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




MAYOR


     Mayor. A noble politician—one seldom seen perhaps. But here we have the mayor of Ramallah, Musa Hadid, trying to steer his Palestinian city through what Palestinians would say is illegal Israeli settlements and incursions into their territory, particularly recently, under Netanyahu.  The Palestinian territories of the West Bank and Jerusalum have been occupied by Israel since 1967.  Jerusalem is a contested capital just 10 miles from Ramallah, a historically Christian city and the seat of the Palestinian government, as well as the epicenter of Palestinian commerce and culture.  It’s an area where Israeli settlements have been increasing. 

            This documentary is a picture of Mayor Hadid’s day-to-day activities in Ramallah leading up to the designation of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and President Donald Trump’s support of it by moving the U.S. Embassy there from Tel Aviv.  

     David Osit is the director, producer, cinematographer, and editor of Mayor, a tall job, but one I think would have benefited from additional eyes on his work.  Specifically, it’s clear he knows all about his subject and all the back stories; and perhaps because of that, we’re not given all the information we need to understand dramatic—or even everyday—events occurring before us. He’s not aware of what we as a public do not know.  We have to guess what a certain discussion or obviously disturbing events are about that are being shown on the screen.

     The ultimate message is clear, though.  From the film’s viewpoint, the Israelis have encroached upon Ramallah with their settlements and military incursions, taking away the Palestinian’s ability to keep up infrastructure and maintain amenities in their town.

     Covered in the film are the political efforts by Mayor Musa Hadid and the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to convince other countries—specifically the U.S. and Great Britain—of their plight.  A poignant observation made by a Ramallah citizen is, “People don’t know about us.”  And as a U.S. citizen, I have to admit that I was not aware of their plight.

      But this is a heroic attempt to inform us of a place in the world that is under threat and needs our attention and concern.  For that, David Osit is to be congratulated on highlighting a conscientious, admirable civic leader and his attempts to do his best—a figure sorely needed in our time!

 

A well crafted documentary informing us in a very human, delightful way about the plight of a city needing support by the international community.

 

Grade:  C+                                    By Donna R. Copeland 




SOUND OF METAL

Riz Ahmed     Olivia Cooke     Paul Raci     Mathieu Amalric


     This is a story written by writer/director Darius Cianfrance (Blue Valentine, The Place Beyond the Pines), and has all the emotional pull of his previous films.  Sound of Metal is co-written and directed by Darius Marder—his frequent collaborator.  Their films invariably have such substance it’s always a special treat to see them—not a treat in the sense of a confection, but in their ability to present major life situations and dilemmas in a way that is emotionally sound and recognizable as a real-life event.

     We meet Ruben (Ahmed) and Lou (Cooke) in the midst of a punk rock performance with Lou (Janis Joplin-esque) on vocals and Ruben pounding away on drums.   The crowd goes wild, and it’s clear they have a huge following. But yo!, it turns out that after one performance Ruben suddenly stops hearing sounds.  A visit to a doctor informs him that he is going deaf (cause unclear).  

     This is a real shake-up, and the filmmakers are skilled in demonstrating to viewers what this must be like.  There is the initial denial, followed by a sense of grief that creeps in. The filmmakers are so adept in having viewers identify with the main character, we almost feel at the end that we’ve actually gone through the experience.

     These scenes segue into a deaf community where Ruben has been sent to accommodate to his loss of hearing.  Lou can’t stay with him—no one can—so returns to her father in Paris. They’re so much in love, it’s wrenching to see them have to separate, but Lou insists on his going to the camp as a life-saving effort when he throws a tantrum in their mobile home and threatens suicide.

     Abrupt shift.  The film does an excellent job in portraying a place where the deaf learn not to see themselves as handicapped and figure out how to live in a hearing world.  Ruben has little talent for introspection, so is befuddled many times by the concepts presented to him; but Joe (Raci) the kindly head of the community is like the father he never had, which makes him stop and think and be willing to do the exercises Joe recommends.  Indeed, Ruben does well and is something of a hero in the community, particularly with the kids.  

     Now comes another major dilemma.  Ruben can pursue the cochlea implants he has heard about or stay within the deaf community imparting his talents for the benefit of the residents.  Does he reconnect with his wife and try to resume his music career?  Or does he accept Joe’s proposition about accepting deafness as a normal condition and continue to inspire others?

