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Moonlight ~ A Capsule Movie Review

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Moonlight ~ A Capsule Movie Review by Allen Kopp

Moonlight is a modest “art” film that made a big splash and walked away with a ton of awards, including Best Picture at this year’s Academy Awards, where La La Land was heavily favored to win but didn’t. Moonlight is an exploration of the life of a young black male named Chiron (pronounced Shy-rone.) We see Chiron as a boy of around nine, then as a teenager in high school, and then as a man in his thirties.

Chiron lives with his troubled mother in a drug-riddled section of Miami. She is alternately loving and frightening and takes Chiron’s money to feed her drug addiction. Chiron has other problems, too, besides his mother: he is perceived as being “different” by his classmates and is bullied and mistreated.

Chiron meets Juan, a drug dealer who, despite his profession, turns out to be a positive male influence in Chiron’s life. Juan and his kind girlfriend, Teresa, befriend Chiron and treat him in a way he is not used to being treated: with kindness and consideration. They feed him and give him a place to stay when he needs time away from his mother and the awful problems in the neighborhood.

When the second act begins, we see Chiron as a high school student, silent and withdrawn, still being bullied in a vicious way. (Chiron exacts revenge upon the most vicious of the bullies in a satisfying way.) Juan, the drug dealer who treated him kindly, is now dead, but Teresa, Juan’s girlfriend, continues to be take an interest in Chiron and help him whenever help is needed.

Besides Juan and Teresa, Chiron has few friends, but there is one boy is own age who stands out from the others. His name is Kevin. He connects with Chiron in a way that nobody else does. After years of friendship, Chiron and Kevin have a brief, unexpected sexual encounter on the beach one night. Kevin shrugs it off, but we know how significant it is to a boy of Chiron’s sensitive nature.

In the third act, Chiron is a self-confident man in his thirties. He has, we assume, buried the difficulties of the past. Now living in Atlanta, he receives an unexpected call from Kevin, whom he hasn’t seen or heard from in more than ten years. Kevin has been in jail and is working as a cook in a restaurant in Miami; he has been married and divorced and is the father of a small son. A few hundred miles separates Kevin and Chiron. Here is the chance for Chiron to connect with the one person in his past he hasn’t been able to put out of his mind.

Moonlight is an effective, memorable story, told in a minimalist style. There’s no razzmatazz, no special effects, no explosions, car chases, boobs, murders, stabbings or fistfights. There’s truth here, pain and hope, always hope, that a terrible life can be made better. Talented filmmakers don’t need a hundred million dollars or more to put an effective story on the screen that audiences can connect with. If talent and creativity are in play, it can be done for a tiny fraction of the cost.

Copyright © 2017 by Allen Kopp

Lion ~ A Capsule Movie Review

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Lion ~ A Capsule Movie Review by Allen Kopp

Five-year-old Saroo lives with his mother, his older bother, Guddu, and his younger sister, Shekila, in a small village in India. The family is poor but loving and close-knit. Saroo’s mother can’t read or write. Saroo and his brother scavenge coal and exchange the coal for food. When Guddu goes out at night to look for work, Saroo insists that Guddu takes him along. When Saroo becomes sleepy, Guddu leaves him on a bench at the railroad station. Many hours later when Saroo wakes up, Guddu hasn’t returned. There is nobody around at all, so we assume it’s the middle of the night.

In looking for Guddu, Saroo boards an abandoned train that is just sitting there. He falls asleep on a bench on the train and when he wakes up the train is in motion. He’s locked in and can’t get out and can’t get anybody to hear his cries for help. Two days later the train is 1600 kilometers away in Calcutta. Saroo is alone in the big, frightening city. He, of course, doesn’t know where he is, nor does he understand how he got there. He is just alone on the streets with hundreds of other children in similar circumstances.

