Tuesday, December 29, 2020

HERSELF

Clare Dunne     Molly McCann     Ruby Rose O’Hara     Harriet Walter     Ian Lloyd Anderson

 


     Herself.  An intriguing title for a film.  After I watched it, I thought about an improvement on the title might have been Her Self, for Sandra (in a winning performance by Dunne) finds her self in the events that will transpire. The film absolutely captures the figure of a woman literally beaten down, unsure of herself but with, somehow, a deep abiding truth about what is good and what is acceptable.  It chills to think about the countless numbers of women just like her.

     Sandra is a fairly typical mother who loves her children and is especially good at encouraging their play and fantasy life.  Emma (O’Hara) and Molly (McCann) like to romp and play, and are fun children to be around.  The two girls are well behaved and adults are always charmed by them. But Molly has seen something meaningful in her life, and when her parents separate, she begins to refuse to go with her father on the court-appointed day.   

     This spurs the father (Anderson) on to sue for custody of the children.  We see a trial that pulls in evidence that he can use, but this is not the full story.  

     The film is directed by Phyllida Lloyd (Iron Lady, Mamma Mia) who has a practiced eye in observing all kinds of dilemmas women face in life.  Her sensitivity is apparent throughout Herself in highlighting the kinds of support women need in facing the trials of life—mentors, generous volunteers, advisors, and family members, to name a few.  And she is likewise expert in characterizing specific personalities.

     Clare Dunne (who also co-wrote the screenplay) convincingly portrays a resourceful woman caught in a multitude of dilemmas, pulled first one way and then another, trying to make sense of what is new to her, and always mindful of her children. I was especially drawn to Harriet Walter’s performance as an older woman who grasps the import of a situation and makes up her own mind about what to do.  She is a mother figure, without which Sandra could perhaps not achieve what she does, primarily faith in herself.

     This film is about how the efforts of a community can be the determining factor in the fate of one of its members.

 

A straight-to-the-heart drama about how a community can come together to serve the needs of a self-sufficient but desperate woman.

 

Grade:  A                                    By Donna R. Copeland



Wednesday, December 23, 2020

WONDER WOMAN 1984

Gal Gadot     Chris Pine     Kristen Wiig     Pedro Pascal     Robin Wright     Connie Nielsen


     What a different film from the 2017 version, which I had loved.  It’s puzzling that this one, written by essentially the same writers (director Patty Jenkins, Geoff Johns, Dave Callahan) and with the same director (Patty Jenkins), could fall so short of the previous version. Could the fact that it had so many (17) producers have made a difference?  Probably not, and with fine actors like Gal Gadot and Chris Pine returning, and given a strong supporting cast, with Kristen Wiig and Pedro Pascal in co-starring roles, the fault seems to lie in the script.

     Case in point, the beginning scenes setting up Diana Prince’s (Gadot) relationship with Barbara (Wiig) are especially cringe-worthy.  Barbara’s idiot-level hero worship of Diana while debasing herself sounds phony, which is born out by an abrupt change later on that doesn’t make sense.  I have a real problem with roles like this written for women.  I have yet to meet someone in real life like that. Moreover, there is no rationale provided as to why Barbara would make such a sudden change toward Diana. Diana was always respectful and encouraging to Barbara, and hasn’t seen her for some time, much less done anything to warrant the bile.

     This is an action movie, and like most, is committed to battle after battle with unmitigated impossibilities in the action.  It has to rely on magic, which might be thrilling for some, but unless it is well thought out, it comes across as ridiculous.  I take into account that such a movie as this needs to have something of a comic-strip stamp on it, but it also needs to have some realistic underpinnings.  

     One thing the film does well is in its caricature of someone like Maxwell Lord (Pascal), for whom no amount of acquisition is enough.  The excesses of that personality are drawn out and constitute the main point of the film.  On the other hand, I found his relationship with his son rather treacly, and think it was better to have left that out, particularly since no mention of the child’s mother is made—except to disparage her when she drops her son off for time with his father--and no substance is given to the father-son relationship other than the father’s narcissistic attachment and his son’s yearning for him as a real person.  

     Gal Gadot’s presence is the only exciting aspect of this film that makes you want to continue viewing her tale.  No one else in the film has that kind of draw, which consists of more than her grit and skill; she has strong moral values she is living by. Unfortunately, this film neglects to highlight and honor her nobility.

 

The craft in filmmaking is good, but unfortunately, the script is lacking in its appeal, and Wonder Woman’s greatest assets are underplayed.

 

Grade:  C                                    By Donna R. Copeland



 

THE DISSIDENT


     For a long time, Jamal Khashoggi was a highly respected journalist in Saudi Arabia known as “the voice of Saudi media”, one who was very close to the monarchy and considered a spokesman for it.  But while he was a part of that system, he was also a reformist who would eventually be advocating for the country to move toward a more democratic form of government.  As he was going in this direction—about the time of the “Arab Spring” when it looked like a number of countries in the Middle East, specifically Egypt, might be heading there, the monarchy under Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salmon was consolidating its power in terms of the government, the media, and any would-be challengers to his authority.