     Riz Ahmed gives an award-worthy performance in his ability to inhabit a character, give it charisma, and show agonizing decisions that have to be made. Olivia Cooke is very good, but she is really in only a few scenes.  Kudos to Paul Raci for so accurately and convincingly showing what deaf people face and how they can cope with it optimally.  

     Sound of Metal is a film for everyone. None of us know when a major physical change in ourselves might take place.  But here is a hopeful way that one can deal with it.

 

This is another film for contemporary times that pulls for empathy and understanding of the trials some must undergo in their lifetimes.

 

Grade:  A                                    By Donna R. Copeland 



Thursday, November 19, 2020

CHRISTMAS ON THE SQUARE

Dolly Parton     Christine Baranski     Josh Segarra     Mary Lane Haskell    Selah Kimbro Jones

Treat Williams     Jennifer Lewis     Jeanine Mason


     Maybe, partly, with all that is worrisome going on in our world today, I wasn’t quite in the spirit of Christmas when I viewed Christmas on the Square.  But as much as I’ve always loved Dolly Parton, there is just too much sweetness in this movie.  The music, choreography, sets, and acting are all first-rate, but the predictable script by Maria S. Schlatter pulls at the heartstrings so often, and the emphasis on angels and miracles is so fantastical, I found it a bit cloying. It is possible that more conventionally religious people than I could find it moving and inspiring.

     The main character Regina (Baranski) is shown to be a real witch, always disgruntled and dismissive of others with no nostalgia for her hometown or empathy for its residents.  She is even rude to her lifelong best friend Margeline (Lewis).  After her father’s death, Regina buys the town and looks to make a neat profit by selling it to the Chita Mall (cheat ‘em all?) to develop the biggest and the best shopping haven.  To add insult to injury the residents are all to be evicted on Christmas Eve.  “Life is not a fairy tale”, Regina sings with a new acquaintance who, unbeknownst to Regina, will be a major instrument in the alteration of her world view.

     Moreover, what she doesn’t realize is that there is an angel (Parton) and an angel-in-training (Mason) who are behind the scenes manipulating her to change—for the good, of course!  

     In that sense, the film makes some solid points in modeling encouragement and forgiveness toward others, and in telling a back-story that explains how Regina came to be the person she is.  Moreover, to its credit, the wide diversity of the cast expands on the principle of tolerance.  

Dolly sings often in the story, starting out as a humble figure on the square with a box labeled “Change” (a fitting theme of the film) and validating her vocal fame. Although not known as a singer, Baranski does a very credible, lyrical job in singing her role, and her acting skill for which she is known, is very apparent.  Duets of the pastor (Segarra) and his wife (Haskell) and their solos highlight their musical assets.  

     A highlight of the film for me is the conversation between Regina and Violet (Jones), a child bartender (don’t worry; it’s reasonably explained).  The child is shown to be unusually perceptive (as children are known to be) and wise beyond her years, as she notes in questions about her role as a bartender.  The biggest delight of the movie for me is the conversation the two have, in which the script is strong, and the rapport between the two actors so strong and touching, one is aware of two talented actors at their best.  Not surprising for Baranski, of course, but impressive where young Selah Kimbro Jones is concerned. I can hardly wait to see her in more films.

     So, my review is mixed, as the movie is likely to be a hit among families (at least those who are Christian) looking for an uplifting movie and others who maintain a wish/belief in miracles.  For those who are skeptical or take a dim view of the traditional “Christmas movie”, you probably won’t be attracted to it.  I’m not sure how people of very different religions will regard it.

 

A movie for those in the Christmas spirit who revel in the magic of the season.  It may not be apt for those of different faiths or those with a more nonsectarian bent.

 

Grade:  C                                    By Donna R. Copeland

THE LAST VERMEER

Clads Bang     Guy Pearce     August Diehl

 

     Although this is an interesting story, The Last Vermeer is uneven in its presentation and inserts events in the script that seem to be intended simply to make the film more exciting to the current generation.  John Orloff (pen name, James McGee) wrote the script about a character named Han van Meergren who sold forged Vermeer paintings to the Nazis during WWII.  This story covers the period when he is put on trial for being a Nazi sympathizer.  

     Central to this story is Captain Joseph Piller (Bang), a Jew who is determined to reclaim all the artwork acquired by the Nazis that had once been owned by Jewish people.  Piller is not very appealing (macho, gruff, willing to use aggressive techniques on people he’s questioning), so makes an unconvincing portrait of a hero.

