Thursday, March 4, 2021

14 DAYS, 12 NIGHTS

Anne Dorval     Leanna Chea     Francois Papineau 

            This is a gentle movie, a disquieting mixture of stunning, eloquently filmed scenes; warm, appealing characters; and profound grief in a pervasive thread running through it all.  The film opens with a snowy landscape, eventually focusing on a primitive thatched wall with a rectangular window that looks like a black hole.  To some extent the cinematographer Yves Belanger is the storyteller supplementing the sparse dialog.

            Based loosely on a true story, the French Canadian screenwriter Marie Vien weaves a fascinating tale about a mother who travels to Viet Nam, the land of her adopted daughter who has been killed in an accident.  Her goal is to learn more about Clara’s native land as a way of connecting with her.  But the Vietnamese are still holding grudges against the French for invading their country, so Isabelle (Dorval) is not always given a warm welcome.

            She decides to visit the orphanage where Clara was taken after her birth, and meets with the young woman who took care of Clara in her first year.  After initially being somewhat short with Isabelle, the woman shows compassion for her, looking her up later and giving her a clue about the birth mother.  Isabelle will end up contacting Thuy (Chea), which transforms the drama into a story about two mothers.

            Director Jean-Philippe Duval presents the narrative with interspersing flashbacks, as seems to be the current preference among filmmakers.  Seldom nowadays are films presented in chronological order, necessitating the viewer’s periodic reorientations.  A welcome unifying element in this instance is the backdrop of Viet Nam’s natural beauty and bustling cities captured by cinematographer Yves Belanger and accompanying mood enhancing musical score of Bertrand Chenier.  

            In addition, the two fine actresses Anna Dorval and Leanna Chea deliver intensely emotional scenes that keep us curious and engaged, using body language and facial expressions to elaborate on the dialog. Their success makes us feel close to their characters and caring about how they fare.

            14 Days, 12 Nights’ moving account authenticates the varying experiences of losing a child and unites them in a realistic whole.  The loss is profound no matter how or when it occurs and, clearly, processing its psychological effects is a part of adjusting oneself.  The filmmakers demonstrate their understanding of this fact throughout, but especially in one of the concluding scenes.

 

The talented filmmakers behind this very human, moving account show their appreciation and understanding of human experience and something of what it takes to adjust to loss.

 

Grade:  A                              By Donna R. Copeland

 



Wednesday, February 24, 2021

SAINT FRANCES


Kelly O’Sullivan     Charin Alvarez     Mary Beth Fisher     Ramona Edith Williams     



            This is a potentially good film, but uneven in its quality.  I so wish it had been done well, because I’m sympathetic to most of the issues presented.  But the script (Kelly O’Sullivan) and direction (Alex Thompson) are deficient in telling the basic story.   Sometimes the action is overwrought, and other times almost devoid of emotion.  It addresses important issues, sometimes helpful in such, and sometimes not.  It’s almost as if the issues the filmmakers wanted to cover are ticked off one by one, then brushed away.  Importantly, the main character, Bridget (O’Sullivan), does not come across as a real person, which is doubly ironic, because the actress is the screenwriter!  This is her first time out as a feature writer, so I think she just needs more experience.

            The action is around a fairly well-to-do Lesbian couple hiring a college drop-out to be the nanny for their two children, one a spunky Frances (beautifully portrayed by tiny Williams) and the other a newborn boy—who cries a lot, BTW, just so you know.  The nanny has good intentions, but little/no experience in childcare.  She is clearly not at ease with children (she was recommended to the couple by her good friend who had the job previously), and has to rely on her own upbringing and natural instincts.  (It doesn’t help the script—and I question why it was included—that her mother reveals to her that when she was a baby her mother had fantasies of…)  

            A major problem of the script is inserting so many weighty issues into a film that is supposed to be a comedy and a drama.  I counted at least six subjects overloading this film including postpartum depression, birth control and abortion, emotional repression, married and unmarried couples’ issues, the challenges and joys of motherhood, and nursing a baby in public.  Little vignettes of each of these subjects are inserted, and then we quickly move on to something else.  Bottom line:  too many issues for this kind of film.

            The movie also brings up for me the current penchant of filmmakers to show in detail bodily functions and self-care, whether it’s brushing teeth (which they all do wrong from a dentist’s point of view) or dealing with a menstrual cycle—all of which I think are unnecessary to prove whatever point they’re trying to make.  It seems like an artifice simply to draw in viewers’ attention.  Please don’t show me bloody sheets and expelled products; I’m interested in the story!  Another issue is writing dialog for children that doesn’t match their stage of development.  In this film, little Frances giving wise counsel to Bridget is an example.

            Maybe this is too much of a spoiler, but to illustrate the naïveté of the plot, Bridget does stumble through, even though she has made a number of serious mistakes, and then miraculously becomes a model for and great friend not only to Frances, but to Frances’ parents as well, who have used Bridget as a therapist.  I appreciated one point of the film, which is that it would be helpful to talk to a therapist when you’re troubled.  I also appreciated that both women are shown to be ideal employers, understanding, forgiving, and generous, which I see as realistic, given who these characters are, and gratifying.

