Thursday, January 26, 2017


Emma Suárez     Adriana Ugarte     Daniel Grao     Inma Cuesta     
Dario Grandinetti     Michelle Jenner     Priscilla Delgado     Blanca Parés

          Beautiful stories don’t have to be happy all the time.  Young Julieta (Ugarte) is typical in her openness to new experiences and lust for life.  She meets and falls in love with a man on a train, and although there are frictions, they love each other and have a child, Antía (Delgado, Parés), who is close to both her parents.  But over time, a tragedy happens, and Antía has to devote much of her time to her mother, to the point that she as a teenager begins to feel trapped; whereupon she decides to attend a “camp” for three months.  When Julieta (Suárez) goes to pick her up, the cult-like camp counselor tells her that Antía has already left and does not want her mother to contact her.  Many years go by and Julieta only hears about her daughter once in a brief, chance encounter on the street with an old friend of Antía’s.
          The film says something about mother-daughter relationships and the chance events that affect them, along with feelings people have about such events, for instance, blame and guilt.  Pedro Almodóvar possesses a lightning rod kind of sensitivity toward women and their experiences, which he captures in so many of his films.  Here in Julieta (based on the short stories of Alice Munro, who likewise captures the essence of women), he shows their capriciousness (getting engaged with and disengaging from men), the kinds of wedges that may come between them and those close to them (often unexpressed but deep resentments), and the pain of separation and loss (whether from death or estrangement). 
          Despite its truthfulness and engaging story, Julieta is not one of Almovódar’s greatest films; but it is well directed, and Emma Suárez and supporting actors Grao, Cuesta, and Grandinetti deliver very fine performances. Suárez has to transform her younger, vivacious personality through major grieving and finally into an attractive older woman, still open but at peace.

Women transitioning through life, making adaptations to accommodate to hardship.

Grade:  B                                                By Donna R. Copeland


Peter Simonischek     Sandra Hüller     Michael Wittenborn     Thomas Loibl     Trystan Pütter

          Awkward!  Being stalked by one’s parents as an adult working in international circles is unbelievably mortifying, but that is what happens to Ines (Hüller).  She is working so hard to close tricky deals in Bucharest, but her father Winfried Conradi/Toni Erdmann (Simonischek) appears unexpectedly out of the blue, often in some kind of disguise, pretending to be someone he is not, and making one gaffe after another.  Considering the hard-driving woman she is, I’m amazed at her patience and her allowing him to accompany her to business functions.
        Ines is not without flaws herself.  She has been relatively inattentive to her parents.  She is unpredictable, intimidating to the men working with her, and self-entitled.  For example, she walks out of a massage at a spa because she is unhappy with the service, and when the manager comes to apologize, offer a different massage therapist, and inquire about what else he can do, she orders two glasses of champagne, fresh orange juice, and two club sandwiches.  (Her father is with her, of course.)  Then, when she gets a phone call wanting her to be somewhere else, she simply walks out before the refreshments are delivered.  Her rationale?  “My company spends a lot of money here.”
          The film is long—over 2 ½ hours—too long in wondering why Ines can’t deal with the situation more effectively.  There are brief moments when Toni tries to have a serious conversation with Ines about things that really matter in life, but she whisks him off with “What is happiness?”  When she goes to take a nap one afternoon and leaves her phone in the living room, she is livid when she wakes up much later and finds that she had four important calls.  Why didn’t he wake her?  He says he tried.  (That’s another weird motif in the movie; Ines is constantly drifting off into a deep sleep.)
          The ending is very clever, showing Ines figuring out a truth her father has been trying to convey, and showing her identification with him in a very weird sequence involving a party at her apartment and chasing after a masked figure in the park.  It has something to do with hanging onto moments—moments that make life worthwhile.
          Toni Erdmann was well received at Cannes, being nominated for a Palme d’Or and winning a special award for its writer/director, Maren Ade, who has won many awards in her career.  Simonischek and Hüller make a great comedic team in their ability to pull off hilarious moments with deadpan faces. 

Weirdness reigns in this film about life in the modern age.

