Monday, December 24, 2018


Christian Bale     Steve Carell     Amy Addams     Sam Rockwell     Alison Pill
Don McManus     Eddie Marsan     Tyler Perry     Jesse Plemons

     This well conceived production with incredible casting and screenplay should hold up against the sure-to-come backlash.  Its greatest value lies in bringing to life background events and personalities that changed our country forever during the period of Richard Cheney’s political career (roughly the 1970’s-2009).  The choice of having a narration, and the selection of the figure to do it, points to just one of the creative ways in which writer-director Adam McKay and his colleagues present the personal and political values and characteristics that aided Richard Cheney and his wife Lynne in attaining the power they ultimately achieved in the U.S. government.  
     The story starts out with Cheney as a wayward partier when it looked like he would simply be a neer-do-well.  Enter Lynne Cheney, who had already dealt with alcoholism in her father, and gave her husband clear messages about her expectations of him and the consequences that would ensue should he choose not to abide by her conditions. Dick Cheney shored up, and began his career in politics.
     His true character begins to emerge after he has made it to Washington as an intern and aligns himself with Donald Rumsfeld.  Rumsfeld’s mentoring meshes completely with the personality of Cheney already in place:  ambitious, crafty/secretive, uncanny perception and the ability to look ahead and plan.  In the course of his career, Cheney will undergo ups and downs, but he will always have an eye out for opportunity, with a solid backer/strategist in his corner, his wife Lynne.  
     Through significant political threats (such as significant and historically unprecedented upsets in White House administrations) to his ambitions and heart attacks, Cheney forges on, seemingly undeterred, without any apparent contemplation or self-examination about his actions.
     Vice charts these activities, showing how stable he is in his positions and machinations.  When George Bush becomes President, he sees a golden opportunity to push forward something he has learned about from his lawyer, David Addington, the “unitary executive theory”, in which the power of the executive is absolute; the President can, literally, do no wrong. Application of this idea paved the way toward eroding previously firm policies about civilian privacy, foreign policy, and wartime engagement and behavior.  “Where law ends, tyranny begins”—an idea first attributed to British philosopher John Locke (1689) and carved on the Supreme Court building, which flashes briefly during a scene in this film, a meaningful quote.
     Christian Bale is a wonder playing Dick Cheney, who he doesn’t ordinarily look or sound like.  But with the extra weight, prosthetics, and studious attention he gave to media in preparing for the role, Bale is a dead ringer.  Amy Adams as Cheney’s stalwart, tenacious, and adoring wife is likewise convincing.  This is as strong a casting I’ve ever seen for a picture, including Steve Carell as Donald Rumsfeld, Sam Rockwell as George Bush (the younger), and Alison Pill as Liz Cheney.  Bale and Adams will almost certainly be named during the award season coming up.
     Adam McKay’s writing and direction of a subject that is sure to be controversial is, probably, one of his best, even taking into account The Big Short, which won an Oscar for screenplay.  I fully expect Viceto reap accolades during the awards season.

Demonstrates the power of drama in relating some significant historical transitions in the U.S.

Grade:  A                                    By Donna R. Copeland

Saturday, December 22, 2018


Kiki Lane     Stephen James     Regina King     Diego Luna     Brian Tyree Henry     Dave Franco

