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Don’t Breathe ~ A Capsule Movie Review


Don’t Breathe – A Capsule Movie Review by Allen Kopp

Three young people, Alex, Roxanne and Money (Dylan Minnette, Jane Levy, Daniel Zovatto), burglarize people’s houses for a living. When they hear about an eccentric war veteran who has three hundred thousand dollars from a settlement involving his daughter’s traffic death, they think it will be an easy score; he is bound to have the money somewhere in his house, since he is reputed to not trust banks. The fact that he is blind makes it even more of a cinch. How can they go wrong? If they can get that much money from one break-in, they can quit robbing houses and do something less risky. Roxanne can get her young daughter away from her trashy home life.

The blind veteran (Stephen Lang) with the three hundred thousand dollars lives in a nearly abandoned section of Detroit. He is, in fact, the only person there. He lives in an old house with only a vicious, snarling dog for company. When Alex, Roxanne and Money arrive in the middle of the night to break into the blind man’s house, they know about the dog beforehand so they have a doggie treat ready that will put the dog to sleep (not long enough, as they soon discover).

The blind man isn’t the pushover the burglars think he is going to be. The house is fortified like a prison with bars on the windows. They trip the alarm system to get inside and, once inside, they realize they can’t get back out. Though he can’t see them, the blind man is more than capable of defending himself. He knows there is at least one intruder, but he doesn’t know how many. He kills Money right off and is stalking Alex and Roxanne with deadly intent. When they are trying to find a way out, Alex and Roxanne discover a secret in the blind man’s basement they would be better off not knowing. The message here is clear: If you break into people’s houses to rob them, you are probably asking for a deadly dose of something terrible and, if you get it, you probably deserve it.

Don’t Breathe is an effective suspense/horror film with, you can tell, a modest budget and a running time of an hour and twenty-eight minutes. The horror is not supernatural horror involving ghosts and malevolent spirits but earthly horror that comes from what people do to other people. It’s plenty violent and there are some unexpected twists and turns along the way, involving prey that turns out to be more predator. There’s a twist at the end that might lend itself to a sequel, depending on how profitable the original is.

Copyright © 2016 by Allen Kopp

Hell or High Water ~ A Capsule Movie Review

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Hell or High Water

Hell or High Water ~ A Capsule Movie Review by Allen Kopp

When scruffy Texas brothers Tanner Howard (Ben Foster) and Toby Howard (Chris Pine) begin robbing banks, it’s more a question of seeking vengeance on a particular bank than a desire for money, even though they are poor. As Toby Howard says, he’s been poor all his life; his parents were poor and his grandparents; it’s been like a disease handed down from generation to generation. He’s a divorced father of two sons who would like to see his children have a better chance at life than he ever had.

Tanner Howard, Toby’s brother, is an ex-convict (out of 39 years, he says, he’s spent 10 of them behind bars). He is much more willing to fight, ignore the rules, and cause trouble than Toby is. When he returns from prison, their mother has just died. Both brothers feel they’ve been cheated by a certain bank, with seven branches in different Texas towns. They begin robbing these banks, taking what is considered small amounts, and not going after what’s in the vaults. Droll, about-to-retire Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) methodically tries to figure out what’s going on with the brothers and what they will do next. He reasons that, since the brothers are only robbing the different branches of one bank, they probably have a grudge against that bank and are trying to get enough money for a particular reason.

For a time, the brothers are successful with their robberies. (Toby is able to catch up with his child support payments and pay off the debts on the farm. If anybody asks, he has the excuse of gambling winnings to account for his sudden wealth.) Although not very smart or experienced, the brothers manage to keep one step ahead of the law because they are bold (especially Tanner) and don’t mind taking chances. (They steal cars to commit their robberies and then have the cars buried under sand.) Tanner knows, however, that they won’t be able to go on that way forever. “Did you ever know of anybody to get away with anything?” he asks his brother. Toward the end when the brothers are parting and tell each other they love each other, they know and we know that their time is about up.

Hell or High Water is solid storytelling, a rich film with fully delineated characters. The Texas landscape is bleak and colorless; the Texas accents are at times indistinguishable. There’s nothing pretty or romanticized here, no special effects, no cutesy Butch Cassidy-type touches where we are made to feel the criminals are really good-hearted studs who ought to patted on the back for their crimes because they have such toothy smiles. If the ending (at least one element of it) is surprising, it makes perfect sense and we see, finally, where it has been heading the whole time.  And, yes, Marcus Hamilton gets as evidence the baby-voiced, bosomy waitress’s (button your uniform, dear) $200 tip that Toby left her, even though she told him she had to have it for her mortgage. Did she really think he’d care about that? No, poodle, not when catching bank robbers is at stake.

