Thursday, June 10, 2021

HOLLER

 Jessica Barden     Gus Halper     Austin Amelio     Becky Ann Baker

 


            A tale of a midwestern city in the U.S. today.  Blaze (Halper) and Ruth (Barden) are on their own after their mother becomes addicted to opioids and sent to jail.  Blaze is older and takes his responsibility for Ruth very seriously.  He recognizes that she is very bright, and pressures her to fill out a college application.  But things are bleak.  Even after we hear President Trump predicting “jobs, jobs, jobs” on the radio, there are rumblings that the local food manufacturing plant, where Blaze and their good friend Linda (Baker) are employed, is going to close.  

            Blaze and Ruth carry on, trying to collect enough metal to sell to the local scrap shop to survive, but their rent is past-due and their water has been cut off because they haven’t paid the bill.  The man to whom they have been selling cans and whatever metal they can find, Hark (Amelio) offers them a deal.  He is a self-made man (and proud of it) supposedly making thousands of dollars selling metal to China.  He offers to bring the two into his business with even a place to live—at his house with multiple boarders—and the extra perks of games to play in their spare time.

            One big happy family.  Right.  It’s not long before Blaze and Ruth learn that they are expected to participate in extracurricular activities.  It’s a crossroads for them, as they must make a decision about surviving here, compromising their principles, vs. fleeing to unknown places to make a living.

            The story written and directed by Nicole Riegel is chillingly realistic, partly because it is partially autobiographical.  Her account illustrates the binds people get into when the world around them doesn’t offer the expected, e.g., a lasting job at a respected manufacturing plant and honorable health care.  How many times has this happened, as U.S. corporations have taken their operations elsewhere, and the medical industry willingly over-prescribes opioids?  Too many to count.

            Riegel points out all too well how her characters are hardworking, honest, and adaptable; yet, they are caught in a global crunch far beyond their control.  What do they do then?

            This is a fine movie for those who maybe haven’t quite understood the global changes that have been taking place or for those who will benefit from affirmation of their own experience in which expectations of permanence were unmet.  It’s not a profound story as told, but one in which basic truths are well illustrated.

 

A “Modern Times” story in which young people are presented with choices they may not realize are “do or die.”

 

Grade:  B                              By Donna R. Copeland

IN THE HEIGHTS

 Anthony Ramos     Corey Hawkins     Melissa Barrera     Leslie Grace     Olga Merediz

Jimmy Smits     Daphne Rubin-Vega     Stephanie Beatriz     Gregory Diaz IV


            Washington Heights in New York City used to be an Italian neighborhood, but now it is filled with Latinos from Puerto Rico, Santo Domingo, Cuba—you name it—all Spanish-speaking.  Creator, producer, and composer Lin Manuel Miranda is from Puerto Rico, and gives a moving—sometimes playful and funny—account of the immigrant experience.  Everyone seems to be on the move constantly, whether to go back home (listening to “island memories”) or stay, or even move across town, or at least to move up in life.  At times, characters pause and reflect on the present and the need to appreciate the things they have right now.  But hopes and dreams (sueñitos) make up the underlying theme for all, along with finding a sense of belonging, finding one’s place.

            Most of the film is loud and frenetic with hip hop, rap, and salsa music and dance going full blast.  All of it is enjoyable (if a little loud and hyper-frenetic), especially the dancing, choreographed by Christopher Scott.  Characters dance and sing everywhere—in the ballroom, on the street, in a tiny apartment.  Woven throughout are vignettes showing conflicts in love, business, and immigrant status.  (Lack of resident documentation for education even gets a shout-out.)

            At center stage is Usnavi (Ramos—a favorite of Miranda), a bodega owner with dreams of going back to Santo Domingo and rebuilding his family’s property destroyed in a storm.  He is shy and must rely on his much bolder assistant Sonny (Diaz) to score him a date with favorite customer Vanessa (Barrera), an aspiring fashion designer supporting herself by working at a beauty shop—she hopes temporarily.  They have an off-and-on romance with difficulties trusting themselves and each other.

            A role sure to be a hit with audiences is Abuela Claudia (Merediz) everyone’s grandmother.  She’s very different from the popular grandma in last year’s Minari, played by award-winning Youn Yuh-jung, being much more like most grandmothers in the U.S., indulgent and religious (i.e., Christian).

            Other entertaining connections involve Nina (Grace), just back from her first year at Stanford University, whose enduring love is Benny (Hawkins).  The issue here is with Nina’s father Kevin (Smits) who is insisting Nina return to Stanford, despite a difficult year facing discrimination and the absence of the community support she is used to having in her hometown of the Heights and her worry about the tuition payments her father is having trouble making.