     Ah, yes, if Beale Street could talk, what a tale it would tell—I mean tales.  Based on a novel by the highly respected James Baldwin, novelist and social activist (Notes of a Native Son), and directed by Barry Jenkins (who also wrote the screenplay), who won the Best Picture Oscar last year for Moonlight, this film is expected to be above the norm.  And in my estimation it is.
     The story is about an appealing, warm-hearted family forced by others’ mistakes to face the grim reality many African-American people face—that of being wrongly convicted of a crime.  The main character is young, bright, unassuming Tish (Lane); the story is about the troubles she faces when her just as innocent boyfriend Fonny (James) is identified as the rapist of a Puerto Rican woman.  Never mind that he has a verified alibi and lives far away from the scene of the crime, which occurred in the dark—he is identified as the perpetrator in a line-up.  (Although research has long shown the unreliability of eyewitness identifications, many police departments continue to use it.  
     Early in the story, we see the fundamental bond that has developed between two kids from childhood, and see it blossom into a passionate romance that has more gentleness ingrained in it than in any other I’ve seen in a film.  Prospects look great; Fonny will try to make it as an artist in woodworking, and Tish will work in a department store, and they will find an apartment (after some frustrations) to their liking. Then, out of the blue, we are dealing with the accusation tainted with much of the corruption in law enforcement and judicial processes that we’re all familiar with by this time.
     Barry Jenkins has proven himself as a significant American filmmaker, who works with a core team [Nicholas Britell, music; James Laxton, cinematography; Joi McMillon and Nat Sanders, editing; and Cindy Tolan, costumes) to produce films that are engaging to watch and carry potent social messages.  They’re framed in a way as to elicit as much empathy and understanding of the issues as possible, without alienating (if possible) skeptics.
     The movie is fast-paced except when it’s properly lingering over emotional scenes, presents a clear history of the characters—including their families—and maintains an air of mystery and suspense.  My one question while viewing it was why a mother, rather than a lawyer, went to Puerto Rico to find a woman.  The final scene in that encounter shows a need for professional interrogation, but finances were likely a factor.

A very successful film in eliciting your interest and outrage.

Grade:  A                                    By Donna R. Copeland

Thursday, December 20, 2018


Hailee Steinfeld     John Cena     Jason Drucker     
Voices of:  Dylan O’Brien     Justin Theroux     Angela Bassett

            Bumblebee is a lovable transformer that may convince you that robots have emotions after all.  This is not so far-fetched; a podcast of “This American Life” verifies that robots can come up with adages that the human mind can perceive as wise (Podcast #663, “How I Read it”).  Of course it’s a bit of a stretch to take that to emotional sensitivities, but…
            A prequel to the Transformermovies that started on TV in 1986 and appeared in movie theaters every few years thereafter (2007, 2009, 2011, 2014, 2017), Bumblebee(O’Brien) has been sent to earth by Optimus Prime, Chief of the Autobots, to set up operations to defeat the Decepticons, which are out to destroy earth.  
            Meanwhile on earth, Charlie Watson (Steinfeld), a teenage girl grieving over the death of her father is sustaining her memory of him by continuing to work on cars, their favorite activity together.  She has become sullen and self-preoccupied, but cheekily asks her mother for a car for her upcoming birthday.  Her mother doesn’t take this seriously, but Charlie has been looking in her friend Hank’s junkyard and spies a yellow VW Beetle.   She cagily bargains for it, and Hank lets her have it, giving his employee a wink that says, “if she thinks she can make that work…” good luck to her.
            Charlie doesn’t realize it, but this little car is one in which Bumblebee is hiding from the Decepticons.  When he first transforms himself from a car into the giant robot Bumblebee in her garage, she’s a bit intimidated, but her fascination and curiosity makes her pause, reflect, then want to make friends with him.  
            Most of the action thereafter will be battles with the formidable Decepticons Dropkick (Theroux) and Shatter (Bassett), mixed in with the not-very-helpful U.S. Sector 7 interventions led by Agent Burns (Cena).  
            Hailee Steinfeld as Charlie continues her fine record of performances in True Grit and The Edge of Seventeen, showing a spunky, searching teenager trying to sort out her life and understand the world she lives in.  As her newfound friend/neighbor Memo, Lendeborg lights up the screen with his initially smitten character who gamely goes along with whatever comes up, eventually respecting the strange girl next door.  Playing Charlie’s younger brother, Jason Drucker, captures your attention with his realistic portrayal of a kid who looks up to his older sister, but has ambivalent feelings about her.  
            I think this is a worthy addition to the Transformers franchise for those who like this kind of fantasy.  And the addition of a mechanically minded girl who becomes a hero especially pleases me.

A worthy addition to the Transformers franchise.