Copyright 2016 by Allen Kopp

Florence Foster Jenkins ~ A Capsule Movie Review

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Florence Foster Jenkins

Florence Foster Jenkins ~ A Capsule Movie Review by Allen Kopp

It’s wartime 1940s and the place is New York City. Meryl Streep is Florence Foster Jenkins: society matron, patroness of the arts (particularly music) and self-deluded singer. She has a smirking husband (Hugh Grant), a fawning vocal coach, a devoted maid, and a piano accompanist named Cosmé McMoon (played by Simon Helberg, who resembles French writer Marcel Proust). Mr. McMoon is chosen over a bunch of other pianists because in his audition he plays “The Swan” by Camille Saint-Saens, which reminds Florence of when she was young. Right away when Mr. McMoon hears Florence sing, he knows that something is not as it should be. She shrieks and screeches and is led to believe by those around her that she is a wonderful singer with perfect technique. What Mr. McMoon eventually comes to realize is that everybody loves the good-natured and well-meaning Florence and that nobody has the heart to tell her she isn’t nearly as good a singer as she thinks she is.

Florence isn’t well, we find, and probably won’t live much longer. She contracted syphilis from her first husband on their wedding night when she was eighteen and, in these days before penicillin, has had it ever since, almost fifty years. The doctor says he has never seen anybody live so long with the disease. Her second husband, for his part, loves her and is devoted to her but has a much-younger girlfriend on the side; he reveals to the doctor that he and Florence have always had a sort of platonic, non-sexual partnership, so he never contracted the disease.

When Florence gives a concert at Carnegie Hall, her husband goes to great lengths to buy up all the newspapers in the neighborhood so she won’t see the scathing (true, so, therefore, unkind) reviews. She gets a copy of one of the newspapers anyway and discovers that people consider her the “worst singer ever” and are only laughing at her. She has a moment of self-realization that, up to this moment, has eluded her. 

Florence Foster Jenkins is, we are told at the beginning, based on true events, meaning, I suppose, that part of it is true and part of it made up. Simon Helberg, who plays Florence’s accompanist, is, in reality, a pianist himself and plays all the piano parts, which is truly impressive. Meryl Streep does her own singing and is, as always, superb in the title role. Now, if she will only leave politics alone and stick to acting, everything will be fine.

Copyright © 2016 by Allen Kopp

Cafe Society ~ A Capsule Movie Review

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Cafe Society

Café Society ~ A Capsule Movie Review by Allen Kopp

Now in his eighties, Woody Allen is still writing and directing movies. His latest is Café Society, a bittersweet romance set in the late 1930s, among the snobs and elitists in the movie industry in Hollywood and, later in the movie, in New York among the “café society,” which means people who can stay up all night drinking liquor and dancing and socializing because they have plenty of money and don’t have to get up early and go to work the next day.

Young Bobby Dorfman of New York (played by Jesse Eisenberg) is dazzled by the glamour of Hollywood when he first arrives. Luckily he has an uncle named Phil Stern (Steve Carell), who just happens to be a high-powered agent in one of Hollywood’s dream factories. Phil Stern sets Bobby up in a job that is essentially that of errand boy, but Bobby doesn’t mind as long as it means he can be near Phil’s secretary, Veronica (Kristen Stewart). Veronica (“Vonny”) shows Bobby around Hollywood and soon he decides he is in love with her. She seems a little aloof, though. After a while she confides to Bobby that she has been having an unhappy love affair with a married man for over a year. Bobby learns by degrees that this married man is his uncle, Phil Stern. So, Bobby and his uncle are both in love with Vonny. Doesn’t that mean that somebody is going to end up disappointed?

Meanwhile, Bobby has an interesting and colorful family. His gravel-voiced mother (Jeannie Berlin) has all the clichés at her command of a Jewish mother. (When she discovers near the end of the movie that her older son is a murderer and has converted to Christianity before going to the electric chair, she says she doesn’t know which is worse.) Bobby’s older brother, Ben (Corey Stoll), is a gangster. If you have somebody you want taken care of, all you have to do is tell him. Ben and Bobby’s sister Evelyn is married to a left-wing intellectual named Leonard with communist sympathies. When Evelyn and her family are bothered by a bullying neighbor, Evelyn gets brother Ben to take care of the neighbor, but not quite in the way she anticipated.

When Vonny tells Bobby that Phil Stern is leaving his wife of twenty-five years and marrying her, Bobby goes back to New York in a disillusioned state. He decides he is a true New Yorker and that Hollywood isn’t for him.

