Thursday, September 23, 2021

DEAR EVAN HANSEN

Bill Platt     Julianne Moore     Kaitlyn Dever     Amy Adams     Nik Dodani     Danny Pino 


            The first song, “On the outside always looking in”, captures the nerdiness of its main character Evan, appealingly rendered by Ben Platt.  Your heart aches for him when he wants to express himself, but the words just won’t come out.  He seems to be without a friend in the world, except maybe one who denies it, saying he and Evan are only “family friends.”  Evan is attracted to a girl named Zoe (Dever), who is hopelessly beyond him and he is briefly bullied by her brother who absconds with a print-out of Evan’s and never gives it back.

            The page is found still in his pocket by his parents after his suicide, which sets up a whole chain of events in which people “see what they want to see.”  In his desperation, Evan—with the best of intentions (another theme of the film)—tries to explain the note to the parents, but not wanting to distress them further, goes along with their assumption that the note was written by Connor, their son, whom they would like to believe that Evan was their son’s only friend.

            “Oh, what a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive”, said Shakespeare.  The film brilliantly demonstrates this human effort, even given Evan’s best of intentions. 

            It’s something of a surprise (and a creative insertion of the filmmakers) when Evan bursts into song whenever he is in straits to explain himself.  In song, the words come, and he is able to convey his thoughts eloquently.  There is one hitch—his efforts to please the listener and tell them what they want to hear—is going to get him into a heap of trouble.  Trouble that, in the end, makes the whole comedy a life learning experience for him.

            There are many clever layers in this story, one being that when Evan tells Zoe in song what her brother Connor said about her, he is actually describing all his own memories and impressions of her.  Another is the (slightly creepy) process where Connor’s family becomes so attached to Evan he becomes a surrogate son, a replacement for the one they lost.

            Where all the characters except Evan’s mother (Moore) (whom the filmmakers wisely always keep grounded) get caught up in the delusion, the filmmakers (writer Steven Levenson and director Stephen Chbosky) keep their sensibilities as an anchor, the most important being the underlying messages of substance they wish to convey.

            The actors are exceedingly well cast (except for my usual complaint of having older actors play high school students), and along with Platt, Julienne Moore, Kaitlyn Dever, Amy Adams, Nik Dodani, and Danny Pino are excellent.

            Dear Evan Hansen should appeal to a broad audience:  the younger set who may be experiencing loneliness and not feeling a part of the group, parents of teenagers, and those of us who have observed family dynamics similar to those shown in the film.  

            One implication in the film troubled me, which was that it’s “normal” for teenagers to be taking psychotropic medication.  One character was reassuring another about how “everybody” is taking it but hiding the fact.  I looked online and found one study showing that 23.3% of undergraduate students are taking prescribed psychiatric medication (https://www.browndailyherald.com/2018/04/26/23-percent-students-prescribed-mental-health-medication/).  The statistic for high school students is likely to be smaller; nevertheless, I wonder if we are becoming a society where individuals think they cannot manage life without chemical help.

 

To all the lonely people in the world, Hear! Hear!  This is a film that brilliantly shows us that there may be a lot of strength and character underneath the “withdrawn” or nerdy person.

 

Grade:  B                                          By Donna R. Copeland

 




Monday, September 20, 2021

BLUE BAYOU

Justin Chon     Alicia Vikander     Linh Dan Pham     Mark O’Brien

 

            This film might have had potential, but it needed disciplined editing; way too many dramatic elements were included, resulting in a hodgepodge that strains credulity, especially at the end.  

            Antonio (Chon) is a tattoo artist who has trouble finding a job to support his wife Kathy (Vikander) and their two children, one a newborn.  He often runs into discriminatory remarks about his race, and the filmmakers want that characteristic visible throughout.  He was born in Korea, but was adopted when he was three by an American couple, so he has grown up in the U.S.  Other trouble he encounters is that his American parents never saw to it that he was made an American citizen, so he is threatened with deportation, even though he has lived here for 30 years, most of his life.

            Other issues that arise include Kathy’s ex-husband, who wants to see their daughter, but the child doesn’t want to see him after he had previously abandoned her and her mother.  He and his dirty cop partner stir up major problems, contributing to more drama, particularly as Antonio’s reactions to them add significantly to his difficulties. 

            Woven into the story is a woman who takes pity on Antonio desperately hawking tattoos on the street and asks for one for herself.  She is an immigrant from Viet Nam and has stories of her own to tell, but she is one of the few characters shown to be kind-hearted and generous. 

            Most of writer/director Chon’s previous work is as an actor, for which he has been nominated and won awards at film festivals.  He also has promise as a writer/director but needs more guidance in creating sympathetic characters and choosing one storyline that will be the prominent thrust in a work, as opposed to multiple threads that compete with one another.

