Thursday, September 26, 2019


Moises Arias     Julianne Nicholson     Sofia Buenaventura    Julian Giraldo
Karen Quintero     Laura Castrillon     Delby Rueda     Paul Cubides     Sneider Castro

     Filmed in the lush countryside of Colombia by the artistic Jasper Wolf, Monos’ story perplexes and shocks against the backdrop of green mountains, dense jungles, and rushing waters or clear lakes and streams.  Some of the water scenes are breathtaking in capturing its myriad beauty while filming the chases and conflicts among the characters beneath the surface.  These scenes are in direct contrast to the typical roaring chases in most action films; the silent struggles taking place here are much more suspenseful and jarring.
     Director Alejandro Landes co-wrote the script with Alexis Dos Santos from a story he conceived.  It’s a disturbing account of a group of rebels in an unnamed South American country who are attacked repeatedly by the militia, necessitating frequent maneuvers to hide their location.  But as in any group, conflicts arise, sometimes based on competition either in love or war—or even by accident--but these are perhaps more striking and moving because this is a group teenagers.  An overseer comes by now and then to shape them up and strengthen their resolve, and they have frequent contact with leaders via radio communication.
     The first leader of the small group designated by the overseer is Wolf (Giraldo), who has also gotten permission to “partner” with Lady (Quintero), e.g., sleep together.  [Landes has named his characters with some humor; i.e. Wolf, Lady, Rambo, Bigfoot, Smurf, Dog, and Boom Boom.]   Perhaps this is intended to help us keep track of who is who, but I think most viewers will have to make some effort to remember all of them and their personalities and roles.
     At any rate, an eventful moment—perhaps an accident—results in tragedy, and consequently Bigfoot (Arias) is then put in charge.  
     In addition to fighting the militia, the group is charged with keeping a prisoner, a woman called La Doctora (Nicholson), an engineer who has been kidnapped by the rebels, but is persistent and courageous in trying to escape in the mountains, in the jungle, and in the rivers.  
     Sprinkled into a story with high tension, there are moments of humor, admirable skill and courage shown, as well as honesty.  During radio communication, members of the group are asked to comment, sometimes with surprising candor, but mostly glossing over truths.  
     Altogether, Monos is a photographic wonder, with a sometimes haunting, sometimes melodic, score by Mica Levi.  The plot by Landes and Dos Santos is intriguing and astute about humankind, but occasionally takes a fill-in-the-blanks approach, leaving the viewer to sort out the players and speculate about the plot.  This is especially true at the end, when significant threads are left hanging.
     Despite this, I applaud the movie’s creativity, beauty, and truth, and its presentation of colorful characters that are highly entertaining.

A picture about a group of colorful young rebels doing what they are known to do against the backdrop of war and abounding nature.

Grade:  B                                    By Donna R. Copeland

Wednesday, September 25, 2019


Renee Zellweger     Jessie Buckley     Rufus Sewall     Michael Gambon     Finn Wittrock

