Thursday, January 31, 2019


Gina Rodriguez    Anthony Mackie    Ismael Cruz    Thomas Dekker    Matt Lauria

     It’s a mystery to me why a remake of a mildly successful movie would be attempted. This production directed and executive produced by Catherine Hardwicke is an example.  The previous Miss Bala (2011) received some recognition after its premier at the Cannes Film Festival, but did not win any significant awards.  Nevertheless, it was regarded more highly than this version is likely to be.  Both are based on an actual event that occurred in 2008 when a beauty pageant winner in Mexico, got mixed up in a drug trafficking scandal.
     In 2019’s Miss Bala, Gina Rodriguez as Gloria, a makeup artist, returns to Mexico where she grew up to visit her old friend Suzu (Christina Rodlo), who is competing in a contest to become Miss Bala of Baja, California.  They’re thrilled to be together again and decide to go to a club in the evening where the mayor is supposed to be.  Suzu tells Gloria that he is influential in the contest, and she wants to make contact with him.  She does indeed, and introduces him to Gloria.  The evening is cut short when the club is terrorized by gang members shooting it up.  The two women are separated, and although Gloria survives, she can’t find Suzu.
     What follows is a series of mishaps in Gloria trying to get help, and instead, getting abducted, not just once, but twice.  The first time is by Lino (Cruz), the leader of the Estrellas gang, who eventually promises to help her find Suzu IF she will do something(s) for him.  The second time is by a DEA agent (Lauria) who wants her to help him locate Lino.  Each man places her in a double bind so that she is forced to help both of them—a real dilemma.
     There are some exciting, interesting scenes and plot twists, but these are weakened by illogical and implausible situations and actions, some simply going against common sense.  An example is when the club is attacked and bodies are falling all around her, Gloria does not lie on the floor and play dead.  She risks her life by running through a barrage of bullets, and then puts her trust in someone who betrays her.  Another is when Gloria becomes an expert shot with an AK 47 after one lesson.  A major issue for me is when a DEA agent (Lauria) is portrayed unfavorably as compared to Lino, who is shown at times to be heroic and respectful.  Not to say that DEA agents are all fine and upstanding, but this portrayal seems to come from a bias against them.
     The main actors (Rodriguez, Mackie, Cruz, Lauria) hold their own in terms of skill and being convincing; Rodriguez and Mackie, especially so.  Probably the weakest aspect of the film lies in the script by Gareth Dunnet-Alcocer that stretches plausibility.  Catherine Hardwicke’s direction seems well measured with a good sense of timing.
     For viewers looking for an entertaining two hours and willing to accept flaws in the plot, this is an OK movie.

A novel twist on a beauty pageant mixed up with drug trafficking.

Grade:  C-                                    By Donna R. Copeland


Sam Elliott     Aidan Turner     Ron Livingston     Caitlin FitzGerald     Larry Miller

     This is a charming (and sometimes tense) story about an eccentric old man with regrets. It’s striking, because many would call him a hero.  He eschews that appellation, saying that there were real heroes in WWII, and he was only doing what he was told to do.  This is a role made for Sam Elliott (playing Calvin Barr, a man of few words and deep thoughts), who draws out every conversation, every scene, as long as possible to instill maximum emotional impact.
     Writer/director Robert D. Krzykowski has chosen to alternate back and forth between the experiences of the young Calvin, played by Aidan Turner, and older Calvin, played by Sam Elliott.  The younger has been undercover in the WWII Nazi military with a special mission, to kill Hitler.  The older Calvin lives in the same town, same house as the younger. But he has long been home from the war, still grieving the loss of his pre-war beloved (Caitlin FitzGerald).  
     Calvin now leads a solitary life, talking only to his bartender and his dog, but hardly to anyone else, even his brother Ed (Miller).  He seems like he is preparing to die (as in dumping all his meds in the trash) when he is visited by FBI agents asking him to go after the current “Bigfoot” in the Canada wild, who is infecting the civilized world with dread diseases—ones that trace their beginnings to the black plague in the 14thcentury—and ones to which he is immune.   (A little hokey is the stated fact that he is the “only one in the world capable of destroying this animal/human being.)
     At first, he refuses; but this is a man who is still questioning his first “kill.” Yet, he is torn because of his position of being honorable in all things.  Will he go when he is called as an old man to fight yet another fight?  Or will he cling to his basic principles?  
     The film is engaging and entertaining, and Sam Elliott is mesmerizing (with Aidan Turner expertly and convincingly playing his younger self).  The plot is interesting and fanciful, yet it doesn’t quite hit that “sweet spot” where reality, fantasy, and inspiration come together.  Perhaps if the script were more plausible, it could have been more engaging as a fantasy. But as it stands, its remains interesting but not one that will stay with you.

