Friday, January 28, 2022

PARALLEL MOTHERS

Penelope Cruz     Milena Smit     Aitana Sandhez-Gijon     Israel Elejalde 

            Even though the viewer can at times imagine what’s going to happen in this film, it still maintains its suspense and bit of mystery throughout.  Writer/director Almodovar’s work and the actors—especially Penelope Cruz—make viewing the film well worthwhile.  Two unmarried women are in the hospital to give birth, which had been unplanned for both of them.  Janis (Cruz) is older and more mature of the two, whereas Ana (Smit) is less grounded and has had an unhappy home life with each of her parents.  She’s still living with her mother, Teresa (Sanchez-Gijon), an actress, in an ambivalent relationship on both sides.

            Janis elects to have her baby and continue the family tradition of being a single mother.  Although the father (Elejalde) has various solutions, they aren’t acceptable to Janis and she insists on the two of them separating.  There is one hook; she had engaged Arturo (Elejalde), an anthropologist, to uncover the grave of her grandfather and others who were victims of Franco’s Fascist government.  The wives/daughters/granddaughters of these men have all pledged to see that they got a proper burial.  There is a certain amount of professional aid and red tape to achieve this, so it will take a fair amount of time.

            Meanwhile, the two mothers go their separate ways, although they had become close during their confinement and exchanged contact information.  Their paths do indeed cross in planned and spontaneous circumstances, after which, major twists and complications ensue.  This is the heart of the movie in both senses of the word.  A major ethical dilemma occurs for one character, and others have to make difficult decisions.

            This is another instance in which Almodovar’s empathy and understanding of women becomes paramount in relating a story that is dramatic but believable at the same time.  One of the beautiful things to observe in this case is the honor shown by so many of the characters.  Although heart-rending things have happened, the viewer leaves the theater feeling good about humanity and the world.

            At first, it seemed an odd juxtaposition of placing birthing and mothers next to the brutal deaths of ancestors, but in consideration of the reality of births and deaths being ongoing occurrences in life, it makes sense to me.  The “feel good” part of Parallel Mothers comes with the realization that life goes on, whatever happens and whatever we make of it; it’s bigger than any individual person.  And our happiness and ultimate satisfaction lies in the ties that bind us all together.

 

Another well founded and entertaining production of the master Pedro Almodovar.

 

Grade:  A                              By Donna R. Copeland



Thursday, January 27, 2022

SUNDOWN

Tim Roth     Charlotte Gainsbourg     Lazua Larios     Henry Goodman

            This intriguing narrative teases you along doling out bits of information in a slow stream (background, identities, and thought processes), prompting your hypotheses and predictions, but guiding you somewhere unexpected all the time until perhaps the very end.  It’s exquisitely written and directed by Michel Franco who must know something about detective novels—although here, he’s written it so that you are the detective.

            We first meet Neil (Roth), Alice (Gainsbourg), and two teenagers at a swanky resort in Acapulco.  Alice lets Neil know how glad she is that he came on the trip (“Of course!” he replies) and a number of times they refer to “the children.”  Relationships are not spelled out at this point.  It’s apparent that Alice is the warmer of the two personalities and much more demanding of others, although she warmly tries to accommodate everyone.  We learn that she is a successful businesswoman, very committed to her work.

            Gainsbourg is famous for her acting in over 75 films, particularly in Nymphomaniac, Melancholia, and Antichrist, award-winning films, and for her performance particularly.  She brings her art to bear in Sundown, where she is the main focus of the family group enjoying a relaxed vacation in which she is wheedled into playing dominoes and staying away from her phone.  Curiously (for the na├»ve viewer), Neil does not play a dominant role in a situation where the man often does.  He is agreeable, but noncommittal.  

            Tim Roth is perfectly cast as the character Neil—often in the background—who offers little information as to who he is or what he might be thinking.  Yet, he remains the star of this drama, someone who often just looks silently at the person asking him a question who must use his/her judgment as to how to respond.  We observe him making leading moves and doing surprising—even outrageous—things.  Who is he?

