Thursday, March 29, 2018


Voices of:  Bryan Cranston   Koyu Rankin   Kunishi Nomura   Edward Norton   
Bob Balaban   Bill Murray  Jeff Goldblum   Greta Gerwig   Frances McDormand   
Scarlett Johansson   Harvey Keitel   Akira Ito  F. Murray Abraham   Tilda Swinton  
 Liev Schreiber   Yoko Ono   Courtney B. Vance   Akira Takayama

     In the hands of Wes Anderson, a stop-motion animated film with mostly dogs as characters and an allegorical theme will captivate children and adults without pandering to either.  Probably by coincidence, writer-director Anderson, with the help of Roman Coppola, Jason Schwartzman, and Kunichi Nomura, employ themes of topical relevance today:  government corruption, foreign influences on government, student protests, and issues related to animal research.  Additional weight comes from a case of repentance of justified charges for crime, followed by atonement.  Oh, yes, and murder and cannibalism are covered as well.
     Now, you might think from reading the above paragraph, that Isle of Dogs is entirely too serious and doesn’t sound entertaining at all.  But hold on—the action in the film is fascinating, rife with chuckling humor and imaginative sets, all accompanied by Alexandre Desplat’s wondrous score that enriches every scene.   Cinematography by Tristan Oliver and all the production and set design are remarkably artistic and enjoyable.
     The story takes place in feudal Japan, where Mayor Kobayashi (Nomura) and his cat-adoring people have decided that dogs are bad (as evidenced by dog flu, snout fever, and other symptoms) and a threat to humans, so must be banished to Trash Island (think of the environment in Wall-E); this is despite a noble scientist (Ito) announcing that a cure is imminent. 
     It turns out the mayor has a nephew who has become his ward after the child’s parents died.  Atari (Rankin) has a beloved dog named Spots (Schreiber), and even Spots has been banished.  This is too much for Atari, and in his grief and desperation (and smarts) he commandeers a small plane on his uncle’s estate and flies to Trash Island to find Spots.       That’s where many of the adventures and entertaining encounters take place.  Every dog has a personality and personal issues to deal with.  Anderson is able to insert drama in just about anything.
     Suspense is high in making us wonder whether Atari will find his dog (and there is an additional twist there), what will happen to all the dogs we’ve come to know on the island, and what will happen politically in Megasaki City.
     There is so much to process in Isle of Dogs that you are likely to want to see it again.  Noteworthy is the way the filmmakers bring home messages about justice, right, fairness, and joie de vivre without being condescending.  It’s all there for you in the experiencing of the film.
     Anderson has his favorite actors, and they are here, along with a host of others for us to admire.  I have heard that actors vie to be in an Anderson film, and it’s easy to see why.

Quintessential Wes Anderson in presentation, message(s), thoughtfulness, beauty, and fun. 

Grade:  A                                                   By Donna R. Copeland


Tye Sheridan     Olivia Cooke     Ben Mendelsohn     Lena Waithe     
T. J. Miller     Simon Pegg     Mark Rylance
Philip Zhao     Win Morisaki     Hannah John-Kamen

