Thursday, August 27, 2020


Jessie Buckley     Toni Collette     Jesse Plemons     David Thewlis

     Few could imagine this film; only someone like Charlie Kaufman, who is able to dream in the surreal and then apply it to real life.  The film starts out with an unnamed young woman who is wondering about her boyfriend while considering suicide at the same time, i.e., I’m thinking of ending things.  “I’m thinking of ending things” is ambiguous; is it about life, or simply the relationship?  
    Traveling in a snowstorm to meet the parents of her boyfriend, “the young woman” is reflecting on her relationship with him and musings about life itself.  She ponders his assets—being understanding of her and her career and knowledgeable about scientific facts in general.  She is clearly weighing in on the relationship and whether it is worthwhile.  And they have good discussions about various topics on their way to visit his parents, whom she has never met.  But there are morbid times, such as her poem, and you begin to realize that this is not to be an upbeat story.
     They arrive at Jake’s parents’ home, and sure enough, his mother is waving from an upstairs window.  But despite the welcome, it will be some time before they enter the house.  Jake (Plemons) wants to show her around the farm first, pointing out the dead lambs and pigs in the barn.    Did you think this would be normal?  Think again.
     They enter the house, and despite the welcoming wave, it will be some time before the parents finally appear.  A bountiful feast is set before them—even though Jake has been careful to point out that his mother had been ill, so not to expect too much—and then proceeds some crazy sequences that show not only the pathology of the family, but how Jake and even the woman herself begin to sound deranged.  
     Layer upon layer, the film delves into the psyches of the players.  Identities shift around, with the oft-repeated theme of the woman needing to get back home “by tonight.”  But Jake detours, even to a visit at his old high school, where a janitor is patiently mopping the hall floors.  (We have seen him before in scenes unexplained.)  The film continues in a surreal vein, requiring a metaphorical interpretation of everything that has gone before.
     The actress Jessie Buckley who plays the part of the young woman brings charisma to a story in which it is not always clear what is going on.  We’re in her mind the whole time, trying to figure out what is transpiring before our eyes.  She has the ability to convey so much in her facial expressions and verbal outpourings it’s easy for the viewer to identify with her and fully comprehend what she is going through.  Jesse Plemons is a good counterpart, but his character is not as appealing or sympathetic, and there are major shifts in his personality, especially toward the end of the story.  At first, he appears to be empathic, accommodating and agreeable, but in the end he is passive-aggressive and ineffectual.  Unfortunately, that works against an actor.  
     This is another one of Toni Collette’s (long overdue for an Oscar) superb acting feats (Muriel’s Wedding, Hereditary, Little Miss Sunshine and a host of others), in which she is able to look charming one minute and seriously deranged the next.  In this feature, as an older mother who is struggling with various ailments, her peals of laughter at unexpected times demonstrates her perfect sense of timing and effect.  
     If you like metaphorical puzzles that delve into the human psyche, this is a film for you.  It deals with the meaning of life, the vagaries of relationships, and the psychosocial phenomenon of aging.  If not, you may want to skip it and find something less disturbing to watch.

 Mind warps and existential worries typify this intriguing presentation.

Grade:  B                                    By Donna R. Copeland


Hilary Swank     Josh Charles     Talitha Eliana Bateman
Mark Ivanir     Vivian Wu     Ato Essandoh     Adam Irigoyen     Ray Panthaki

