Thursday, February 20, 2020

THE CALL OF THE WILD

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


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

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

Grade:  C                                    By Donna R. Copeland

EMMA

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


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

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

Grade:  B                                    By Donna R. Copeland


ONWARD

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


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

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

Grade:  C+                                    By Donna R. Copeland

Thursday, February 13, 2020

DOWNHILL

Julia Louis-Dreyfus     Will Ferrell


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

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

Grade:  C+                                    By Donna R. Copeland

THE ASSISTANT

Julia Garner     Matthew Macfadyen     Jon Orsini     Noah Robbins


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

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

Grade:  C-                                    By Donna R. Copeland

THE PHOTOGRAPH

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


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

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

Grade:  C+                                    By Donna R. Copeland


Thursday, February 6, 2020

BIRDS OF PREY

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


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

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

Grade:  B+                                                By Donna R. Copeland

CITIZEN K


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

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

Grade:  A                                                By Donna R. Copeland