Thursday, December 30, 2021

MEMORIA

 Tilda Swinton     Jeanne Balibar     Elkin Diaz     Juan Pablo Urrego     Daniel Gimenez Cacho


            The biography of writer/director of Memoria, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, gives clues as to what his films will be about.  Born in Thailand (and still residing there) as the son of two doctors, he studied at the School of Art Institute of Chicago, worked as an architect and multimedia artist, and is now known as a creator of experimental and independent films.  He is a favorite of the Cannes crowd, having won the Palm d’Or for Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010) and receiving nominations or wins at Cannes for five other films since 2002. 

            Reflective of his Thai background, he believes ghosts and spirits are all around us and communicate with us if we stop and listen.  In an interview by Hannah Ellis-Petersen of the Guardian, Weerasethakul says, “Even though I approach the world scientifically, I cannot shake off the feeling of having spirits around…I feel that when I’m with the green landscape I can always communicate with the trees, with the memory of the jungle and also with myself” [https://www.theguardian.com/film/2018/oct/24/the-man-with-the-exploding-head-the-director-inspired-by-his-medical-condition] Elements like these are inserted into the Memoria script in which main character Jessica (winningly played by Swinton), a Scotswoman living in Colombia with a flower business, encounters strange events when she goes to visit her sister Agnes (Balibar), an anthropologist living nearby.  

            First, Jessica is awakened by a loud boom in the middle of the night just before she goes to visit Agnes who is in the hospital.  This has such a profound effect on her, she seeks out a specialist in sound effects, Hernan (Urrego), and works with him to reproduce the sound in her memory.  

            This seems to create something of a dream-like state in her as she wanders through the city with long periods of looking at architecture, listening to sounds, and periodically hearing the same loud boom she heard earlier.  One does get the impression it is trying to communicate with her, and she may find the answer in the countryside when she is beside a babbling brook striking an odd pose when someone says, “Are you all right?”  This is an older Hernan (Diaz) who lives happily isolated from others and has the kind of wisdom Jessica is seeking.   

            Their encounter is laden with meaning and the intertwining of their memories of childhood.  This Hernan is so different from the younger Hernan excited by new things, playing in a punk rock band, and being an expert in sound effects.  Older Hernan is steadfast in his commitment to ancient ways of thinking, firmly believes he can hear stories from the rocks and other natural elements around him.  He and Jessica reminisce

about their childhood and infancy and find that their memories mesh together in mysterious ways.

            The viewer needs to be prepared for long takes when Weerasethakul and his protagonists contemplate architecture, landscape, physical wellbeing, and memories.  Some may find it entirely too slow, but those interested in philosophy and mystery and their fascinations will find this a beautiful, atmospheric film.

            It seems to me that Jessica’s visits with Agnes in the hospital and her interactions with her and her husband Juan (Cacho) are extraneous and only props for Jessica’s story to play out.  I can understand the director’s wanting to prolong takes of architecture and hospitals because of his background and interest; however, I think these could easily be shortened in the interest of a more cohesive film.

 

Journey into the realm of the surreal when memories of two entirely different people from different backgrounds intertwine.

 

Grade:  B                              By Donna R. Copeland

THE LOST DAUGHTER

 Olivia Colman     Dakota Johnson     Peter Skarsgaard     Jessie Buckley

Paul Mescal     Ed Harris


            We meet Leda (Colman) as she is arriving in a small coastal town in southern Italy for a vacation.  We find out later that her two daughters have gone to live with their father, and as a writer and English professor, she is looking forward to some quiet time to write.  But she does not anticipate getting involved with other people on holiday and her own festering conflicts long unresolved.

            On the noisy beach, Leda begins to observe families.  Although a number of people approach her with friendliness—Will (Mescal) the resort attendant, Lyle (Harris), and various others—she responds warmly but seems to keep them at a distance.  She becomes intrigued in observing a mother (Nina, played by Johnson) and her daughter Bianca, being reminded of her own ambivalence in mothering her children.  And Bianca seems to be annoying to Leda at first, but when the child goes missing, it is Leda who finds her and returns her to her parents.

            There are many flashbacks to Leda’s younger years when she was married and a young mother.  A proven actress Jessie Buckley captures the personality of the younger Leda, and we see her in sometimes playful and always creative, sometimes trying, interludes where her ambivalence about the responsibilities of motherhood is obvious.  But these seemingly trifling moments become significant factors later on when she acts on her impulses to develop a relationship with a Professor Hardy (Skarsgaard) who praises her work in glowing terms.

            This is Maggie Gyllenhaal’s debut in directing a feature film, and she is likely to receive commendations for her work.  The story line is finely modulated, the cast well chosen, and the subject of the film in terms of women managing family and career is topical.   But the emphasis on the ambivalence of motherhood is rather unusual in films, especially one done with a sympathetic attitude.  As we come to know Leda and develop some understanding of why she does what she does, her actions become more understandable.