            Although the issues presented in Saint Frances might pull you in, and the actors are exemplary, Saint Frances misses the high mark of a thoughtful, well-produced film.

 

Not as much a comedy or a drama as advertised, but more one of filmmakers attempting to get a foothold on making good films.

 

Grade:  C                              By Donna R. Copeland



BILLIE EILISH: THE WORLD'S A LITTLE BLURRY

 


     In the beginning of this film, I was impressed with seeing how a music video was made.  Then, I was impressed with how many people were fawning over the star, noting that she puts herself down and harshly criticizes her performances.  But it’s not clear whether she does this intentionally (to get praise and reassurance) or whether she is simply talking about how she feels.  As the film progresses, I’m drawn in, first of all by her appeal, but also by seeing a strong family unit working together.  Both parents are amateur musicians and have fostered the careers of their son Finneas and daughter Billie.

As much as I admired the star, there are all kinds of appealing features to this documentary, which Director R. J. Cutler and the other filmmakers have so competently produced.  There is the appeal of seeing all the facets of Billie Eilish’s personality, seeing them expressed in her outfits and her appearance overall, the presentation of her family—almost unique nowadays for the family staying together--and most of all, a teenager hit artist thanking her parents for their help, not only in helping with careers, but also in the way they brought the children up.  Eilish possesses an unusual combination of authenticity and playfulness.

     The film does a great job in showing the stress of constant hordes of people pressing against celebrities.  We can see Billie reveling in this at first, then realizing how much it affects all of them.  We see a child star trying to cope with fandom and the inclusion of her Justin Bieber idolization brings that point home—even though it certainly surpasses most fans’ experiences.

Most of all, the documentary highlights the process of idolization from humble beginnings, ways of coping, and its effects on all involved—family and friends.  To see what a child at 17 years old goes through is enlightening.

     The documentarians of Billie Eilish are to be congratulated on giving us a realistic picture of stardom achieved by a teenager.  It was moving to hear Billie’s mother expressing herself about how necessary a responsible parent is to help navigate the waters of fame.  She is keenly aware of the danger drugs and alcohol pose for such “lucky” performers.  

     Finally, it’s awesome to hear about all the Grammy awards Billie earned in 2020—including Record of the Year, Album of the Year, Song of the Year, Best new Artist, and Best Pop Vocal Album—with her brother Finneas sharing in those awards, along with his own Producer of the year Award. 

     For someone who did not really know who Billie Eilish was, I enjoyed the film a great deal for the way it covered a star, not only in concerts and acclaim, but as well in illustrating the background and values of a singer/songwriter star from an intact family.

 

An inspiring look at a new artist with a history different from the usual story of instant fame.

 

Grade: A                                                By Donna R. Copeland 

 

 

Friday, February 19, 2021

THE VIGIL

Dave Davis     Menashe Lustig     Malky Goldman     Lynn Cohen     Fred Melamed


     Yakov (Davis) is in a rather fragile state as a result of a traumatic event and subsequent stay in a protected Hassadic Jewish community.  Those around him are supportive and helpful in guiding him through the transition back into normal life.  He assures them he is just fine, only strapped for funds.  When his old rabbi and friend offers him a chance to be a shomer (someone staying with a dead body overnight to protect the soul from demons), he takes the opportunity to earn some money.

     What will transpire during that fateful night is truly horrifying.  Eerie sounds and sites are intensified by Michael Yezerski’s music and Zach Kuperstein’s cinematography.  It’s difficult to tell sometimes whether what we’re seeing/hearing is only in Yakov’s mind or actually occurring.  These boundaries are often blurred and it’s sometimes hard to tell if the wife of the deceased, Mrs. Litvak (Cohen), is sane or not.  She is introduced as being demented.  But after the deceased’s demon—while he was a prisoner at Buchenwald and currently—begins to haunt the house, she seems quite intact.

     Dave Davis as the main protagonist does a great job in moving among the many psychological states his character transverses, and it is these manifestations that are on-screen most of the time.  Lynn Cohen is a good match in evincing someone we’re never quite sure of the whole time, weaving in and out of the unreal and a normal kind of nurturance.  She and Davis show convincing chemistry that heightens the story’s interest.

     This first feature by writer/director Keith Thomas is good at playing with the viewer’s own sense of reality and the boundaries into fantasy—as successful horror films do.  The weaving in of psychiatric disturbance makes the sorting out even more challenging.  It hovers just below going over the top in drama and unbelievable coincidences to make it a good mystery/thriller.  Some minor loose ends made me wonder, such what happened to Yakov’s backpack after he entered the Litvak house, how Sarah got Yakov’s phone number in order to text him, when she had only given him hers, and how it was that we heard Dr. Kohlberg on one phone call with Yakov trying to call him down, and then on a later call as if he hadn’t talked to Yakov at all.

 

The Vigil is full of the usual nighttime horrors, and has enough of a good drama that fans of the genre are likely to approve.