      Are you ready for the world of 2045?  Steven Spielberg’s vision is that everyone will be so absorbed in virtual reality (VR) games they’ll be spending most of their time there, rather than in the work-a-day real world.  We get a striking picture of how that will be by watching Ready Player One.  Unfortunately (for me), most of the action is like a video game with car chases, fights, and wars.  But there is a story underlying all the racing around, plotting, and attempts to figure out a master gamer’s clues leading to a lot of money and ownership of the Oasis, the ultimate gaming organization of the time.
    Humble Wade Waits (Sheridan) lives in the “Stacks”, a slum in Columbus, Ohio, consisting of house trailers (rather then apartments or condos) stacked upon one another (a visual masterpiece reminding of the favelas up a mountainside above Rio de Janeiro, Brazil), and right away we get to watch him traverse down to the street level by jumping, leaping over balconies, and sliding down a rope.  Wade’s parents died, and he lives with his sister Alice (Susan Lynch) and her current boyfriend, an abusing lout. 
     Now, Wade has an avatar, Parzival, and he is hell-bent on solving the riddles left by the mischievous creator and owner of Oasis, Halliday (Rylance), who—by the way—has died.  But whoever solves his riddles for three keys will become rich and gain the power of ownership of Oasis. 
     Parzival manages to develop a kinship with other avatars, and they form a party of five:  Wade/Parvizal, Samantha/Art3mis (Cooke), Aech/Helen (Aech), Sho (Zhao), and Daito (Morisaki), working together to find the keys; but they are thwarted by the unsavory giant corporation led by Sorrento (Mendelsohn) and his minions, foremost of which are I-ROk (Miller) and F’Nale Zandor (John-Kamen).
    A matching of wits and devices follows, with the occasional appearance of Halliday/Anorak making the keys available as they are won.  Sorrento has developed a corrupt organization that is determined to out-smart anyone else in vying for the keys by hook or by crook—mostly crook.  The scenes switch back and forth between the virtual reality and real worlds, which becomes frightening when you realize that what happens in VR can affect people and events in the real world. 
     The story is engaging, acted out so well by the two leads, Sheridan and Cooke.  It was rewarding to see them as a real team, with one and then the other taking on a critical role in saving each other.  Usually, it’s Art3mis who is the quick wit figuring out the clues after Parzival’s initial win.  It’s nice to see the breaking of stereotypes in this and in their personalities, with the Cooke character being sharp and canny, and the Sheridan character being more naïve, but still solid in values and character.  Ben Mendelsohn is perfect as the charming, conniving villain Sorrento.  Other noteworthy performances were rendered by Lena Waithe, T.J. Miller, Hannah John-Kamen, Philip Zhao, Win Morisaki, and Simon Pegg.
     This is fairly typical Spielberg with impressive production, substantive story, and well-defined characters.  It’s fascinating (and humorous) as well in its multiple references to other films (not necessarily Spielberg’s), and it does a good job in having appeal for both younger (technology, videogames) and older audiences (references to other films).  Janusz Kaminski’s cinematography, Alan Silvestri’s music, and Adam Stockhausen’s production design make this a first-rate production.
     As much as I loved watching this film, it is primarily aimed toward fantasy enthusiasts who will revel in the special effects and references to previous iconic films.

Catch a futuristic ride into the world of virtual reality where “you can be anything you want to be.”

Grade:  B+                                                By Donna R. Copeland

Thursday, March 22, 2018


Voices of:  James McAvoy     Emily Blunt     Johnny Depp     Chiwetel Ejiofor     Jamie Demetriou
Mary J. Blige     Ashley Jensen     Maggie Smith     Michael Caine     Julie Walters

     With all the adult themes (such as the complexities in relationships, literary references, and details in the plot), it’s hard to see how Sherlock Gnomes is a film for children, despite its being animated.  Following Sherlock’s (Depp) reasoning through problems and clues is way over the kids’ heads; observing the intricacies of relationships between Sherlock and Watson (Ejiofor), Gnomeo (McAvoy) and Juliet (Blunt), and others would not interest them, if they “got it” at all; and Watson’s counseling Gnomeo about his conflicts with Juliet seems ludicrous in this context.  After the screening, I asked a family in the elevator if they understood it, and all three of them shook their heads and looked disappointed.
     It may be another case (now common in children’s films) of the Director John Stevenson and his writers and producers making the common mistake of trying so hard to appeal to adults, they overlook the children seeing their films—or maybe they just simply don’t know very much about children.  The literary references, such as “Gnomeo, Gnomeo, wherefore art thou?” and the “Hound of the Baskervilles” are purely for adults, as are the songs by Mary J. Blige complaining about an ex-lover and “Love Machine.”
     The filmmakers also make the mistake of modeling bad behavior and then having the characters getting insight and apologizing afterwards.  Here, Juliet is rude and overbearing toward Gnomeo, and Sherlock is the same with Watson.  If you want children to learn something, you model good, respectful relationships, not bad ones where apologies are called for later.  And I detest the artificial romantic sequences shown between couples, particularly Nanette (Jensen), a frog, trying to seduce one of the gnomes.
     An odd thing about the film is that it seems to be over-compensating for the past slighting of women, because here, Juliet, Irene, and Lady Bluebury (Smith) seem to have the upper hand with their men.  For instance, Juliet is shown to be much stronger and smarter than Gnomeo; Irene gives Sherlock h--- for his behavior in their past relationship, and Lady Bluebury’s husband hardly says a word.  Juliet is absolutely irritating with her constant questions and know-it-all attitude.  I can say it was encouraging, though, to see the interactions between Juliet and Irene, which showed solidarity between two women.
     About the only other positive thing I can say about this film is that the slate of actors do a very fine job.  Although the script is woeful, the actors came through with the best they could do.