     The Arab Spring was alarming to Saudi Arabia where rumblings of similar movements were becoming apparent.  As a defense, the Saudis helped change the direction in Egypt by funding the counter-revolutionary movement, effectively maintaining a dictatorship there.  

     This documentary does a fine job is putting Khashoggi into the context of his time and those understanding and supporting his efforts, in addition to elucidating in more detail the investigations that were attempte following his death.  We hear a lot from Omar Abdulaziz who appears a number of times in the film.  Omar had already had to flee from Saudi Arabia for his Tweets against the monarchy—never being able to contact family or friends again—and encourages Khashoggi to join his group in Canada.  Khashoggi does that, but eventually ends up as a journalist at the Washington Post in D.C.  

     When he left Saudi Arabia against his will and for the last time, he had to bid farewell to his family, and the Saudi government pressured her to divorce him. Several years later when he was living in the U.S and working at the Post, he had developed a relationship with Hatice Cengiz, a Turkish womnan, whom he wanted to marry.  The reason the two of them had gone to the Saudi Consulate in Ankara was to get proof of his divorce, but it was there by all accounts he was brutally killed.  

     The Dissident presents a well-rounded picture of Khashoggi’s life and the kind of person he was.  According to Omar Abdulaziz, he became an instant hero across the world after the news of his death.  

 

Here is a well-documented account of the life and death of Jamal Khashoggi, an activist working for reform in a country ruled by a dictator.

 

Grade:  A                                    By Donna R. Copeland




 

SOUL

Voices of:  Jamie Foxx     Tina Fey     Daveed Diggs     Angela Bassett     Phylicia Rashad

     This is a Pixar movie renowned for its colorful history of bringing movies to children (e.g., the Toy Story series, Finding Nemo, Inside Out, Up, Coco, The Incredibles, Monsters Inc.).  In Soul, it is up to its reputation in superb animation and graphics, characterization, and music (Jon Batiste, Trent Reznor, Atticus Ross).  Whether or not children will grasp the intended principles planted in the script is yet to be seen. It has a “smell the roses while you may” quality to it that adults will clearly get, and its treatment of death will be meaningful to them as well.  Perhaps children will be entertained primarily by the imaginative animation, design, and effects…and watching Joe’s ungainly navigation and the spunky cat, 22.  

     The story is that Joe (Foxx), a middle school band teacher is gifted in his work, but aspiring to be a jazz musician, much against the advice of his mother (Rashad).  When he gets talked into an audition with the Half Note combo led by Dorothea (Bassett), he nails it and forgets about teaching.  In fact, he is so excited he’s not careful where he’s going and steps into a manhole, losing consciousness.  

     The writers Pete Docter (director as well), Mike Jones, and Kemp Powers have invented a “holding” place for Joe to go while he awaits his final destiny.  He freaks out when he realizes where he’s going and runs backwards trying to escape.  Where he ends up is a place populated by little amorphous beings yet to be born, one of which is the misfit 22, who has never found that spark that will light up her life.  Somehow during this time, a mistake is made in assignments, and Joe gets assigned to be a mentor to 22.  After bickering with one another, they find a loophole in the system and manage to get themselves transported back to earth, where Joe hopes to rejoin the combo and be a jazz musician.  But after they land, he is in a hospital bed with a cat the nurses have given him as therapy.  In another accident of fate, 22 the cat ends up in Joe’s body and he in hers, but despite everything, they manage to escape the hospital and head toward the Half Note.

     There are plenty of adventures along the way and the insights they each gain about life will be passed on to the viewers in story-like fashion.  Jamie Foxx and Tina Fey as Joe and 22 make up a funny, entertaining duo, and they are finely backed up by Angela Bassett, Phylicia Rashad, and Daveed Diggs.  The music is remarkable in that Jon Batiste (TV’s “The Late Show”) weaves in his elegant jazz into Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’s original score, resulting in an innovative combination.  

     This is one of the few animated pictures that might need subsequent viewings to grasp a complex script and fully appreciate the score.

 

Another Pixar success in a long stream of captivating animated productions.

 

Grade:  A                                    By Donna R. Copeland


PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN

Carey Mulligan     Bo Burnham     LaVerne Cox

     She’s promising all right.  Cassie (Mulligan) is a young woman working in a coffee shop who adores her boss, but her heart isn’t exactly in her job.  Her parents express concern because she doesn’t seem to have any friends, and it’s especially troubling that she doesn’t have a boyfriend.  They want her to move out and forge her way ahead in life.  As the story proceeds, we get the impression she is very bright and used to be in medical school.  But that was long ago.  She has a few flings, and the guys always rhapsodize about how beautiful she is.  Some of the time, she appears to be so intoxicated she has trouble walking, but then she can shore up suddenly and appear cold sober.