Grade:  B                                 By Donna R. Copeland


Eiza Gonzalez     Steve Carell     Leslie Mann     Diane Kruger
Gwendoline Christie     Janelle Monae     Merritt Wever

     “Welcome to Marwen”—just know that your visit will be a strange one.  Based on a true story, this film by director and co-writer Robert Zemeckis was inspired by a 2010 documentary about the life and work of Mark Hogancamp, a man who was severely beaten outside a bar after his reference to people he was chatting with about cross-dressing.  Prior to this incident, he was an illustrator; but after his impairments (occurring after a nine-day coma and having to relearn how to eat, talk and write), he turned to photography; and to cope with the psychological after-effects, he used dolls and fantasies about them to work through his increased anxiety.
     The film begins with one of these fantasies in which the doll “Mark” (Carell) encounters German soldiers in WWII, and just when it looks like they will capture him, a group of powerful female soldiers rescue him and finish off the Germans.  This is only one of hundreds of scenarios Mark has come up with, in which he draws on the people he meets in his community for his characters (dolls).
     Mark Hogancamp is regarded as an “outsider artist”, one who has little/no educational background, but whose works become highly regarded by connoisseurs.  It’s admirable that he was able to use his remaining skills after the injuries to therapeutically work through the trauma.  Robert Zemeckis’s idea of using this material for a feature film is intriguing, but somehow it doesn’t work.  The actors are excellent (especially Carell showing the confusion and bewilderment of a troubled soul), and the special effects to capture puppets as real people are likewise impressive.  However, the alternations between reality and fantasy fail to engage.  I think another aspect of the film that doesn’t work is the attempt to portray a therapeutic approach—especially one used by an individual on his own. This is a turn-off for many viewers, who are not necessarily able to grasp the value of, for instance, an adult “playing” with dolls.  Unfortunately, I imagine that many will regard this as simply silly, even though it’s not, really.
     On a final note, it’s disquieting to see so many fine actresses wasted, such as Diane Kruger, Gwendoline Christie, and Janelle Monae.  Their roles are minimal.  Merritt Wever is perfect as a sensible, kind helper who is able to see past the weaknesses of Mark. Leslie Mann is featured more than the other actresses, but her child-like voice and manner bring nothing to the table of quality.

Visiting Marwen is likely to unnerve most viewers.

Grade:  C+                                    By Donna R. Copeland


Emily Blunt     Dick Van Dyke     Meryl Streep     Angela Lansbury     Emily Mortimer
Colin Firth     Lin-Manuel Miranda     Ben Wishaw     Julia Walters

     Everything is coming apart at the seams in the Banks household; Mr. Michael Banks is grieving for his wife, and is having a hard time managing without her. Their three children are remarkably responsible, but they are just children, and the housekeeper/cook is losing her grip as well.  Michael’s sister Jane comes by from time to time and does what she can to bolster things up, but a major threat looms with the possibility that the house Michael and Jane grew up in will be repossessed by the bank after Michael missed three payments. 
     Yes, it seems like the perfect time for Mary Poppins to drift down on her umbrella and pop in (sorry—couldn’t resist the pun).  It happens magically—as do many things having to do with the nanny—when young Georgie chases after a kite and it keeps rising with him attached. Jack, the town lamplighter, is helping Georgie pull the string with all his might to bring the kite down, when who should appear down through the clouds but Mary herself.
     Now, the three children don’t know who she is, as she was the nanny for their father and Aunt Jane when they were kids.  And when they learn that she has come to be a nanny for them—humpf!—these responsible children, especially the two older ones, can’t see the need. Michael is troubled because he can’t see how they’ll be able to afford her, but Jane—often the voice of reason—advises him to welcome her.
     Of course, it doesn’t take long for Mary Poppins to exert her authority and magic (just what the family needs). She wows them with a few things, but wins them over with a thrilling and beautiful sequence where she prepares a wondrous bubble bath with all kinds of beach-type things thrown into the bubbles then shoves each child in for their bath.  She follows, and we are treated to some of what Disney does best: a colorful fantastical trip down into the ocean filled with exotic marine life.  This is the kind of nanny to have.
     All sorts of intrigues, emergencies, and close calls follow, and it’s touch-and-go until the very end.  Director/producer Rob Marshall’s follow-up to the 1964 production of Mary Poppins is largely successful in sustaining the Poppins and Disney brands, being entertaining for children and adults, and achieving a mixture of fancy, excitement, and human values.  
     Emily Blunt has received a lot of advance press about her Mary Poppins role, and she comes across splendidly.  Contrast her role here and of that in A Quiet PlaceEdge of Tomorrow, and Sicario, for example, to appreciate the full range of this actress’s talent.  Her acting here is as praiseworthy as in other films; however, as good as her voice is, she is not up to Julie Andrews’ first Mary Poppins (1964), and that is a slight detraction.  In a similar, but different way, Lin Manuel Miranda’s voice, while very fine and engaging, doesn’t quite mesh; although I think this has more to do with the composers’ (Marc Shaiman, Scott Wittman) work than as a function of his voice and skill.  When he sings in rap—which he is known for, and which I presume he has contributed to the material—he is his usual fine performer.  (I dearly loved hearing his British accent.)  Overall, I think the score lacks the pizzazz of the 1964 version.  When Blunt and Miranda sing together, they almost rescue the whole score.
     A standout here is Meryl Streep as Topsy; she can immerse herself into a role so completely it’s hard to find Streep in it.  The sequence with her is one of the most entertaining in the film, and brings up important points for both children and adults about perspective. 
     Other instructive sequences for children include ways to think about and deal with the loss of a loved one, the message that even if one is a child he/she can be helpful to adults, and the optimistic idea that things that may seem impossible can actually be accomplished.
Cameo performances by Dick Van Dyke (reprised from the first rendition), Angela Lansbury, and Colin Firth are entertaining and engaging.  

