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 



Tuesday, September 22, 2020

THE SOCIAL DILEMMA




     This is a documentary about social media that is more interesting than scary—most of the time.  It has something like 20 people with former executive positions on social media sites discussing what is at stake for all of us.  I certainly didn’t have any idea how intrusive Facebook, for instance, is, how much they can track us, nor especially how much they canmodify behavior and influence perception, without our even being aware of it.

     The documentary doesn’t blame any one person or site and is clear that the person creating the site had no idea how it could/would eventually be used.  Initially, these sites were gratifying in getting information to people and connecting everyone in such an efficient way; it’s just that eventually the business model used had another component:  a money machine.  This has resulted in tech companies putting their profit-making goals ahead of user interests.  (“If you aren’t paying for the product, you ARE the product.”)             

     Because of the way social media has been constructed (using intermittent reinforcement and the profit motive), it intentionally produces addictive behavior (we leap to our phones when we hear a tone and respond to its message), keeping us involved in the site.  That’s why so many of us are hooked on our phones.  They give a good example of a teenager who vowed to stay away from his phone for a week and what happened during that time.  Little did he know that there were tech people behind the scenes manipulating his behavior when the site realized he wasn’t engaged.  The documentary cites figures about how anxiety, depression, and suicide among young people have increased, while getting a driver’s license and dating are rapidly waning since the advent of social media in 2010 to now.

     The documentary provides explanations about some of the things I have been questioning.  It points out that political polarization is at a 20-year high, and suggests why that is.  It offers an explanation as to why democracies around the world are failing, such as the use of misinformation tactics to sow chaos and division.  That’s what Russia apparently did in 2016 during the American Presidential election; it didn’t hack Facebook, it simply used its existing format to plant seeds.
     Finally, it points out the existential dilemma we’re in now.  Technology has the potential to bring out the worst in society—or the best.  It is up to us—humans—to use our heads.

 

An important film for all to see in contemporary times.

 

Grade:  A                           By Donna R. Copeland



Thursday, September 17, 2020

THE NEST

Jude Law     Carrie Coon     Oona Roche     Charlie Shotwell


     This movie is odd, with the title being the strangest part.  Associations to a nest are normally that of a stable, comfy, nurturing place with a family altogether.  The story starts out like this, although with a few signs that there might be fundamental problems—a mother consistently late in getting the kids to school, a father needing to defend yet another major move in a short amount of time.  But the parents are basically there for the children; the father is earning enough for a very comfortable living, and the mother trains horses and teaches riding.  What could go wrong?

     Rory (Law) is excited about a new job prospect, which would mean moving the family from New York to London.  His wife Allison (Coon) is not enthusiastic, and tries to talk him out of it.  But he’s a salesman by nature, and off they go.  He secures property with a huge old mansion and enough space to build stables so that Allison can have a business of her own and not work for someone else. He has joined a firm in which he also has his own business.  He’s pumped up with investment ideas and seems on top of the world.  The rest of the family is a bit more skeptical, but adjusting.  The story is about what happens next.

     Sean Durkin, writer/director (as well as Martha, Marcy, May, Marlene), has created a moral of a story that dissects a family with underlying flaws to show ways of coping and probable outcomes when the father is a dreamer, the mother is practical-minded, and the kids desperately try to cope with their differences.  The actors are all well cast, and have chemistry that conveys a believable family going through life changes, and showing the type of stress associated with transitions, a teenager in the house, and a sensitive younger brother.  

     Jude Law has been a major talent beginning in the ‘80’s and best known recently for the HBO TV series, “The Young Pope” and “The New Pope.”  He fits hand-in-glove with the Rory character here, showing loads of charm in business and at home and warm relationships with his wife and his children, even his wife’s daughter.  He clearly adores Allison, bringing her coffee or tea and gently waking her up in the mornings.  Carrie Coon is less well known, but carries off the role of the spunky woman who grew up perhaps underprivileged, but has managed to navigate the waters of the wealthy—most of the time.  Under stress, Coon shows how the veneer falls away, and she reverts back to old antics.  Both younger actors—Roche and Shotwell—give highly convincing performances that enhance the movie’s value.

     The hardest part of The Nest is watching it when you see family members making mistakes and you can easily visualize the outcome. But I think it’s a good movie for younger audiences who might be able to profit from a story not uncommon among families of today.

 

Welcome to a “golden” family’s experience when stressed beyond a certain limit.

