Thursday, October 21, 2021

THE HARDER THEY FALL

 Idris Elba     Jonathan Majors     Regina King     LaKeith Stanfieldm    Zazie Beetz

 Danielle Deadwyler     Ed Gathegi     Delroy Lindo

           This is a western where you might feel “wrung dry” by the end.  It’s a bit of a spoof on westerns in general, but it is also serious in demonstrating that black faces were ubiquitous throughout the post Civil War west, even among the cowboys.  The subject of the movie, Nat Love, was actually a cowboy sometime after the Civil War when his parents became sharecroppers, but he decided at age 16 when he had earned a bit of money he left home to see the west.  He floated around for a time, being a ranch hand, a cattle driver, and a protector of herds from rustlers.  Soon, he became a marksman with a reputation, and competed in rodeos for prize money.  After he married and settled down, he left the cowboy life, but wrote and published his autobiography, Life and Adventures of Nat Love, Better Known in the Cattle Country as ‘Deadwood Dick’, by Himself.

            The filmmakers have not based their story on the autobiography; they are clear about the fact that their movie is fictional, although they do allow up front that “These.  People.  Existed.”  Writer-director Jeymes Samuel and his co-writer Boaz Yakin mix together various historical personalities interacting with one another in ways that spring from their imaginations.  Specifically, they tell of two groups of gangs in the west going after one another after the leader of one, Rufus Buck (Elba) had killed the parents of the leader of the other, Nat Love (Majors), when he was a boy, leaving a tell-tale scar from a knife on his forehead.  (Incidentally, the purpose of this scar is made clear in the last minutes of the movie.)  For an account of some of the historical figures on which characters are based, go to Screenrant’s Faefyx Collington review:  https://screenrant.com/harder-they-fall-real-life-true-story-history-characters/

            The Harder They Fall is noteworthy in its conceptualization of black characters in a western, the mixing up of historical figures—whether named or not—with fictional ones, 

and the quality of the storytelling in terms of build-up, attention-grabbing details, and humor.  Western motifs abound, such as the twirling of guns on the forefinger and thumb interrupted by sudden shots to beat another’s draw, ominous footsteps portending doom, robbing banks and trains, and the macho posturing of cowboy/gang-like figures.  Despite the blood and gore and sheer sadism at times, the movie is entertaining.

            Casting deserves kudos for Victoria Thomas.  Jonathan Majors (The Last Black Man in San Francisco) is eloquent in his portrayal of a man from an honorable family being terrorized as a child.  His whole face reveals the years of distress and anger he has experienced.  Idris Elba is always extra fine in whatever role he plays, and he brings all his talent to bear in the story of Rufus Buck who, for all his faults, somewhere underneath is a modicum of honor.  Colorful women mark high entertainment value in the movie.  Regina King as Rufus’ woman Trudy Smith stands out as a powerful female who can be as ruthless as any man, but maintaining loyalty to what she believes in.  Likewise, Zazie Beetz as Nat Love’s woman shows her steely commitment to justice more even than to her man.  I appreciated the writers giving strong personalities to both these women; neither is simply an appendage to “her” man.

            Secondary characters were played so well and illustratively by supporting actors such as LaKeith Stanfield as Cherokee Bill, Danielle Deadwyler as Cuffee, RJ Cyler as Jim Beckwith, and others.

            On the whole, the production of The Harder They Fall is exemplary.  The script is so intelligent, yet pulls us along in an exciting thriller, teasing us with snippets from the past that while not necessarily right on point, makes us want to learn more.  Small drawbacks include the overly long physical fight between two female characters, a script that is overly complicated, and a dialog that is not always clear.

            Yes, it’s a drama and a western, but it’s a thriller as well.

 

Explore our past in an unexpected, delightful—but still thrilling—story with colorful actors playing fascinating figures.

 

Grade:  B+                            By Donna R. Copeland

DUNE

Timothee Chalamet     Rebecca Ferguson     Oscar Isaac     Zendaya     Jason Momoa

Stellen Skarsgard     Stephen McKinley Henderson     Javier Bardem     Chen Chang

Sharon Duncan-Brewster     Dave Bautista     Charlotte Rampling

            I would say it’s just glorious to be enthralled by the sensory extravaganza that Dune presents.  The vistas and patterns of shimmering sand in the desert (Greig Fraser, Cinematographer), the elegance of the aircraft, the fascinating production design (Patrice Vermette), the eeriness of the music (Hans Zimmer) and sound effects—Denis Villeneuve and his collaborating filmmakers mesh together so well, the film is like a living tapestry that is spellbinding.  