     The director, Emerald Fennell, has been an actress for most of her career (Camilla Parker Bowles in “The Crown” and a nurse in “Call the Midwife”), but she has also been the writer for television shows (“Killing Eve”, “The Drifters”); now, for her first time as writer/director of a film feature, she has crafted an impressive work with expert pacing throughout.  There is some comedy in the beginning, as noted in the ads for it, but the drama and horror are not far behind.  

     Fennell’s pacing for the kind of film she has made enhances the power of the drama that ensues, and she allows information about the past to emerge only in small increments.  Cassie is a little hard to figure out in the beginning; she surprises us with what she says and how she acts at times.  She’s so closed up—even with her parents—she’s hard to read.  Yet we see her doing unexpected things that won’t make sense until much later.

     Mulligan is perfect in the role—as skillful in playing a drunk as she is in verbal sparring and flirtatiousness.  About halfway through the movie it begins to dawn on the viewer what she might be up to, but it remains unclear until the very end.  Cassie is especially changeable with a man from her past who was always attracted to her, and now openly asks to date her.  At times she seems willing, then backs away. Bo Burnham as Ryan is a good match, and they have a great time being silly together and very slowly falling in love.  He is able to make her laugh and she gradually opens up to him.

     The number of supporting actors/characters appearing from time to time means the viewer has to pay attention and may find him/herself scrambling for their names and keeping track.  But they are all solid, and their bit parts enhance the movie’s quality. The actors include Laverne Cox, Clancy Brown, Jennifer Coolidge, Alison Brie, Molly Shannon, Connie Britton, Max Greenfield, Gabriel Oliva, and Alfred Molina.

     Promising Young Woman clearly fits well into the “#MeToo” era, and could be instructive for young men and women to see.  The story comprises an eloquent depiction of what might be considered innocent fun and games for some who may not be fully aware of the consequences.

 

This is an extremely well constructed film with the gradual enlightenment of characters building up to a final conclusion.

 

Grade:  A                                    By Donna R. Copeland



ONE NIGHT IN MIAMI

Kingsley Ben-Adir     Eli Goree     Aldis Hodge     Leslie Odom, Jr.

      And what a night!  After Cassius Clay’s victory over Sonny Liston in 1964, four friends meet to celebrate.  They are prize-fighter Cassius Clay (Goree), NFL hero Jim Brown (Hodge), pop star Sam Cooke (Odom), and Malcolm X (Ben-Adir).  Sitting in Malcolm X’s hotel room, the four reflect/argue about what they are and are not doing for the rights of blacks.  Three of the four are famous in the white man’s world, and Malcolm X challenges them on what they are doing for their brothers.  

     What follows sounds like discussions among philosophers about a controversial theory, framed in terms of the personal lives of each man.  This is the time when Cassius Clay is considering becoming a Muslim, and he, Brown, and Cooke are at the height of their careers, pulling in lots of money.  Malcolm is urging them to use their fame and wealth to lift up their brothers.  The perspectives of the three who have “made it” are the heart of the story and, along with Malcolm’s, becomes educational for the viewer, particularly for someone who is white.  All are bright and introspective, listen attentively to good points made by the other, and serve as a model of how political disagreements might be rationally worked out. (Something not as apparent as we wish in today’s great divide.)

     I credit writer (of the play, as well as the film version, and the current Pixar animation, Soul) Kemp Powers with the soul (pun intended) that makes the play and film work.   It reasons out the responses blacks might give to the incredible injustices they have experienced for far too long.  Just as importantly, it presents a rationale for each response and frames it in terms of the power of equality.  In this, a clear distinction is drawn between economic success in the interest of equality, as opposed to simply personal gain.

     The first-time director of a motion picture, Regina King, is likewise to be acknowledged in adhering to Powers’ writing and in framing and pacing scenes that allow the story to move forward.  She also avoided the “stage-play” look characteristic of some films adapted from plays.  An accomplished actress (If Beale Street Could Talk and TV shows, “Watchmen” and “American Crime”) who has recently delved into directing, her success with this picture should assure continuing recognition for her.

     Casting for this movie is exemplary in Ben-Adir as a convincing Malcolm X, and Goree, Hodge, and Odom playing the supporting characters.  Each one captures the essence of the real person, so that the viewer merges the actor with the real person (if you’re old enough to have seen them).  

     One Night in Miami is likely to be seen as a hallmark film of 2020, coming after the demonstrations protesting the killing of George Floyd, when, for the first time, whites were united with black people in protesting.  Hopefully, this movie will yet again bring home why and how the outrage, as well as the hope that real change can happen.

 

One Night in Miami makes a cogent argument to blacks and whites about the value for both in uniting for the cause of racial equality.

 

Grade:  A                                    By Donna R. Copeland



NEWS OF THE WORLD

Tom Hanks     Helena Zengal


     I love beautiful stories, and this is one.  Just as Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd (Hanks) keeps his audiences transfixed with his “news of the world”, I stayed entranced throughout the odd journey of this grieving ex-soldier and a 10 year-old German girl, Johanna (Zengal), brought up by the Kiowa Indians for four years after they killed her parents. The child almost literally falls into his lap and it’s up to him to get her to her only relatives, a maternal aunt and uncle, in Castroville.  This is in Texas wild country just after the Civil War, and when they set out on a six-day trip in a makeshift wagon and two horses, who knows what they will encounter?