An updated version of the Mary Poppins story that largely succeeds.

Grade:  B                                    By Donna R. Copeland


Jason Momoa     Amber Heard     Willem Dafoe     Patrick Wilson     Nicole Kidman     Dolph Lundgren     
Ttmuera Morrison     Tainu and Tamor Kirkwood

     This is a spectacle—not in a good way.  It’s a series of showy special effects glorifying fighting and wars, although the filmmakers attempted to relate it to some kind of mythology.  The grandeur of the sights and conversations, however, are regrettably punctuated by modern idioms such as, “or screw you!”, or f-words, or corny comeback jokes that jerk you back to reality a la Hollywood.
     The story from DC Comics rests on who will be king of Atlantis, the underwater kingdom—the legitimate son or the illegitimate “half-breed.”  Earlier, the princess of Atlantis, Atlanna (Kidman) got into a storm that deposited her into a lighthouse off the coast of Maine, where she was rescued and revived by the lighthouse keeper (Morrison).  They fell in love and had a child, Arthur (Kirkwood as the child, Momoa as the grown-up), the half-breed.  The bad part is that she was betrothed to the son of the King of Atlantis, and what she did was treason.  They were coming for her, so to save her child and his father, she returned home and was thought to have been killed at some point.
     We see Arthur after that as an odd child who gets teased by his classmates; however, when he shows he has special powers at the aquarium, they back off.  
     When Arthur is a young man, he gets pulled into the struggle for a new king of Atlantis. (Keep in mind, he neverwantsthe job, but is drawn into it, presumably by destiny.)  The legitimate son (also the son of the queen) has already been installed as King Orm (Wilson), but not everyone is happy with his rule, which continues his father’s belief that land and sea are two separate realms that he wishes to rule over as “Oceanmaster.”  
     Despite his reluctance, Arthur is pulled into the struggle, but he will be aided by Vulko (Dafoe), Atlanna’s trusted advisor who has been charged with his instruction in military arts.  He will also be aided by the daughter of one of the underwater kings, King Nereus, Mera (Heard), who is betrothed to King Orm.  Yes, it gets complicated if one is not already familiar with DC Comics.
     Many, many battles with spectacular feats will ensue until your brain is numb.  And the script is so thin it is of little use to the actors and holds no surprises for the viewer.

The amazing feats of Aquaman in his struggle for leadership of land and sea.
 Grade:  D                           By Donna R. Copeland

Thursday, December 13, 2018


Hera Hilmer     Hugo Weaving     Jihae     Robert Sheehan     Leila George     Stephen Lang