     Judy Garland’s reputation for the heights of talent and performance and the depths of despair and catastrophe are all keenly represented in this docudrama, with Renee Zellweger ably capturing the starring role.  The film is strengthened by giving snapshots of the young Judy’s life being dictated by the MGM movie studio, pre-child labor laws (e.g., 18-hour days, no lunch breaks, strict diet, caps on her teeth and discs to reshape her nose), and Louis B. Mayer’s depiction of her as being unattractive, all of which affected her self-image for life.
     But she was clearly talented and had become a star by the time she was 18, earning the Academy Juvenile Award.  During the height of her career, she won Academy and Golden Globe awards for acting and Grammy awards for singing.  Behind the scenes, however, her personal and professional life seemed to pivot from one catastrophe to another, some of the studio’s and, later her own making, as the direct result of drugs and alcohol. But on top of that there was an accumulation of stresses and strains extending from childhood to the end of her life.
The movie Judy mostly focuses on the later years of when Garland was separated from her children and living in London.  It shows her being out of control much of the time with a patient “handler” (Rosalyn Wilder, played by Buckley) using every strategy she can think of to get Judy on stage.  Grieving from the separation from her children, who are with ex-husband Sidney Luft in the U.S. (custody rulings forbid their being taken out of the country), Judy throws herself into another marriage—to Mickey Deans (Wittrock).  However, that relationship is short-lived because of her disappointment in his not coming through with a promised business deal that would relieve her of concert touring and allow her to return to the U.S.
     Zellweger’s performance is noteworthy, and may signal a rousing comeback after her Oscar win in Cold Mountain (2003), which was followed by a series of insignificant roles in minor films. Here, she captures the star’s high emotionality, charm, and voice in the later years of the star’s life. Jessie Buckley as the assistant who often gets Garland on stage is the exemplar of a dogged pusher who uses a world of patience and clever strategies to manager her charge—and still show that she actually cares.  Likewise, Finn Wittrock portrays a young husband desperately trying to be a support for Judy, but ending up mystified in dealing with her dependency and rapidly fluctuating moods.  Rufus Sewell is effective as the fifth of Judy’s husbands, Sid Luft, as is Michael Gambon as the British theatrical impresario responsible for her London appearances.
     I imagine that the experience of seeing this film resembles what it must have been like for the people surrounding Judy Garland during her adult life, particularly the later years, when it is obvious how trying, even exasperating, she could be, while still showing beguiling charm.  Its strength is in Zellweger capturing so well the full range of Judy Garland’s personality and emotionality, and, above all, a voice that entertained millions all during her 45-year career.

A moving chronicle of the later years in the life of a beloved but damaged star, Judy Garland.

Grade:  A-                                    By Donna R. Copeland

Sunday, September 22, 2019


Voices of:  Chloe Bennet     Tenzing Norgay Trainor     Albert Tsai     Eddie Izzard     Sarah Paulson     Tsai Chin

     This is a kid-friendly adventure with a delightful mixture of pure fantasy, thrills, magnificent scenery, and good-natured playfulness, while reminding viewers of the importance of home, family, memories, and paying attention to grief and hardship—all substantive values we want our children to learn.
     “Abominable” is a reference to a mythical creature supposedly living in the mountains of Asia.  His other name is “Snowman”, which the filmmakers have exploited for visual purposes by presenting him as a big furry snowball to detract from his yeti reputation of being a dangerous character.  
     In this story, a yeti appears out of nowhere into a teen girl’s life quite by accident. We’re not told immediately how he got to where he is, but he’s in a big city when he spots a travel billboard with a picture of Everest on it and runs toward it, thinking it is his home.  But he’s actually in Yi’s rooftop secret playhouse.  As they get acquainted with each other and begin to be able to communicate, the threat of a helicopter with a bright light looms overhead, and Yi realizes it is searching for “Everest”, as she has named him.  The yeti has enormous eyes and is somewhat clumsy, but he has a quick mind and an eye for danger. When he keeps gazing longingly at the Everest billboard, Yi (Bennet) knows he is wishing to go home, and she intends to get him there.  And as one character says in the course of the story, “When Yi sets her mind on something, nothing is impossible.”
     Getting Everest home will be a journey with obstacles no one on the trip could predict.  Two other kids manage to come along; Jin (Trainor), Yi’s responsible cousin, and his little brother Peng (Tsai).  But the major concerns for them are Mr. Burnish (Izzard), a collector of exotic animals, and his colleague, Dr. Zara (Paulson), a zoologist, who are in hot pursuit.  The intentions of these two are questionable right from the start.  They will be tailing the small party, trying desperately to trap them for various purposes, but primarily in the interest of their reputations—(just one of the many enlightening models offered by the filmmakers for children’s benefit).
     Yi is depicted as grieving for a now absent father and trying to compensate for the loss by earning extra money, honoring his dream of taking her to exotic places in the world, and being the best violin player she can be with his violin left to her.  Jin is portrayed at first as a fashion-absorbed teenager who seems to be preoccupied with popularity and appearance, but later, is shown to have protective feelings toward his cousin (unbeknownst to her; she will only discern this much later) and his little brother.  Peng is a typical child who recognizes the yeti as a peer, letting Yi realize that Everest is only a child who misses his mommy and daddy.
     The Abominable story is engaging for all ages of children, providing excitement, mystery, and enchanting fantasies—a delightful “action film” for them, with models for learning rather than violence for thrills so common in action films for adults.  As with today’s action figures, Everest has special abilities he introduces with a humming sound that transport the kids out of danger more than once.  Blueberries are used in one trick, which produces tittering delight from the audience.
     Writer Jill Culton and her co-director Todd Wilderman are to be congratulated for such an exciting, very contemporary, story that contains many gems of truth. Main characters voiced by the children (Bennet, Trainor, and Tsai) and adults (Izzard and Paulson) are snappy and fun, with well- drawn and animated forms.  Really fine production design (Max Boas), music (Rupert Gregson), and cinematography (Edward Crawford) fit right in with this quality mix to help make it a hit.