     It turns out there is a lot, of course, the most creepy being a sleaze who thinks he can buy the girl off the Captain, and it takes a gun battle out on the hilly desert to dissuade him.  But there will be more challenges before they reach their destination, and Johanna has a chance to prove her worth several times in quick-witted action.

     Director and co-writer (with Luke Davies) Paul Greengrass bases the story on a novel written by Paulette Jiles.  As with his other movies as writer and director (United 93 and the Jason Bourne movies), Greengrass has proven his mettle as a storyteller whose pacing of the action allows for greater suspense and emotional expression.  At one point when the two travelers pass by the wrecked settlement that used to be her home, Johanna stops and proceeds to go into her old house, where she finds an abandoned doll.  When she brings it out to the patiently waiting Captain, his advice is to forget the horror and develop new memories.  The wise little girl replies, “First, you must remember.”  

     The two actors are entirely in sync with one another throughout the story. Their faces eloquently express so much without their saying anything.  We’ve seen that in his numerous roles during Tom Hanks’ long, successful career.  To observe it in young Helena Zengal, is almost mind-blowing.  Since Johanna speaks Kiowa and doesn’t know English, there is little dialog between them, hence their reliance on nonverbal language to communicate practically and emotionally.

     They are aided in this task by award-winning artists, musician James Newton Howard and cinematographer Dariusz Wolski, who express the varying moods and visual expanse of a well-told story.  

 

News of the World gives us a jewel at the end of this frightful year; it will engage you, inspire you, and renew your faith in those trying their best to do the right thing.

 

Grade:  A                                    By Donna R. Copeland



 

Thursday, December 17, 2020

BEASTS CLAWING AT STRAWS

Do-Yeon Jeon     Woo-sung Jung     Sung-Woo Bae     Shin Hyum     Jung Man-sik

 


     Macabre thriller with some humor is how I would describe Beasts Clawing at Straws.  It consists of a series of vignettes about a disparate group of people whom you gradually—only very gradually—realize are connected with one another.  To make it more complicated, characters evolve across time, so that who you think they are in the beginning is different from how you end up seeing them.

     The skeleton plot is about a Louis Vuitton bag that is placed in a locker at the airport.  The fact that it is not claimed by the end of the day—or days—is the basis of the story of not only the bag, but of the various people who handle it across time.

     Those we meet along the way include a cleaner at a gym, a customs official, a prostitute, her boss, an abused wife, a mother with dementia, police detectives, a john who is an illegal alien, and still others.  Taking a riff on Shakespeare, I’ll say, “Oh, what a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive.”  

     I don’t know the novelist Kaisuke Sone who came up with the original story, but I presume that the director and writer of the screenplay, Yong-hoon Kim, appreciated the cleverness of the story in its connecting such disparate characters with one another, and story’s appeal to film audiences.  It works your left brain in following the plot and your right brain in bonding with the characters.  So many are losers in one way or another (You may find yourself yelling out at them from time to time.), yet they capture your interest and empathy when you hear their story.

     Bottom line, this is about desperate people trying to make their way in a world that teases them then pulls the carpet out from under them.  Regardless, you’ll find yourself rooting for each and every one of them.


A black comedy crime thriller worthy of following up South Korea’s winning film last year, Parasite.


Grade:  A                                    By Donna R. Copeland



TENET

John David Washington    Robert Pattinson    Elizabeth Debicki     Kenneth Branagh    

 Michael Caine     Diimple Kapadia     Denzil Smith


     Tenet has all the hallmarks of a blockbuster—established filmmakers, actors, and a riveting story with themes of mind-ripping, intriguing, violence.  It certainly does all that.  What it doesn’t do is give the viewer time to reflect on any current, compelling issues that we should be concerned about nowadays, or probe personal relationships that make them seem to matter.  It’s more of an almost formulaic activation of tropes seen many times before.  This version seems to have been intended to tease us with time travel, frustrated love, and heroic battles between the hero and unrecognized/mysterious adversaries.

     The unnamed protagonist (Washington), a CIA agent, is recruited to match wits with a terrorist, Sator (Branagh) intent on destroying the world.  The first task is to actually come in contact with the man, not a direct route.  The Prospect meets Sir Crosby (Caine) for lunch who informs him cryptically about Tenet, a shadow organization attempting to save the whole world from destruction.  The Protagonist will be a part of that effort in his new assignment.  To achieve his task, the Protagonist tries at first to go through the wife of the infamous Russian Oligarch, Andrei Sator, Katherine “Kat)  (Debicki), an art dealer.  But this is with the intrusion of a fellow agent Neil (Pattinson), who appears and re-appears as a helper and, seemingly at times, a foe.  

In due time, the protagonist has a clear picture of what he is up against, in terms of arms dealers, their facilitators, and a world-wide plan.  