            The pairing of the younger Leda actress Jessie Buckley with the older Leda, Olivia Colman, is one of the strong points of the film.  Buckley shows herself able to be paired with the experienced and renowned actress Colman.  Also, the film touches on many issues affecting women—and specifically actresses—today. 

 

A slightly disturbing take on an outwardly successful woman’s past and present experiences that may or may not make her understandable in today’s light.

 

Grade:  B                              By Donna R. Copeland

CYRANO

 Peter Dinklage     Helen Bennett     Kelvin Harrison, Jr.     Ben Mendelsohn


            Cyrano is a musical in which a princess, Roxanne (Bennett), is pining for love, to which her lady in waiting argues that “Love doesn’t last; what lasts is compromise and sacrifice.”  (She means that Roxanne should be looking out for her economic welfare over love considerations), which goes right over the beautiful young woman’s head.  Roxanne (Bennett) sings back that she never wants to marry unless she can find someone to love.  Her current suitor, the Duke De Guiche (Mendelsohn) could indeed be her future, but Roxanne loathes him, and only sees him for what she can get from him (e.g., theater tickets).

            What Roxanne doesn’t know is that her friend since childhood, Cyrano (Dinklage), has always loved her, but thinks that she will simply laugh at him for thinking she could fall in love with such a short man.  The story develops from there, such that the man Roxanne is attracted to (from just a glance) is Christian (Harrison), a handsome guard under Cyrano’s command.  The two exchange one glance from afar and both literally fall in love at first sight (or so it seems).

            When Roxanne confesses to her friend Cyrano her love for Christian, who has just been recruited into the guard, she begs Cyrano to mentor and protect her love.  Since he cannot deny Roxanne anything, he promises to do so, which puts him into a serious bind between his own interest and what he has promised.  This bind leads to his writing love letters for Christian to send as his own to Roxanne.

            It was serendipity that scheduled Houston critics to see Spielberg’s West Side Story the night before Cyrano, giving us the opportunity to contrast the two love stories.  And what a difference; where West Side Story, despite its performance value (and my usual admiration for Spielberg), seemed to me to be a tiresome, dated, story of machismo, Joe Wright’s Cyrano makes an elegiac tribute to a man in an older period piece (17th Century), for whom compromise and sacrifice become very real to him, despite his acclaimed swordsmanship.

            Sprinkled throughout the drama are bits of humor (Cyrano’s claim that “Halloween is my favorite holiday” after he has been called a freak, statements like “Her imperfections are perfect”), insightful observations (a narcissistic young woman singing, “I need more”), the non-glorification of fighting—even in the case of war), and demonstrations of true love (seen in Cyrano’s letters, soldiers’ letters home, and the final scene).

            Screenwriter Erica Schmidt is the one who took a different view of Cyrano the character by focusing not on his nose, but making him a dwarf mocked for his stature, and one who believes no woman could love him as he is.  (There is tenderness in this concept in that Schmidt is married to Dinklage, and she wrote the part specifically for him.)

            Peter Dinklage has long been one of my favorite actors, and it is high time he gets an Academy award for his performance as lead in a major motion picture.  He has numerous other awards to count, but I think it’s time his nominations and awards for “Most Promising Actor” in The Station Agent (2004) and supporting actor for Game of Thrones and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri  be followed up with more than a nod from the Academy—for his acting.  Admittedly, singing is not his strong suit, but his resonant bass still pleases.

            Joe Wright’s previous films (e.g., Pride and Prejudice, Atonement, Darkest Hour) are testament to his talent in the art and craft of filmmaking.  Elements contributing to his success in Cyrano include Aaron and Bryce Dessner’s music, Seamus McGarvey’s cinematography, and Sarah Greenwood’s production design, some of whom have collaborated with Wright on other projects.

 

Cyrano, with the swagger and expert swordplay of Tyrion (Dinklage) in Game of Thrones has a much bigger heart and compassion to go with his more macho qualities.  He is a truly admirable soldier in this production, but as skilled in the art of language as he is in wielding a sword.

 

Grade:  A                              By Donna R. Copeland

Saturday, December 25, 2021

BEST OF 2021

  • Dune – (Denis Villeneuve). Interplanetary competitions in an epochal battle for the good.

  • The Power of the Dog – UK (Jane Campion). A new wife and son must adapt to ranch life.

  • Belfast – UK (Kenneth Branagh). Irish families trapped in the violence of the “Troubles.”

  • King Richard – (Reinaldo Marcus Green). Venus and Serena Williams coached by their father.

  • Cyrano – (Joe Wright). A musical about a bond that develops between an unlikely couple.

  • Licorice Pizza - UK (Paul Thomas Anderson). An unusual love story with charm and wit.

  • Parallel Mothers – Spain (Pedro Almodovar). About two unwed mothers giving birth.

  • Don’t Look Up – (Adam McKay). A comet racing toward earth creates havoc in the U.S.