An action film for kids with heart, spirit, and delightful humor.

Grade:  A                                    By Donna R. Copeland

Thursday, September 19, 2019


Maggie Smith     Hugh Bonneville    Elizabeth McGovern     Michelle Dockery     Laura Carmichael     Penelope Wilton     Allen Leech
Geraldine James     Simon Jones     Kate Phillips     Imelda Staunton    Tuppence Middleton     Harry Hadden-Paton    
 Matthew Goode     Jim Carter     Phyllis Logan     Joanne Froggatt     Lesley Nicol     Sophie McShera     Robert James-Collier    Brendan Coyle

     For those who followed the television series, how the movie of Downton Abbey would be the same as or different from the series is a burning question.  Having been a devotee of the series, I can say that Julian Fellowes (writer of both) and director Michael Engler were highly successful in bringing in new mysteries and intrigues while maintaining the family drama as we have come to know it and have become attached to the characters. Fellowes is a genius in creating figures we can all recognize, whether they are among the aristocrats or the common people, and make them live and breathe as if they’re a part of our own family, and make us love them.  He is also witty and skillful in giving life to age-old arguments, such as between systems of monarchy and social hierarchies versus more progressive/liberal/democratic forms of government—topics still on the contemporary mind.
     Having the King and Queen of England (played by Jones and James) come to pay a visit at Downton Abbey provides the perfect opportunity to explore these issues. As would be expected, the royal entourage consists of people much more condescending toward the locals than the royals themselves.  That means that the staff members at the Abbey will be shunted aside by the snooty royal butler (although he has a fancier title), chef, valets, dressers, and other attendants.  But never underestimate the power and finesse of the more democratic system in Downton Abbey, where the Crawleys seem to be moving decidedly in the direction of more progressive societies.  How the Downton staff manages this insurgency is part of the intrigue and mystery in the production.  
     Subtly, Fellowes presents alternative ways of rebelling against a social order, one violent, others more clever and foregoing any violence.  This is one aspect of the film that will keep veteran watchers of the series glued to the action.
     Fellowes and Engler astutely placed the dowager Countess Grantham (in the inimitable form of Maggie Smith) at the center of the conflict, pitting her against a member of the royal staff, Lady Bagshaw (Staunton), cousin of Lord Grantham (Bonneville), with whom she has had an ongoing struggle for decades. Maggie Smith has remained the most visible character in the series for her sharp, acerbic, and always humorous witticisms, so it is both fitting and smart to put her center stage and frame her specific conflicts within the larger issues about social order.
     Other key roles in this drama include Lady Mary (Dockery) and her quandary about whether and how long to maintain the traditional house; her lady in waiting, Anna (Froggatt), who uncovers a crime and uses it to advantage, along with helping mastermind the resistance against the royal staff; and Tom Branson (Leech), an Irish commoner and relatively new member of the family clearly establishing his loyalty to them, along with the reasons why.  Each of the other beloved characters gets a slice of the story, which works to keep it moving (and, I suppose, satisfy veteran watchers as well as newcomers).
     To me, this production is unbelievable in its mastery in incorporating so many important elements of the series into the movie and still presenting a serious argument about social class and government from many different points of view. All this is accomplished while preserving a real sense of humanness and delightfulness in the characters. I still thrill to the sound of musician John Lunn’s theme song as soon as I hear it.  He has been with the production throughout its existence, beginning in 2010, and has made a substantive contribution to its success.