     Typical of writer/director Christopher Nolan, he plays around with time; and in this case, time inversion, which the evil Sator is trying to perfect for his own use.  It allows for something dropped to jump back up in one’s hand and cars to travel backwards on busy freeways—lending high-tension moments to the plot, along with well choreographed hand-to-hand combat and mental/physical cruelty.  More thrilling is a reverse bungee jump up the outside of a skyscraper.  (In a filmmaking aside:  The two actors start the jump, then stuntmen take over without a noticeable cut in the frame.

     Adding to the excellence in craft, Hoyte van Hoytema’s cinematographic feats maintain breathless action, accompanied by Ludwig Goransson’s always apt score. John David Washington is coming into his own as an actor earning action-figure status.  He mixes the heroic with sincerity and credibility, which adds to his appeal.  The stately Elizabeth Debicki plays Sator’s wounded wife with grace and expressive femininity, using her beautiful eyes to break through her mystique and help make her sympathetic.  Kenneth Branagh succeeds in filling his character with narcissistic loathsomeness making him easy to hate.  Bollywood’s well known star Dimple Kapadia does an admirable job in portraying a complex, woman with power.

     For Fans of Christopher Nolan Tenet will likely be satisfying and fun; others, as I did, may find it somewhat tedious to follow and feel impatience at the prolonged combat scenes.

 

Go on a time-inverted journey in Christopher Nolan’s newest thriller.


Grade:  B-                                    By Donna R. Copeland 



Thursday, December 10, 2020

WANDER DARKLY

Sienna Miller     Diego Luna     Beth Grant


     Wander Darkly is an apt title in that viewing it is like wandering darkly throughout the course of the film. I have some inkling of what writer/director Tara Miele is trying to do, but it just doesn’t work—at least not for me.  The constant flashes back and forth between reality and memory became tiresome for me in a short time.

     A young unmarried couple tries to make their alliance work; and it does seem like a sincere effort in their buying a house and having a baby—on purpose, not by accident.  Adrienne (Miller) comes across as insecure, needing constant reassurance from her husband Matteo (Luna).  He doesn’t care much for her mother Patty (Grant), partly because she just doesn’t trust him, but these appear to be problems most couples work through one way or another. Then Adrienne and Matteo are in a car accident.  The whole rest of the movie is watching how they deal with the aftermath.

     Two talented actors, Luna and Miller, ably carry the movie and are convincing in their portrayals.  Supporting actors—who primarily have cameo roles—are likewise good in being plausible and moving the story along.  The best scenes are when Adrienne and Matteo are having heart-to-hearts, with each showing insight into their own behavior.

     Cinematography by Carolina Costa (Suspiria) is especially good in artistically depicting varying scenes of landscapes, seascapes, and hospitals that reflect the changing moods of the story.  

     What detracts from the movie are the constantly recurring scenes of the couple going over and over what happened repetitiously.  The last scenes clarifying what actually happened seem gratuitous and sort of “tacked on” as a way of ending a story that hasn’t held much promise.

 

Wander darkly through this film, only if you have much more imagination than what is presented.

 

Grade:  D                             By Donna R. Copeland



 

FUNNY BOY



Arush Nand    
 Brandon Ingram     Rehan Mudannayake

 


     The film captures an unusual coming-of-age story based in Sri Lanka, where the Tamils and the Sinhalese are at war with one another, a schism that reflects the one in families who firmly believe in dichotomous categorization of sexuality, making any other manifestation illegal.  Arjie (played by Nand and Ingram as younger and older) seems to be a happy, agreeable child with a flair and talent that only his rebellious aunt recognizes.  Before long, he is taunted by kids around him calling him “funny boy”, his father shows concern and attempts to steer him in more traditionally masculine pursuits, and his mother tries not to worry. 

     This part of the story is troubling to watch, as Ajie’s cricket-playing brother struggles with the issue when the father insists he bring Arjie into his sports world.  It doesn’t work, of course, and the father has to step back; he is a gentle man at heart.  In the meantime, the solicitous aunt is married off in a “good” match instead of her beau, and moves away (with Arjie pining for that support).

     As Arjie matures, the issue of his sexual orientation becomes harder and harder to ignore when hormones begin their insistence.  At school, he meets another student, Shehan (Mudannayake) who “recognizes” him, and a mutual attraction develops.

     Parallel developments can be seen in the trajectory of their relationship and the larger one in the country between the Tamils and the Sinhalese, which becomes more and more threatening.  Of course, as fate would have it, Arjie is Tamil and Shehan is Sinhalese—which is, of course, no problem for either of them.

     Here, the movie turns to the extreme, violent unrest within the country (this takes place right before the civil war in Sri Lanka), and we witness the outcomes for all the characters.

     Writer/director Deepa Mehta transforms Shyam Selvadurai’s novel into a film that has heart, suspense, and excitement, weaving together the political and personal elements that reverberate with one another.  Howard Shore’s score—expressing both Asian and American musical sentiments—enhances the drama, along with Douglas Koch’s captivating cinematography, both of which contribute to the excellence of this fine production.