     Piller has managed to apprehend van Meergren (artfully played by Pearce), but has to fight off Minister of Justice Alex de Klerks (Diehl), who Piller sees as someone who makes deals with Nazis to let their sympathizers off.  So he fights de Klerks for custody, but de Klerks is not giving up.  This turns into a struggle between government officials, which is not very interesting.

     More interesting are the justifications that van Meergren gives for why he sold the forgeries,  the stories around which he builds his defense, and his own personality.  Just the opposite of the stolid Piller, he is a bon vivant who charms everyone.  In fact, one account is that he charmed the people of Holland so much, they were cheering for him to win his trial.

     Guy Pearce is clearly the actor to focus upon, both in terms of his skill and in terms of the character he plays.  In his performance, one can see why audiences might so identify with the villain, they root for him—charming to the nth and giving all kinds of appealing twitches and eye messages.  Bang does very well with the character as written, but unfortunately for the actor, he comes across as chauvinistic and someone so focused on his own agenda, he has no empathy.  August Diehl is superb in his portrayal of an expert who lauds it over everyone, but is discredited in the end.

     Forgeries in art tend to be some of the more exciting plots to devotees of art and art history, and I expected to relish this one.  However, the male-dominated, rather convoluted plot in this one is disappointing.  Two redeeming factors are the performance by Guy Pearce and the cinematography of Remi Adefarasin.

 

Only art lovers will be attracted to this film, but they are very likely to be disappointed by its lack of artistry in the script.

 

Grade:  D                                    By Donna R. Copeland




CRAZY, NOT INSANE

                                                 

     A documentary by Alex Gibney features a psychiatrist who has tried for years to convince the legal profession that the death penalty should not be used on those who have serious psychopathology because those people are missing the controls that keep the rest of us from doing heinous acts.  Her basic question has been, “What keeps us [you, me, everyone else] from becoming a murderer?”  Having interviewed extensively 22 serial killers and scores of other serious offenders, she posits that Identity Dissociative Disorder (previously, Multiple Personality Disorder) accounts for the majority of them. She finds these other identities in perpetrators she has interviewed by eliciting them from family history, hypnosis, and psychological tests, and always verifies that these people also have organic signs from neurology and imaging tests that suggest physical abuse—usually coming from parents.  I get the impression that it takes personal histories including interviews, neuroimaging, and psychological tests altogether to confirm an identity disorder leading to murder.

     Working with Clinical Psychologist Dr. Catherine Yeager, neurologist Dr. Jonathan Pincus, and defense attorney Richard Burr, psychiatrist Dr. Dorothy Lewis assembled a team to examine very carefully common precedents to the horrendous acts performed by killers.  Her interviews of these people are fascinating not only from the information she elicits, but the trusting bond she is able to achieve with them. Her evaluation of perpetrators in hypnosis will be particularly interesting to those who have never observed a hypnosis interview that pulls out different identities in the same person.  

     Yes, you may be skeptical, but when she shows different signatures (no, not your usual variations seen) from one person on different occasions sometimes using a completely different name; differing responses to psychological tests (as in one case, one being psychotic and the other being completely rational), and various personalities emerging during interviews, it’s very convincing.

     Crazy Not Insane gives full voice to those in opposition to her findings—those favoring a crime-punishment approach (for instance, state governors and prosecutors) and prominent forensic psychiatrist Dr. Park Dietz.  The film shows his clear disregard for Dr. Lewis, but also highlights Dr. Lewis’ convincing evidence afterwards.

     Another fascinating encounter is Dr. Lewis interviewing an appointed executioner (electrician on the side) who in his job as executioner, claims to have absolutely no feelings about what he does.  But the pictures he paints after each execution might indicate something more going on in his psyche than he realizes.

     It is disturbing to those of us finding convincing evidence in Dr. Lewis’ studies to see protesters outside courts and other places chanting that someone should die.  What draws the general populace to such occasions?  Why are we drawn to hangings and other formal occasions of death?  

     This film attempts to answer these questions in a comprehensive, insightful way—no easy answers.

 

A documentary for those wishing to explore the issue of capital punishment of the mentally ill.  