Grade:  B+                        By Donna R. Copeland


Bruce Gheisar   K. J. Apa   Britt Robertson John Ortiz   Dennis Quaid   Josh Gad   Peggy Lipton

          This movie would fulfill the most basic fantasy/wish of a dog owner with a devoted pet—probably of any species.  It’s a heartwarming story of an entertaining dog (voice-over by Josh Gad so we know everything the dog is thinking) that is reincarnated four times.  Pet owners range from a small boy named Ethan (Gheisar) who grows up with “Bailey” until he goes to college and experiences a tragedy; to a policeman, Carlos (Ortiz), who uses “Ellie” as a search and rescue police dog; to a young woman for whom “Tino” helps find love and family; to an irresponsible couple who abandon him; and finally again to owners who truly care for him. 
         Screenwriter Cathryn Michon and Director Lasse Hallström (The Cider House Rules, Dear John, The 100-Foot Journey) manage to keep what could be an overly sentimental sop engaging and interesting, even to those who are more neutral toward dogs and other animals.  The story, based on W. Bruce Cameron’s novel, is thoughtful, has some substance, and realistically portrays all kinds of families.  It doesn’t shy away from alcoholism or neglect, for instance, as it shows wholesome, loving, and thoughtful groups.
       Gad’s voice-over is perfectly rendered, and is perhaps the best part of the film in making dog-talk plausible and giving food for thought to humans.  Gheisar, as the small boy Ethan and K. J. Apa as the teenager make us care about Ethan and experience his joys and pain.  Robertson as Hannah is gracious and fun across time (later, by Lipton) as we see her in different roles.  Quaid seems perfectly fit for his character, the grown-up Ethan years later, evolving into someone who makes sense, given what has happened to him in his life—a little crusty and doubtful.
          This is a film for dog/pet owners who derive special pleasure from knowing and caring for them.  Others may find it too sweet, sentimental, and fanciful; it all depends on how you feel about pets, I guess.

Reincarnations of dog.

Grade:  C                                    By Donna R. Copeland

Monday, January 23, 2017


Matthew McConaughey     Edgar Ramirez     Bryce Dallas Howard     Corey Stoll     Stacy Keach     Bruce Greenwood     Toby Kebbell    

         Paunchy, bald, and with a huge beer belly, McConaughey is practically unrecognizable as a prospector in Gold.  Stemming from a dream he had one night, Kenny Wells, an employee of Washoe Mining Corporation, is convinced there is gold in Indonesia.  He does some research, then flies over to contact geologist Mike Acosta (Ramirez), who has previously found gold there.  Wells is a fast-talking salesman type, and finally convinces Acosta to join him in prospecting a new location that Acosta knows about.
          After scrambling for money from investors, the two start their operation, only to run into major problems with worker dissatisfaction, malaria, and Indonesian government interference.  Ramirez has to step in more than once to rescue the operation.  At one point, investor company Brown Thomas offers a strategic alliance, but cocky Wells refuses.  He is so confident, he boasts, “The last card you turn over is the only one that matters”; he is sure he will turn over the winning card.  At times during the film, it seems like this is a prophecy; at other times, it’s also a prophecy.
          Gold does a really fine job of illustrating the old story about the ups and downs of investing in commodities.  When Washoe makes it onto the New York Stock Exchange, it looks like Wells and Ramirez have it made.  One of the themes throughout is that it’s always important to have a back-up plan, and across time, this becomes readily apparent to all the major investors, particularly Wells. 
         Ambiguity is another running theme:  Who are the good/bad guys?  Is this turn of events a good or bad thing?  Will what is found be valuable or worthless?  Can the Sukarno government connection be trusted?  Questions such as these keep the suspense going, particularly since the script calls for swings back and forth.  It’s never predictable how things are going to turn out, and even at the very end, viewers will have questions.
          McConaughey is a well known gifted actor with 50 awards and 67 nominations, and he is up to his best in Gold—as repulsive as his character often is.  I admire the “hunk’s” willingness not only to be cast as this kind of figure, but to gain 50 pounds and look bald for it as well.  Ramirez is a fine match for him, often coming across as the stronger figure, the rescuer of the McConaughey character.  Supporting actors are strong, although Howard’s character is not prominent; but Kebbell as the FBI agent questioning Wells, Keach and Stoll as canny investors, and Greenwood as a spoiler enrich the production.
          The experience of screenwriters Patrick Massett and John Zinman has primarily been in television, and this factor may underlie my sense that it comes across as a bit contrived, despite the high level of suspense maintained throughout.  Stephen Gaghan’s excellent direction mostly overcomes this drawback, but still implausibilities or at least questions of “How can that work?” remain.  Especially in the last scenes of the film.

