Thursday, December 2, 2021

ENCOUNTER

 Riz Ahmed     Lucian-River Chauhan     Aditya Seaton

Octavia Spencer     Rory Cochrane     Janina Gavanker


            Viewers’ expectations are set up immediately by opening scenes of comets flashing across the sky and close-ups of microorganisms that look like aliens.  But then we’re introduced to a typical American family—mom, stepdad, and two young boys.  The older child Jay (Chauhan) shows resentment toward the “new” dad and sits at the dinner table drawing pictures for his own father Malik (Ahmed).  He’s had frequent correspondence with him, in which Malik indicates that he has an important job fighting for the country.  And it is true he has been in the Marines, but that is only part of the story.  

            It’s best not to know much more than that before seeing the movie because it is packed with ambiguities, tension, and fear.  Suffice it to say that the dad appears suddenly to take his boys on a road trip, which he calls a “secret mission.”  His imagination charms them and they look forward to a big adventure. 

            This is a well-conceived movie directed by Michael Pierce and co-writer Joe Barton.  It leads you along from the set-up to something much more frightening, in a way, and to something that will prompt your thinking about some relevant and important truths.  As you see it, you ask questions, consider hypotheses, and do a bit of nail-biting when the action gets hairy.  But afterwards, you ponder the fundamental ideas the filmmakers want you to think about.

            The acting is superb; Riz Ahmed again proves his talent as he did in Sound of Metal playing a musician confronting deafness.  Here, he plays a devoted father—albeit one who lacks some parenting skills—whose intention is to rescue his children from an impending threat.  The young actors (Lucian-River Chauhan and Aditya Seaton) playing his children are also uncanny in their portrayals of real children put in threatening, sometimes traumatic, situations.  One is an eight-year old, the other a four-year old, and the scripting for them is outstanding in its accurate depiction of the way children those ages think.  It’s clear the two actors grasped what they needed to do, and they did it admirably with apparent precociousness.  

            Enter Octavia Spencer as the parole officer who lends common sense, genuineness, and perspicuity to all situations.  These are the attributes Spencer is so gifted in portraying, as seen in The Help, Hidden Figures,and The Shape of Water.  She shows that she is the only one in government who truly understands Malik, and appropriately asserts her presence in helping to resolve an incredibly tense situation.

            This is a movie about so many important subjects—parenting, children, guns, mental health, and governmental approaches to enforcement.  It dramatizes all of these in a suspenseful high-tension script that engages your value system as you assess the drama.  

            Director and co-writer with Joe Barton, Michael Pearce has been recognized for his 2017 movie Beast, as a promising filmmaker.  He lends credence to that accolade in his portrayal of a family drama that informs about parenting, mental health, and law enforcement in a manner that is realistic and compassionate.

            Encounter thrills and chills, but also makes you think about important considerations in looking at families and human behavior.

 

Grade:  B                              By Donna R. Copeland

Wednesday, December 1, 2021

THE POWER OF THE DOG

 Benedict Cumberbatch     Kirsten Dunst     Jesse Plemons

Kodi Smit-McPhee     Thomasin McKenzie     Keith Carradine


            This well-conceived and crafted film is so evocative, you are likely to be talking about it and figuring it out with others after you see it.  That means, it’s necessary to watch and listen closely—even at the very beginning when there is a monolog spoken by Peter (Smit-McPhee).  

            The setting is a cattle ranch in 1925, but this won’t be like a typical American western.  The ranch is owned by two brothers who couldn’t be more different from one another.  Phil the older (in a stunning performance by Cumberbatch) is macho, glib, and sarcastic, lording over everyone—even to the point that in the local saloon when he thinks the party at the next table is too loud, he shuts them and the piano player up.  Everyone seems to kowtow to him.  His brother George (Plemons also at his personal finest) is his opposite—diffident, unexpressive, and self-effacing.  He clearly feels antagonistic and disapproving of his brother, but quakes in his boots when he feels forced to confront him.

