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The Seagull ~ A Capsule Movie Review

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The Seagull ~ A Capsule Movie Review by Allen Kopp

The Seagull is based on the famous play by Anton Chekhov of the same name. It’s set in Russia in 1904, in summer, in a country house beside a lake. Irina (Annette Benning) is a Moscow stage actress in her mid-fifties come to visit her elderly brother (Brian Dennehy) and her son, Konstantin. She has her boyfriend, Boris Trigorin (Corey Stoll), with her. Boris is a famous and celebrated novelist, about fifteen years younger than Irina. He is drawn to Nina (Saoirse Ronan), an innocent country girl who wants to go on the stage. Nina is dazzled by Boris’s fame as a writer and imagines his life is much more romantic than it really is. Boris and Nina spend time away from the others, partly in a boat on the lake, much to Irina’s displeasure.

Then there is Masha (Elizabeth Moss), daughter of the housekeeper, Polina. Masha is one of the most interesting characters. She wears black all the time (“in mourning for my life”), takes snuff, drinks to excess, and looks older than her twenty-eight years. She is in love with Konstantin and, since she can’t have him, she marries the schoolteacher, Miguel, a sincere if unprepossessing fellow.

Like Boris Trigorin, Konstantin is also a writer, but an untested one. He’s jealous of Boris for his success, for the esteem with which his mother holds him, and, more importantly, for his attraction to Nina. Konstantin is in love (unhappily as we will see) with Nina. He shoots and kills a seagull and throws it at Nina’s feet for no reason other than that he feels sorry for himself. The destroyed seagull is a symbol for innocence lost.

In the final act, a kind of coda to the whole thing, we see what becomes of all these characters two years later. Nothing has really changed, as we will see. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

With the multiplex given over almost entirely to comic book movies and youth-oriented fare, it’s hard to find a movie like The Seagull. It’s a chance to see a film version of a world-famous Russian play, if that should interest you, as it does me. You may come away enriched for having had the experience and you won’t go home with a special effects headache.

Copyright © 2018 by Allen Kopp


Isle of Dogs ~ A Capsule Movie Review

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Isle of Dogs ~ A Capsule Movie Review by Allen Kopp

Director Wes Anderson is known for his quirky, visually arresting movies such as The Grand Budapest Hotel, Moonrise Kingdom, and Fantastic Mr. Fox. His latest is Isle of Dogs, an animated fable, full of wry humor, about the search for a lost dog and political corruption involving propaganda and conspiracy theory (sound familiar?) in the fictitious Japanese city of Megasaki City twenty years into the future.

The mayor of Megasaki City, Mayor Kobayashi, is corrupt and has been in office far too long (he’s always re-elected overwhelmingly). As with despots and tyrants everywhere, he uses propaganda to turn the people against somebody or something. In this case, the something is dogs. The propaganda has it that dogs have diseases that can be passed on to humans and are therefore dangerous. He succeeds in getting a large portion of the human population to hate dogs. He has the dogs in the city exiled to Trash Island, a cankerous landfill where the dogs will die of neglect, starvation and disease.

There is, however, a passionate pro-dog contingent, who knows of the existence of a dog-flu serum that will instantly cure any dog of disease. Knowledge of the serum is, of course, suppressed by Mayor Kobayashi and his political machine. (Ever have the feeling that the government or slick politicians suppress information that we have the right to know?)

Mayor Kobayashi has a ward, a twelve-year-old boy named Atari, who has (or had) a dog named Spots Kobayashi. When Spots is exiled to Trash Island with other dogs, Atari takes it upon himself to fly there in a small plane he has commandeered. The plane crashes on the island and Atari is “rescued” by a small contingent of talking dogs: Chief, Rex, King, Boss and Duke. They help Atari look for his lost dog on Trash Island. “If he’s alive, we’ll find him,” they tell Atari.

Though it is animated, Isle of Dogs is not a movie for the kindergarten set. It’s strictly an art house movie for thinking people who want to see something entirely original and unlike anything they’ve ever seen before. And, remember: though Atari speaks only Japanese, all barks are translated into English.

Copyright © 2018 by Allen Kopp

The Shape of Water ~ A Capsule Movie Review

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The Shape of Water ~ A Capsule Movie Review by Allen Kopp

A middle-aged woman named Elisa (played by Sally Hawkins) works in a government research facility where she cleans toilets and floors. She is lonely and alone, partly because she doesn’t speak; she is mute and communicates using sign language. She is not without friends, though. Her co-worker and friend of ten years is a funny and straight-talking woman named Zelda (Octavia Spencer). Another friend, and apparently her best friend, is a man named Giles (Richard Jenkins), an obviously gay, past-middle age, depressed, alcoholic commercial artist who was recently fired from his job for drinking too much. Elisa and Giles are next-door neighbors in a seedy apartment building over an old movie theatre, from which they hear perpetual movie dialogue. The place is Baltimore and the time is the early 1960s, when there existed an intense competition between the United States and Russia for domination of space.