  • Drive My Car – Japan (Ryusuke Hamaguchi). An actor/director must manage personal events.

  • Riders of Justice – Denmark (Anders Thomas Jensen). A madcap drama and a thriller.

Thursday, December 23, 2021

THE TENDER BAR

 Ben Affleck     Tye Sheridan     Christopher Lloyd     Lili Rabe     Daniel Ranieri     Brianna Middleton

            The bar featured in the story is called Dickens; presumably, the one in this film called The Tender Barrefers to the tender care a fatherless boy had as he hung out there with his Uncle Charlie (Affleck), the bartender and his pals, an assortment of father figures who turned out to be immensely helpful to him.  The film is based on a memoir by J. R. Moehringer about his own growing up years.  

            J.R. (Ranieri as the younger, Sheridan as the older) is an appealing kid, open and eager to learn everything he can about life from the real world as well as from books.  His father only appears occasionally as an obnoxious man, but his mother has high aspirations for him, planning on his eventually attending Harvard or Yale.  Her father (Lloyd) is irascible in his old age but has an intellectual background and his Uncle Charlie (Affleck) is clearly very bright, even though he works as a bartender.  Both men are an interesting mix of reverence and irreverence toward humanity, education, and achievement.  

            J.R. soaks all this up, receiving constant axioms from Uncle Charlie on how to be a man.  But he always treats J.R. with respect and generosity.  You get the impression he is as glad to have a son-figure as to be a father-figure to J.R.  He and his bar buddies couldn’t be more pleased when J.R. is indeed accepted to be a student at Yale University.

            A love interest for J.R. is someone he falls deeply for at Yale, Sidney (Middleton), an attractive, rather mysterious, and evanescent young woman, who seems to regard him with some degree of bemusement, but their relationship lasts during the college years.

            After graduation, J.R. comes to a crossroads in his life when he has to commit to his lifelong dream of being a writer.  It’s at this time he realizes it’s a calling.

            The Tender Bar is a low-key account of a middle-class child coming of age at a time when any number of paths are open to him.  It’s interesting to see the influences around him, the formative events in his life, and how personal relationships have shaped him.

            Ben Affleck seems to me to be the main star here, with his quirky, friendly style that captures the bartender role.  Although Tye Sheridan, as good an actor as he is, is miscast for this particular role.  Ranieri as the engaging younger character seems to fit perfectly.  George Clooney’s directing history is far less illustrious than his acting career.  He had a good run with Good Night, and Good Luck (2005), but his attempts since then, except for The Ides of March have not been stellar.  

            Part of the misjudgment here may lie in the script and/or the choice of story.  It wouldn’t have to be high drama, but I found myself wanting more than the prosaic.  No character is especially complex, and most of the story is expected.  Even the title could have been improved by calling it The Dickens.

 

Despite The Tender Bar’s fine cast, this story ends up being rather prosaic.

 

Grade:  C                              By Donna R. Copeland


THE KING'S MAN

 Ralph Fiennes     Gemma Arterton     Rhys Ifans     Djimon Hounsou     Tom Hollander

Matthew Goode     Harris Dickinson     Charles Dance     Daniel Bruhl



This third Kingsman movie in the series is to serve as a prequel to the first two:  Kingsman:  The Secret Service (2014) and Kingsman:  The Golden Circle (2017).  It’s all about how a private secret service got formed in Great Britain and who was behind it.  The Kingsman films are based on a comic book series by Mark Millar and David Gibbons.  The first film, was more positively received than the second. 

In this current version, the title The King’s Man implies something different from the previous two films.  The King’s Man (presumably referring to the duke of Oxford (Fiennes), is someone with meritorious service having a change of heart after a number of successful battles, and now wanting to work toward peace as opposed to proving his manhood (over and over) by military feats.  It was his wife’s dying wish that he would not lead their son Conrad into battle.  After meritorious military service, he quite readily accedes to her and promises that Conrad will never go to war.

This promise is the crux of the film in that as the years go by and Conrad (Dickinson) grows up admiring his father’s service, he wants to follow in his footsteps.  What ensues is an account of times when the father stands in his way and other times when Conrad insists on making his own choices.  

The film is good (and humorous) in showing political intrigue (The Kaiser of Germany, Nicholas, Tsar of Russia, and King George—all descendants of Queen Victoria—comprising a triple competition) and the uncertainty of outcomes in both dramatic and personal costs.  Ralph Fiennes’ performance is the best part of the film.

The many sword plays and cliff-side terrors can be exciting, but because of their length, tend to make the viewer lose focus.  Some are remarkably choreographed—particularly the ones showing sword fights between whirling dervishes on tabletops—which provide entertainment in themselves.

King’s Man has its appeal in the quality of the production and the actors, but the film sags from the writers’ not apparently having a clear vision of what they wanted to express.  When the fights seem to go on interminably, it seems like the director Matthew Vaughn has gotten distracted by the action and doesn’t realize he needs to move on. 