     Creators of this remarkable dramatic series on Netflix, Jessica Goldberg and Andrew Hinderaker, deliver such a vivid rendition of a space journey it is hard to believe it’s not real.  But what really elevates it are the just-as-realistic characters and interpersonal relationships and conflicts, both on the ship and at home on the ground, and even back in time.  It makes for high drama in space travel while anchoring the film in plausible, nuanced complexities in human relationships.  
     A diverse group of five astronauts are setting out on a mission to Mars; before them, there have been numerous attempts, but no ship has landed and allowed the crew to walk on the planet.  The Atlas’ commander is the first woman in the role, Emma Green (Swank), who will have to prove her worthiness to be in that position many times during the three years of the mission.  She leaves at home her devoted husband Matt (Charles) and daughter Alexis (Bateman).  It’s noteworthy that Matt was an astronaut in training with Emma, but got disqualified for medical reasons.  He continues to work at NASA headquarters, and will be significant in problem solving and direction of the project.  His support of his wife all during the flight is exemplary, and serves as a model for husbands/fathers who are married to wives in the limelight.
     In addition to Emma, other astronauts include: Russian Misha (Ivanir) who feels he’s better qualified to be Commander by virtue of his experience; Chinese Yu (Wu), a chemist who initially sides with Misha and is regarded as cold; Indian Ram (Panthaki), second in command and an early supporter of Emma; and Kwesi (Essandoh), the least experienced and most religious, having lost his parents in Ghana and then adopted by a Jewish family. 
     The number of themes in Away speak to the quality of the writing; they are all substantive and add to the excitement of the drama. Tensions are highlighted between the pulls of family and adventure/career; parenting issues that arise constantly between the parent onboard and the child at home, between the spouse at home and the child; and in the childhood backgrounds of all the astronauts.  Physical illness and disability crop up among those on the ship and those at home; emergencies in health and on ship are ongoing; and foolish decisions—even those made out of altruism—are called into question.  Death is focused on in a number of settings/circumstances in a way that is encouraging.  To the film’s credit, all of these result in insights that are inspiring and move the story along.
     Hilary Swank as the star comes into her own in continuing a long career in playing strong, inspiring women who can be respected and admired.  In this, she is head of a proven elite team who meets her mark, but is still shown to be compassionate, empathic, and a nurturing parent with a close bond to her daughter.  Josh Charles has an array of good roles and good acting to his credit, and perhaps this film will serve as one that plays to all his strengths in depicting a male character showing three-dimensionality in being an aggressive leader, a protector, and a nurturing father.  All the other main actors—Ivanir, Essandoh, Panthaki, and Wu—are perfect in fulfilling their roles.  Talitha Eliana Bateman as Matt’s and Emma’s daughter should be given a shout-out, along with her boyfriend played by Adam Irigoyen, and her caretaker during her parents’ absence, Melissa, played by Monique Gabriela Curnen.  
     This Netflix series has much more to do with human beings and their relationships than it does with space exploration, although that aspect is certainly in the forefront and just as exciting as those that have gone before.  

Take this journey into space and experience the thrills, chills, and utterly human conditions that move us all forward in life.

