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1917 ~ A Capsule Movie Review

1917 ~ A Capsule Movie Review by Allen Kopp

Film director Sam Mendes hit it big twenty years ago with American Beauty (Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor Oscars). He has hit it big again with his latest directorial effort, 1917, a war drama set in France in World War I.

1917 is a simple story with a simple premise. Two young British soldiers, Lance Corporal Blake and Lance Corporal Schofield—who would rather be anyplace else other than fighting a war—are given an urgent assignment by their commanding officer. They must cross enemy territory to deliver a message of the utmost importance. Two battalions (1600 men) of English soldiers are being tricked by the Germans. These 1600 men and their commanders believe they are going to engage with the enemy, but the truth is they are being tricked and led into a slaughter. The message the two young British soldiers carry to the two battalions is that they are to “stand down” and don’t go on with the battle as planned.

Time is of the essence. If Lance Corporal Blake and Lance Corporal Schofield don’t deliver their message in time, the results will be disastrous. Lance Corporal Blake is told at the outset that his own brother is among the 1600 English soldiers, so he has an additional reason for wanting to succeed.

The odds are against Lance Corporal Blake and Lance Corporal Schofield making their way across enemy territory without being shot or captured. What they see and experience over the next two hours is what we (the audience) sees: endless mud, foxholes, dead bodies of men and animals, flies, stench, rats, barbed wire, gray skies. It’s a story told in “real time,” meaning that the two-hour runtime of the movie is how much time elapses in the story. We (the viewers) see it as it happens. The camera movement is so fluid that we are hardly aware of any edits. It’s an amazing two hours of filmmaking.

Lance Corporal Blake doesn’t make it. He’s stabbed, ironically, by a downed German pilot whose life they save by pulling him out of his burning aircraft, and bleeds to death. Lance Corporal Schofield must carry on alone. He is the “one against many,” “the last man standing.”

There is much to admire in 1917, including its sense of realism and its stirring music score by Thomas Newman. It’s a movie that pushes the boundaries of art. I can’t wait to see it again.

Copyright © 2020 by Allen Kopp

Knives Out ~ A Capsule Movie Review

Knives Out ~ A Capsule Movie Review by Allen Kopp

Knives Out is an old-fashioned murder mystery in the style of English mystery writer Agatha Christie. Benoit Blanc (played by the versatile Daniel Craig, with a Southern drawl right out of Old Virginny), is the astonishingly perceptive, methodical, deceptively unflappable detective. He is in the style of Agatha Christie’s detective Hercule Poirot, without the elaborate mustache and the Belgian accent, of course. (Benoit comes from the Latin word “benedictus,” which means “the one who says the good.” Blanc is the French word for “white.”)

Harlan Thrombey (played by Christopher Plummer) is the eighty-five-year-old patriarch of the Thrombey family. As a successful writer of murder mysteries, he has amassed a fortune in excess of sixty million dollars. He lives with his family in a gloomy, spacious, Massachusetts country house.

Since Harland Thrombey is getting along in years, all his children and grandchildren are mightily concerned for his welfare. He is, don’t you know, the Goose that Lays the Golden Eggs. Nobody in the family has to hold down a job because Harlan Thrombey, the wealthy writer of murder mysteries, supports all of them in grand style.

Harlan Thrombey’s son, Walt, ostensibly runs the family publishing business, but all he does he does is publish his father’s twice-yearly books. Daughter Linda and her husband, Richard, seem to do nothing except stand around and talk (she smokes cigarettes) and keep an eye on the old man, the source of all “their” wealth. Linda and Richard have a son in his mid-thirties, Ransome. He’s handsome, dissolute and unscrupulous. Harlan’s daughter-in-law, Joni, is a flaky matron who was once married to Harlan’s now-deceased son. She knows where her bread is buttered. She has been “double-dipping” her daughter Meg’s tuition money to an expensive school (cheating her generous father-in-law) to the tune of a hundred thousand dollars a year.

On the night of Harlan Thrombey eighty-fifth birthday party, he ends up dead, apparently murdered, with his throat cut. The last person to see him alive is his immigrant nurse from Uruguay, a young woman named Marta Cabrera. The family treats her as one of them. She seems to be the only one in the group who genuinely cares for Harlan Thrombey without any selfish motives.

There are plenty of suspects with reason enough to want to see the old man dead, aren’t there? Hours before he died, he threatened to cut off his over-indulged grandson Ransome without a penny. Hours before he died, he discovered that his daughter-in-law Joni was cheating him out of a considerable amount of money and also threatened to cast her out into the cruel world without a penny. Hours before he died, he had a little talk with this son-in-law Richard to the effect that he knew that Richard was cheating on his wife, Linda. Hours before he died, he threatened to remove his son Walt from the publishing company. Wouldn’t any of them, or any of the others, for that matter, have reason enough to want to see the old man dead?