 

Grade:  B                                    By Donna R. Copeland




 

SILK ROAD

Ross Ulbricht     Jason Clarke     Jennifer Yun     Jimmi Simpson 

     This film seems to have a number of targets; there is the old school “street” agent working to bring in dope smugglers, and the cyber threat from criminals using encrypted software and Bitcoin to bring in the dough.  We see how these two positions are pitted against each other in Silk Road, but we also see other kinds of conflicts, which are not well spelled out.

Silk Road is interesting in its introduction of a young political libertarian with high ideals who wants to allow people freedom at the expense of the “state” (i.e., the government).  One win for the individual is a loss to the state, in his way of thinking.

Ross (Ulbricht) is from an upper middle-class family, whose father has (perhaps vicarious) aspirations for him, but he has an itch to succeed on his own terms.  He keeps looking for something that will confirm his philosophical position, and he has only a dim view of his potential success.

     He comes up with an idea of using Bitcoin to finance illicit drugs—non-traceable and most of all, outside the government’s authority.  He’s only mildly interested in some drugs, and has given no thought to the ultimate implications of his plan; the plan he has come up with seems to be perfect from his point of view.  He has no inkling of the number of users who would click on “Silk Road” and make him a wealthy man.

     Enter Rick Bowden (Clarke), a DEA agent who has been disparaged for his previous actions as a “street cop” for getting involved in cocaine use.  After rehabilitation, he is now being assigned to the cyber division of the DEA, for which he is ill prepared, being considered as a dinosaur (e.g., no self-respecting cyber agent would deign to use street methods, his primary modus operandi).  He is being put to pasture; his supervisor tells him that all he has to do is sit at his desk doing whatever, and he will get his pension in nine months.

     Can Rick do this?  Of course not; we get the impression he has never backed away from a challenge.  But there is an interesting juxtaposition in the movie between what older Rick can accomplish as opposed to what the younger Ross can accomplish.  Underlying that dilemma is the contest between “street smarts” versus “intellectual strategies.” The film seems to imply that the newer cyber techniques accomplish the job without the dirt and grime of the former.  But another component of the ending seems to imply that there might be something of worth in the dirt and grime.

     I see the techniques used by Rick in “solving” the case as a huge and unnecessary distraction in the telling of the story.  It also muddies the waters in terms of what the filmmakers had in mind.  If they wanted to show how young people are naïve sometimes in their visions for society, they did that very well.  But inserting the torture of one of the players in demonstrating street techniques is unnecessary, misleading, and revolting.

 

A crime story pitting newer technologies against older street-smart approaches in fighting crime.

 

Grade:  C                 By Donna R. Copeland


Wednesday, February 10, 2021

FRENCH EXIT

Michelle Pfeiffer     Lucas Hedges     Valerie Mahaffey     Imogen Poots

Susan Coyne     Isaach De Bankole     and the voice of Tracy Letts


     Could there be a more unlikely group to be together in Paris?  The movie takes a while in getting you/them there. It starts out with Frances Price (Pfeiffer) learning—although not for the first time of being told—that she is out of money.  Obviously, from her home, to the way she is dressed, and the places she frequents, she is used to high style living.  She takes her financial manager’s advice and sells her valuables, giving her a tidy sum of money, which would last a lifetime for a frugal person. That, Frances is not.  

     When her best friend Joan (Coyne) learns of her plight, she offers her apartment in Paris, which she rarely uses.  This creates a new problem for Frances' devoted son Malcolm (Hedges), who has just become engaged but hasn’t told her.  It quickly becomes apparent that Malcolm is completely dependent on his mother for money, so he has to tell his fiancé Susan (Poots) goodbye the next day—but of course he wants her to wait for him, even though he has no idea when he will return.

     What is sure to be a capricious journey with this mother-son duo constitutes the plot, involving very odd and unpredictable people pulled into their story as they proceed across the sea on a ship and arrive in Paris, smuggled cat in tow. But the most unpredictable of all is seductive Frances.  She (artfully played by Pfeiffer) tops them all in eccentricity.

     The movie is a farce that one can enjoy (Oh, for the theater popcorn in these Covid-19 times!) by not taking it too seriously and if you can vicariously enjoy living a carefree life with stacks of Euro notes resting on the shelf in your closet.

     Not entirely without some degree of redeeming value, the movie shows honesty among the homeless, waiters, and other average citizens, who try to give back absurd amounts of cash liberally distributed by our heroine.  Emotional health, forgiveness, and honesty come from the effusive Mme. Reynaud (Mahaffey), the type of woman Frances has in the past spurned with a flip of her sarcastic tongue.  

   Interestingly—and perhaps quite intentionally—references to death become a theme throughout this bizarre movie in its appearance in Frances’ overall plan, another dead husband, and séances with Frances’ own dead husband and his association with her black cat.  Perhaps the black cat is a warning about choosing a compromised lifestyle over a more comfortable one.

 A light confection, French Exit will amuse those who are at least a bit philosophical about life.

