearing on Showtime TV on October 2, 2020.  It’s an overview of the events leading up to Khashoggie’s disappearance, highlighting the long-term relationship (from the 1950’s to now) between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia.

     When Chevron began drilling for oil in Saudi Arabia up to the present day, Saudi Arabia has been considered a valuable ally of the U.S., primarily because of business interests.  When the U.S. was trying to drive out the Russians in Afghanistan, the Saudis became allies in war.  Up through all seven Presidents since, the U.S. has been a Saudi supporter, including giving military aid when the Saudis mercilessly attacked Yemen.  When it became clear that it was Saudi Arabians who were responsible for the 9-1-1 attacks on New York City, Saudi royalty were able to remain clear of any involvement, and the alliance between the two countries has continued.  

     Jamal Khashoggie’s role during these times? A native of Saudi Arabia, he was someone who always loved his country, but was outspoken in his support of democratic principles and young people’s right to protest in countries where democracy was being threatened.  Initially, he thought that Osama Bin Laden held to the same beliefs, and made special effort to meet and get to know Bin Laden when he was in Afghanistan. However, when Bin Laden’s role in 9-1-1 became clear, Khashoggie was disillusioned and broke away from him, later on supporting the U.S. war in Iraq.  

     Following that came the Arab Spring when major protests broke out in Egypt, and it seemed that some significant progress was being made against authoritarian governments in the region, but it was not meant to be.  With the support of Saudi Arabia, which viewed U.S. support of the protests against Mubarak with disdain, the democratically elected government of Egypt was ousted by a military coup.

     Once again, Khashoggie had supported a movement toward democracy, but was on the wrong side as far as his home country was concerned.  He seemed not to be aware of the danger he was in, and proceeded to go on as before, even planning to marry a woman he’d become involved with.  As we know from the news at the time, it was presumed that Khashoggie was killed at the Saudi Embassy in Instanbul.  Although King Mohammed Bin Salman denies any knowledge of what happened to Khashoggie, he is suspected of being involved, and has maintained a “Kingdom of Silence.”

     As a backdrop to Khashoggie’s story, Kingdom of Silence illustrates how America’s interest in oil takes precedence over the principles of democracy which we’re supposed to value, principles on which our country was founded.  Our support of a totalitarian government like Saudi Arabia repeats our history of siding with monarchies such as in Egypt, Iran, and numerous other countries, in order to protect U.S. business interests. The documentary explicitly questions these contradictions.

     Written by Pulitzer Prize-winning Lawrence Wright, the film is cogent in its thesis of questioning King Mohammed Bin Salman’s actions and U.S. continued support of him.

 

An exploration into the disappearance of Jamal Khashoggie and Saudi Arabia’s suspected role in his demise.

 

Grade:  B                    By Donna R. Copeland

Wednesday, September 30, 2020

THE GLORIAS

Alicia Vikander    Julianne Moore    Timothy Hutton    Lulu Wilson    Ryan Kiera Armstrong

Janelle Monae     Bette Midler     Lorraine Tousaint


     “You will do what you want to do with your life.”  Words so aptly spoken to Gloria Steinem by a wise doctor getting a solemn promise from her.  This film of Gloria Steinem’s life—drawn from her memoir, My Life on the Road--constitutes one of the more artistic renditions of a famous person’s life.  Julie Taymor, writer/director/producer, is as interested in portraying the essence of the woman as she is in presenting factual information.  Toward that end, she flips back and forth in time, showing Gloria as a younger child, an older child, a young woman, and a fully developed activist for human rights.  During the film, these different “Glorias” talk to one another, illustrating how we carry our different ages and memories along with us throughout our life span.  So the film moves back and forth in time—which usually annoys me—but the way it is shown here makes sense.

     Taymor shows Gloria growing up in a family of modest means, the child adoring her fantasy-loving father (Timothy Hutton), who follows his own dreams, leaving her and her older sister—but primarily Gloria—to assume responsibility for a mentally disturbed mother.  This woman, despite her weaknesses, saw to it that her daughter was able to attend the renowned Smith College from where she graduated with honors.