 

Grade:  A                                    By Donna R. Copeland 

MA RAINEY'S BLACK BOTTOM

Viola Davis     Chadwick Boseman     Glynn Turman     Colman Domingo     Michael Potts

Jeremy Shamos     Taylor Paige     Jonny Coyne     Dusan Brown


     In this presentation, Viola Davis is completely transformed from her normal Hollywood public appearances—stylish, well spoken, and winner of Triple Crown Acting (Oscar, Emmy, Tony) awards, into a character called Ma Rainey, a flashily dressed, deep-voiced blues singer in the 1920’s known as “Mother of the Blues” who could invariably captivate her audience.  She was somewhat a mentor to the legendary Bessie Smith (“Empress of the Blues”) who would come after her, and between the two of them their music helped usher in the popularity of the Blues genre.  

     This story is about an attempted new recording of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom Band and the internal and external struggles they endure as they interact with one another, the recording studio, and ever-sinister threats from the white community.  You see the force of Ma Rainey’s personality in her demands (repair of her car in a minor accident, Coca Cola, a fan, etc.), knowing she has the trump card of her and her band’s presence.

     That part of the movie is tense and still somewhat entertaining, but the part that really glued me in is when different men in the band describe their encounters with racial injustice, the all too often Black experience in America. This is when you know the movie is not simply about a funky band.  It’s telling us—once again!—about the importance of racism in our country. Yes, we can say this movie takes place in the 1920’s, but when we see the protests and behind-stories associated with them in 2020, the points hit home.

     Davis shows us again that she is a wonder in acting by fully embodying her character and keeping the viewer honed in on her.  Chadwick Boseman—as irritating as his character is, even though he may be right in what he is arguing—is one of the elements of the movie that makes it work, simply by his sheer ability.  (We will miss the actor for many years hence.)  The other supporting actors are impressive in their portrayals, and bring authenticity and emotional valence to the film.

     As significant and touching as I see the arguments among the band members and those between Ma Rainey and between the white agent and studio head from a social standpoint, as a viewer I found it hard to watch for such long scenes in the movie. I kept wanting to leave it and go do something else.  This may be my whiteness coming through, but such incessant arguing is never productive—as we will see by the end.

     The “Staginess” of the production was a distraction for me.  The movie is based on August Wilson’s stage play (Broadway, Royal National Theatre in London), which was very successful. But as so often happens, converting a stage play to a movie unfortunately shows it as a replication of a stage play.  For much of the time I was watching, it really seemed like a film of the play. I’m not sure exactly why this is a drawback, but I’ve seen it so many times before, as in Fences.  Movies need to look like movies.  

      I am mixed in my reactions to Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, about which I find both positive and negative aspects.

 

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is to be seen as a chronicle of Black experience in American music.

 

Grade:  C+                                    By Donna R. Copeland 



Sunday, November 15, 2020

AMMONITE

Kate Winslet     Saoirse Ronan     James McArdle


     A film about identities—perceived, altered, and evolving across time.  We see two women thrown together by outside forces, one na├»ve and entitled and one jaded, expecting nothing from anyone.  They couldn’t be farther apart; yet because of circumstances and the blooming curiosity of one of them, they are drawn to one another.  But that’s not the whole story.

     Mary (Winslet) is a paleontologist denigrated by men in the profession, even though she has earned a reputation for discovering many valuable fossils. Charming Roderick Murchison (McArdle) comes seeking her out to “learn” from her and participate in her work. She is only nominally interested, and endures his presence with only a modicum of patience.  And, oh, by the way, he has a wife Charlotte (Ronan) who is ailing and not able to accompany him on his scientific forays. Wouldn’t Mary be willing to care for her, take her along on her daily visits to the shore in his absence? She would be paid handsomely.

     A number of scenes show very clearly how subjugated women were in the 19thCentury.  They tended to follow orders with no sense of being able to refuse.  In her role of supporting her aging mother and achieving some respect in her work, Mary has achieved a certain degree of both self- efficacy and resignation in the face of power.  But she agrees to allow Charlotte to stay with her and her mother.

     We will see that scenario play out by two of our best actors in moviedom.  Kate Winslet has made at least a dozen movies for which she was nominated for major awards since the mid-90’s.  She was awarded an Oscar for The Reader.  About twenty years her junior, Saoirse Ronan seems on the same path toward high regard, being nominated by major awards for five of her six films in the 2,000’s.  The two pair together extremely well in Ammonite, each bringing the best of her talents in portraying complicated characters.  Winslet’s is probably the more difficult because Mary’s life has so much internal depth that rarely emerges and she must convey much by facial expression, posture, etc.  Ronan must come across as more inhibited and in the shadow of her ambitious husband in the beginning.  In his absence, we see her more dynamic assets blossom.

