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 (sueƱitos) 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