Wednesday, January 19, 2022

HOUSTON FILM CRITICS SOCIETY AWARDS FOR 2021 FILMS

 15th Annual Houston Film Critics Society Award Winners

Picture: The Power of the Dog
Director: Jane Campion, The Power of the Dog
Actor: Benedict Cumberbatch, The Power of the Dog
Actress: Jessica Chastain, The Eyes of Tammy Faye
Supporting Actor: Kodi Scott-McPhee, The Power of the Dog
Supporting Actress: Ann Dowd, Mass
Screenplay: Jane Campion, The Power of the Dog
Cinematography: Greig Fraser, Dune
Animated Feature: The Mitchells vs. the Machines
Original Score: (tie)
Hans Zimmer, Dune;
Jonny Greenwood, The Power of the Dog
Original Song: Wherever I Fall – Part I, Cyrano: music by Bryce Dessner and Aaron Dessner; lyrics by Matt Berninger and Carin Besser
Foreign Language Film: Drive My Car
Documentary Feature: Summer of Soul
Texas Independent Film Award: Red Rocket
Visual Effects: Dune: Paul Lambert, Tristan Myles, Brian Connor, and Gerd Nefzer
Stunt Coordination Team: No Time to Die: Matthew Sampson, stunt department manager; Olivier Schneider, supervising stunt coordinator; Leah Breckman, stunt coordinator; Jamie Edgell, assistant stunt coordinator, Yves Girard, stunt coordinator, second unit; Boris Martinez, co-stunt coordinator, second unit; Gabriele Ragusa, it assistant stunt coordinator; Franco Maria Salamon, stunt coordinator, Italy; Patrick Vo, flight choreographer and coordinator; stunt performers
Ensemble Cast: Mass: Reed Birney, Ann Dowd, Jason Isaacs, and Martha Plimpton; Breeda Wool, Michelle N. Carter, Campbell Spoor, Kagen Albright, Michael White
Cinematic Achievement Award: Well Go USA

Thursday, January 6, 2022

THE 355

 Jessica Chastain, Diane Kruger, Penelope Cruz     Lupita Nyong’o 

Edgar Ramirez, Sebastian Stan, Bingbing Fan



            Girl power.  It’s front and center in this spy thriller that spans agencies in the U.S., the U.K., Germany, and China, with stops in Marrakesh, Morocco and Shanghai—but it begins in Bogota, Colombia.  Someone there has come up with the ultimate in hacking—a tool that can tap into any digital system, public or private.  And, of course, hackers around the world are out to get their hands on it.

            Much is made about gender politics in the film, as well as geopolitical forces, and to back up the former we get a very cheeky crew:  Jessica Chastain as Mace, Lupita Nyong’o as Khaddijah, Diane Kruger as Maria, and Penelope Cruz—a psychologist(!)—as Graciela, a reluctant player who gets pulled into the drama after she is sent to intervene with a friend who is an agent (Rodriguez).

            All these actresses are top-notch, and convey the characters’ personalities expertly, showing intuitive skills and emotional strength along with physical prowess.  Individually as well as a group, they are a highlight in the film.  As a surprise standout—not only for her sheer presence as a character, but also as a surprise element in the plot—is Bingbing Fan.  She is a mysterious figure who appears at a critical time.

            As is the predilection of current filmmakers in the action genre, there are far too many hand-to-hand combat scenes in The 355 for my taste—scenes that are usually shot in dim light so that it’s hard to follow the moves exactly.  Although these are generally presented as the means to highlight the hero’s/heroine’s strength and caginess, too many such scenes cause the viewer to distance from the story with dialog that sounds contrived rather than real.

            The film can be praised for making a valiant effort to show women who are initially dubious toward one another becoming emotionally close, with some moving from utter lack of feeling to having some semblance of empathy, but the turns are a little too pat to come across as being realistic.  An example is Kruger’s character Maria from Germany being shown as rather cold in the beginning; then, as a presumed result of her interaction with the other female characters, she becomes more personable…almost. 

            In thinking about the audience for this movie, I imagine that males will see it as a “chick-flick” because of the brutal blows that many male characters take in the hands of female characters.  But it’s not rom-com by any means.  The relationship between the Chastain and Stan characters—however contrived it may be—is not romantic at all, even though I think it is meant to be by the writers.  This is probably because it comes across as so implausible.  