     The film shows the young woman’s encounters as she makes her way in journalism—sometimes having to take time out for supporting herself by dancing—but showing her ability to withstand easy, compromising paths while being attuned to the important issues of the day (e.g., racism, labor unions, reproductive rights), and demonstrating her capacity for empathy and nurturance.  

At a time when women were discouraged from speaking their minds, Gloria asserted herself, and despite an almost debilitating fear of speaking in public, managed to overcome it to advocate for principles she felt strongly about. Although she is known primarily for her work in women’s interests, she also championed causes for blacks, farm workers, and Native Americans.  

     Taymor has fun with filmmaking when about half-way through the story, she inserts a sequence of pure fantasy, visualizing what she would like to see happen to a chauvinist interviewer who asks Gloria inappropriate questions.  (We see him spun out into space in a red cloudburst.)

     But on a more serious note, the film is timely in its release just after the death of Supreme Court Judge Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who had to endure discrimination at Harvard University when she was attending as a woman.  When Harvard invited Gloria to speak there years later, she was able to scold them in a way that actually won points for her, despite her chiding the professors for claiming that rape was a very small assault and for their course list omitting any reference to women.

     The four extremely effective actors (the four Glorias, Lulu Wilson, Ryan Kiera Armstrong, Alicia Vikander, and Julianne Moore) are superb, and helped along majorly by Lorraine Tousaint’s Flo Kennedy, Janelle Monae’s Dorothy Pitman Hughes, Timothy Hutton’s Leo Steinem, and Bette Midler’s Bella Abzug.

            I found The Glorias to be maximally entertaining as well as informative and inspiring in its depiction of the “notorious” Gloria Steinem. THE GLORIAS is available for purchase on Digital and Streaming exclusively on Prime Video starting September 30th


Walk on the wild side with an endearing “rabble rouser” as you see her fight for human rights.

 

Grade:  A                                    By Donna R. Copeland

 





Thursday, September 24, 2020

THE TRIAL OF THE CHICAGO 7

Eddie Redmayne     Sacha Baron Cohen    Jeremy Strong    Yahha Abdul Mateen II     Mark Rylance

Joseph Gordon-Levitt     Frank Langella     Michael Keaton     John Carroll Lynch     Ben Shenkman     Alex Sharp

     With a stunning cast of actors, Aaron Sorkin (probably best known for The Social Network, The West Wing and Steve Jobs) has written and directed what is likely to be one of the most important films of this year.  It’s been a long time since the 1960’s, but anyone alive then will vividly recall the turmoil surrounding America’s involvement in the Viet Nam War and the heated, controversial trial of the protesters after the Democratic Convention in Chicago.  Sorkin vividly describes who were the major players in that drama, the events leading up to the trial, and a detailed description of the trial in 1969 that lasted for 151 days.

     The Government was at a disadvantage in bringing the case against the defendants. 1)  because it used the charge of conspiracy when the defendants had not made plans together; 2) one of the defendants was not acquainted with the others and had only been in the city four hours, 3) the judge who led the trial did so poorly he was later considered unqualified, and, finally, 4) politics got mixed in when Richard Nixon was elected President. Whereas the previous administration under Lyndon Johnson had concluded that the Chicago police actually incited the riot at the Convention, rather than the defendants, Nixon’s Attorney General, John Mitchell, was determined to find the protesters guilty.

      During the film, we are shown revealing defense meetings, the trial, and clips of the protests, all of which make for exciting drama.  It should be said that some of the defendants (Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin particularly) were colorful in their own right and were gleeful in their irreverence and playfulness with the authorities.  But others were respectful, like defense counsel William Kuntsler and defendant Tom Hayden, but who, at times, dropped decorum and stood firmly in their beliefs.  

     Along with the writing and direction, the cast comes through superbly in portraying their characters.  Eddie Redmayne as Tom Hayden repeats his past fine performances in depicting someone knowledgeable in the law, impulsive at times when his humanitarian buttons are pushed, but usually maintaining his composure.  Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin, portrayed by Sacha Baron Cohen and Jeremy Strong, respectively, are a hoot, just as the real men were; so shocking you get surprised at their intelligence. I completely forgot the actors during their performances, which is saying a lot, since each is so prominent in very different current and recent roles. 

