Friday, December 6, 2013


Idris Elba     Naomie Harris     Terry Pheto

     The recent death of the universally revered Nelson Mandela (Elba) makes this biography based on his memoir even more important when it opens in many theaters on Christmas Day.  Its purpose is to give an overview of an extraordinary man’s life from his early years and coming-of-age rites, through his disillusionment with government when he practices as a lawyer, his early days as a sometimes violent activist, his 27-year imprisonment, and finally to his release and his stance on forgiveness and pacifism in his later years and subsequently being elected president of the Republic of South Africa. 
     One of the characteristics of Mandela throughout his life was his value of family, even during the times when he could not be present in the family setting during his days of activism and imprisonment.  Throughout his life and political activities, he never lost sight of children and their future.  He and his first wife, Evelyn Mase (Pheto), became estranged after the death of their daughter and his increasing involvement in politics.  Eventually, Evelyn left Mandela and took their son to live with her brother, and they divorced.  During the divorce proceedings, he began seeing Winnie Madikizela (Harris), whom he married six months after the divorce was final.  Winnie was active in the same movement as Mandela, and was arrested herself and jailed for a time.
     Throughout his imprisonment for sabotage and violence, first at Robben Island and later at Victor Verster, he and Winnie stayed married.  After his release, however, because of her continued advocacy of violence and his increasing belief that nonviolence was a better approach, he decided they should separate and divorce, despite his abiding love for her.
     In covering Mandela’s and Winnie’s political activities across so many years, the film can only highlight some of the important events, but it does a good job in showing Mandela’s transitions among different stands at different times on the need for violence.  He begins with a nonviolent stance, then feels forced after a police massacre to advocate for more aggressive resistance, and finally, especially during his imprisonment—during which time he studied a great deal—coming to his ultimate belief in the need for reconciliation among all races.  He firmly believed that this could only be achieved through forgiveness.
     This British production directed by Justin Chadwick with a screenplay by William Nelson is concise in presenting such a long history of a rich, colorful individual.  Its 2½ hour-long presentation holds interest throughout for this fascinating historical figure.  Idris Elba is marvelous in playing the title role, and even though he does not really resemble Mandela physically, his mannerisms and tone are entirely convincing.  Similarly, Naomie Harris captures the fiery personality of Winnie, and when the two actors are together on screen they obviously convey the deep affection that held the two spouses together for so long during many separations.
     Because Mandela’s life had so many significant events, I think it would be helpful for the viewer to inform him/herself to some extent beforehand to be able to follow such a fast pace.

A comprehensive look at the long, significant life of Nelson Mandela

Grade:  A- By Donna R. Copeland

Friday, November 8, 2013


Bruce Dern     Will Forte     June Squibb     Bob Odenkirk     Stacy Keach

     Nebraska is a wonderful picture about old age—literally in black and white.  Black and white is apt, not only because of its photographic clarity, but also because it sometimes shows the grayness and bleakness that is frequently a part of old age.  As father and son go driving through the bare snowy landscape of Montana, South Dakota, and Nebraska, it metaphorically captures what Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) is experiencing in the senescence of his life, and something he is fighting against as mightily as he can.
     Woody has a dream that he just cannot let go of; he is convinced when he receives a notice in the mail that he has “won” a million dollars, he fails to read the fine print that says he will actually be entered into a contest for the prize if he buys certain magazines.  No amount of reasoning or reading the paper aloud on the part of his family will convince him, and after he takes off walking toward Lincoln, his son David (Will Forte) compassionately offers to drive him on the assumption that when Woody is told “officially” he has not won, his father will be convinced.  Besides, his son sees it as an opportunity to have some quality time with his dad, who was not an attentive father to his sons.
     The road trip has many adventures, some of which are very trying, and others even more trying.  They end up stopping in the family’s old hometown, where they visit relatives, and Woody’s wife Kate (June Squibb) and other son Ross (Bob Odenkirk) join them.  Then they get to find out all the debts they suddenly “owe”, once Woody spills the beans that he is now a millionaire.  When they finally make it to Lincoln to the prize offices, Woody is indeed given the truth, but the adventures are still not over.  The ending is classic Alexander Payne:  bittersweet but satisfying.
     Payne is a master of characterizations that seem familiar to all of us; we are convinced we have met them before in our own lives.  Moreover, he has a sixth sense about casting where the actors fit into the characters hand-in-glove.  Bruce Dern—an unlikely choice at first glance—perfectly captures Woody’s agedness, from his “Huh?!” to every question posed to his wild-eyed look of surprise when someone stops him from walking to Lincoln.  This is especially noteworthy because the actor himself is still so sharp minded.  On a Charlie Rose interview, his memory was keen, and his wit very quick.
     The other main characters are also extremely well cast.  Will Forte’s performance is probably the best of his career as an actor; he is a perfect foil for Bruce Dern’s character, who can be trying.  Forte as one of his sons conveys patience, compassion and love with complete genuineness.  June Squibb is a standout for her cheekiness in playing Dern’s wife, and her stating plainly what is going on in situations where others are hemming and hawing or playing a con game.  Bob Odenkirk as Dern’s other son, and Stacy Keach, one of his old partners, are both great supports.