            You will know very well by the end of the movie, one that is well crafted to make you think, observe your stereotypical thinking along the way, and leave you with questions to ponder as to the characters and the drama that you’ve just watched.

            This is not an “enjoyable” film, but it held my interest throughout with its eloquence in depicting human beings and the endless ways in which they present themselves and find solutions to the situations they encounter.  A big omission in assessing the movie is in not letting us know just how much one character (Alice) knows about another’s (Neil’s) current status.

 

This is a mystery well worth your time in its depictions of real people facing daunting situations and in its revelations about us, the viewers, as we make our assumptions about what we see.


Grade:  A


THE ICE AGE ADVENTURES OF BUCK WILD

Voices of:  Vincent Tong     Aaron Harris     Utkarsh Ambudkar

Simon Pegg     Natalia Martinez     Ray Romano     Queen Latifah


This is an Ice Age adventure in the usual Disney vein.  Typically, in the franchise’s tradition, some current universal issue is addressed (e.g., climate change, its threats and others’ to animals and to earth), along with changes in relationships within small groups, like a family or a herd, facing a major threat.  This one focuses on children ready to leave home, pitting their urges against the common parental holding on, and changes that take place in relationships across time.

            In a previous version of Ice Age (e.g., Continental Drift) it is Manny (Romano) who has trouble letting his daughter Shira leave home; in Adventures of Buck Wild, it is Ellie who wants to keep their adoptee possums, Crash (Tong) and Eddie (Harris), from striking out on their own.  Various points are made about their not being ready to be on their own range from “You’re not ready” (Ellie) to “it’s about time” (Manny)—perspectives that will be familiar to all.

            As we follow the possums sneaking out to forge their own futures, we are taken with them on numerous adventures that make them question their decision to leave home, some of which are treacherous.  Notably, although they do reconnect with their old savior Buck Wild (Pegg) after entering the “Lost World”, earth’s most dangerous place where ancient dinosaurs rule, they will still go through numerous trials, concluding with the usual Disney ending when points are made about sticking together as a family/herd and care and concern about others.

            The biggest threat in this story is evidenced by Orson (Ambudkar), the animal with the big brain who wants to rule the world.  The familiar narcissistic traits of such a personality are apparent, which make it easy to dislike him.  But although autocratic regimes (accurately portrayed in this rendition) wanting power are familiar to all of us, there is little insight in this film about how to counteract such entities.  Simply resorting to old—previously relevant—strategies about sticking together or wreaking vengeance is not going to do it.  There have to be reasons for sticking together—not just something like “we’re a family.”

            This production is an example of a franchise that has outlasted its relevancy, despite its efforts to relate to the modern world.  Yes, we know about climate change and the difficulty personal relationships undergo across time, but what to do, really?  

            This is a cartoon not expected to give us profound insights, but it would have been nice to see some clever insight—even comedic—that would give us a clue.  There are encouraging statements made about change across time—its benefits as well as the anxiety it produces, and about how despite change, some elements such as a person’s basic identity remain the same.  It is a bit amusing to see how personal responsibility is modelled in the echoing arguments about “it was my fault”, “no, it was my fault.”  

However, I can’t imagine anyone maintaining interest in this franchise across all its repetitious 20-year iterations.  It’s likely that only newcomers will engage with this one, the latest.

 

Oh, to be transported to a universe—even a fanciful one—where today’s problems would be addressed intelligently.

 

Grade:  C                              By Donna R. Copeland





 