 

Grade:  C+                                    By Donna R. Copeland 



Tuesday, September 15, 2020

THE SECRETS WE KEEP

Noomie Rapace     Chris Messina     Joel Kinnaman     Amy Seimetz


     The filmmakers really double down on “secrets”, the word in the title.  In the story, secrets are nested in layers, and although I think it’s intended to increase the mystery, it simply became off-putting to me in the end.  Noomi Rapace as Maja brings her ability to exploit a sense of intrigue as she has done so well before (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played with Fire, Prometheus, and Sherlock Holmes:  A Game of Shadows).  Here, as Maja, she’s apparently happily married to a doctor (Chris Messina), but her eyes are always alert on those around her.  One day in the park with her young son, she thinks she sees someone she recognizes—someone from her hidden past.

     When they met in a hospital, Maja told her husband she was Romanian and after falling in love they ended up married and living in a small town, USA.  She has given him no details of her early life, and even when she thinks she recognizes the man she saw in the park, she says nothing to Lewis (Messina), although she keeps tailing the man.

     Once, when in a glimpse she sees his face clearly, she is convinced he is a part of her past.  She pursues him relentlessly, and manages to kidnap him, whereupon she must tell Lewis more about her past.  The movie continues to give him (and us, the audience) bits and pieces, until finally it comes to more than one showdown.

     The big question for us to answer for ourselves as we watch The Secrets We Keep is whether Maja’s claim is based on fact, or whether it is a case of mistaken identity.  (Easy to do after 15+ years).  This part of the movie works well, although I still became impatient with characters not using simple logic time and again.  

We get torn between fact and coincidence throughout, and the ending is a deus ex machina.  It doesn’t come logically from anything that has gone on before.

     Rapace is as brilliant an actress as ever; her ability to persuade others is convincing, and she maintains her mystique, even when she is in everyday types of conversations.  Chris Messina as her husband is less well played, not showing the expected temperament of a physician and with a bewildered expression much of the time.  Joel Kinnaman and Amy Seimetz as the other couple are perfectly cast and lend a nice balance to the production.

 

Horror arises when the past impinges on the present.

 

Grade:  C+                                    By Donna R. Copeland



     

THE WAY I SEE IT

 


     Most of us have probably never heard of Pete Souza, but I predict he will be known by millions more after his recent documentary, The Way I See It, is released and witnessed.  Pete was always in the background during his years of being the chief White House photographer during President Reagan’s and President Obama’s terms of office.  In the documentary he devotes a certain amount of space to the Reagan era, in which he points out some of the President’s personal qualities, his warm, collaborative relationship with Nancy, and his showing empathy for those experiencing a major loss.  He acknowledges that he wasn’t necessarily for some of Reagan’s policies, but was interested in demonstrating how Reagan had respect for the Office of President and usually came across as a genuine person, and permitted candid photos of both an official and personal nature.

     Souza was never very politically minded, and needed a little persuading to work in Obama’s White House.  But unlike his predecessors before the digital age, Obama seemed to have an understanding right away of the importance of photographs both to inform the public of current events and to document history at the highest levels of government.  Therefore, he allowed Pete to be a constant presence, pretty much 24-7.  Pete was always on call and could hear from the President any time.

     We go with him on that journey through his pictures, seeing thousands of images that tell the story of the person Obama is—his presence, his intimate relationship with his family, his show of informed leadership in his official duties and his tendency to solicit as many opinions as he could get on a tricky issue, his capacity for empathy in the everyday as well as in crisis situations, and his intelligence in dealing with major policy issues.

     This is a film that you will find inspiring, partly in seeing how important leadership at the top is.  The pictures will document what a mensch Obama is, along with his canniness in politics and his fundamental knowledge about government and the needs of its people.  Leadership qualities that affirm a good President are outlined by historian Doris Kearns Goodwin:  humility, empathy, communication ability, and coolness during difficult times.  Souza clearly thinks that Obama has all of these assets, and points out how important temperament is, along with intellect in being a successful leader.

     But this is not an idolatrous account of a President.  It provides a way for Pete Souza to draw a contrast between what we had, and what we have now, based on his close-up look at two past Presidents and what he sees today.   Background music provided by Marco Beltrani, Brandon Roberts, and Buck Sanders adds levity and highlights to the artistry of the production.

     Unlike his predecessors, Donald Trump only allows staged pictures.  Souza is critical of his Twitter posts, noting how that should be beneath someone in that level of government.  He feels so strongly, not only does he respond to Trump’s tweets with pictures on Instagram, but he has written a book titled Shade:  A Tale of Two Presidents, in which he draws visual contrasts of their differences in administration and personal conduct.

    THE WAY I SEE IT will be aired on MSNBC on October 9, 2020.  Streaming will occur after that.

 

Remarkable contrasts in government leadership primarily using photographs of U.S. Presidents in their leadership roles and personal lives.