     The actors make this film come alive in endearing us to the characters, especially Nand and Ingram in their portrayal of Arjie’s developing awareness of the world around him.  Agam Darshi as the charismatic aunt pulls us in immediately, both as a charm and as a preview of what could happen to her and to Arjie.

 

A cross-cultural look at a time and place that could have relevance for Americans today, if we choose to look.

 

Grade:  A                                    By Donna R. Copeland



NOMADLAND

Frances McDormand     Linda May     Bob Wells     Charlene Swankie     David Strathairn

     What people do when they get older varies immeasurably, depending on family, circumstances, personal preference, and many other reasons.  That there is a group of oldsters who travel around—mostly in vans and RVs—is new to me, as probably for most of us.  Some are facing the end of life and want to make the most of it, while others seem not to be thinking about an ending date at all. Fran (McDormand) is one of them and a bit of a mystery, but we discover a lot about her as the story wends its way.  Her husband has died, the town she lived in lost its industry—taking her job with it—during an economic recession—and with a wandering spirit, Fran decides to outfit her van and take to the road.  

     Nomadland is the story of the people she meets along the way, but it’s also a picture book of all the breathtaking vistas she gazes out on as she travels the American upper Midwest—Nevada, South Dakota, Nebraska, California, and Arizona.  Cinematographer Joshua James Richards captures the colorful sunsets, the hills of the Badlands in South Dakota, and much more, along with the wizened, expressive faces of people coming from all kinds of different histories and current circumstances.  He deserves aThe music supplied by Ludovico Einaudi enhances all these scenes with melodic—sometimes haunting—strains.  His piano music is especially pleasing.

     Nomadlandis just as much a character story as a travelogue.  Fran is a complex mix of thoughtfulness and kindness—no one is a stranger for long with her—and a near-fierce self-sufficiency and independence.  She has plenty of welcoming opportunities to stay put, but a pressing need keeps her moving on.  We don’t learn a lot about her early life; she reflects on it at times and relates a bit about it, and her sister provides more information, but we see little of her core and reflections about her present.  I think the film could have put in more of her past to give us a better idea of how she came to be the way she is.

     With her usual expertise, Frances McDormand embodies Fran so well, she comes across as a real person and someone we would all enjoy meeting.  She will certainly be considered during awards time for this performance.  It’s impressive how well the actual people found on the road enlisted to be in this film played their parts.  Linda May, Charlene Swankie, Gay DeForest, Patricia Grier, Bob Wells, and many others are applauded for their willingness to be filmed and managing to come across as themselves.  What we see  loud and clear is the increasing tolerance for others and their opinions that people seem to gain as they age and become wiser.

     Nomadland is not likely to appeal to everyone, but for those who contemplate their later years, it provides some reassurance that everything should be just fine, provided, of course, the world stays reasonably stable.

 

A different look at the elder years from what we’re used to, Nomadland provides a pleasant journey into what it might—and what we hope—will be.

 

Grade:  B                                    By Donna R. Copeland



Thursday, December 3, 2020

ANOTHER ROUND (DRUK)

Mads Mikkelsen     Thomas Bo Larsen     Magnus Millang     Lars Ranthe



     Another Round…as in another round of alcohol. A group of four teachers at a Danish gymnasium going through bouts of alienation—especially one, Martin (Mikkelsen.  The other three, spearheaded by the psychology professor, Nikolaj (Millang), decide to embark on an experiment aimed to get them out of the doldrums.  The hypothesis of this unorthodox study derived from Norwegian psychiatrist Finn Skarderud is that keeping a certain amount of alcohol in the bloodstream will keep the individual energized but relaxed, interesting, and optimally engaged in society.

     The four teachers agree to test his theory.  And in the initial stages, the experiment seems to be working admirably.  Martin’s students stop complaining about his lethargy after he demonstrates the success of Winston Churchill and Ernest Hemingway; Nikolai’s students begin to appreciate him more; Peter’s (Ranthe) students sing so much better after he introduces new techniques, and Tommy is showing his soccer team how to play ball better than ever, while protecting the runt of the team.  The experiment seems to have put a shot in the arm of the teachers. However…many experiments can get out of hand, and so, of course, does this one.

     Guess what happens when people drink too much?  You guessed it; you’ve seen it many times before.  Which begs the question of what writer/director Thomas Vinterburg (The Hunt) had in mind with this movie.  Optimally, it might be that rationalization for heavy consumption of alcohol is a pitfall; but he doesn’t seem to be saying that, actually.  Is it that heavy consumption is bad for some but not all? Granted, it’s disastrous for one character, but maybe the other three are not doing so bad?  I’m not convinced of this.  What is Vinterburg actually saying?

     With the over-use of alcohol across so many countries today, my impression is that Vinterburg’s movie only serves to reinforce the problem.  It’s so tempting to join in when we see liquor made to be something so enticing and just plain fun—and those trying to abstain seen as killjoys.  In my view, all of these main characters could have used a large dose of AA and psychotherapy.  But this is never alluded to during the whole of the film, which robs it of any redeeming quality.

