Thursday, August 30, 2018


Rose Byrne     Ethan Hawke     Chris O’Dowd     Azhy Robertson

     What a delightful and entertaining rom-com this turned out to be!  It has smart, funny dialog, along with a lot of heart and truthfulness.  Based on a Nick Hornby novel, the screenwriting (Evgenia Peretz, Jim Taylor, and Tamara Jenkins) syncs well with Jesse Peretz’s direction, and the actors (Byrne, Hawke, O’Dowd, and Robertson) hand it to us on a silver platter.  
     The story centers around Annie (Byrne), a modest anthropologist and curator, who lives with a self-preoccupied film professor named Duncan (O’Dowd), whose music idol is a washed up singer named Tucker Crowe (Hawke).  Crowe is not only his idol, he has a school boy-like obsession with him; e.g., pictures, posters, and other Crowe memorabilia line the walls of his study at home—a little creepy, right(?), which is what we are supposed to feel.  Understandably, Annie finds this insufferable, but she tolerates it as best she can.  (She’s had a life that steered her toward patience.)  Then one day, her exasperation surfaces, and she responds to Duncan’s effusive compliments about one of Crowe’s songs on his blog with a negative review.  
     Much to her shock, of course, Tucker writes back about how much he agrees with her critique.  They have a back-and-forth online which blossoms into a friendship.  Meanwhile, Duncan has been prey to a new faculty member, succumbs to her charms, and subsequently gets kicked out of the house.  In Tucker, Annie has discovered someone who is interested in her and what she has to say, a novel experience for her. Of course, in her innocence, she regards this as a platonic friendship, but she does realize that Tucker makes her feel good about herself.
     What follows elaborates on Tucker’s history (He’s like the old woman in a shoe—he has so many children he doesn’t know what to do.) and his way-extended family, he and Annie meeting in London [him, with his lovable child Jackson (Robertson) in tow], hilarious encounters with Duncan, and working through the complex set of relationships.
     It’s clear that much thought and consideration of many current issues went into this production.  It touches on how professional women are regarded in the workplace and in their personal lives; it demonstrates how fame can lead a star down paths that have lifelong repercussions that can be both regrettable and shameful; it shows the pain and consequences for those who are in the star’s path and perhaps left behind; it gives an example of how one of those stars attempts to compensate for previous weaknesses; and shows the self-actualization one woman experiences when she finally realizes she has aspirations and choices she needs to heed.  None of this is ground-breaking, of course, but the way it all comes together is novel.
     On the surface, Juliet, Naked could be regarded as simply light entertainment—the usual.  But it doesn’t take much to scratch below the surface and glean many basic human truths within it.

I congratulate the novelist and filmmakers on their success in upgrading a genre from a “That’s nice!” to an examination of human strengths and foibles.

Grade:  B+                                    By Donna R. Copeland


John Cho     Michele La     Debra Messing     Sara Sohn     Joseph Lee

     Searching is more and more an apt title as you begin watching the film (mostly reading messages online and watching videos), then stick with it to the end, which doesn’t come as soon as you think. After all, it starts with home movies (haven’t we all sat through those at friends’ and on Facebook?), then it moves to interchanges between a father and daughter—the usual fare (“Clean up after yourself!”).  The next scenes pick up, showing a father trying to connect with his daughter after she went to a study group one evening.  He has missed calls she made to him, and she doesn’t respond to his numerous texts or phone calls.  He doesn’t know whether to be worried or be annoyed with his daughter.
     That’s about enough for you to know to avoid giving away spoilers.  David Kim (Cho), the father of Margot (La), eventually reports his daughter missing to the police, whereupon Detective Rosemary Vick (Messing) picks up the case and does her best to reassure him.  Kim is facile with the computer, and immediately runs searches about her to evaluate her qualifications.  She is apparently dedicated and noteworthy, and he relaxes a bit.  However, he keeps searching online for more and more information, something he does throughout the story, and the viewer sees the same information he finds online.
     This movie is about many things.  It’s certainly about how much we can find out online by searching.  But it’s also about what we may do with the information we find there.  We see that one can jump to (false) conclusions on specific bits of data. We see the important distinction between presumably objective professionals (like detectives) conducting such searches and someone emotionally involved in interpreting the data.  We see that sometimes the emotionally involved nonprofessional person can spot things or know things a professional might not know or might miss.  The filmmakers seem to be quite aware of the tension and paradoxes here and exploit them knowingly.
     At first, I was turned off by the approach taken by writer-director Aneesh Chaganty and his co-writer Sev Ohanian.  My thought was something akin to:  “I spend hours a day on the computer, do I have to do the same thing in a movie?”  I love actors and sets within real-life dramas; reading a story online is off-putting.  But the storytellers were not through, and I would eventually be taken to a familiar place of action and human drama.
     In this film, we’re gradually given more and more information that makes a ho-hum drama turn out to be intriguing and even exciting.  It’s a victory for the Internet and plainly shows how substantive intellect applied to it can be invaluable.  The story also ends up being a thriller as we discover incrementally leads that end up nowhere but one in particular that nails the case.
     John Cho as the father and the one who essentially carries the movie with impressive skill exemplifies going through every imaginable emotion as he tries to sort out whether his daughter ran away from home, as he discovers how little he really knows about her life, as he gets into trouble for over-reacting and drawing false conclusions, as he deals with his brother Peter (Lee) who apparently knew his daughter better than he did—Cho captures the whole range. Debra Messing competently steps out beyond her sit-com role in TV’s “Will and Grace” to embody a very different character in Detective Vick.  
     This is a fascinating movie, not only for the content, but also in its focus on the Internet’s role in our lives today.  My experience was one of ambivalence about the techno aspects initially, and by the end, when high drama was so lavishly thrown in, I felt a bit like I had been jerked around.  A good detective story gives out clues all along that one might see (preferably) only in retrospect; this script throws in twists and turns that have simply been added on for dramatic effect.