If you’re a Downton fan, run—don’t walk—to the movie.

Grade:  A+                                   By Donna R. Copeland


Brad Pitt     Liv Tyler     Ruth Negga     Tommy Lee Jones     Donald Sutherland     Anne McDaniels     Loren Dean

     A space journey.  And what a journey. Ad Astra is a captivating experience both in terms of travel in space and in the distinctly human journey its main character, Roy McBride, undergoes.  This may be one of Brad Pitt’s most significant roles, even given so many others such as Moneyball, Inglorious Basterds, and Fight Club.  Here, on “mental health exams” given to him by the U.S. Space Command, he reflects on himself and what has happened to him in his life in an honest, forthright manner that allows us to see him as a real person, a committed, sometimes troubled man with doubts and fears.  Yet, he has a reputation for being the coolest of cool in any emergency, and we will see that manifested brilliantly in the course of the film.
     The ways in which space travel is presented by the filmmakers becomes so realistic the sense of being out there remains long after leaving the theater.  Directors James Gray, cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema, production designer Kevin Thompson and their crews portray so vividly the atmosphere, the views, the instrumentation, and the tumbling/floating/falling that are inherent in space travel, afterwards, you really feel like you’ve been there.
     The story is interesting, pulling in themes of father-son relationships, government policies and projects, military command hierarchies, and conspiracy issues. Roy McBride has become an astronaut following in the steps of his heroic father Clifford McBride, head of U.S. Space Command’s Lima Project, but who has been missing for years.  Roy assumes he is dead.  
     But when the Space Agency discovers that Clifford may be alive, it calls on him to go on a mission to find his father.  The concern is that he may be responsible for the majorly disruptive, unpredictable global power surges currently wreaking havoc in the world. Roy is ambivalent for personal reasons (he has a hard time seeing his heroic father as a rogue), as well as evidentiary.  His doubts are based on what he knows about his father and the weak evidence against Clifford presented by the agency.  Roy feels sometimes that he is being “pulled down the same dark hole” as his father.  Not only Roy, but the viewer too is likely to wonder about the evidence.  It suggests that Clifford has become a megalomaniac who has gone off the deep end.  But the evidence presented seems very slim.
     Despite his misgivings, Roy is dogged in following the command given to him. In the process, he has to make difficult decisions and potential sacrifices—not only those of his own, but those of others as well—to resolve the problem he was presented with. Some of these are the nail-biting episodes where life and death are in the balance.

This is a story where the hero takes things into his own hands and makes something of them, gleaning hard facts and drawing insightful conclusions from what he learns.  

Grade:  A-                                    By Donna R. Copeland

Thursday, September 12, 2019


Nicole Kidman     Ansel Elgort     Oakes Fegley     Jeffrey Wright 
Luke Wilson     Sarah Paulson    Finn Wolfhard     Aneurin Barnard