 

A hard-to-watch film about the downfalls of alcoholism, which don’t seem to be addressed in any meaningful way.

 

Grade:  D                                    By Donna R. Copeland

RELIC

Emily Mortimer     Robyn Nevin     Bella Heathcote


     A horror story, to be sure.  The first part goes rather slowly in setting things up—mother, daughter, and grandmother not being very open in their communication.  True, the grandmother is clearly demented and refuses to account for a recent absence; she just stares into space or changes the subject.  All of this is a bit frustrating for the viewer in its pace.  

     The story begins with Kay, the mother (Mortimer) and her daughter Sam (Heathcote) being called back to the homestead because Edna, the grandmother (Nevin), has not been seen for quite a while.  Kay reports to the police that her mother is missing, and a search party begins scouring the nearby woods trying to find her.

     All along, while Kay and Sam are staying in the very large house, they hear bumps and other noises during the night, which are unexplained.  When Edna does finally appear, it is clear, as Kay says, “she forgets things.”  Other bizarre behavior doesn’t show up until later.

     After considerations of whether Sam might come to stay with Edna, or Edna being put in a retirement home near Kay, the situation begins to worsen.  It’s best not to go into detail, because the strength of the movie co-written with Christian White and directed by Natalie Erika James is in the suspense and the suddenness of certain events. James, a young director primarily of shorts, is already getting buzz from her first feature film at the Sundance Film Festival and others.

     The three actresses whom we see for almost the entire film deliver fine performances, especially Emily Mortimer with a number of fine films (Lars and the Real Girl, Lovely & Amazing).  She can always be relied upon for top-notch work. 

     Brian Reitzell contributes wonderfully eerie music, along with the production and sound design, which add greatly to the sustained suspense.  

     Relic is likely to be greatly appealing to horror fans.  For those of us not so enamored, some observations stand out, having to do with believability. One is that even though the house is very large, it doesn’t make sense that someone who is pounding and pounding on walls upstairs is not heard by those in the lower part of the house. Secondly, it is clear that Edna is so demented she should not be left alone for any time at all.  Yet, her daughter and granddaughter are not watching her constantly.  This may be too critical, is that in reality many family members frequently dismiss overt symptomatology in their relatives.  Yet, it seems that as disturbed as Edna is found to be, no one thinks about immediately putting her somewhere where she and others will be safe.

 

For hard-core horror movie fans, Relic might be a real treat.  For others, it may be too fanciful.


Grade:  C+                                    By Donna R. Copeland



I'M YOUR WOMAN

Rachel Brosnahan     Marsha Stephanie Blake     Arinze Kene 

     There are significant twists in this crime drama, but a fair amount of time is spent in figuring out who characters are.  Like many horror films, the filmmakers keep you wondering and guessing, and in this case, that’s most of the movie.  The reasons given are always that it’s too dangerous to be given details.  No spoiler—this is about a crime family.

     Jean (Brosnahan) is relaxing by the pool at an upscale house when she discovers that a new robe she is wearing still has the tags on it.  Not being able to pull them apart, she runs through the house trying to find scissors.  Amusingly, this is just the start of the many puzzlements that will follow (i.e., doesn’t everyone know where they keep their scissors?).  Suddenly, in through the door walks a man holding a baby.  Is it her husband?  Where did the baby come from?  I do say that this is a clever way to start a drama filled with conundrums.  It will be a fairly long time before the viewer gets these questions answered.

     We have come to know Rachel Brosnahan primarily in her frequently awarded performances in the Amazon Prime television series, “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” (also with many awards).  The arc of her character is similar in I’m Your Woman, going from a protected housewife to someone who is dynamic and forceful; but the circumstances are totally different.  In the former, she evolved from a protected housewife in a Jewish family to a successful comedienne.  In I’m Your Woman, she is catapulted from being the shielded wife of a criminal to using her wits to, literally, fight for her life.

     In addition to the rather shocking twists in the story, Brosnahan’s transformations keep the story going, and attest to her skill in keeping the viewer invested in her character.  Clearly, she goes from a woman who feels overwhelmed with motherhood and one whose husband won’t even let her drive to an analytic, quick-thinking woman determined to survive.  Her co-stars, Blake and Kene, measure up in portraying a calculating pair whom Jean has to trust.  Always believable, the two actors convey so very well the kind of mystery that surrounds them.

     Kudos to the co-writer (with husband Jordan Horowitz) and director Julia Hart for incorporating a Black family into the script who have significant roles in being smart, caring, and capable.  The movie does a great job in integrating the races in a way that is realistic and a model for other filmmakers.

     One way in which I’m Your Woman lapses a bit is in the main character being able to lie glibly at one point, but in a much less threatening situation seeming not to be able to come up with answers and set limits.  In movies like this, my mind often goes to practicalities that diminish the suspense, such as, “Where/when do they get those extra clothes?”  But for the most part, the plot is well conceived, and the actors bring us along beautifully.