A surprise thriller that starts out slow and gradually builds up to something you can really care about.

Grade:  B                                    By Donna R. Copeland


Domhnall Gleeson     Ruth Wilson     Will Poulter     Charlotte Rampling

     Based on Sarah Waters’ gothic novel, The Little Stranger movie preserves the “creepiness” attendant on an old, crumbling house, mysterious sounds and goings on, periodic tragedies, and an eccentric family, once wealthy, trying to hang on as long as possible.  Whereas the young doctor who’s called for medical treatment now and then appears to be a sensible, dedicated physician (and narrator for the story), he becomes strangely attached to the family and the house, which actually dates back to the time when he was a child and his mother served as a maid at “Hundreds Hall.”
     All this is a perfect set-up for a horror movie, on which Lucinda Coxon has based her screenplay, and Lenny Abrahamson has directed.  But in addition to the mysteriousness, the author of the novel had social issues in mind, wanting to show a picture of what began to happen to the idea of class post WWI and the decline of wealthy estates.  We see, then, the brilliant descriptions of the narrator’s impressions of the mansion when he was the child of a maid visiting on a holiday.  As a grown-up physician attending to the inhabitants of the mansion years later, he develops a strange attraction to them.  Clearly, he is in touch with the young child’s aspirations to belong in such a place, but in his grandiosity, he is also convinced that he can help and protect them from any kind of threat, perhaps as assurance that he can belong.  He “over-identifies” with them.
     Probably also as a residue of the class system, the well-to-do family is ambivalent toward accepting Dr. Faraday wholeheartedly.  Some of his medical treatments are met with ambivalence, as are his attempts to woo the daughter of the matron.  Caroline (Wilson) is grateful for Dr. Faraday’s (Gleeson) attention and care, but going beyond the professional relationship is not a given for her.
     The author of the novel and the filmmakers have been clever in maintaining ambiguity and suspense, so that the reader/viewer has to observe, analyze, and guess what is going to transpire.  The haunting of the house is seductive—particularly if it’s related to the deceased child of the owner—but just as much is the pull toward a “psychological” explanation, as defined by Dr. Faraday and his colleagues.  If you find that the ending is ambiguous, you will not be alone.  So you get one character’s observation of “Something in this house hates us” and then, “This whole thing between us has never been real”, the former indicating a haunted house, and the latter being more of a psychological explanation.
     Domhnall Gleeson is up to his previous performance in Ex Machina in portraying a complex, somewhat naïve character.  Ruth Wilson, Will Poulter, and Charlotte Rampling are excellent in their supporting roles. Wilson expertly exhibits an ambivalent person who is perpetually torn between two positions.  Will Poulter is skilled in showing a dark character with layers of anger and resentment.  Charlotte Rampling always has just the right balance between being threatening toward others and being playful.  
     Working against the film is the pace, which many found slow, although since much attention was given to character development, I didn’t mind it. What did bother me was the darkness of the picture, which may be attributed to a dim bulb on the projector.  At any rate, many scenes were so dark it was difficult to see the action.   Understanding Irish accents is also a problem for the viewer at times.  
     In its favor, are numerous horrific scenarios, some of which come as a surprise and make you jump in your seat.  As mentioned, the additional commentary on social change and upheaval of the time (post WWI) describe the characteristic viewpoints of the wealthy and the common.  

A film that does justice to its genre of horror, drama, and mystery.

Grade:  B-                                    By Donna R. Copeland


Oscar Isaac     Ben Kingsley     Melanie Laurent     Nick Kroll    
Lior Raz     Michael Aronav     Joe Alwyn     Greta Scacchi

     The title is borrowed from Nazi Adolph Eichmann’s term, the “Final Solution”, his proposal in 1942 to get rid of the Jews in Germany, which was to exterminate them, something he accomplished with staggering efficiency.  The result was the deaths of 3-4 million Jews in occupied Europe and another 2 million elsewhere.  Fast-forward to 1960, when Israeli Jews discovered where Eichmann was after his escape before the International War Crimes Tribunal was held in Nuremburg.  He had fled to Buenos Aires, Argentina, where he lived with his family under a pseudonym and worked in a Mercedes-Benz factory.  
     With the blessing of Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion, a small team of Mossad agents was dispatched to Buenos Aires to abduct Eichmann and bring him to Israel for trial.  Disagreements had to be worked out between those who were still so enraged they wanted him killed and maybe tortured on the spot.  But cooler heads argued that putting him on trial for the whole world to witness was a better plan.  
     Although the real events were laden with drama, the movie, Operation Finale, elaborates on history to increase the tension and excitement for audiences.  It could be argued that this is unnecessary, in that simply telling the story like it happened is drama enough.  For instance, I understand that in actuality Eichmann was drugged and disguised as an injured airline worker with a bandage on his head in order to fly him to Israel.
     At any rate, the film focuses on the Israeli operatives and their interactions with one another and with Eichmann, giving us background stories that make us care about them and their families and accomplices, and helps us appreciate the dangers of the operation.  The action of the story is so absorbing and exciting, that if you didn’t know the outcome—or even if you do—you will be impressed.
     Oscar Isaac as Peter, one of the Mossad agents, and Ben Kingsley as Adolph Eichmann make the two characters come alive, especially during the time they are in a safe house before their departure from Buenos Aires.  Peter is convinced that they will get more from Eichmann—specifically, a signature—by establishing rapport with him, rather than obtaining it through force and torture.  This is borne out, which pleased me, in that it has been shown that this approach is much more effective than torture.  Unfortunately, they also demonstrate torture giving captors the information they desire, which undercuts the good example.  (Whether or not these circumstances are a reflection of true events or whether they are fiction for the movie I cannot say.)  
     All of the actors are very good, and Matthew Orton’s script and Chris Weitz’s direction—along with the lesson in history, albeit a compromised one—make this a worthwhile movie to see.  The “dressing up” for film audiences doesn’t detract too much from essential historical elements, which allows me to recommend it.