            And the cast!  Beginning with Chalamet as an ideal Paul Atreides, a duke’s son trained in a comprehensive framework of arms, politics and government, and prophecy.  His eyes, his bearing, his obvious sincerity all convey a special person—let alone his handsome looks.  All the casting choices are spot on.  We get Oscar Isaac as Paul’s father and Duke of Atreides cynically awarded a planet in the Imperium by jealous calculating emperor Shaddam.  He portrays nobility and a genuine sense of fairness in the universe. Rebecca Ferguson as Paul’s mother sees that he is physically/mentally/emotionally prepared for an expected destiny.  She demonstrates the power of the Bene Gesserit sisterhood which is intimidating physically and emotionally and keenly perceptive.  Jason Momoa as Duncan the Atreides’ swordmaster, Josh Brolin as the Atreides’ weapons expert, and Javier Bardem as Stilgar the leader of the desert Fremen all demonstrate their characters’ particular skills and their mentoring attachment to Paul.  Sharon Duncan-Brewster as the ecology-aware Dr. Liet Kynes; and Charlotte Rampling as the Reverend Mother Mohiam, from the exclusive sisterhood Bene Gesserit aptly fill out a stellar cast.  In a departure from the book, Dr. Kynes (played by Sharon Duncan-Brewster) is a female, presumably a nod to contemporary times.

            For those not familiar with the story, the universe consists of a number of planets, each with its own head.  Over all is the emperor of the conglomerate, the Imperium, which has a huge army, the Sardauker.  In the mix is the planet Arrakis, which is extremely valuable for its “spice” found in the sands of its desert.  This spice, mélange, promotes youth, vitality, and lifespan, is a valuable resource.  Planet Harkonnen has held its sway on Arrakis for years, exploiting the crop of spice for its own benefit, along with cooking the books to favor itself.  Now, the emperor is not only worried about his revenue from this planet, but he is jealous of Lord Atreides of Caladan.  

            Thinking he will win by pitting the two against each other, the emperor appoints Lord Atreides to the Arrakis planet in direct opposition to Harkonnen.  (The fact that he will eventually favor Harkonnen over Atreides is part of the story.)  But he hasn’t taken into account the Atreides’ humanitarian bent.  The Duke is committed to good governance, which includes diplomatically engaging the Fremen, masters of the desert, whom the Harkonnens have mistreated.

            This account of Dune ends with Paul and his mother Lady Jessica being rescued from the desert by the Fremen who are wondering if he is their messiah.  This is Villeneuve’s Part One; Part Two is planned for a later release.

 

Thrill to the story of interplanetary competition mixed in with mystical realism in an epochal battle for the good.

 

Grade:  A                              By Donna R. Copeland 


Thursday, October 14, 2021

THE LAST DUEL

 Matt Damon     Adam Driver     Jodie Comer     Ben Affleck     Marton Csokas     Harriet Walter

 

           I can’t think of any movie I would want to see three times back-to-back.  But that is a little like viewing The Last Duel.  It is supposed to be a story told from different points of view, but since the versions are not all that different from one another, the effect is repetitiousness.  Why am I seeing the same scenes over and over?

            The setting is in Normandy, France, during the 14th Century, with all its primitive beliefs about women and religion at that time.  The main characters are drawn up in detail.  Jean de Carrouges (Damon) is a by-the-book kind of man with a strict moral code.  He is loyal to the king and a noteworthy fighter, but he is not personable in any way and turns people off with his bluntness.  Although they start out as friends, he and Jacques de Gris (Driver) end up being rivals to the death.  Jacques is just the opposite of Jean; good-looking, charming, persuasive, and quite willing to cut corners to please Count d’Alencon (Affleck), and the Count rewards him generously.  

            The part of the story that’s the most interesting is the transformation in the relationship between these two men—and all the players who contributed to that transition, along with the basic nature of each man.  The movie is good at showing how Jacques elicits Jean’s suspiciousness, and Jean’s lack of awareness of Jacques speaking up for him.  It shows how common gossip can work both for and against those who perpetrate and foster it.  It shows how an autocratic regime is ultimately bad for most people and how it stymies efforts directed toward the good.  It also makes the point loud and clear about women in that era being the property of their husbands, and a crime against a woman is really a crime against her husband.