The research facility where Elisa works has recently acquired from South America an amphibian man-beast that looks something like the creature from the 1954 movie Creature from the Black Lagoon, only more human-like and not as scary. The man-beast, of course, is lonely and sad because he has been taken away from his natural habitat to a faraway country and placed in a confining tank, awaiting…what? Elisa makes surreptitious visits to the tank where the man-beast is held, and she recognizes in him a fellow being in pain in a cruel, callous world. She gives him hard-boiled eggs and plays sentimental retro music for him, and the two of them develop a friendly rapport.

Most of the management of the research facility, with one notable exception, view the man-beast as a “thing” instead of a thinking, feeling being. The idea is to experiment with him to get a better understanding of how men might fare in space and thereby gain an advantage over the Russians in the space race. (I don’t see how this is possible, but never mind.) The one member of management who views the man-beast as a miracle, “a beautiful creature who can reason and who understands language,” is Dr. Robert Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg, who played a dapper gangster in Boardwalk Empire and the understanding father in Call Me by Your Name). Dr. Hoffstetler is, in reality, a secret Soviet agent. He is working behind the scenes to get the man-beast to the Russians. Or is he? Wouldn’t the Russians be just as cruel as the Americans, and maybe more so?

When Elisa hears that the cruel, uncaring men plan to vivisect the man-beast (i.e., cut him into pieces to study him), she knows she must save him, any way she can. Dr. Hoffstetler, Zelda and Giles assist Elisa in stealing the man-beast from the research facility and hiding him in her apartment. The idea is to keep him hidden there until a rainy period in October when the water in the canal that connects to the sea (remember, this is Baltimore) is high enough to release him so he’ll be safe. It’s while the man-beast is in Elisa’s apartment that the two of them “fall in love.”

The Shape of Water is about two opposing forces in the world: the force for good (compassion, empathy, sensitivity, understanding) against the force for—if not exactly evil—then hard-assed reality, practicality, and insensitivity (the failure to recognize beauty and uniqueness). It’s a whimsical fantasy that requires a suspension of disbelief on the part of the viewer. An isolated, unattractive, human woman with a physical defect falls in love with a man-beast from South America who may be a kind of god and tries to save him from the world. If reality is what you crave, then The Shape of Water is probably not for you.

Copyright © 2018 by Allen Kopp

Annihilation ~ A Capsule Movie Review

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Annihilation ~ A Capsule Movie Review by Allen Kopp

Annihilation is a science fiction/horror story based on a novel by Jeff Vandermeer. Lena (Natalie Portman) is former military, a biologist specializing in cellular development who teaches medical students in a university. Her husband, Kane (Oscar Isaac), also in the military, went on a secret mission a year ago and never came back. Lena wants some answers.

Three years before the action of the story takes place, a streak came out of the sky and settled on a lighthouse on an unspecified beach and, after that, mysterious things began happening. There’s some kind of force field emanating from the lighthouse and it’s getting bigger all the time. Nobody knows what’s going on. When teams of scientists go to the lighthouse to investigate, they never come back. It turns out that Lena’s husband, Kane, was one of those who went to investigate. After being gone for a year, missing and presumed dead, he casually turns up again one day. He’s not himself, though. He doesn’t know where he’s been or what has happened to him. He becomes violently ill, Lena summons an ambulance, and while he and Lena are enroute to the hospital in the ambulance, it is stopped in a not-very-subtle way by what appears to be a convoy; Kane and Lena are taken into custody.

Lena awakens, after being sedated, in what is apparently a military facility. She is told that Kane is very critically ill and is probably dying, but nobody knows exactly what’s wrong with him. Lena isn’t allowed to leave the facility. She becomes acquainted with some of the other people there, who just all happen to be women. Some of them decide they will go on an expedition, led by psychologist Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), to Area X, the strange area surrounding the lighthouse that is getting bigger all the time (the fear is that it will soon encompass the entire world). This area is also known as the “Shimmer.” It’s probably a suicide mission, because, as we know, none of the people who have gone to investigate the Shimmer have ever returned.

So, we have five women going into the Shimmer on this very dangerous mission, including Lena and Dr. Ventress. The first thing that happens to them is they can’t remember anything and seem to have lost time (days? weeks?) for which they have no explanation.