            The production is superb, and director Jon M. Chu (Crazy Rich Asians)—like Miranda, sensitive to cultural distinctions—ably pulls together all the elements in showing us an entertaining, insightful look at a cohesive group of immigrants living in the U.S.  Alice Brooks’ cinematography captures so well the whirling dancers—even sometimes boogying up a building wall—as well as the intimate moments in small settings.  The colorful and eye-catching costumes by Mitchell Travers add another essential art to the production that helps set it off.  It’s a bit long—two hours plus—and some scenes could have been condensed, but interest is sustained throughout.

            In the Heights was a hit as an off-Broadway, then Broadway show, and this film is likely to be just as well received, especially by the younger set and immigrants from all over.  Those viewers will be able to identify with the challenges and everyday experiences of these realistically portrayed characters, along with being optimally entertained

 

A boisterous good time sprinkled with a little heartbreak and true love is in store for viewers of this fine production.

 

Grade:  A-                             By Donna R. Copeland

 

Thursday, June 3, 2021

THE CONJURING: THE DEVIL MADE ME DO IT

 Vera Farmiga     Patrick Wilson     Ruairi O’Connor     John Noble


Those who have followed the Conjuring series of films are familiar with the husband-wife duo of a demonologist (Wilson), Ed, and his psychic wife,Lorraine,  (Farmiga) who set up their equipment on site wherever there are clues or trouble.  In this instance, there is trouble in the Glatzel family where young David seems to be possessed.  It’s one of those cases where a child is happy and well-adjusted, jumping happily on a newly found waterbed, when he is suddenly seizing and thrashing around and developing demonic qualities.  A priest has been called in for an exorcism, but when it doesn’t seem to be working, Arne (O’Connor), the beau of David’s sister Debbie, whom he adores, speaks to the devil, asking it to transfer the curse to Arne.  

This transfer complicates everything, and Lorraine and Ed go to all kinds of eerie settings in search of clues, which include a rat-infested area under the Glatzel’s house where a witch totem is found, the home of a retired priest who studied Satanists and knows about this particular totem, and a mortuary where the dead body of a cursed young woman is revivified.  

All during these searches, other significant events are occurring; namely, Ed’s heart attack, Lorraine’s near-death experiences, and Arne’s imprisonment and trial for murder.

This is over the top for me personally, but the audience in the screening I attended applauded afterward.  To each his/her own, and for horror fans, it may be that this movie might be just the ticket to thrill and chill.

Vera Farmiga (Bates Motel, Up in the Air) and Patrick Wilson (Fargo, Angels in America) are accomplished actors who elevate what could be a ho-hum story into an engaging tale.  Their supporting actors (Ruairi O’Connor, John Noble, Sarah Catherine Hook, and Julian Hilliard) are commendable and forceful in portraying their roles.

But I think this film suffers from what many do nowadays, those in which filmmakers are re-treading the same plot over and over again.  There is only so much they can do, other than pulling in more and more over-the-top scenes to grab and jolt the audience.  It would be so much more preferable to me for them to create new plots for current issues, rather than drawing on something like a 1973 Exorcist film, something long outdated.

 

An updated Conjuring tale may not necessarily be the best choice for a movie.

 

Grade:  D+                By Donna R. Copeland

ALL LIGHT EVERYWHERE

 

            This documentary by Theo Anthony is interesting for our time in its demonstration and discussion of body cameras used by police departments and the larger issue of constant urban surveillance.  The first part is a detailed explanation of how body cameras work, hosted by the Axon company, which produces most of the body cameras and tasers in the U.S. and all over the world.  Their primary aim is to reduce the need for guns and bullets (although whether or not this is the case is belied by all the recent incidents of people being killed while using body cameras).  In the beginning of the film, the president of Axon International gives a tour of the factory making the cameras, and shows a policeman training officers in the City of Baltimore on how to operate them.  There is also a brief history of cameras in general and their many uses across time, the most entertaining being Galton’s use of fingerprinting and photography with film development in his theory of phrenology.  

            The documentary ends with a heated discussion among Black urban Baltimore residents about the pros and cons of surveillance, which includes one woman’s observation that cameras are ubiquitous—in stores, hospitals, and schools, for instance—but she says that is not where major crimes occur; it occurs on the streets.  So her viewpoint seems to be pro urban surveillance.  But one of the men present keeps questioning its legality and morality.  He thinks that filming for crime prevention is the government’s job; not that of a private company.  He points out that before filming, consent needs to be obtained by those being filmed; this is obviously not done or is even feasible in continuous urban surveillance.

            This discussion is very worthwhile to listen to, but I think the filmmakers should have included scholars and ethics people providing information on all the many issues involved in privacy in general—a hot topic these days.