This appears to be an animated film for adults; however, I don’t think many adults would want to see it.  Children are likely to be mystified.

Grade:  D                                         By Donna R. Copeland


Bella Thorne     Patrick Schwarzenegger     Rob Riggle     Quinn Shephard

     This is a film that might appeal to pre-teen girls in terms of its subject matter, but I wouldn’t even recommend that because it models feeling shame about a physical illness, hence not telling a significant other person about it until way late in the story.  How much better to have the illness out front right away, and show young people how shame and other feelings about illness can be handled.
     But Midnight Sun is way too precious anyway, with “perfect” boy, girl, father, friend, and doctor.  All have a rosy spin, so there is no conflict.  God Forbid that anyone would express anger, impatience, jealousy, and, above all, grief.
     XP (Xeroderma Pigmentosum) is a disorder in which any sunlight on the body can be life threatening.  That is what Katie (Thorne) and her father (Riggle) are dealing with after her mother died.  She has been home-schooled, and for some reason not explained in the film, has never gone to friends’ houses or to parties at night.  One cheeky little girl named Morgan (Shephard) invited herself to dinner one evening, and the girls became fast friends forever after.  She is a good influence on Katie, and is responsible for Katie meeting Charlie (Schwarzenegger).  The two hit it off, but Katie manages to hide her illness from Charlie.  This only comes out at the end of the story and, well, you can guess from what I’ve said how it goes:  happy ever after.
     The only quality I see in Midnight Sun is the acting.  It’s noteworthy that the star Thorne sang and played her own guitar.  The part as written for her, as well as the one for Schwarzenegger, are both super easy to play, and although both do a good job, it’s not especially remarkable.  The same could be said for Riggle.  But the most impressive is Quinn Shephard as the slightly quirky friend who seems more normal than everyone else with her feistiness and love for life.
     The film is based on a TV miniseries by Kenji Bando, with a screenplay written by Eric Kirsten.  I have no idea why the filmmakers chose to focus on XP, in that with sun exposure it typically leaves the person with skin malignancies, not a pretty sight.  In this picture in which everyone and everything is beautiful, Katie herself is beautiful with not a hint of skin problems.
     Unless you’re willing to go for “pre-teen light”, Midnight Sun is not for you.

Midnight Sun, a contradiction in terms in more ways than one.

Grade:  D                                                By Donna R. Copeland


John Boyega     Scott Eastwood     Tian Jing     Cailee Spaeny    
Rinko Kikuchi     Burn Gorman     Adria Arjona     Charlie Day

     At first, I thought that the only reason to watch this film is for the special effects, which are spectacular, but I wished for more dramatic impact, which is so minimal.  Then later, I was intrigued with its treatment of the Amara Namani (Spaeny) character, a young sassy girl who had done amazing things on her own (such as assembling a Jaeger from scraps), failed at first at cadet school, then managed to become a central element in saving the earth.  That redeemed this film to some extent in terms of dramatic import and being more than the usual fight-game.
     Another interesting twist is one of the characters’ going rogue after some of his vital fluids got mixed with that of a Kaiju in the first Pacific Rim film, making him eventually a traitor to the Pan Pacific Defense Force.
     In Pacific Rim Uprising, several story lines play out.  There is the one about Jake (Boyega) trying to live up to his father’s heroic brilliance, his competitiveness with his fellow pilot, Nate (Eastwood), his argumentative relationship with Amara, and the competition among scientists (Gorman, Arjona, Day) to produce the most effective force, drones versus Jaegers.  If these stories had been fleshed out and the incessant, senseless robot fighting reduced, this would have been a lot better film.
     To complicate matters, the music and sound effects often drown out dialog, and some subtitles flash by so quickly they’re missed. 
     John Boyega, the recipient of a number of rising star awards for his work in Star Wars:  The Force Awakens and Attack the Block, is good in the starring role, which is very similar to his past roles, so it was not much of a stretch.  The new up-and-coming star here is Cailee Spaeny in her first feature film.  She is a natural in her range of expressions and her ability to capture the spotlight.  Tian Jing as head of the Chinese Shao Corporation’s drone project is icily attractive and clearly shows command of those under her purview.  Eastwood playing rival to Boyega’s character is very effective, although his resemblance to his father both in appearance and mannerism is a bit distracting.  (Not his fault, of course.)  I missed not seeing more of Rinko Kikuchi, who had a major role in the first Pacific Rim; her role here is minor.
     This is a film for special effects fans who are less interested in drama and more enthusiastic about seeing robots engaged in physical combat.