A military fantasy that, however intriguing, lacks enough grounding in reality to be impressive.

Grade:  C+                                    By Donna R. Copeland

Thursday, January 24, 2019


John C. Reilly     Steve Coogan     Shirley Henderson     Nina Arianda     Danny Huston     Rufus Jones

     Laurel & Hardy were a sensation beginning in the ‘20’s, faded a bit in the ‘40’s, and then had a comeback in the ‘50’s.  Their act was an old-time slapstick comedy, with each being a buffoon or a straight man in turn.  But Stan & Ollie is less about their act and more about the relationship between them during their long association, which survived when their other relationships did not, necessarily.
     In the film, we see them working, amiable and jostling together as they dream up their act.  Stan Laurel was the writer, and his work got them started on planning an act.  As time goes on and, as in all relationships, previously overlooked feelings start surfacing.  It gets more complicated as their wives join them on their last tour through Europe, ending in London.  Hardy’s wife is the traditional American wife, nurturing and ever mindful of her husband’s welfare.  Laurel’s wife is more cosmopolitan and has had something of a career as a dancer.  Her acerbic personality provides more entertainment in its contrast with the American conception of the “ideal” wife.
     The casting by Andy Pryor is right on.  John C. Reilly, in his usual “nailed it” mode, shows Ollie as someone who looks like he doesn’t know much and is a buffoon underneath, but actually shows a kind of intelligence that complements the Laurel character’s creativity. Steve Coogan likewise shows both sides of the buffoon-smart character.  Each deals with the business of entertainment in very different ways, and each is successful in his own way, although they don’t necessarily fit together in a negotiation.  Best to leave them negotiating on their own.
     I especially enjoyed the wives.  Shirley Henderson is a staple in British theatre and television, reliable in projecting color and meaning into a story.  Nina Arianda similarly gives movies she’s in a special punch. The writer (Jeff Pope) and director (Jon S. Baird) wisely use the two wives to illuminate the personas of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy.
     The kind of comedy Laurel & Hardy embody is not especially appealing to me, but I found this account of their association compelling and moving.

Laurel and Hardy as Stan and Ollie in their private lives.

Grade:  C+                                    By Donna R. Copeland


Louis Ashbourne     Dean Chaumoo     Tom Taylor     Rhianna Dorris
Rebecca Ferguson     Patrick Stewart     Angus Imrie