Saroo experiences kindness from strangers, but he also knows that he must be wary of them. A seemingly kind woman takes him in and feeds him and gives him a place to sleep, but Saroo overhears that she is going to give him to a man, for what purpose Saroo doesn’t know. Another kind man spots Saroo on the street outside a restaurant and takes him to the police. The police question him about where he comes from, but they speak a different language, so Saroo isn’t able to tell them anything. When he says the name of his village, they don’t know what he’s talking about.

After months on the streets of Calcutta, Saroo ends up in an orphanage. The orphanage people try to reconnect him with his family by running ads in Calcutta newspapers, but nobody comes forward to claim Saroo. A kind welfare woman informs Saroo that a couple in Australia wants to adopt him.

Saroo travels to Australia and is taken into the home of John and Sue (David Wenham and Nicole Kidman), an almost-too-good-to-be true, middle-class Australian couple. (David Wenham played a pumped-up Greek warrior in the movie 300.) Twenty years go by and Saroo grows into a man. He is smart, decent and respectful, everything John and Sue hoped he would be. Sue tells Saroo after he is grown that she and John opted not to have any children of their own. “There are already enough people in the world,” she says. When she was twelve years old, she says, she had a “vision”  that one day she would take a “brown-skinned” child into her home and give him a better chance at life.

As happy and well-adjusted as Saroo is as an adult, he can’t forget his family back in India. He becomes obsessed with finding them again and letting them know what happened to him. When somebody tells him about Google maps on the Internet, he spends many hours looking for clues to where he came from. Even if he finds the place, he has no guarantee that his family will still be there, or that they are still alive.

Finally, his searching pays off. He recognizes features on Google maps that he recognizes from childhood. When he learns the name of the place, he knows it’s what he was trying to say, but he was saying it wrong. He travels to the place in India that he has located by way of Google maps. More than twenty-five years have gone by since he disappeared. What will he find when he returns to his childhood home?

We never know where Lion is taking us. Where we end up is not where we expected to be. It’s an engaging and emotional (real emotion as opposed to melodrama) movie with many fine touches. If you are capable of being moved by the plight of a homeless five-year-old boy in the slums of Calcutta, India, you will be moved by Saroo. He’s like a little animal with a haunting voice and enormous brown eyes. He loves his mother, his sister, and his brother, and he wants desperately to find them.

Copyright © 2017 by Allen Kopp

Split ~ A Capsule Movie Review

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Split ~ A Capsule Movie Review by Allen Kopp

Split is an odd little horror film written and directed by M. Night Shyamalan. It’s about a seriously disturbed man (James McAvoy) with twenty-three personalities. He abducts three teenage girls (not for the usual reasons) by spraying them in the face with something that knocks them out and driving off with them. When they wake up, they find themselves locked in a place with no means of escape. They believe they will die, but that doesn’t keep them from hoping they will find a way out.

The odd thing about this man, the three girls soon discover, is that he is different people at different times. At one time, he’s Dennis, an authoritative man dressed in black; at other times, he’s Patricia, a lady who speaks in carefully modulated tones; and then he’s Hedwig, a boy of nine whom the girls try to finesse into letting them go before Dennis comes back. Hedwig talks like one of the Bowery Boys.

The disturbed man is being treated by a fashionable (and apparently very expensive, considering the surroundings) psychiatrist named Dr. Fletcher (Betty Buckley). He appears to Dr. Fletcher mostly as Barry, the fey fashion designer. When she tries to call forth any of the other personalities lurking behind Barry, he resists. When Dr. Fletcher is alone with him in her home/office, he seems menacing in an understated way. The music score adds to the feeling of menace we feel when Dr. Fletcher is alone with Barry. She, however, doesn’t seem to be the least bit afraid of him. She’s an expert on multiple-personality disorders, but even she seems to underestimate his capacity for evil. She doesn’t know, for example, that he has abducted those teenage girls and is holding them prisoner in his lair. (Just exactly what is his lair? We don’t know until the end of the movie.)