     How often has someone’s pursuit of absolute power been the downfall of mortals? Far too many times in fiction and history.  In Mortal Engines, this drama is played out on the screen once again.  The film seems to have been made primarily as a special effects spectacle—and indeed these are impressive, along with production design by Dan Hennah.  I especially took to the red transport resembling an elegantly designed flying insect that belongs to Anna Fang.  But the “mortal engines”, cities, and terrain as a whole are wonderfully constructed to look like an amalgam of the ancient world and some kind of futuristic scientific technology. These set the stage for the story; with resources scarce all over the world, larger cities are gobbling up smaller ones for their resources, and enslave their populations. Director Christian Rivers’ background is in storyboard art and visual and special effects, which is surely likely to have influenced the making of the film.
     Drama is secondary, although this film is better than most in the genre to portray three-dimensional human beings wrapped up in a fairly complex story.  I especially hooted/cheered about historians playing heroic as well as demonic roles.
     Major players include Hester Shaw (Hilmer) who covers her face with a red scarf and has more than one person chasing after her for either good or ill.  She’s got an ongoing score to settle with Thaddeus Valentine (Weaving) having to do with her deceased mother, an archeologist who made a significant discovery.  He is head of the Guild of Historians, but has a secret major project he is determined to see come into fruition.  Tom Natsworthy (Sheehan) is a distractible historian and something of an outcast who works for Valentine, but his skills in “old technology” (“old” means prior to the “Sixty Minute War” that destroyed much of the earth—including America—and its technology) are valuable because the city of London is dying from lack of natural resources and it needs a miracle solution.  
     Two ancillary characters are important:  Anna Fang (Jihae), although now an outlaw, knew Hester’s mother and is bound to look after Hester if she can just locate her.  Shrike (Lang), a creature made by a group that literally deposited their own negative traits into beings they created for that purpose, wants to find Hester to force her to keep a promise she made to him.
From the opening scenes when the cities on giant wheels lumber across the countryside—one chasing the other—through the awkward romance, and to the climactic final battle, Mortal Engines seems to follow the usual script of “little” people going after the big players who have no heart and exploit everyone they can in the interest of achieving some self-serving goal.  The actors, especially Hera Hilmer as Hester, make their characters come alive and pull for your emotional reaction to them.  
     Mortal Engines is not a groundbreaking movie, but it will appeal to fans who like stories based on fantasy loosely tied to history and science, especially if it has glorious special effects.

Mortal Engines is like tripping the light fantastic.

Grade:  C+                                    By Donna R. Copeland


Margot Robbie     Saoirse Ronan     David Tennant     Guy Pearce     Jack Lowden
Joe Alwyn     Brendan Coyle     Martin Compston     James McArdle

     The movie reflects the views of historian John Guy in his book, My Heart is My Own: The Life of Mary Queen of Scots, which departs from previous historical accounts that were more critical of Mary and her leadership, but nevertheless won the 2004 Whitbread prize for biography.  In this version of history, Mary was betrayed numerous times, ending with her beheading by order of Queen Elizabeth I of England.  Whether it is regarded as historical truth or a biased perspective, I’m not one to judge; but as a movie it is fascinating, and contains more than a kernel of truth about human nature and the willingness to stop at nothing in the interest of personal ambitions.  Beau Willimon’s (of HBO’s “House of Cards” fame) screenplay brings excitement, suspense, and a realistic(?) view of political intrigue. As much as one can rely on Guy’s accounts, the viewer will feel better informed about   English-Scottish conflict, particularly as relates to Mary, Queen of Scots.
     Whether factual and intended, or simply a reflection of male-female relationships in general, the movie illustrates the difficulties many men have when women are in power.  In this case, both queens rely heavily on male advisors who may or may not have their superior’s best interest in mind.  It seems that men in both realms have their own agendas—which always seem to include weakening of the female power to be replaced by a male authority.
     Both queens are pressured to produce a male (or secondarily a female) heir to the throne. Elizabeth, who identifies with men, refuses to marry (because she can’t find a man willing to be a wife) and remains single throughout her life, despite her chief minister’s urging to find a mate.  There are rather comical scenes when she sends Robert Dudley, her favorite advisor whom she is sweet on, to woo Mary, as an ultimate plan to control Scotland; but Mary sends him back to England, and he is a pawn for a time after that.
     Mary takes matters into her own hands, and when the first seducer comes courting, she makes sure she will bear a child.  Unfortunately, he is Lord Darnley, a man of weak character dominated by an ambitious father, who will have undue influence on him against Mary. Nevertheless, she does get pregnant and bears a son she names James, after her father and an uncle.
     Major unrest and military encounters ensue through the years, with one side or the other winning, and always planned and executed by the men surrounding the queens.  In this account, Mary comes across as a strong military leader as well as one with sound principles (she is accepting of both Protestants and Catholics, a bitter divide at the time) and astute political sensibilities, as attested to by Queen Elizabeth herself.  Her pleas with Queen Elizabeth are eloquent, but unfortunately may be followed by what appears to Elizabeth to be insubordination.  
     The work of Saoirse Ronan and Margot Robbie are both award-worthy performances. Each captures her character’s essential elements and makes us forget the actress and “believe” in the character. They “own” this film so much that even though we get strong performances from Guy Pearce and other actors, it is really Ronan’s and Robbie’s film.  
     Kudos to Beau Willimon for the script, Max Richter for the music, James Merifield for production design, and John Mathieson for cinematography. Director Josie Rourke shows talent in this her first major film to helm, I will be looking for her work in the future.

