Texas Art & Film's Dr. Donna Copeland's Film Reviews & Features
 
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This is a perfect film to be highlighted during Earth Day 2013.  Jeremy Irons travels the world demonstrating all the ways in which humans are destroying our planet’s finite resources with our waste, which pollutes our air, water, and land.  Following is a summary of the findings he discusses.
Each year, we throw away billions of plastic bags, 200 billion plastic bottles, and 58 billion throwaway cans.  These end up in landfills and the oceans, washing up on what used to be sandy beaches that have now become dumping grounds.  For example, Lebanon has a mountain of trash on a beach that is 40 meters high.   A toxic dump in Yorkshire, England is 62 meters in height.  Four hundred landfills in China, which contain heavy metal, radioactive substances, and synthetic plastics, have reached capacity.
            The problems with landfills are many.  Government agencies are complacent, and there are no definitive maps showing landfills, so no one knows what damage they are doing.  Apparently, even the best-managed landfills cause problems, such as toxic dust clouds.  There are covers for waste dumps, but ultimately, they all seem to fail.
            So much nonbiodegradable trash and plastics have been dumped into the oceans, one scientist noted that there is now more trash than life in the oceans.  Trash is killing even large marine animals such as seals and whales by their getting entangled in it.  When the plastics are finally broken down by the oceans movement, we get smaller and smaller fragments that are then ingested by organisms, which remain there for life.  Furthermore, plastics both leach chemicals and attract chemicals that affect hormonal and immune systems.  This is one reason whales are disappearing; their reproduction has been reduced because of these chemical processes.
            The conclusion is that landfills are damaging to the environment; so what about incinerators?  There are 800 of these in the world, 469 in Japan alone.  The UK has 30, but they have 91 applications for more.  Some hope to use incinerators to convert waste into energy, but all incinerators produce ash, which contains dioxins and other chemicals.  Even though they have filters, filters constantly break down and are extremely expensive to replace.  One incinerator in France wrecked 350 farms, and 3,000 animals had to be put down.  Farmers in that area there can no longer consume their own products because the land is contaminated as well.  Even though the cancer rates increased from 6% to 23%, government agencies denied there was a problem.
            Dioxins are a huge problem.  Once they get into a man’s body, he can never get rid of them.  Women get rid of them, but that is because they are passed on to their babies.  They travel through the body like viruses, and can even cross the blood-brain barrier.  Most of us in the U.S. have dioxins in our bodies.  Once these and other toxins get into the system, they are long-lasting.  Forty years ago, Agent Orange was sprayed by Americans in Viet Nam and children there are still being born with disfiguring effects (e.g., missing arms, legs) and diseases.
            Government regulation of incinerators is difficult because they emit ultra-fine particles that escape monitoring.  The Arctic is the most contaminated because toxins become more concentrated in colder temperatures, so in the melting ice that is resulting from global warming, these toxins are being released.
            Clearly, our land, air, and oceans are all polluted, and the only glimmer of hope is for everyone to participate in recycling.  San Francisco is a model city in this regard.  It separates trash into recyclable elements; plastics go to China to be reconstituted into new plastic products, and organic material is made into compost.  Scientists there claim that we should be able to recycle over 90% of the waste generated in this country.  Obviously, from the above, landfills and incinerators are not the answer.
            This documentary should shake up all of us who see it, and make us take more action in stemming the tide of damaging waste.  This is an excellent film.                                                                        Grade:  A


 
 
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                  This heartbreaking documentary covers a subject that, unfortunately, is surfacing more and more in this country, where (in many cases) DNA evidence shows wrongful convictions of people who have spent years in prison, or even been put to death.  The filmmakers (Ken Burns, David McMahon, and Sarah Burns) have carefully researched the background information of the case, which clearly indicates that—in one reporter’s view—the prosecutors, defense lawyers, and reporters did not pay attention to obvious discrepancies in the data used to convict five young adolescents.  The crime of a woman jogger beaten and raped in Central Park was widely reported at the time, and evoked highly emotional reactions in the public.
                  The film begins by having the five men—now in their 30’s—tell the story of how they were coerced by the police departments and prosecutors in the interrogations, and given promises that if they would just confess, they could go home soon.  Their confessions were fabricated by officials to make them consistent with what was known of the case, and the boys, sometimes with their parents’ acquiescence, naively went along with it, simply because they were exhausted after hours and hours of questioning without rest or food, and just wanted to go home.  It is also clear that they did not think they would actually be convicted of a crime they did not commit. 
                  One of the film’s strong points is having the case put in a social-historical-psychological perspective.  That is, these were just kids who could be pressured into doing something for a short-term goal (going home) without consideration of the long-term consequences (being convicted and sent to prison).   From a social standpoint, these were lower class black kids and the victim was a white, well-to-do woman.  A number of commentators brought out the frequency with which this particular contrast touches on the basic fears of white people toward males of color.  Historically, Americans have many times in such cases tended to form judgments before all the evidence is in.  Another point is made that the crime rate was high in New York City at the time, and police departments and city officials were being criticized for being soft on crime.  With all the pressure, they were desperate to apprehend and prosecute someone(s) as soon as possible.
                  It is chilling to realize that the five men’s convictions were eventually (after they spent years in prison) overturned by a court only after a chance incident, which I will not reveal in this review. 
                  Sadly, although the men have been released from prison, their civil suit against the city, police officers, and prosecutors is still unresolved.  This is after 23 years since the crime was committed.  Even more sadly, the loss of that many years of their lives still goes with them, and the convictions of felonies in their past makes it very difficult to get a job.  As one says, “I can forgive, but I can’t forget.”  No, I am sure they are reminded every day of what happened to them as kids and its implications for their adult lives.
The Central Park Five is a film that would be instructive for all of us to see and hear about the dangers of a rush to judgment.        Grade:  A