 

Swashbuckling during the outbreak of WWI in a mix of tongue-in-cheek humor, serious aggression, and emotional upset .

 

Grade:  C                              By Donna R. Copeland

THE TRAGEDY OF MACBETH

 Denzel Washington     Frances McDormand     Corey Hawkins     

Brendan Gleeson     Bertie Carvel     Harry Melling     Kathryn Hunter


            It’s somewhat curious to me that the famed director Joel Coen (usually with his brother Ethan, but not this time) would choose to film a Shakespeare play.  We don’t seem to be in the right climate for that now, but I read that his wife Frances McDormand had for some time wanted him to direct the Macbeth play.  When he finally decided to do it, it was to make a film of it, although it was important to him to maintain a sense of the play.

            The two lead actors McDormand (Macbeth’s wife) and Denzel Washington (Macbeth) have both had experience acting in Shakespearean plays, and their renditions of the cadence and verse of the familiar lines appear natural and authentic.  Their performances here are award-worthy.  Roles played by the supporting actors (Corey Hawkins, Brendan Gleeson Harry Melling, and Bertie Carvel) are strong as well.  The cast and the special effects are the most appealing aspects of the film, a testament to Joel Coen’s direction and production abilities.

            The film is black and white, contributing to the intended qualities of starkness and eeriness.  When the witches—especially Hecate (Kathryn Hunter)—foretell the future, special effects add emphasis most effectively.  Hunter is such a wonder in contorting her body into seemingly impossible positions, it almost distracts from her prophesies.  But clearly Macbeth remains captivated and convinced that she is telling the truth, that he will one day be king of Scotland.  When he is in doubt, he evokes these spirits to reassure him, although of course he does not fully comprehend what the prophecies actually say.

Essential to the production was Stefan Dechant’s production design.  He and cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel created dark, foggy scenes outside and indoors that reflected the required mysteriousness and drama in the plot.  Likewise, Carter Burwell’s musical score with a mix of medieval and modern music sounds fit with all the different moods and auras of the film.

I was not excited to see a Shakespearean drama, but as I started watching and getting into TheTragedy of Macbeth, I began to be engrossed.  Surprising were the little thrills I got when some familiar quote appeared, and I realized that although I recognized them as Shakespeare, I had forgotten they came from this particular play.  Seeing them in context was especially pleasing.  I was also charmed by the language at times, such as “Let us not be dainty of leave taking” when two actors realize they need to disappear post-haste.

 

Shakespeare is not to everyone’s taste, but for those who still relish it, this impressive production of The Tragedy of Macbeth will surely please.

 

Grade:  A                              By Donna R. Copeland

LICORICE PIZZA

 Bradley Cooper     Alana Haim     Maya Rudolph     Skyler Gisondo     Sean Penn

John C. Reilly     Tom Waits     Bennie Safdie     Cooper Hossman

 

          This is a really fine production from script to actors, music, cinematography, and production design.  The dialog is entertaining and smartly—but not too smartly—crafted.  Everyone converses in ways people normally talk to one another without artifice, which sometimes happens with clever scriptwriters.  This was penned by its director Paul Thomas Anderson and reflects his usual number of characters’ insights while still being entertaining and funny.  

            Two quirky characters meet when Gary (Hoffman) is still in high school.  She is 25 year-old Alana (Haim), who deflects his flirtatious advances in no uncertain terms.  She points out that it would be illegal for her to accept them.  But finally being convinced that Gary has already made his mark as a known actor and businessman she finally gives in to his persistence and agrees to be friends.  Gary’s ace in the hole—a sense for and success in finding business opportunities—is not usually a come-on for young women, but Alana has enough untapped talent in the art it is attractive to her.  She can’t resist joining in on his impromptu endeavors, making a contribution that shows, to everyone’s surprise, acumen.  She is the youngest of three sisters in a Jewish family that also looks upon her with bemusement.

            So the film does the wacky back-and-forth switches common in first love, the back-and-forth usually being stimulated by sparks of jealousy on one side or the other.  Entertaining bits that get into numerous sub-plots are their business ventures: “Soggy Bottom Waterbeds” morphing into “Bernie’s Waterbeds”, “Pacific Waterbeds”, “Fat Bernie’s Pinball Palace”, and even “Fat Bernie’s Environmental Living.”  Throughout, Alana frequently calls Gary a dumb d…….it, thinking he will go away…but not with somebody else, of course, we realize, before she does.

          Other enjoyable/fun moments in Licorice Pizza are the name-dropping (Barbra Streisand), the cameos (Bradley Cooper, Sean Penn, Tom Waits, Maya Rudolph, Skyler Gisondo), the playful camera action through windows and super-imposed reflections, and musical accompaniments to particular scenes.  Bradley Cooper’s Jon Peters as an over-the-top self-entitled film star competes with Jared Leto’s Paolo Gucci in House of Gucciin conveying a completely different persona then those we’ve come to associate with them.  