Enter aforementioned Benoit Blanc. He sees right away what a bunch of greedy, grasping, self-serving assholes the Thrombeys are. “I am eliminating no one as a suspect,” he drawls. If anybody can figure out who killed Harlan Thrombey, Benoit Blanc can.

Knives Out is a story that relies heavily on character and the spoken word. There are plenty of twists and wrong turns in the story but, never fear, the truth will be revealed in the end. If you’re used to lots of action, gunshots and screeching tires in your movies, then Knives Out probably isn’t the movie for you. Let’s just say it’s geared toward the older, and calmer, audience.

Copyright © 2019 by Allen Kopp

Joker ~ A Capsule Movie Review

Joker ~ A Capsule Movie Review by Allen Kopp

There’s no Batman in Joker. Let’s get that clear. Batman is yet to be. The character who will be Batman when he’s grown up, Bruce Wayne, is a child in Joker. Bruce Wayne is the son of Thomas Wayne, mayoral candidate of Gotham City. Gotham City is a sort of fictional New York City, only grittier, uglier and more crime-ridden. Thomas Wayne says he can clean up Gotham City if voters will give him a chance. He doesn’t seem very trustworthy. He seems like just another phony asshole politician who will say and do anything to get elected.

Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) lives with his invalid mother, Penny Fleck, in a squalid apartment building in Gotham City. Penny Fleck used to be employed by the Thomas Wayne family as a domestic. Arthur bears a physical resemblance to Thomas Wayne. Do you get the connection here without having it spelled out?

Arthur is a study unto himself. You don’t even need Batman. He is a former mental patient (why did they ever let him out?) who takes seven medications and, yet, he “feels so bad all the time.” He is a professional “party clown.” He goes wherever a clown is needed, whether it’s to children’s hospital or to carry a sign on the street to advertise a going-out-of-business sale.

The thing with Arthur is that the world has not been very kind to him. He has been (or believes he has) largely mistreated. Funding is cut off for his psychiatric care and his drugs. When he is savagely beaten and kicked by thugs on the street, a co-worker gives him a gun for self-defense. A mental patient with a distorted view of things carrying a gun? I don’t think so. Sounds like a disaster waiting to happen.

One night when he is going home from work dressed as a clown, Arthur Fleck has an ugly encounter with three bullies on the subway and ends up killing all three of them vigilante-style. The three dead bullies are elite Wall Street types. By killing them, Arthur becomes a hero to the downtrodden. A kind of class warfare begins between the haves and the have nots. People all over the city begin dressing as clowns to show their solidarity with the subway killer. This is just the beginning for Arthur. He has had enough and he’s not going to take it anymore. He goes from being Arthur Fleck, the sad little man who lives with his mother in a creepy apartment building, to being the “Joker,” the arch-villain of the city and nemesis of the yet-to-be Batman, who is still just Bruce Wayne, child of an affluent family.

Joker is not just another superhero movie (there have been too many of them) based on comic book characters. It’s not for children; it’s dark, violent and sad. At the core of it all is the characterization of the Joker by an actor who obviously immerses himself in the role. We see before our very eyes the evolution of an arch-villain. He puts on a happy face. He dances. He sings. He kills.

Copyright © 2019 by Allen Kopp

JoJo Rabbit ~ A Capsule Movie Review

JoJo Rabbit ~ A Capsule Movie Review by Allen Kopp

Johannes “JoJo” Betzler is a winsome, ten-year-old boy living with his unconventional mother in Nazi Germany during World War II. His father is fighting in Italy, unseen for two years and presumed dead. JoJo has an “imaginary” companion, who turns out to be none other than the Fuehrer himself, Adolf Hitler. Caught up in the fervor of his time and place, JoJo believes he is a loyal Nazi, until he starts seeing things in a different way.

The Hitler of JoJo’s imagination is funny and endearing, or at least that’s the way JoJo sees him. He has a funny accent and a comical mustache and he’s fun to be with and to talk to, a really nice fellow. Sometimes when he’s talking he lapses into his “fiery speech” mode. JoJo has some growing up to do before he sees Hitler for what he really is and becomes disenchanted with him.