A thrilling, tension-filled story that reflects enough of the historical events to make it worthwhile for all to see.  

Grade:  B                                    By Donna R. Copeland

Thursday, August 23, 2018


Rami Malek     Charlie Hunnam

     Papillon the character isn’t like a butterfly at all (the name comes from a tattoo on the real Papillon’s chest); he is strong as an ox and has a stubborn sense of purpose that no amount of torture can break.  Henri Charrière (nicknamed Papillon), a thief, has been framed for murder, and is sent to prison in French Guiana.  He immediately begins planning for his escape, and wisely offers protection from the other inmates to bespectacled Louis Dega (Malek), a refined counterfeiter whom he has rightly guessed is not likely to survive prison, AND he has money.  Papillon makes his offer in exchange for Dega helping plan (and fund) their escape.  
     What will follow are infractions and at least four attempted escapes by the two men with various others.  They are always caught, and swift punishments ensue.  From the beginning, they had been told by the well-fed warden in a white suit that “keeping you is no gain; losing you is no loss.”  This is announced in the courtyard with a guillotine clearly visible for those who commit murder; solitary confinement is for lesser violations like trying to escape.  
     Papillon will undergo severe punishments, including two years of solitary confinement, then total darkness and half rations because he refuses to give up the name of the person who had sneaked into him a coconut every day for a while. Demonstrating his pluck—as he often does—Papillon insolently thwarts every attempt to make him turn. (He would be turning in his new-found comrade, Dega.)
     Papillon is beautifully filmed (Hagen Bogdanski) and scored (David Buckley), which helps offset the repetitious brutality and frustration of repeated escape-capture-punishment sequences.  Another compensation involves following the quirky relationship that develops between Papillon and Dega.  Both actors skillfully pull you in because they are so good, but also because their characters’ connection is nuanced, with Dega being ambivalent in the beginning, Papillon struggling with Dega’s dependency, but then ultimately feeling genuinely responsible for him.  (There is honor among thieves, apparently, and these two seem to develop a deep, long-lasting bond.)  Director Michael Noer has orchestrated well all the components to make this a worthwhile film to see.
     It’s a lesson in fortitude certainly, but with principles as well.  At times, Dega ribs Papillon about being the son of two schoolteachers, but although they weren’t able to keep him totally honest, they did teach him two important principles:  Don’t kill, and don’t leave anyone behind.  As Dega says in the preview of the movie, “That man risked his life for me.”
This film—as well as its 1973 production—is based on the 1969 autobiography by Henri Charrière, some events of which have been questioned.  The general consensus seems to be that 75% of the book is true (according to the author), and that much of the content derives from other prisoners’ accounts.  At any rate, this Papillon is provocative, and although it may be better (partly because of new technology) than its 1973 sister, there is still a question about why/whether a remake was necessary or desirable.

At base, Papillon is a lesson in principled fortitude, showing heroism even among (some of) the incarcerated. It’s a fascinating account that holds you captive.

Grade:  B                                    By Donna R. Copeland


Melissa McCarthy     Bill Barretta     Elizabeth Banks     Maya Rudolph     Joel McHale     Dorien Davies

     The title refers to a group from a failed sitcom called the “Happytime Gang” (puppets) who are getting killed off one by one.  Disgraced ex-cop/now private detective Phil Philips (Barretta) is assigned with his partner Detective Connie Edwards (McCarthy) to find the killer (just the first in a plot made up of nonsensical actions).  What follows is a series of charades in which Phil happens on the scene just before or after each tragedy, so that he always looks guilty, and is finally the one charged with the murders.
     It’s a long time, though, before the crimes get solved, and in the interim, the audience is “treated” (treated?) to all kinds of shenanigans, most involving Philips and Edwards insulting and fighting one another, alternating with pal-sy buddy cop intervals.  Discrimination is highlighted in puppets being disparaged by humans at every turn, but, unfortunately, the filmmakers fail to relate this to any meaningful observation of today’s world.
     The movie is based on the premise that audiences will just love foul language in almost every sentence and scene after scene of all kinds of sexual perversions. For those of us not reveling in such “humor”, however, it is a pain to sit through.  Cleverness is alien to the writers (Todd Berger and Dee Austin Robertson), and instead they insert vulgarities to get titters from the viewers.  An example:  “If I’m a-gonna get next to it, I’m a-gonna f… it”, spoken by Sandra White (Davies), who has come to Phil, asking for his help.  Of course, he succumbs to her “charms”, in still one more crude, vulgar sequence.  
     Melissa McCarthy, one of the main draws for the film, plays the same character she has played in almost every film she’s been in.  Elizabeth Banks is hardly seen in the film at all, and Maya Rudolph—drawing on the Saturday Night Live experience presumably—does come across as a character at least mildly funny.   (She is better than the script written for her.)  Bill Barretta as Phil Philips plays his role well, too, putting his signature on a detective’s narrative that engages and explains.
     There is not much else I can say about this film, which seems to be a failure from conception to execution.  Perhaps it makes a case for taking puppets more seriously, but as rendered, it doesn’t make the grade.  Directed by the son of Jim Henson (of Sesame Street fame), Brian, it sadly does not live up to the father’s accomplishments.