In need of a job, he goes into the nightclub business with brother Ben, the gangster. The nightclub is a huge success and he meets and marries a pretty, blonde socialite who, ironically enough, is also named Veronica. He believes he is happy until Vonny from Hollywood shows up with her husband Phil Stern. It seems she wants to pick up with Bobby where they left off. Is he still enough in love with her to cheat on his wife?

Woody Allen provides off-screen narration in Café Society, as he did in Radio Days (my favorite Woody movie) in 1987. He is still writing some of the best dialogue in movies (you’d know it was his just by listening to the rhythms) and still touching on some of the familiar themes of family, romance, infidelity, disillusionment, punishment (or lack of it in a godless universe) and existentialism. And, as always, he finds a romanticism in the past that just doesn’t exist in the present.

Copyright © 2016 by Allen Kopp  

The Conjuring 2 ~ A Capsule Movie Review

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The Conjuring 2

The Conjuring 2 ~ A Capsule Movie Review by Allen Kopp

If we are to believe the current spate of horror movies, there are many, many evil spirits (or demons) waiting to do bad things (or horrifying mischief) to ordinary people. In the movie The Conjuring (2013), based on a “true” story, a working class couple with a houseful of daughters buys a quaint old farmhouse in rural Rhode Island, not knowing that it’s the residence of a malevolent spirit from long ago who tries to make the mother kill her daughters. The family turns to Ed and Lorraine Warren for help. Lorraine is a psychic and her husband, Ed, is a sort of psychic investigator who assists people in ridding their homes of these spirits. Ed and Lorraine Warren are real-life people (not a handsome pair like Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson who play them onscreen) who travel around from place to place working on cases of various “hauntings.”

In the new movie The Conjuring 2, Ed and Lorraine Warren travel to England, to  the home of a beleaguered, divorced mother with four children in a dreary working-class neighborhood in northern London. The family’s name is Hodgson. Janet Hodgson is eleven years old. She’s been levitating, her bed shakes violently when she’s asleep and she hears and sees things (people) that apparently aren’t there. Finally, the spirit of an old man named Bill Wilkins who died in the house forty years earlier begins speaking through Janet Hodgson. (Or is he?) The house is his, he says, and he wants the current occupants to get out. After much investigating, it appears that eleven-year-old Janet is just faking the whole thing to get attention. Wait a minute! How can she have faked all the psychic occurrences that have been documented? It seems there are always those skeptics willing to find a “logical” explanation for any “proof” of ghosts or an afterlife. 

We learn finally that the spirit of Bill Wilkins is just a “pawn” for a really malevolent spirit named Valak, who manifests itself in the form of a horrifying nun. Janet Hodgson is being forced to appear to be faking the whole thing; if she doesn’t, the demon will kill her family. After many twists and turns, Ed and Lorraine learn the truth and then know how to counter the demon. 

The Conjuring 2 is formulaic, as these ghost stories usually are, but if you like well-made horror films (not slasher films) with a real plot, characters (not jiggling teenagers) and dialogue, this one is well worth your time. We are always left with the disquieting suggestion at the end that, although the living people may have won this round, the demons are only temporarily discommoded and will be back. As long as The Conjuring 2 makes money, there is bound to be The Conjuring 3

Copyright © 2016 by Allen Kopp 

Genius ~ A Capsule Movie Review

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Genius ~ A Capsule Movie Review by Allen Kopp

Like other geniuses before him, American writer Thomas Wolfe (1900-1938) flamed brightly for a time and then burned out. He lived life exuberantly and was bursting with talent and creativity. In New York in 1929 he was just another failed writer. His massive first novel, which he called Oh, Lost!, had been rejected by every publisher in New York. He had a patroness, though, a woman named Aline Bernstein, who, through her connections, arranged to have the novel brought to the attention of Maxwell Perkins, an editor at Charles Scribners publishing house. Perkins agreed to give the manuscript a “quick look,” even though he was told from the beginning it wasn’t any good.

Max Perkins “discovered” Tom Wolfe, the writer. He would do for Wolfe what he had done for F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway. As soon as he began reading Oh, Lost!, he knew that it was a unique work. He saw in it what other editors had failed to see, or, more likely, hadn’t taken the time to see. The book needed massive editing, but Perkins believed it was a work of genius that needed to be brought to the reading public. He contacted Tom Wolfe and gave him a check in advance of royalties for five hundred dollars. Wolfe wept.