            The acting is another strength of The Last Duel.  Damon, Driver, and Affleck live up to their reputations for playing various kinds of characters successfully.  Driver is especially skilled in facial expressiveness and demonstrating the nuances of a role, particularly one like this where he has to appear both genuine and duplicitous.  Damon can do the same thing, but this role is typical for him in its earnestness and honesty.  I almost didn’t recognize Affleck as the oily Count d’Alencon with a blond wig! But he aced it.  A shining new star is Jodie Comer (TV’s “Killing Eve”, Free Guy and Star Wars Episode IX) who appears authentic as a woman of the 14th Century in a role completely unlike those she’s had before.

            The movie shows the brutality (to us in the 21st Century) of the 14th Century ethos and possibly make us grateful for the time we live in.  It depicts the last legally sanctioned duel in France’s history

            The Last Duel could be a lesson well told; but it’s just too bad the filmmakers didn’t spot some contradictions.  Number one is that Jean’s superior fighting/dueling skills would lead us to think that he could make quick work of the partying, bureaucratic Jacques.  That duel went on far too long.  The battles shown were also unnecessary, particularly since it was almost impossible to distinguish the fighters from one another and determine what was going on—a huge task for the cinematographer.  This film needed an editor with a skilled pen.

 

Given the talent involved in The Last Duel, it’s quite surprising that it didn’t soar.

 

Grade:  C-                             By Donna R. Copeland


WHEEL OF FORTUNE AND FANTASY

Kotone Furukawa     Aumu Nakajima     Kiyohika Shibukawa     Katsuki Mori     Aoba Kawai

 Fusako Urabe     Hyunri     Shouma Kai 



            The wheels of fortune and fantasy do spin around in this finely executed Japanese film.  Adding to the mysteriousness for English speakers will be the challenge of keeping track of the characters matched to the actors, especially since some of characters’ names may change during the segments.  There are three stories: “Magic (Or Something Less Assuring)”; “Door Wide Open,” and “Once Again”—all cleverly acted out—with the cleverness becoming more apparent after one sees the whole movie.

            “Magic” – After a successful commercial photoshoot, Meiko (Furukawa) is seen in a café chatting with a girlfriend (who may have been her make-up artist), Tsugumi (Hyunri).  “Gumi” is elaborating on an encounter she has just had with someone she met online.  They seem to have really hit it off, calling one another pet names, and she is hoping for another meeting.  The women talk about first dates and what they will/will not dare to do.  After they part, Meiko recognizes the man as someone from her past.  What will she do with this information?

            “Door Wide Open” – We see Professor Segawa ((Shibukawa) sit stoicly as a student kneels down with his head on the floor before him, begging not to be given a failing grade in a class.  The class is taking place just across the hall, and the instructor there tries to get the student up and to close the door, but the professor insists it remain open.  It turns out that one of the other students in the class, Nao (Mori), is having an affair with the begging student Sasaki (Kai) and the two get together soon afterward when they see that Segawa has won an award for his book.  Sasaki wants to use Nao to his advantage after she admires Segawa’s book, and he manipulates her into a ruse to discredit Segawa.  We get to see how this turns out.

            “Once again” – Two women pass one another on escalator in a train station.  One seems to recognize the other, and Nana (Kawai), after going down, goes right back up again to catch up with the woman who looks like her high school friend.  Nana who had just come from her high school reunion, where she looked for Moka (Urabe) and didn’t find her there, thinks she has now run across her.  After talking a bit, Moka invites Nana back to her house for tea.  In the course of their conversation, real information is revealed, and Nana seems to be content as she returns for home.

            You will not guess the contents of each of these stories but will be intrigued as you listen to them and discover the realities behind so many obfuscations.  I actually prefer the literal translation of the title, which is Coincidences and Imagination.  The film is more than simply entertainment; responses from all sides will resemble what one might see in a therapy room, both in terms of insight and solutions to problems (my tribute to the writer/director Ryusuke Hamaguchi for his insights and apparent knowledge of what people so often seek from others but fail to receive).  The overall theme could be seen as people trying to find out who the people they meet really are, showing how avoidant behaviors might obscure the very things people want to know which would be helpful all around.  

            My parting question is how much Hamaguchi intentionally mixes up names to make us continually search to figure things out, or whether he is making a point about individual names being less important than observations about human nature.

 

Puzzlers will find this film intriguing as will those of us who are interested in human motivations and how we go about solving problems.