     Written and directed by Joe Cornish (Attack the Block, Ant-Man, Hot Fuzz), the film is an entertaining mix of fantasy and reality, weaving together tales from King Arthur’s Court and contemporary life at Dungate Academy, where the main four young characters attend school.  It starts out with two fast friends, Alex (Ashbourne) and Bedders (Chaumoo) being bullied by two older students, Lance (Taylor) and Kay (Dorris). Alex and Bedders are nerdy kids who are interested in magic, and are derided by Lance and Kay.  Lance promotes himself as “king” of the school, and uses every opportunity to show it, backed up by his sidekick, Kay. 
     Alex is brave and fights back, especially in defense of his friend.  And one day, when he is running from Lance he ends up at a construction site, briefly assuming himself safe.  But in a confrontation with Lance, he falls over backwards off a fence onto a pile of dirt.  Lance and Kay leave him for dead, but when Alex comes to he sees a huge sword stuck in stone. Curious, he pulls it out with some effort, and runs home with it.
     This is where his and Bedders’ nerdiness comes in handy.  They notice an inscription on the sword written in Latin, and in an example of Cornish’s exquisite blending of history and modern technology, they look up the inscription on Google Translate and find that it says that the sword belongs to King Arthur, son of Tintagel (not a person, but an island).  Putting that together with a book Alex’s missing dad gave him with the message, “to the once and future king”, they begin to wonder mildly if it is Alex who is that “once and future king.”  
     This actually gets corroborated by a strange new student at school who does amazing things, simply with some kind of ritual he performs with his hands and arms.  Merton/Merlin (Imrie and Stewart) informs Alex that he is indeed “the king”, and that he is charged with preparing for a major battle with someone evil for ownership of the sword.  This is Morgana (Ferguson), King Arthur’s half-sister, who has been chained up in vines against a rock for centuries, struggling to get free. She is convinced she is the rightful heir to the throne, and knows that her success requires that she possess the sword (Excalibur).  
     Alex and his three friends/enemies (he needs the aggressive qualities of the bullies in his quest), whom he has knighted, set off to Tintagel Island to locate the entrance to the underworld and wage battle with Morgana.  Along the way, Merlin in his younger and older forms will guide and sometimes rescue them on their quest.  Their journey is engaging; it’s only at the very end the movie starts falling apart.  It would have been better if the last half-hour had been edited out.
     Production design (Marcus Rowland), cinematography (Bill Pope), and special and visual effects make this an enchanting journey that will keep children and adults raptly engaged.  The dragons that appear in the night-time with their brilliantly lit swords trying to catch up with and attack the seekers are truly terrifying, and the way old trees uproot themselves to train the king and knights in fighting is cleverly done and humorous at the same time.
         Alex(played by Director Serkis’ son)is a surprised but charming hero who wins you over with his wonder, valor, and smartness, which Ashbourne gracefully captures.  Chaumoo as Bedders portrays an interesting kid whose loyalty and whose interest and devotion to magic is admirable, as well as providing welcome levity at times.  Tom Taylor gives us a picture of an overly entitled, spoiled rich kid who needs to have his ears pinned back from time to time, but is one who finally learns from it.  Rhianna Dorris evinces the loyal follower who is not quite ready to stand on her own.  Imrie and Stewart playing the young and old Merlin grab your attention and keep you fascinated.  Finally, Rebecca Ferguson convincingly shows us a ferocious, hag-like figure whose greediness for power is unmatched. 
     With all its fantastical, other-world glamour, The Kid Who Would be King contains teaching moments for children (and adults in these modern times) about the necessity for cooperation in overcoming adversity, on the values in the chivalric code (honoring those we love, not being wanton, speaking truth at all times, and persevering to the end in any enterprise), overcoming disillusionment, and the value of diversity in any endeavor.  

If only the chivalric code would be applied in our troubled times!

Grade:  B+                                    By Donna R. Copeland


Matthew McConaughey     Anne  Hathaway     Diane Lane     Djmon Hounsou
Jason Clarke     Jeremy Strong     Rafael Sayegh

     The complexity of the plot in Serenity (which is far from serene) hypes up the excitement and intrigue, and keeps you guessing throughout.  The theme of “What is real?” gives it an added boost in depth as the viewer is forced to ask the question over and over in terms of the plot, but also in terms of each of the characters and their minds—along with ethical questions that will arise.  It is the talented work of Writer/Director Steven Knight who has given us previous—sometimes quiet—thrillers, as in Dirty Pretty Things, Eastern Promises, andLocke, that stay on one’s mind after leaving the theater.
     The story starts out as a simple tale about a fisherman who seems to be suffering from PTSD following his medal-earning service in Iraq, which he is self-treating with alcohol.  He is gruff and single-minded, seems to have no inkling about human management and relationships, and is compulsive about finding a certain tuna in the ocean that he has named “Justice” (which, like everything else in the film smolders with symbolic meaning).  
     Baker Dill (McConaughey)—not his real name, of course—is shown to run rough-shod over employees such as loyal Duke (Hounsou) and clients, every incident of which always gets spread through the town of Plymouth, where “everybody knows everything.”  And they do seem to know; the instance something happens everybody knows about it, even deals made supposedly in secret. There’s only one bar in town, which is part of the explanation, and a certain cat owner named Constance (Lane) has a perfect view of the dock from where all boats go to sea, but word also seems to travel mysteriously.
     Some may get turned off by the occult references in the film, but, to me, that only adds to its intrigue.  It’s done so subtly (and some kinds of supernatural events have been accepted in some circles), and for substantive reasons (as in a father connecting with his son), I could easily accept it as part of the story. Besides, the ending is so ambiguous in terms of what really happened, it’s one of those delightful films where you can pick the ending you favor.  Either it’s a fantasy of someone’s mind, or it’s a realistic account of what happened.  The capper for these thoughts is Baker’s comment about a telephone call he’s just had:  “I didn’t have enough coins to get in that conversation” [about what was real]. 
     McConaughey is in his usual form, capturing a character central to the plot of a movie. Here again, he confirms his status as a top-notch actor.  His movies vary considerably in quality, but in Serenity, he has chosen a role within a plot that is both complex and airtight.  The rest of the cast measures up to the task of characters who are presented as strong and convincing:  Anne Hathaway as the somewhat mysterious element of Baker’s/John’s past whose presence unnerves him; Djmon Hounsou as the one Baker asks to be his conscience, but intermittently dismisses; Jason Clarke as a thoroughly reprehensible husband; Jeremy Strong as an ambiguous figure offering an ambiguous bargain; Diane Lane as an important grounding connection for Baker; and finally, young Rafael Sayegh as Patrick, an elusive game-inventor-player who may or may not be real.