            Sometimes, the film is very slow moving, for instance when it extends shots that don’t necessarily convey any information—or at least it’s not clear why the material is being shown.  I think they may have been trying to make it more entertaining—even more “artsy”, but my attention wandered during these scenes.

            Overall, the documentary provides interesting and useful information about the use of body cameras in crime prevention and control and some of the rationale for them.  The City of Baltimore initiated a pilot program in 2019, and as of September, 2020, all officers there are required to wear them.  I believe a research program assessing their effectiveness is ongoing, and I, for one, will be very interested in its findings.

 

Attempts to help us understand how body cameras and tasers work and are useful in policing, along with some of the rationale for their use.

 

Grade:  B                              By Donna R. Copeland

Thursday, May 27, 2021

A QUIET PLACE PART II

 Emily Blunt     Millicent Simmonds     Cillian Murphy     Noah Jupe     Djimon Hounsou


            Part II follows along nicely from the first one, although I don’t think the first one really warranted a sequel.  The vignettes from the previous one were helpful.  And certainly the eeriness of the silence punctuated with loud squawking of the monsters is even more effective this time.  It produced a number of jumps and convulsive gasps on my part.  

            Evelyn (Blunt) and her three children are trying to survive after the destruction of their farmhouse.  The oldest, Regan (Simmonds) is deaf, but eminently resourceful and brave.  Poor Marcus (Jupe) gets his foot caught in a trap early on, giving him excruciating pain and risk of infection.  Not only that, he has asthma, which presents an additional challenge.  The baby is still an infant in his mother’s arms, and his cries are a major threat.  It stretches plausibility that their bundling him up in a box with oxygen pumped in could be effective, but…  I went with it.  (The monsters are blind, but their sense of hearing is acute; hence, the need for absolute silence.)

            Mother and children run across an old friend, Emmett (Murphy) who is far from welcoming because of the scarcity of resources.  He is grieving the loss of his family, and Evelyn has to use guilt-inducing strategies even to stay one night.  The story gets more complicated when Regan insists on going to a place she is sure will save them and sneaks off, but Emily insists Emmett go find her and bring her back.  She also needs to go out to get medicine and oxygen for Marcus.  Each of these ventures are harrowing.

            Some relief from the tension is provided when Regan’s speculations pan out, after she and Emmett meet a character played by Djimon Hounsou, but only after a dangerous encounter that almost kills them.

            John Krasinski, who was writer/director and a major actor in the first Quiet Place, and as writer/director here, is a master of timing and sequencing to get the most out of suspense and horror.  However, he like so many other directors and editors now, love frequent cuts back and forth between scenes.  It makes me dizzy, and I resent having to try to figure out over and over again where I am in following the story.  I see absolutely no benefit to this practice.

            The ensemble cast in A Quiet Place Part II is superb, starting with Emily Blunt, who has earned her place as a top-notch star numerous times (The Adjustment Bureau, Edge of Tomorrow, The Devil Wears Prada, A Quiet Place).  Millicent Simmonds as her hearing-impaired daughter is a rising star (Wonderstruck, A Quiet Place), as is Noah Jupe (Honey Boy) playing her son.  Cillian Murphy and Djimon Hounsou as experienced actors in numerous films play their roles here perfectly.  It may be a high point in Murphy’s career.

 

A Quiet Place Part II is successful in producing jumps and gasps during a true horror show.

 

Grade:  B                              By Donna R. Copeland

CRUELLA

 Emma Stone     Mark Strong     Emma Thompson     Joel Fry     Paul Walter     Emily Beecham


            It’s hard to see this as anything but horrible.  We have the tired old theme of two women fighting with one another using underhanded means.  OK, but not only that, the whole exercise is set up to make room for the next installment, which is, probably, further manifestations of the same cat fight.

            Little semblance of creativity in the script can be found in this production; the underlying theme is that women are devious and cold-hearted.  Traits in the first evil woman, the baroness (Thompson), are sure to be found in her abused (aren’t all her attendants abused?) assistant, Estella (Stone).  

            I realize there have been reincarnations of the Cruella character for years, from the time she first appeared in Dodie Smith’s novel in 1956 (The One Hundred and One Dalmations) through numerous appearances in Disney productions ever since, the latest one in 2000 (102 Dalmations), when Cruella was portrayed by Glenn Close.  I’m puzzled about the public’s fascination with these movies—which are always popular—until I realize that they are tapping into a fundamental belief in the concept of women.

            Setting that aside, I have to say that the director Craig Gillespie’s previous films (I, Tonya, Lars and the Real Girl) are ones I’ve loved for their demonstration of psychological acuity and empathy.  Maybe there is something I’m missing, but I don’t see any of that here. 