Will this dreamer survive the prospecting ups and downs?

Grade:  B                                       By Donna R. Copeland

Friday, January 20, 2017


Annette Bening     Elle Fanning     Greta Gerwig     Billy Crudup     Lucas Jade Zumann 

         A film about women, yes, but just as much about motherhood.  It’s 1979, and Dorothea (Bening) has tenants and an occasional visitor in her 19th Century house in Santa Barbara.  She has her son Jamie (Zumann), Julie (Fanning) who comes only by night to talk and sleep in Jamie’s bed, Abbie (Gerwig), an artist who’s run away from home and renting a room, and William (Crudup) who has a room in the house but is doing major remodeling of it.  Perhaps without realizing it, Dorothea has created a family with the utmost intention of providing the best she can for her son.  It’s a little bit sad that she has no awareness of her own needs in this regard. 
        Jamie is a thoughtful child who asks his mother probing questions that, to him, she avoids answering (like, whether she’s happy); and when at one point she asks why he’s not open with her, Jamie retorts that he’s not the one who doesn’t talk.  And when she asks why he has done something dangerous, he smartly asks her why she smokes.  These questions do not seem to get through to her.
          Later, she becomes more anxious about Jamie’s progress (understandably—he’s 14-15) and enlists the help of Julie and Abbie, with both of whom, Jamie seems to have a close relationship.  She had already engaged William, thinking that Jamie needed a masculine influence  (never realizing until someone pointed it out that the two had little in common). 
          What follows is the story of young women influencing the development of a teenage boy.  Dorothea has grave misgivings from time to time, but when she confronts Julie and Abbie she gets her misconceptions corrected and is reassured (thanks to her trust and confidence in them).  This is a fine illustration of how motherhood can just be a muddling through, with no guarantee of the outcome.  Dorothea has many soul-searching moments about how she’s doing as a mother, but unlike most mothers, she has younger people close by to explain to her what is going on.
           In observing Dorothea, we get the perspective of her generation, instructive to a fault, prone to deny anything negative (although anxious about it), but wanting to maintain control of a son’s life.  To her credit, she trusts her “family”, and steps aside for Julie and Abbie to be his primary advisers (not that they have everything together).  Williams gently supports and advises her, but is respectful of her space.
          Perhaps this is a modern day fable about feminism and motherhood and how both need to accommodate to a changing world.  Women need help in their mothering and need to consider some of their own interests.  Men can help by being more sensitive to women and letting go of some of their feeling of responsibility for them.
          Mike Mills, writer-director of the film, has said it is partially autobiographical, and I think that is apparent in his sensitivity to Dorothea’s situation as she perceives it and the different perspectives shown by the characters.  Above all, I appreciate his nonjudgmental, empathic depiction of the characters.
          Bening, Fanning, Gerwig, and Crudup are perfect in their roles, and young Zumann is a treasure in his portrayal of a young man beset by so many influences.  Music by Roger Neill enhances every scene and helps us enjoy the lightheartedness of the whole production.

Motherhood as you’ve not seen it before.