            My favorite part of this film is when Alicia Vikander—one of our finest actresses—sings the song “Blue Bayou.”  Her acting skills are readily apparent in Blue Bayou, but the script would be improved by making her a stronger, more sensible force, rather than showing her as hysterical.  Having her physically attack a policeman is a huge mistake in the script.

            There are additional problems with inconsistencies and improbabilities, which reduces this this potentially moving account too implausible.


A film with potential that deserved serious editing.

 

Grade:  D                              By Donna R. Copeland

Thursday, September 16, 2021

THE EYES OF TAMMY FAYE

Jessica Chastain     Andrew Garfield     Cherry Jones     Vincent D’Onofrio

 Fredric Lehne     Louis Cancelmi     Sam Jaeger 



             A little girl with a rejecting mother finds redemption for herself at a Second Adventist Church when she bursts in on a service (against her mother’s wishes) and the preacher accepts her testament of faith.  She is so overjoyed she begins speaking in tongues, whereupon the congregation is convinced she is from God.

            A young man driving his father’s car gets distracted and hits a young boy, seriously injuring him.  The teenager is so distraught he prays for the child, promising God that if the child lives, he will devote himself to preaching the Gospel.

            Tammy Faye (Chastain) and Jim Bakker (Garfield) meet, fall in love and elope before Tammy’s mother knows what is going on.  He aspires to become a television evangelist a la Pat Robertson, and Tammy Faye fits herself right in with a singing voice and creativity in appealing to anyone—adults or children—who listens.  They’re both talented, and building on childhood dreams, manage to develop a following among evangelical Christians.  Of course, this provokes the interest of Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell who aren’t quite ready for the competition.

            Those of us of a certain age remember the Bakkers and their making religion more entertaining with playful puppets and delivering messages like “God doesn’t want us to be poor” on their PTL (Praise the Lord) network.  They even recruit Gary Paxton, a Grammy winning songwriter who comes up with something like “Don’t Give Up; You’re on the brink of a miracle” for Tammy Faye to sing.  For her, God is a loving god with tolerance for everything he has made.  When Falwell is condemning homosexuality and claiming that AIDS is God’s punishment for it, her approach is that we should love all God’s creatures, because “God don’t make no junk.”

            This starts to be a fairy tale story, as the Bakkers’ messages—and confessions—strike a chord in the hearts of Christians and the donations coming in go over the top.  Jim’s plans and dreams grow in kind, as in elaborate water parks and vacation lands on the PTL property, along with Tammy Faye’s social programs (e.g., homes for unwed mothers and children with special needs).  Unfortunately, the Bakkers are susceptible to human enticements, and no one in their organization has learned money management, which ends up being a major problem.

            Certainly, the outstanding part of this production is Jessica Chastain’s performance as Tammy Faye.  She so encapsulates the character, the viewer ceases to see Chastain at all—only Tammy Faye.  Chastain captures Tammy’s chameleon personality flawlessly, and we get seduced just as all the characters are by her enticing charm.  There is a genuineness in Tammy Faye that Chastain has picked up on that makes her a sympathetic character rather than one usually disdained.  Andrew Garfield is likewise perfectly cast as one who, though mostly sincere, is naïve, easily influenced, and devoid of a sense of practicalities. 

            There are a couple of problems with an otherwise well produced movie.  One for me is that the two characters become wearing over time, with their inability to grow and change and their persistent denial of reality, even though I realize this is probably how people experienced them at the time.  But the filmmakers could have used more judicious editing and omitted some of the scenes--especially toward the end—when the movie seems to drag on and on.

            I did appreciate the honesty of both of these characters when they are confronted by each other; ultimately, they were truthful—at least with one another.  Whether or not that holds for the real people, I couldn’t say.

 

Tammy Faye shows how even those with good intentions and caring hearts can be seduced by fame and fortune to their detriment.  Nevertheless, the voyage in getting there may make it all seem worthwhile.  Didn’t the characters say in the end that they didn’t regret anything?  I was left with that impression.

Grade:  B                              By Donna R. Copeland



Thursday, September 9, 2021

THE CARD COUNTER

 Oscar Isaac     Willem Dafoe     Tye Sheridan     Tiffany Haddish


            I have heard that counting and keeping track of cards in games can help you win; and William Tell (Isaac) demonstrates this both in a simple card trick and in a fascinating story with themes of punishment and expiation—and their limits.  Writer/director Paul Schrader is a master of nuance and suspense, with engaging characters, richly metaphorical settings (Ashley Fenton), music complementary to the script (Robert Levon Been, Giancarlo Vulcano), and provocative cinematography (Alexander Dynan).

            Tell is a card shark who likes to keep a low profile after stints in the military and prison.  He has developed a systematic lifestyle that reflects his approach to cards—astute observation, discipline, the compulsive need to hide, and a solitary existence.  He meets a woman who calls herself La Linda (Hadish) and once she learns how good he is, wants to “back” him (finding wealthy clients interested in betting on him).  She appears to be the sole lightness in his life, but he still holds her at bay.