        Cooper Hoffman brings the star quality of his father, the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, into his character as a charismatic figure able to charm and convince others of his abilities.  Alana Haim winningly demonstrates her talent in inhabiting a character and bringing it to life.  I especially like the way Alana is portrayed; her attraction to men is primarily about her maturity and business sense, rather than her physical attractiveness. In fact, she has few of the qualities usually given to “beautiful”, but more than one man is grateful to her for her good sense.  (How long will it be before filmmakers highlight that aspect of women over their physical appearance?)

            Much could/will be made of Gary’s age (15 going on 16) in this film, but because of the way the characters are presented (he much more “worldly” than she, and his pursuing her rather than the other way around) justifies it from my point of view.  So many relationships with the male much older than the female don’t seem to give people much pause. 

A new kind of “first love”, where the characters are quirky and don’t fit the usual mold.  A superb production.

Grade:  A                              By Donna R. Copeland


Thursday, December 16, 2021

SPIDER-MAN: NO WAY HOME

 Tom Holland     Zendaya     Benedict Cumberbatch     Jon Favreau     Marisa Tomei

Jacob Batalon     Alfred Molina     Willem Dafoe     J. K. Simmons     Jamie Foxx



This edition is most remarkable for cleverly integrating past Spider-Man movies and their characters into Spider-Man:  No Way Home.  If a viewer has not seen or can’t remember the past versions, it is easy enough to follow the plot.  However, a much richer experience will be had by those who have kept up with all the versions through the years and recognize all the past characters referenced and the actors who play them.  

The story opens with the chaos caused when Spider-Man’s identity is revealed to be Peter Parker (Holland).  The star broadcaster J. Jonah James (Simmons) at the Daily Fix has seen to that.  The item surfaced when the criminal illusionist Mysterio in his dying breath revealed the identity of Spider-Man, who had just killed him in the previous Spider-Man:  Far From Home (2019).  But now, Mysterio is being made a hero, and Spider-Man  as the presumed villain has to deal with the public rancor that ensues, along with monsters that are suddenly showing up mysteriously on earth.

Peter has sought the help of Dr. Strange (Cumberbatch), who condescendingly agrees to help, but is super-annoyed when Peter keeps interrupting the spell with conditions he thinks of while the spell is being produced.  This has consequences, the extent of which Peter only realizes later, making this something of a coming-of-age story.  It’s going to come home to Peter that gifts he has received come with responsibilities, and the process of learning that is repeated throughout this story line. 

Production of this version of Spider-Man directed by John Watts is engaging in its special effects and script by Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers, based on the Marvel comic by Stan Lee and Steve Ditka.  The cast realizes the action by numerous talented actors:  Tom Holland, Zendaya, Benedict Cumberbatch, Marisa Tomei, Alfred Molina, Willem Dafoe, Jamie Foxx, J. K. Simmons, and others.  All are top-notch.  

Like many films nowadays, judicious editing could have improved the production and reduced it a half-hour to a two-hour limit.  The story bogs down in the middle when one super-human sequence follows another, with technological aspects of filming taking precedence over story and characters.  I’m compelled to reiterate my usual irritation with these movies inevitably ending with a fist fight between two characters followed by tender, emotional scenes meant to pull on the heartstrings.  I like the latter, but why the fist fights when the characters have access to all kinds of technological tools?

 

With such a clever script, this is probably a true gem for Spider-Man and Marvel Comics fans.  For others, it can be mostly entertaining, except for the length.

 

Grade:  B                              By Donna R. Copeland

SWAN SONG

 Mahershala Ali     Naomie Harris     Glenn Close     

Awkwafina     Adam Beach     Lee Shorten



            This bit of sci-fi poses some interesting moral and ethical questions about the extent to which one could/should make a valiant attempt to spare his family grief and suffering.  Cameron’s (Ali) wife Poppy (Harris)—normally a vivacious, perky kind of woman—had undergone a severe reaction when her twin brother was killed, and if he could protect her from the potential for that to happen a second time, he is seriously considering participating in a medical experiment as a solution.

            Cameron, a commercial artist given to presenting his spontaneous drawings of those he meets to them, has been experiencing the effects of a brain disorder for some time, but hasn’t had the courage to tell Poppy.  They have a young son and another child on the way, comprising a most happy family.  When his disease worsens, Cameron is presented with a most unusual option.

            Arralabs is experimenting in making molecular copies of terminally ill patients—not just their bodies and physical appearance but all their memories from the time they were born, as well as their unconscious mind—as a way of preserving family relationships and avoiding grief after a major loss.  It boggles the mind to think about, and as you see how the process works there is definitely an eeriness about it.  You see the clone being developed in the lab, and indeed he looks exactly like Cameron.  