 

Grade:  A                                                By Donna R. Copeland

Friday, September 4, 2020

PAPER SPIDERS

Lili Taylor     Stefania LaVie Owen     Ian Nelson     Tom Papa


     This is a film that gets my ire up.  On the one hand, it is about genuine emotions that are well portrayed, but in its overall point and the intricacies of the story it misses big-time.  
   Melanie (Owen) and her mother Dawn (Taylor) live in a typical mother-daughter relationship after the father’s death.  They disagree, argue a bit, then show their love for each other.  Sounds good; the daughter is an A-student, the mother has a paying job.  
What happens is the mother’s gradual psychological deterioration.  This is charted in the movie fairly well, showing her growing suspicions, mildly—or soundly—doubted by those around her, which eventually transform into frank paranoia.  
     The film does a good job is showing Melanie’s long, slow realization that her mother has serious problems and the side effect on herself—Melanie—being seduced into risky life events.  It also shows very effectively how so many people didn’t do their jobs well, namely, the police who are following rules by rote, and the school counselor (prone to read diagnoses from a book rather than attending to the person in front of him).  But also, we could blame the hired private investigator who should have, but didn’t, understand or care to see what he was dealing with—a paranoid woman who wanted major surveillance on her house without much basis for it.
     Lili Taylor as Dawn is as good as always in portraying a specific character; in this case, a mentally deteriorating woman who loves her daughter but can’t retain her grasp on reality.  Stefanie LeVie Owen as Melanie her daughter, expertly portrays an intelligent young woman who loves her mother, but eventually has to deal with her psychopathology.  Ian Nelson as Daniel, Melanie’s heartthrob, and Tom Papa as Howard, Dawn’s Match date, perfectly sync their roles within the story.  I loved them as actors, as well as their characters.
     This is a curious film in the sense that it’s not clear what the writers, Inon (also director) and Natalie Shampanier, had in mind.  If they wanted to illustrate the gradual disintegration of the mind and its effects on the family, they did a reasonably good job.  But if they wanted to realistically portray the process and transition of a mentally disturbed person through social service agencies today, I’m afraid they missed the mark.  I would rather have seen a film that presented alternative ways of dealing with the problems Dawn and Melanie faced.

Paper Spiders charts a paranoid process very well, but the rest of the story?  Not sure.

Grade:  C+                           By Donna R. Copeland

Thursday, September 3, 2020

MULAN

Yifei Liu     Jet Li     Yoson An     Jason Scott Lee     Li Gong


What a thrilling movie for girls!  Mulan (Liu) is growing up in a small village in China, where she is showing great skill in martial arts.  This goes against tradition, however, and she is instructed to hide her talents and become more traditionally submissive.  She tries it, but when her aged father volunteers to go to war to save the kingdom, it’s too much for her.  Taking her father’s sword, armor, and conscription document, she disguises herself as a young man and joins the army. 
The story is very fanciful, both in terms of her being able to pull off the disguise and in the supernatural feats Mulan accomplishes (not unlike all action movies nowadays), along with another female character.  But this movie is primarily for children, so it fits right in with most of the literature for that group, and I got completely immersed in it as an adult. 
We enjoy the challenges Mulan faces and watching her get out of predicaments while staying fiercely loyal to her family, the kingdom, and their traditions.  She is often heroic, but with the feminine influences of the writers (three women and a man) and director (Niki Caro), she occasionally shows feminine touches, such as the time she is going to battle with fellow soldiers and they are denying their fear and quarrelling a bit, she makes a unifying pronouncement and pledges her vow to protect all of them.  Since she has just proven her fighting skills to them, they calm down and prepare for battle.   
The story has a number of elements that are good models for children, such as the bravery and competence of females, the honor in being loyal and true, wise leaders taking advice from their subordinates, and simple kindness toward others.  Besides those aspects, the cinematography (filmed in New Zealand and China), music, and costumes are gloriously beautiful.   
As Mulan, Yifei Liu’s athletic skills show her talent and training, and her acting ability is just as impressive, whether she is in the throes of battle or quietly dealing with her family, the matchmaker, and a fellow soldier.  The baddie in all this, Bori Kahn played by Jason Scott Lee, is just as awful and fearsome as he is supposed to be.  A surprise is another female super-hero (well played by Li Gong) who is assisting Bori Kahn and can change into a falcon or a whole flock of warrior birds to fight for their cause, the overthrow of the kingdom.  Like Mulan, she was supposed to have assumed the traditional female role, and because she did not, she was ostracized and called a witch.  But because of her character and her history, she attempts to be a mentor to Mulan. 
Mulan should be a hit when it opens, appealing to children around the world and satisfying their need for exciting fantasies.  Disney+ and the filmmakers should be congratulated on their accomplishment. 

Mulan is an exciting adventure that will certainly appeal to children, as well as many adults. 

Grade:  A                               By Donna R. Copeland