            All of that said, Emma Thompson and Emma Stone give outstanding performances that display bravado and formidable talent.  Mark Strong, Joel Fry, and Paul Walter Hauser add many of the soulful and comedic twists that move the story along.  The costumes (Jenny Beavan) are extraordinary and form the essence of what part of the story is about and whatever creativity is found in the film.  The music of Nicholas Britell is so much a part of the story, it is essential to its production.

 

A movie that is bound to please, but begs the question about how women function in society today.

 

Grade:  C                              By Donna R. Copeland

Thursday, May 20, 2021

THE DRY

 Eric Bana     Genevieve O’Reilly     Keir O’Donnell


            This is a captivating murder mystery that takes place in a small town in Australia, and when childhood friend of the accused killer of his family and himself, Luke, Aaron (Bana) is asked by Luke’s father to attend the funeral, he goes.  Aaron is currently a police detective in another city; he and his father had left the small town years before when Aaron was wrongly accused of killing Ellie, a friend in a small group that included Aaron, Luke, Gretchen (O’Reilly) and Ellie.

            The accused Luke eventually married a woman named Ellen, and they had two children, Billy and Charlotte.  Whoever has murdered this family spared Charlotte, an infant.  Aaron is planning to stay only one day in the small town, but Luke’s parents ask him to do some probing into the crime; they can’t believe their son was capable of such a horrific deed.  So in the interest of possibly exonerating an old friend who helped him out long ago, Aaron stays in town, teaming up with local detective Greg (O’Donnell)

            We follow along with them, pursuing clues and following up on leads meant to carry the viewer along on a trail with many side trips.  As we go along, we get to know the small-town characters very well, along with the stories associated with them.  

            Eric Bana is a perfect lead character, with his somber, unreadable expression except when he wants to show a slight emotional pull.  When we see his character as a young high school student with his father and then in his current persona, we get a very good picture of a thoughtful, tenacious, brave man clearly in touch with his emotions.  

            Directed by Australian Robert Connolly, The Dry is excellent in characterizing small towns whether in Australia or the U.S.—where most people in town know one another, many lives are intertwined in personal relationships, and residents are hesitant to talk about certain town secrets.  Suspense in the film is ever present and ongoing, a strong point for the film and the novel on which it was based:  Jane Harper’s highly rated, well-received debut in 2017.  The final denouement is a little bland, but the rationale underlying the family murder rings true, and we do get to hear the truth about it as well as the earlier death of the friend Ellie long ago.

            Cinematography by Stefan Duscio captures so well the drought-ridden countryside with the dusty roads and dried up forests, lending a powerful integration and symbolism within the story.

 

An engaging murder mystery with a well written script and skillful actors.

 

Grade:  B                              By Donna R. Copeland

RIDERS OF JUSTICE

 Mads Mikkelsen     Nikolaj Lie Kaas     Andrea Heick Gadeberg     Lars Brygmann     Nicolas Bro     Gustav Lindh


            What a mixture of madcap, bloody trauma, and “family” values—all in an unbelievably clever script.  I don’t recall ever seeing a movie quite like this.  It starts out showing a family with the usual kinds of problems and disappointments:  Parent-child conflicts, father who won’t be home for Christmas, a stolen bike, and so on.  Right after this, we see an intellectualizing scientist trying to explain to his board about algorithms.  He’s going home with his box of personal items after he is fired.  You think, “What on earth could this be about?”

            But a train wreck will bring all these characters—plus some others—together.  How they get brought together to work on the same problem— that is, whether or not the train wreck was an accident or planned sabotage—is part of the fun of the plot.  This is a real mishmash group of people:  A student (the daughter) and her boyfriend, the scientist with two of his nerdy colleagues, and a soldier in the military (the father).  Not only that, we get to hear snippets of their backgrounds that in some weird way are related to their current behavior.

Director Anders Thomas Jensen and his co-writer Nikolaj Arcel are brilliant in pulling all these elements together in a way that—I can’t say makes sense—but is within the realm of plausibility.  That is their art, and that is what makes us laugh.  

There is special reward for Mads Mikkelsen fans in seeing him play an inscrutable character—which is not unusual—but one who must weave together in the same man a cold soldier and someone who doesn’t really understand at all what is going on around him, except when it relates to his military training.  As the father, Markus, of daughter Mathilde (Gadeberg), he is perfect in showing how alienated a person can be from his own offspring, and despite all his resistance, comes to know her as never before.

The two nerdy scientists, Otto (Kaas) and Lennart (Brygmann) add additional color as bumbling fools (despite their high IQ); along with Emmenthaler (Bro), the hacker; and the refugee from the gang, Bodashka (Lindh).  When this motley group forms a family of sorts, you will see how it all makes sense.

            Music provided by Jeppe Kaas should be praised for its innovative, integral role in illustrating a story well told.