            The process goes on for a number of weeks for a full transition to be completed, so Cameron has some time to prepare—and even back out—although after a certain point dropping out won’t be possible.  The clone’s memories of the transformation will be erased, after which, he will be Cameron.  Cameron must then bear his own fate alone, albeit on Arralabs’ extensive well-kept, scenic grounds in the Pacific northwest.  

            Dr. Scott (Close, embodying the ideal doctor—warm, direct, sympathetic, informative) has given Cameron a detailed description of what to expect and the terms of the contract.   Whenever he has doubts, she informs him of his options, and although she makes it clear all of this is his own choice, she encourages him to stick with the plan for the sake of his family.

            Swan Song, written and directed by Benjamin Cleary, skillfully and realistically portrays the kinds of dilemmas and considerations that one would encounter in considering such a proposal at this.  He depicts research hospitals and staff as caring and informative—just as one would hope to—and does—find in good research centers.  And he shows (thoughtfully enacted by Ali) the degree of ambivalence the research subject will undergo in making such a momentous decision.  The Lab has arranged for Cameron to see his clone interacting with his family at home, so he must deal with all the emotions that brings up for him.

            As a futuristic solution to the problem of loss and grief, I appreciate this slant on how things could be at some point in the future.  The world is changing at a rapid pace, so it is within the realm of possibilities that such a system could be an option.  (I’m avoiding, of course, how much it would cost and who would pay for it.)

            

This adventure into the sci-fi world of human replication offers an intriguing new idea for managing loss and grief.

 

Grade:  B                              By Donna R. Copeland

Wednesday, December 15, 2021

NIGHTMARE ALLEY

Rooney Mara     Bradley Cooper     Cate Blanchett     Willem Dafoe     Mary Steenburgen

Toni Collette     Ron Perlman     Tim Blake Nelson     Richard Jenkins     David Strathairn

            It’s a nightmare all right.  It starts out with arson by a shady-looking character, and we follow him as he wanders around and ends up at a circus, where he manages to get hired.  Stan Carlisle (Cooper) is smart and a bit of a charmer, and quickly makes friends with the showrunner (Dafoe) and the fortune teller Pete (Strathairn) and his roommate Zeena (Collette), a reader of Tarot cards.  When he learns fast from Pete and begins to offer tips on improving Molly’s (Mara) electrical act, it becomes clear that he has worked in the circus before, and that he doesn’t mind conning people.

            But like all good sociopaths, he draws viewers into his web and we become fascinated with/question more and more of his actions.  Del Toro’s mastery in weaving stories that develop slowly across time, sustain glued-to-the-screen interest with spikes of anxiety and tension is clearly working in Nightmare Alley.  All the characters have potential to be a story unto themselves, but somehow Del Toro and his team integrate all of them into a coherent whole.  He co-wrote the screenplay with Kim Morgan and William Lindsay Graham who wrote the novel on which it is based.

            The filmmakers make the most of their cast headed up by Bradley Cooper who embodies a corrupt phoenix that keeps rising after destruction.  Conning is his game, and it is only the goons [Molly’s protector Bruno (Perlman), a wealthy stooge’s bodyguard, and a psychologist] who recognize his threat.  This role could be a high mark in his career.  Cate Blanchett as a psychologist caught up in his web is icily intriguing as a gorgeous blonde fellow schemer, and as always cinches her role, which I will take issue with below (the role; not the actress).  Rooney Mara pulls off a rather na├»ve ingenue who eventually picks up on the straits she is in, in an entirely convincing way.  Toni Collette, David Strathairn, and Richard Jenkins are highlights in their portrayals of quirky characters who gradually become endearing in a strange way.

            I found the production to be very entertaining and living up to the filmmakers’ reputation for making a good horror movie that gets into the psychology of human beings and all the myriad of characters that can and do emerge.  Speaking of psychology, I hope that viewers realize that the psychologist portrayed here committed any number of infractions that would revoke her license, let alone try her for crimes.  But as usual, filmmakers seldom consult with professionals in the profession they are portraying.  I got a chuckle out of Dr. Ritter’s sign:  Dr. Lilith Ritter, Psychologist, Ph.D.  It’s Dr. Ritter who earned the Ph.D., which should come with her name, not tacked on at the end.

            Crafts I especially liked about Nightmare Alley are the production design by Tamara Deverell and the cinematography by Dan Laustsen.  Both contributed so much to the mood and subject of the film.

 

Nightmare Alley has Guillermo del Toro’s mark of provocative storytelling that always includes observations about human nature and ethics.

 

Grade:  B+                            By Donna R. Copeland



Thursday, December 9, 2021

BEING THE RICARDOS

 Nicole Kidman     Javier Bardem     J. K. Simmons     Jake Lacey

Nina Arianda     Alia Shawkat     Tony Hale


            I was not a big fan of the Lucy/Desi shows, so I didn’t see Being the Ricardos with much nostalgia.  But for those who did love them, the film is likely to be a big hit.  A few viewers in the screening audience laughed out loud on cue with the radio audience, suggesting they were having fond looks down memory lane.

