Thursday, May 19, 2022

MEN

 Jessie Buckley     Rory Kinnear     Paapa Essiedu     Zac Rothera-Oxley     Gayle Rankin

         Alex Garland (Ex Machina, Annihilation) is a master at mixing up reality and fantasy/symbolism, making viewers think one way, then another about the characters and the story.  One must do a bit of work to make sense of his films; otherwise, they would seem to be meaningless.  

         Choral music (Geoff Burrow, Ben Salisbury) and lush cinematography (Rob Hardy) pave the way for a delightful time in a beautiful old house for Harper (Buckley) to get away and heal from the recent messy break-up with her husband James (Essiedu).

         When she arrives at the house and meets the landlord Geoffrey (Kinnear), she is taken aback with his wry humor and teasing, but he is gracious after playfully chiding her for picking an apple in the yard and eating it.  He points out that television and wi-fi are a bit iffy, gives her the one house key (“you don’t really need to lock the door”), and he’s off.

         The horror only really begins when she ventures out for a walk in the forest, delights herself playing with echoes at the entrance to a cave, but then realizes she is lost, with it starting to rain.  And was that a naked man standing in front of an abandoned building?

         There is plenty of horror after that, with the naked man, a smart-alecky kid named Samuel (Rothera-Oxley), the vicar (also Kinnear), an unsympathetic policeman, and so on.  Intentionally, Garland has made it appear that Harper must be psychotic, and much of what seems to happen is only in her mind.  (How many times have women been told that?)

         But stepping back and with some thought, we realize that Garland is making a statement about the relationships between men and women and the way in which women are generally regarded.  (Hasn’t Eve always been held responsible for all the ills that followed from her eating the forbidden fruit?)  All the male characters in Men (and I think Garland’s use of the plural is meaningful, in that it guides us toward the general statement he is making) end up scorning Harper and even dying (“because of her”).  

         More of the symbolism could be discussed (e.g., references to death, birth, the barely audible “Papa says so” repeated several times, the appearance of blood on hands and on the naked man), but the viewer should go to see the picture with an open mind and give free rein to one’s personal associations to the images and references.

         Men is not likely to appeal to the general audience, but for those who like to see and appreciate films considered to be “artistic”, it’s well worth seeing.  My fault of the film is that its promised intrigue in the beginning falls into something that is so heavy-handed it becomes almost meaningless in the end.  A little bit of horror is good, but too much makes me just tired.

 

A well-crafted drama with elements of horror that make it intriguing, but maybe there is too much of a good thing.

 

Grade:  B                    By Donna R. Copeland

Wednesday, May 18, 2022

DOWNTON ABBEY: A NEW ERA

 Michelle Dockery     Maggie Smith     Elizabeth McGovern     Hugh Bonneville

Penelope Wilton     Allen Leech     Joanna Frogatt     Jim Carter     Phillis Logan



            A new era, with mostly the right amount of sentimentality, joy, pain—and surprises.  The Crawley family is in a quandary about permitting a film crew to shoot a movie in their home (it’s still in the silent era), and of course—since they need money to fix the roof, they will agree.  But not without the vociferous protest from Mr. Carson (Carter), the ambivalence of Lord Grantham (Bonneviille), and the sheer delight of the starry-eyed staff, especially Daisy (Sophie McShera) and Mrs. Patmore (Lesley Nicol).  

            This proposal comes at about the same time as the news that Violet Crawley (Smith) has been bequeathed a villa in France from someone she never took seriously, and she is in turn bequeathing it to Sybbie, the child of Tom Branson (Leech) and his late wife Sybil Grantham.  It’s a delicate situation, in that the son of the mysterious man has invited the Grantham/Crawley family to come for a visit to see it for themselves.  There’s a bit of tension in that the son’s mother is not happy with the bequest.

            You can see how all this is neatly set up to provide two new scenarios for the current feature—the second movie, the first of which had followed a popular series on PBS.  Not only that, the two strains of the story will separate the skeptics who will travel to France from the Hollywood fans in the cast who will remain to see the action (pun intended).

As a devoted fan of all things “Downton Abbey”, I admire the writer Julian Fellowes’ ability to sustain our interest by managing to keep us attached to the cast and characters of the episodes and all that happens to them.  To quote a colleague of mine, who said after we saw the film, “It’s like seeing old friends again.”  Considering that Fellowes has been able to maintain enthusiasm—not only that of fans but cast as well—through six seasons on PBS Masterpiece and two follow-up movies, is surely a rare accomplishment.  

Fellowes also manages to highlight human propensities that pique our interest, such as showing that some people can never let go of jealousy, even after their beloved’s death.  Or on a more positive note, showing the beauty and elegance of a death that becomes even more meaningful after the fact.