With all the man’s personalities, he talks about unleashing yet another one, the twenty-fourth, that will be worse than all the others. He calls this one the Beast. Dr. Fletcher takes a familial interest in her patients and truly wants to help. She goes to the man’s lair (she knows what and where it is before we do) and discovers the Beast in a most disadvantageous way (to her). She also discovers the abducted girls, or at least the one that remains. We are left wondering at this point what happened to the other two girls. One of them crawled through a hole in the ceiling, after which the man tells the other two girls they will never see their friend again. We assume, without knowing, that he caught her trying to get away and killed her.

Split is not overly violent or gory in the way that this kind of movie usually is. The bad man in this movie isn’t nearly as creepy or as twisted as, say, the killer in The Silence of the Lambs. He is more given to psychological terror than physical violence. The movie is engaging enough without being what we would call “entertaining” in the traditional sense. There’s a sense of suspense and unease, but it could have been a lot more effective if some of the missing gaps had been filled in. For example, how does the disturbed man come to be in the place where he hides the three teenage girls? Does he live there? How can he do what he does and not be seen or detected? Exactly what is his motivation for abducting the girls? We see right away that it’s not about sex, so what is it? He wants somebody to dance with him? That isn’t enough. The abduction of the girls just seems like a plot device that doesn’t play out.

Copyright © 2017 by Allen Kopp

Barton Fink ~ A Capsule Movie Review

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Barton Fink ~ A Capsule Movie Review by Allen Kopp

Things are all balled up at the head office. Can it really be twenty-six years since the Coen brothers’ brilliant dark comedy Barton Fink first came out? I watched it again this week and liked it just as much as the first time I saw it on the movie screen.

Barton Fink (played by John Turturro) is a fuzzy-haired, bespectacled, New York, Jewish writer. He is a serious playwright who wants to create a “new, living theatre” extolling the common man. He has a hit play on Broadway. With his success comes new opportunities; his agent persuades him to go to Hollywood to write for the movies where he can make the big money he needs to continue writing his plays.

Hollywood for Barton is a vision of hell. He is installed in a seedy, seemingly empty hotel where everything is a little “off.” The fawning desk clerk named Chet appears to be the only employee at the hotel, except for the comatose elevator operator named Pete. “Have you read the Bible?” Barton asks Pete at one point in the story. “The Holy Bible?” Pete asks. “Yeah, I’ve read it. I’ve heard about it anyway.”

The wallpaper in Barton’s room on the sixth floor is peeling off from the Los Angeles heat. There’s a mosquito that buzzes around Barton’s head while he’s sleeping and it bites him on the face. (“We don’t have mosquitoes here,” someone tells him. “This is the desert. Mosquitoes live in swamps.”) The room is so quiet that he hears sounds coming from the room next door. It sounds like a man alternately laughing and crying in a distressed way. Barton calls down to Chet and politely complains. When the man next door finds out that Barton has complained about his noise, he confronts Barton. This is where Barton meets “Charlie Meadows” (John Goodman), the folksy and friendly insurance salesman (he says) who, we learn, is not really who or what he appears to be.

Barton’s problems with his hotel accommodations are nothing compared to the problems he has with the studio, Capitol Pictures, that employs him as a writer. His first assignment is to write a “wrestling picture for Wallace Beery.” He is completely out of his element here. He doesn’t go the movies, he says, and knows nothing about wrestling pictures. He doesn’t even know how to begin.

When Barton is visiting the studio one day, he runs into a writer named Bill Mayhew, vomiting his guts out in the men’s room. Barton discovers right away that this man is none other than the great writer W. P. Mayhew. “You are the greatest novelist of our time,” Barton gushes. “Why, thank you, son!” Mayhew drawls. He’s from Mississippi, don’t you know, and his character is obviously a take-off on the great American writer William Faulkner, who did, for a time, bastardize his great gift to write for the movies. Bill Mayhew is a terrible lush, but charming, and invites Barton to drop by his bungalow at the studio later in the day, where he will give Barton some pointers about writing a wrestling picture. When Barton arrives to meet with Mayhew, he (Mayhew) is in a drunken rage and can’t come to the door. Barton speaks instead to Audrey, Mayhew’s secretary. She is a Blanche Dubois-type character with a Southern accent. When Barton, who is lonely and knows nobody in Hollywood, asks Audrey to go out with him, she confides that she and W. P. Mayhew are “in love.”