            Maybe the only audience for this movie are female fans of action movies regardless, or perhaps for females who get some satisfaction from their own “giving it to the man.”

 

Cyber crime is shown realistically as a threat of world-wide proportions that can affect most of us; but the enactment of fighting against it in this film is less impactful.

 

Grade:  C+                            By Donna R. Copeland

Thursday, December 30, 2021

MEMORIA

 Tilda Swinton     Jeanne Balibar     Elkin Diaz     Juan Pablo Urrego     Daniel Gimenez Cacho


            The biography of writer/director of Memoria, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, gives clues as to what his films will be about.  Born in Thailand (and still residing there) as the son of two doctors, he studied at the School of Art Institute of Chicago, worked as an architect and multimedia artist, and is now known as a creator of experimental and independent films.  He is a favorite of the Cannes crowd, having won the Palm d’Or for Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010) and receiving nominations or wins at Cannes for five other films since 2002. 

            Reflective of his Thai background, he believes ghosts and spirits are all around us and communicate with us if we stop and listen.  In an interview by Hannah Ellis-Petersen of the Guardian, Weerasethakul says, “Even though I approach the world scientifically, I cannot shake off the feeling of having spirits around…I feel that when I’m with the green landscape I can always communicate with the trees, with the memory of the jungle and also with myself” [https://www.theguardian.com/film/2018/oct/24/the-man-with-the-exploding-head-the-director-inspired-by-his-medical-condition] Elements like these are inserted into the Memoria script in which main character Jessica (winningly played by Swinton), a Scotswoman living in Colombia with a flower business, encounters strange events when she goes to visit her sister Agnes (Balibar), an anthropologist living nearby.  

            First, Jessica is awakened by a loud boom in the middle of the night just before she goes to visit Agnes who is in the hospital.  This has such a profound effect on her, she seeks out a specialist in sound effects, Hernan (Urrego), and works with him to reproduce the sound in her memory.  

            This seems to create something of a dream-like state in her as she wanders through the city with long periods of looking at architecture, listening to sounds, and periodically hearing the same loud boom she heard earlier.  One does get the impression it is trying to communicate with her, and she may find the answer in the countryside when she is beside a babbling brook striking an odd pose when someone says, “Are you all right?”  This is an older Hernan (Diaz) who lives happily isolated from others and has the kind of wisdom Jessica is seeking.   

            Their encounter is laden with meaning and the intertwining of their memories of childhood.  This Hernan is so different from the younger Hernan excited by new things, playing in a punk rock band, and being an expert in sound effects.  Older Hernan is steadfast in his commitment to ancient ways of thinking, firmly believes he can hear stories from the rocks and other natural elements around him.  He and Jessica reminisce

about their childhood and infancy and find that their memories mesh together in mysterious ways.

            The viewer needs to be prepared for long takes when Weerasethakul and his protagonists contemplate architecture, landscape, physical wellbeing, and memories.  Some may find it entirely too slow, but those interested in philosophy and mystery and their fascinations will find this a beautiful, atmospheric film.

            It seems to me that Jessica’s visits with Agnes in the hospital and her interactions with her and her husband Juan (Cacho) are extraneous and only props for Jessica’s story to play out.  I can understand the director’s wanting to prolong takes of architecture and hospitals because of his background and interest; however, I think these could easily be shortened in the interest of a more cohesive film.

 

Journey into the realm of the surreal when memories of two entirely different people from different backgrounds intertwine.

 

Grade:  B                              By Donna R. Copeland

THE LOST DAUGHTER

 Olivia Colman     Dakota Johnson     Peter Skarsgaard     Jessie Buckley

Paul Mescal     Ed Harris


            We meet Leda (Colman) as she is arriving in a small coastal town in southern Italy for a vacation.  We find out later that her two daughters have gone to live with their father, and as a writer and English professor, she is looking forward to some quiet time to write.  But she does not anticipate getting involved with other people on holiday and her own festering conflicts long unresolved.

            On the noisy beach, Leda begins to observe families.  Although a number of people approach her with friendliness—Will (Mescal) the resort attendant, Lyle (Harris), and various others—she responds warmly but seems to keep them at a distance.  She becomes intrigued in observing a mother (Nina, played by Johnson) and her daughter Bianca, being reminded of her own ambivalence in mothering her children.  And Bianca seems to be annoying to Leda at first, but when the child goes missing, it is Leda who finds her and returns her to her parents.