 
 
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      This is classic Malick—an abstract impressionistic treatise about the nature and wonder of love.  The experience of love is rebirth, hope for a new life, being at one with another, and being at peace, like calm, still waters.  But love is also a process, and like nature has its bounty and gifts of life, but along with it, devastation and destruction.  It can be very steady and predictable, as well as disappointing.  It can be like a tornado ripping through a house and leaving it completely empty.  It can be as polluted as our earth with the poison of deceit and faithlessness.  By juxtaposing scenes of nature with scenes of romantic relationships, Malick graphically brings these points home.
      The love story itself is segmented, with the male character, Neil (Ben Affleck) as a strong, silent figure who imparts feelings of love, warmth, and care—like the sunshine.  But like the sunshine, he can go behind the clouds, darken, and bring on a sudden storm.  We see him at first with Marina (Olga Kurylenko), a French woman with a 10 year-old girl.  We see them in the first bursts of love, dancing and playing incessantly.  But like the changing weather (the sun does not commit to an appearance every day), Neil cannot commit to marriage, so Marina and her daughter return to Paris.
     Love blooms again for Neil when he becomes involved with Jane (Rachel McAdams), and again the sunny days of love follow.  But then, he decides to end this love in order to take back Marina, who is floundering on her own in Paris.  So like the seasons, love comes and goes and comes back again in different forms.  Inevitably, when the storms come, the relationship must be strong like a house to withstand the turmoil.  Love is ephemeral; we all need it and chase after it, but it’s hard to hold onto.  It requires commitment that we are sometimes unwilling to make.  As noted in the film, when love turns to hate, it becomes a cruel war.
      Interspersed into these musings, is a priest (Javier Bardem), who is seeking God’s love as earnestly as the three main characters are seeking it in each other.  Similar questions and feelings are expressed to God as Marina, the narrator of the film, expresses to Neil.  Where are you?  Why don’t you speak to me?  Where do you go for so long? It’s so hard to hold onto you.
Malick’s ending to these musing is to ask God to show us how to seek Him (Love).  And he thanks him as the “love that loves us.”  The last scene looks to me like a castle in the distance that beckons us on.

Grade:  A

 
 
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This is a complex story that starts out to be intriguing, but eventually folds in on itself.  The narration by Simon (James McAvoy), who works for an art auction house, tells about heists and current measures to prevent thieves from stealing.  We know very soon that just such a thing is going to take place, and we know most of the players involved.
                  But the story takes so many twists and turns, going back and forth in time with identities fluctuating constantly, it turns out to be a mess—something that appears to have been produced and directed by a committee.  In fact, it was directed by Danny Boyle, written by Joe Ahearne and John Hodge, and produced by five individuals, one being Boyle.  Boyle noted on a guest appearance on The Daily Show that Trance was filmed while he took an eight-week leave from directing the 2012 opening ceremony of the Olympics in London.  It was edited following the London ceremonies.  He is well known for his fine movies (Trainspotting, 28 Days Later, Slumdog Millionaire, 127 Hours), so I have to believe he did not have as much of a hand in this as he did his earlier works.  Or perhaps it was the editing.  Boyle said in the guest appearance that he intentionally abandoned a chronological sequence—although there was one for the filmmakers to use—because he wanted to throw the audience off and blur the lines between reality and illusion as much as possible.  Unfortunately, I think the audience mostly ends up confused.
                  The cast is well chosen, and McAvoy, Vincent Cassel, and Rosario Dawson are fine actors; they just can’t carry a script that is convoluted and carries on to the point of absurdity.  So many red herrings are thrown out—seemingly just to trip up the audience—it  begins to look like a study in red.  And of course, I have to get on my soapbox about filmmakers having therapists sleep with their patients.  Likewise, I object to portrayals of therapists being part of an illegal ruse.  The filmmakers’ erotic and paranoid transferences toward their own therapists seem patently obvious to me.
                  This film is quite a disappointment.                                    Grade:  C