Meager in story; incessant in fighting.

Grade:  D                                    By Donna R. Copeland


Joshua Leonard     Claire Foy     Sarah Stiles     Amy Irving     Jay Pharoah     Juno Temple     Aimee Mullins

     When I like Steven Soderbergh’s work, I really like it (Traffic; Sex, Lies, Videotape; Behind the Candelabra; Logan Lucky) and mostly I like all his work.  However…Unsafe is so far-fetched, with a script devoid of cleverness—just one horror after another—I checked out early on. 
     We’re given a brief picture of Sawyer (Foy) as a bank clerk cheekily defending her report to a client and told in voice-over about her history of warding off a stalker.  This has left her with some problems to work through, and she goes to see a counselor.  What follows gives mental health care a bad name.  I will allow that its institutions can be criticized, but I seriously doubt any facility would incarcerate someone simply for saying they’d thought about suicide (just about everyone has, at some point in their life), even for the insurance money.  At any rate, this is how the story goes in Unsane (script by relatively inexperienced Jonathan Bernstein and James Greer).
   Sawyer is put in with (mostly) insane people, one of which—Violet (Temple)—is particularly confronting and annoying; one of which—Nate (Pharoah)—befriends her and is trustworthy.  It takes time and turmoil before she can contact her mother (Irving) who vows to move heaven and earth to get Sawyer released.  But the psychiatrist (Gibson Frazier) and the administrator (Aimee Mullins) give “reasoned” excuses as to why she must remain.
     The problem is the script, which shows a cool, thoughtful bank administrator that Sawyer is lose that cool and suddenly become hysterical, attacking others physically.  Other inconsistencies in character show up later on both in Sawyer and her mother, which I won’t spell out.  Another “trick” employed in horror movies, which these filmmakers have used, is for someone you think is dead to suddenly reappear.  The sudden shift in Sawyer’s personality at the end was particularly off-putting.  Oh, so she’s a b---- after all?
     Claire Foy holds this story together with her fine acting skills.  I’m particularly impressed with her American accent after seeing her in British productions like television’s “The Crown” and “Wolf Hall.”   Joshua Leonard as David Strine is just the right amount of creepy, pulling off a professional veneer with underlying psychopathology, and Juno Temple is lovably one of the truly insane.  Amy Irving and Aimee Mullins likewise do a great job as their characters.
     Unfortunately, I found this movie so offensive in the aspersions cast on psychiatric hospitalization that it colored my viewing.  Although I know there are valid criticisms of such facilities, I would hate to see unfounded fears about them reinforced, which I think this film does.

Inconsistencies in characters and an unimaginative plot with flaws dooms Unsane (which is not even an accepted word).

Grade:  F                                                By Donna R. Copeland


Adrian McLoughlin     Steve Buscemi     Jeffrey Tambor     Michael Palin     Simon Russell Beale
Paddy Considine     Olga Kurylenko     Andrea Riseborough     Rupert Friend     Jason Isaccs