            After one of his games, he is passed a note from a bystander wanting him to give him a call, which he does.  This is Cirk (Sheridan), the son of an old acquaintance in the military.  Cirk has a proposal that seems not to interest Tell as much as the young man’s life story, which relates to the theme of punishment/expiation.  Tell has some ideas about how he can expiate himself of some of his past for which he was punished, but for which he has not forgiven himself.

            As with his previous film, First Reformed, in which a pastor is trying to work through PTSD after a war experience, Schrader poses circumstances that force the viewer to contemplate psychological stressors, current issues like war, and—above all—personal responsibility for actions in the past.  That is, it’s about war and about its after-effects and how those involved deal with them.  First Reformed deals with one person’s struggle; The Card Counter deals with the second generation’s struggle as well.

            The lead actors are supremely fitted to their roles.  Isaac’s ability to convince us of the depth of Tell’s story is key to the well written plot.  Tiffany Hadish provides (needed) respite from the gruesome details of Tell’s and Cirk’s accounts.  And she once again proves her acting abilities.  Tye Sheridan pulls off the hard-to-engage teenager with a singular passion and not much ambition.  Tiffany Hadish has evolved from her comedy roots in Like a Boss and Girls Trip to being a serious pivotal character in this film.  Willem Dafoe expertly shows us a jaded, exploitative figure who has no qualms about exploiting others under his control in the most weaseled of ways, even to the end.

            The psychological authenticity of Paul Schrader’s films always amazes me.  He is clearly attuned to personal transformations with myriad motivations that are not always clear, even to the person, much less those observing him/her.  The arc of transformation is similar in this film to that in First Reformed.   It involves something like “original” to something that is an outgrowth of itself after encountering real-life experiences.

            There are small wry touches of inspiration and humor that might go unnoticed, such as William (Bill) saying to Cirk, “You live like this?” (a messy room) and Cirk saying to Bill, “You live like this?” (a compulsively neat room).  Or La Linda taking Bill out  to a “city on fire”, which means walking through a labyrinth of bright lights, possibly as a metaphor for the potential of card winnings—dreams—and then, reality.

            

An intricately “wired” account of the psychological transformation of individuals as a consequence of their experiences.

 

Grade:  A                  By Donna R. Copeland

Thursday, September 2, 2021

SMALL ENGINE REPAIR

 John Bernthal     Shea Whigham     Jordana Spiro     Cidra Bravo     Spencer House



            A waaay out of the ordinary thriller.  But you have to wait for it.  First comes a set-up far too long, with old-men stories that have little interest for most of us.  Terrance (Bernthal), Packie (Whigham), and Frank (Pollono) are friends from childhood.  They bonded together during a horrific event early on, and since then, they have a special loyalty to one another, even though there are sharp differences in point of view.  Now that they’re older, they talk more and are able to show a bit more empathy.

            Frank has a daughter Crystal (Bravo) who was looked after by Terrance and Packie while he was incarcerated.  His ex-wife Karen (Spiro) is pretty much a loser, so Frank and his buddies try to be the best parents they can.  In the meantime, Crystal shows she is a smart cookie and manages to get accepted into a major university.  Her lower middle-class caretakers couldn’t be more thrilled; they’ve never experienced such pride in progeny in their lives.

            Suddenly, something happens by coincidence, and Frank—who has been perfectly straight since his release from prison—encounters a figure, Chad (House) that will have a lasting impact on all of them.  

            This is a major submission for John Pollono, who has written, directed, and stars in the production.  He has woven a story that will capture most of the audience at the end; I just don’t know how long people will stay with it.  Certainly, if they do, they will find a “last act” well worth the wait.  If I hadn’t been watching it for review purposes, I would have left before the half-way point.  

            But by the end, Pollono poses any number of ethical/moral dilemmas that will grab you and keep you on edge.  John Bernthal and Shea Whigham play doofuses so very well, and the references to gays are well placed.  John Pollono is optimally convincing as a complex personality with a singular purpose, but with multiple tugs at his soul.  The last-minute appearance of Jordana Spiro as his ex-wife helps to make the whole drama more plausible, as it provides some relief from the male-dominated script.  Cidra Bravo appears gifted in playing a tragic figure, but I object to filmmakers modeling such a character for young people.  It’s truly jarring to hear her lingo as if she were “one of the [older] boys.”

 

A film hard to sit through, but with gripping ethical/moral decisions having to be made at the end—which redeems it to some extent.

 

Grade:  C+                            By Donna R. Copeland

Thursday, August 26, 2021

THE LOST LEONARDO

 


            In the art world, provenance is of great importance in establishing the authenticity of a work.  In the case of art created in the 16th Century, investigators may spend years tracing the ownership of a painting, for instance.  My guess is that most people would not find that an interesting pursuit, but for museums, art dealers, investigative journalists, and collectors, it may be essential to establish the monetary worth of an object.  Yet, we find in viewing this documentary that such a search can actually be intriguing—even entertaining—especially when the conjectured artist is Leonardo da Vinci.