 

Grade:  A                              By Donna R. Copeland





BERGMAN ISLAND

 Vicky Krieps     Tim Roth     Mia Wasikowska     Grace Delrue     Anders Anderson Lie


            We meet Tony (Roth) and Chris (Krieps) as they are getting on a ferry to Fårö Island, home for 40 years of the renowned writer/director of Swedish films, Ingmar Bergman.  And you can see why he lived there so long; it is lush and evocative of special island places.  But place is not the issue or main point in this production.  Both Tony and Chris are Bergman fans.  He is older, a filmmaker considered as one of the experts on Bergman, and he has been invited to screen his latest production, hence his excitement about visiting the island.  Chris is younger and earlier in her career as a screenwriter.  She has had some success but is currently suffering from writer’s block.  Right away one senses the two are in different places in their minds.  And the story is primarily about their relationship.

            Krieps is the lead actor in this production written and directed by Mia Hansen-Løve (All is Forgiven, The Father of My Children), who was acclaimed for her last film (Things to Come).  Having read that she was a close collaborator and partner of the filmmaker Olivier Assayas and her penchant for semi-autobiographical films, I got the impression she identified with Chris, the character in this film.  She is quoted as saying, “the film really came together when I thought of the island of Fårö as a possible setting for the story”, and this line is uttered by the character Chris during the film when she is summarizing her thoughts to Tony about the script she is writing.

            In Bergman Island, Chris and Tony seem like a mismatched couple.  He is well established in his career, confident and decisive, but withholding in talking about his work with Chris.  (Although he did say he was writing about “how invisible things circulate within a couple”, which could easily be referring to the two of them, but of course he doesn’t elaborate.)  On the other hand, she is fearful (even of flying), lacks confidence in her abilities, and is frequently asking Tony for help.  When she goes into detail about her ideas for a plot, he interrupts her twice to answer his phone.  That is, there is a fundamental mismatch between them.  Although he denies his lack of interest, it seems obvious from his behavior that he gets bored.  And that’s not surprising, given the plot.

            Chris introduces her script plan to Tony by saying, “It’s a series of failure, betrayals, dramas…of impossible mourning and suffering overshadowed by a few memories” and I thought, “Who would want to see that?”  And indeed, one gets the impression her story  (told in film-within-a-film) is about a frustrated love interest of the woman Amy (wonderfully captured by Wasikowska) versus the much more thoughtful, planful first-love Joseph (Lie) who has enough insight to have a conscience.   He points out her ambivalences in relationships by saying, “You want to have two children by two different men.”  (And this is a reference to Chris’ earlier negative reaction when she was told that Ingmar Bergman had 9 children with five wives.)  Joseph’s condescension mirrors Chris’ earlier “harumph!”

            As a fan of Bergman films, I was all set to relish Bergman Island; and indeed there are many references to him and to his films (Through a Glass Darkly, Cries and Whispers, Persona), but none seem to relate to Mia Hansen-Løve’s plot.  Rather, it seems to be something of an autobiographical account of her relationship with Olivier Assayas, her partner for a number of years, and more generally with questions about a (female) writer claiming her own voice, particularly alongside a man of with a proven reputation.  There are mostly plusses for this film, but it could have been more explicit and decisive in its plot.

 

 

Not an ode to Ingmar Bergman, but a contrast between his career and that of a female screenwriter of today.

 

Grade:  B-                                         By Donna R. Copeland



Thursday, October 7, 2021

LAMB

 Noomi Rapace     Hilmer Snaer Gudnason     Bjorn Hlynur     Ingvar Sigurdsson


            This surreal production written by Sjon (poet/novelist/lyricist, known for von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark) and writer-director Valdimar Johannsson based on Nordic legend, creates an otherworld kind of experience.  The first part depicts the lives of Maria (Rapace) and Ingvar (Gudnason) on their sheep farm in Iceland where they obviously work very hard but seem not to have much conversation or intimacy.  Or are they dealing with some pain?  A bit of tenderness is shown between them, but one wonders what holds them together beyond the chores and responsibilities.

            They have apparently lost a child, so when a sort of miracle occurs while they’re helping a ewe give birth, what emerges is a being with a sheep’s head above a child’s body.  Parental instincts take over, so the couple adopts her and names her Ida, the same name as their dead child, setting up a crib in their bedroom and feeding her with a bottle.  Ada seems to bring a spark of happiness to the household, and she begins to grow up, wearing human clothes and shoes.  She’s treated like a real child and seems to understand language.

            Of course, all this seems very strange to Ingvar’s brother Petur who has suddenly turned up one day.  Petur tries to talk to Ingvar about the strange situation, but his brother tells him to lay off and not disturb their happiness.  Petur’s incredulity and discomfort persists until he puts himself to a test.