 

Grade:  C+                                    By Donna R. Copeland

THE WORLD TO COME

Katherine Waterston     Vanessa Kirby     Christopher Abbott     Casey Affleck 

     An admirable feat of artistic production, The World to Come takes us on an unexpected journey through two marriages in the 19thCentury full of grief and ineptitude lit up by an uncommon love.  The two couples live on isolated farms in New York.  We first meet Abigale (Waterston) and Dyer (Affleck) who live a seemingly ideal life on a mostly prosperous farm with their young daughter.  Well, it’s not really ideal; Abigale, a writer with keen sensitivities, finds her reticent, mechanically minded husband rather dull.  She is nurturing, and he values her care and tells her as best he can, but she clearly feels something missing, especially after the loss of their daughter.

     Then one day her closest neighbor Tallie (Kirby) visits unexpectedly, and the two strike up a friendship.  Their conversations are typical of housewives of the time, and inevitably touch on their husbands.  But there’s a spark, a spark that is felt not only just between the two women, but it reverberates outward through their small group.

     The writer Jim Shepard is known for his wide-ranging research of subjects he’s interested in as well as his fascination with difficult-to-explore emotions. Most striking in The World to Come are the number of times husbands and wives cannot seem to express what they’re feeling.  For the women, it’s circling around without committing too much; for the men, its terse monosyllabic utterances.  The way out in this story are the poetic musings of the women when they talk with each other when they’re alone.  And by the excitement the women feel when they meet contrasted with the pedantry characteristic of the men’s conversations when they converse and even when they talk with their wives.  Much of this production’s success lies in Shepard’s capturing the emotional valence among the characters, leaving the viewer in suspense.

     Director Mona Fastvold’s skillful assemblage of actors and crew for the production should earn her a place among the up-and-coming filmmakers, along with her sense of pace and sustaining suspense in the plot.  Katherine Waterston, Vanessa Kirby, and Casey Affleck are by now well known for their skill and attraction as leading actors, and they with Christopher Abbott deliver the kind of performance called for by the script. A significant contribution is lent by the musician Daniel Blumberg, with his dirge-like ominous tunes alternated with Andre Chemetoff’s  beautifully rendered pastoral sequences to capture the landscape and give us some relief

     This could have been a totally depressive film, but the lyrical—sometimes elegiac—dialog and cinematic crafts elevates it to something beyond, something more like a tonal poem.  It’s certainly not tied solely to a 19thCentury story; it speaks to our wonderings and speculations about marriage today.

 

This is a film for lovers of art and poetic expression capturing psychological truths about human nature through the ages.

 

Grade:  A                                    By Donna R. Copeland




THE MAURITANIAN

Jodie Foster     Shailene Woodley     Benedict Cumberbatch    Tahar Rahim 

     “This is a true story” we are told at the very beginning.  That was smart to insert that sentence, because in the course of its telling, it’s so hard for most of us to believe what we see. We’ve certainly read/heard accounts of what took place at the Guantanamo Bay Detention Camp, but to actually see it (what we see, of course, are actors playing the roles) as it was occurring is another thing altogether.  

     We are introduced to one of the inmates before he was captured, when he was visiting his family after being away.  He is charming and likes to crack jokes, but we can also see that he is thoughtful and smart, having won a scholarship to study in Germany when he was a teenager.  Clearly, he has a close relationship with his mother, and when he is called away from the party, he reassures his worried mother that he will be back.

     But that will actually be a much longer time than he realizes, because he gets arrested, flown to black sites around the world, and eventually ends up in Guantanamo.  

     When lawyer Nancy Hollander (Foster) is approached with the case, her law firm discourages her from taking it, but being committed to civil rights, she takes it on with the sole intention of seeing that the accused (Mohamedou Ould Slahl, played by Tahar Rahim) gets a fair defense.  She invites one of her younger colleagues, Teri Duncan (Woodley), to join her.  

     By chance, when she is visiting Mohamedou in Guantanamo, the lead prosecutor Stu Couch (Cumberbatch) recognizes her in an airport shop, and the two have a drink and short chat with one another.  This is before either of them has been given files to read in preparation for the trial.  When these files are made available to them, they discover that they are so redacted, it will be impossible for either of them to make their case.  It turns out that they are going to have to go through the courts to get the unredacted files.

     Director Kevin Macdonald is skillful in telling a story on film, using timing and informational material to greatest effect in keeping the viewer attuned and in suspense.  He has proved this in his previous films (e.g., State of Play, and the documentary Touching the Void); and in Mauritanian, he exploits these features so that we must endure frustrations and the trying of patience right alongside the characters.  Some of the brutal scenes are so realistic, I imagine many will turn their heads to look away, as I did.

     The cast is strong.  Jodie Foster is entirely believable as someone who is serious and committed to the principles of her profession.  Shailene Woodley, whose character calls for more emotion is likewise authentic playing a younger attorney who clearly admires her superior.  It’s a surprise to hear Benedict Cumberbatch with a Texas accent, but he pulls it off nicely within a personality long trained in the military.


A graphic tale about prisoners held by the Americans at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba.