            Danish Director Andreas Koefoed and his co-writers have not only traced some of the known history of a painting titled “Salvator Mundi” (Savior of the World), but has brought in the speculation and scholarly opinions about it across recent years, weaving in some of the darkness involved in art speculation and the commercial industry that has built up around it.  What starts out like an intellectual pursuit becomes something of a thriller.

            It starts out with Alex Parish, who looks for art that might be done by a well-known artist but is not recognized as such by the auctioneer—a “sleeper:  In New Orleans, he comes upon a painting that looks like it could be the lost Salvatore Mundi—missing for centuries.  He contacts his friend Robert Simon, an Old Masters art dealer, and they decide to buy it together, with the intention of selling it to an interested buyer.  They are aware it is not likely to be a completely original da Vinci, but they also know that someone will be interested in buying it.

            In Part I, “The Art Game”, we see that Parish and Simon have taken the painting to a professional restorer of art, Dianne Modestini, and her husband, a well-known conservator, to get their opinion about its authenticity.  She notices an unusual characteristic about the upper lip that is identical to one found on the Mona Lisa, and that helps convince her that it’s an original.  But she also recognizes that it has been painted over in places, and cleans it up, attempting to get to the original.  

            Parish and Simon then take it to the curator of the National Gallery in London who, in turn calls in a number of experts to get their opinions.  Rather informally, they all agree that it’s an original Leonardo, whereupon the painting is exhibited at the National Gallery as the lost Leonardo da Vinci, with crowds flocking in to see it.

            In the meantime, numerous experts are critical of the rather superficial authentication process and its public exhibition, and discount it as completely original.

            And now in Part II, “The Money Game”, we are into the dark world of art speculation and investment.  A Swiss billionaire businessman gets wind of the piece, informs his friend, a Russian oligarch…which gets us into the intrigue associated with the wheeling and dealing of art, particularly those with disputed provenance, and the most exciting(?) part of this documentary.

            Part III, “The Global Game”, shows how the commercialism of art can be taken to a global scale when a business like Christie’s auction house becomes involved. 

            The Lost Leonardo takes you on a journey that will be almost as exciting as a mystery story, except that learning of the dark side of art dealing is rather deflating in the end.  The filmmakers have done a good job in telling the story of the Lost Leonardo in a way that crams in so many facts in, but is nevertheless most interesting and, at times, intriguing. 

 

I recommend this film to anyone with the slightest interest in art and its commercialization of which the general public is usually unaware.  Who would’ve thought it could be a quiet thriller?

 

Grade:  B                              By Donna R. Copeland

Monday, August 23, 2021

PAW PATROL: THE MOVIE

 Voices of:  Tyler Perry     Ron Pardo     Will Brisbin

Keegan Hedley     Iain Armitage     Marsai Martin



Kids are going to love this.  But adults are too, with the spoofs, clever writing, references to current world issues, and ingenious special effects.  Developed from a Canadian computer-animated television series in 2013, writers Billy Frolick, Cal Brunker, and Bob Barlen adapted it into this movie, directed by Andrew Hickson and Cal Brunker.  

The Paw Patrol, headed by Ryder (Will Brisbin), is able to step in and rescue the citizens of Adventure City when their corrupt newly “elected” mayor (Ron Pardo) creates one disaster after another.  Mayor Humdinger (an apt name) displays his narcissism and hyperbole in usurping control over the weather, a fireworks display, jailing all dogs in the city (he favors cats, which hover around him), making the subway system a flawed looped ride, and finally, building “the tallest” building in the city. 

Writers have cleverly worked in current issues of today—corrupted politics, climate change, news media, diversity—even PTSD and conflict resolution modes.  I am truly awed by the way the filmmakers have woven together such important subjects within a completely entertaining movie for children.  This is one of the few films I’ve seen that are so successful in weaving together such disparate but important topics within an animated movie for children.

Tyler Perry has a small role in the beginning when he is rescued by the Paw Patrol   and “to the rescue” Chase (Armitage), after his huge truck gets suspended on a bridge.  He has absolutely no confidence in such a team rescuing him, but after their success, he has a new respect for the team, and the movie proceeds with the derring-do of the Paw Patrol.

Music by Heitor Pereira and animation by Mikros—along with all technicians involved and the primary showrunners and actors—make this a must-see movie.  

 

A rare find:  A movie for children and adults that provides pleasures for both groups.

 

Grade:  A                                          By Donna R. Copeland

 

Thursday, August 19, 2021

THE PROTEGE

 

Maggie Q     Michael Keaton     Samuel L. Jackson

 


            There is a clever premise to this action thriller:  It’s about “finding things that don’t want to be found.” Little references to this pop up throughout the story, always in different contexts, a testament to the skillful work of director Martin Campbell and writer Richard Wenk.  The story begins a little murky, jumping around from Viet Nam, Bucharest, and London with the viewer left in the dark initially as to what is really going on.