       This is a film that is likely to pass right over the heads of most Americans, whose knowledge of the history of Russia during the 1950’s is meager at best.  In my own case, I was unable to catch the satire and the rolling out of gags and slapstick that so many critics, by their reviews, have obviously enjoyed.   Curiously, instead, I was constantly reminded of the chaos reigning in our current U.S. government, which detracted majorly from the humor I might have enjoyed if I had seen the film three years ago.  (Another time; another place.  But not now!).
        The Death of Stalin deals with the death of a ruthless leader (played by McLoughlin) who tortured, had shot, and sent to Siberia millions of innocent people.  I guess it takes a special kind of British humor by co-writer/director Armando Iannucci to make it into a political satire that juxtaposes Stalin-era atrocities and comical bureaucratic dysfunction at his death. The production is originally based on a comic book, “The Death of Stalin”, by Fabien Nury and Thierry Robin. 
         The filmmakers have chosen to allow the cast to speak in their usual accents, which range from regional British Isles to American (no feigning of Russian language), so the viewer unfamiliar with history and the characters has a lot to keep track of. 
     This is an outstanding cast, especially Steve Buscemi, who looks nothing like Kruschchev, yet is able to be convincing.  Jeffrey Tambor (Malenkov), Michael Palin (Molotov), Simon Russell Beale (Lavrenti Beria) as head of the Russian secret police, Jacon Isaacs (Field Marshal Zhukov), Andrew Riseborough (Svetlana Stalin), and Rupert Friend (Vasily Stalin) all play their roles exactly as prescribed and lend generous entertainment. 

British humor juxtaposes Stalin’s atrocities and comic dysfunction at his death among bureaucrats.

Grade:  B                                               By Donna R. Copeland

Sunday, March 18, 2018


     It’s rare to find an artist of Itzhak Perlman’s caliber who is remarkable in so many different ways.  Alice Chernick’s documentary impresses with its comprehensive picture of who the man is--where he came from, highlights of his world, and significant people in his life.  One gets the impression of how so much his achievement has to do with his raw talent, but along with that, the kind of (not necessarily kind) encouragement and support he received along the way.  Out of these myriad experiences, he is shown to be an unusual man who, for all the accolades, remains a mensch to his family and to his students.  And…he has a golden sense of humor, which seems to underlie his whole being.
     Standing beside Itzhak as a true partner is his wife Toby, whom he met in his student days in New York City.  She is a classically trained violinist, but their relationship seems to be based as much on mutual interests (along with music) and shared values.  Chernick focuses on their conversations and interactions in a way that shows how simpatico they are.  She articulates her respect for him as a musician and as a man throughout the film.  When they address the issue of how important the arts are to children’s development [decrying its vulnerability in the public school system], Toby underscores this importance by saying, “Music gives us permission to dream, to steal, to be human.”
     A superb plus in the documentary is the emphasis on Perlman’s playing his violin, either on his own or in presentations with others, allowing the viewer to savor the life-pulsing lyricism that Perlman brings out in his music.  We hear his discussions with violin experts about features and history of the violin itself, and why it was always so important to Jewish people, especially during the Holocaust.
     There is a beautiful segment about Perlman expressing his enthusiasm for teaching, how, “when you teach others, you are teaching yourself.”  Having grown up, in his words, in a “triangle of hell” with his parents, his Israeli teacher, and himself, he endured constant charges that he did not have enough ambition.  This charge was disproven when he was enrolled in the Julliard School of Music and came under the tutelage of Dorothy DeLay, who he hated at first, but who made sure he was exposed to a broad education in the arts.  He came to believe that the way he overcame life’s challenges was by “the ability to evolve.”  He now has come to a place where he is sensitive enough to wonder, “How do you critique someone [who is out of tune] without hurting their feelings or sounding arrogant?” 
     The film ends with a celebration with his extended family, showing how extraordinary and inspiring it is for someone nowadays in his position to have retained in his everyday life a fair degree of modesty and all the people who are important to him. 
     Alice Chernick has created a fine portrait of a remarkable man who seems to have been born with an unbelievable talent, which, she shows, was honed by both others in his life and his own experience to exemplify a true hero of the arts and humanities.

Itzhak is an artist to inspire us beyond music to life itself.