 

Of all the films about bringing justice into a crazy world, this one is the most unusual—and entertaining.

 

Grade:  A                              By Donna R. Copeland

DREAM HORSE

 Toni Collette     Damian Lewis     Owen Teale          Joanna Page


            This film is just what you hope it will be; an inspiring story of a horse and its owners coming into their own through a bit—or perhaps a considerable amount—of trauma.  Additionally, it’s based on a true story.  I like the way the movie opens with Jan (Collette), a middle-class woman in Wales, working several low-level jobs, trying to get her older husband Brian (Teale) out of the TV chair at home, and taking care of her parents. When suddenly she gets inspired.  It seems there are a number of citizens who could use more zest in their lives.

            Jan had won awards as an animal trainer in her earlier days, and when she came across an advertisement for a mare, something inspired her to look ahead and realize her vision of a racehorse.  She works in a grocery store as well as in the local bar, so she is well acquainted with the townspeople.  When a new person shows up, a certain Howard Davies (Lewis), the owner of the bar fills her in on his shady past (including considerable debt in betting on horse races), she makes note.  As she takes his order, they have a cryptic conversation, but something clicks between them, and when he hears later of her purchase of the mare, he engages her.

            That encounter leads to their formation of a syndicate of townspeople to buy stakes in the offspring of the mare who is expected to breed with a sire of racehorse pedigree.  The filmmakers present us with colorful townspeople who buy into the project, as well as vignettes about Jan and her husband and Howard and his wife.  I could, however, have done without the scenes of an older man having trouble getting his clothes on and keeping them straight—an attempt at some comedy, I suppose, that just didn’t succeed.

            Eric Wilson’s cinematography and Jamie Pearson’s editing work together with the story to present a thrilling tale of tight horseraces being held in vista-like settings with windmills often a part of the picture.  Toni Collette is inevitably a fine actress showing all kinds of emotions with her face and her body and stepping up to be assertive when need be.  Damian Lewis strays from his usual fare of British dramas and political thrillers to play an upper-class stock trader comfortably hobnobbing with the small-town group.  

            

Townspeople banding together in a heartwarming tale of a shrewd woman’s keen eye in looking for a winner.

 

Grade:  B                              By Donna R. Copeland

Thursday, May 13, 2021

FINDING YOU

 Rose Reid     Jedidiah Goodacre     Katherine McNamara   

Tom Everett Scott     Vanessa Redgrave     Patrick Bergin

 


           Finding You.  I was turned off by the title right away; what does that even mean?  Another rom com?  Then I saw the movie.  Wow!  The number of connotations of the phrase is so artfully blended into the story, I was incredulous by the end.

            Finley Sinclair (Reid) is a high school graduate who, after failing a violin audition, decides she wants to spend a year abroad in Ireland, just as her brother did.  (Her brother is part of the story.)  By happenstance, on the airplane over to Ireland, she meets a famous movie star, Beckett (Goodacre), who tries to charm her with his usual skills, but she is completely turned off and mistrusting.  She had picked up a film rag on the trip and seen his picture plastered all over with all his hysterical fans and adoring leading lady (McNamara).  

            It turns out that her host family in Ireland—the same one that had hosted her brother—has inherited an inn.  And who should Finley meet on her first day there?  Beckett—you guessed it.  All their initial meetings are prickly and verbally combative, so of course you figure they will be entangled.  

            But not in the usual ways, and that is the charm and essence of a story that goes beyond light and cute and instead reflects the real challenges encountered in our modern world, i.e., the power of money and the responsibility it brings for some people, the burdens of fame, the double binds encountered by a parent’s control over his child, and, finally, whom to trust in life.

            Writer-director Brian Baugh, who started out as a cinematographer, but quickly transformed into a writer-director-producer with a commitment to stories that are inspiring and relevant, has created a film that weaves in these concepts into his work that will elate and inspire, as well as produce a chuckle.  “Things are not always as they seem” is one of those adages that stand out loud and clear when a young woman is not sure of a new suitor, a volunteer at an old folk’s home meets a crusty grouchy old woman, (Redgrave)  and a sleeping drunk (Bergin) is being routed off a village bench in the daytime.

            So, Finding You is about Finley finding herself and finding her love, Beckett finding himself and finding his love, Finley’s finding her brother, and an old woman and her estranged sister finding each other.  That’s a tall order for a movie, but it has succeeded here with all the elements necessary.  The acting is superb, especially by Rose Reid, Jeddiah Goodacre, Tom Everett Scott as Beckett’s father/manager, and Vanessa Redgrave (what a thrill to see her again!).

 

One of those good-for-the-soul movies that will still inspire you and make you chuckle.