History is presented as the amazing drama it so often actually is.

Grade:  A                                    By Donna R. Copeland

Saturday, December 8, 2018


Julia Roberts     Lucas Hedges     Courtney B. Vance     Kathryn Newton     Alexandra Park

     As can be seen in the trailer, Ben (Hedges) pays a surprise visit to his family at Christmastime, making everyone nervous.  His mother Holly (Roberts) is thrilled to have him and assumes an air of optimism, whereas his younger sister Ivy (Newton) and stepfather Neal (Vance) are wary.  The two younger children are the only ones greeting him with glee devoid of concern.  Because for all her optimism, Holly still proceeds to stow away drugs from the medicine cabinet and jewelry items, prompting quizzical looks and comments from her daughter. Ben has been in rehab for an addiction, but reports his sponsor gave him permission to leave.  
     What follows is 24 hours packed with emotional upheaval, distress, many questions and conflicts, and a sprinkling of happiness.  I get the impression that the film offers a realistic look at what families go through when their child(ren) develop a drug addiction.  The agonizing question revolves around trust: When do you trust them and when do you not?  How do you tell when they are telling the truth and when they are lying?  How closely do you observe their every move?  
     It gets even more complicated when the addict’s intentions are noble, but he puts himself and his family at risk.  It never occurs to Ben that a simple shopping trip to get presents for his younger sibs would prompt a string of events.  (He can’t just put his name on presents his mother has already bought; that wouldn’t be honest—honesty is a primary goal in rehab.)  Nor does it occur to him at first, or to his family, that there are extended “side effects” to his addiction, i.e., people in town who want revenge for what he did in the past.  Like many addicts, he had to support his habit by dealing.
     Writer/Director Peter Hedges knows exactly how to bring the viewer along on the experience of an addict’s family visit, by keeping you guessing about the same things family members are questioning, especially when family members themselves are not always telling the truth.  I had to smile at the number of times a family member takes off on his/her own refusing offers of help from someone else.  At one point, Neal says to his wife, “We’re supposed to be a team!”  But she’s afraid he will deal with the problem in a way she disagrees with, so she acts as if everything is under control.  Yes, it gets so complicated.
The plot is engaging, one cares about the family from the start, and there are many clenched-teeth moments.  
     This is a film that may frighten you and depress you, but it is worth the strain in that it is informative about a problem that is currently plaguing our country in an epidemic.  Like the story in Boy Erased, it demonstrates that even in upper middle class prosperous families addiction can be their undoing.  It’s no longer just the poor and disadvantaged who have these battles to fight.  Watching moves like these are not only drama and thrillers, they are informative and helpful to those who may be going through the same things now, in the past, or in the future.  I appreciate that in Boy Erased, it is the father who takes the predominant role in helping his son and that it is the mother who takes that role in Ben is Back.  Both are good models, and both make clear that unconscious forces sometimes make them less than effective.
     Lucas Hedges (son of Peter Hedges) has much to boast about for his role in this film as well as recent others: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri, Lady Bird, and Manchester by the Sea.  They all illustrate his acting range and quality of performance.  Here, he achieves a realistic mother/son connection with the acclaimed and experienced Julia Roberts, who can look beatific in gazing at her children, adopt a charming but genuine response to friends, and burst out with fury and determination in the face of dispute and conflict.  It’s a delight to watch her cast her spell on dozens of diverse roles.  
     Ben is Back is not a movie for everyone, but is for those who have social sensitivities and curiosity about the world around them.