Grade:  A                                                          By Donna R. Copeland

Thursday, January 19, 2017


Vin Diesel     Donnie Yen     Toni Collette     Samuel L. Jackson
Deepika Padukone     Kris Wu     Ruby Rose     Tony Jaa     Nina Dobrev     Ice Cube

          My impression:  That this film was made purely to highlight its special effects and bring a videogame look to film—not that others haven’t had that purpose before.  So if this is your thing, you will love xXx:  Return of Xander Cage.  Story is secondary to the legendary (and unreal) acumen of Xander (Diesel), whom everyone thought was dead, but was only in hiding.  The CIA searches him out, and recruits him to retrieve Pandora’s Box, a deadly weapon they had in their hands until a band of phenomenal intruders literally snatched it away from Jane Marke (Collette), a CIA higher-up. 
         But first, we get a treat of seeing Xander doing incredible athletic stunts to establish his credibility as not only an unbelievable athlete, but a patriotic, conscionable citizen--and lover--as well.  (He brings television broadcasts to soccer fans in Central America.)  He is against “men in suits” and a champion of the people.
      After Jane Marke recruits him, Xander is unbelievably quick in bringing her the information she needs by being an “undercover agent.”  (The sexual and macho symbols are replete throughout the film, meant to please the 15-40 year-old male viewers.)  Now the fun begins as Pandora’s Box, the ultimate deadly weapon, is located as being in the hands of two people in the Philippines, Xiang (Yen) and his partner Serena (Padukone).   
     Marke introduces Xander to his retrieval “team”, all males, who are completely unacceptable to him.   He dispatches them immediately as pussies, and brings his own people on—both men and women with special skills.  Marke is cagey, and although complaining, she allows him to lead his own team in the assault on the couple in the Philippines who have Pandora’s Box.  They are Xiang (Yen) and his partner Serena (Padukone) who have a fleet of amazing fighters of their own.
          Xander puts his people in place, and they make an assault amidst a party.  (Sex and violence are a must in this film).  What follows are a crafty shake-up, as well as the identification of the real villains.  Changing alliances and the representation of noble motivations give this film a little more quality beyond the technical achievements. 
          D. J. Caruso’s film shows how government agencies can be corrupt and self-serving, but it does not suggest any viable alternatives.   Well, perhaps the final scenes with Pandora’s Box does.

A love letter to Vin Diesel and his phenomenal abilities.

Grade:  C+                                    By Donna R. Copeland

Wednesday, January 18, 2017


James McAvoy     Betty Buckley     Anya Taylor-Joy     Jessica Sula     Haley Lu Richardson

       About as creepy as it can get in portraying a mentally ill person’s delusions.  James McAvoy is at the height of his performances in the depiction of someone with multiple personalities.  Here, he can be tough, mean, simple minded, and artsy, depending on which identity is “up.”  He does this mostly with facial expressions and body language, which makes his performance more impressive.  The psychiatrist treating him is pretty well portrayed and very well acted by Buckley as Dr. Fletcher.  How factual the representation of dissociative identity disorder is, I can’t really judge because I don’t have experience with that diagnosis, but it “rang true” from what I know.
        My issue with this and other horror movies is that they linger a bit too long on moments of tension and tend to drag them out long after they’re plausible.  Most notable is the ending—which is not really an ending—in which a character has a chance to do just that (end things) and doesn’t. Another issue is that every scene with the women shows them to be fragile, easily rattled, and unable to take action.  The two girls abducted with Casey (Taylor-Joy), Marcia (Sula) and Claire (Richardson), really got on my nerves with the panicky breathing and hysterical behavior.  And although Dr. Fletcher is portrayed as a very competent therapist in most of the story, her portrayal toward the end is inconsistent with how she is portrayed professionally in the beginning.
          The story begins with a father urging his daughter and her friend to be compassionate toward an odd, retiring classmate, Casey, and offer her a ride home.  But just as they are getting in the car, the father acknowledges someone approaching, and suddenly we see the stranger driving the car rather than the father.  This stranger is abducting the three girls.  He is “Kevin” (McAvoy) who will rain terror on them in the coming days.
          Shyamalan has had an uneven career, with some of his work praised (Sixth Sense and perhaps Signs) and much of it criticized (Lady in the Water).  He is good at weaving a story that keeps the viewer mesmerized and interested in the esoteric, but at times he gets too caught up in the supernatural.  Here, he is good at introducing the main character with 23 personalities slowly, so the viewer’s reaction may be, “Is that the same person we just saw?”  And then the disorder we’re seeing becomes clear.
          Another plus is Shyamalan fleshing out Casey’s character so that her current behavior and deportment are well accounted for by events in her childhood.