For all my admiration, I did find some aspects of this production less than stellar.  For instance, there seemed to be a conscious effort to pair up characters, even minor ones, in a kind of matchmaking.  Although some are truly moving, some are just a little too treacly.  In addition, it seems like the filmmakers are trying too hard to bring the work into “relevance” for today’s audience, such as blurring the lines between the “upstairs” and “downstairs.”  Seeing the wait staff socializing with royalty is, I think, still a dream; not a reality (e.g., Prince Harry and Meghan of today).  

But these are minor “beefs”; I thoroughly enjoyed watching this movie.

 

An update on the Downton Abbey series that for true fans will delight.

 

Grade:  B+                            By Donna R. Copeland

Tuesday, May 17, 2022

TOP GUN: MAVERICK

Tom Cruise     Jennifer Connelly     Miles Teller     Monica Barbaro

Val Kilmer     Jon Hamm     Ed Harris     Glen Powell     Lewis Pullman

         As with many Tom Cruise movies, this one seems made for him, although he doesn’t reign supreme all the time.  In the beginning, “Maverick” gets a lot of ribbing as an “old man” from a group of young Top Gun ace recruits, and his superiors are trying to tell him that new technology is going to make him and the planes he flies obsolete.  They’re obviously wanting to get rid of him (especially after he hijacks a plane to prove a point) and finally resort to thinking they will bump him into being a teacher.  Good luck with that—he has always refused career advancements that would take him out of flying.  Hence, he has stayed a Captain.

         The plot is creative in coming up with solutions by which Maverick manages to get his way repeatedly—usually through some derring-do that his superiors must acknowledge is impressive.  Well, OK, so they give an inch, but then, he will take a mile, so to speak.

         This is a very male movie in its illustration of how men relate to one another, especially in groups.  The beginning interactions among them are filled with bravado and macho competitiveness (insufferable at times from a female point of view).  Even the female recruit must do the same to be a part of the group.  Monica Barbaro as “Phoenix” very winningly illustrates this. Authority struggles underlie most of the conflicts.  One recruit, “Rooster” (Teller), has a long-standing resentment toward Maverick for something that still bothers both of them.  We also witness the “star pupil” in “Hangman” (Powell) who seems always to have the right answers and be on the right side, and the nerdy “Bob” (Pullman) who never seems to be able to lay claim to the group.

         I do admire the writers’ (Ehren Kruger et al.) making Maverick’s ingenious flight plan for the primary mission of bombing a uranium plant a metaphor for the entire story.  To wit, expert navigation that takes risks (flying low through a narrow canyon while dodging artillery, then a steep climb to safety (hopefully) using one’s experience, skills, and basic instincts).  These skills are called upon by many pairs of characters in working through their conflicts.    

         The writers beneficially inserted bits of humor and romance periodically to offset the high tension and at times heaviness of the plot.

         Along with the script, direction by Joseph Kosinski and a fine cast help move this Top Gun a step above many action movies that seem to be primarily about special effects and thrills.   These characters really move us and are so well drawn, we want to know more about them.

         Jennifer Connelly is always a joy to see, and cameos by Ed Harris, Jon Hamm, and Val Kilmer serve the movie well.

 

Underneath the blaring sound and visual effects of Top Gun, there are heartwarming stories that portray real human struggles.

 

Grade:  B                    By Donna R. Copeland

Thursday, May 12, 2022

THE INNOCENTS

 Rakel Lenora Flottum     Flva Brynsmo Ramstad     Sam Ashraf     

Mina Yasmen Brenseth     Ellen Dorit Petersen     Morten Svartrelt


         This is a story about children, some of it distressing and some of it rewarding.  Central is Ida (Flottum), a 4-5 year-old girl living in Norway with her parents and older sister Anna (Ramstad), who is autistic and mute, although she could speak at one time.  Ida is introspective despite her young age, and not inclined to give out much information, although she appears to be very close to her mother.  

         The family has just moved to a new city for the father’s job, so Ida must get acquainted with her neighborhood.  While exploring outdoors one day, she encounters Ben (Ashraf), and he playfully shows her some of his powers in telekinesis.  She is of course impressed and tries to do it herself, but never succeeds.  Early on, he shows another side of himself—a mean side.  Still, he is nice to Ida, and she often looks on at his feats with wonder and admiration—until he goes too far one day, and she is more wary after that.

         The neighborhood is mixed race, but we don’t see much evidence of racial animosity, except once by some older boys toward Ben.  Ida often has Anna with her and is amazed when another girl named Aisha befriends them and seems to have a special connection with Anna.  She also has the power to “hear” what Ben is thinking and sets limits on him at times.