Grade: A                                    By Donna R. Copeland


     If you weren’t convinced before that Donald Trump presents a serious threat to our democracy, this documentary pulling in experts in psychology, psychiatry, counter-terrorism, history, current politics, and a Trump co-writer presents reasoned arguments about why we should be apprehensive and do everything we can to exercise our rights in the next election.  “Stand up and be counted” is its final exhortation.
     Dan Partland, a producer/writer/director, has assembled an impressive group of experts to weigh in on President Trump’s fitness for office.  You experience it like a drama unfolding as it illustrates its points, using the President’s and other autocrats’ rhetoric and actions to underline the historical precedents and contexts in which a leader of a country can come into power and wield it to his personal advantage.
     The documentary delves right into personality characteristics outlined by psychologists (John Gartner, Sheldon Soloman, Ramani Durvasula, Suzanne Lachmann), psychiatrists (Lance Dodes, Justin Frank), and an intelligence and foreign policy analyst (Malcolm Nance) that typify an autocratic personality: narcissism, paranoia, anti-social personality disorder, and sadism.  Using Trump’s own statements, they illustrate for the viewer how Trump exemplifies these (e.g., braggadocio, his conspiracy theories, his lies, his vicious tweets, his apparent lack of empathy or loyalty, and many more).
     Fox News’ “Fox and Friends” decry “diagnosing” Trump, citing the Goldwater Rule that stemmed from a suit brought by Presidential candidate Barry Goldwater against a publisher’s book outlining psychiatry’s assessment of him.  He won that suit, and since then, there has been a rule against diagnosing a person without a face-to-face interview. This is addressed in the film by saying the rule is outdated; in the digital world of today, we get an abundance of personal information about a public figure that allows us to learn so much more about him/her than we used to.  We can observe their actions, relationships, spoken thoughts and opinions first-hand as if we’re in the same room.
     There is a second issue not addressed in the documentary, which has to do with obtaining the consent of a public figure to be assessed by psychiatry and psychology. Although I don’t remember the experts actually using the word ‘diagnosis’, they do cite DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical manual professionals use for assessment) criteria for specific diagnosis, and state that Trump meets those criteria.
     Historians (Ruth Ben-Ghiat, Cheryl Koos) remind us of the strategies Hitler and Mussolini used to come into power; and point out that Steve Bannon, Trump’s advisor, studied Mussolini carefully, and per Ivana Trump, Donald kept a book of Hitler’s speeches by his bed.  The historians point out eerie parallels between the methods and times of Hitler and Mussolini and current events in our time, such as Mussolini coming in as a rabble-rouser to shake things up, dictators pardoning criminals, dictators coalescing social hatreds and anxieties to form a movement through rallies, propaganda, and promises to supporters, saying, “I’m the one who can do that for you.”  Something to fear:  charismatic leaders who bring out the tribal nature of their followers, in that no amount of reason will get them to change their minds.
     Perhaps the most chilling, part of this documentary is when Malcolm Nance, the expert in world affairs, makes the statement that Donald Trump does not have the temperament to be around nuclear systems, yet has the sole power to detonate weapons at his own discretion/impulse.  Since his inauguration, Trump has withdrawn from three nuclear disarmament treaties, and has resumed testing of intermediate-range missiles.

It’s in every American citizen’s interest to watch this film, which uses Donald Trump’s own words to assess his fitness for office.

Grade:  A                                    By Donna R. Copeland


Dev Patel     Hugh Laurie     Tilda Swinton     Darren Boyd     Gwendoline Christie     Ben Wishaw

     The clue in knowing what this film will be about is all the names ascribed to David Copperfield—Daisy, Trotwood, Doady, and so on.  It’s a Monty Python-like take on the long-revered novel by Charles Dickens, David Copperfield, which offers an account of his early life, albeit with a sense of humor, just as Armando Iannucci’s film, written by Simon Blackwell is—a spoof.  
     Disturbing scenes are shown of David’s birth, his mother’s remarriage to a tyrant after his father died, and all the various neer-do-wells that he encountered during his life—many of whom he thought could save him from ruin or at least whom he felt sympathetic toward and wanted to help.  In that journey, he encounters a man trying to escape his creditors, a pal at school, an aunt who had dismissed him at birth because he wasn’t a girl, a money manager of his aunt’s who has a lovely daughter but also has a problem with alcohol, and numerous people who immediately see him as the savior of the world.
     Dev Patel does an admirable job of depicting the lost soul that David is supposed to be and his honorable intentions—as naïve as they may be.  A continuing theme of good heartedness throughout is shown by his nursemaid, Peggoty (Daisy May Cooper).  Adding color are Tilda Swinton as Aunt Betsey and Hugh Laurie as Mr. Dick.  Uriah Heep (Wishaw) is shown to be at first an unctuous character, then something less than that. 
     You may remember writer/director Armando Iannucci’s The Death of Stalin (2017) and In the Loop (2009), both political satires that were well received, along with his television work on Veep.  With his co-writer Simon Blackwell, they make the Copperfield tale more contemporary, with incisive commentary about social issues.
     The film loosely reflects author Charles Dickens’ autobiographical novel, highlighting the characters surrounding David in caricature.  Peggoty, Uriah Heep, Mr. Dick, and Aunt Betsey are all cleverly portrayed, and bring lots of chuckles; whereas stepfather Murdstone (Boyd) and his sister (Christie) successfully embody meanness and self-interest.  Another departure from the novel, making it more contemporary is the cast, which is a diverse group drawn from various cultures.
     Personal History offers a fascinating couple of hours as a top-notch cast and updated script take us on a journey in which David Copperfield’s true grit and humor keep the story fast-moving and entertaining.   

