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Dunkirk ~ A Capsule Movie Review

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Dunkirk ~ A Capsule Movie Review by Allen Kopp

In 1940, in the early days of World War II (before America entered the war), German forces had Allied soldiers (British, French, Canadian, Belgium) pushed to the sea and surrounded in a place called Dunkirk in northern France. Some 338,000 Allied soldiers were expecting destroyers to come and pick them up, but no destroyers were available. In what is known as the “Dunkirk Evacuation,” hundreds of small civilian boats (yachts, fishing boats, pleasure craft, lifeboats) crossed the channel to France and carried as many soldiers to safety in England as they could. It was a turning point in the war that could very easily have spelled disaster for the British war effort.

The new movie Dunkirk is a stirring recreation of the evacuation at Dunkirk, told from three points of view: from the land (the “mole”), the sea, and the air. We shift back and forth from one to the other. We follow a young British soldier, a young French soldier, a combat pilot (Tom Hardy), the men on the beach waiting to be picked up, and a small yacht piloted by an older British man (Mark Rylance) with two teenage boys. There’s lots of intense action and many harrowing moments, as when the pilot runs out of gas (he glides gracefully to the ground in enemy territory); when a civilian teenage boy on the yacht is hit by a Nazi bullet; and when a young flyer crash lands in the sea and can’t get his hatch open to get out as his plane sinks. All of it has a kind of “you-are-there” feel to it, but the movie has an unconventional structure and there isn’t much in the way of exposition, especially at the beginning, so it’s going to be difficult for people to understand what is going on who don’t know the circumstances beforehand.

World War II provides a seemingly endless supply of material for filmmakers. Dunkirk is a rarity: a serious summer movie not aimed at the youth market that is entertaining and informative. If you’re looking for a summer movie that doesn’t have comic book heroes, intelligent talking apes, space adventure, or raunchy sexual situations, Dunkirk might be the movie for you.

Copyright © 2017 by Allen Kopp

The Mummy ~ A Capsule Movie Review

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The Mummy ~ A Capsule Movie Review by Allen Kopp

An Egyptian princess from five thousand years ago thought she was going to be next in line for the throne of Egypt, but her father’s wife gave birth to a son who instead would become the next pharaoh. The Egyptian princess at this point embraced evil and murdered her father, his wife and infant son. When her crimes were discovered, she was entombed alive and, because she was a disgrace to Egypt, her body was laid to rest in a tomb in Mesopotamia, a thousand miles from Egypt, in what is present-day Iraq.

A crusaders’ tomb from the thirteenth century is found underneath London. One of the crusaders entombed there had a stone buried with him that he picked up while crusading in Egypt.

Nick Morton (Tom Cruise), adventurer and plunderer of antiquities in Iraq, just happens to accidentally find the forgotten tomb of the disgraced Egyptian princess while dodging bullets from insurgents. He is with a hapless male colleague and a curvaceous female archaeologist named Jennifer Halsey, who recognizes the significance of the tomb from an archaeological standpoint. They crate up the mummy case containing the remains of the Egyptian princess and are flying it back to home base, when the plane crashes over England. All on board the plane are killed except Jennifer Halsey and Nick Morton.

Opening the five-thousand-year-old tomb of the Egyptian princes has released her, or has at least has released her malevolence. She causes the plane to crash over England so she can reclaim the crusader’s stone that goes into the hilt of her magic sword. She recognizes Nick Morton as her redeemer, her restorer, and the new love of her life because he was the one who found her tomb. All he has to do is abide by her wishes and the two of them will enjoy a life together of everlasting evil.

The Mummy is a silly, summer, action-adventure movie, with the emphasis on action instead of on intelligence or subtlety. Tom Cruise seems to have forfeited all pretentions of being a good actor by making movies like this one. And what about (the now-portly) Russell Crowe? Is he on the side of good or evil? It’s hard to tell. He is wasted here as a character named Dr. Henry Jekyll, who seems to serve no purpose unless it was to add an extra male star to boost box office receipts.

The original The Mummy was made in 1932 and stars Boris Karloff. It is a creepily atmospheric excursion into horror, a truly memorable classic that spawned a spate of sequels and added to the horror lexicon. The new The Mummy won’t be a classic. It’s not terrible, just another forgettable summer movie. Check your brain at the door, or, better yet, wait for it to come to HBO and save your nine dollars.

Copyright © 2017 by Allen Kopp

Alien: Covenant ~ A Capsule Movie Review

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Alien: Covenant ~ A Capsule Movie Review by Allen Kopp

The year is 2104. A disparate group of characters are traveling on a gigantic spacecraft (called the Covenant) to a new, distant planet to start a colony. (Earth, you see, is dying.) It’s a long journey and a hazardous one because there’s no telling what these travelers might encounter in the vast, uncharted reaches of space. When they are still a long way from where they’re going, they receive a mysterious, seemingly human, transmission fairly close to where they are. They veer off-course for a few weeks to investigate the source of the signal and we, the audience, know it’s a mistake because we’ve seen this plot device before.

Some but not all of the travelers get on a smaller spacecraft and land on the alien planet where the mysterious signal originates, not knowing what they’ll find but hoping it’s something good, like an appealing, habitable place where they can start their colony and not have to go on to their original destination. Among the group is a “simulated human” (they never use the word “robot”) named Walter, the only non-human on the mission.

They find the alien planet earth-like but with no birds or animals. Soon two of their number become mysteriously ill and we witness, once again, the hideous creature come bursting out of their bodies. The thing has been incubating inside them, don’t you know, and when it comes out, it’s fully formed, though miniature-sized, and ready for killing humans. In this instance, it’s rather lizard-like, moves with lightning speed, has an elongated head, multiple limbs, a slobbering mouth, and a tail. If you’ve ever seen any of the Alien movies going back to 1979, you are familiar with this creature and hope you never meet one.

Once on this alien planet, the travelers discover the wreckage of an enormous spacecraft called the Prometheus. If you saw the movie Prometheus in 2012, you may remember what happened at the end of it. Well, this movie picks up the thread from that movie and continues the story in a way, or, as the saying goes, after a fashion. You may remember from Prometheus a “simulated human” named David. Well, it turns out that Walter, the simulated human from the current movie, is identical to David, meaning, I suppose, that they originated from the same source or the same creator. The only difference is that David can “create” and think on his own, while Walter is only compliant with the humans he works with. (You got that?) It seems that David, in the ten years since the Prometheus crashed, has become an amateur zoologist and, more to the point, he doesn’t think much of humans.

Alien: Covenant is pretty standard stuff. Nothing new here. After the initial banal “setup” that takes a half-hour or so and shows us lots of space hardware and contains lots of difficult-to-understand dialogue (and, really, who cares what they’re saying?), we find ourselves in another who-will-die-next situation. And, of course, there’s the usual claptrap about the “origins” or human life. (Will that question ever be answered to our satisfaction?) The most interesting characters by far are the two simulated human “men,” Walter and David (both played by Michael Fassbender), who show us the conflicting sides of good and evil. And, as you might expect, the story is left at the end for yet another installment to come in the ongoing saga.

Copyright © 2017 by Allen Kopp

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


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


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


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