            But George is man enough (and this film is clearly about manhood and how it’s achieved.  George manages to woo childhood friend Rose (Dunst) who is a widow now with a son, Peter, and marry her on the sly outside of Phil’s presence and control.  Of course, this does not sit well with Phil, and he disparages her and her son loudly and clearly.

            He is especially dismissive of Peter, who is artistic and studying to be a doctor like his deceased father.  Modeling themselves after Phil, the ranch hands yell out “faggot!” when Peter walks by, and when Phil takes it upon himself to teach Peter manly things like riding a horse, everyone is surprised.  Not Rose—she is horrified.  The antagonism between her and Phil is palpable.  

            The film is expert in bringing the viewer along with little puzzles to think and hypothesize about along the way.  It’s a study in personality types and how they might function within a family.  It’s an incredibly thoughtful movie with subtle references and signs.  Writer-director Jane Campion based it on Thomas Savage’s novel of the same title, The Power of the Dog, a biblical reference to Psalms 22:20, “But be not thou far from me, O LORD…haste thee to help me.  Deliver my soul from the sword; my darling from the power of the dog…”  [power of the dog as a symbol of gluttony, a scavenger, something evil].

            The actors are so well cast, and Cumberbatch put himself through all kinds of training exercises to learn ranching, an American western accent, and so on.  I would think he is at the top of award lists for best actor, even though he is a bit of a villain.  Plemons is in more and more films these days, and in the past seemed rather unremarkable; but in this film, he pulls off being a sympathetic character with authenticity.  Dunst herself disappears into a complex, troubled—yet vengeful—woman who lacks self-confidence except in the case of her son, whom she will defend to the end.

            As in her previous major work, The Piano, Jane Campion brings to life real people and real struggles to create a psychological drama in which the ending remains ambiguous, at least as far as the main characters are concerned.  We get attached to Peter, Rose, George and others, wondering what happened to them.

 

A psychological study of personality types and how they might function in a family.

 

Grade:  A                              By Donna R. Copeland

Thursday, November 25, 2021

ENCANTO

Voices of:  Stephanie Beatriz     John Leguizamo     Maria Cecilia Botero

Diane Guerrero     Jessica Darrow     Ravi Cabot-Conyers


             Encanto starts out being charming and a bit too much like a typical Disney movie.  It’s rather sugary and hypomanic.  Many of the words in the rap singing will go over many people’s heads, but the viewer easily gets the impression that the household is a most happy place, and that the Madrigal family’s powers to do good for the community make them beloved.  Abuela (Botero) is especially proud of what she established after she lost her husband.

            But there are some sad notes—young Mirabel (Beatriz) is the only one who has never received her “door” unlocking a special power as everyone else has.  One of them can lift remarkable loads, one can make flowers grow, one has healing powers, for instance, but Mirabel is not known for any special gift, even though she is told over and over that she herself is special.  She is sharp enough to sense that people are covering up something.

            Blessed with a big heart and always wanting to help, Mirabel is also rambunctious in her efforts, and may leave destruction in her wake, which is sad because her aim is always to help and make her family proud of her.  Family members identify her with an uncle named Bruno (Leguizamo)—whose name is not to be mentioned.  As one song says, “We don’t talk about Bruno, no no no!”  

            And this is key to one of the messages of the movie—not talking about things is often an indication of their importance.  When Mirabel chases after Bruno—who is said to have moved away from town—she is told not to look for him.  But cousin Luisa (Darrow) has let it slip that Mirabel should go to Bruno’s Tower to find answers to her questions after certain powers seem to be slipping away from some family members and Mirabel has received warnings about the magic of the house disappearing.

            It did this psychologist’s heart good when Encanto begins to reveal that family secrets often hold the key to whatever might be ailing it.  It’s at this juncture that Encanto becomes so much more engaging and more than simply an entertaining animation.  Because despite family remonstrances, Milabel forges ahead and learns valuable information that—although painful and disruptive—heals wounds that no one in the family wants to acknowledge.

            So, what for me started out as mere fluff and almost boring turned into something that caught my attention and made me smile and respect the film so much more.  Many psychological insights and moral principles tumble out in the last half of the story, which then illuminate the first half.