     Francis Lee has mostly been an actor on television during his career, and it’s remarkable that Ammonite, his second film to direct (and in this one he is screenwriter as well), is not being nearly as well received as his first, God’s Own Country, for which he won a BAFTA.  The pace in Ammonite seems to have made some people yawn, but delving into characters’ makeup—something I’m attuned to—issomething I actually enjoy, so the pace worked well for me.  As to its being too similar to previous films, I see it as being very different from, say, Portrait of a Lady, in which even though it is British and set in an isolated beach venue, it is very different in the characters of the two women in each film.

     Although Ammonite has some of the marks of a new director, I find the acting performances and script bring it to a level I can endorse.

 

Ammonite is for viewers who love period dramas and relish actors who are exemplary in their portrayals.

 

Grade:  B                                    By Donna R. Copeland 




Thursday, November 12, 2020

WOLFWALKERS

Voices of:  Honor Kneafsey     Eva Whittaker     Sean Bean     Simon McBurney


     In the tradition of previous Irish animated films (Secret of the Kells, Song of the Sea), Wolfwalkers uses hand-crafted animation to bring a 17thCentury folktale to life for the modern age in female empowerment and animal intelligence.  The artistic, hand-crafted animation of a compelling story make this a contender for the best animation of 2020.  

     As the story goes, Robyn (Kneafsey) has aspirations to be like/with her father, hunting wolves who are destroying the crops and frightening the farmers of Kilkenny.  The most cringing moments (for me), along with the threat of death, were the countless times Robyn’s father (Bean) would not listen to his daughter and the Lord Protector (McBurney) would not listen to him.  There are nail-biting scenes full of danger, so only older children able to tolerate life-threatening drama should see it.  The movie may not be for younger children.

     Robyn is a willful child, and despite her father’s admonition to stay at home and clean the house, she cannot help herself from venturing out with her trusty bird Merlin.  This presents a dilemma for him, as he has promised his deceased wife to protect Robyn at all costs.  He is befuddled by his daughter’s behavior of sneaking out of the house, because he has a moral imperative to obey authority.  When he runs into his daughter in the wild—where the wolves are—he can only state what he has learned.  “Go back home”, “Be a good girl” and “do what you are told.”  “I promised your mother I would keep you safe.”  (Her mother is no longer alive.)  

     The excitement and key to the story comes when on one of her forays Robyn encounters a wolfwalker’s child, Mebh (Whittaker) and they become fast friends.  When they have to help each other they do, but sometimes it is at great risk for both.  Keep in mind that humans can turn into wolves and back again, which requires a certain degree of abstraction on the part of the viewer.  For inspiration, writers/directors Tomm Moore and Ross Stewart took the wolf from mythology—a being that is regarded as wise as a person as well as a partner to humans.  

     Drawings and animations are half of the enjoyment of the movie including the music (Bruno Coulais and the Klia).   But the story is maximally engaging, enhanced by the animation and special effects.

 

For devotees of animation and folklore, this is a movie for you.  Lots of excitement and suspense, all with great depth.

 

Grade:  A                                    By Donna R. Copeland



Wednesday, November 11, 2020

CODED BIAS

 


     This helpful, informative documentary is hosted by an attractive, charming Ph.D. candidate at MIT, Joy Buolamwini.  She works in the MIT Media Lab with a special interest in Artificial Intelligence (AI), and after she began realizing the potential harm in its intrinsic bias, she founded the Algorithmic Justice League.  She is joined by numerous other researchers and writers to enlighten us about AI and the use of algorithms by government officials and corporations.  Also featured is a woman in the UK, Silkie Carlo.  The UK has started an extensive program of surveillance involving taking pictures of passersby on sidewalks and collaborating with the police department to arrest a person if they find a match.  In response to this program, Carlo started Big Brother Watch intended to protect the British people from what she sees as the kind of surveillance George Orwell warned about in his famous novel, 1984.  