            I will say that the film is informative in that I was not aware of the significant roles Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz had had in their productions, from the script to the sets to the executive decisions.  I had read about Arnaz’ revolutionary role in the creation of television as it’s seen today, but the film shows the painstaking efforts of the couple—each with different ideas—in executive decisions.  The stunned looks on the named executives’ faces foretell the significance and revolutionary nature of Desi’s and Lucy’s contributions.

            It’s also educational for the viewer to be given a peek behind the scenes and witness the haggling and sometimes brutal struggles that take place among writers, producers, actors, and sponsors in putting on a show.  When we see the finished product, usually little of the blood, sweat, and tears that went into the project are apparent.

            Something is puzzling to me, though.  It’s not uncommon for actors to disappear into their characters so much so that the viewer becomes unaware of the actor.  Recent case in point is Jared Leto as a Gucci son in House of Gucci and Benedict Cumberbatch as an American rancher in The Power of the Dog.   And there are countless examples of such through time, with Meryl Streep being one of the paragons of this kind of shape shifting.  However, I did not see that convincing transformation in Nicole Kidman as Lucy and Javier Bardem as Desi.  I was always aware of the actors and had difficulty putting the characters in their place.  The reason this is puzzling is that both Kidman and Bardem are top-notch actors.  It wasn’t as if they weren’t portraying their characters accurately, it was that that “something” that makes the actor disappear was not evident.

            One explanation could lie at the writer/director Aaron Sorkin’s feet.  This is his “creation” in a sense, so perhaps he was not as attuned to subtleties and nuances that he could have exploited.  His scripts can sometimes border on the glib, where the writing is more about the craft than about human drama, especially when it is delivered rapid-fire like stand-up comedy.  Other times, I wondered why some dialog was even inserted, such as when writer Frawley (Simmons) asks Desi whether he was scared when the Cuban militia came for his family, which constitutes a “Duh!” moment.

            Another somewhat minor—although annoying--issue with the film is sound production.  So often, music and sound effects drown out the dialog, even when sound effects are not necessarily needed (for example, the rain at one point).  Javier Bardem’s English is excellent, and I have never had difficulty understanding him in a movie, but apparently here, he was advised to affect a stronger Spanish accent than even Desi actually had, resulting in my not comprehending all of what he said.  (I never had trouble understanding Desi in sound clips.)

            Being the Ricardos will be primarily for die-hard fans who are nostalgic and for those who like to watch behind-the-scenes filmmakers hash out the fine points of scenes, plots, and characters. 

 

Being the Ricardos is for the fans of Lucy and Desi primarily and for a look at the influence two actors had on television production.  

 

Grade:  C+                            By Donna R. Copeland



Wednesday, December 8, 2021

WEST SIDE STORY

 Ansel Elgort     Rachel Zegler     Corey Stoll     Rita Moreno     

Ariana DeBose     David Alvarez     Mike Faist


            West Side Story (1961) is beloved among American cinephiles, but I was surprised that Steven Spielberg would pick it up for a 2021 remake.  It has been highly praised as a Broadway show and 1961 movie (Robert Wiseman, director), so a remake is rather puzzling.  Beyond that factor, with as much racial unrest and frank hatred going on in our country now, I have some doubts about a major film production—even though one I think is meant to make a statement about the inadvisability of violence—spending so much of the movie on machismo and racism before the “lesson” comes through at the very end.

Spielberg and his screenwriter Tony Kushner have kept the original story itself pretty much intact, except for some tweaking of the plot (e.g., inserting a clearly mixed gender character as opposed to a tomboy) and casting actors (except for Rachel Zegler) way beyond the teenage years.  I understand Spielberg was committed to cast Latin actors as much as possible for those roles, so perhaps he can be excused for not attending so well to the age factor.  But mismatching the ages of the actors and their characters is unnecessarily common in movies today, because age is so influential in defining who someone is; and beyond that, there are scores of talented young actors who could be in those roles.  Movies like West Side Story would be much more plausible to me if I looked up and saw teenagers; whereas, seeing late 20’s-30’s year-old actors behaving the same way seems a bit ludicrous.

Having stated what I see as drawbacks, I can say the production in terms of design (Adam Stockhausen), music (Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim), choreography (Jerome Robbins), and cinematography (Janusz Kaminski) are well done and entertaining.  The acting is laudable for the most part, especially Rachel Zegler as Maria and the iconic Rita Moreno as Valentina (of interest is that she was in both the Broadway show and the 1961 film production of West Side Story).  The quality of Ansel Elgort’s singing as Tony was a pleasant surprise to me, but, somehow, he seemed out of place.  It could be that he was miscast or perhaps the chemistry between him and Zegler didn’t quite come through.  