            Production design (Ian Gooding and Lorelay Bove) and the other crafts of animation and effects make Encanto a first-rate story of magical realism, and Lin Manuel Miranda’s stamp on production and music is apparent.  It puzzles me that the filmmakers elected not to put in subtitles for the Spanish-speaking/singing parts, unless perhaps to make the point that Americans need to learn the language, considering that Latinos will be the dominant ethnic group in the USA sometime soon.  It would actually be helpful for some of us to see subtitles for the rap portions as well, which go by so rapidly they’re not understood by many.

            Encanto is likely to appeal to general audiences who will be fascinated by the crafts, appreciate the emphasis on the value of family, and recognize some of the traits of families that cause problems or make them successful.  This movie is more than fluff.

 

Family secrets once aired can be healing and even be a salvation.

 

Grade:  B                              By Donna R. Copeland

Wednesday, November 24, 2021

HOUSE OF GUCCI

 Salma Hayek     Jared Leto     Adam Driver     Lady Gaga

Al Pacino     Madalina Ghenea     Jeremy Irona     Jack Huston


            This is a colorful film with a complex plot that begins light-heartedly romantic and interesting.  Mauricio Gucci (Driver) is a reserved young man without much of a social life and still living in his family home with his father Rodolfo Gucci (Irons).  Patrizia (Lady Gaga) is an ambitious, sexy woman who, when he tells her his name at a party, flirtaciously picks him up, in a way, and he is instantly attracted to her.  They seem to mesh well together; she draws him out and he offers her stability and dependability.

            After a short time, when Mauricio introduces Patrizia to his father, although the older man is charmed by her, he is suspicious as well and warns his son not to get involved.  This creates such harsh disagreement, Mauricio moves out of the home and shows up at Patrizia’s, where he is taken in and begins working at her father’s trucking company (which Patrizia affectedly refers to as “land transportation”).  

            Mauricio is modest, belying his wealthy background, and thoroughly enjoys the physical labor.  Their love continues to grow, resulting in marriage and a child.  Many events transpire after that, with the couple remaining very much in love.

            Although skirmishes had always been a part of the family’s existence, major trouble begins to brew around running the business and financial disagreements brought on partly by the introduction of Rodolfo’s brother Aldo (Pacino) in New York City, to Patrizia and her not being able—or willing—to resist getting involved in the business and pressuring her husband to take certain actions.

            What transpires is heightened intrigue and shifting loyalties and how far people in families will go when bonds weaken and their circumstances begin to change.  

             Ridley Scott directed the film based on a book by Sara Gay Forden, with screenplay by Becky Johnston and Roberto Bentivegna.  The pace goes along nicely, giving the viewer time to absorb who all the players are and mete out the twists and turns as in a good crime story.  Scott is better known for his scripts than for his direction.  And it is probably the case in this film that his reputation is borne out.  For those who are not familiar with the story, there are major surprises as all the different elements unfold, a positive of the script.  Direction, however, may be lacking in the cohesiveness of the cast in the story.  

            That being said, along with the script, the cast is one of the film’s strongest points, beginning with the two leads, Adam Driver and Lady Gaga.  Driver is on a roll this year, with three of his movies on wide-ranging subjects being released.  Here, he is his most laid back, slow to burn character until he is pushed too far.  Lady Gaga is good at playing an ambitious woman who uses her sexiness to her advantage.  Her performance may be a bit “over the top”, but I enjoyed her young enthusiasm and craftiness in the beginning.  Later on, as the plot thickens, she is showing more of her naivete, and she relies more and more on her fortune teller (Hayak—who doesn’t quite fit the role), one’s sympathy for the character (and perhaps for the house of Gucci and The House of Gucci the movie) wanes.  

            In the mix is the uncanny performance of Jared Leto as Paolo Gucci, the “idiot son, but he’s my son” son of Aldo.  Leto shows the man as one with questionable talent who is a bit of a changeling, trying to adapt himself to whatever he thinks is expected.  

            Some may think this film is more about the fashion industry, but it is actually a chronicle of an international company whose direction failed in the face of conflicts within its leadership, a family.

 

Go and see this as a film about a family business rather than about fashion.