         An interesting part of the narrative is that the parents all seem unaware of the children’s powers, and the kids don’t tell them, even when their fears are raised.  Writer-director Eskil Vogt has chosen to portray the children’s world with a clear boundary between them and the adults, even when very frightening and dangerous events begin to transpire.  I find it remarkable that even when parents question their children during intimate times, the kids do not tell about the mysterious powers they’ve observed.  Why Vogt decided upon this omission is puzzling to me.  In the conversation that Ida has with her mother about this specifically, the mother only gives vague, elliptical answers.

         One strong point, though, is the portrayal of Ben’s own experience of his powers as something that bothers him, but he seems to be too young to weigh its value pro and con and resolve it to his satisfaction.  And he seems not to have access to any adult who could help him.  Much of the plot is left completely open at the end of the film.

         Rakel Lenore Flottum is amazing in her skills at such a young age.  She easily holds a central place throughout the movie and has no trouble maintaining your interest in her.  Your opinion of her fluctuates across time as she matures and learns from experience, and the fact that such a young actress is able to convey such complexity is impressive.  In a similar way, young Sam Ashraf is able to keep his face impassive at times, and on other occasions allows you to see the utter anguish his character is undergoing.  Whereas Ida and Anna’s mother and father show good insight into their children and respond to them in helpful ways—with some limitations—the two (presumably immigrant) mothers of Ben and Aisha are either unprepared for their children’s talents or are too burdened by being alone and under stresses of living to be of much help.


         The Innocents is a fine production with the subject matter treated in a novel way and primarily from the children’s point of view.  I found it to be an engaging horror story, even though distressing to watch at times.

 

Grade:  B                    By Donna R. Copeland

Thursday, May 5, 2022

HAPPENING

 Anamaria Vartolomei     Kaley Mottet

 

            Was it serendipity or did the French filmmakers of Happening know to release their film at this precise time in the U.S.?  Happening is something that everyone should see, given our current state of affairs in which Roe vs. Wade is likely to be overturned in the U.S.  I have to think that director Audrey Diwan (and co-writer with others including the autobiographical novelist Annie Ernaux) must have had some inkling that the topic would be coming to the forefront in our country just when their film is opening.  (I read that it so happens that Audrey Diwan was aware of the recent Texas law against abortion, which reaffirmed how topical her film is.)  The production is so well done, the viewer is in lockstep with the protagonist every step of the way, admiring the fortitude and singularity of will that it took to achieve what she did.

            The setting is France in the 1960’s when young Anne (Vartolemei), a promising student is looking toward exams that will determine whether she can go to university.  She’s such a good student, she has little of the anxiety her girlfriends show.  Her parents who own a bar/restaurant are always encouraging, and her classmates often look to her during study periods.  She is serious about school and clearly loves it, and is less interested in socializing, although she navigates in that realm very well.  Suddenly, she feels alarm when her period is late.  

            At that time, France had laws similar to those recently passed in Texas and other states prohibiting abortion and penalizing the woman and anyone who aids her in obtaining one.  We see Anne’s creativity in pursuing every avenue she can think of to assure that she will be able to continue on her path to university.  But another hallmark of the movie is to show how isolated she becomes when almost every person she turns to refuses to be involved—which is understandable because to help her would risk prosecution.

            Actress Anamaria Vartolemei, who plays Anne, has already won a Cesar and other awards for her performance.  She is one of those actors to whom your eyes are always drawn when she is in a scene.  The close-ups of her face convey a wealth of information not only about what is going through her mind, but what is going on generally.  She can be just a regular—although very bright—student, with good friends and attractiveness that catches the eye of others, especially males, or alone in a major dilemma either about what to do next or figuring out how to escape a situation.

            The beauty of the film is partly about the heroism of a woman/women in the face of threat and partly about the importance of education in an individual’s life.  When the professor confronts Anne about why her grades have fallen off and how she can justify asking for copies of the lectures she has missed—such as an illness—she replies forthrightly that it was “the illness that strikes only women and turns them into housewives.”

            Although praising the film, a British reviewer whom I respect (Peter Bradshaw of the Guardian) wrote in April, 2022, that this film is “old-fashioned in its vehement emotional message.”  Most likely, he did not know how relevant it would be in the U.S. a month later.

 

Facing unforeseen challenges in one’s life may be the mark of true character…if one can overcome all the obstacles thrown in the path.

 

Grade:  A                              By Donna R. Copeland



THE DUKE

 Jim Broadbent     Dame Helen Mirren     Fionn Whitehead

Heather Craney     Matthew Goode     Aimee Kelly     Craig Conway

            This is a strangely seductive movie, showing a British family with a rather daft though good-hearted Kempton Bunton (Broadbent), his wife Dorothy Bunton (Mirren), and younger son Jackie (Whitehead) not communicating very well with one another.  Dorothy is extremely critical of Kempton (for some good reasons), which makes him more secretive at times, and Jackie torn between taking sides with one then the other.  An older son appears about midway through, but doesn’t appear to have much in common with the rest of his rather straitlaced family.  Dorothy is especially offended by his frequent swearing.