     It was great fun to see Frank Langella, long-time nominee with few wins, play the disingenuous judge for whom the whole proceedings were overwhelming.  I think he captured his role just right, and hope he is nominated for an overdue award.  Joseph Gordon-Levitt is also one perfectly cast for his role as the lead prosecutor who is young enough to have maintained the strong principles he acquired from law school, but well brought up in American values and social skills. He maintains a perfect balance between knowing what will affect his career while still adhering to his basic ethics.  

     Michael Keaton is another actor who always comes through with just what is needed. And in this case, in portraying Ramsey Clark (Johnson’s attorney general), he shows a man without many pretensions but having basic human values about the difference between right and wrong.  He will take personal risks to see that justice is done.

     There are a dizzying number of characters thrown at the viewer right in the beginning, which requires good concentration.  Then, as the drama unfolds, you get caught up in it, both with your brain and your emotions.  It is an exceptional rendering of history that is reflective of real events as we experience them.  This is an informative as well as engrossing story to watch.  In light of today’s politics, it may be positive or sobering—we’ll see.  The film can be seen on Netflix.

 

Dip into a taste of history that can be seen as hyper-relevant today in this brief look back.

Grade:  A                                    By Donna R. Copeland



KAJILLIONAIRE

Debra Winger     Richard Jenkins     Evan Rachel Wood     Gina Rodriguez


     This is another one of Miranda July’s quirky movies (Me and You and Everyone we Know) in which grifter parents bring up their daughter to scam with the best of them. After taking acrobatic leaps and ducks to avoid the cameras outside a post office, Old Dolio (Wood) goes in, opens a mailbox, and after making sure no one inside can see her, she reaches in and steals an envelope from the box next door, being very careful not to drop it as she slides it into her own slot.  She then rejoins her parents waiting outside, and they explore their loot.

     The parents are Theresa (Winger) and Robert (Jenkins) who are clearly surviving on whatever they can scam.  We accompany them in their nondescript clothes as they dream up more jobs, carefully avoiding their landlord who wants the rent checks.  They’re getting into the big time when Old Dolio comes up with a plan to use a prize (a trip to New York City) and when they return, make a claim on a lost bag, which mysteriously disappears.  

     Complexity is introduced during the flight home when the parents get acquainted with a fellow passenger, Melanie (Rodriguez), who is intrigued by their proposal to involve her in the bag scheme and split the winnings.  She is so opposite her age peer Old Dolio, in that she’s an attractive Puerto Rican who dresses sexily and is able to engage anyone in conversation.  They don’t seem to be taking to one another, with Old Dolio criticizing Melanie’s way of dressing, and though less judgmental, Melanie sees her counterpart as a bit odd.  

     The most interesting aspect of these characters is the mix in values.  Although they all have tolerance for scamming, they each have their limits, which are different one from the other.  How they react in the face of the death of one of their subjects starkly differs.  One is able to gently help in the dying process, one draws a line about how much they will scam, and another has guilt feelings afterwards, which need attending to.

      In the process of all this, Old Dolio starts having feelings about how she has been brought up after she attends a required class in the stead of an offender for twenty bucks.  Watching a video about motherhood, she realizes how differently she has been brought up, compared to almost everyone else.  

      The story then takes a sharp turn, with different alliances and twists in plot. 

     Miranda July seems to put her characters in a glass, so to speak, and shakes it up to see how they’ll turn out, and they never seem to end up as we expect. But sometimes, as in some of the characters in this movie, they ultimately bear out their stories of introduction.  Others shift and make changes to adapt to new situations.  

     Kajillionaire is a strange title for a group of low scammers; perhaps the dream of making millions is the key.  And although surviving on low stakes is a theme of the movie, it’s more about connections among people from different backgrounds searching for substance.

 

Quirkiness is a stamp of Miranda July’s movies, which are replete with enchanting characters.

 

Grade:  C+                                    By Donna R. Copeland