            The story takes sudden twists from time to time, alternated with breath-taking views of the Icelandic countryside in the winter with snow and ice and in the spring when flowers are blooming.  With these scenes and the neatness and orderliness of the farm, one gets a sense of order and place in the universe as a whole.  Now, when the natural world is “messed with”, even the animals—the  sheep, the dog, the cat--all react with stares and skeptical eyes that seem to convey, “What is going on?”

            Hopefully, you will see the film without knowing much about it, because some of the events and the ending will surprise and shock you, which makes for a much richer experience, giving you clues about what the filmmakers had in mind.

            Noomi Rapace as a consummate actor, always bring more than a hint of mystery and intrigue to her roles (e.g., The Girl with the Dragon TattooThe Girl Who Played with Fire, Prometheus), and here as Maria she is mostly taciturn but decisive, taking whatever action she is compelled to do. We never really know what is going on in her mind.   Gudnason plays Ingvar as the cool, silent, competent type whose gentleness shines through, and I admired the egalitarian relationship she and Ingvar achieve.  

            Although Hlynur as Petur plays his role well as a conflicted soul without high principles, it isn’t clear to me why he is included in the story.  What does he represent?  Perhaps society as a whole—judgmental, but he is clearly not one grounded in solid principles.

            This is apparently Johannsson’s first direction of a feature film, which he can be proud of.  With more experience, I expect that such things as pacing, antecedent information, and elaboration of details will improve.

 

What to do with a human/animal hybrid?  One couple sees no problem at all.

 

Grade:  B                              By Donna R. Copeland



NO TIME TO DIE

Daniel Craig     Ana de Armas     Rami Malek     Lea Seydoux     Ralph Fiennes

Christopher Waltz     Jeffrey Wright     Lashana Lynch     Ben Wishaw     Naomie Harris 

            Quintessential Bond with the complex plot, hair-raising chases, pretty women, and lots of booze and gadgets.  Bond (Craig)—who has “disappeared” after seeing that arch-enemy Blofeld (Waltz) is incarcerated—is found in Jamaica by his old friend, CIA officer Felix Leiter (Wright), after Bond has just unceremoniously put his girlfriend Madeleine (Seydoux) on the train because of his suspicions about her.  She is heartbroken, proclaiming her innocence, and walks down the aisle seeing him in passing windows as the train leaves the station—an eloquent graphic image—thanks to Linus Sandgren (La La Land, The Hundred-Foot Journey, American Hustle), whose photography in the film is impressive throughout.

            Leiter points out that an important scientist, Valdo Obruchev (David Dencik) (has been abducted and needs to be found to prevent a scheme that could result in the death of millions.  The plot thickens from there, with Bond having to confront forces of which he was previously unaware.  It brings him into contact with his old boss at British Secret Intelligence Service, M (Fiennes) and staff, and tensions he now encounters and must manage between the U.S. CIA and British Intelligence.  Most touchy is the fact that M has assigned another agent, female Nomi (Lynch), to be 007.  This awkward situation must be dealt with because the old 007 wants to be involved in the case because it still seems to be connected with Spectre’s Ernest Blofeld (Waltz), whom Bond had put in prison.

            The most alarming danger comes from an evil man, Llyutsifer Safin (Malek), who has a poison plan that threatens millions across the world.  Getting to him is of course a tall order, and will require cooperation among all the parties involved, including international interests.

            The film is overly long with too many implausible chases and fights—as are found in most/all action films.  But it is successful in gripping intrigues and nail-biting dilemmas.  Daniel Craig is at his best in portraying for his last time the brave strategist Bond is known to be, with the additional acquisition of personal commitment and less womanizing.  He comes across as actually gallant at times.  

            A bright spot in the deluges of combat is shown by Ana de Armas as Paloma.  She kicks a.. impressively and with a little bit of humor, giving the viewer frequent “so there!” satisfactions.  Bad guys like Blofeld and Safir send plenty of chills up the spine, both because of their physical appearances and their evil nature.  Seydoux lacks some of the glamour and keenness of mind that Bond women usually have, but Lashana Lynch, the new 007, is appealing in her level-headedness and combat skills.  Lynch attributes part of her character’s success to the contributions of Phoebe Waller-Bridge to the script.  Hans Zimmer’s music for his first Bond film adds color to the action, and has just the right number of references to music in previous Bond films, most notably, the recognizable “suspense” motif.  Billie Eilish singing the title track co-written by her and her brother Finneas O’Connell provides additional inspiration.

 

No Time to Die will reward fans of the Bond films with plenty of intrigue and spine-chilling tension.  

 

Grade:  B+                            By Donna R. Copeland