            There are many flashbacks to Leda’s younger years when she was married and a young mother.  A proven actress Jessie Buckley captures the personality of the younger Leda, and we see her in sometimes playful and always creative, sometimes trying, interludes where her ambivalence about the responsibilities of motherhood is obvious.  But these seemingly trifling moments become significant factors later on when she acts on her impulses to develop a relationship with a Professor Hardy (Skarsgaard) who praises her work in glowing terms.

            This is Maggie Gyllenhaal’s debut in directing a feature film, and she is likely to receive commendations for her work.  The story line is finely modulated, the cast well chosen, and the subject of the film in terms of women managing family and career is topical.   But the emphasis on the ambivalence of motherhood is rather unusual in films, especially one done with a sympathetic attitude.  As we come to know Leda and develop some understanding of why she does what she does, her actions become more understandable.

            The pairing of the younger Leda actress Jessie Buckley with the older Leda, Olivia Colman, is one of the strong points of the film.  Buckley shows herself able to be paired with the experienced and renowned actress Colman.  Also, the film touches on many issues affecting women—and specifically actresses—today. 

 

A slightly disturbing take on an outwardly successful woman’s past and present experiences that may or may not make her understandable in today’s light.

 

Grade:  B                              By Donna R. Copeland

CYRANO

 Peter Dinklage     Helen Bennett     Kelvin Harrison, Jr.     Ben Mendelsohn


            Cyrano is a musical in which a princess, Roxanne (Bennett), is pining for love, to which her lady in waiting argues that “Love doesn’t last; what lasts is compromise and sacrifice.”  (She means that Roxanne should be looking out for her economic welfare over love considerations), which goes right over the beautiful young woman’s head.  Roxanne (Bennett) sings back that she never wants to marry unless she can find someone to love.  Her current suitor, the Duke De Guiche (Mendelsohn) could indeed be her future, but Roxanne loathes him, and only sees him for what she can get from him (e.g., theater tickets).

            What Roxanne doesn’t know is that her friend since childhood, Cyrano (Dinklage), has always loved her, but thinks that she will simply laugh at him for thinking she could fall in love with such a short man.  The story develops from there, such that the man Roxanne is attracted to (from just a glance) is Christian (Harrison), a handsome guard under Cyrano’s command.  The two exchange one glance from afar and both literally fall in love at first sight (or so it seems).

            When Roxanne confesses to her friend Cyrano her love for Christian, who has just been recruited into the guard, she begs Cyrano to mentor and protect her love.  Since he cannot deny Roxanne anything, he promises to do so, which puts him into a serious bind between his own interest and what he has promised.  This bind leads to his writing love letters for Christian to send as his own to Roxanne.

            It was serendipity that scheduled Houston critics to see Spielberg’s West Side Story the night before Cyrano, giving us the opportunity to contrast the two love stories.  And what a difference; where West Side Story, despite its performance value (and my usual admiration for Spielberg), seemed to me to be a tiresome, dated, story of machismo, Joe Wright’s Cyrano makes an elegiac tribute to a man in an older period piece (17th Century), for whom compromise and sacrifice become very real to him, despite his acclaimed swordsmanship.

            Sprinkled throughout the drama are bits of humor (Cyrano’s claim that “Halloween is my favorite holiday” after he has been called a freak, statements like “Her imperfections are perfect”), insightful observations (a narcissistic young woman singing, “I need more”), the non-glorification of fighting—even in the case of war), and demonstrations of true love (seen in Cyrano’s letters, soldiers’ letters home, and the final scene).

            Screenwriter Erica Schmidt is the one who took a different view of Cyrano the character by focusing not on his nose, but making him a dwarf mocked for his stature, and one who believes no woman could love him as he is.  (There is tenderness in this concept in that Schmidt is married to Dinklage, and she wrote the part specifically for him.)

            Peter Dinklage has long been one of my favorite actors, and it is high time he gets an Academy award for his performance as lead in a major motion picture.  He has numerous other awards to count, but I think it’s time his nominations and awards for “Most Promising Actor” in The Station Agent (2004) and supporting actor for Game of Thrones and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri  be followed up with more than a nod from the Academy—for his acting.  Admittedly, singing is not his strong suit, but his resonant bass still pleases.