 

Grade:  A                              By Donna R. Copeland

SPIRAL

Chris Rock     Samuel L. Jackson     Max Minghella     Marisol Nichols



             As the film explains toward the end, a spiral is symbolic of change, evolution, and progress.  Of course, this typically refers to the spiritual development of a human.  In the context of Spiral the movie, it does symbolize change, evolution, and progress—but in a distinctly different sense.  One of the first messages received is “I’m here to help reform the police.”

            When the movie starts, we’re immediately pitched into a torture scene—one of many that will follow as a deranged killer leaves his trademark of a spiral and delivers ominous messages and ghastly mementos to Detective Zeke Banks (Rock).  Right away, it becomes clear that Banks has earned the enmity and scorn of his fellow cops in the South Metro Police Department, so even though he’s assigned lead on this case, he’s not always getting cooperation from his associates, although Chief Angie Barza (Nichols) seems to understand him better than the others.

            The rest of the movie has all the devices commonly used in the horror genre—a series of startling frights and mysterious puzzles, confounding all those trying to wrestle with the situation.  We get a bit of father-son drama between Det. Banks and his father, (Jackson), the previous chief of the department.  These two characters are only fairly developed, but Rock—normally a comic—shows his skill as a lead actor in drama.  Jackson’s role is more as supporting actor, but his character is referred to frequently enough throughout the story, we get some sense of who he is.

            Director Darren Lynn Bousman and writers Josh Stolberg and Pete Goldfinger and some of the crew in this film have previously worked together on Saw franchise movies, this being the eighth.  (Bousman directed Saw II, III, and IV.)  Still another Saw is in the works, and Spiral is clearly set up for its sequel.  Obviously, despite their gore and redundance in plot, fans continue to favor them.  On the other hand—partly because of the gore and repetition—they have not been well received by critics in general.

            As a critic, I am in sync with my colleagues.  Although this version of Saw might be novel and even entertaining to a newcomer, I have to question the worth of seeing one grisly torture/murder after another—just  for the sake of being gruesome—in a shole string of films. This series seems to have run its course sometime back, making the prospect of doing two more particularly odious.

 

Spare yourself another movie intended solely to gross you out, without much of anything to redeem it.

 

Grade:  D                              By Donna R. Copeland





Thursday, May 6, 2021

THE HUMAN FACTOR

 


            This chronicle of all the times since 1991’s Oslo Accord that Israelis and Palestinians have attempted to come to a peace agreement with the U.S. as negotiator demonstrates how deep-seated the hostility is between the two sides.  Israelis were so against Yitzhak Rabin’s signed agreement with the Palestinians he was killed.  Palestinians were so much against an accord in progress almost made by Nasser Arafat with Israel it resulted in outright warfare between the two.  Because of the U.S. being considered as the major world power in 1991, and its interests in maintaining peace between Israel and the Arab states, it offered to be the outside negotiator during this period of time.

            It had a big—perhaps impossible—job.  Along the way, there are many encouraging signs during the process of negotiations.  For instance, in the earlier stages, it is remarkable how Rabin changes his attitude toward Arafat, and the efforts of U.S. personnel is clearly evident.  At first Rabin is stiff, but by the end he is smiling at Arafat and shaking his hand.  Many times in the beginning, Arafat agrees to terms, showing a lot of trust.  But as soon as he senses that the other side is not respecting him or giving the Palestinians their due, he balks.

            Through it all, the importance of support staff of the leaders in furthering along the negotiations is clearly visible.  At times, they advise the leader and are absolutely on target.  Although, toward the end, when an apprehensive Clinton polls his staff about whether to have another summit with Israel’s Barak and Palestinian Arafat, they advise him to do it—it turns out to be a questionable judgment, as noted by 

            Overall, The Human Factor comes to be a brilliant way of showing how much diplomacy and negotiations in world affairs is so much about human interactions, language, and history.  The human touch is apparent throughout the film—whenever diplomacy succeeds.  When it is missing—when there is no empathy or historical understanding—diplomacy is useless.  Historical events may encroach upon whatever is proceeding, but that awareness of humanity and empathy can make all the difference in the world.

            If one wonders why there has never been a successful accord between Israelis and Palestinians, The Human Factor will help you understand.  It’s a combination of history, leadership, and negotiations that have so far been beyond our reach.

            The film is good at charting the course of negotiations during the Bush and Clinton administrations, but it should have covered as well those prior, in the Carter Administration.  An improved version would also give more consideration to the Palestinian position and more clearly identify the commentators.  By the end, I cannot tell you who they were.

 

Explaining—to some extent—the tenacious problem of Israeli-Palestinian relations.  Diplomacy on the line.