Barton remains stymied with his script. He is “blocked,” he says. He must present an outline to the studio head. He doesn’t know what to do because he has written nothing. On the night before his meeting to present his outline, he is frantic and has no one to turn to, so he calls Bill Mayhew for some emergency advice. Mayhew is indisposed, Audrey says, and cannot come to the phone. When Barton tells her the predicament he is in, she agrees to come to his hotel room and try to help him with his script. “There’s nothing to writing a wrestling picture,” she says. Barton is appalled to learn that Audrey has done most of Mayhew’s writing in recent years, including his novels, because Mayhew has been too out of it with drink to do productive work. Audrey gives Barton a few suggestions for his script and then they kiss and end up together in bed. Fade out.

When Barton wakes up in the morning, Audrey is dead in the bed beside him, apparently stabbed many times in the chest. Barton is terrified. He knows he didn’t kill her, but he doesn’t know who did. Not knowing who else to turn to, he goes to the room next door and enlists the aid of Charlie Meadows. Charlie is sympathetic and, after helping to calm Barton down, disposes of Audrey’s body. All right, the body is gone, but the mattress is soaked with blood. What will Barton do about that?

Charlie has to leave town for a few days but will be back. He tells Barton to stay in his room and not talk to anybody. He asks Barton to take care of a box for him until he comes back. We don’t know what’s in the box—we never know—but Barton agrees to grant this little favor. The box is just about big enough to hold a human head.

When two police officers show up at Barton’s hotel, they are looking for Charlie Meadows. In a rapid-fire exchange of dialogue, they tell Barton that Charlie Meadows’ real name is Karl “Madman” Mundt. He’s a serial killer with a whole string of killings in his wake. Barton knows then who really killed Audrey.

In the last scene, Barton is seen sitting on a California beach, having escaped an inferno (part of the hell that he’s been in since he came to Hollywood?) at his hotel that Charlie Meadows/Karl Mundt set. He is carrying the box that Mundt asked him to safeguard. A girl comes along wearing a modest bathing suit. He tells her she is very beautiful and she blushes. He asks her if she is in pictures and she says, “Don’t be silly!” She sits down several feet away from Barton, facing the ocean, and raises her right hand to shade her eyes as she looks out to sea. The image that Barton sees of the girl is the picture he has been looking at the whole time on the wall above his writing desk in his hotel room. We know then how unhinged Barton has become. Does the girl really exist, except in his mind?

Few movies come along that are as memorable, inventive, and as much fun to watch as Barton Fink. The dialogue is a pleasure to hear (especially the exchange that Barton has in the lobby of his hotel with two hardboiled L.A. police officers), the photography and period sets are perfect, and the music score by Carter Burwell is beautiful and mysterious. One of my all-time favorite movies.

Everything is all balled up at the head office. By the end of the movie, we understand the significance of this statement.

Copyright © 2017 by Allen Kopp

Hidden Figures ~ A Capsule Movie Review

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Hidden Figures ~ A Capsule Movie Review by Allen Kopp

Hidden Figures is a story about breaking barriers that is, at least in part, based on fact. It’s 1961 and the “space race” between the United States and Russia is underway. Russia has put a spy satellite into orbit around the earth, giving Americans a feeling of unease, and Russia is the first to put a man (Yuri Gagarin) into space. As Al Harrison (played by Kevin Costner), the big boss at NASA says, “we (meaning the United States) have come in second in a two-man race.” This state of affairs puts a lot of pressure on the American space program and forces NASA to work its employees mercilessly.