     Most people are unaware of the widespread use of AI.  We’ve heard about facial recognition technology in China, where the government there is using it more than anywhere else.  They use it to for people to enter secure buildings, pay for transportation, groceries (even vending machines), and just about everywhere else.  The government used it to identify protestors in Hong Kong.  Moreover, China has a “social credit score” that tracks what citizens say and do on the basis of where their faces appear, and rates them accordingly.  This score can affect not only an individual’s life, but the lives of family members as well. Obviously, any criticism of the government will cause a score to go down and will determine whether a person receives certain opportunities.  Individual Chinese have little choice in this; for instance, in order to get internet service, one must agree to have one’s picture taken for purposes of facial recognition.

     The MIT researchers and others have recognized the potential harm in mass surveillance without consent, not only on the part of government but on the part of corporations and public institutions as well.  Concerns more fundamental to surveillance have to do with biases found in the technology that give it a high rate of misidentification.  The researchers have discovered that the technology was devised primarily by white males, for instance, so that faces of women and people of color are more frequently misidentified and discriminated against.  As an example, it became clear that Amazon’s use of algorithms for hiring was so discriminatory, they stopped using it.  Other examples taken from Wall Street, school districts, college admissions, health care, credit, and a wide-ranging number of systems have been found to have inaccuracies in their use of facial recognition technology that have resulted in “algorithmic oppression.”

     The upshot is that Federal regulation of the use of this technology is paramount in making sure that citizens are not harmed in ways even they may not recognize. Startling is the fact that the researchers estimate that over 117 million Americans are already on facial recognition networks.  Only a few cities in the U.S. have banned the use of facial recognition without expressed consent.

 

Coded Bias gives us fair warning about the widespread use of facial recognitiontechnology, on the basis of its intrusiveness and built-in biases.

 

Grade:  A                                    By Donna R. Copeland




HILLBILLY ELEGY

Owen Asztalos     Gabriel Basso     Amy Adams     Glenn Close     Freida Pinto     Haley Bennett


     After a ride touring the horrors of addiction combined with credulousness, Ron Howard has made me feel as if I’d been there.  One watches this like a child in the drama, pulled in, but helpless to do anything about what is going on onscreen.  

     The main character, J.D. (Asztalos as the younger and Ballo as the older) is looking back on his life as a small boy growing up in the hills of Kentucky into a family strong on loyalty and responsibility toward one another, but susceptible to addictions.  Based on the memoir of the real J.D. Vance, it is indeed an elegy to the people who brought him up—some of whom have passed on.  It shows how strong family connections can be—especially if family has been its primary value—when this has been drilled into a child throughout.  The film likewise shows the sense of guilt that is a strain running through it.

     Young J.D. lives with his mother Bev (Adams) and older sister Lindsay (Bennett), with Grandma (Close) ever present.  He’s a bit clumsy, and this can trigger a crisis with his mother who is usually on a fine edge.  Susceptible to stress, she might take out after anyone, with no thought of the consequences.  Earlier in life, J.D. has been able to count on Grandma to rescue him from his mother’s rages, and later, his older sister Lindsay (read parent-child), who has become Bev’s primary responsibility.

     Through all this, with some luck and some of his Grandma’s guidance, J.D. has managed to make it to law school.  It’s a completely different world than he’s been used to (Uh…what fork do I use among three on the table?!), and he has some sense about the cloistered world of the Ivy League and how he doesn’t fit in.

     Luck often plays a role in success stories, and here one piece of luck is in J.D.’s romantic relationship with Usha (Pinto), a woman of Indian descent who has all the empathy and good sense lacking in his early life.  Intuitively, he grasps how different and how healing she can be, worrying that his troubles will drive her off.  As you watch this film, their interactions will serve as flight into reasonableness away from the cacophony of J.D.’s circumstances. 

     Ron Howard has established himself as a film director who can empathize with all kinds of people with major problems (e.g., A Beautiful Mind, Cinderella Man) and here he sheds light on not only the ethos of “hillbilly” families, but also the plague of addiction that has hit them so hard—opioids.  They are vulnerable because without the essential skills of parenting, open communication, and reasoning, families are unable to cope with the thrill of the moment, peer pressure, and economic need that prey upon them.  It’s a tale that needs to be told dramatically to get the point across.

     Glenn Close is her usual wonder to behold, almost unrecognizable here as a wizened old woman who has done the best she can, considering her life story. She conveys crusty warmth and encouragement, somehow getting through to the hapless J.D.  Because of the role she plays—despite how well she does it—Amy Adams is not so sympathetic, although seeing her in the grip of addiction makes one more empathic with those currently in its throes.  Gabriel Basso, Freida Pinto, and Haley Bennett round out a well-chosen cast to tell this poignant story.