 

Grade:  B                              By Donna R. Copeland

Thursday, November 18, 2021

C'MON C'MON

 Joaquin Phoenix     Gaby Hoffmann     Scoot McNairy

Jaboukie Young-White     Molly Webster

            I can see why so many people are taken with C’mon C’mon, a tender story about a man who has never been around children is suddenly charged with taking care of his nine year-old nephew while the parents deal with the father’s mental illness.  What was supposed to be a few days turns into weeks, so the two males get to know each other quite well.

            Johnny (Phoenix) has an interesting job as a radio journalist in New York interviewing children of all types/races/nationalities about what they think about the future.  He tries this out on his nephew Jesse (Young-White), who will have none of it, even though he is a bright imaginative kid whose mother has fostered his creativity and inquiring mind.  Jesse is not keen on necessarily doing what is expected, but he is into technology and the media, so Johnny wisely engages him in recording all kinds of urban and beach sounds on the huge microphone he uses for his interviews.  

            As time goes by, Johnny’s patience is tested by the child—who might suddenly disappear from sight—and has definite opinions about what he will and won’t do.  Still, the kid is interesting, and comes up with questions about Johnny’s personal life that take him off guard and force him to express himself in ways he has never done before.  Periodically, he speaks on the phone with Jesse’s mother Viv (Hoffmann) and is able to get advice from her as well as great understanding of the trials and frustrations of taking care of children.

            Joaquin Phoenix is gifted in portraying all kinds of roles, and he fits perfectly into this one, showing his playful side, psychological vulnerabilities, and anxiety when he feels at sea.  It’s realistic the way he might show a sudden urge to quash the child while still clearly being charmed by him.  He and Young-White appear to have a real affinity for one another, just as Phoenix and Hoffmann do.  It’s easy to imagine them all in the same family.  And the arc of Johnny’s and Jesse’s loving relationship is one of the best features; it shows an initial interest that gradually blossoms into a connection between them that will be valuable for both.

            Some of my reaction to this film of writer-director Mike Mills comes from my years of experience of talking with children and parents during my professional career as a psychologist in a pediatrics department.  I loved that job, but I think because of it I do not have the same fascination with the material as would those who are less familiar with children’s minds.  I certainly do still find children enormously fascinating, but what frustrated me about the stories here is that they are all like snippets that pique my interest without much follow-up or antecedent information.  It’s a bit like having a meal of appetizers; which can be enjoyable, but is not likely to be memorable or inspiring.  Because of this, C’mon C’mon borders on the prosaic.

 

C’mon C’mon presents slices of daily life in the dynamic relationship between an emotionally detached man and his clever nephew.

 

Grade:  C                                 By Donna R. Copeland

KING RICHARD

 Will Smith     Jon Bernthal     Dylan McDermott     Aunjanue Ellis

Saniyya Sidney     Demi Singleton     Tony Goldwyn

            This is a fascinating account about how to make a champion.  Richard Williams, the father of the famous tennis stars Venus and Serena Williams, knew the value of positive reinforcement, despite his tendency to be overbearing, and temperamental.  And let’s not forget the decisive role of his wife Brandi.  She knew him like a book and could read him in such a way she helped him understand himself when he otherwise couldn’t.  And she was a real force in their girls’ training.

            The gist of the story is known by most people, that the black family from Compton, California, took the tennis world by storm in the early 2,000’s when Venus began winning tournaments at an early age.  The proud father always responded to reporters and coaches when they praised him for one daughter by reminding them he had two girls who would be stars.

            As oppositional and pompous as he often was, Richard had rules he lived by and taught his children, such as “Fail to plan, plan to fail.”  Humility is another principal he at least wanted his children to retain, always remembering where they came from no matter how many prizes they won.  No matter the win, he forbade them to “brag.”  Clear from the film is that much of the success of the girls depended on his salesmanship.  He seemed not to be intimated by anyone; he successfully convinced almost (not all) all of them to at least look at his daughters’ prowess on the court.