Rather than an exact rendition of Charles Dickens’ famous novel, Iannucci’s film is spiced up with humor and social commentary that will keep you engaged.

Grade:  B                                    By Donna R. Copeland

Saturday, August 22, 2020


Ralph Fiennes

     This documentary illustrates the intensive amount of work and doggedness it takes to pursue the truth many years later after life-altering events in a country’s history.  It starts with Iran as a colony of the United Kingdom following the discovery of lodes of oil in the Persian soil, and Britain beginning to realize that it could benefit by getting a controlling interest in the company mining the oil.  
     Eventually, Mohammad Mossaddegh, a socialist, was prime minister of Iran, and his people were especially pleased with his integrity and fairness.  But when Iran began to realize that the British company was not treating it fairly (treating native Iranians like servants and giving only a small percentage of the profits to Iran, even siphoning off additional funds), Mossaddegh drove out the British and nationalized the company.
     What follows are years of intrigue, with failed and successful coups principally led by the UK and the US under different administrations, to gain control of a country and its oil.  It is an example of the role powerful countries can have in the leadership of other countries, primarily to pursue capitalist interests.  It points out that even if appeals to international courts like The Hague ruled in Iran’s favor,  the rulings could be circumvented.
     Documentarian and Iranian Taghi Amirani and his writer/editor Walter Murch, weave the story like a detective novel, hunting down and poring over hundreds of previously classified documents, interviews, and videos to chart the sequence of events and the actors involved in staging an international coup.   Ralph Fiennes provides footage of the British leader of the coup, because either by ill intent or misplacement, the videos of his interviews by a British filmmaker have disappeared.  Fiennes could read from a transcript, which Amirani had tracked down.

A thoroughly researched, detailed account of Iran’s history in the 1950’s. It speaks to current affairs that are likely transpiring in a similar fashion today.

Grade:  A                                    By Donna R. Copeland

Thursday, August 20, 2020


Ethan Hawke     Eve Hewson     Kyle MacLachlan     Lucy Walters     Jim Gaffigan     Josh Hamilton

     Tesla is remarkable, not only the man himself; but Michael Almereyda and his crew have created an innovative way to present a docudrama.  To wit:  The narration is provided by an important figure in Tesla’s life; scenes that seem not to have anything to do with one another are juxtaposed by switching back and forth between them; scenes are presented, and immediately after, the narrator says, “That didn’t actually happen”; figures suddenly appear in a scene with no introduction as to who they are; the dialog is spiked with profound conversation such as weighing the relative benefits of vindication versus love, capitalism versus idealism, and poetic statements like some of [Tesla’s] experiments were “like someone getting the ocean to sit for a portrait”; “Energy creates energy; it is by spending myself I become rich” [Sarah Bernhardt character]; and one of the last lines in the film spoken by the narrator referring to Tesla’s enigmatic personality and beliefs—“Maybe the world we live in is a dream that Tesla dreamed first.”  
     Almereyda wrote the script as well as directed the film, and was one of the producers.  I don’t know how much of a hand he had in editing the work (talented Kathryn Shubert is the named editor), but it was so creative/jumbled, that at times it was distracting. Cinematography (Sean Prince Williams), special effects (Drew Jiritano), and music (John Paesano) are all used well in the service of creating a beautiful, artful film, along with presenting a wealth of historical data.
     A highlight of the film is Ethan Hawke’s portrayal of the man Nikola Tesla. He is known for capturing the essence of eccentric characters (e.g., First Reformed), and here he presents the enigmatic, complex personality of a genius who clearly lived in his head and had little sense of the real, practical aspects of life (which is probably why he knew little about economics/money management, and was often cheated in his business).  A perfect contrast is made between him and Thomas Edison (MacLachlan), who was a master at getting people to do his bidding.
     Edison is played by Kyle MacLachlan in a performance that is probably one of his best to date.  Eve Hewson is the narrator who is portrayed as a woman clearly interested in Tesla, but who gave up on him when it became clear that he was not the “marrying type.” She is the daughter of J. P. Morgan, who financed some of Tesla’s experiments, but turned away when Tesla took too much time in realizing some of his dreams.  Hewson’s role (which she performs admirably) is influential in the story, partly because the actress is so attractive, but also because she makes astute observations about Tesla and relates some of the experiences in his early childhood that determined the man he would become.
     Tesla will appeal to those interested in scientific advances and to lovers of art films that venture into new modes of presentation.  This film frustrated me at times, but I ended up with admiration for its artistic value, along with being sympathetic with the Teslas of the world.