The Shimmer is a frightening but also a beautiful place where the laws of nature seem to be turned upside down. Unusual and colorful flowers, unlike any seen in the real world, grow in profusion. And, if that isn’t enough, species have apparently been mutated with other species, which the members of the expedition discover when they are attacked by a vicious, enormous alligator that behaves in a very aggressive way and runs as fast as a dog. Later, there is a kind of a faceless bear that is intent on killing them. This is the stuff of nightmares.

Some of the women in the expedition meet horrible deaths, as you might expect, but Lena, our main character, makes it to the lighthouse. What she discovers there will confuse you and leave you wondering but will not bore you. Since Annihilation is the first installment of a trilogy, I’m figuring there will be a sequel, as long as this movie makes enough of a jingle at the box office.

A full explanation is never given of what the Shimmer is, but my takeaway is that it’s an alien life force that will slowly but gradually consume the earth without the aliens (whoever they are) ever lifting a finger (do they have fingers?) or engaging in any kind of warfare with earthlings. Maybe I’m wrong, but this is the only explanation that comes to hand at the moment.

Annihilation is challenging science fiction, unlike silly space adventures geared to the youth market. It’s the same kind of cerebral science fiction as Arrival, a movie from 2016. In both movies, the principal character (a woman in both cases) confronts the profound and unimaginable. We live vicariously through these characters because none of us will ever confront the profound and unimaginable, except maybe when we die.

Copyright © 2018 by Allen Kopp

Lady Bird ~ A Capsule Movie Review

Lady Bird ~ A Capsule Movie Review by Allen Kopp

Lady Bird (whose real name is Christine) is going through a bad time, a little thing called adolescence. She has a boyfriend, but she finds out, the hard way, that he’s gay.  She has a pudgy friend named Julie, with whom she goes to Catholic school, where most of the teachers are nuns. (Julie has a crush on the handsome algebra teacher, one of the teachers who isn’t a nun.) She and Julie eat communion wafers like potato chips. “You’re not supposed to eat the wafers,” a classmate says. “They haven’t been consecrated yet,” Lady Bird explains.

It’s 2002 and Lady Bird’s family has been affected by difficult economic times. Her past-middle-aged father has lost his job. They live, Lady Bird says, “on the wrong side of the tracks,” in a house she’s ashamed of. She pretends to live in a large, two-story, well-tended house she likes, which happens to belong to the grandmother of her boyfriend (the one who turns out to be gay). She tells a friend that when she and the boyfriend get married, the house will belong to them when the grandmother dies. “Won’t the parents get it?” the friend asks. “Oh, yeah,” Lady Bird says. “We’ll have to kill them. And the older brother.”

Lady Bird lives in Sacramento, California, “the Midwest of California,” she says. She longs to get away from her home town and her family, but especially her exasperating, critical mother, and go to a college on the East Coast, “where there’s culture.” She doesn’t have the money to go to a “good” school, though, and might end up going to the local community college. She longs to be like the rich, stylish girls in her school who look like fashion models and seem to have it all.

There’s some wry humor and clever dialogue in Lady Bird that manages to rise above the level of TV sitcom. When a teacher asks Lady Bird if that is her “given” name, she says, “Yes, I gave it to myself.” Lady Bird and some of her friends at their Catholic school put a sign on the back of the nuns’ car that says, “Just married to Jesus.” One of the nuns informs Lady Bird later that she didn’t “just” marry Jesus but has been married to him for forty years. “He’s a lucky guy,” Lady Bird says.

Saoirse Ronan, who played an Irish girl who immigrates to America in Brooklyn, plays Lady Bird. Her mother is played by Laurie Metcalf, of TV sitcom fame (Roseanne and Getting On). As in real life, mother and daughter are prickly with each other and aren’t good at understanding each other’s problems. These are characters that seem like real people. How many mothers and daughters have you known that don’t get along very well? It seems to be an epidemic.

Lady Bird is a pleasant enough way to spend ninety-four minutes at the movies on a winter afternoon, even though it covers territory that seems all too familiar. (How many coming-of-age movies have there been about contentious child-parent relationships?) Is it worthy of all the accolades it’s receiving? Probably not. You be the judge.

Copyright © 2018 by Allen Kopp

I, Tonya ~ A Capsule Movie Review

I, Tonya ~ A Capsule Movie Review by Allen Kopp

Figure skater Tonya Harding is a high school dropout, a self-professed redneck girl. She’s crude and unsophisticated; she just doesn’t fit in with the American ideal of what a female champion female figure skater should be. The acorn doesn’t fall far from the tree. Her mother is a foul-mouthed, cigarillo-smoking harridan with the social graces of a rattlesnake. From the time Tonya is four years old, her mother (the figure skating equivalent of a stage mother) pushes her to be the best, spending all the money she makes as a waitress on training for Tonya.