            Then it settles into a story about a young Vietnamese woman named Anna (Maggie Q) and her mentor Moody (Jackson).  After discovering a traumatized girl in Viet Nam, the professional assassin Moody rescues her and teaches her his craft, which she picks up on with considerable skill.  When one of Moody’s competitors named Rembrandt (Keaton) intentionally crosses Anna’s path, he is more than intrigued and a little incredulous.  

         As the story winds through the various underworlds and fantastical fights—which resemble choreographed ballets that are never very credible as fights—it continues to be gripping and suspenseful.  Suspenseful not in the sense of “who done it”, but in the question of who will win.  Wenk the writer excels in pitting able foes against one another in such a way that it’s gripping for the viewer every time, no matter the players.

            As the primary focus, Maggie Q (shortened by the actress from ‘Margaret Quigley’) holds her own as a star.  She easily captures the mystique of her character and maintains a cold presence even during intimate moments, although she also conveys the warm feelings, teasing, and gratefulness her character has for her mentor.  As seasoned actors, Michael Keaton and Samuel L. Jackson adopt their characters easily and convincingly.  It seems like a slightly different role for Keaton; he comes across more ambiguously than usual, calling for more subtlety in his performance.

            Flashbacks telling Anna’s story are extremely well placed, with the most moving ones toward the end of the film.  It’s especially impressive that they make sense psychologically for the woman she has become.  There are also words of wisdom carefully placed at intervals, so the picture becomes something more than the usual action-thriller.  

            Bravo to the filmmakers for giving us a wondrous ending—part unexpected and part a surprising reasoning/emotionally-laden discussion two main characters have at the end while holding guns on one another.

 

Protégé is a finely crafted action-thriller that still has fights stretching plausibility typical of the genre, but it doles out suspenseful thrills in full measure, along with some pearls of wisdom.

 

Grade:  B+                            By Donna R. Copeland

 

Thursday, August 12, 2021

EMA

 Mariana Di Girolamo     Gael Garcia Bernal     Santiago Cabrera     Paola Giannini     Christian Saurez


            This is a completely different movie from Chilean Director Pablo Larrain as compared to his earlier success most Americans are familiar with—Jackie—about Jacqueline Kennedy.  But he is an award-nominated/winning filmmaker for films with wide-ranging subjects, most with a Chilean political subject (No, El Club, Neruda).  He is even directing eight episodes of the current running TV series of “Lisey’s Story”, a thriller based on Stephen King’s work.  I have always admired his work, but do not know quite what to make of this his latest film.

            Ema is primarily a story about a dancer (captivatingly played by De Girolamo) who is married to the choreographer of her company, Gaston (Bernal).  They adopt a child after finding that Gaston is infertile.  Although it’s not shown to any great extent in the movie, the child does something horrible that makes the couple decide to send him back to the adoption agency.  

            Thereafter, come the typical recriminations and accusations of the would-be parents toward each other.  It looks like they are going to split up because of it, and Ema proceeds to make her own way in the world, although she still dances in the company.  The story shows the varying ways people cope with tragedy, using others to guide and help them adjust.  The two characters sleep around—he a little—she, a lot.  She has a mesmerizing quality that attracts both men and women.  

            How she decides ultimately to resolve her problems will likely be a shocker to most.  Larrain and the other writers make her solution seem plausible by virtue of her appeal and her consistently kind actions toward others, which is directly the opposite of how she is initially portrayed—and hated—as a rejecting mother. 

            My conclusion about what the film is attempting—very artistically—to get across is an observation about the sense of “ownership” people develop toward those close to them, especially their children and spouses.  Ema presents another point of view, that we all belong to one another, and much peace and harmony could result if we could readjust the nature of our attachments.

            Mariana Di Girolamo delightfully holds her own in being the main attraction of the film.  She has a mystique about her that captures your attention, and her dances intensify the enchantment.  Gael Garcia Bernal is a perfect somewhat older mate for Ema, one whose ego is strong enough to tolerate the jabs about his fertility but still vital enough to stay in command of his work.

It’s unusual when behaviors that initially seem risky and foolhardy turn out to be caring and loving, as is shown here.  That is, if you buy the story; I’m sure there are many who would be vociferously offended by the film’s premises.  I found it to be intriguing, although must admit that I doubt most people, as I, are not yet ready to embrace its principles.  It is likely only someone as attractive as Di Girolamo as she is portrayed could “sell” the idea, but we’ll see in future years.  Time will tell.

 

Take a look at a different way of looking at human connections where, maybe, everyone is a winner.