 

Grade:  B                  By Donna R. Copeland                             

THE PAPER TIGERS

 Alain Uy    Ron Yuan     Mykel Shannon Jenkins     Yuji Okumoto     Matthew Page


            This is a kung fu action movie like you’ve never seen before, most likely.  Three middle-aged men who had special status in their youth for being the chosen of their master teacher, (“the unbeatable Paper Tigers) feel bound to defend the honor of their idol after he has died, despite the fact that they have not kept up with their martial arts skills, nor their relationships with the teacher, and are mostly involved in their paying jobs.  When prodded, they feel guilt about having abandoned the master, and now that he has passed and wanna-be kung fu fighters unmindful of his teachings and the principals behind them, they resolve to step up to the plate.

            We learn more about one of the stars, Danny (Uy), who is trying to hold up his part of the bargain he made with his ex-wife to be involved in his young son’s life—and not doing a very good job of it.  Hing (Yuan) is notable for a major problem with his leg, despite which, he manages to step up whenever there is a challenge, but he is the one who has taken it upon himself to get in touch with the other two to remember the master.  Jim (Jenkins) is still envied because the master (who was a cook) always gave him the best piece of chicken.

            Kung fu challenges are presented by a former acquaintance of the three, Carter (Page), who had a reputation for being inept, but has secured a high-level position at the former master’s school.  An even bigger challenge is made by a dangerous local punk (Okumoto) who has learned kung fu, but has not taken on the principals of honor that are supposed to be a part of it.  It’s said he is a part of the urban criminal underworld.  Indeed, the successor to the master Sifu has been murdered, and his predecessor may have been as well.

            Paper Tigers is the first full feature film written and directed by Quoc Bao Tran.  He’s been involved in a number of aspects of filmmaking, but mostly shorts and television. shows  He will most likely improve across time, but for now in this film, writing and character structure are treated superficially and stretch plausibility.  Most glaring in this respect is that three out-of-shape middle-aged men could expect to take on the younger kung fu specialists.  The issue of their confronting aging and ways of coping with it are completely ignored.  Left hanging is the obvious conflict between Danny’s and his ex-wife’s positions about fighting.  She is clearly a pacifist, whereas Danny believes strongly that fighting is necessary at times, and he is committed to teaching his son certain skills.  If the movie had dealt with this conflict and had fleshed out the characters of the other two Tigers, I think it would have been a much better movie.

            

A kung fu movie that stretches plausibility in its older protagonists taking on their youthful heirs of the martial arts.

 

Grade:  D                              By Donna R. Copeland

WRATH OF MAN


Jason Statham     Josh Hartnett     Scott Eastwood     Andy Garcia     Eddie Marsan

Holt McCallany     Rocci Williams     Jeffrey Donovan



            The film’s section titles give you some idea of what’s ahead: “A Dark Spirit” (introduction of “H”, a new employee in the security company Fortico that transfers millions of dollars a day for companies; “Scorched Earth”; “Bad Animals Bad”; and “Liver Lungs Spleen Heart.”  This is a Guy Ritchie film, so you’re already prepared.

            We meet our hero named “H” (for Hill) (Statham) by his new supervisor “Bullet” McCallany), who sees him as someone he needs to mentor.  H quickly gains the reputation of “a dark spirit”, as named by the segment title both by his peraonality and his first job.  He proves himself a hero right away in taking out a gang trying to steal Fortico cash.  Although…one supervisor observes that “I’m startin’ to think he’s a psychopath.” 

            In reality, H had worked for another security company that had gone bankrupt, so he was not naïve to the business.  Part of the thrill of Wrath of Man is finding out who this character is, what has brought him into the company, and what, basically, drives him.

            The film is based on a previous French action drama, Le Convoyeur (Cash Truck) directed by Nicolas Boukhrief, and writer-director Guy Ritchie has attempted to convert it to a more Americanized version, bringing in one of his favorite leading men, Jason Statham.  

            Statham is quintessential as the inscrutable player who can mold himself into any environment—but always with an ultimate goal.  He makes this exploration into a detailed plan with contingencies exciting and suspenseful.  It also weaves in some pain and grief, making the plot more understandable.  We see both sides of the ultimate encounter at work, but we cannot tell how it will all turn out.

            There are some “hmmm” moments when what goes on onscreen seem improbable, but for the most part, the story keeps you engaged.  It’s not anything new really or earth-shaking, but it’s an entertaining ride for those ready for such an adventure.

 

Loyalty and truth are the primary themes in this action thriller spotlighting Jason Stathem.