     This movie is full of surprises, most of which I loved.  Above all, the characters fascinate the viewer while the rest of the cast seem to take them all in stride, a kind of lesson in acceptance.  Storytelling hits that sweet spot in which information comes through gradually, punctuated by significant details, but giving one time to savor the plot.  The central character, Theodore (beautifully rendered by Oakes Fegley playing the younger and Ansel Elgort the older Theo), reminds of “Baby” in Baby Driver (also played by Elgort), actors able to convey mystery as they become endearing and grow on their acquaintances.
     The story begins with tragedy, when Theo’s mother is missing after an explosion in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.   His alcoholic father disappeared long ago, so he needs someone to take him in.  When he names the mother of a classmate whom he has befriended, as at least a temporary solution, Mrs. Barbour (Kidman) steps up to the plate and brings him to her family, which is both wealthy and dysfunctional.  She ends up really caring about him, and it looks like he may be with them for a long time.  
     But… (This story is filled with twists and turns, continually bringing up questions about coincidences versus fate/predetermination).  That juxtaposition is one of the themes of the film, coupled with questions about what is fake and what is real, both in relation to art as well as in human relationships as portrayed.  
     The movie Goldfinch is mesmerizing during Theo’s growing-up years when we observe him to be so well balanced and well behaved, managing his losses and compensating for them in healthy ways.  It gives us a realistic picture of trauma (in other characters as well as Theo), its after-effects, and how people manage it.  The characters introduced make the story come alive, such as different family members in the Barbour family, Hobie (Wright) who takes Theo under his wing and educates him about artistic furniture and reproductions, and the reappearing father (Wilson) and his girlfriend (Paulson) who whisk him off to sandy, bleak Las Vegas.  
     Unfortunately, the film loses its way and tries to become a thriller toward the end, with drug dealing, mobsters, and other unsavory characters introduced into the mix.  This is where it lost me, although I did appreciate attempts to show all the characters to be a mixture of good and bad qualities, most of which with good intentions; but the ending was just too fantastical for me to go along with it.
     For the most part, director John Crowley, the actors, cinematographer Roger Deakins and composer Trevor Gureckis have created a beautiful work of art, capturing the qualities of the Goldfinch painting and its history, while prompting us to consider different philosophies of life.

A captivating story with meaningful characters, derailed by superfluous drama seemingly “tacked on” toward the end.

Grade:  B                                    By Donna R. Copeland


Jennifer Lopez     Constance Wu     Julia Stiles     Keke Palmer     Cardi B     Lili Reinhart

     Hustling pays off—sort of—according to this movie about a group of strippers in New York eventually conning the likes of Wall Street bankers.  It’s a dramatic account based on a true story as reported by one of the screenwriters (with director Lorene Scafaria), Jessica Pressler ( "The Hustlers at Scores: The Ex-Strippers Who Stole From (Mostly) Rich Men and Gave to, Well, Themselves". The Cut. 2015-12-28).  It’s said that truth is stranger than fiction, and this is one of those cases where the saying applies.  I’m sure some of the conned men might say, “You can’t make this thing up.”
     At any rate, Scafaria and her crew have put together an entertaining comedy that has rings of truth all over it, making it more substantive than simply humorous.  Comedy flows in one-liners such as a graphic artist commenting on an education-aspiring stripper’s handwriting:  “You’re handwriting is so beautiful!  You could be a font.”  The substance is about truths found in human beings’ continual wishing for more (often the source of their vulnerabilities) and the sisterhood found in so many female groups, an aspect mostly ignored in fictional portrayals.  
     Jennifer Lopez as Ramona and Constance Wu as Destiny form a consummate pair of conniving women driven by life circumstances to cut certain corners simply to survive.  Their on-screen attraction (toward each other and ours to them) drives Hustlers’ momentum, which I attribute to their acting skills and charisma.  As in many close friendships, the characters Ramona and Destiny differ significantly from each other, while their skills and values are complementary; Ramona is the “people person” able to talk down any complaier and Destiny is the organized, business-minded one with basic human values.  (She has her limits as to how far she will go in getting clients to submit and a practical, “business” sense.)  
The film gives us a picture of strip clubs at the time—the tremendous amount of money flowing in, the exploitation of the strippers by the club owners, the “art” of attractions like pole dancing, and the special kinds of relationships the strippers had with their clients. 
     Then comes the recession of 2008, which results in the abandonment of the clubs by wealthy men, the introduction of cheaper Russian girls willing to perform whatever is requested, and Ramona and Destiny realizing they need to adopt a better business model.  They are astute in figuring out how to benefit the clubs—their source of support—along with themselves.  They will “go fishing” for men in smaller venues like bars to bring to the clubs.  This is imminently successful until…
     Towards the end, the story gets a bit absurd, but mostly it shows a very clever ruse.