 

Grade:  B                              By Donna R. Copeland

RESPECT

 Jennifer Hudson     Forest Whitaker     Audra McDonald     Saycon Sengbloh

Tituss Burgess     Marlon Wayans     Mark Maron     Albert Jones 


Respect shows a cross-section of Aretha Franklin’s life from her childhood up through the first several of her many successes (1972 album Amazing Grace).  It makes good use of flashbacks to fill out the early stories, showing the kind of background from which Aretha came and the strong influence of her father throughout her life.  His influence even extends to her standing up to him and forging a life and career unbeknownst to him.  That he did not approve didn’t seem to lessen their continued deep love for one another even through rocky times.

And there would be many rocky times as a function of the first man Aretha chose to marry, the rigors of a music idol’s life, a certain degree of rebelliousness, and her own susceptibility to alcoholism.  The story is well told, and although beginning sections of the 2½ hour film could have been shortened, the rest of the production is gripping.  The processes by which Aretha and her fellow musicians are composing and recording songs is highly entertaining, both for their explication of the process and the discord/accord that rises and falls.  When a song hits that special note, the audience breathes a sigh of relief and has a joyful moment along with the musicians.

Young director Liesl Tommy, whose previous work has been in television, shows great sensitivity in the types of experiences she has chosen to feature, in the aptness of the flashbacks, and in the overall picture of the times during these periods of Franklin’s life.  She has shown good judgment as well in showing almost complete renditions of many of Aretha’s most popular songs.  Credit is likewise due to the primary writer, a close friend of Liesl, Tracey Scott Wilson (TV’s “Fosse/Verdon” and “The Americans”), who was thrilled to work on the project after being a fan.  She says, “It’s one of those things where you want to get it right. She’s just so important. There’s not many musical biopics about Black women in general. It was really important to us to represent her as she was, with a lot of love and care.”

As Aretha, Jennifer Hudson (chosen by Aretha before her death), captures the music and the complex/complexing personality that was Aretha—her early sense of herself as someone who knows her own mind and has clear opinions and one with a rebellious streak who may show flashes of temper.  At the same time, one who could be meek and at sometimes be sensitive to another person’s point of view.  

Forest Whitaker, with so many credentials in portraying complex characters, is a perfect choice to stand in as a powerful man with obvious weaknesses and contradictory positions.  All the actors chosen are strong:  Audra McDonald cameos of Aretha’s mother; Marlon Wayans as an abusive, controlling husband; Tituss Burgess as a mentor to the child Aretha through her adulthood; and the music producers played by Mark Maron and Tate Donovan.

As a biopic, Respect is likely to please the fans of Aretha Franklin.

 

“How does the woman with the greatest voice of all time find her own voice?"    

 Director Liesl Tommy


Grade:  A                              By Donna R. Copeland

Thursday, August 5, 2021

MATERNA

 Kate Lyn Sheil     Lindsay Burdge     Jade Eshete     Assol Abilene


            This impressionistic picture showing slices of reality for four women will prompt conversations to have with other viewers later rather than providing any closure.  A clue as to what the filmmakers had in mind may be in the opening scenes in which Jean (Sheil) is hooked up to a virtual reality machine, and announces, “Something’s not right.  Some kind of bug.  Let’s explore it…I was watching this thing happening to me and I couldn’t do anything about it.”

            We see that Jean lives alone (presumably during the pandemic when she is working at home), is heavily involved in what she is doing—perhaps some kind of experimental virtual reality program.  She is interrupted periodicall by brief conversations on the phone with her mother who desperately wants her to get married and have children.  Or at least preserve her eggs.  Obviously, grandchildren are uppermost in the mother’s mind.

            The next slice is provided by Mona (Eshete), a black woman who is an actress (and writer perhaps) whose television show has just been cancelled, and her mother’s solution is for her to return to her previous occupation as a minister in a Jehovah’s Witness Church.

            The next is Ruth (Burdge), a well-to-do politically conservative woman with a son who is being bullied at school and a brother at the opposite end of the political spectrum who is gay.  They have a volatile dinner together one evening, and she is clearly left to her own devices.

            The final vignette involves Peri (Abullina) who is from Kazakhstan and returning home after a visit to the home country following the death of a favorite uncle.  It takes a while for her to get significant information about the death from her mother and grandmother.  

            These women are all separated from one another by race, culture, politics, religion, and class, yet all have three things in common:  They are all in pain.  They have conflicts with their mothers.  And they were all on the same subway car when a loudmouth man makes everyone aware that he is impatient for the train to move along—says he has an important meeting--although he says he has no job.

            Perhaps the filmmakers, while showing that all these women have legitimate pains and frustration, want to point out that there are men losing so much of what is important to them—jobs and core identity—which women are unaware of and unaware of its implications.  That is, men and women live in separate universes.

            And is it saying that the definition of ‘maternal’ is changing, that women are being called upon to be more than mothers in the previous sense of the word?  One grandmother says to her daughter about her granddaughter, “Listen to her; she can do anything.”  That is, the charge made to all mothers in the contemporary world—that in addition to being mothers, they need to support their families in every sense of the word—emotional, economical, and moral.  It is up to them.

