Vice ~ Capsule Movie Review

Vice ~ A Capsule Movie Review by Allen Kopp

He’s laconic, soft-spoken (“beware the quiet man…”), smart, cautious, chooses his words carefully, and is as reckless, ruthless and unapologetic as he needs to be in performing what he perceives as his duty to his country. He’s not the traditional politician with the 1000-megawatt smile and the standard line of bullcrap. (“If you want it, we’ll be sure and get it for you.”) He’s overweight, has a serious heart condition, is uncharismatic, unexciting, faithful to his wife and family, with no hint of scandal attached to his name (except for a lesbian daughter, which doesn’t seem to bother him in in the least). He’s Dick Cheney, Vice-President for eight years under President George W. Bush, probably the most powerful and consequential vice-president in U.S. history.

According to the new movie about Dick Cheney’s life, Vice, Dick Cheney was unambitious and unmotivated as a young man. He drank to excess and worked as a telephone lineman in his home state of Wyoming. His girlfriend (and soon to be wife), Lynne, forced him to snap-to and, as the saying goes, “make something of himself.” She was the motivating force in his life and was responsible for his being a “something” rather than a “nothing.” If it hadn’t been for Lynne, none of us would have ever heard of Dick Cheney.

Soon Mr. Cheney found himself in Washington as a young congressional intern. He “caught on” in Washington and found himself taking to Republican politics. He ran for Congress from his home state of Wyoming, won, and later served in a number of high-level government positions, spurred on, as always, by his wife, Lynne Cheney. He was just about finished with politics, was raking in the dough as CEO of Haliburton, when he was tapped to be George W. Bush’s unlikely presidential running mate in 2000. “I think we can make this work,” he says to GWB over fried chicken in the back yard.

Regardless of your political affiliation, Vice is an entertaining, wry, ironic behind-the-scenes political story and a panorama of recent American history. It’s the story of a man without political connections or family connections who came from nowhere and became the ultimate Washington insider and power player. Christian Bale and Amy Adams are sensational as Dick Cheney and his wife. Sam Rockwell, who won an Oscar last year as the amazingly dumb small-town deputy in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, plays the swaggering George W. Bush, “black sheep” of the Bush family,  governor of the state of Texas and two-term Republican president.

Copyright © 2019 by Allen Kopp

The Favourite ~ A Capsule Movie Review

The Favourite ~ A Capsule Movie Review by Allen Kopp

It’s the early 1700s. Queen Anne sits on the throne of England. She has had seventeen children, all of whom died. (“Some were born in blood, some never breathed, and others were with me only for a short time.”) She has seventeen rabbits that she keeps in the royal bedchamber which serve as surrogate children. (“They are my babies.”) She is child-like, petty, temperamental, mentally unstable, sick, gout-ridden, obese, and in every way unfit to run affairs of state. England is, of course, engaged in endless, expensive warfare with France. (God help England!)

Queen Anne (played by an actress named Olivia Colman) has a “favourite,” a woman who goes by the name of Sarah (the ever-frightening Rachel Weisz). Sarah is what is known as a forceful woman. She has Queen Anne firmly in hand. She treats her at times like a child and she will slap her in the face if she feels like it (when they are alone, of course). Sarah tells the queen what to say, what to do, how to dress, and in general manages her life behind closed doors. She is the power behind the throne. And, oh, yes, they are lesbian lovers. We can’t leave that out.

There’s a new bitch in town, though. Her name is Abigail (Emma Stone). She is a wily manipulator. She has recently lost her “status” in life (her father lost her in a card game), and she longs to be a “lady” again. When she comes into the household as a lowly maid, she sizes up the relationship between Queen Anne and Sarah and decides that the situation is rife with possibilities for her. She eventually discovers the sexual nature of the association between Queen Anne and Sarah and learns the way to the queen’s heart.

I didn’t care which of the two dragons (Abigail or Sarah) prevails with the queen. They are equally unlikeable. When they resort to poisoning, I don’t really care which one gets up off the floor. Queen Anne is the most interesting and compelling character, the one character with whom our sympathies lie. We pity her and also find her repulsive.  The often-tragic, often-ugly lives of English kings and queens make for fascinating viewing.

The real fun of The Favourite is the way it looks and sounds. It is a wig movie of the highest order and we don’t get many of those. (The voluminous curly wigs are worn by the men; in the battle of the hair, the women recede into the background.) The early eighteenth century sets look absolutely authentic and believable. The music of the period (Bach, Handel, Vivaldi) is loud and there’s lots of it. There’s plenty here to like, especially if you are a fan of historical costume drama and don’t really care for most of the youth-oriented crap at the multiplex.