A mostly well crafted thriller that will make your skin crawl while you admire the star.

Grade:  C+                                    By Donna R. Copeland

Friday, January 13, 2017


Emile Hirsch     Brian Cox     Ophelia Lovibond     Olwen Catherine Kelly

          This thriller gets into the supernatural, along with the standard thunderstorm, bumps, and other strange happenings during the night.  Tommy (Cox) is the town’s coroner and has a mortuary business, employing his son Austin (Hirsch) as a medical technician.  They seem to be getting along reasonably well after the death of Austin’s mother, but Tommy is itching to venture out into the world.  He hasn’t had the nerve to tell Tommy yet, because he feels an obligation to stay and help his father.  He has a girlfriend, Emma (Lovibond), who is pressuring him to tell his father and follow through with their plan to relocate.
           The men have just received four bodies from a burning house, and already find some puzzling signs.  On top of that, the sheriff brings in another body that was half buried in peat in the basement.  This is even more puzzling, and it gets weirder as they proceed to do an autopsy.  For starters, there are no outwardly visible signs of trauma, despite broken bones and internal injuries.  They decide to work through the night because the sheriff needs answers by the next morning.
           The beginning of the story written by Ian B. Goldberg and Richard Naing takes time in developing the characters and setting up the mystery and alarming events that are to follow.  As Tommy is conducting the autopsy, we’re privy to his findings and the questions that arise.  This is very interesting to observe; however, he does seem to be going through the steps of an actual autopsy, so the squeamish might consider whether he/she is up to the film. 
           Norwegian Director Andre Ovredal and his staff know how to put together a horror film in terms of pacing, sound effects, camera action, and maintaining suspense, sprinkling in just enough reality-based effects to make the story more plausible.  Hirsch and Cox have good rapport, convincing as a father-son duo, and showing sheer terror when it looks like they’re trapped and being pursued by supernatural forces.  With virtually all of the scenes taking place in the confines of the morgue, the claustrophobic sense enhances the horror.  As the corpse, actress Kelly maintains utter stillness (a function of yoga practice) in her body staring blankly ahead with gray eyes.
          The movie should keep horror fans happy and scared within its well-crafted story telling, sound effects, camera action, and solid performances.

A creepy thriller that captures your interest as you learn about autopsies, even while you wish to escape the claustrophobic atmosphere.

Grade:  C+                                    By Donna R. Copeland

Thursday, January 12, 2017


Mark Wahlberg     J. K. Simmons     Kevin Bacon     John Goodman     Michelle Monaghan     
Jimmy O. Yang     Alex Wolff     Themo Melikidze

       A dramatic account of the 2013 bombings at the Boston Marathon refreshes our memory of what happened that day and the investigations to find the perpetrators that followed.  It’s fascinating and informative to see how the rescue and investigation proceeded, and how quickly the suspects were identified with security cameras.  With that information in hand, a police officer knowledgeable about the area knew where to look for them.  There was disagreement initially among the FBI and city/county/state officials about when to release the names, but as soon as they did, they began to get leads.  (The FBI preferred to withhold the names so as not to tip off the bombers and allow them to escape.)
        The film gives us glimpses of some people’s lives beforehand, such as Sgt. Tommy Saunders (Wahlberg) who had been temporarily suspended from the force, some of the victims, and the Tsarnaev brothers, the bombers.  This helps make the shock more real and important to us, and gives us a glimpse into how private lives are affected (tragically, sometimes) by civic duties.  The most dramatic of these is when the Tsarnaevs on the run hijack a car driven by a student (Yang) whom we’ve been introduced to earlier as a son talking to his family in China and to his friends.  Dzhokhar (Wolff) and Tamerian (Melikidze) Tsarnaev are shown to be bumbling and argumentative in their execution of the terror and their attempts to get away.  In the aftermath of the explosions, it’s eerie to see them at home watching TV reports of their work, and Tamerian sending Dzhokhar to the store on an errand.
       Peter Berg, the director, moves the story along, with frequent cuts—sometimes so frequent it makes you dizzy—but covering the scope of the massive event well, including preparations for the race and some of the back stories, law enforcement during the race, the bombings and chaos that followed, the rescue, and finally the investigation and pursuit of the criminals.  There is an especially interesting interrogation of the older Tsarnaev’s wife by the FBI.  It did not produce much information, but showed the FBI’s expertise in connecting with someone to elicit information.
          No one character really stands out, although Sgt. Saunders seems to turn up at every important event.  Wahlberg’s performance is not as outstanding as in some of his previous work, although it is adequate, and it could be that the writers/director wanted a lower key persona for this role.  Experienced actors in supportive roles that measure up to their reputations include J. K. Simmons, Kevin Bacon, John Goodman, Alex Wolff, and Michelle Monaghan.  Relative newcomer Themo Melikidze playing the older Tsarnaev is entirely convincing.