Three black woman named Katherine Goble, Mary Jackson and Dorothy Vaughan are new employees at NASA. Each of them is accomplished in her own way. Katherine Goble (played by Taraji P. Henson) has been a math prodigy since she was a small child. It takes a lot of calculating to launch a rocket into space and bring it safely down again. Katherine is more adept at the calculations than most of her male counterparts. She is, of course, underestimated because of her gender and her race. This is 1961, remember, so black people can’t use the same coffee pot as the white people, not to mention toilets and drinking fountains. Al Harrison seems a cold and forbidding boss, but as he sees how capable Katherine is, he develops a grudging admiration for her and becomes, in a way, her mentor. When Katherine wants to attend all-male briefings to better understand what is going on with swiftly implemented changes, she is told there is no protocol for a woman to attend briefings. “There is no protocol to put a man into orbit around the earth, either,” she says.

Dorothy Vaughan (played by Octavia Spencer, who won an Oscar playing a maid in The Help) is mechanically inclined. As a new employee at NASA, she heads up a group of black female employees, but she is stonewalled when she tries to get the pay and title of supervisor. (This slight is probably more about her race than her anything else.) When NASA installs a mainframe computer that takes up an entire room, Dorothy is the only person who seems to know how to get it going.

Mary Jackson (played by Janelle Monáe) is only an adjunct to her male counterparts, but she longs to be NASA’s first black female engineer. She lacks a few classes, though, to even qualify. She can pick up the classes she needs at a school near her home, but she’s not allowed to attend because it’s an all-white school and she’s black. Having no intention of being thwarted, she petitions the court to bend the rules a little bit to allow her to get the classes she needs. She finesses a white judge and he rules in her favor.

After being out-classed by the Russians at the beginning of the space race, the American space program finally finds its legs and does some amazing things, including putting a man, Alan Shepard, into space and putting another man, John Glenn, into orbit around the earth. At the end of Hidden Figures, when Katherine Goble is asked if the seemingly impossible goal of putting a man on the moon can be achieved by the end of the 1960s, she says with confidence, “We’re already there.” To her it’s the next barrier to be broken in a long line of them to come.

Copyright © 2017 by Allen Kopp

La La Land ~ A Capsule Movie Review

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La La Land ~ A Capsule Movie Review by Allen Kopp

I was prepared to hate La La Land but, once we got past the cutesy singing-and-dancing traffic jam that opens the movie, I didn’t hate it. I can’t say it’s really my favorite kind of movie, but it’s passable entertainment for a late-December afternoon at the local art film theatre. It’s a bittersweet romance and a musical fantasy rolled up together. Mia (Emma Stone) and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) both have a dream: she wants to be an actress and he wants to be a jazz pianist and own his own jazz club. Their lack of success, however, is dazzling. She came to Los Angeles from a small town in Nebraska and has been struggling for six years to gain a foothold in the acting profession, working at a lousy job in a Hollywood coffee shop to keep herself going. He gets fired from his job playing background music in a dimly lighted restaurant because he plays real jazz on the piano instead of “Jingle Bells” and “Deck the Halls.”

Mia and Sebastian have several chance encounters, the first one being an ugly traffic confrontation. She happens to hear him play in the restaurant where he works on the night he gets fired, and when she tries to congratulate him on his playing, he won’t even listen to what she has to say. Eventually they get together, though, and, in typical movie fashion, they “fall in love.”

Sebastian has another chance encounter (this movie is full of them) with an old musician acquaintance who offers him a steady job in a musical combo. The only problem is that Sebastian is away from Mia most of the time and they begin to have problems arising from their separation. Mia, for her part, continues to struggle with soulless acting auditions. She writes a one-character play and hires a theatre to perform it in, but, at the play’s one performance, only a few people show up, and she doesn’t even make enough money to pay for the theatre. Disheartened and disillusioned, she retreats to her small-town home in Nebraska. Wait a minute, though! She gets the “call” after she’s gone that might be her big breakthrough. Although Sebastian and Mia are officially finished, he drives from Los Angeles to Nebraska to get her to deliver the good news to her and see that she makes it to the audition in time.