Thanks to director Scafaria and the stars, Hustlers ends up being an entertaining romp with substance to boot.

Grade: B                                    By Donna R. Copeland

Thursday, September 5, 2019


Jessica Chastain     James McAvoy     Bill Hader     Bill Skarsgard
Isiah Mustafa     Jay Ryan     James Ransone     Andy Bean

     This reunion of childhood friends after 27 years isn’t going to be typical; for one thing, a fat kid is now trim and fit—rather than everyone being more portly—the usual reunion preoccupation.  But of course it will be out of the ordinary in so many other, more important, ways.  It’s important to know that this group of reunion members are from the “Losers Club”, and “losers they will always be”, BUT they have pledged as a group to defend against a dark force.
     These friends are called together based on a promise (sealed in blood) made at a time when they thought they had done away with Pennywise (Skarsgard) the wicked clown who preys on young children.  Now Mike (Mustafa) is sending them all urgent messages to come to Derry, Maine, at once.  This will be no easy feat, because they’ve all (except for Mike) left Derry to establish careers and, sometimes, families.  We see each of them attempt to disengage from their commitments to honor the childhood pledge.
     Only one (Stanley, played by Bean) chooses not to go, but the rest brave all kinds of obstacles to return to Mike in Derry, Maine.  He has brought them all together, of course, to tell them that Pennywise has resurfaced and is killing children.  He has done enough research to learn that an ancient Native Indian tribal ritual is called for.  Each of them must find his/her own distinctive “artifact” (from childhood) and bring it to resolution in a ritual.  It’s a bit Jungian in that each must discover his/her shadow and resolve the conflict, one of the stronger assets of the film.
     Beverly (Chastain) has issues with her father, Richie (Hader) has unresolved sexual identity issues, Bill (McAvoy) is carrying the weight of his brother Georgie’s death on his conscience, Ben (Ryan) is still suffering from his “fatness” and the rejection of his childhood flame, Eddie (Ransone) has Mommie issues, and Mike has to come to terms with prejudice against his race.
     Much of the movie covers each person’s struggle with the psychological issue significant for him/her, emphasizing the “losers” aspect (“and we will always be losers”) and the group sticking together to accomplish a noble goal.  I enjoyed these parts of the movie, directed by Andy Muschietti and written by Gary Dauberman based on a Stephen King novel. 
     Unfortunately, the film degenerates into a showcase for special effects, making it insufferable in its length (almost three hours), and completely unbelievable in plot.      Additional nonessential sequences were in the beginning about brutality against gays and toward the end in gay references, neither of which fit in with the main story. The filmmakers seem to be making a side point—which I sympathize with—but find the sequences “stuck into” the plot.
     It Chapter Two has A-list actors in the major roles, and they are superb in what they are given by the script, but their roles are limited.  Jessica Chastain has little to do other than react to the male actors. With her talent, she is wasted in this film.  James McAvoy’s character is a little more filled out, but fails to make him the forceful presence he should be.  Probably the standout is Bill Hader as Richie whose ambivalence and neurotic characteristics gives him more of a platform to exploit his range and ability.
     Most of all, Director Muschietti can be faulted for getting so caught up in special effects, he lost sight of the “meat” of Stephen King’s works having to do with friends sticking together, the drama in the growing-up years, and the influence of early traumas on adult life.  He addressed these, but then covered them up with showy special effects and extended final scenes with Pennywise to an almost unbearable length.

Pennywise and pound-foolish seems to fit this rendition of a Stephen King novel.

Grade:  C+                                    By Donna R. Copeland