Grade:  A                                                By Donna R. Copeland




MINARI

Steven Yeun     Yeri Han     Yuh-jung Youn     Alan S. Kim     Noel Cho

 

     Minari is very much a true-to-life story of a family from Korea trying to achieve their dreams on a farm in Arkansas. Writer/director Lee Isaac Chung weaves into a complex mosaic all the many experiences of immigration, including the blending of cultures, marital disagreement and conflict, cross-generational attempts to understand, differing religious beliefs, the complications of aging, and—to top it off—the seeming capriciousness of weather.  

Right from the beginning, we see that Monica (Han) disagrees with her husband Jacob (Yeun) about uprooting the family from California where they both worked in a dull chicken processing company in favor of buying land for a farm.  He feels stifled and wants to achieve something more, but her biggest concern seems to be about their young son who has a heart condition.  

     As if that were not enough to worry about, Monica wants her mother (Youn)—who is pretty much alone in Korea—to come live with them.  Not only does she miss her mother, she knows it will be advantageous to have her as a babysitter for David (Kim) and Anne (Cho).  It means that the household will be crowded in a mobile home, and David is resentful about sharing his room with his grandma who snores, smells strangely, and has weird ideas and unorthodox behaviors.       David simply can’t understand having a grandma who doesn’t make cookies and who swears.

     The strength of the movie lies in its demonstration of the adaptability of humans in objectively difficult situations to accommodate one way or another. The family does get some moral support from the locals, which helps; and it’s nice to see a film show how Americans can be welcoming to immigrants.

     The actors—especially Steven Yeun with his expressive face—make up an ensemble that presents an utterly believable family, with conflicts alternating with loving support, particularly in a crisis.  Noteworthy is young Alan Kim as David, who clearly shows what he is thinking and feeling from disgust to sheer enjoyment and mischievousness. Director Chung can take claim for much of the cast’s success in his impressive direction, for which he won both the Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award at Sundance Film Festival.

 

This is a quiet, emotionally profound drama with so many complicating elements woven in it makes for a captivating story that will hold your attention.

 

Grade:  A                                    By Donna R. Copeland


JUDAS AND THE BLACK MESSIAH

Daniel Kaluuya     LaKeith Stanfield     Jesse Plemons    Dominique Fishback


     Betrayal of one’s own can be considered one of the most egregious of sins, and this film about the Black Panthers in the 1960’s does an excellent job in charting the beginnings of such a compromise, the experience of the betrayer, and some of the after-effects for the perpetrator.  The story is told from William O’Neal’s (Stanfield) point of view, and puts the listener in a bit of a dilemma, at least during the first part.  You see he is a hustler, but he has wits and charm, so unless you already know who he is, you might be drawn to him.

     Fred Hampton (Kaluuya), the deputy chairman of the Black Panthers from 1966 to 1969, has a different kind of charm, one built on honesty, sincerity, and commitment to a cause for other people.  It’s easy to see why he might be a threat to the FBI at the time, being truly a black messianic figure who was winning over thousands of followers. He became the chairman of the Black Panthers in Chicago in the 1960s primarily because he was a skillful orator, an alliance builder, and recognized the needs and frustrations of Black people.  He was an earlier Black Lives Matter leader at a time much less receptive to such causes.  

     Director Shaka King and his team have created a very fine production that shines a light on a very dark time in U.S. history, outlining events and giving shape to the characters involved and what they were about in terms of their personal lives as well as the aims and workings of the Black Panthers.  It allows those of us who heard about them primarily in the news to fill in the gaps and see their human-ness beyond the revolutionary rhetoric.  

     Daniel Kaluuya has already achieved a reputation for his previous roles in Get Out and Black Panther, and he is winning accolades again for his performance here.  Those eyes! They tell so much of what he is intending to convey, that with his soft voice and purposeful carriage, he can deliver stunning performances.  In this film, my eyes were drawn more to the Judas character because it is much more complicated.  Stanfield portrays the divided loyalties and ultimate survival instincts of a traitor skillfully, showing the pangs of guilt and ability to deny facing up to possible repercussions of his actions.  Jesse Plemons—not an admirable character here, as in his other films—shows well the man who speaks the party line, ignoring his personal opinions. 

     Judas and the Black Messiah is of historical significance and instructive to those wanting to be informed about politics in the 1960’s, specifically in regard to the Black Panther group.

 

Judas and the Black Messiah is an account of the Black Panther group in the 1960’s, which highlights what it was up against with the FBI.

 

GRADE:  A                                                By Donna R. Copeland


 

LAND

Robin Wright     Demian Bichir     Sarah Dawn Pledge     Kim Dickens

     Unexpectedly, a beautiful story of love lost and found—but not in the usual sense. Robin Wright has long been one of my favorite actresses, and now she proves her talents in additional ways.     Congratulations to her for directing her first feature film, which reflects her sensibility in choosing this particular one.

     The first scene is remarkable for setting up the story.  Edee (Wright) is in a therapist’s office without much hope of it helping her.  She has come as a favor to her sister Emma (Dickens) after a trauma she can’t seem to work through.  She soon comes up with her own solution, which wouldn’t make sense to most of us, but is psychologically sound, given what we learn about her later.