Unless you’re into adult porn with puppets, there is not much here to entertain.

Grade:  F                                    By Donna R. Copeland

Thursday, August 16, 2018


Benjamin Dickey     Alia Shawkat     Charlie Sexton     Josh Hamilton     Alynda Mariposa     Jenn Lyon

     Blaze is an unusual biopic about a singer/songwriter who was almost famous in ‘70s-‘80s country music.  His idols were Hank Williams, Red Foley, and John Prine, and they were the inspiration for many of his songs.  He rubbed shoulders with other well-known musicians such as Townes van Zant, played in the film by Charlie Sexton, and apparently paved the way for the well-known country music stars Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson.
     The film is in the form of an Impressionist painting, in that it doesn’t flow in chronological order, but gives the flavor of Blaze’s life by showing scenes when he is performing, hobnobbing about with buddies, or—the most interesting—when he interacts with the woman who became his wife, Sybil (Shawkat). Sybil wrote the memoir on which the movie is based, worked closely with Director Ethan Hawke, and she was on site during filming.  One of her unique contributions was to suggest a scene in which Blaze and his friends howl at the full moon.  During an appearance in Houston, Texas, Hawke said he was reluctant at first to include it, but finally relented, and it is, indeed, in the final cut.
     Sybil and Blaze were attracted to each other right away, and lived a few blissful years in what they called a “tree-house” in the woods near Atlanta.  As it was provided rent-free from a benefactor, it was perfect for a young musician and a writer just trying to make their way.  Sybil, a spunky Jewish woman decides after a time that Blaze is ready for something bigger, and they move to Austin, Texas, in hopes of his being recognized.  That is where the story turns dark, as Blaze doesn’t find the audience attention he craves, moves back to Atlanta without Sybil, then asks her to go to Chicago with him to try something different. Eventually, their marriage cannot withstand the separations and Blaze’s drug use.
     Director Ethan Hawke and his editor Jason Gourson elected not to frame the film in chronological order, but rather to go back and forth in time for Blaze, his wife, and Townes van Zant—I think the intention was to convey the essence of who Blaze was.  However, this arrangement is not successful, in that it becomes confusing for the viewer to keep track of time and place.  For instance, it’s disconcerting to know that the couple split up, after which Sybil reappears as his wife.  Likewise, having Townes van Zant appear and reappear interferes with the story, although Charlie Sexton’s portrayal of him is exemplary.
     The mood of the film is rather somber, reflecting the sad, disorganized, somewhat impotent life of a man who constantly made poor decisions and lacked the social skills to make it big in the music world.  Although he and his music is remembered fondly by those who knew him and followed his work, most people who see the film might wonder about the purpose of making the story into a film.
     Blaze is perhaps a movie for the dedicated country music fan.  Benjamin Dickey does a fine job in portraying him as a person and a musician, and when the actor’s own renditions of Blaze’s music are played, it is enjoyable to hear him.  We were treated to some of his songs during his and Hawke’s brief appearance in Houston at Rockefellers just before the release of the film.  Dickey’s and Alia Shawkat’s performances are the best part of Blaze, and reflects the possibility that Blaze’s not holding on to her in his life was one of his biggest mistakes.

This is a sobering tale of a musician who tried his best to make it big, but because of some bad luck and personal problems, it was not to be.

Grade:  C                                    By Donna R. Copeland


Kodi Smit-McPhee    Johannes Hauken Johannesson     Leonor Varela     Natassia Malthe
Priya Rajaratnam     Jens Hulten     Mercedes de la Zerda     Spencer Bogaert