            Much about the family is a dramatization, but the story is loosely based on an actual theft of the Goya painting entitled “The Duke of Welllington” from the National Gallery of London.  Reference is made to it in a number of plays and movies ever since.

            In the movie, Kempton is currently protesting paying the government a television license (which everyone was required to pay) since he cannot get the BBC and he feels strongly that everyone should be able to watch television as a public service.  After serving some time, he thinks he has solved the problem by taking the BBC tube out of his set.  He is not only against paying the license himself but feels strongly that everyone should receive television as a public service.  

            When the theft of the  Goya painting is in all the news, it suddenly appears in the Bunton household, with Kempton and Jackie making sure it is hidden even from the ever-cleaning Dorothy.  

            Much intrigue occurs around the painting, around Kempton’s temporary jobs, and the death of Jackie’s sister.  Towards the end, after the viewer has become more and more sympathetic to and interested in the family, there is a surprising shift, which makes the Roger Michell’s direction and screenplay by Richard Bean and Oliver Coleman impressive in its subtlety and its shift from an account of a zany man to a heart-warming story of community and care for others. 

            Jim Broadbent’s acting skills have made him a famous and favorite British actor.  Here, he makes his character so convincing one surmises that he is one with the kindly Kempton Bunton.  The same for Helen Mirren who after we so often see her now so elegantly dressed and coifed nowadays in the media we can see how easily she pulls off playing a frumpy housewife with firm opinions.  Fionn Whitehead and Matthew Goode as Kempton’s solicitor contribute to the appeal and quality of The Duke.

 

This is an engaging British production that pulls you in, makes you think, and have good thoughts about humankind.

 

Grade:  A                              By Donna R. Copeland

Wednesday, May 4, 2022

DOCTOR STRANGE IN THE MULTIVERSE OF MADNESS

 Benedict Cumberbatch     Elizabeth Olsen     Chiwetel Ejiofor     Benedict Wong

Xochitl Gomez     Michael Stuhlberg     Rachel McAdams     Patrick Stewart


            The strange wonders shown in this continuing saga of the Marvel universe(s) are a testament to the talent in filmmaking we’ve come to expect from Marvel, with a fine blending of story (Michael Waldron, Stan Lee, Steve Ditko), cast (Benedict Cumberbatch, Elizabeth Olsen, Benedict Wong, Xochitl Gomez, et al.), music (Danny Elfman), stunning  special effects and cinematography (John Mathieson).  All of these efforts are woven together into a spell-binding whole by director Sam Raimi.  Visually and emotionally, its powers draw the viewer into another colorful, fascinating, and sometimes terrifying world.

            One must carefully attend to the plot because of all the complexities involved in multiple universes with characters appearing in more than one, often with subtle differences among their different manifestations.  

            The hubris of Doctor Strange Cumberbatch), so evident in the previous (2018) story, is short-lived in this one.  Although starting out with his usual confidence in trying to incapacitate a huge octopus-like monster creating havoc on city streets and intent on capturing one small girl, Strange finds himself in need of assistance. He gets no small number of come-uppances from Wanda/Scarlet Witch (Olsen), a girl named America Chavez who is able to transverse universes at will, and others including the Doctor Strange in another universe.  Eventually, he is brought before the Illuminati summoned by Karl Mordo (Ejiofor) to sit in judgment of him.

            But throughout, there are major struggles with Scarlet Witch who appears to be power hungry, wanting to maintain her control in all the universes using Darkhold forces.  To do that, she is after America to steal the girl’s powers against the wishes and efforts of Dr. Strange who feels duty bound to protect America, who first appeared to him in a dream, although later she informs him that he was actually in another universe.

            As in the previous Doctor Strange, human conflicts are dramatically brought into the drama.  Significant here are the pull of motherhood on a woman, humans’ need for power and control, the duty of the strong to protect the weak, the wisdom of cooperation vs. going it alone, and the challenge of maintaining human relationships and managing grief and loss.

            Marvel movies are noteworthy for their broad-based appeal to young and old, fans of variable genres, and for their many historical, mythological, and literary references.  That they are based on comic books—usually considered light reading—must bring a smile to many.  Those who grew up on and have loved comic books might well say, “I could have told you so.”

            For those who love fantasy/action/adventure films that keep you on the edge of your seat, this is very likely to appeal.  In addition to the high drama and glittering visual display, it has human themes and moral conundrums worthy of post-theater discussion.

 

A mind-blowing experience traveling across multiple universes all of which have humans, some of whom appear in more than one, albeit with differing characteristics.

 

Grade:  A                              By Donna R. Copeland