Of course, Wolfe was reluctant to make any cuts to the book. He and Perkins spent months whipping the book into shape, which included a title change to Look Homeward, Angel. When the novel was published, it was a huge success and Wolfe was hailed as a genius. He knew he would never have been able to do it, though, without the help of Max Perkins.

In the new movie, Genius, Thomas Wolfe is played by Jude Law. He is loud, has a prodigious Southern accent (from Asheville, North Carolina), and isn’t interested in social conventions. He says what he thinks, does what he likes, and spends a lot of his time in a drunken state. He also has some domestic problems. Aline Bernstein (Nicole Kidman), his patroness, the “older” woman who left her husband, family, and respectability behind for him, is unstable and jealous. She is happy for Wolfe’s success, of course, but resents the many hours he spends on his writing. In one scene, she begins pouring pills into her mouth in the office of Max Perkins (Colin Firth) to get Wolfe to go home with her. She is a very unpleasant, bitter woman.

Wolfe’s next book, Of Time and the River, is even longer than the first. Perkins and Wolfe would spend many hours together, day and night, over two years or more, editing the book and getting it ready for publication. During this time, Perkins and Wolfe become close friends. Perkins comes to think of Wolfe almost as the son he never had (he has five daughters). The writer/publisher association develops into a close—at times volatile—friendship. Aline Bernstein tells Perkins that Wolfe will leave him as soon as he (Perkins) has served his purpose. She also threatens Perkins with a gun.

In 1938, at the age of 37, Tom Wolfe is stricken and taken to Johns Hopkins hospital in Baltimore (the same hospital where his father died). When an operation is performed, doctors discover he has a “myriad” of tumors in his brain. He dies soon after.

Genius is based on a nonfiction book by A. Scott Berg. It is an “art” film for a niche audience that won’t get much attention or make much money. Those of us who have read the great books of Thomas Wolfe and know something of his life will find the story fascinating. There aren’t many of us. At the showing I went to last night, there were three other people besides me in the audience. I walked a mile in the heat (I’d always rather walk than drive) to see it and a mile home. It was worth it.

Copyright © 2016 by Allen Kopp

Alice Through the Looking Glass ~ A Capsule Movie Review

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Alice Through the Looking Glass

Alice Through the Looking Glass ~ A Capsule Movie Review by Allen Kopp

In Wonderland, Time is a “he” with electric blue eyes, a mustache, and an accent. He tells the Red Queen that her head is looking “wery, wery large today.” The Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter), besides having an enormous head (out of all proportion to the rest of her body), has a tiny red heart painted in the middle of her lips (to show the smallness of her heart?) and a profusion of red hair. Nobody loves her, she says, but we know the reason for that is because she is so mean and loves to have people’s heads cut off. (“Off with his head!”, she shouts.) The White Queen, her fluttery sister, tells her that she loves her, if nobody else does, but the Red Queen isn’t having any of it. She hates being hugged.

The Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp) also has a profusion of red hair and enormous eyes that change color with his mood. He is rather androgynous and speaks with a lisping accent that is at times indecipherable. His friends (the Cheshire Cat, who floats in the air and disappears and reappears at will; Tweedledum and Tweedledee, rotund male twins; a dormouse, a dog, and a rabbit, all of whom speak English) are worried about him and think he might be dying.

Absolem, a blue, sometime-caterpillar/sometime butterfly, shows Alice (Mia Wasikowska) the way to return to Wonderland through the large mirror over the mantel. She is needed back in Wonderland after her earlier adventures there because the Mad Hatter, her “best friend in the whole world,” is in trouble. When she visits Hatter in his house shaped exactly like a top hat, she finds him in a low state. He tells Alice he wants her help in getting his family back and, when she tells him that getting them back is impossible because they are dead, he orders her out of his house. The Alice he knows, he says, never believed that anything was impossible.

Alice agrees to at least try to get Hatter’s family back, but she knows it will be very difficult, if not downright impossible. She must first manipulate Time (Sacha Baron Cohen), to be able to travel back to an earlier period when Hatter’s family was still alive. When she is finally able to travel back in time, she meets the Red Queen and her sister, the White Queen, as children, before the Red Queen became so mean. She also meets Tweedledum and Tweedledee before they were grown up and also meets Hatter as a child. Of course, he doesn’t have any recollection of Alice at this time because he hasn’t met her yet.

Alice Through the Looking Glass is a sequel to 2010’s Alice in Wonderland, both of them based on literary classics by English author Lewis Carroll. It’s colorful, imaginative and whimsical, full of bizarre characters and fantastic settings. For the child in all of us.

Copyright © 2016 by Allen Kopp