     Although they didn’t have “wilderness” experiences in the Ice Age, in this movie, Keda (Smit-McPhee) does go through one in spades back in that time. Keda is the son of a proud chief of a Cro-Magnon tribe, Tau  (Johannesson), who makes it clear what his expectations are of Keda.  The young man must be strong and prove his worth to the tribe.  Keda’s mother (Malthe) takes issue with this, worrying about him going on a trial hunt with his father.  “He might die; he leads with his heart, not his spear”, she says.  But, of course, it’s doubtful such concerns would be paid attention to in their culture.  And besides, Tau has faith in his son, telling his mother that Keda is stronger than she thinks—even stronger than Keda himself thinks. (In an interesting storytelling twist, both prophecies will come true.)
     In tests before and during the hunt, Keda has a poor showing—except maybe for sharpening his knife—but his fire-building skill is lacking, and he absolutely fails when called upon to use his knife on an animal.  To his credit, Tau is patient with him and continues to teach him things he needs to know.  Unfortunately, a tragedy occurs, and Keda is left for dead by his tribe, much to his father’s overwhelming regret and grief—not to mention what he will face when he gets home.
     What follows are Keda’s personal trials in the wilderness by himself.  He is injured, he has to face the elements and wild animals, and somehow get food and shelter.  The most charming part of the story is about how he makes friends with a wolf he names “Alpha.”  (This is where the “heart” his mother talked about comes in.)  It’s touch and go as to whether he will be able to survive, especially through the winter.  
     This film misses the mark in so many ways.  First of all, the script based on director Albert Hughes’ story and written for the screen by Daniele Sebastian Wiedenhaupt, is completely improbable. There is no way a young man could have survived what Keda does without any more personal resources than he has. He somehow manages to climb up/around/over a cliff after he has fallen to a place where his father and the tribe couldn’t reach him—this with an injured foot.  With this injured foot, he manages to outrun a pack of wolves.  Really?  It was good to see he made progress in learning how to start a fire, and somehow he caught a rabbit for food; but that he might survive the storms of winter with his now trusted wolf that he has saved and made friends with, strains credibility.
     The ultimate challenge in watching this film was a screwed-up 3-D picture that was so dark it was difficult to see what was going on.  Studios that want their films seen in the best possible light should make sure their pictures are seen in optimal conditions.

The intriguing set-up for this film about a boy in the Ice Age proving his worth is so improbable, it’s dis-engaging.

Grade:  D                                    by Donna R. Copeland

Wednesday, August 15, 2018


       Fashion designer Lee Alexander McQueen’s creations were eloquent expressions of the man himself; outrageously beautiful on the one side, horrifically graphic on the other, and playful delights on still another.  According to this fine documentary by director Ian Bonhote and his co-director and writer Peter Ettedgui, these creations grew out of his complex personality and the way McQueen lived his life; he and his art were one. 
     In view of this, his early life in London is rather unexpected in its commonness—his father was a taxi driver, his mother a social science teacher.  Her influence on him is clear by her encouragement and full faith in his being capable of achieving anything he wanted. He wasn’t a very good student, because early on he showed a passion for drawing clothing designs and little else. He continued to show aptitude during an internship on Savile Row, was always an eager learner, and quickly and confidently moved up through the ranks of getting a master’s degree in fashion design and having his entire graduation collection bought by Isabella Blow, renowned fashion stylist, who would subsequently become his mentor and close friend.
     McQueen developed a reputation for controversy, reveling in shocking the public with his designs.  Early on, he talks about going “to the dark side to pull these horrors out of my skull and put them on the catwalk.”  This was an evolvement from his student days when he was industrious and compliant, soaking up everything his teachers offered.  But his work was so impressive and advanced at all stages of his career, he was always immediately picked up by employers who recognized his genius.  
     The film includes film clips of McQueen, and interviews with his family, friends and acquaintances, and those who worked for/with him, some for many years. It’s divided into five sections, tracing high points of his collections:  “Jack the Ripper Stalks his Victims”, “The Highland Rape”, “It’s a Jungle out There”, “Voss”, and :Plato’s Atlantis”, which was his final show.  His runway shows were full-fledged entertainment productions with themes and elaborate props. One that was noteworthy had a model in a bouffant white dress rotating on a flat carousel while robots on either side sprayed paint on her dress and herself—an example of his delight in combining technology with his art.
     Givenchy appointed him artistic director where he served for many years, and later, Gucci offered to partner with him and his company, in which he was the creative director.  Gradually he worked up to creating 14 collections a year, dividing his time between Paris and his London company, “Alexander McQueen.”  He won British designer of the year four times, as well as other awards.   
      As time went on and McQueen was pressed for more and more productions, he turned to alcohol and drugs.  As an artist, he tended to be rather labile with a short attention span anyway, but in the later years, he became more aggressive, angry, and suspicious. He had maintained a close bond with his mother the whole time, and her death was especially hard for him, along with his becoming HIV+.  He announced his plans for suicide, saying, “I wanna get off [the roller coaster].”  On the eve of his mother’s funeral, he hanged himself.
     The documentary is visually beautiful as envisioned by the directors and realized by cinematographer Will Pugh.  Michael Nyman’s musical score complements their work and adds to the artistic display.  

An engaging account of the stunning life and career of artistic genius in fashion design Lee Alexander McQueen in all his glory and pathos.

Grade:  A                                    By Donna R. Copeland


Constance Wu     Michelle Yeoh     Ken Jeong     Henry Golding    
 Gemma Chan     Harry Shum, Jr.     Awkwafina     Sonoya Mizuno