 

Hard to watch, but a beautifully composed film that is eloquent in its depiction of the effect of drugs on an entire family through generations.

 

Grade:  A                                    By Donna R. Copeland



 

Friday, November 6, 2020

THE LIFE AHEAD

Sophia Loren     Ibrahima Gueye     Renato Carpentieri


     One of the most beautiful movies I’ve ever seen.  It’s so well constructed, suspense is maintained throughout, and all the elements of filmmaking excel.  As director, Edoardo Ponti (son of Carlo and Sophia), keeps a moving pace with the action, complemented by the cinematography (Angus Hudson), the music (Gabriel Yared), and above all the acting.  It’s been almost ten years since Sophia Loren has made a full-length feature film (TV films and shorts in-between), and her lasting talent pushes ahead in full force as Madame Rosa here, an older woman with a remarkable past life now tending to the abandoned children of immigrant sex workers who promise to return and pick up their children.  One of the themes of the film is about mothers, but Rosa is no soft, warm, fuzzy figure; she knows exactly how to aggressively keep street kids under control.  But she is fair and nurturing at the same time, and is mindful of helping the kids appreciate where they came from.  

     Momo (Gueye) is a kid you like to see make it.  He’s tough, full of pain, and smart, along with being a belligerent smart-ass who disdains authority or almost any tenderness shown him. But he’s not entirely closed up. With time, this Senegalese refugee allows kindness from others to come through, and he is a quick learner, always curious about what is going on around him, and benefitting from experience.

     Rosa’s trusted doctor has begged her to take on Momo, a ward of social services. Her first interactions with him (he stole from her while knocking her down in the market) have not been promising, and he is rude to her when they’re introduced.  But Dr. Coen (Carpentieri) is persistent, showing how he has the child’s best interest at heart.  His fine intuitive sense tells him that the two will be good for each other.

     It’s rewarding to see how fairness and tolerance for others can build up trust over time.  And The Life Ahead is the epitome of demonstrating such. In addition to understanding how people can get into the circumstances they are presently in, the film expertly weaves in amiable interactions among Jews, Muslims, Blacks, and other groups normally at odds.  It illustrates a promising world that many of us wish for, even though the story is set in a poor part of an Italian southern seaside town.

     Based on a Romain Gary novel, The Life Before Us (which was adapted for a 1977 movie called “Madama Rosa” directed by Moshe Mizrahi and starring Simone Signoret), this version includes a number of clever lines that exploit language twists (e.g., “I’m usually good at things I can’t stand”, said by Momo to one of his Muslim benefactors) and meaningful phrases, such as “I’m here; I’m here”, as in the concluding Diane Warren song sung by Laura Pausini.  Powerful images, such as a lioness Momo used as his avatar and the striking image toward the end of black and white hands clasping one another, are profound in their effect.

    On Netflix.

 

The Life Ahead will capture your heart while modeling what an ideal world would look like if we could all understand each other and get along.

 

Grade:  A                                    By Donna R. Copeland 



Thursday, November 5, 2020

CITY HALL


     For a comprehensive look at city government, Frederick Wiseman’s City Hall would be almost all you would need to see. Not that every city is the same, but to see the wide breadth of a big city mayor’s reach and responsibilities, it’s educational.  At least it was for me; although I’ve lived in a big city for years, always attuned to city government, I had never stopped and thought about what a mayor actually does in such broad scope.  

     Wiseman is noteworthy for his award-winning documentaries and about cities in particular (Monrovia, Indiana, Ex Libris: New York Public Library, In Jackson Heights, National Gallery).  In his films, it’s almost impossible to separate the filmmaker from the film, because he sees them as reflective of personal experience, not objective portraits.  Since he is usually the cinematographer as well as the writer/director, his camera is observational from his point of view.

Another characteristic of Wiseman’s films is the absence of narration or exposition; in City Hall, for instance, the viewer has to watch a scene for a while to figure out who the characters are and what the meeting on screen is about.  Despite that, Wiseman manages to capture dramas of one sort or another to heighten interest.