       The ultimate meaning of the film is not easy to discern, and that means to me the filmmakers are attempting to prompt the audience to think more seriously about the role/roles being expected of women in contemporary times.

 

Are women of today facing a burden unlike those who have come before?

 

Grade:  B                              By Donna R. Copeland

ANNETTE

 Adam Driver     Marion Cotilliard     Simon Helberg


            Unless they’ve already heard a significant amount about it, Annette is likely to take viewers by surprise.  It’s surreal in its drama and characterization; audiences interact  in unison and sometimes in song with the comedian; music by the pop and rock duo, the Sparks brothers (who are the writers as well) is quirky in their well-known style; and the whole production is unlike almost any of the American musicals.  

            Henry (Driver) and Ann (Cotilliard) fall madly in love shortly after meeting.  It’s an unlikely pairing in that he is a stand-up comedian called “Ape God” and she is an opera singer.  His routines are odd with a mixture of subjects that are meant to shock the audience, although there are always some who laugh.  One of the first signs of the significance of his feelings are his many references to Ann’s popularity and that in her roles she often dies in the end.  Very soon after their meeting, Ann is pregnant, and it looks like they will be happily making their way into a conventional family.  The birth of the child is remarkable and funny, in a way, in that it is accompanied by the singing of the doctor and nurses…and Henry.

            But things happen.  Unusual things.  And then more unusual things.  We wonder if this romantic unit will manage to survive.  

            The actors are well cast, and Cotilliard has a beautiful, pure voice that is soothing when the action is rough.  She is also a fine actor.  Adam Driver portrays his character in his usual convincing way; he is also a fine actor, and although it is clear he is not a trained singer, his voice is acceptable, using mostly a recitative style effectively.

            The Sparks’ music is sometimes lyrical—especially when the chorus is commenting on the drama—pointed in its references, and droll at other times.  Ron and Russell Mael have done a remarkable job in designing a plot with music that is full of surprises and suspense, along with the entertaining quirkiness.  By the end, references made in the beginning make sense in retrospect, with life lessons learned.

            Leos Carax (best known for Holy Motors) has taken the Sparks’ material and directed the production with sensitivity and an eye for timing and successfully producing an unconventional movie that, in the end, has substance.  It is slow at times, and some editing and shortening would have improved it.

            Annette is not a film for everyone, but for those of us appreciating the quirky and unusual, it quite satisfies.

 

An unlikely pairing of an opera singer with a droll comedian that somehow works.

 

Grade:  B                              By Donna R. Copeland

            

THE SUICIDE SQUAD

Margot Robbie     Idris Elba     John Cena     Viola Davis

Daniela Melchoir     Sylvester Stallone (voice)     Joel Kinnaman 


            It takes a creative, fanciful mind to dream up a story about such a motley group of characters (all prisoners) charged by the U.S. Government with dismantling a Nazi-like prison and laboratory in a foreign country, Corto Maltese.  Although The Suicide Squad does have drama, it’s also very funny.  Amanda Waller as director of the Suicide squad and researcher of human powers has a testy relationship with the squad she has formed to take down the Nazi-like prison of Jutenheim and its project named Starfish.  In the squad, there is a definite rivalry—sometimes boyish—among leading men Bloodsport (Elba), Peacemaker (Cena), and Col. Rick Flag (Kinnaman), for instance.  And there is Ratcatcher 2’s (Melchoir) attachment to rats and Bloodsport’s phobia about them.  On top of these dramas, we see examples of aspirations for political power, U.S. involvement in other countries’ politics, and the ethics of human research.  But… it’s more of a comedy in its buffoonery, japery, and craziness, with a shark (voiced by Stallone), a woman attached to rats, and a weasel (Sean Gunn) as part of the crew, along with the use of “super-powers” such as polka dots, starfish, and King Shark’s sheer bulk as weapons.   Thank James Gunn as writer and director for all this zaniness.  The trailer refers to “the Horribly Beautiful Mind of James Gunn”, so I think he deserves the credit.

            The first squad sent out to Corto Maltese doesn’t make it, the details of which are shown in a silly but amusing way.  Similarly, even though the second squad makes it, they come to find Col. Flag happily engaged with a woman in a tent.  He’ll have explanations for this, but then he joins Harley Quinn (Robbie), Peacemaker, Bloodsport, Ratcatcher 2, and King Shark in a plan to capture the chief scientist of the Jutenheim Laboratory and release all the citizens imprisoned by the government.