A reminder of the fateful day in 2013 when two brothers wreaked havoc in Boston during the marathon.

Grade:  B                                    By Donna R. Copeland


Ben Affleck     Elle Fanning     Brenda Gleeson     Sienna Miller     Zoe Saldana     Chris Cooper
Remo Girone     Robert Glenister     Chris Messina     Miguel Pimentel

         Does crime pay?  Live by Night seems to be addressing this issue, but the reasoning and events used to talk about it are complicated.  Joe (Affleck) is rebellious toward his father (Gleeson), a Boston police captain, and a bit jaded after a stint in the Marines during WWI, saying that he is no longer going to take orders from anyone.  As a reaction to these situations, he chooses a life of crime to support himself, much against his father’s advice, of course.  But the irony is in what he finds when he is caught between two warring crime bosses; father figures ordering him around—in spades.  And he also finds that now the stakes are much higher, and his vow not to kill anyone else becomes increasingly impossible.
      Joe is extremely naïve in the beginning of the story, and easily becomes fatefully involved with the girlfriend of the first big boss, Albert White (Glenister).   Emma (Miller) is coquettish and he is easily entangled in her web.  He just about loses his life as a result, but is rescued at the last minute, although he does have to do some time in prison.
        Just why he again makes a bad choice when he gets out is not explained—a fault of the writing.  That is, a boy who seemed to come from a “good” family with basic values is somehow attracted to a life of crime?  There is nothing in the script about the character that accounts for this.  But say it’s simply money; he doesn’t know how to make lots of money without participating in the alcohol trade during Prohibition.  Let’s just go with that.
         Competing drug lords Albert White (Glenister) and Maso Pescatore (Girone) recognize his skills, and recruit him; first, White, then Pescatore.  He is able to keep from killing when he is with White, but with Pescatore, that option is not open.  Not only must he deal with competition in business, but he eventually has to deal with the Ku Klux Klan in Florida.  The ante keeps increasing for this unfortunate character until he thinks he has finally reached a solution.
           Another complication Joe encounters in Florida comes in the form of a sexy Cuban, Graciela (Soldana), who supports pro-Cuba revolutionary causes.  She will be his redemption both emotionally and legally.  At last, he finds through her a path that will free him from his baser instincts.  But there are major twists in the story on up to the end.
         Affleck co-wrote, produced, and directed Live by Night, and after his success with Argo and winning numerous awards, this film is something of a disappointment, which has to do with a host of problems.  The main characters are not well fleshed out; the sound quality makes it difficult to understand the dialog sometimes, and the logic of going from Point A to Point B in events as well as the characters is weak or absent.  Affleck’s own performance is thin, not nearly as powerful as much of his earlier work in Gone Girl, Argo, and The Town, for instance.  Perhaps it’s just a matter of time and attention; he has numerous projects in development and in production.
          Turning in good performances are Elle Fanning, Brendan Gleeson, Zoe Saldana, Chris Cooper, Ramo Girone, Robert Glenister, and Chris Messina.  Robert Richardson (Hateful Eight World War Z, Django Unchained, Hugo) is a wizard with the camera, and the music of Harry Gregson captures the period.

A gangsta movie for gangsta fans.

Grade:  C                                    By Donna R. Copeland