Nebraska is sure to capture some Oscar nominations, so you won’t want to miss it.

Grade:  A                                                By:  Donna R. Copeland

Tuesday, October 29, 2013


Matthew McConaughey     Jennifer Garner     Jared Leto     Steve Zahn

      I had two reactions to Dallas Buyers Club.  One is admiration for the real Ron Woodruff on whom the story is based.  He started out as a self-centered, angry, playboy who didn’t mind scamming his friends, but then shored up after he became ill with HIV, and began to help others (albeit to his own advantage).  Since he was equipped to recognize scams coming from others, he took on the establishment by outing the FDA for unprofessional practices.  Ever the hustler, he forms a club requiring $400/month, and in return the member receives all the drugs available at the club for free.  (How he acquires these medications is part of the story.)  Matthew McConaughey gives a stellar performance as this figure, looking and playing the part of an emaciated loser-turned advocate for medical patients.
     My other reaction is to what I regard as the “Hollywood treatment” of serious issues, namely medical research and the FDA.  Granted, I do not know the true story of Woodruff, but I did work in a cancer center for over 20 years, so have a great deal of respect for medical practice and research.  Although the film does not explicitly advocate running to Mexico for treatments, it provides a model for those who are apprehensive about standard treatment in the U.S.  In fact, many, many people have done that to their regret, including some film stars.  Although I would not defend the FDA entirely, for the most part it has protected Americans from horrific drugs such as thalidomide.  Still, I think it timely that Dallas Buyers Club highlights an example of how pharmaceutical companies and medicine allowed their partnership to undermine their objectivity in testing the effects of AZT on HIV.  Another bother for me about the film is the example of Ron making a few trips to the library, which equips him to provide drugs to seriously ill patients and chart their progress as a means of testing the treatment’s effectiveness.  There is a reason why placebo controlled, double blind, randomized trials have become the standard in medical research.
     On the other hand, as a drama, Dallas Buyers Club is entertaining, suspenseful, and interesting.  Along with McConaughey, Jared Leto as Woodruff’s transsexual business partner is fascinating.  He becomes so by sheer force of his charm and astute bargaining with the homophobic Woodruff.  Eventually, they create a workable association, and it is nice to see Woodruff relent and develop caring feelings toward him. 

Matthew McConaughey gives a stellar performance as a playboy who changes to become an advocate for medical patients.

Grade:  B                                    By Donna R. Copeland

Monday, October 28, 2013


Oscar Isaac     Carey Mulligan     Justin Timberlake     Adam Driver     John Goodman

     Inside Llewyn Davis reminds me a bit of Burn after Reading, also by the Coen brothers, in which there is little about the main characters to sympathize with.  In the earlier film, there is more humor, which softens the impact, but there is little humor in the former.  Rather than humor, Davis’ music is the softening agent to his abrasive personality.  Davis’ lack of social graces or even a smidgen of empathy for others is self-destructive, and thwarts his drive to become an employed, popular artist.  The Coens created this character to tell a story about “real songs by made-up people”, according to Oscar Isaac, who plays the title role, and T-Bone Burnet, the music producer and composer, in a Q&A session after the screening of the film at the Austin Film Festival.
     Llewyn Davis is a struggling folk singer in Greenwich Village in New York in the early sixties.  He has become homeless, and must borrow sofas for the night among his few friends—who are remarkable in their forgiveness of his obnoxious behavior in their homes.  One is a former lover (Carey Mulligan) who lives with her husband (Justin Timberlake) and is furious with him for good reason (a very different role for Mulligan, which she aces).  Another is a music professor and his wife with a lovely cat, which, in Coen playfulness, holds its own as a star at times.  Davis has no apprehension in the least about asking friends he has just met at these friends’ homes to sleep on their couch from time to time.
     A relief from these trying moments comes when Davis picks up his guitar.  The music is the complete opposite of his personality—soulful, creative, vibrant—which is a curious juxtaposition.  Nor surprisingly, the imminently prolific, award-winning T-Bone Barnet is responsible for the success of the music, many of which are classics based on Dave van Ronk’s renditions, such as “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me”, and “Dink’s Song – Fare Thee Well”, and one of which he composed (“Please Mr. Kennedy”).   Apparently, the whole film is loosely—very loosely—based on Van Ronk’s memoir.
     Another significant part of the success of the music is Oscar Isaac’s performances.  Because the Coen brothers wanted the film to be similar to a documentary, Isaac spent long hours before filming, perfecting his sound to be as close to Van Ronk’s as possible.  He was required to perform each song during a single take to give it the documentary quality.  In addition, his portrayal of the character during the entire film is remarkably good.
The music is really what saves this film from complete despair.  There are moments intended to be funny, such as the John Goodman role, or a countrywoman singer with a dulcimer, or Davis’ interactions with the cat, but I found them more pathetic than humorous.  Others may find them genuinely funny, however.
I am a huge Coen brothers fan, and although Inside Llewyn Davis is not quite to my taste, the music and acting are most impressive.
A story about real songs by made-up people.