Then Tonya meets Jeff Gillooly, a beautiful but dumb young man who, through nincompoopery, all but sabotages Tonya’s figure skating career in a few short years. Jeff has a very short temper; he punches and slaps Tonya on very little provocation, which Tonya confesses she believes she deserves. (She is then forced to cover her facial abrasions with makeup.) Jeff and Tonya get married, and it’s a tumultuous union, with much yelling, hitting, slapping and discharge of firearms.

Regardless of what’s wrong in Tonya’s life, she is good at figure skating. What she does on the ice is a kind of magic. She executes the extremely difficult “triple axel,” the first female skater to perform this move in competition, and earns a spot on the U.S. Olympic team for the 1992 Olympics in France. She doesn’t do so well in the Olympics, however; she comes in fourth. “When you come in fourth,” she says, “you get the six a.m. shift at Spud Heaven.”

After the Olympics debacle, Tonya believes she is finished with figure skating, but her star rises again and she has a shot at the next winter Olympics in Norway. Faced with stiff competition as she is, her husband and his idiotic friend, Shawn Gerhardt, try to help her by sabotaging, ineptly, one of her principal competitors. This doesn’t work out very well and results in criminal charges, a huge scandal, and the end of Tonya’s skating career.

I, Tonya stars Margot Robbie, who I remember from The Wolf of Wall Street, as Tonya Harding; Sebastian Stan, a Romanian actor who speaks American perfectly, as Jeff Gillooly; and the ubiquitous Allison Janney as Tonya’s she-wolf mother. They are all perfect. Never a dull moment. It upholds my belief that trashy, redneck characters are a lot more interesting than wine-sipping, angst-ridden, self-absorbed yuppies who have stock portfolios and Masters of Arts degrees. I know them and they bore me to death.

Copyright © 2018 by Allen Kopp

Insidious: The Last Key ~ A Capsule Movie Review

Insidious: The Last Key ~ A Capsule Movie Review by Allen Kopp

Successful horror movies spawn sequels. First there was Insidious and then Insidious 2, then Insidious 3, and now there’s Insidious: The Last Key. Where will it all end?

The character Elise Rainier (played by Lin Shaye) is a woman in her seventies. She is at the center of all the Insidious movies, even if she is not the main character, because she is a psychic and has spent her life battling malevolent demons who are always out to do harm to the living. In Insidious: The Last Key, Elise Rainier revisits her childhood in a house in New Mexico. The year is 1953 and ten-year-old Elise sees ghosts all around her; the house that she and her family live in is in fact haunted. Her mother understands her, but her brutal, TV-watching father thinks that all Elise needs is a good beating every now and then. He forces her to lean against a wall and beats her on the back with a cane. It turns out there’s a malevolent demon haunting the Rainier home that forces Elise’s father to beat her and do other bad things that we find out about later in the movie.

The demon kills Elise’s mother and then Elise and her younger brother are left with the cruel father. When Elise is sixteen, she gets enough of her father’s brutality and leaves home, never to return. Then we fast-forward to 2010 when Elise is quite a bit older. She gets a call from a man who says his house is being taken over by evil spirits and needs her help to get rid of them. When the man gives Elise his address, she recognizes it as the haunted house in New Mexico where she lived as a child. She travels to the house with her two comic-relief sidekicks, Specs and Tucker, ghost hunters who have been in all the Insidious movies.

The current owner of the house is a working-class man named Ted Garza. He lives in the house alone, but, as we learn as the movie progresses, he does some of the same bad stuff that Elise’s father did decades earlier in the same house, courtesy of the malevolent demon who has taken up residence. As in all the Insidious movies, Elise must go head-to-head with an unspeakably evil supernatural monster. Its good versus evil.

The first Insidious movie is one of the best horror movies ever made, a truly creepy journey to the other side, which in this instance is called “the Further.” Each sequel in the series, though, is less effective than the one before it. Insidious: The Last Key shows that maybe the series is wearing thin and it’s time to retire it. Why is the demon with its long fingers never really explained? Why does it haunt the house in New Mexico? What is the significance of the keys? What about the little boy whose ghost plays with Elise’s toys? How did he die in childhood? Why is the prison where criminals are executed mentioned and shown at the beginning of the movie and then never again? Does the prison have anything to do with the demon? Insidious: The Last Key would have been a better movie if all these dangling plot points had been explained.

Copyright © 2018 by Allen Kopp