A delightful and thrilling exploration into reality/fantasy possibilities and the questioning of the rules of the game.

Grade:  A                        By Donna R. Copeland

Thursday, January 17, 2019


James McAvoy     Sarah Paulson     Bruce Willis     Samuel L. Jackson
Anya Taylor-Joy     Spencer Treat Clark     Charlayne Woodard

     M. Night Shyamalan has written and directed a number of films (The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, Signs, The Village, Lady in the Water) that seem to have a hit or miss quality about them, at least from film critics’ points of view.  Glass is intended to be the third in a trilogy with Unbreakable and Split, neither of which was up to his first success, Sixth Sense.  It is a sequel with promise, but falls short, partly because of a complicated story that contains multiple back stories, but mostly because of the editing, which forces the viewer to spend too much time wondering what is being portrayed in many scenes.  Perhaps devotees of M. Night Shyamalan’s previous two films, Unbreakable and Split, the first two parts of a trilogy, of which Glass is the third, will be able to establish precedence and context to certain scenes, but the general public will be frustrated in trying to figure out what is going on, particularly in the beginning scenes. 
     The main players are:  1) Kevin Crumb (McAvoy), an established master at portraying dissociative identity disorder (DID), who has multiple personalities, one of which is a superhuman hunk capable of, say, overturning cars, another of which is a nine year-old with a lisp.  An abusive mother is the cause of his problems.  2) David Dunn (Willis) has a security business with his son Joseph (Clark), who believes his father has superhuman powers, but knows he is to keep quiet about it.  David is committed to preventing crimes from happening through his tactile sensitivity, whereby he can sense when someone is doing something wrong and goes about trying to stop it.  3) Elijah Price (Jackson) having grown up with a bone disease that makes his bones extremely fragile, decides, based upon his expertise in comics, that there must be the opposite of weaknesses such as his—superheroes, who have extraordinary strengths.  The movie does have a clever way of showing how each of these characters confronts his weakness and develops a superpower, but logic about their existence soon falls away. In a grandiose turn showing his supreme confidence in his belief, Elijah goes about convincing Kevin and David that they are indeed superheroes. 
     Once again in this last of a loosely connected trilogy, James McAvoy is the most interesting aspect of a film about disturbed individuals.  I don’t know if he necessarily captures the actual DID disorder, but he is entertaining in his ability to be so many personalities.  Bruce      Willis and Samuel L. Jackson have roles that they could easily “phone in”, but certainly provide more interest than would be there otherwise.  The addition of a psychiatrist (Paulson) and her staff at the mental hospital once again implies that the care in such places is self-serving rather than to help patients.  Paulson is a fine actress, but she is wasted here.
     In short, Glass is overly ambitious and too reliant on sketchy scenes to provide necessary information to follow the convoluted story, so many times it comes across as a jumbled mess.  Although it has been shown that many people can turn weaknesses into strengths, a man becoming a super-hero as a result is hardly a possibility.

This Glass is less than half full.

Grade:  D                                    By Donna R. Copeland

Monday, January 7, 2019


Nicole Kidman     Toby Kebbell     Bradford Whitford    Sebastian Stan    Scoot McNairy
Tatiana Maslany     James Jordan     Jade Pettyjohnn

