Thursday, September 30, 2021

AMERICAN NIGHT

Emile Hirsch     Jonathan Rhys Meyers     Paz Vega     Michael Madsen     Jeremy Piven 

            What a disappointment.  Writer-director Alissio Della Valle has whipped up something that is supposed to be an art intrigue, but the production from writing through editing leaves much to be desired.  If I hadn’t been going to review it, I would have exited before the end.  The script is so mundane it’s close to being hilarious in scenes that aren’t supposed to be funny.

The story goes like this:  The heir-apparent of Andy Warhol’s Pink Marilyn Monroe, Michael Rubino (Hirsch), the self-entitled son of a Mafia boss and aspiring painter no less, has gotten into the cross hairs of forger-turned-art-dealer John Kaplan (Meyers).  They’re both after the Warhol, which has gone missing.  A cheap addition to the plot is putting the two also in competition for the same woman, beautiful museum conservator Sarah (Vega).  To add to the confusing mix is stuntman Vincent (Piven), who finds the painting, brings it to John, and asks for a cut of the profits.

For me, the movie was doomed the minute I saw Emile Hirsch as the son of a mafia boss who is about to succeed his father.  Hirsch has none of the characteristics we usually think of in those who have grown up in a crime family.  He just doesn’t look nor act the part.  I’m usually a fan of Jonathan Rhys Meyers, but again, he failed to convince me of his (reformed) mercenary nature.  His trysts with Sarah have some chemistry, but not enough to convince me of his passion in the end.

            I had hopes for this movie when I saw the cast who have been great in previous films but miscasting and the script—along with direction by Alessio Delle Valle--pretty much doomed it.  

 

Save your precious time and miss this movie with a good cast but a “wha?...” kind of plot.

 

Grade:  F                              By Donna R. Copeland



THE ADDAMS FAMILY 2

Voices of:  Oscar Isaac     Charlize Theron     Chloe Grace Moretz     Nick Kroll

Snoop Dogg     Bette Midler     Bill Hader     Javon ‘Wanna’  Walton

            Silly; as it’s meant to be.  This version’s entertainment focuses on Dr. Strange (Hader) who is claiming that there was a mix-up at Wednesday’s (Moretz) birth and that she is actually his daughter.  “Isn’t it obvious?”, he says; she clearly has inherited his scientific talents.  This seems to play into Wednesday’s recent plans where—she being a teenager—is feeling ashamed of her parents and disgusted with her brother and wanting to get away.  The Addams parents try to hide the identity of Strange’s lawyer from Wednesday after the lawyer pays them a visit, but of course it’s only a matter of time before she figures out who he is.

            Sensing his beloved daughter’s distancing, Gomez (Isaac) decides it’s time for a family vacation, a trip across the United States.  His wife Morticia (Theron) agrees, saying, “Of course; we have some of the best dark secrets, as countries go.”  As part of the family, brother Pugsley (Walton), Uncle Fester (Kroll), and Lurch (Carel Struycken) will all board a contraption to be driven by Fester, discovering the wonders of America, all while being tailed by the lawyer and his thug.  

            A trip to Salem gets cancelled because Fester sees a sign to Niagara Falls and immediately veers in that direction.  From there, they will make their way to The Alamo in San Antonio, the Grand Canyon, and finally to Death Valley, which was to be their final destination, except…they must do a detour to Sausalito and the home of Dr. Strange, because Gomez and Morticia are not about to cede their daughter to Strange.

            The story and animations in the 2-version are entertaining, although I imagine that those who have seen previous versions of the Addams Family may find it repetitious.  My favorite character is Wednesday who shows a delightful mixture of insight and acerbity and is almost unerringly logical.  When she wins a science contest along with all the other participants, she declares with a harumph, “How can I be a winner when there are no losers?”  After she gives her father the one hug he has been longing for and is ready for another, she refuses, saying, “I’ve been socially distancing since birth.”  These are subtle comments about our current time that I found amusing.

            I find the cruelty of Wednesday toward her brother hard to take, although I realize that’s the kind of “pratfall humor” many enjoy.  I find the rationalizing of the parents endearing and refreshing, as they use every means they have at their disposal to bring her back to their fold.  I like the movie’s message of tolerance—even admiration—for strangeness; that’s probably a hallmark of the Addams stories.

            

Although Addams Family 2 is not something of a new sensation or profound in its insights, I can easily see how many people will find it enjoyable, endearing, and funny.

 

Grade:  C+                            by Donna R. Copeland 



Thursday, September 23, 2021

DEAR EVAN HANSEN

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

Grade:  B                                          By Donna R. Copeland

 




Monday, September 20, 2021

BLUE BAYOU

Justin Chon     Alicia Vikander     Linh Dan Pham     Mark O’Brien

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


A film with potential that deserved serious editing.

 

Grade:  D                              By Donna R. Copeland

Thursday, September 16, 2021

THE EYES OF TAMMY FAYE

Jessica Chastain     Andrew Garfield     Cherry Jones     Vincent D’Onofrio

 Fredric Lehne     Louis Cancelmi     Sam Jaeger 



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Grade:  B                              By Donna R. Copeland



Thursday, September 9, 2021

THE CARD COUNTER

 Oscar Isaac     Willem Dafoe     Tye Sheridan     Tiffany Haddish


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

            

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

 

Grade:  A                  By Donna R. Copeland

Thursday, September 2, 2021

SMALL ENGINE REPAIR

 John Bernthal     Shea Whigham     Jordana Spiro     Cidra Bravo     Spencer House



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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

Grade:  C+                            By Donna R. Copeland