An innovative presentation of a combination of art and science in understanding a historical figure.

Grade:  A-                        By Donna R. Copeland


Charles Plummer     Molly Parker     Walter Goggins     Taylor Russell
Andy Garcia     Anna Sophia Robb     Devon Bostick     Lobo Sebastian

     This is an unusual treatment of a story about a teenager with schizophrenia.  Based on a novel by Julia Walton, Nick Naveda adapted it to a screenplay that focuses on the inner experience of someone with a major disorder.  It has many strong points, and a few aspects that I have questions about. 
     Adam (Plummer) and his mother (Parker) are grieving the absence of his father, but are adjusting reasonably well.  He shows his interest in and a flair for cooking, which compensates well for the emotional upset troubling both of them.  The immediate challenge, though, is in trying to find a way to treat his illness—an old story for those seeking an effective medicine for severe psychological problems.  His behavior has necessitated a change in schools, and this is about the same time a new drug has appeared on the market.  
His new school is Catholic, which shakes Adam up a bit (his family is not particularly religious), but his mother brushes that fact away; so, after making a mess and being bullied at his previous school, Adam is willing to give it a go. At the new school, a coincidental meeting in the boys room introduces Adam to Maya (Russell).  (I won’t go into it; this is one of the really fine scenes in the movie.)  
     Maya is the smartest girl in school and has supreme confidence to go with it. How does she have anything in common with Adam, and how could they possibly form a friendship?  That’s an underlying theme of the drama. Beyond Maya’s intelligence, she has a heart, and agrees to take on Adam at a reduced rate for tutorial lessons. 
     What follows is a commentary about the illness, its effects on other people close to the patient, and in turn the reverberating effect back on him.  
     Charlie Plummer’s performance as a troubled youth is entirely convincing, and his relationship with Molly Parker as his mother is likewise realistic.  Their interactions—as well as those with the rest of the cast, namely Taylor Russell as the tutor, Walter Goggins as the stepfather, Andy Garcia as Father Patrick, and the three hallucinated figures (Anna Sophia Robb, Devon Bastick, Lobo Sebastian) reflect the quality of Thor Freudenthal’s talent and work as the director.  Background music by Andrew Hollander is consistently entertaining and in sync with the plot.
     One of the film’s biggest strengths is in its central theme of addressing important life issues that people generally feel like they have to hide.  Another is the way special effects are used to project Adam’s hallucinations.  They give the viewer a good sense of why they’re so frightening and disruptive to him.
     My criticisms of the film stem from my background as a psychologist, and are related to treatment of schizophrenia.  Perhaps intentionally, screenwriter Nick Naveda de-emphasizes psychotherapy, which I believe is essential to successful treatment of major disorders.  What happens in the film may be a reflection of Julia Walton’s descriptions in her novel on which the script was based.  Curiously, Adam’s psychiatrist is never shown; instead, the story seems to imply that Adam’s few sessions with the priest were actually more influential in his adjustment than anything else.  Because of results from research studies, it is now generally accepted within the mental health field that a combination of psychotherapy and medicine is the most effective approach in helping those with severe illness.
     This point is related to my general contention that filmmakers should be sensitive to the ways in which they are portraying life situations and the need to consult with experts in the field so as not to misinform the audience.  
     I can recommend Words on Bathroom Walls as a fine work that would be helpful in demonstrating to the public challenges faced by those families in which severe mental problems are an issue.