     The story begins in New York in 1995, showing the Young family arriving at a hotel, expecting their reservation for a suite to be honored, but the dismissive clerk and his supervisor unsympathetically turn them away, until they are informed exactly who the Young family is:  the wealthiest family in Singapore who has bought the hotel!  This sets the stage for a depiction of friction and animosity among social classes, probably in all countries.
     Cut to New York in 2018, when one of the children in tow that trying night is now grown up. Nick Young (Golding), who has become a professor at NUY, is courting a fellow professor of Chinese descent, Rachel Chu (Wu), and inviting her to go to Singapore with him when he is best man at his friend’s wedding. And, by the way, she can meet his family.  Now, he is so overjoyed about not being “recognized” by Rachel (he has hated the “fame” his family enjoys, so has decided not to clue her in on his family’s cushy situation).
     Rachel gets a brief introduction to his background when they are given first class seats on the plane over, and he has to explain that the family business gets complimentary treatment.  She puzzles about this, but brushes it out of her mind.  She is in for a big surprise.
     As she is introduced to more and more relatives and arrives at stunning mansions, its overwhelming, but she soldiers on, partly with the help of her old college friend, Goh Paik Lin (hilariously played by Awkwafina), whom she finds lives in her own mansion, although not of the grandeur of the Youngs’.  Lin helps her dress more appropriately and provides moral support throughout Rachel’s stay.
     What we’re treated to next is the lavish lifestyle of rich Singaporeans, with abundance and excess everywhere.  It’s ironic that some of the natives are dismissive of Americans’ materialism, when what we see in many of the characters is even more exaggerated. Imagine a “rare Cambodian bong” to call people to dinner, emerald earrings costing over a million dollars, groom’s and bride’s parties at exotic islands, and a wedding that cost $40 million (scandalous, when no one should spend over $20 million!).  
     Well, to most of us, it will be an enjoyable fantasy to “live” for a while in this setting.  But, indeed, all is not happy in fantasyland.  Some must deal with marital infidelity, Rachel will encounter livid jealousy (expressed in an atrocious gift on her pillow), her boyfriend’s mother will be piercingly cruel, and she will be forced to reconsider what she is getting herself into.
     Crazy Rich Asians, directed by Jon M. Chu, succeeds in what it set out to do—entertain and, perhaps, enlighten us on the issues encountered by people of mixed heritage and class, which is especially graphically presented when Rachel herself is given information about her past that she never knew about.  The actors capture their roles perfectly, the music by Brian Tyler lyrically supports the action, and there are enough soulful moments to elevate the film above simple entertainment.

A crowd pleaser that just may be eligible for the Academy Awards’ new category, “Best Popular Movie.”

Grade:  B+                                    By Donna R. Copeland

Thursday, August 9, 2018


Maia Mitchell     Camila Morrone     Kyle Mooney     Arisotle Abraham II     Joel Allen     Matthew Holcomb

     Never goin’ back?  I wish I’d never gone to this movie in the first place.  Think of every motif filmmakers use to transmit grossness—farts, poop, vomit—every silliness and foolishness in ideas and behavior—every cockamamie scheme ever cooked up—well, folks, it’s all here in this mish mash of a conglomeration about young adult misfits.  Other than the set-up of Angela (Mitchell) and Jessie (Morrone) fantasizing about going to Galveston for a holiday, there is no real plot; there are only scenes strung together in which the characters argue loudly (incessantly) and come up with harebrained illegal ways to get themselves out of one jam into another.
     The filmmakers’ (e.g., writer/director/editor Augustine Frizzell, editor Courtney Ware) lack of experience is evident, and I have to wonder what possessed the producers and whatever underwriters there were to approve it.  What is its point?  It doesn’t really have a story—just offensive vignettes—no characters show learning and transformation, and no lines are really funny. There are occasional reasons to gasp when you see what is immediately ahead, but the story actually has no suspense, and it’s obvious how everything is going to turn out in the end.
     It is the case that the two leads, Mitchell and Morrone, are well cast, and the best scenes in the film are when they are together dreaming their dreams, planning ahead, and just being goofy.  It’s when they or (heaven forbid!) the guys Dustin, Cedric, and Ryan (Allen, Abraham, Holcomb, respectively) try to cook up plans for easy money that the movie sinks (and, frankly, becomes offensive).  I was sympathetic with the character Brandon (very well played by Mooney), who is the only one capable of keeping a job and having some sense of the real world.  His negotiating a deal with the two girls is one of the few scenes that connote tenderness and sincerity.  Brandon provides some sense of reality in the story, whereas interchanges such as the one of a bigot in a grocery store yelling at Angela and Jessie and their yelling right back are ludicrous and not funny at all.
     Never Goin’ Back is a movie worth skipping.

This movie is no more than a bunch of foolishness with zero entertainment value.

Grade:  F                                    By Donna R. Copeland


Jason Statham     Bingbing Li     Rainn Wilson     Winston Chao     Ruby Rose     Page Kennedy

     The Meg has a lot going for it:  thrills, intrigue, humor, and fairly good character development.  It opens with a rescue mission that ends up with wins and losses, and Jones Taylor (Statham) being faulted for his role in it.  Five years later, the setting changes to a research station off China, run by Dr. Zhang  (Chao) and his daughter Suyin (Li).  They’ve made an amazing discovery that the floor of the ocean is deeper than previously thought, and they want to explore the boundary between our world and the one they hypothesize lies beyond.  Newly arrived to inspect the operation is its funder, billionaire Morris (Wilson).  He is impressed with what he finds and is gung-ho to proceed.
     The research group makes its initial voyage, and do seem to find something major that will be the find of centuries—a whole different ecological environment containing different species from our own.  But…they encounter something huge that rocks their water vessels violently.  They will soon discover that the entry they used to get to the new discovery has been used by a huge shark, a megadon believed to be extinct, to enter our system.  
     The rest of the story involves the threats posed by the animal and the team’s efforts to survive it and protect the rest of the world from its destructiveness. Within this context, a number of personal relationships complicate the story and provide interest beyond the adventure.  Some of the crew were in the previous mission with Jones Taylor, and still hold a grudge. One is a physician, and one is Taylor’s ex-wife.  In the current emergency, they all agree with Dr. Zhang that Jones is essential to the operation.  He will need to be persuaded to come, however, and if he does, interpersonal conflicts will have to be dealt with.
     While these “human interest” vignettes make the film more appealing, some have clearly been inserted simply for that purpose, and this is obvious.  One example is Suyin’s daughter who is present on the research station.  Her interactions with Jones especially have a false quality, particularly when her lines are not plausible “child-speak.”  Another is a romance sparked in the midst of disasters, which is OK, but once again, a little forced.
     Jason Statham nails his role as a hero bordering on super-hero on the one hand and a kind of charm on the other, even though mostly he is sardonic.  This is where the screenwriters have done a good job in developing his and some of the other characters into believable figures.  For instance, the Suyin character is interesting in her assertiveness and self-confidence, something not usually shown in Hollywood’s female characters.  But Li gives her spark and appeal so well she captivates.  Rainn Wilson is miscast in my opinion; I never could see him as a billionaire sponsor.
     The main “beef” I have with the film is that it extends the story too long, simply to add on special effects and more and more disasters and near-fatalities.  It could easily have ended after the first encounter with the megadon, rather than wearying us with additional emergencies.