            I am not a tennis player or big fan, but the film comes across as an authentic representation of what it takes to become a tennis star, the role a parent so inclined could play in a child’s success, and in this case the tremendous support provided by a family that not only stood together but talked through and hashed out problems that arose.   I appreciated the background information about the father that led to the fierceness and perseverance he shows in situations where he is challenged.  Valuable as well is the occasional focus on the marriage and the way the couple solves their issues.  

            Will Smith seems tailor made for the role of Richard Williams.  He embodies it so well one can imagine that aspects of Williams’ personality are ones Smith knows very well.  As Mrs. Williams, Aunjanue Ellis is an inspiration for all women who need to stand up for themselves.  Ellis shows the full dimensionality of a bright, creative, and loving woman who knows how to be a partner to a strong man, and I hope both actors will be recognized come awards season.

            The movie is entitled “King Richard” apparently because of the way Williams conducted himself in coaching and advocating for his daughters.  It seems an apt title to me.  The film does not go into the marriages and divorces of the parents or other types of conflicts in the women’s careers—which is a bit of sugar-coating perhaps—but wisely concentrates primarily on the family during the time Venus is just getting established as a pro tennis player.

 

This account of the background of two record-breaking female tennis players will keep you entertained and cognizant of the importance of family support.

 

Grade:  A                              By Donna R. Copeland

Thursday, November 11, 2021

TICK, TICK...BOOM!

Andrew Garfield     Alexandra Shipp     Robin de Jesus     Vanessa Hudgens

Joshua Henry     Bradley Whitford     Jonathan Mark Sherman

 


Jonathan Larson, the creator of the hit musical “Rent” (which earned Pulitzer and Tony awards) is the subject of this film as he was writing one of its predecessors.  He is young—not yet 30—but wants to set the Broadway world on fire with his musicals.  He captures the interest of one who turned out to be his long-time mentor Stephen Sondheim (here played on note by Bradley Whitford), and one of the humorous segments of the film is Sondheim and a colleague critiquing one of Larson’s first musicals.  It’s funny because the colleague seems to want to trash it, but after Sondheim gives his opinion, the man agrees with him in a roundabout way.  (A wonderful rendition of doublespeak.)

Tick, Tick…Boom! canvasses a wide range of subjects—writer’s block, homophobia and the AIDS epidemic, the tension between art and corporate concerns, and on a more personal level the tension and pulls between professional life and human connections—all of which were highlights in Larson’s life. These subjects are the “meat” of the production.

I found the story more engaging than the music, especially in the beginning, which is frenetic and hyper in the partying mode.  At the middle point of the drama and towards the end, music and story become more inspirational.  The duet of Susan (Shipp), Larson’s neglected girlfriend and Karessa (Hudgens), one of Larson’s main characters/singers, sing about Jon’s struggle in writing the most important song in the work; it’s a stand-out, especially touching and beautiful.  I also found the songs of Larson and de Jesus at the end singing about AIDs just as beautiful and moving.

Andrew Garfield may not be the most appealing star of a musical, but his performance here proves his talent.  Shipps’ and Hudgens’ voices complement each other and express well the emotions their characters are experiencing.  The entire ensemble of musicians makes this musical vibrate.

Another strength of Tick, Tick…Boom! Is the cinematography of Alice Brooks.  She inserts a number of shots that are humorous and inspiring, such as that of Jon at his lowest encountering the “30” at the bottom of the pool (reminding him of his impending age) and swiping it into a treble clef, just what he needed for inspiration to write the most important song in his current production.  There are numerous creatively rendered shots that enhance this production 

Tick, Tick in the title refers to the ticking of time, that it is always there to remind us of the finiteness of life and relationships.  I think the film did a great job of reminding us of that and encouraging us to ponder it a bit.  And to emphasize the point, Jon’s agent tells him after the success of the Tick, Tick...Boom! workshop that his next job is to start writing his next show immediately.  No rest for the weary!

Tragically, that tick tick of the clock was a knell for Jonathan Larson.  He had an aortic aneurysm that killed him suddenly at age 35.  Our loss for sure.

 

Tick, Tick…and may there be a Boom...if you're lucky!

 

Grade:  B                                                      By Donna R. Copeland