Thursday, June 24, 2021



            Two researchers have found their calling in attempting to track the sounds of whales—Dr. Michelle Fournet off the coast of Australia and Dr. Ellen Garland off the coast of Scotland.  The documentary demonstrates how they are going about tracking and recording the whales’ sounds and their attempts to communicate with them.  Specifically, they want to have “a conversation with a whale.”  

            We are shown some of the elaborate equipment that has been designed to do the work at the Cornell University Bioacoustics Laboratory.  There are innumerable “calls” they’ve already recorded, especially for this film the sound of a “Whup”, which seems to be used to say ‘hello’ and introduce themselves.  Dr. Garland has been able to sound out and name the whale sounds she has identified.  She can reproduce them in a most convincing way.

            The film is directed by Drew Xanthopoulos, with editing done by Robin Schwartz.  It leaves much to be desired in that the subject of the songs of whales is so much more intriguing than what the director actually shows us.  Part of the problem is the editing, which is so choppy it breaks up any hope of a narrative.  The filming jumps back and forth between Fournet’s and Garland’s field work, often concentrating on what I think is unnecessary information, such as the difficulties in doing this kind of research, the drain on personal relationships, etc.  I can appreciate that it must be hard—the researchers are out in the field for weeks at a time in a very nature-tensive environment than what they are used to back home.  And things like a break-down of a boat motor causes frustrating delays.  

            It seems like a more apt description of Fathom by the way it is filmed should be something about how this type of research is so hard, not just in the technical aspects but as well in the toll it may take on the researcher’s personal life.  Much more intereating would be elaboration on facts such as that the whales’ communication have evolved over millions of years and that they constitute a global cultural network that we know so very little of.

            As a film by women about women’s work, I was disappointed; they seem wimpy as compared to men, and I’m sure that is decidedly not true.  The researchers must have tons of material they could have used to describe in more detail how they “read” and listen to the sounds of whales as captured by their recordings.  It’s only in the last ten minutes of the movie that we get a taste of that.


Fathom is much more about the difficulties in conducting research on whale communication than it is about describing the findings so far.


Grade:  D                              By Donna R. Copeland


 Vin Diesel     Michelle Rodriguez     Jordana Brewster     Tyrese Gibson     Ludacris

Nathalie Emmanuel     Thue Ersted Rasmussen     Helen Mirren     Kurt Russell


If car racing, heists, and spying—with all the special effects that one can think of—is your thing, and you don’t mind absurdity, then F9 is the movie for you.  This is the 10th full-length version of the theme since it first appeared in 2001.  Another theme puts great emphasis on family, a motif repeated across the series, with the star Vin Diesel as Dominic always implying that family is sacred and of the utmost importance.  (“Family” includes all the people one is close to as well as those biologically related.)  The problem in this newest iteration is that Dominic’s estranged brother Jakob (Cena) has suddenly appeared on the scene. 

Jakob is clearly less principled than Dom, and is easily drawn in by nefarious schemes, this time with Otto (Rasmussen), with whom he plans on getting his hands on an object that will allow him and Otto to rule the world.  They have captured Dom’s nemesis Cipher (Theron) and put her in a glass box so she can assist them, but she shows only disdain for Jakob.

The movie will take us on a world tour (London, Tokyo, Central America, Edinburgh, Azerbaijan, Tbilisi in Georgia, even outer space) as a way I presume of making the story more exciting.

The biggest problem with the movie as I see it is that practically all of it takes place on streets in big cities with cars and people getting hit and scattered every which way, punctuated with fist fight free-for-alls.  A little dialogue will transpire, but soon it’s back to car chases and fist fights.  It is a tiny bit to their credit in my book that the women are just as ferocious and active as the men; not one hesitates to blast with a gun, her body, or fist…AND with a computer.

All of the movies in the franchise have been big box office draws, although critics tend to be much less enthusiastic.  That has to do with the numerous implausibilities (e.g., cars being shot out over large bodies of water and an actual trip into space) and contradictions (characters seemingly rising from the dead) replete in the series.  But promoters of the film advise viewers just to sit back, suspend realistic considerations, and just enjoy the movie with your popcorn.

Director Justin Lin—who has previously directed three Fast films—is also scheduled to direct the final(?) two adventures.  He knows exactly how to please enthusiastic fans of the franchise, helped along by the special effects crew, cinematographer Stephen F. Windon, and composer Brian Tyler.  


F9 remains true to the franchise in its daring thrills and main characters, with the cast cast headed by Vin Diesel as usual.


Grade:  C-                             By Donna R. Copeland

Thursday, June 17, 2021


 Voices of:  Kelly Marie Tran     Awkwafina     Isaac Wang     Daniel Dae Kim

Gemma Chan     Benedict Wong     Sandra Oh     Alan Tadyk

            This is straight Disney from the Americanized dialog to the characters dressed like Asians but bearing little resemblance to them.  If you don’t mind that—and many don’t—it’s an engaging story about a fractured people getting separated into factions and coming back together on the basis of trust.  Although the creators didn’t have it in mind, they realize now that it has resonance today in the need for trust and a pandemic characterized as “Druun” in the movie.

             It begins with Raya’s (Tran) close relationship with her father, Benja (Kim), but with differences of opinion between the two about the world.  Benja has maintained a hope that the people of Kumandra could reunite into a trusting, peaceful state once again like it was when dragons existed and before the Druun destroyed all of them.  But there is one dragon left, Sisu (Awkwafina) which has survived with the charge of destroying the Druun and reuniting all the factions of Kumandra:  Spine, Heart, Talon, Fang, and Tail.