Jews are the enemy, according to Germans of the era, the cause of all the world’s woes. JoJo is more than willing to go along with the hatred of Jews until he discovers that his own mother is hiding one of them in her house, a teen girl named Elsa. JoJo and Elsa becomes friends. After JoJo becomes friends with a Jew, he comes to see the race in an entirely different light. (“What will you do when the war is over and you no longer have to hide?” JoJo asks Elsa. “Dance,” she says.) JoJo wants Elsa to tell him all about the Jews because all he knows about them is the stereotypes. He plans on writing a book that will be the definitive book on how Jews are different from Aryans. JoJo is intelligent beyond his years.

The war isn’t going well for Germany. Allied forces are closing in. The Russians are on Germany’s doorstep. Realistic Germans see the war is lost. The time for believing in miracles is past. When JoJo’s mother pays the ultimate sacrifice for hiding a Jew in her house, JoJo finds himself all alone in the world. Suddenly the war has ended. What do JoJo and Elsa do now? Isn’t it time to dance?

New Zealand actor Taika Waititi plays Hitler in JoJo Rabbit. (I saw Taika Waititi in a little-seen, crazy, funny and dark movie from New Zealand about vampires called What We Do in the Dark.) Taika Waititi also wrote the screenplay for JoJo Rabbit from a novel by Christine Leunens. Taika Waititi also directed JoJo Rabbit. (Give the multi-talented Taika Waititi an Oscar.) A child actor named Roman Griffin Davis is perfect as JoJo Rabbit (so-named because he refuses to strangle a rabbit early in the movie). He’s cute without being cloyingly cutesie-pie. Archie Yates is another child actor who plays JoJo Rabbit’s pudgy, well-meaning friend, Yorki. There’s something reassuring and endearing about Yorki. He’s the perfect friend to be with if you’re stuck in a war.

Copyright © 2019 by Allen Kopp

The Lighthouse ~ A Capsule Movie Review

The Lighthouse ~ A Capsule Movie Review by Allen Kopp

The Lighthouse has to be the most unusual new movie of the year. It’s set in 1890 and shot in black and white, with an aspect ratio of approximately 1.19:1, which means the picture is practically square (instead of elongated, which is what we’re used to) to emulate early motion picture photography. The music score (with a nod to the classic film scores of Bernard Hermann) is made up of a foghorn, horns and pipes, glass harmonica and an ocean harp (a stainless steel bowl with bronze rods around the rim that gives off an ethereal sound when used struck a friction mallet). The dialogue spoken by the two characters is based on the “local color” poems and writings of Sarah Orne Jewett. All these filmmaking elements come together to spell “A-R-T” instead of a commercial project designed to generate box office revenue. (You know, like about 98% of the movies released during the year.)

The only two characters in The Lighthouse are two very different men, one younger (Robert Pattison) and the other older (Willem Dafoe). Both men are named Thomas (although the younger man lies and says his name is Winslow). The older Thomas used to be an old seafaring man and is now a lighthouse keeper who knows all about tending the light. The younger Thomas has a murder on his conscience from when he worked in logging (he let a fellow worker die when he could have saved him). He is hired for a period of four weeks to be lighthouse assistant.

The film is set entirely in and around a lighthouse on the Atlantic seacoast of the United States. It’s not an inviting, scenic or hospitable place. The work the younger Thomas does is backbreaking labor and very often involves nasty chores, such as emptying chamber pots and cleaning out the cistern. “I did not take this post be a housewife or slave,” he says defiantly. The older Thomas is something of an uncouth swine and, understandably, gets on the younger Thomas’s nerves. They sleep in very cramped quarters and are always together. The older Thomas talks incessantly, sometimes in soaring soliloquies that don’t make much sense.

The loneliness and isolation begin to play on the younger Thomas’s mind. The four weeks he was supposed to be at the lighthouse are up, but a terrible storm sets in and the person who was supposed to relieve him doesn’t show up. So, now there’s a psychological element in play. Is any of this really happening or is it all just in the younger Thomas’s head? He’s already killed one man. Will he be driven to kill again?

The Lighthouse is not for everybody, of course. If you see it, you might think it’s not your cup of tea, but you can honestly say it isn’t like anything you ever saw before. Remember The Artist in 2011, a silent, black-and-white movie set in the 1920s? The Lighthouse is as uniquely memorable as The Artist, but in its own special way.

Copyright © 2019 by Allen Kopp

They Shall Not Grow Old ~ A Capsule Movie Review

They Shall Not Grow Old ~ A Capsule Movie Review by Allen Kopp

We already know that war is hell. If you still doubt it, you need to see the 2018 movie documentary They Shall Not Grow Old, made for theatrical release and currently being shown on HBO.