            “Do they succeed?” you might ask.  To find out, you must experience all the hi-jinks  along the way.  Actually, it doesn’t really matter, because the action is highly entertaining.  For instance, Peacemaker and Bloodsport get into a heated argument about some of Peacemaker’s remarks.  In reply, he says, “I cherish peace with all my heart, and I don’t care how many men, women, or children I kill to get it.”  You can enjoy Harley Quinn getting engaged in a heated affair with the president of Corto Maltese (one of their love trysts destroys a whole room), after which, she is persona non grata in the country and tortured to give up the names of her squad…until…

            Another entertaining part for me was to see Ratcatcher 2—first being seen sleeping much of the time with a rat resting on her shoulder—have a clear sense of justice and be able to use rats to effectively defend the team and the city.  I understand that Daniela Melchior had to audition with a rat to be sure she was comfortable with it.  Rats—some of the most abhorred species on the earth doing something heroic?  James Gunn makes it sensible—and endearing—somehow.

            Margot Robbie goes way out in portraying Harley Quinn, showing she can be a fine actress in action-comedies just as well as a bad girl in tense dramas (I, Tonya), a tragic Hollywood figure (Once Upon a Time in Hollywood), a queen (Mary Queen of Scots), and the voice of an animated rabbit (Peter Rabbit, Peter Rabbit 2:  The Runaway).  She is an arresting figure who can be as powerful as any in vanquishing enemies, but her cohorts can be super impressive as well.  A stand-out is John Cena portraying a well-intentioned strong arm, Peacemaker, who is effectively held in check by more grounded Bloodsport (Idris Elba).  The cast is strong, perfectly matched to their characters by Yiniva Cardenas and John Papsidera.

            All in all, I would say this is a very successful movie in its genre—several notches above most.  In addition to making a female one of the most central figures, it extends the irony to men having big plans to rescue a woman who had already escaped and putting rats in an elevated position for a grand finale.  I did note that mothers are put down as a theme in the story, and dads as well, although not nearly as much.  Note the last gripping hilarious(?) scene.

            I would think that anyone with a playful sense of humor and an interest in quirky characters would enjoy Suicide Squad.

 

Get on board for an adventure plunging you into a world that will take some getting used to, you’ll have but lots of fun along the way.

 

Grade:  A                              By Donna R. Copeland




Thursday, July 29, 2021

THE GREEN KNIGHT

Dev Patel     Alicia Vikander     Joel Edgerton     Ralph Ineson

Sarita Choudhury     Sean Harris     Kate Dickie

 

            Based on a poem written in the 14th Century by an unknown author, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight has been an intriguing story ever since.  Writer/director David Lowery in the third retelling of it in film enhances its mysteriousness by making the screen very dark, by accompanying it with choral music rendered in Middle Ages verse (with accents of dissonant modern music) composed by frequent Lowery collaborator Daniel Hart; and by a heavy dose of symbolism.

            It helps in understanding this film if one has read the poem and is familiar with the story.  I had not, so was mystified during many scenes until afterwards, when a colleague referred me to the myth.

            We meet Sir Gawain as a modest, committed knight so unassuming that he has to be ordered by King Arthur to sit by him and the queen.  When King Arthur requests that he tell a tale about himself so the King will know him, Gawain forthrightly demures, saying that he has no tale.  Soon after, the King is visited by a mysterious figure (who looks like a tree dressed up as a man) who presents his challenge to any of King Arthur’s knights.  The knight, the Green Knight (Ineson) dares any of those present to strike the Green Knight with his own axe, with the agreement that one year and one day later, the knight must find the Green Knight and allow him to strike the same blow as he had dealt to the Green Knight the year before.  No one answers but Sir Gawain who takes up the challenge, with plans to revisit the Green Knight on Christmas Day the following year.

            Close to the appointed day, Gawain sets off on the journey to honor his pledge.  Of course, along the way, he will encounter many travails and tests of his strength and commitment.  Among them are bandits who steal his horse, his sword, and a sash his mother gave him to keep him safe, then they tied him up and left him to rot.  He encounters a woman who literally lost her head, which is at the bottom of a spring.  (This is only part of the magic sprinkled in throughout the story; that is, she is talking to him with her head attached, but still wants to retrieve her head).  He also meets a Lord (Edgerton) and his Lady (Vikander plays two roles, this one and the woman he is in love with at home).  The Lord proposes a bargain (a theme in the tale) wherein he will bring Gawain all the spoils of his daily hunts, and Gawain is to give to the Lord what he gained during the day.

            After much of what Gawain lost during his travails is restored, often magically, he finally arrives at the Green Knight’s home, ready to honor his pledge.

            Although well done in many respects, The Green Knight will appeal primarily to those interested in fantasy and in literature of days gone by.  I found the dark screen and often unintelligible dialog and choral words tedious, despite my interest in the story.  A confusing aspect added by Lowery is that Gawain’s mother gives him a sash for protection before he leaves on his journey, and his local love Esse gives him a ring.  On his journey when he meets the Lord’s lady (also played by Vikander) she as well gives him these two items.

Dev Patel, Alicia Vikander, Joel Edgerton, and Ralph Ineson are superb in their roles, always a joy to watch.

 

Better read some background on this story so as to derive full benefit of its entertainment value.

 

Grade:   B                                                  By Donna R. Copeland