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Manchester by the Sea ~ A Capsule Movie Review

manchester-by-the-sea

Manchester by the Sea ~ A Capsule Movie Review by Allen Kopp

Manchester by the Sea is a somber study in loss and tragedy, set in bleak New England winter with gray skies and a gray heart. Lee Chandler (played by Casey Affleck) is a working-class man with a foul-mouthed wife and three small children. He drinks more than is good for him and it’s while he’s under the influence of alcohol that he makes the terrible error in judgment from which he will never recover.

As the story moves back and forth in time, it takes us a while to know who is who and what is what. Lee Chandler’s brother, Joe (played, coincidentally, by an actor named Kyle Chandler, who was the unhappy husband of a lesbian in the movie Carol last year), develops a heart condition in early middle age and dies. He has one child, a sixteen-year-old son named Patrick. Joe’s wife, Patrick’s mother, is an unreliable, drunken shrew, so Joe leaves guardianship of Patrick to his brother Lee. Lee, now divorced, works as a janitor/handyman, living in one room, and he has plenty of problems of his own (including alcoholism), so he probably isn’t the best choice in the world to take care of a confused, sexually precocious sixteen-year-old boy. Patrick probably isn’t going to be happy in any circumstances, with his father dead and his mother “away.”

The Manchester of Manchester by the Sea is Manchester, Massachusetts, and not Manchester, England, as the title would seem to suggest. It’s a contemporary story, so that means there’s lots of foul language and naturalistic acting, with parts of the dialogue mumbled and unintelligible. The outdoor scenes are wintry scenes, with piles of dirty snow everywhere and cloud-covered vistas, so there’s nothing pretty to look at, even the sea. There’s nothing happy about this movie, including the way it looks, but it’s an engrossing, immersive movie; its two hours and sixteen minutes race by with barely a thought of how much longer it’s going to take, and when the end comes we were probably wishing for a little more.

Copyright © 2016 by Allen Kopp   

Arrival ~ A Capsule Movie Review

arrival

Arrival ~ A Capsule Movie Review by Allen Kopp

A huge pod-like object, obviously an alien spacecraft, has landed in the farm fields of Montana. We soon learn that there are eleven other pods in different locations around the world. Have aliens come to destroy human life on earth? If not, what are they (the aliens) here for? They seem to be trying to communicate in a non-human language but, of course, humans don’t know what they’re saying. The military engages the services of a renowned teacher and language expert named Louise Banks (Amy Adams, superb in any movie she’s in). She is taken to the alien pod in Montana where, it is hoped, she will be able to figure out what they are saying.

Louise Banks is a recent divorcee with plenty of heartbreak in her life, having lost her young daughter to disease. This, of course, means that she is provided with fellow language researcher and love interest in the person of Dr. Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner). Louise and Ian ascend into the alien spacecraft to confront the aliens and try to discover what they hope to accomplish by coming to earth.

Right away we see the aliens as Louise and Ian see them. They aren’t acid-slobbering killing machines as in the classic sci-fi movie Alien, but they are not pleasing to the eye. They resemble octopuses at the bottom of the sea, except that they have no eyes or mouths that we can see. The researchers right away dub them “heptapods” because they are about seven feet tall and seem to have seven legs or tentacle-like appendages. Louise discovers that they have names and they communicate in a strange language that, unlike human languages, is not based on sound or symbols but on thought. Inside the alien spaceship, she removes her bulky hood and breathing apparatus so the aliens can get a clearer picture of what humans are like. Ian does the same. This helps to establish a connection with the aliens.

The aliens communicate by extending their tentacles and writing before them, in an ink-like substance, in large, semi-circles with feathery extensions. After studying these “writings,” Louise begins to get a clearer picture of what the aliens are trying to communicate. She learns, for one thing, that time for the aliens is not “linear,” as it is for us. (This is a difficult concept for humans to grasp.)  The aliens want to help humans because they will need help in the far-distant future (this is very vague.) Louise also learns that her own life has taken, or will take, a non-linear course and that this will allow her to know what will happen in the future. Her past, her life, and her future are somehow bound up with these strange creatures from an alien place.

Arrival is dark, in the way it looks and in its tone. There’s a sense of foreboding throughout much of the movie, a feeling that we don’t know what the aliens are going to do—or what might be done to them while they’re on earth (some countries are calling for aggressive military action). If the ending is unsatisfying because we don’t learn as much as we’d like to know about the aliens, we forgive it because the rest of the movie is so much more interesting than the rest of the stuff that’s playing at the multiplex.

Copyright © 2016 by Allen Kopp

Hacksaw Ridge ~ A Capsule Movie Review

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Hacksaw Ridge ~ A Capsule Movie Review by Allen Kopp

I’d rather have Mel Gibson behind the camera where I don’t have to see him. His latest directorial effort is Hacksaw Ridge, a gripping World War II story with a conscientious objector from Virginia as its central character. When Desmond Doss sees that his country is in trouble, he can’t sit out the war and do nothing. He wants to enlist, but there’s just one thing: he’s a Seventh Day Adventist with very strong principles against carrying a weapon. He enlists, anyway, though, and soon finds himself in unexpected trouble in the military. His officers and fellow soldiers can’t and won’t understand his religious principles. How can he be such a fool as to believe he can go to war without killing the enemy or at least defending himself with a gun? He is harassed, beaten, called a coward, and yelled at (I would crumple under the yelling and name-calling) and finally given an easy way out, but he is not to be deterred. He wants to serve and he believes the best way for him to do it is as a combat medic. He will be the one to put people back together, he says, while everybody else is taking people apart.

He is about to be court-martialed for his refusal to pick up a weapon, but his drunken father, a World War I veteran, produces proof from somebody he knew back in the day that shows his son’s religious convictions are protected by the good old Constitution of the United States. (We can’t let politicians shred it!) He goes to war with his division and soon finds himself fighting the battle of Okinawa. Okinawa is of strategic importance to the U.S. war effort. If it can be breached, the next step is Japan.

The fighting on Okinawa is as close to hell as anybody has ever seen. (Bloody and graphic battle sequences, showing mutilations and head wounds.) Casualties are heavy on both sides. As a medic, Desmond Doss displays bravery beyond what anybody might have ever imagined. He selflessly rescues about seventy-five of his fellow soldiers from the battlefield under heavy fire from the Japanese. He manages to get each injured man down a cliff, using a butterfly knot that he learned in basic training. The man who was labeled a coward for his refusal to pick up a gun becomes an unexpected hero.

Actor Andrew Garfield (memorable in The Social Network and Never Let Me Go) plays real-life Desmond Doss with sweetness and sincerity. He goes to war armed only with a small Bible his girlfriend (later his wife) gives him with her picture in it. As modest and quiet-spoken as he is, he is never willing to compromise his principles under pressure that would make most of us buckle. We need more people like him.

Copyright © 2016 by Allen Kopp

Don’t Breathe ~ A Capsule Movie Review

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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