            Adventures follow, with Raya leading a charge forging battles with the other factions.  She has enlisted Sisu, the one existent dragon, into their cause.  Sisu is not as one would expect; she is witty, good-hearted, and entirely a peace-making figure.  It will take a while for Raya to begin to understand her way of thinking. 

            Strengths of the movie include primarily female protagonists in an action movie with emphasis on friendship between women, ending the story with some ambiguity for the viewer to fill in the blanks, and a theme that is topical for our time.

            The movie is colorful with Disney-quality graphics and sure to captivate the middle age to teen age crowd.  I doubt that younger children will enjoy it beyond the color and the intriguing figures.  It does have a message about trust, but one that is rather naïve and simplistic to my way of thinking.  


Good female models in an action movie that is topical for today.


Grade:  A                              By Donna R. Copeland


 Emilie Bierre     Marianne Farley     Judith Barlbeau     Paul Doucet

            This story will put a chill in any mother’s heart.  It shows a reality that is hard to believe, even though we all recognize that it springs from truth.  I’m not sure, but I figure that the 13 year-old girl shows a kind of heroism and strong character that is uncommon in one so young.  This is not to say that I think the choices she makes are the best ones from my point of view, but I do admire her strength in following her own instincts about her own life.

            Emilie Bierre’s performance reflects unusual talent and training in her ability to convey what her character Magalie is thinking just with her eyes and facial expressions.  She plays a quietly rebellious figure who is nevertheless still only 13 and susceptible to some kinds of coercion, even though she is likely to thwart any adult trying to force her to do or say what they wish.  She responds much more readily, however, to gentle persuasion.  Unfortunately, her mother (played so convincingly by Marianne Farley) does what is probably typical of protective mothers, yelling at and trying to force an obstinate teenager into compliance.  Another mother—neighbor and close friend of Magalie’s family, Chantal, does a bit better with her son and with Magalie, but she still shows a tendency to tell a teenager she knows best even while conveying sympathy.  

            Another important figure is the mayor of the town, played by Paul Doucet, who is Chantal’s husband, and a mentor to Isabelle.  He seems to be someone who is always ready to lend a helping hand. He is highly respected in the small community, where everyone seems to know everyone else, and he is considered something of a hero after the town was inundated by a huge construction project that killed Emilie’s father.

            Directed and co-written by Jeanne Leblanc with Judith Baribeau, Les Notres (Our Own) has already started receiving awards for the production.  These two women beautifully convey heartfelt commentary on people in a small town in Canada (similar, I’m sure, to small-town America) who are flawed (sometimes seriously) but trying to do their best in the families they love while coping with a challenging social problem. Also typical of small towns is an unwelcoming stance toward people who look different from the residents and are likely to be scapegoats for things the community doesn’t want to face.  As with good movies, this one leaves the viewer with some unanswered questions that are worthy of discussion after seeing it.


A gripping story of small-town life, its good points and its flaws, told in a drama about one teenager, which reflects the community as a whole.


Grade:  A                              By Donna R. Copeland



            What a life Rita Moreno has had—and it’s still going on!  She got a Hollywood Star at age 64, and at 84 is working on a remake of “One Day at a Time”, a Broadway play.  Arriving with her mother in the 1930’s from Puerto Rico on the U.S. shores, Rosita (only later would she be called Rita) was struck by the lack of greenery and color on her approach and a statue of a woman holding what looked to her like an ice cream cone in her right hand.  Little did Moreno know what was ahead for her.

            She was a success right away (“I learned very early how to get attention”), having been spotted by an MGM agent at a New York nightclub when she was only 16 years old. After a brief meeting with Louis B. Mayer, she traveled to Hollywood with a contract in hand, where her mother’s sense of how to make her look as much as possible like Elizabeth Taylor, helped her get cast immediately.  Unfortunately, Hollywood filmmakers saw her solely as a Latina, so there followed countless roles as a beautiful young native girl with an accent.  (She began to realize that it didn’t matter which accent; the filmmakers didn’t distinguish between them.  She only needed to come across as a slightly kooky “other” girl.)

            Moreno hadn’t come across many people to guide her in in the new world she was in, so she stumbled into numerous situations/roles that were great initially, but weren’t the best for her ultimately.  But she was good at realizing what she was being asked to do.  This extended to her relationship with Marlon Brando who, despite all his narcissism, at least guided her into psychotherapy.  That would stand her in good stead as she continued to make her way through the Hollywood scene after she and he had parted.

            It was interesting to me that the filmmakers (Mariem Perez Riers, director) interspersed excerpts of the Brett Kavanaugh hearings into Moreno’s story.  It was a way to demonstrate the vulnerability of many women in the context of male authority/power, which indicated the intent of the makers of this documentary to use Rita Moreno’s life to illustrate the point.  And that is that generations of women are starting to learn how to manage and maneuver themselves through the male-dominated maelstrom of whatever business they are in.  It’s not just Hollywood; it’s almost every major business of today.

            This incredible woman has now achieved EGOT (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, Tony) status.  


A fine documentary about Rita Moreno’s remarkable life directed by Mariem Perez Riera


Grade:  A                              By Donna R. Copeland

Thursday, June 10, 2021


 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


 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


 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



            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