 

Grade:  C                              By Donna R. Copeland





Thursday, April 29, 2021

TOM CLANCY'S WITHOUT REMORSE

 Michael B. Jordan     Jodie Turner-Smith     Jamie Bell     Guy Pearce

            John Kelly is an elite Navy Seal whose home is invaded one evening, and although the intruders were not able to kill him, they did kill his wife.  Wounded, John manages to kill most of them in retaliation, but one gets away.  He realizes this is related to a top-secret operation in Aleppo, Syria he was participated in.  He is tried and put in prison for his crime.  He senses the attack on him is part of some government’s plot, but he isn’t sure what it is.  It was Russians who attacked his home.

            John is considered to be a risk both in terms of someone killing him, and in terms of his determination to seek out and kill the one remaining intruder.  While he is in prison, the CIA (which still has its suspicions about him) recruits him for a secret mission in which Americans would be sent to Russia to capture a Russian agent suspected of working against the U.S. for years and bring him to justice.  He may be the one who got away from John’s house, which makes him determined to go on the mission.

            The trip is a dangerous one, and sure enough, there are many treacherous encounters that ensue even after they manage to get to Russia. 

            Without Remorse provides the origin story for Tom Clancy’s John Clark, a character in his Jack Ryan series.  It helps if one is familiar with the background, but the script is so well written by Taylor Sheridan (Hell or High Water, Wind River, Sicario) and Will Staples, it’s exciting on its own, with a mixture of daring and persistence on the part of Kelly, government politics and intrigue, and realistic characters showing their hopes and anxieties.

            Michael B. Jordan has a fine record of performances (television’s “The Wire” and “Friday Night Lights”, and movies Fruitvale Station, Black Panther), which have prepared him well for this role of an astute, skillful Navy Seal with a conscience and a compelling force that makes him soldier on against all odds.  

            The softer but highly competent role of Jodie Turner-Smith provides good balance to the masculine forces all around her.  Jamie Bell serves well as one to be suspicious of, but always equipped with an intelligent plan.  Guy Pearce seems to be able to merge into any character that comes his way; he has a record of a multiplicity of all different kinds of roles, and I always enjoy seeing him in all of them.  His role here is a bit mysterious, which is just as it should be.

            The film doesn’t really stand apart from other good films in the genre but will entertain the viewer interested in the genre.   

 

Tom Clancy fans will be treated to fine writing and acting in this thriller mixing intrigue with physical combat.

 

Grade:  B                              By Donna R. Copeland

LIMBO

Amir El-Masry     Kwabena Ansah     Vikash Bhai 

            One really gets the meaning of limbo when you wait and wait and wait on a remote Scottish island with a small clutch of young men from places like Syria, Afghanistan, Ghana, and Nigeria who are seeking asylum.  They are housed in modest lodgings and get supplies from the donation shop.  They attend classes on acculturation, applying for a job, etc.  And of course as time goes on friendships begin to gel.

            Omar is from Syria and is known for always having his oud (a musical instrument) with him—although he never seems to play it.  He is reserved, but Afghani Ferhad pulls him in by not being too forceful; and they are roommates.  Omar has periodic conversations on the phone with his mother who invariably asks if he is changing his sheets, and other motherly questions.  The parents are in Turkey, but Omar hopes to bring them to Scotland when his immigration is approved.  His brother has remained in Syria to fight against the harsh regime, which is an issue for the family as well.

            This is a delightfully quirky film written and directed by Ben Sharrock who is eminently successful in weaving together profound relevant issues with wry humor, funny caricatures, and intrigue.  First, he captures so well the experience of those seeking asylum where waiting is the main game.  (Albeit much better than the current U.S. asylum seekers being detained between Mexico and Texas.)  These hopeful emigres are given reasonable places to stay and some funding, although the locals may sniff and roll their eyes at them sometimes.  

            We hear about the various frustrations these particular men have to deal with, which makes you appreciate the determination it must take to persevere.  We also come to know their ambivalence and the profound sadness and pull simply to go back home.  But little comic bits and motifs are interspersed here and there—a delivery truck that comes and goes with operatic music blaring, one of the men stealing a chicken and naming it Freddy after Freddy Mercury—along with meaningful episodes such as Omar needing to help the local farmer find missing lambs in a snowstorm.

            Cinematographer Nick Cooke’s artful framing makes you want to pause the film at times and just admire his composition.  Long shots of characters peeling an egg or an orange somehow becomes interesting and contributes to everyday realism.  Cooke captures as well the sweeping landscape and beauty of Scotland, where filming took place.  

            This is the kind of film I like best, where characters are touchingly fleshed out, the story is well told, and creativity abounds.  I was a bit disappointed toward the end of the story when instead of ending with the solo performance, orchestral music took over.  I would have preferred relishing the moments a bit longer and seeing Omar’s reactions.

 

What better way than Limbo for us to learn what it takes to leave one’s own country and seek asylum in another?

 

Grade:  A                              By Donna R. Copeland