Copyright © 2018 by Allen Kopp

First Man ~ A Capsule Movie Review

First Man ~ A Capsule Movie Review by Allen Kopp 

It’s hard to believe it’s been forty-nine years since the first manned space flight to the moon. In July 1969, America bested the Soviet Union in the space race by overcoming the immense dangers and technological challenges of putting a living, breathing human man on the face of the moon and safely returning him to earth. It was the culmination of all the manned space flights of the sixties. The moon was always the ultimate goal. As John F. Kennedy said in 1961, “We do it not because it’s easy but because it’s hard.”

First Man is about the first manned space flight to the moon but, more than that, it’s a personal story about the man, Neil Armstrong, who first stepped out of the “lunar module” onto the surface of the moon—the first-ever human being from earth to set foot on another world outside his own. First Man chronicles the difficulties involved in getting a man on the moon and the personal toll to those involved.

Neil Armstrong was a regular-guy family man. He was quiet, modest, self-effacing and not given to displays of ego or emotion, even with his family. When his small daughter, Karen, dies of cancer, he carries his grief alone. He works in one of the most dangerous professions known to man, but he never shows his fear or lets it get the best of him, even when some of his colleagues die in horrific “accidents.” And when he becomes, for a time, the most famous man on earth for being the first man on the moon, he doesn’t care about adoration or fame. During a press conference when a reporter asks him how he felt when he was chosen to be the head of the first manned mission to the moon, he says, “I was pleased.” When called upon to expound upon these feelings, he says, “I was pleased.” This simple phrase encapsulates his demeanor perfectly.

Current movie star Ryan Gosling (La La Land, Blade Runner 2049) plays Neil Armstrong with humility and sincerity. We never feel like we’re watching a movie star justifying his twelve-million dollar paycheck so he can line up his next twelve-million-dollar project. An actress named Claire Foy, whom I had never seen before, is impressive as Neil Armstrong’s wife, Janet. She also seems simple and sincere. We see what she’s going through, knowing that her husband might never come home again from his latest mission. She has to corral the kids and deal with obstreperous reporters on her front lawn. At one point she stands up to the fellows at NASA when they try to assure her that everything is all right and she tells them they’re like a bunch of little boys playing with balsawood airplanes and they don’t know what they’re doing.

First Man is an impressive October movie (with a knock-out music score and special effects) that might disappear without being seen amid all the youth-oriented fluff and crap that floods multiplex movie screens. It’s a serious movie for the serious moviegoer. There are no women in lingerie, no risqué jokes, no bad language (one use of the “F” word that I noticed), no car chases, no explosions, no boudoir scenes, and no reason not to see it.

Copyright © 2018 by Allen Kopp


The Nun ~ A Capsule Movie Review

The Nun ~ A Capsule Movie Review by Allen Kopp 

The Nun is set in 1952 in a spooky castle/convent in a remote part of Romania. The castle has a history of its own; it was built in the Middle Ages by a duke who was a practitioner of black magic and who wrote books on demonology and witchcraft. After the castle became a nunnery, the nuns engaged in perpetual prayer (adoration) to keep the evil spirits away. (Why didn’t they just leave?)

A young nun has apparently committed suicide in a disturbing manner at the Romanian convent. The Vatican has sent a middle-aged priest, Father Burke (Demian Bichir) to investigate. Father Burke has a history of dealing with cases that involve or seem to involve demonic possession. With him is a young novitiate (a nun who hasn’t taken her final vows) named Sister Irene (Taissa Farmiga).  Sister Irene has a history of “visions,” so that apparently is what qualifies her to help with the investigation of the nun’s suicide. Father Burke and Sister Irene are guided by a young man who calls himself Frenchie, a French-Canadian living near the convent; he’s the one who found the body of the nun who apparently committed suicide. He has put the body in the ice house to help preserve it, but when he takes Father Burke and Sister Irene to see it, it (the dead body) has moved from a lying to a sitting position.

Well, as might be expected, an evil spirit, a demon, is at work in the convent. This spirit takes the form of a grotesque nun named Valak, whom we saw briefly in the earlier movie The Conjuring 2. Valak doesn’t take kindly to people from the church trying to exorcise her. She will fight back with everything she has. Will she prevail over Father Burke and Sister Irene? I wouldn’t count on it, since they have the force of “good” on their side. They also have an ancient holy relic containing the blood of Christ. Now, that I would like to see!