There are singing and dancing in La La Land, but not of the Fred Astaire variety (which I detest). Whenever Mia and Sebastian are alone together, in several scenes, they go into “fantasy singing-and-dancing mode.” One of these happens at dusk on a parking lot overlooking the bowl-like valley that is Los Angeles. The most notable scene of this kind, though, is at the famous planetarium (the Griffith Observatory) where James Dean and Natalie Wood took a memorable high school field trip, along with their class, in the classic 1955 movie Rebel Without a Cause. Mia and Sebastian are the only two people at the planetarium and, in their singing-and-dancing number together, defy gravity. For me, the most effective and innovative scene of the entire movie is at the end when Mia and Sebastian have their final chance encounter in a roomful of people and Sebastian plays “their song” while we are treated to a montage of soundless (except for the music) “what if” scenes. What if he hadn’t brushed her off the night he was fired? What if he hadn’t been offered a job that kept him mostly on the road? Will there be a sequel? No, a sequel would only spoil the bittersweet.

Copyright © 2016 by Allen Kopp

Fences ~ A Capsule Movie Review

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Fences ~ A Capsule Movie Review by Allen Kopp

Fences was first a Pulitzer Prize play by August Wilson and is now a movie directed by Denzel Washington. Set in Pittsburgh of the 1950s, it touches on themes of family, duty, loyalty, and overcoming one’s difficult past. Denzel Washington plays Troy Maxson, an uneducated black man who rides on the back of a trash truck and empties trash cans into the truck. He has a best friend and co-worker named Jim Bono; a brain-damaged (from the war) brother named Gabriel; a dutiful wife named Rose (played by Viola Davis); a 34-year-old musician son (by another wife) named Lyons; and a teenage son named Cory who wants to play football. We learn about Troy’s life as he reveals it in dialogue. One of eleven children, he left home at age fourteen to make his own way. He fell into a life of crime and stealing and ended up in prison, where he spent fifteen years. If prison taught him nothing else, it taught him to go straight.

He’s had a stable marriage with Rose for eighteen years. He goes to work every day and owns the house he lives in, but life isn’t easy for him. He struggles to pays the bills and, when he wants to advance in his job from trash collector to driver, he is dismayed to learn that his company only hires white men as drivers. His friend, Jim Bono, chides him for not having a driver’s license and not being able to read, but if there’s one thing Troy has, it’s determination. Life has made him hard and intractable. He seems at times to have lost the touch of humanity he needs to get along with his family. If we come to understand Troy, we also come to not like him very much.

When Troy comes to Rose in the kitchen one day and tells her he is about to become “somebody’s daddy,” she reacts about as expected. He has taken up with a much younger woman named Alberta and has impregnated her. When he tries to explain to Rose why he has sought the company of another woman, Rose isn’t buying it; all she can see is the betrayal. She says she might have expected it when he was ten or fifteen years younger, but not at his age. “Age has nothing to do with it,” he says. Alberta makes him laugh “down to the bottoms of his shoes” and makes him forget for a little while how hard his life is.

I was lucky enough to see Fences performed live onstage a number of years ago. The movie version is essentially unchanged from the play. (The playwright, August Wilson, wrote the screenplay.) It’s fairly static and stagey for a movie; they (the filmmakers) have opened up the action a little bit, but not much. Most of it takes place in the back yard of Troy’s home and it’s a fairly talky affair. If you like authentic-sounding dialogue and are a fan of Denzel Washington and Viola Davis, you’ll love Fences. If you’re a big action fan, though, and are looking for some action, you’ll probably be disappointed. This is what you might call a deep character study, a slice of life, for the more serious-minded among us.

Copyright © 2016 by Allen Kopp