 

This film has much to offer in terms of script, acting, and directing. Minor glitches do not diminish its impact.

 

Grade:  B                                    By Donna R. Copeland




MY OCTOPUS TEACHER

     

    How pleasant it is to spend time under the water, seeing all the exotic creatures and being gently rocked by the view expertly captured by Roger Horrocks, Craig Foster’s narrating voice, and the gentle music of Kevin Smuts.  This is a work of both art and of craft in its consolidation of all the elements it took to create a documentary that keeps the viewer’s attention glued to the screen—all with a sense of serenity and peace.

     I’m not proud to say that I’m not much of a nature lover, but the way the movie pulled me in is a testament to the filmmakers’ skill.  Craig Foster presents a detailed account of his bonding with an octopus during the span of over 300 days, astutely observing it at first, and then when he learns how, actually developing a relationship with it—with her, I should say, because she does eventually become an individual with a personality, even to us.

    We learn that ocotopi off the western cape of South Africa make their home in kelp forests where they have ingenious ways of protecting themselves from predators like the pajama shark by covering themselves with kelp leaves and even sea shells, hiding in small cracks, and using other creative ways to elude the shark’s jaws.  But beyond that, they appear to have the capacity of exploring a stranger in the water—a human—and then after determining it is safe, showing human-like attachment, looking for him each day and ending up resting on his hand at first and later his torso to be carried up to the surface.  For survival, the arms of the octopus—site of their cognition—aid in capturing food, as well as being useful in devising different kinds of disguises.

     As noted by Craig Foster, there is so much to learn from the natural world, and his spending over 300 daily visits to observe one octopus informs us not only about her, but because he is so open, about him.  Apparently, he almost gave up filming the under seas when he bumped into this particular sea creature and observed her daily for almost a year. His account shows how his diligent observation of her was therapeutic for him.  He became more open to others and to his son, who relished exploring with him and developing the same gentleness of spirit that Craig has found for himself.  In short, he came to realize “just how precious wild places are.”

     This is a moving production about nature, reminding me of David Attenborough’s many series on the subject.  It inspires and informs us, and skillfully gets us to listen to the important issues facing our planet today.  In watching, we get to observe so many of the strange and wonderful creatures that surround us, all which have valuable lessons for us to learn.

 

An inspiring, informative account of a relationship that developed with an octopus who begins to seem almost human.

 

Grade:  A                                    By Donna R. Copeland




 

Thursday, November 26, 2020

BLACK BEAR

Aubrey Plaza     Sarah Gadon     Christopher Abbott


     In a rather tangled two-part plot, writer/director Lawrence Michael Levine explores some version of the “life imitates art” juxtaposition.  To illustrate his point he uses a recurring image of the main character in a meditative position surrounded by nature.  The first scenario is presented with certain actors in certain roles followed by those same actors and characters enacting a different story.  

     In Part One, Aubrey Plaza plays the role of a director (Allison) seeking inspiration at an isolated retreat owned by Gabe (Abbott) and Blair (Gadon), an unmarried couple expecting a baby.  One of the first evenings with them is disturbing—for the viewer, as well as for Allison—by the couple’s constant bickering and by Blair’s jealousy toward Allison.

     Suddenly, in Part Two, a movie is being shot, with the plot being somewhat the same as in Part One, but with the characters shifted around.  Here, Gabe is a movie director married to Allison, the star of the movie.  That is, “Gabe” and “Allison” are the married couple, and “Blair” is a rival of Allison.  Living up to what Allison has claimed in the first movie—that she was an actor difficult to work with, Allison portrays that character in the movie, being late to the set and arguing with her husband (the director, now, in the movie being shot) about the script.  Lying is a sub-theme throughout both parts of Black Bear.

     The movie demonstrates Aubrey Plaza’s skill in portraying a chameleon personality who can act out a scene on the spur of the moment and thus has some mystery about her.  Christopher Abbott and Sarah Gadon, her co-stars, likewise show very different personas, depending on what is called for in the script.  

     As intriguing as this might be for those informed about anti-mimesis (Oscar Wilde’s belief that “Life imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life”) and the notion that we only see what artists have taught us to see, I think most viewers of this movie will not be entranced by it.   I appreciate what writer/director Lawrence Michael Levine has tried to do, but figure that such esoteric content will be lost on most, and that they will see the movie as a bit of a jumble.

     On the other hand, I figure that actors themselves will love the script, which embodies what they have to do on a regular basis.  It also reflects the constantly changing relationships they see every day in their own lives.

     The symbolic significance of the black bear of the title is more difficult to determine. If it refers to William Faulkner’s “The Bear”, I can only relate it in terms of Falkner’s equating the bear in his story to nature or to the wilderness and its death.  The last scene of the movie is Plaza’s character encountering a big black bear with interest and a glint in her eye. Is she encountering the bear as something of nature to which she needs to get reconnected? Or is it about nature on its road to destruction?

 

This is a film primarily for those in the business of filmdom or to those who ponder humans’ relationship with nature.

 

Grade:  B                                    By Donna R. Copeland