Wednesday, January 19, 2022

HOUSTON FILM CRITICS SOCIETY AWARDS FOR 2021 FILMS

 15th Annual Houston Film Critics Society Award Winners

Picture: The Power of the Dog
Director: Jane Campion, The Power of the Dog
Actor: Benedict Cumberbatch, The Power of the Dog
Actress: Jessica Chastain, The Eyes of Tammy Faye
Supporting Actor: Kodi Scott-McPhee, The Power of the Dog
Supporting Actress: Ann Dowd, Mass
Screenplay: Jane Campion, The Power of the Dog
Cinematography: Greig Fraser, Dune
Animated Feature: The Mitchells vs. the Machines
Original Score: (tie)
Hans Zimmer, Dune;
Jonny Greenwood, The Power of the Dog
Original Song: Wherever I Fall – Part I, Cyrano: music by Bryce Dessner and Aaron Dessner; lyrics by Matt Berninger and Carin Besser
Foreign Language Film: Drive My Car
Documentary Feature: Summer of Soul
Texas Independent Film Award: Red Rocket
Visual Effects: Dune: Paul Lambert, Tristan Myles, Brian Connor, and Gerd Nefzer
Stunt Coordination Team: No Time to Die: Matthew Sampson, stunt department manager; Olivier Schneider, supervising stunt coordinator; Leah Breckman, stunt coordinator; Jamie Edgell, assistant stunt coordinator, Yves Girard, stunt coordinator, second unit; Boris Martinez, co-stunt coordinator, second unit; Gabriele Ragusa, it assistant stunt coordinator; Franco Maria Salamon, stunt coordinator, Italy; Patrick Vo, flight choreographer and coordinator; stunt performers
Ensemble Cast: Mass: Reed Birney, Ann Dowd, Jason Isaacs, and Martha Plimpton; Breeda Wool, Michelle N. Carter, Campbell Spoor, Kagen Albright, Michael White
Cinematic Achievement Award: Well Go USA

Thursday, January 6, 2022

THE 355

 Jessica Chastain, Diane Kruger, Penelope Cruz     Lupita Nyong’o 

Edgar Ramirez, Sebastian Stan, Bingbing Fan



            Girl power.  It’s front and center in this spy thriller that spans agencies in the U.S., the U.K., Germany, and China, with stops in Marrakesh, Morocco and Shanghai—but it begins in Bogota, Colombia.  Someone there has come up with the ultimate in hacking—a tool that can tap into any digital system, public or private.  And, of course, hackers around the world are out to get their hands on it.

            Much is made about gender politics in the film, as well as geopolitical forces, and to back up the former we get a very cheeky crew:  Jessica Chastain as Mace, Lupita Nyong’o as Khaddijah, Diane Kruger as Maria, and Penelope Cruz—a psychologist(!)—as Graciela, a reluctant player who gets pulled into the drama after she is sent to intervene with a friend who is an agent (Rodriguez).

            All these actresses are top-notch, and convey the characters’ personalities expertly, showing intuitive skills and emotional strength along with physical prowess.  Individually as well as a group, they are a highlight in the film.  As a surprise standout—not only for her sheer presence as a character, but also as a surprise element in the plot—is Bingbing Fan.  She is a mysterious figure who appears at a critical time.

            As is the predilection of current filmmakers in the action genre, there are far too many hand-to-hand combat scenes in The 355 for my taste—scenes that are usually shot in dim light so that it’s hard to follow the moves exactly.  Although these are generally presented as the means to highlight the hero’s/heroine’s strength and caginess, too many such scenes cause the viewer to distance from the story with dialog that sounds contrived rather than real.

            The film can be praised for making a valiant effort to show women who are initially dubious toward one another becoming emotionally close, with some moving from utter lack of feeling to having some semblance of empathy, but the turns are a little too pat to come across as being realistic.  An example is Kruger’s character Maria from Germany being shown as rather cold in the beginning; then, as a presumed result of her interaction with the other female characters, she becomes more personable…almost. 

            In thinking about the audience for this movie, I imagine that males will see it as a “chick-flick” because of the brutal blows that many male characters take in the hands of female characters.  But it’s not rom-com by any means.  The relationship between the Chastain and Stan characters—however contrived it may be—is not romantic at all, even though I think it is meant to be by the writers.  This is probably because it comes across as so implausible.  

            Maybe the only audience for this movie are female fans of action movies regardless, or perhaps for females who get some satisfaction from their own “giving it to the man.”

 

Cyber crime is shown realistically as a threat of world-wide proportions that can affect most of us; but the enactment of fighting against it in this film is less impactful.

 

Grade:  C+                            By Donna R. Copeland