     Edee chooses to buy property in the mountain wilderness of Wyoming sight unseen. After she is guided there by the realtor on her first visit, following her chucking her phone, she sends him away, saying in response to his concern, “I’ll be fine.”  Her first upset occurs when the city girl cannot find a can opener at dinnertime.

     How on earth, you wonder, is she going to survive?  The story of that and of the myriad dangers she encounters is the heart of the film.

     To counteract the spikes in apprehension and bouts of misery, Bobby Bukowski’s cinematic, probing photography and the lyrically soothing music of Ben Sollee and Time for Three, buffers our experience of a deeply human story that could be depressing. 

     But part of that story is seeing Edee learning how to do for herself in isolation: fishing, hunting, repairing her cabin—making do.  But “no man [or woman] is an island”, and everyone needs others at some point. That is where Miguel (Bichir) enters the picture.  Bichir is the perfect actor for the role with his Hispanic/American Indian appearance, his unassuming manner, and purveyor of genuineness.  At one point, when she asks him why he was helping her, his reply is, “You were in my path.”  The two work out the definitive boundaries about what notto ask each other.  And although he honors this to a T and is willing to share a bit, she remains adamant:  No news of the outside world.

       The movie Land has many truths, with a well-written script by Jesse Chatham and Erin Dignam, who provide points of view from both male and female perspectives.  (Another appeal, I’m sure, to Robin Wright.)  This could easily have been a “chick-lit” film, but avoids that by making both sexes heroic.   


This is a film for everyone, really, and might make an interesting conversation piece for those choosing it for their date night flick.

 

Grade:  A                                    By Donna R. Copeland




Thursday, February 4, 2021

SON OF THE SOUTH

Lucas Till     Lex Scott Davis     Lucy Hale     Julia Ormond

Brian Dennehy     Cedrick the Entertainer    Shamier Anderson

 


     This is a movie like many we’ve seen before about the blatant racism of the Deep South during the time of the early civil rights movement in the early 1960’s. It’s based on the memoir (The Wrong Side of Murder Creek:  A White Southerner in the Freedom Movement) of Bob Zellner a young man at the time who lived in Alabama and was bound for college in the north, but kept being drawn into the movement by activists and circumstances.  He’s an older man by the time of movie preparation, but was consulted on the script by Barry Alexander Brown and Constance Curry (co-author of the book).

     Bob Zellner (played by Lucas Till in a fine performance) simply wants to visit a local Methodist Church for information for his high school essay, and ropes in a few of his friends to go with him.  He seems very neutral, having been brought up by a father who left the KuKluxKlan after a sojourn in Russia where he became acquainted with Negroes and a grandfather (Dennehy) still wholly committed to the Klan, and Bob is now ready to make up his own mind.  

   But in the Sixties, it was almost impossible to remain neutral; either one was for or against negroes, and it’s chilling to listen to the hatred toward black people spewed out by southerners in the film.  We see some of Bob’s friends gradually fade away as he makes new friendships that are more meaningful for him.

     As a result, in his openness to new ideas and people, Bob is transformed, although not without some pain and suffering.  The movie does a good job in illustrating the divisions among family and friends when race becomes such an urgent issue.  It’s odd for our ears to hear “you can’t kill him because he’s [white and] from Alabama!” and to see the division among life-long southerners when confronted with this dilemma.

     Son of the South is not quite successful in at least a couple of ways.  One is that it is more of a revisiting of an issue rather than something new that we’ve never seen before in so many films (Just Mercy, Selma, Loving, Get Out, Fruitvale Station, e.g.).  (Not that I’m saying we shouldn’t be reminded; it’s still moving to see the film.)  The other is related to the script and to the actors not sounding like real people.  At times, it’s like listening to actors reading a script in the first round. The experienced actors have no problem, but others clearly sound like they are reading for an audition.  


A film to remind us of the struggles and heartbreaks activists endured in the Civil Rights Movement.


Grade:  C+                                    By Donna R. Copeland

Thursday, January 28, 2021

DEAR COMRADES

Yuliya Vysotskaya     Vladislav Komarov     Andrey Gusev     Yuliya Burova 

     This is a brilliant example of how blood bonds are stronger than any ideology.  Lyuda (Vysotskaya) is a dyed in the wool Stalinist who advocates against the people in the factories striking in protest of increasingly stringent policies set by the Khrushchev government.  In her role as head of the production sector on the City Committee of Novocherkassk, she resolutely condemns them, saying they should be tried and severely punished.  She has no sympathy for the clamoring crowds outside a grocery that she must shove through to get to an ally who will supply her with what she needs, and a few luxuries to boot.

     When the uprising spreads throughout the country and multiple factories join a huge strike, chaos breaks out.  And of course, as the crowds burst forward in the thousands, all Americans will be reminded of our own so very recent January 6, when Donald Trump’s followers stormed the capitol.  But fortunately for us, our January 6 dwarfed that of the USSR’s June 2, 1962, uprising when Red Army soldiers and KGB Snipers shoot guns at their own people, killing 25 and injuring 80.  In the hasty planning to address the strike, there are a few soldiers reminding government officials about the proscription of the military taking arms against the USSR’s own people, but with top leaders ordering the military to shoot, that’s what they do.  And above all the whole incident needs to be covered up.  