A gripping tale that excites and captivates—up to a certain point.

Grade:  B                                                By Donna R. Copeland


John David Washington     Adam Driver     Laura Harrier     Ryan Eggold     Topher Grace
Ryan Eggold     Jasper Paakkonen     Paul Walter Hauser     Harry Belafonte     Alec Baldwin

     Spike Lee has given us a chilling, eloquent picture about race relations in America, based on an autobiographical account by Ron Stallworth, a former police officer in Colorado Springs, Colorado, who led an undercover operation to infiltrate the Ku Klux Klan in the 1970’s.  It plays like a suspense-filled thriller, with the viewer sweating through many scenes where it is uncertain whether cover will be blown and whether characters will be killed.
     Ron Stallworth (adeptly played by Washington) is the first black police officer in Colorado Springs; to be a policeman was always his dream—particularly if he could be an undercover agent.  His first assignment is as a records clerk, which he loathes; then the opportunity comes to cover a speech by a controversial figure at a local campus, Stokely Carmichael, who has changed his name to Kwami Ture, a name that sticks in the throats of the law enforcement community.  Ron does such a good job, he is assigned to the intelligence service when he comes up with a plan to go undercover in the just-forming Ku Klux Klan in Colorado Springs.  
     After answering an ad for recruiting members for the local KKK by telephone, he convinces his police captain to send in a white police officer, Flip Zimmerman (Driver), to pose as “Ron Stallworth” and learn what the Klan is up to in the area. Stallworth actually calls David Duke (Grace), “Grand Wizard” of the Klan, to expedite his membership card. Duke is so impressed with Stallworth, he goes to Colorado to induct him personally into the Klan.
     In addition to the tension surrounding the undercover operation and maintaining anonymity, there is also conflict in the romantic relationship Ron has rather naively formed with one of the black protestors, Patrice (Harrier), who looks exactly like Angela Davis, and who is constantly trying to find out who he really is. There is also the Klansman Felix (spookily played by Paakonen) who is suspicious of Flip, (he thinks he has spotted him as a Jew) and performs tests of his identity and commitment. We’re also on edge, waiting to see if any of the threats picked up by the police department and the FBI(?) will come to fruition.
     BlacKkKlansman will most likely come to be considered as Spike Lee’s best film so far.  It won the Gran Prix at Cannes this year, and Lee received a standing ovation at its premier.       This seems well deserved in consideration of the overall production including screenplay, direction, actors, music, and cinematography—and its topical relevance.  One of the jewels is the juxtaposition of a Klan meeting showing a disgusting racist film and a black protest meeting, in which an account delivered by Harry Belefonte tells about the horrific mistreatment of a black child.
     As stunning as the film is, it is long; and there are a few scenes that could have been shortened, and one at the end that could have been cut altogether; it’s a telephone call informing a major character about the law enforcement subterfuge.  Perhaps this actually occurred (I have not read Stallworth’s book), but it looks more like the filmmakers simply wanted to vent their spleen.

BlacKkKlansman is a meritorious addition to the films that are making statements about us that we should take seriously.

Grade:  A                                    By Donna R. Copeland


Kelly Macdonald     David Denman     Irrfan Kahn     Bubba Weiler     Austin Abrams     Liv Hewson