Grade:  B                                    By Donna R. Copeland

Friday, October 25, 2013


Meryl Streep     Julia Roberts     Chris Cooper     Margo Martindale     Ewan McGregor     Sam Shepard 
Julianne Nicholson     Benedict Cumberbatch     Juliette Lewis     Abigail Breslin

       August:  Osage County is a rip roarin’ study of a family in Oklahoma that is perpetually on a tinderbox.  The slightest disagreement can erupt into a major battle, and the only way they see to keep the lid on is to hide all their secrets.  Of course, this is a strategy that always fails, but like the good neurotics they are, they keep using it, thinking it will work.  As the story proceeds, we learn that the cruel parenting we witness stems from troubled childhoods, and we see it spread like an infection from parent to child across generations.  As each secret is uncovered, it has an explosive effect on all involved.
     On a more elegant note, the ensemble cast is a study in streamlined acting that continually hums along as if they had worked together for years and filled out every detail.  At the center of the story—and the cast—is the consummate award-winning actress Meryl Streep, who plays the damaged matriarch in a family with three grown daughters who have come home to “comfort” their mother after a crisis.  Her sister is present as well, with her husband and son in tow.  Present as well is the recently hired cook/housekeeper who is a beacon of sanity in the dysfunctional, turbulent group.
     The screenwriter Tracy Letts (Killer Joe) has based the script on his play with the same title, which premiered on Broadway in 2008.  The transition from stage to screen is not always smooth, but Letts has achieved it without a hitch.  Most of the action takes place in the family home, a beautifully landscaped colonial mansion in the countryside near a lake, or in the cars of the arriving family members.  Clues about the underlying conflicts are seen from the beginning in the interactions between Violet (Streep) and her husband Beverly (Sam Shepard), followed by the arriving sister Mattie (Margo Martindale) and husband Charles (Chris Cooper) and each of the daughters’ families.  In the process of the unfolding drama, the viewer experiences the trapped feeling that each of the characters suffers from; at one point, a character says to another who is running away, “Where are you going?  There is no place to go!”  And we feel trapped as well because the action is so powerful.  Also because, in a larger sense, we identify with the fact that we are always a part of the family to which we belong; there is not ever, really, any escape. 
     John Wells, the director, has performed his function of creating a work of art from all the components of the film, with the actors and other crew, such as the cinematographer Adriano Goldman and musician Gustavo Santaolalla, whose work illuminates the ongoing drama. 

Clearly August:  Osage Country will be prominent in the upcoming award circuit soon to take place.

Grade:  A                                   By Donna R. Copeland

Thursday, October 24, 2013


Judi Dench     Steve Coogan     Sophie Kennedy Clark
Mare Winningham     Barbara Jefford     Ruth McCabe

     Philomena is a detective story, in a way, that involves Philomena (Judi Dench) trying to find the son whose birth she has kept secret for 50 years, and whom she was forced to give up when she became pregnant at a young age.  But it is also about religious faith, the ethics of journalism, aging, and forgiveness.  When she decides to tell her secret, Philomena is an old woman, and by chance, her path crosses that of a journalist (Steve Coogan) who needs a job.  Human-interest stories are far from what he wants to do, but he has no choice.  So the two become partners in trying to locate the son.
     As the story unfolds, we find out more and more about Philomena’s life as well as her son’s.  The journey takes them from Ireland to the U.S., where they stay longer than they intended because the story keeps pulling them along.  The story, which is based on real people and real events (The Lost Child of Philomena by Martin Sixsmith) is the strongest part of the film, along with the two actors, Dench and Coogan.  They have that wonderful chemistry, where they clash and bounce off one another and then have moments of deep compassion and understanding.  Steve Coogan wrote the screenplay with Jeff Pope, and it is truly a work of art in its depiction of life and people in a fascinating reality. 
     Stephen Frears, the director, has films of high quality to his credit, some of which have become hits, and I think this one will be very popular as well if it receives wide distribution.  Philomena combines intrigue, humor, strong emotional pulls, and life experiences that most people can identify with and relate to.  Moreover, it probes a bit into religious beliefs and practices that will evoke strong differences of opinion, just as it does between Philomena and Martin.  In the end, viewers will likely side with either Philomena on the side of forgiveness or Martin on the side of outrage, but in any case, are very likely to leave the theater feeling very moved and upbeat. 

This story is based on real people and real events.

Grade:  A                                    By Donna R. Copeland