Words on Bathroom Walls has an intriguing mix of seriousness and humor to get across its message about the importance of facing mental illness head-on.

Grade:  B                                    By Donna R. Copeland

Thursday, August 13, 2020


     Seventeen year-old boys being politicians and running for office—that’s something to see.  And you can see it too in Boys State, a documentary by Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss chronicling the 2018 proceedings in Austin, Texas.  Established years ago by the American Legion (one for girls, and one for boys in their junior year of high school), it’s meant to foster citizenship and leadership skills by having participants organized into two parties campaign and run for major offices, such as governor, state party leader, etc.  
     One of the challenges for the filmmakers was to meet the student attendees in 2017, and decide at that time which ones the film would highlight.  In other words, they had to predict which ones were likely to do well and be comfortable being filmed constantly for six days. That they chose so well (we hear most about five participants) is born out by the interest the film evokes in the individuals as well as the process, which was sometimes heated and controversial.  Although the directors’ predictions were impressive, they weren’t perfect; for instance, we should have heard more about one candidate than we did.
     Current issues come to the fore as the boys debate gun control, abortion, race, homosexuality, and other controversies we encounter in our adult world today. Distressing scenes are those in which there were calls for impeachment of a party chairman and secession of a state from the U.S.  
     Sometimes it seems clear the protagonists have opinions that have likely been passed down to them, but other times, they are clearly thinking through and reasoning out their own thoughts.  It’s rewarding for the adult viewer to see the values they have and their sincerity and modesty in presenting them.  (Gave me hope for the next generation.)  An example is a party leader talking about his counterpart, saying, “He’s a fantastic politician—but fantastic politician is not a compliment either.”  This related to some political machinations that seemed a bit unfair.
     McBaine and Moss took a very thoughtful approach in showing what happened in the six days, but they also recorded the boys’ reflections on events and their own participation in them, sometimes expressing regret about their reaction to something or someone or about what they had missed.  This is a substantive part of the documentary in filling out information and getting more insight into the characters.
     I had the privilege of listening to a Q&A after the film with the two directors and two of the participants, one a candidate for governor (Steven Garza) and the other a party leader (Ben Feldstein).  This is two years after Boys State and their first year of college.  Their responses clearly indicated that the experience was valuable for them in learning about politics and more about themselves.  I was especially impressed by the insight of one who indicated a change in himself stemming from his reflections on some of his behavior during campaigns.
     Boys State was a winner for documentary at the Sundance Film Festival and received Special Jury Recognition at the SXSW Film Festival, kudos well deserved by Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss.  

A highly interesting peek into politics and governance at the 2018 Boys State in Austin, Texas.