     This is a coming-of-age story not of a teenager, but of a devoted housewife and mother.  (About time, don’t you think?)  It’s significant that the film opens with Agnes (Macdonald) preparing a birthday party—and it turns out it’s her own.  Doing for others is the mantra of her life, and she rarely takes herself into account.  She is surrounded by a loving family, her husband Louie (Denman) and her two sons, Ziggy (Weiler) and Gabe (Abrams).  They are all appreciative of her, and although Ziggy has some inkling of her self-sacrifice, Louie is clueless.  He’s a big, huggable teddy bear who thinks telling her she is “cute” is a compliment when he is in fact putting her down.  He claims the traditional role of father (boss) in the family who is supposed to “protect” his wife from important decisions.  Gabe, who has given her a phone for her birthday—which, of course, she shies away from—keeps trying to pull her into modern times.
     Never underestimate the upheaval the liberation of a woman(women) can create.  In this case, it comes about through jigsaw puzzles.  Agnes has always been fascinated with math and patterns, and when she opens her presents by herself the day after the party, she tosses the phone aside and shakes the puzzle out of its box, a fateful step.  She quickly works it out and begins seeking out other puzzles. (Figuring out puzzles is clearly a theme for this whole story.)
     This takes her to New York City to find more where, once again, fatefully, she sees a notice “desperately seeking a partner for a puzzle competition.”  This connects her with the eccentric puzzle-master, Robert (Kahn), a disaster-obsessed Indian who has become wealthy off a patent he invented.  Here, too, the strait-laced Catholic woman who firmly believes in causality and human control bumps into the Eastern philosopher who says whatever happens is meant to be and outside our control.
     In a way, I think this is what the film—and Agnes, ultimately—are wrestling with: free will versus determinism. While Agnes is discovering the powers of free will (which also involves the concept of sin and guilt), she confronts Robert’s observations about fate and determinism, sidestepping the pain of guilt.  When this is considered, the way the film ends makes more sense, in that the filmmakers are making a point about this issue.  It’s slightly ironic, however, in its support of Robert’s philosophy until the end, when I found the worn “I’m sorry” remark as hollow.
     Puzzle is a quiet film, but make no mistake in assuming it is a “nice”, calm (boring) story about an ordinary family.  It is raw in depicting the emotional ravages that can occur within the family and among people in general when new ideas and ways of seeing the world and people are introduced at a gut level.  But it is sympathetic both to those wanting to hold onto the old and those who anticipate change.
     Praise is due for all involved in the filmmaking of Puzzle.  Director Marc Turtletaub has proven his value in producing the soulful hits Little Miss Sunshine, Loving, and Safety Not Guaranteed; Screenwriter Oran Moverman is credited with Love & Mercy, The Messenger, and I’m Not There; Dustin O’Halloran’s music uncannily syncs with the ambience of each scene; Kelly Macdonald is a tour de force in portraying her lead character, well supported by the exotic and mysterious Irrfan Kahn and the sometimes quietly, sometimes demonstrably emotive David Denman.  I absolutely loved the way all characters are presented sympathetically, avoiding the all-good/all-bad connotation.

Puzzle wrestles with the questions of free will versus determinism in a real-life family drama.

Grade:  A                                                By Donna R. Copeland

Thursday, August 2, 2018


Ewan McGregor     Hayley Atwell     Bronte Carmichael     Mark Glass
Voices of:  Jim Cummings     Brad Garrett     Nick Mohammed     Peter Capaldi     Toby Jones

     A clever blending of fantasy and reality makes this film engaging and funny, while still honing in on an essential need for children and adults—that of play and of staying in touch with the childhood experience.  Grown-up Christopher Robin (sympathetically played by Ewan McGregor) is being overworked and de-valued at the Winslow Luggage Company where he is an efficiency manager.  Although he doesn’t live up to his own counsel for other people, Robin’s boss, Giles Winslow (Glass), thoughtlessly keeps urging Robin to work harder and make sacrifices for the company.
     In this sense, Robin is a pushover, only meekly protesting and eventually giving in to his boss at the expense of family time and leisure.  He is a workaholic who doesn’t even like his job very much, and he is starting to simply “go through the motions” with his wife and daughter.  Evelyn (Atwell) reasons very convincingly in wanting him to take a different perspective on life, but Christopher ignores her.  Even his daughter Madeline (Carmichael) cannot pull his heartstrings to devote some time for her.  When he does make attempts, it is clear that he is clueless and has lost any sense of what childhood is—or should be.  Tellingly, he keeps pushing Madeline to work harder at her studies so she can go to a boarding school where she herself doesn’t want to go.
     This is all the set-up for the major thrust of Christopher Robin, which is adventures for all, with little homespun truths coming now and then from Winnie the Pooh (Cummings).  The above is all “reality”, and a bit dull until Robin and Pooh happen upon each other in one of their old haunts.  Thereafter, the story takes a quick left and we become reacquainted with the characters in the Hundred Acre Wood.  In addition to Pooh, there are Eeyore (Garrett) the endearing pessimist, Tigger (Cummings) the frolicking optimist, Piglet, Owl, and the rest of the “Winnie the Pooh” beguiling gang that children everywhere have loved.
     Not all films of this type (elaboration of beloved children’s stories) succeed, but this one expertly directed by Marc Forster should be a hit with children and adults.  It has internal validity in projecting how the sincere young Christopher, who always wants to do good (as in pleasing adults) is, as an adult, taken in by a taskmaster and exploited.  It illustrates how far away he has grown from that imaginative, affectionate, spontaneous youth he once was.           
     Who helps him get back in touch and make some revisions in his life, and how, is the crux of this tale.  The impressively seamless transition from childhood to adulthood may be attributed to the screenwriters (Alex Ross Perry, Tom McCarthy, and Allison Schroeder) who have written a continuing story that could logically and developmentally follow from the original works and characters conceived of by A. A. Milne and Ernest Shepard.  It is likely that Tom McCarthy has provided much of the substance in the material because of how it resembles in tone and thoughtfulness his earlier successes (Win Win, The Station Agent, The Visitor, Spotlight, and Up).  He has a way of mixing wisdom, humor, and emotion into a story in the most delightful way.  
     Partly because of this, Christopher Robin the movie retains much of Milne’s original charm and humor with Pooh’s wise pronouncements [such as, that doing nothing sometimes achieves better results than doing something] and the other Milne characters’ humorously doing what they’re remembered best for.  

Christopher Robin has grown up, but still needs some helpful guidance from Pooh and his old friends.

Grade:  A                                    By Donna R. Copeland