     So what about Lyuda during this time?  She has had a stormy disagreement with her daughter Svetka (Burova), who she fears has joined the protestors.  Their tiff ends up in dinner plates thrown to the floor and Svetka storming out of the house.  But Lyuda has her own problems to deal with, and concentrates on them, some of which test her loyalties and make her question her commitments—for perhaps the first time.  The government is adamant about keeping the rebellion quiet, to the extent it requires everyone questioned to vow they will not speak of anything they saw or heard during that time.

     As all of the elements sift down, Lyuda comes to the realization of how much her daughter means to her.  But where is Svetka?  In a surprising alliance with a KGB officer, Viktor (Gusev), Lyuda searches, following any lead that comes her way.

     Dear Comrades is characteristic of Russian movies that pit ideological systems and historic factions against one another, having all of the sturm und drang of political unrest vying against passionate love.  This feature by Andrey Konchalovskiy pulls us through a drama that will ring true in many ears.  Yuliya Vysotskaya and Andrey Gusev as Viktor the KGB agent supremely evince their characters, and the chemistry between them is right on in its initial guardedness that eventually shows their magnetic appreciation of one another.

 

An intriguing drama occurring during a Soviet uprising in 1962 that hurtles characters against one another, and demonstrates the power of an authoritarian state over its citizens.

 

Grade:  B+                                    By Donna R. Copeland



Saturday, January 23, 2021

ACASA, MY HOME

Gica Enache     Vali Enache     Rica Enache


     Gica Enache has been living on a small island in a nature preserve outside the city of Bucharest for 18 years.  During that time, he has acquired a wife and nine children, and they continue to live in a homemade shack.  The oldest boy Vali goes out and catches fish, some of which they eat, and some of which he sells to townspeople across a freeway and a river.  The family does other things to get money—selling throwaway bottles, plastic, etc, and they are good at rummaging through garbage to meet their other needs.  They have a stable social system that appears to work for them.    No one seems to be unhappy.

     City officials have visited the Enaches a number of times, trying to get them to send the children to school, but the family takes to hiding the children when they see officials coming, and are able to get by with it until the city decides to declare formally their intention to convert the preserve into a city park.  Although Gica and his wife still try to resist, they are moved to city housing and the children are enrolled in school.  The children accommodate to the circumstances and seem to thrive. But Gica continues to dream about returning to their original place and keeping his children with him, even when his wife Niculina is opposed to it.  

     The film by Radu Clorniciuc (producer, director, co-cinematographer) charts this journey of the Enache family from nature into the city, and shows the difficulties they and city officials encounter in the process of “civilizing” them for a good cause.  The story is well told in that we the viewers are torn between rooting for a very appealing, although old-fashioned family, and city officials who have a good argument for creating an ecological space for residents to visit and enjoy…and believe that children should go to school.     We get to see the oldest son’s perspective on being deprived of an education after he has tasted civilization, and it with other family members’ perspectives make a strong coda to the film.

 

An unusual story about how Romanian gypsies living in nature might be introduced to the civilized world.

 

Grade: B                           By Donna R. Copeland




Thursday, January 21, 2021

THE WHITE TIGER

 Adarsh Gourav     Priyanka Chopra     RaJkummar Rao


     Rahmin Bahrani’s films are recognized for their relevance and social commentary in films such as 99 Homes, Man Push CartChop Shop, and Goodbye Solo.  Here, he takes on the caste system in India, brilliantly illustrating its unfairness and how antiquated it is, along with the corruption found in the highest as well as the lowest rungs of society.  Along the way, however, he recognizes the values of humankind that have made whatever is worthwhile in the world exist.

     Balram (Gouray) chafes at the arrangements in his small Indian town where a significant percentage of the earnings of common folk go toward influential relatives and bosses.  He makes a big point of how the people don’t seem to mind this (like roosters in a coop), and revere those holding authority over him.  At a young age, he decides to escape the system however he can. And eventually he must literally run from the community where his grandmother as reigning potentate is ordering him to prepare himself for an arranged marriage. 

     Cars and driving them have caught Balram’s eye, and being a budding entrepreneur he wheedles himself past the gate of a wealthy man’s home.  With his talent in salesmanship and charm, he manages to be hired as the second driver for the family.  Judiciously, he recognizes that the owner’s son Ashok (Rao)—who has been educated in the U.S.—is his best hope.  Indeed, he is taken on as “second driver” (the main driver, having been employed by the family since Ashok was a child), serving primarily Ashok.

     Notably, Ashok’s wife, Pinky Madam (adeptly played by Chopra) is a cheeky American by whom Ashok is a bit intimidated.  He clearly is coming from the viewpoint that everything from America is better than anything in India.  The two seem to be in the first throes of love and interested more in having a good time in life than in anything substantive. 

The contrast between the two of them and Balram (reverant toward religion and societal values) is striking, the consequences of which will play out through the course of the movie.  