Overall, the extended macho scenes in Spielberg’s 2021 West Side Story are so off-putting, by the end of the overly long movie (over 2½ hours) the viewer is eager to leave, which makes short shrift of the truly heart-rending scenes at the end.

 

West Side Story 2021 is nostalgic for those enamored of the 1961 version, but considering current tensions about race and immigration, it gives us a sense of its being dated.

 

Grade:  C                              By Donna R. Copeland

DON'T LOOK UP

 Leonardo DiCaprio     Jennifer Lawrence     Rob Morgan     Jonah Hill     Mark Rylance

Tyler Perry     Timothee Chalamet     Cate Blanchett     Meryl Streep     Ron Perlman




            In the beginning when astronomer Dr. Randall Mindy (DiCaprio) and his graduate student Kate (Lawrence) first discover a “planet destroying comet” headed for Earth they attempt to inform the proper authorities and American people that the country has only six months to get ready for it.  They’re wanting everyone to look up and see the moving light with a tail and understand it is coming our way.  The movie gets its title from those not wanting to accept that a comet is on its way and very dangerous; when it appears to the naked eye in the sky some advise others, “Don’t look up.”

         Well, the movie is a very funny parody about our political times, shining its light on climate change deniers, right-wingers, Fox News, the media’s exploitation of trivialities and current pop interests over serious news, and prominent Republicans who have their own ethics and their own interests at heart.  Topping the list is the President (Streep) with long blonde hair and a primary interest in getting re-elected [her empty-headed son Jason (Hill) serves as her Chief of Staff].  As expected, the President and her “scientific” appointees want to keep the news quiet and just “sit on it” for a while (i.e., until after the mid-terms).  DiCaprio has observed that “Adam [McKay] has woven an incredibly timely message about society, how we communicate, our current priorities, and the climate crisis into an absurdly funny yet important movie."  https://www.elle.com/culture/movies-tv/a37512771/dont-look-up-news-cast-spoilers-date/

       Upon hearing the news, the administration’s reaction and its influence spreads and influences those who similarly want to ignore science and scientists, ridicule them, and even become very nasty toward them on social media. The two scientists’ media advisors tell them to “keep it simple—no math”, to which Dr. Mindy replies, “But it is math!” Clearly, because he is a male and speaks a language many can’t/won’t understand, Dr. Mindy is made a darling; whereas Kate—younger, more articulate in plain language and more in touch with her emotions—becomes a pariah.  And gets arrested by the FBI more than once.

            Even the sexual boundary issues are brought into play, with a sensuous “Daily Rip” TV show host, Brie (Blanchett) seducing Randall and promoting him so long as he does her bidding.  (Her show with co-host, Jack Bremmer (Perry) is clearly a reference to “Fox and Friends” on Fox News.)   In Kate’s circle, the men are aware of the Me Too movement, such as one asking politely if he may touch Kate’s hair in a “nonsexual manner.”  These are anti-war anti-violence protesters who are gentle and respectful of women.  (The currently adored Chalamet plays one of them.)  

            The cast is huge and full of some of our best actors who are at the top of their game.  DiCaprio is almost unrecognizable in his slightly befuddled scientist mode.  It’s good to see Jennifer Lawrence back in action after a brief hiatus, and she plays the fiery young scientist most convincingly.  It’s too bad the writers had both scientists becoming uncharacteristically (for scientists) hysterical and verbally combative at times.  It undermined their believability in a significant way.

            A scene-stealer is Mark Rylance in his most surprising role:  that of an owner of a tech (phone) company who sees himself as a scientist because his company uses algorithms.  He comes across as an odd kind of person, but is a large donor to President Orlean’s campaign, so has her ear.  He convinces her of his alternative plan to deal with the comet, and we see how that works out.

            Entertaining is Ariana Grande’s performance as a pop star whose love life steals away the public’s attention from the impending danger to the outcome of her current romance.  It’s still another comment about the current attention span and the public’s and media’s focus on their idols.  Other actors who should be acknowledged are Rob Morgan as a Black scientist and Ron Perlman as the Administration’s willing sacrificial lamb (who didn’t have to serve when the mission he was on was aborted) but who nevertheless saw himself as a fighter and a hero.

            Adam McKay has had a significant role in movie productions including The Big Short and Vice, and the current TV series “Succession”, but Don’t Look Up seems to be a major shift into satirical parody.  He clearly has his finger on the times, and doesn’t mind at all skewering others when apt.  This is a “feel good” movie for those of us more politically liberal and concerned about the future of our democracy.  It describes so well the world we live in with all its puzzlements and outrageous people and behaviors.

            Don’t Look Up refers to the time when the deniers are the most desperate in wanting people to deny reality.

 

Don’t Look Up:  A must-see for everyone now living in a most perplexing age as far as people are concerned, but where science is concerned everything is quite clear.

 

Grade:  A-                             By Donna R. Copeland