Grade:  A                                    By Donna R. Copeland

Thursday, March 15, 2018


Rosamund Pike     Daniel Bruhl     Eddie Marsan     Lior Ashkenazi

     This is a fine account of an event that actually took place in 1976, in which Palestinian revolutionaries hi-jacked an Air France plane with the aim of getting Israel to negotiate with them.  They wanted back Palestinian prisoners that Israel had captured and held, in exchange for the release of Israeli hostages.  The movie illustrates very well the dilemmas that arise from policies about negotiating with terrorists.  There are good arguments on both sides of the issue.  The film goes back and forth between the Palestinian front revolutionaries (two of the main ones are Germans) and the Israeli government officials and—since they ended up in Uganda, Idi Amin finds himself in a position of choosing sides.  Also inserted from time to time is an Israeli dance group performing a number simply to reflect the writhing emotional experiences of all the characters.
     Rosamund Pike and Daniel Bruhl give sensitive performances of the two German Palestinian sympathizers, showing their angst—which goes back and forth between them.  She is more hard-nosed and committed than he is most of the time, but toward the end has second thoughts.  In this respect and in their relationships with others, we get a good idea of the terrorist experience and how differently they think and feel from one another, depending on what is happening at the time, and how they both waver between the two sides of their ambivalence.
     On the Israeli side Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin (Ashkenazi) is in conflict with his defense minister, Shimon Peres (Marsan), the former leaning more toward negotiation and the latter decidedly favoring a military operation to rescue the hostages.  Eventually, the vote is put before the cabinet, all favoring the military plan.
     Director Jose Padilha and writer Gregory Burke present an engaging story in which I stayed engrossed, and one that seems to maintain good balance between strategy and emotion and human concerns.  The policy of negotiation/non-negotiation is topical—along with the Israeli-Palestinian dispute—both conundrums about which no one seems to have a really good answer.  The filmmakers stayed even-keel on these issues, allowing the viewers to see both sides and make their own judgments.
     Very educational!  For me, at least.  I understand a number of previous films have covered this high-jacking incident, (e.g., Victory at Entebbe, Raid on Entebbe, and Operation Thunderbolt), but none was very highly praised.   The criticism of 7 Days in Entebbe as just another remake that didn’t need to be done is likely justified.

Grade:  C                                    By Donna R. Copeland


Nick Robinson     Josh Duhamel     Jennifer Garner     Talitha Bateman
Katherine Langford     Alexandra Shipp     Logan Miller     Kelynan Lonsdale     Jorge Lendeborg, Jr.

    Unlike many films about teens, Love, Simon is mostly a realistic portrayal, with occasional gems of wisdom about how people in general think, act, and feel.  Simon (Robinson) is an appealing teenager with good friends, a wholesome family life, and enough talent to stand out in a crowd.  He has been brought up well, and only occasionally displays the sulk American adolescents are known for.  But, he is coming to the realization that he is attracted to boys and doesn’t quite know what to do about it.
   Enter a clueless wannabe Martin (Miller), who gains access to Simon’s personal information and proceeds to blackmail Simon, manipulating him to get a girl for Martin.  This will be matchmaking hell for Simon, but he is naïve and thinks he can pull it off—just to keep his secret, secret.
     Added to this scenario, are pictures of high school in general—hallway encounters, the cafeteria, the school play, and parties.  Based on a book by Becky Albertalli, a clinical psychologist whose experience includes a specialty in children and teens and work in a high school, it comes across as plausible and a perceptive understanding of life in that realm.  Screenwriters Elizabeth Berger and Isaac Aptaker seem to have preserved many of the basic ideas, although I have a hunch that some scenes/characters were add-ons, such as the goofus vice principal (parody of a fool) and the sweet reveal and tie-up-with-a-bow ending.
     The director, Greg Berlanti, and screenwriters have a background in producing and writing for television, and in some ways, Love, Simon resembles a television program or series more than a feature film.  That is a way of saying that the story is delightfully entertaining, although it has “bite” as well in its observations about teens and high school life and the profound experience of facing/establishing one’s identity.  A special treat is seeing Simon trying to identify his anonymous correspondent on social media.  He makes the same mistakes that many of us have in trying to decide whether an acquaintance or friend is gay.
     Nick Robinson is well cast as Simon, with just the right balance of naïveté, trust, skepticism, and doubt in a coming-of-age teenager.  With his success in The Kings of Summer, he should have a bright future.  Other standouts among the teens are Katherine Langford as Leah, Simon’s life-long friend; Alexandra Shipp, the precocious sex symbol; and Logan Miller as the cringe-worthy budding sociopath.  Jennifer Garner and Josh Duhamel handle the not particularly challenging roles of mother and father to Simon.
     This is a film that will appeal to those interested in expanding their tolerance and understanding of alternative identities that go beyond simply male and female. 

A budding romance a little outside the norm.

Grade:  B+                        By Donna R. Copeland