     This is one of those films where you have to work hard just to keep up with the characters and the story, partly because Director Karyn Kusama chose to switch back and forth in time rather than tell the tale chronologically.  It’s a common practice I literally hate, and see no reason for it—except to make us work hard.  Perhaps filmmakers think it increases the mystery, because the viewer doesn’t have critical information until almost the end of the film. But that’s not a good reason.
     Destroyer had the potential to be a fine thriller, but fails because of the above and because by the time critical information is given, it serves only to draw out the story and drag on and on when you just want it to end.
     We’re thrown off base right away, when Detective Erin Bell (an almost unrecognizable Kidman) drags herself around a murder scene amidst the taunts of other detectives already there.  She spots significant clues, and goes to the police station to still more taunts.  She is the only one who could recognize some tell tale signs at the murder scene, but you won't know that this is the end of the movie, rather than the beginning of the story.  
     To avoid spoilers, I will refrain from going into the story at all.  Erin Bell is the focus and reason for the story and for the title itself.  She is a detective on the Los Angeles Police force, who has become persona non grata, and must endure taunts from all sides, including criminals and her own daughter.  We’re immediately curious about her history—which is a rich one—but must travel back and forth in time among a myriad of characters to learn about only a fraction of it.
Acting in this film is its strongest asset.  Award-winning Nicole Kidman (in three films just this year:  Destroyer, Boy Erased, and Aquaman plus television’s “Big Little Lies”) captures and sustains your attention throughout the film, which (in its disjointed way) is about who she is and part of how she came to be.  (I say “part”, because that’s all we get.)  Toby Kebbell and Bradley Whitford provide terrifying cameos that make you shiver, and Tatiana Maslany and Jade Pettyjohn play their roles of fleshing out the plot aptly.
     There is so much potential for soul in this story, that it’s a crying shame the ones responsible seemed to miss their own point.  The tale of a sharp but discredited detective with a back-story who continues to persevere contains the makings of a moving human story; but this film is not the one to tell it.  The title itself proves the filmmakers’ absence of empathy and insight into the main character.

About plans gone wrong in so many ways.

Grade:  C+                                    By Donna R. Copeland

Wednesday, January 2, 2019


Felicity Jones     Armie Hammer     Justin Theroux     Kathy Bates     Sam Waterston     Cailiee Spaeney

     Two mind-boggling aspects of the film, set between the 1950’s and 1970’s, are the number of U.S. laws that favored men over women and the obstructions a gifted woman like Ruth Bader Ginsburg faced throughout most of her young career. Beginning with law school at Harvard, throughout her attempts to get a law firm to hire her, and her attempts to bring up and hold onto a major case about gender discrimination, men talk over her and the other women, disparage their comments, and often simply ignore them.  It’s a puzzle in their circles as to why RBG and her husband mix up their typical gender roles, e.g., her taking the lead in arguing a case, him taking on household and child care chores, and, above all, sharing in all their responsibilities at home and in their profession.  
     One prospective employer at a respectable law firm in New York expresses his admiration and respect for her (who graduated first in her class, even after helping her husband through law school while she was also enrolled, AND took care of their child), but he doesn’t hire her because the wives in the firm might get jealous.  (Actually, I was told exactly that and was turned down for the same reason when I was applying for my first job as a psychologist in 1979.)  RBG finally lands a job at Rutgers teaching “Sex Discrimination and the Law.”  
     On the Basis of Sex provides us with an excellent dramatic account of Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s life, from the time she was a girl up to her winning a major case at the Denver Court of Appeals.  It follows the prior release of a fine documentary, RBG, by Julie Cohen and Betsy West, earlier this year.  At first, I regretted their releasing the two films so close together in time, but after having seen both, I see them as complementary.
     This film, written by Daniel Stiepleman and directed by Mimi Leder, balances RBG’s personal background—including adult family life—with arguments among colleagues and those formally presented in court.  By the end, we have a clear sense of how this woman came to be (influence of her mother), the almost unprecedented degree of support from her husband Marty, and her forging a new pathway through a male-dominated legal system to achieve what is now perceived to be  obvious rights for women.  I especially appreciated hearing some of her arguments in court, which were presented in a way that only logic is needed to understand it—knowledge of law not needed.
     In addition, the film portrays the Ginsburg family’s actual life, such as arguments between RBG and her daughter that were expertly moderated by Marty Ginsburg. As portrayed here, he could be a model for a father’s role in conflicts between a mother and her daughter. The film captures the Ginsburgs’ marital relationship, which was apparently always loving, but open to conflict and differences of opinion.  Marty is clearly a peacemaker but one with principles and loyalty to both his wife and daughter.
     As she did as Jane Hawking in The Theory of Everything, Felicity Jones captures the charming spunkiness of a woman who is well grounded.  She conveys just the right blend of feminine charm, fierce commitment, and solid logical mind that characterizes heroic women.  Armie Hammer is a master of supporting roles—for male or female characters—of all different kinds, as he has shown here, and I’m wondering when he will play a starring role; he is clearly capable.  A real winning actor here is Kathy Bates as the irascible Dorothy Kenyon, a determined social justice advocate. This is a perfect role for Bates who should receive a supporting actor nomination.

A film that addresses equality between men and women with grace.  Thank you, Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

Grade:  A                                    By Donna R. Copeland