            Joe Wright’s previous films (e.g., Pride and Prejudice, Atonement, Darkest Hour) are testament to his talent in the art and craft of filmmaking.  Elements contributing to his success in Cyrano include Aaron and Bryce Dessner’s music, Seamus McGarvey’s cinematography, and Sarah Greenwood’s production design, some of whom have collaborated with Wright on other projects.

 

Cyrano, with the swagger and expert swordplay of Tyrion (Dinklage) in Game of Thrones has a much bigger heart and compassion to go with his more macho qualities.  He is a truly admirable soldier in this production, but as skilled in the art of language as he is in wielding a sword.

 

Grade:  A                              By Donna R. Copeland

Saturday, December 25, 2021

BEST OF 2021

  • Dune – (Denis Villeneuve). Interplanetary competitions in an epochal battle for the good.

  • The Power of the Dog – UK (Jane Campion). A new wife and son must adapt to ranch life.

  • Belfast – UK (Kenneth Branagh). Irish families trapped in the violence of the “Troubles.”

  • King Richard – (Reinaldo Marcus Green). Venus and Serena Williams coached by their father.

  • Cyrano – (Joe Wright). A musical about a bond that develops between an unlikely couple.

  • Licorice Pizza - UK (Paul Thomas Anderson). An unusual love story with charm and wit.

  • Parallel Mothers – Spain (Pedro Almodovar). About two unwed mothers giving birth.

  • Don’t Look Up – (Adam McKay). A comet racing toward earth creates havoc in the U.S.

  • Drive My Car – Japan (Ryusuke Hamaguchi). An actor/director must manage personal events.

  • Riders of Justice – Denmark (Anders Thomas Jensen). A madcap drama and a thriller.

Thursday, December 23, 2021

THE TENDER BAR

 Ben Affleck     Tye Sheridan     Christopher Lloyd     Lili Rabe     Daniel Ranieri     Brianna Middleton

            The bar featured in the story is called Dickens; presumably, the one in this film called The Tender Barrefers to the tender care a fatherless boy had as he hung out there with his Uncle Charlie (Affleck), the bartender and his pals, an assortment of father figures who turned out to be immensely helpful to him.  The film is based on a memoir by J. R. Moehringer about his own growing up years.  

            J.R. (Ranieri as the younger, Sheridan as the older) is an appealing kid, open and eager to learn everything he can about life from the real world as well as from books.  His father only appears occasionally as an obnoxious man, but his mother has high aspirations for him, planning on his eventually attending Harvard or Yale.  Her father (Lloyd) is irascible in his old age but has an intellectual background and his Uncle Charlie (Affleck) is clearly very bright, even though he works as a bartender.  Both men are an interesting mix of reverence and irreverence toward humanity, education, and achievement.  

            J.R. soaks all this up, receiving constant axioms from Uncle Charlie on how to be a man.  But he always treats J.R. with respect and generosity.  You get the impression he is as glad to have a son-figure as to be a father-figure to J.R.  He and his bar buddies couldn’t be more pleased when J.R. is indeed accepted to be a student at Yale University.

            A love interest for J.R. is someone he falls deeply for at Yale, Sidney (Middleton), an attractive, rather mysterious, and evanescent young woman, who seems to regard him with some degree of bemusement, but their relationship lasts during the college years.

            After graduation, J.R. comes to a crossroads in his life when he has to commit to his lifelong dream of being a writer.  It’s at this time he realizes it’s a calling.

            The Tender Bar is a low-key account of a middle-class child coming of age at a time when any number of paths are open to him.  It’s interesting to see the influences around him, the formative events in his life, and how personal relationships have shaped him.

            Ben Affleck seems to me to be the main star here, with his quirky, friendly style that captures the bartender role.  Although Tye Sheridan, as good an actor as he is, is miscast for this particular role.  Ranieri as the engaging younger character seems to fit perfectly.  George Clooney’s directing history is far less illustrious than his acting career.  He had a good run with Good Night, and Good Luck (2005), but his attempts since then, except for The Ides of March have not been stellar.  

            Part of the misjudgment here may lie in the script and/or the choice of story.  It wouldn’t have to be high drama, but I found myself wanting more than the prosaic.  No character is especially complex, and most of the story is expected.  Even the title could have been improved by calling it The Dickens.

 

Despite The Tender Bar’s fine cast, this story ends up being rather prosaic.

 

Grade:  C                              By Donna R. Copeland