One day in the life of a family blessed(?) with a surprise visit from one of their own.

Grade:  B+                                    By Donna R. Copeland


Natalie Portman     Jude Law     Willem Dafoe     Jennifer Ehle     Raffey Cassidy     Stacy Martin

     “Don’t let your kids grow up to be rock stars” could be the theme of this film. Natalie Portman is her usual stunning self in this glittering picture written and directed by Brady Corbet (previously an actor in Martha, Marcy, May, Marlene, Clouds of Sils Maria, and Force Majeure), and now venturing into directing.  The picture starts with a tragic scene in a school in which Celeste (Raffey Cassidy as the younger and Portman as the grown-up) is shot, injuring her spine.  She is a talented, thoughtful young Christian, and to cope with the tragedy, composes a song with her sister Eleanor (Martin), which offers encouragement and solace to all those involved.  
     Celeste undergoes rigorous rehabilitation, and during this time, the song has become a hit not just in their hometown, but across the nation as well, all of which results in bids from people wanting to be Celeste’s manager, one of which is “The Manager” played by Jude Law.  A publicist played by Jennifer Ehle is engaged as well.  
     A bit of sibling rivalry between Celeste and Eleanor runs through the story, but for named reasons, Celeste becomes the star and Eleanor goes with her as her older sister/caretaker, but who remains active in writing songs.  She also becomes a kind of foster mother later for Celeste’s daughter Albertine (Cassidy again in this role).  Plausible family dynamics are woven into the story of Celeste’s rise to fame, enriching the plot.  But while Corbet pays attention to this important aspect, the main thrust of the story is Celeste’s meteoric rise in popularity, her physical/psychological/social vulnerabilities, and the penultimate outcome. Penultimate, because the ending leaves you guessing.
     Natalie Portman gives her all to this performance, as she did in Black Swan, a role which is similar to this one in its story of a talented young woman being exploited by people in the entertainment business.  Both films are left open-ended as to the ultimate outcome.  Here, we see the arc of a rock star’s fame, the erosion of her values and central core, and the question as to whether her family (sister and daughter) can buffer her from the consequences of the path she has chosen.
     A curious omission in this film is the absence of the mother.  She is nowhere to be seen in the film, and her absence is not explained.  This is unfortunate in that her absence could potentially account for some of Celeste’s journey and her relationship with her sister.  But we are given no information.
     The film contains large gaps in time, requiring the viewer to fill in information [e.g., we’re not told about Celeste’s pregnancy; we see her daughter for the first time after she has grown up in the last half of the film (Cassidy in this role too, which is a nice touch)].  The narration delivered with gravitas by Willem Dafoe that occurs periodically helps a great deal in this respect and in making psychological/philosophical sense of Celeste and events in her life.
     Significant assets to the film include the luscious, probing cinematography of Lol Crowley and the score supplied by Scott Walker, with songs by Sia, which are the ones Celeste sings onstage.  The finale is something to see in music and cinematography, and in peak emotionality.  A grande finale indeed, after you’ve thought that disaster was just around the corner.

A rock star born, launched, and riding the peaks and valleys of fame.

Grade:  A-                                    By Donna R. Copeland

Thursday, December 6, 2018


Voices of:  Cate Blanchett     Christian Bale     Benedict Cumberbatch     Peter Mullan 
 Andy Serkis     Tom Hollander     Naomie Harris     Freida Pinto
Rohand Chand as Mogli and Matthew Rhys as a researcher