Grade:  A-                                    By Donna R. Copeland

Saturday, August 8, 2020


Edward “Nardi” White, Albert Shumake, Zambia Nkrumah

     In the midst of being submerged in reminders of all the atrocities and heartaches blacks have gone through for so many years, River City Drumbeat brings hope and a little comfort in seeing some of the heroes of that community trying to make things better by instilling fine values of caring, reverence, purpose, and accomplishment in young people who might be vulnerable because of their circumstances.  
     The documentary highlights the inimitable Edward “Nardie” White who recognized early on that there was too much emphasis on sports for young blacks, that some of them did not fit the mold and actually had artistic inclinations.  Noting that one of the first sounds an infant in the womb hears is the heartbeat of his mother, directors Anne Flatte and Marion Johnson introduce us to the work of White who, with his deceased wife Zambia Nkrumah, founded the drum corps in Louisville, Kentucky, over 30 years ago. They spent their lives guiding young people on a course that would be advantageous to them in the long run. The kids are given drum lessons that may start in early childhood and continue until they graduate high school.
     Always forward thinking, White began to train his successor some years before he planned to retire.  An original member of the corps, Albert Shumake, who is now a young father, has picked up White’s mantle with the same degree of commitment.  In watching them work with the drummers and hearing what the kids say about them, it becomes clear how kind they are and how the whole experience is therapeutic for the kids and their families.  Albert himself says that it saved him from the fate of many of his classmates who are now in prison or even dead.
     The film has footage of a few performance pieces, but mostly we get to observe the corps in operation and hear the touching stories of individuals. The primary message is loud and clear; that when a community moves in sync to better the lives of children at risk, it’s a success.

An uplifting account of a novel approach in improving the chances for a better life for thousands of children.

Grade:  A                                    By Donna R. Copeland

Thursday, August 6, 2020


     Presumably, this documentary is meant to and does serve as a warning to democracies around the world when democracy itself seems to be more and more fragile as time goes on, and more populist leaders become heads of increasingly authoritarian governments.  This is the story of how that process advanced in the Philippines with the 2016 election of Rodrigo Duterte for President, and his re-election for a second term in 2018.
     Most of the focus is on a journalist named Maria Ressa, the head of the publication Rappler, in her efforts to inform voters of Duterte’s stringent policies toward his single issue—drugs.  During the almost two-hour presentation, no other issue comes to the fore, giving me the impression that Duterte’s platform has been about nothing else except, of course, loyalty to him and his regime. He is called to task by journalists questioning his single-minded politics and its effects, to which he responds with insults and efforts to arrest and imprison them.  (He has no compunction about killing people on the street without giving them the benefit of a hearing.)
     Ressa gives numerous examples of how Duterte managed to gain his power, even though just before his first election he was considered a “wild card.”  One of his methods was to capture the media in a way that separated out disinformation media from traditional news reporting that has the aim of objectivity and facts.  Duterte used social media to distort the news (sometimes through fake accounts with the ability to fan out to millions of other accounts), and using a sensational pop star—Mocha Uson with millions of followers—to support him with nationalist-type messages advocating undivided loyalty to leaders in power.  Ressa calls these tactics the “weaponization of the internet”, which includes the use of algorithms in social media like Facebook that do not distinguish fact from fiction—all of which can undermine democracy.
     Duterte’s crudeness is shown by quoted statements such as, “If you end up dead, it’s your fault” (spoken to media).  In response to Ressa’s charge that he is supposed to be the protector of the constitution and the rule of law, his response is, “Because of the rule of law, there must be fear.”  This is an example of how he can distort the question by replying to another issue.
     A Thousand Cuts is basically a good documentary in getting the facts across; however, I do have a problem with Ramona S. Diaz’ direction and the other filmmakers involved.  Namely, they rushed through the production with too many items on the screen at the same time (e.g., billboards, footnotes) as the primary scene.  There is no way one could read and process all the information for the brief period it was on.  Even the single frames with written information didn’t stay on long enough. 
     In all, though, A Thousand Cuts does show how thousands of cuts to a democracy can kill it.  If we value our democracy, we should all be fearful.  Maria Ressa says we are in a time of existential crisis, and sadly I think she may be right.  

This film is a wake-up call to many democracies of today.