    Wiseman’s primary subject here is Martin (Marty) Walsh, the mayor of Boston, Massachusetts.  Walsh, the son of Irish immigrants, survived childhood cancer and eventually graduated from Boston College.  From there his assent was rapid from being a labor union president and state representative and going on to win the election for mayor in 2013, and a second term in 2017. 

      It’s easy to see why Wiseman would want to capture the tenure of Walsh as mayor of Boston.  He has strong basic values of equity and fairness, and after overcoming a brief addiction which taught him the importance of acknowledging emotions and talking about significant experiences, he is sensitive to the challenges and needs of the disadvantaged whether by race, sex, or ethnicity.  This allows him the capacity to move the city forward in practices, policies, and programs that are meant to benefit the general public.

     City Hall is a vast cityscape on film as we get a good look at the buildings and streets, and then see the huge number of services and programs it sponsors.  We “drop in” on numerous meetings, listen to the citizens discussing projects with city leaders—and often, the mayor himself, who stays in close touch with as many people as he can.  The film opens and closes with city staff responding to citizens’ calls, always polite, patient, and helpful.  We’re given views of the usual city services and events—fire, police, sewage and garbage collection, libraries, schools, parks, budget reviews, organizational meetings, traffic control and monitoring, parking, housing and the homeless, addiction prevention and treatment, real estate development and issuing of permits and fines, tax issues, continuing education classes, advocacy, and community outreach.

     Reflecting the mayor’s compassion and broad interests, he’s involved in planning a celebration of the Red Sox victory in the World Series; coordinating a convention sponsored by the NAACP; and managing the wide-ranging diversity among ethnic groups, immigrants, LGBTQ, the Disabled, and women’s issues. After Hurricane Harvey, he arranged for 18 truckloads of supplies to be sent to Houston, Texas.  He says, “Differences don’t have to divide us”; a coalition of diverse groups creates democracy.  

     Viewers should be alerted to the length of the film:  4½ hours long.

 

Here is a most admirable government leader who fosters his citizens’ activity and interest, thereby showing his commitment to democracy.

 

Grade:  A                        By Donna R. Copeland




 

KINDRED

Fiona Shaw     Tamara Lawrance     Jack Lowden

     It’s very difficult to write a good horror story, and Kindred serves as an example of what can go wrong. Making the story horrific and plausible where the plausibility enhances the terror is key to a successful horror film or book.  Jordan Peale’s Get Out is a prime example of success.  Even though there’s only a remote chance that any of us will come across the experiment shown, everything that led up to our realization was convincing in its normality.  Kindred, on the other hand has so many characteristics of implausibility, the viewer is immediately taken out of the fantasy.

     Charlotte (Lawrance) and Ben (Edward Holcroft) are a happily married bi-racial couple who are excitedly planning to move to Australia from England, both to get a new start and for Ben to distance himself from his over-controlling mother, Margaret (Shaw).  The first kink in their plans comes when Charlotte discovers she’s pregnant, even though they had been using birth control.  She’s not happy; her mother was not ideal, so she has doubts about her own ability to be a good mother (note:  an early set-up for later on in the plot).  The second is that Ben is killed in an accident (this is in the preview of the movie), and Charlotte is taken to Margaret’s house to recover—without her consent.

     Living with Margaret is her stepson Thomas (Lowden) whom she treats less like a relative than a servant.  And he is completely devoted to her.  Very soon, it becomes clear that Charlotte is trapped—no phone, no means of transportation, but under the control of Margaret and Thomas.

     In addition to the cheap shots with symbols of black mockingbirds (mocking-birds—get it?), we have to be convinced that Charlotte has no means of escape, that her loyal friend without any apparent reason will betray her, that the medical profession can be bought or duped, that two people as crazy as Margaret and Thomas can enlist so many people into their trust, and that…oh well, that’s enough.  There are too many elements that make the viewer think, “Oh, c’mon!”

     Although most of the actors in Kindred are not well known—except for Fiona Shaw (“Killing Eve”), they all do a credible job in portraying their characters.  Experienced Shaw is the most effective in exemplifying an outwardly noble but inwardly devious character.  A comic element is in seeing physician Dr. Richards (Anton Lesser) conspire with Margaret, as his character Qyburn did with Queen Cersei in “Game of Thrones.”  

     Beyond that—granted, a small point—there is little to recommend this film; I found it torturous to get through.

 

Kindred may only be appealing to those who like to experience fear without much thought of reason.

 

Grade:  D                           By Donna R. Copeland