     As a testament to Bahrani’s and novelist Aravind Adiga’s perspicacity in weaving the story about sociopolitical systems, we get an informed commentary on the relationship between slaves and their masters—the naïve reverence of the uninformed worker and the outright indifference of those in power. Framed in Balram’s personal experience, the drama will hold the viewer’s rapt attention, both with an interest in learning what will happen to him, and the overview of a society that rewards entrepreneurship over traditional values.  

     If nothing else—even ignoring the social-political commentary—The White Tiger will be an exciting, interesting experience.

 

How India’s persistent caste system manifests itself.

 

Grade:  B+                                    By Donna R. Copeland

IDENTIFYING FEATURES

Mercedes Hernandez, David Illescas, Juan Jesus Varela


     A beautifully artistic rendition of brutality along the trail of Mexicans traveling to make it across the border into the U.S.  Artistry of the film involves using reality-based truths and magical-realism to comment on a culture adrift, trying to comprehend and understand immigration.  The all-female group of filmmakers (director and co-writer with Astrid Rondero, Fernanda Valadez, cinematographer Claudia Becerril Bulos, and musician Clarice Jensen) managed to win awards at the Sundance Film Festival and others for their superior work in telling a story, filming it with scenes looking at first like modern paintings, then merging into the story’s realism.  

Suspense is key in the telling.  The characters are not identified right away, events are presented laden with mystery, and although the dialog is mostly in Spanish with English subtitles, some of it is spoken in an Indian language.  The latter account is shown in pictures later for the viewer to interpret.

     Certainly the topic of immigration is familiar to all of us at this point in time and we hear all kinds of stories about what might happen to migrants, but the way the story is told here encompasses the real emotional turmoil, along with general cultural statements.  It’s largely different from other stories about immigration, particularly in its focus on a smart and loving provincial mother and her unexpected connection with a young deportee from the United States.

     In a nutshell, two mothers are trying to find out what has happened to their teenage sons who left Guanajuato two months earlier to try to go to Arizona to one’s uncle who had a job for them.       When the mothers don’t hear from them, one (Mercedes Hernandez in a nuanced performance) proceeds to re-trace the sons’ steps, which include a bus ride to the border.  Gratifyingly, along the way, she encounters numerous helpful, sympathetic people from all walks of life (all Mexicans) to guide her.

   The two main characters are played by relatively inexperienced actors (Hernandez and Illescas) skilled in winning our sympathies and so appealing we really care about them by the end.  Their difficult, brief journey is marked by their instant identification with one another and polite helpfulness.  When the film edges into magical-realism toward the end, it falters a bit; but doesn’t make us forget the quality of the work as a whole.

     First-time director of a feature, Fernanda Valadez, shows great promise and aesthetic flair in Identifying Features, which makes me and others anticipate viewing her work in the future.


The artistry of the film involves using reality-based truths and magical-realism to comment on a culture adrift, trying to comprehend and understand immigration.

 

Grade:  A-                                    By Donna R. Copeland



 

BROTHERS BY BLOOD

Matthias Schoenaerts     Joel Kinnaman     Maika Monroe
 

     Peter (Schoenaerts) and Michael (Kinnaman) are certainly brothers by blood (and it could be brothers inblood), because not much else connects them.  They are very different people with different values.  We see them growing up in Philadelphia in families involved in gangs and crime.  Peter is the logical one, trying desperately—all his life—to escape the violence surrounding him.  Michael insists on continuing the wars that have gone on for generations. Peter gets him out of many risky situations, but he seems to be determined to act out the family’s penchant for the macho code.  The “brothers” are actually cousins.

Writer-director Jeremie Guez is considered a prize-winning writer of French noir stories of crime and intrigue.  The dialog he writes is terse and his plots are dark with a heavy emphasis on masculine stereotypes.  Brothers by Blood (originally titled The Sound of Philadelphia) is based on Pete Dexter’s novel Brotherly Love (1991).

     The film is not an easy watch; it begins with a man relating a story about his prostate exam, followed by scenes of a crime showing wrecked cars, dead bodies, and police, all while credits roll.  In addition to these opening scenes that tell us little, overall. a major flaw in terms of storytelling is the darkness of the screen shots making it very hard to see what is transpiring, the absence of connections that will use the scenes you see to tell a logical story, and the introduction of characters who are not identified.  Much of this you have to figure out yourself perhaps many scenes later. An example is the sudden appearance of a small boy taking in the action around him, but it’s only later that you realize he is part of the main character’s reminiscences about his earlier life. 

     Matthias Schoenaerts is one of my favorite actors and the main reason I wanted to see this film.  He and Joel Kinnaman are indeed very good in portraying their characters as written.  But Peter is often portrayed as a Christ-like figure who is long-suffering and ever forgiving, making if difficult for me to appreciate his role, given this kind of movie.  But, at least, one of the ending scenes made me feel better about him.

     This is a movie that will appeal primarily to those fond of macho crime films without much character development or attempts to clarify the make-up of the main characters.   Because I found little of it to be constructive or worthwhile, I cannot recommend it to most.

 

A film noir made primarily for those seeking the thrill of blood and witnessing the crime system in a major city.

 

Grade:  D                                  By Donna R. Copeland