Grade:  B                                    By Donna R. Copeland


Liam Neeson     Michael Richardson    Lindsay Duncan

     Any movie with Italy in the title attracts me instantly because of the wonderful trips I’ve had there with incredulous landscapes, welcoming natives, and cultural milieu.  And this film does not disappoint in that sense.  The setting is mostly in Tuscany, among the rolling hills, luscious vegetation, and camaraderie of the Italians.   Provocatively, the story begins in a British art gallery where the owners are splitting up.  (Actually, the husband is being dumped by the wife whose family owns the gallery.)
     That is the underlying theme to begin with, but the crux of the story is about the young man—the husband above—who in desperation looks up his estranged father with the hope of selling a seldom-used property in Italy so he can buy the gallery in New York.
     Robert (Neeson) is surprised to hear from his son Jack (Richardson), but gamely travels to the property in Italy—actually a small estate—with the plan to sell it. As is often the case in old houses, memories abound, and it is there we get the back-stories of Jack and Robert. (Note that these are two men who are typically reticent, and their accounts are slow in coming.)  But in the meantime, the viewer can experience the richness of the Italian landscape and people.
     The story of the two men includes the sudden death of the older man’s wife and the younger man’s mother.  After that, the father tries to protect his son from painful memories and in so doing unwittingly closes off not only his relationship with his son, but also the child with his mother.  The beauty of the plot (although rather expected) is that in renovating the house, the two men restore their connection.
     Liam Neeson as the father is exemplary as always, and Michael Richardson fits the role as son extremely well.  Lindsay Duncan as the real estate agent brings genuine comic relief, and Valeria Bilello as the young restaurateur add color and interest to the plot.
     Made in Italy is a pleasure to watch, certainly for those who have been to Italy, but likely also for those with aspirations to visit.  I would recommend it as a pleasant evening entertainment.

Made in Italy will take you there for a pleasant visit.

Grade:  C+                                    Donna R. Copeland


     This documentary offers a lesson in why not to get involved in conducting business in a culture one doesn’t fully understand.  The particular men who got involved in the venture can be forgiven, in that their dealings with the Russians occurred at a turbulent time in history—the fall of the Soviet Union, the rise of Yeltsin, Putin, and ambitious Russian oligarchs out to exploit this situation and anything else they could, but it illustrates as well the optimism with which Americans have so often ventured into other cultures with high hopes.
     In the early 1990’s, Russia’s premier hockey team, the Red Army, began looking for a partner to boost the team’s standing in the world.  Their popularity was declining, and audiences were waning. At the time, Howard Baldwin was the owner and chairman of the Pittsburgh Penguins, and he and Tom Ruta, a former owner, got the bright idea of making a coalition with the Russian team and came up with the idea of the “Red Penguins.”  
     They got a buy-in from the Red Army coach, Viktor Tikhonov, and manager Valery Gushin, and launched what they hoped would be a viable partnership with the ultimate goal of bringing capitalism to Russia as it was transitioning from Communist Soviet Union, where Mikhail Gorbachev had come into power, into a potential ally of the U.S.  As Americans, Baldwin and Ruta figured that the best person to set this up would be a PR person by the name of Stephen Warshaw.  
     Warshaw went in with all tools blasting, and it seemed at first that the Russians were just as susceptible to American marketing as we are.  Warshaw seemed to have no limits—e.g., strippers for cheerleaders, live bears serving beer, even to children.  The arena began filling up again, fans abounded with great enthusiasm, and the partners were super excited about the interest of Disney buying into the partnership.  
     But alas. The country was in great turmoil—as one Russian businessman (oligarch) commented, Russians were simply unprepared for capitalism (floods of cash) and democracy.  And when red flags began to appear in the form of bookkeeping irregularities and huge political upheaval in the country itself (Boris Yeltsin replaces Gorbachev, then Vladimir Putin appears), Baldwin and Ruta were slow to catch on.
     Gabe Polsky’s (writer, director), documentary proceeds like a drama, with factual information spiced up with intrigue and suspense.  The exploits of Warshaw and his far-out ideas and derring-do add much to this, along with the humor he introduces.  
     I am not a sports fan, and although this is about hockey teams, clips from actual games are minimal.  On the upside, I thoroughly got into hearing about this foray into Russia by hopeful—and rather naïve--Americans that held so much promise, although ended up with such heartbreak.  It’s a lesson in business, as well as being educational and entertaining.

A documentary about hockey teams that is more about culture and business than sports.

Grade:  A-                                    By Donna R. Copeland