If you’ve seen The Conjuring and The Conjuring 2 and enjoy horror movies of this kind, you will probably find The Nun worth your time, even though there isn’t much new here that we haven’t already seen in other movies. Ever since movies like Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist, hellish demons are a staple of American movies. They’re going to be around for a long time until people stop paying money to see them. Isn’t it better to see demonic possession on the movie screen than to experience it yourself? From what I’ve heard, I think it’s an experience that none of us want to know firsthand.

Copyright © 2018 by Allen Kopp

White Boy Rick ~ A Capsule Movie Review

White Boy Rick ~ A Capsule Movie Review by Allen Kopp 

White Boy Rick is set in dismal Detroit, where it seems always to be winter, in the 1980s. Middle-aged dad Rick Wershe senior (Matthew McConaughey) is, by all accounts, a “lowlife” and a “loser” (his wife ran off and left him). He seems, however, to be well-intentioned when it comes to his two kids, Rick junior and Dawn, but they are also lowlifes and losers. Dawn has a haunted, vacant look because she is a drug addict. Scruffy-looking Rick junior at age fifteen is interested in firearms (he stopped going to school) while Rick senior has a workshop in the basement where he modifies guns to make them more deadly. Rick junior takes up with a gang of black hoodlums—he even adopts their patterns of speech—and becomes a gun dealer.

After Rick junior is shot in the abdomen and almost dies because his associates think he knows too much, the police begin using him as an informant. To expand his repertoire, the police encourage him to sell drugs, telling him he can keep any money he makes. (Soon he has a boxful of cash under his bed containing almost a million dollars.) What they fail to emphasize is that he can go to jail for life for dealing drugs. They half-heartedly promise to protect him if he should happen to get caught, but they refuse to put it in writing so we know they don’t really mean it. In the meantime, Rick junior impregnates a black girl (he’s still only sixteen) and doesn’t know about the baby until after it’s born. Rick senior and Rick junior rescue Dawn from a drug house and take her home and lock her up to help her get over her terrible addiction.

White Boy Rick is based, we are told, on a true story. It’s a portrait of a family and is a story of wasted, hopeless lives. It’s bleak from start to finish with nothing pretty about it; there’s no redemption and no Hollywood ending. To top it off, most of the accents are almost incomprehensible; I rarely understood an entire sentence that was spoken. If nothing else, it’s a movie that makes you thankful if your life has some kind of order and morality to it.

Copyright © 2018 by Allen Kopp     

Hereditary ~ A Capsule Movie Review

Hereditary ~ A Capsule Movie Review by Allen Kopp

The Grahams are a middle-aged couple who live in a big house in the woods. Annie Graham (an overwrought Toni Collette) is a sort of artist who makes dollhouses and miniatures. Her husband, Steve (Gabriel Byrne), doesn’t seem to do much of anything except stand around and be fatherly to the two Graham children: a very odd thirteen-year-old girl (inexplicably) named Charlie and Peter, a dope-smoking high-schooler.

Annie Graham’s strange (“strange” is the operative word here) mother dies. Annie speaks at her mother’s funeral, explaining how “private” her mother was in her “associations.” (We find out later the reason for this.) Annie’s mother had a special bond with the little girl Charlie. At one point Charlie says that her grandmother wanted her to be a boy, which might explain her being given a boy’s name.

Charlie is not the usual thirteen-year-old girl. She is distant and preoccupied, with a face that is mask-like. Also, she has a peanut allergy, which is an important plot point to remember later. When Peter, Charlie’s brother, is invited to a teenage party, his mother makes him take Charlie along, which she will sadly regret later. What happens to Charlie, which I will not give away here, is the most disturbing image in the movie.

Grieving, Annie meets Joan, an older woman who seems sympathetic. (Joan, as we discover later, is not what she seems to be.) Joan is also grieving; her son and grandson have both died in a drowning accident. These two women seem to have a lot in common.

At a later date, Annie meets Joan when she is out shopping. Joan feels so much better, she says, because she has met a spiritual medium who has shown her how to get in touch with her grandson in the spirit world. Annie is skeptical, of course, but eventually drawn in.

When Annie is going through some boxes of her dead mother’s possessions, she finds some pictures that she can’t explain and also a book with some of its passages highlighted that tell how a demonic spirit is looking for the body of a human boy to occupy on earth. These fleeting images help to explain what is going on. If you’re not paying attention during these few seconds, you will miss it because it won’t be explained later.

Hereditary is a better-than-average summer movie. It’s slow-moving at times, especially during the first third, and is probably a little too long at 127 minutes. It takes a long time getting to the payoff, but when it comes (to music that sounds like Wagner’s “Entrance of the Gods into Valhalla”), we find that it was well worth the wait.

Copyright © 2018 by Allen Kopp

The Seagull ~ A Capsule Movie Review

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

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

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

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