     I’m a bit puzzled as to why this movie was made, following so closely upon the very successful 2016 film, “The Jungle Book”, a Disney production based on the Rudyard Kipling novel directed by Jon Favreau.  This version, with a screenplay by Callie Kloves and directed by Andy Serkis, pretty much follows the same story of a child being brought up by the animals when his parents are killed in the jungle by a tiger named Shere Khan (Cumberbatch).  Mowgli (played here by Rohand Chand) tries valiantly to keep up with his “pack” (tested in a race), but when he starts to come of age, it is clear that he can’t keep up and that he is becoming more and more like a human man. His two main advisors, panther Bagheera (Bale) and bear Baloo (Serkis), see to it that he joins the group of villagers who live nearby.  That’s not the end of the story; heroics will follow.
     The strongest asset of this Mowgli lies in a stellar cast.  Cate Blanchett as the initial narrator and embodied as the python Kaa delivers authoritative/threatening/protective lines in a voice that conveys the message very clearly.  Christian Bale and Andy Serkis serve as the wise overseers of the pack and of Mowgli that connotes both patriarchy and loving concern.  Benedict Cumberbatch issues ferocious, lip-smacking threats that seem even more threatening with a British accent. And finally, Rohand Chand is successful in convincing us of a feral child gradually becoming acquainted with his own tribe.  
     Aside from this version of The Jungle Book being an unnecessary, less successful remake, it does have a plot that is engaging and offers some good counsel to children in its message about the importance of social groups and cooperation to achieve goals, “specialness” not necessarily being an asset, and the value of wise counsel even when it feels uncomfortable. On the other hand, inserting the character John Lockwood (Rhys) as an alcoholic, boorish researcher having no human interest in his subjects, is offensive and disrespectful to the many anthropological/sociological scientists who have given us valuable information. I have no idea why this character was included.
     I expect that children may enjoy the color and the story about a child brought up in the jungle, but it is probably not one that will stay with them for long.  And it probably won’t engage their parents at all.  

More tales of a feral child and his adventures in the jungle.

Grade:  C                                    By Donna R. Copeland


Olivia Colman     Rachel Weisz     Emma Stone
James Smith     Mark Gatiss     Nicholas Hoult     Joe Alwyn

     I must confess, I did not love The Favourite.  It is easy to discern why others are entertained, but I tired of the portrayal of a moody, whimsical queen so easily led on by her ladies in waiting.  Most refreshing in the story are her sudden flashes of insight on occasion that take her subjects—particularly these very ladies—by surprise.  But I tired of their duplicitous fawning while concealing their own driving ambitions for power. It reminds me too much of the typical perception of women in power being easily duped, often by close [female] associates.
     The production, directed by Yorgos Lanthimos based on a screenplay by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara, is a farce about the royal court in 18thCentury British aristocracy when Queen Anne (Colman) reigned, at first with the private counsel of her “lady of the bedchamber”, Sarah Churchill (Weisz), Duchess of Marlborough.  In this story, the Duchess wields considerable political power, along with her husband, the Duke of Marlborough charged with directing the army. 
     Enter a relative of the Duchess, Abigail (Stone), who has fallen upon hard times, and being intelligent, educated, and ambitious, she begins to maneuver her way into court.  Sarah is well schooled in handling intruders, and immediately puts her in her place. What she doesn’t anticipate is an equal capable of challenging her and winning over the queen.  What follows is a battle of wits between the two women and the unpredictability of the Queen’s favor.  
     Right off the bat, the three actresses, Colman, Weisz, and Stone, prove their considerable talents and carry the film.  Colman perfectly captures a person in charge who only sporadically wields her power, while being susceptible to flattery, attention, and physical comfort.  She can whine with the best of them and then turn on a dime and exert autocratic power.  Weisz plays the most interesting character in her blending of political knowledge, skill in the art of manipulation, and an apparent genuine caring.  Stone does a great portrayal of an interloper who knowingly scans the territory, assesses where different powers lie, and can convey sincerity without warmth.  These actresses are already being slated for nominations and have actually received awards for their performances.
     Clearly The Favourite will be a 2018 favorite, maybe even more so than Lanthimos’ previous films that were hits, The Lobster and The Killing of a Sacred Deer, both of which I loved. My problem with this film is as I stated above, is that it is a little too pat in portraying women’s records of power and their relationships with one another.  It turns out that whereas earlier accounts of Queen Mary’s reign emphasized her illnesses and other weaknesses, subsequent historians have given her more credibility.  She attended more cabinet meetings than those who came before or after her; more artistic literary, economic, and political advancements were made during her reign; and she supported the union of England and Scotland, which became Europe’s largest free trade area at the time.  No weak willed Nellie she.  It’s something of a pity that she is portrayed so weak in a 20thCentury film.

For a romp in an 18th Century royal court where intrigue is rampant and women compete for power, go see The Favourite.

Grade:  B                                    By Donna R. Copeland