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 na├»ve 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