It’s now one hundred years since World War I, called the “Great War” at the time, or better yet, “the war to end all wars” (it wasn’t). It was the world’s first (and sadly not the last) experience with global warfare. Millions of people lost their lives, were displaced from their homes, and generally made miserable by food shortages, worthless currencies and dithering leaders who probably should have been locked up at the start.

The premise of They Shall Not Grow Old is a simple one. English men who served in the front lines, in the infantry, are talking about their experiences. We don’t see them but only hear their voices. What they are saying is accompanied by moving pictures of life on the front lines, on the “Western Front” in France. Many of these men were very young at the time, no more than eighteen or nineteen years old; they had limited experience of the world, let alone of war. While fighting the enemy at the frontlines, they lived through the worst and most terrifying experiences imaginable, knowing that at any moment a shell bearing their name might come out of the sky and slam into their heads. “You never see the shell that kills you,” they say, “because it’s traveling faster than the speed of sound.”

What makes They Shall Not Grow Old so impressive is that the hundred-year-old film clips have been reprocessed (digitized, colorized, enlarged, restored), giving them a sense of immediacy and a “you are there” feeling. Sound has been added, making it appear that the long-dead people in the film clips are talking, when you know they couldn’t be talking because synchronized sound in film hadn’t been invented yet. I don’t know how this technique is accomplished, but I guess it can be explained by a cliched phrase such as “state-of-the-art technology.” Whatever you call it, They Shall Not Grow Old is worth seeing as a testament to human suffering and the lunacy of war.

Copyright © 2019 by Allen Kopp

Downton Abbey ~ A Capsule Movie Review

Downton Abbey ~ A Capsule Movie Review by Allen Kopp

The television series Downton Abbey ran for six seasons and fifty-two episodes from 2010 to 2015. Now there is a Downton Abbey movie. It’s not a sequel or a rehash of the television series but a continuation, set two years after the series left off. If you never saw the series and are not familiar with the characters, you probably won’t find the movie meaningful or interesting. Familiarity with the characters is what will provide the spark.

It’s now 1927. The world has been changing since the Great War (“the war to end all wars”). The uppercrust Crawleys (he’s a peer, don’t you know) have witnessed the slow demise of their “class,” their privilege, and all that goes with it. People on the huge estates, such as Downton, have been selling out and moving into more modest homes. The Crawleys hang on, but sometimes they get discouraged and talk about giving up the ghost, which would mean, of course, letting their servants go out into the cold world and fending for themselves.

King George V and his wife, Queen Mary, are going to be touring Yorkshire, so they will spend one night at Downton Abbey. A royal visit, of course, always provides lots of opportunity for drama and intrigue. After the snooty royal retinue arrives, the Downton Abbey servants are incensed to find that they will be displaced for the duration of the royal visit by the king’s own. Mrs. Patmore will not be required to cook the dinner after all, after laying in mountains of supplies from the local grocer; the cooking will be handled by the king’s French chef. Mr. Barrow, now head butler at Downton, will not need to lift a finger because the king’s butler (although he will not allow himself to be called by that title) will see to everything. Mrs. Hughes’s housekeeping skills will not be needed; the king has brought his own hatchetfaced housekeeper with him; she can scare anybody away just by looking at them.

The royal visit goes off smoothly enough, but, of course, with complications. There is a plot to assassinate the king during a parade (politics, don’t you know) that is thwarted by the ever-brave and resourceful Mr. Tom Branson. (It has now been seven years since the death of his wife, Lady Sybil, so he has an eye again for the ladies.) The Dowager Countess (Maggie Smith) must confront (and make peace with) a detested relative who is part of the king’s retinue. Lady Mary’s husband, Henry Talbot, can’t be present for the royal visit because he is off in Chicago at an auto show, but he appears at the last moment. Lady Edith’s husband, Bertie Pelham, is planning on being on an extended trip in South Africa with the king at the time that their first child is due to be born, so what will Lady Edith do with an absentee husband at such an important time? Our Mr. Barrow (more handsome than ever now that he’s “older”) gets into a jam by being in a “men’s” club—men dancing with each other!—when it is raided by the police. “I’ve never been here before!” he says as he is pushed into the paddy wagon. “You’re here now!” a helpful policeman states.

If you liked Downton Abbey on TV, you should like the movie, which is grander, bigger, broader and more lavish than the TV series. It’s old-fashioned entertainment for those, like me, who need to escape into another time and place. And if the Downton Abbey movie makes enough money, there will undoubtedly be more to come.

Copyright © 2019 by Allen Kopp