                 


 
 
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This is an impressive account of the rescue of Jews from Germany during WWII by the Philippines government and their American allies.  Manuel Quezon, the President of the Philippines at the time, was committed to humanitarian concerns, and supported an open-door immigration policy.  He had already been instrumental in bringing other distressed peoples to his country, and was supportive of any efforts to bring the Jews in the 1930’s.  He was a friend of the Frieder family from Cincinnati in the U.S. (who owned a cigar company that bought Philippino tobacco for their product), as well as General MacArthur, Dwight Eisenhower (Chief of Staff for MacArthur at the time), and the U.S. High Commissioner, McNutt.  All of these people supported the cause of helping the Jews in Germany and Austria.
            The Frieder family played a significant role in helping Jews immigrate to the Philippines.  It began with Alex Frieder who started a cigar company that imported its tobacco from the Philippines.  He had five sons, and when they decided to manufacture their own cigars in the Philippines, the five sons and their families took turns living in the Philippines and running the company.  All of them were close to President Quezon, as well as the U.S. military staff there, and felt a moral obligation to Jews oppressed by the Nazis.
            In 1935, when the Philippines was a territory of the U.S., President Franklin Roosevelt appointed Paul McNutt as the High Commissioner, whose responsibility included immigration.  This was very fortunate for the cause, since he was open to Quezon’s immigration policies.  He had to use his wit and diplomacy with the U.S. State Department, which was alternately apathetic or opposed to helping the Jews.
            Picture Quezon, one of the Frieder brothers, Eisenhower, and McNutt at a poker table.  Being such great friends and sympathetic to the Jewish plight, they eventually directed all their winnings to the cause of helping Jews immigrate to the Philippines.  Eisenhower was charged with finding them housing, and the Frieders with placing them in occupations so they would not have to be supported by the state. 
            Unfortunately, when the Japanese entered the war by bombing Pearl Harbor in 1941, they sent bombers to the Philippines as well.  Eisenhower then pulled the American Troops out, and the bombing forced MacArthur and the Quezon family to evacuate, leaving the country to the Japanese, who were very brutal.  Finally, after Germany and Japan were defeated, MacArthur returned and liberated the Philippines, but the Japanese officials had ordered their soldiers to kill and burn everything in their path as they left, so much had to be rebuilt.
            The accounts from the survivors in this documentary illustrate the importance of individuals and governments in counteracting oppression based on misguided notions and needless prejudices.  They are the heroes who should inspire us.                        Grade:  B-


 
 
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A well crafted, complex story about fathers and sons; police corruption; blurring lines between right and wrong, guilt and innocence; and the interplay between determinism and human will.  The story begins with a sexy daring motorcyclist for the circus.  With tattoos lining his body, pulsing muscles, and a cigarette continuously hanging out of his mouth, Luke (Ryan Gosling in all his glory) does not strike you as someone who would be so obsessed with a son he just discovered.  The son is the product of a one-night stand with Romina (Eva Mendes), who has noticed that he is back in town and is waiting for him after a performance.  He is intrigued, but she lets him know she is with someone else, and it is only later that he learns of the son, Jason; whereupon, he suddenly wants to be the father he never had.
          So Luke tries to insinuate himself in his son’s life, but this causes problems with Romina’s man, in whose house she and Jason reside.  Luke manages to get a lot of money illegally, purely to support his son, but has no clue about how his intrusion is regarded.  When he goes way over the line with Romina, she lets him know she doesn’t want to see him ever again.  Luke is hurt/enraged, and wants to act out his anger by unwisely continuing the illegal activity, which does not end up well for him.  “If you ride like lightnin’, you crash like thunder”, his friend tells him, prophetically.
          A parallel story is told about a police officer Avery (Bradley Cooper) who becomes a hero when he shoots a criminal and is injured in the process.  Much of the story in the film is about how these two families (Luke and son and Avery and son) are connected, some of which is through conscious planning and conscientious behavior and some is coincidental.  The coincidental part gives a strong sense of determinism about life.  The motivation for compassion likely stems from guilt as much as wanting to do the right thing.
          Cianfrance is masterful in weaving all the elements of the story together into a comprehensive whole, and the 2½ hours fly by with the audience on the edge of their seats.  The ending is surprising in some respects, but sagely does not tie everything up into neat ribbons.  There is relief, but also wonder about what happens to these individuals we have come to know so well.
          The actors are well cast and do the fine story justice.  Other aspects such as the music (Mike Patton) and cinematography (Sean Bobbitt) likewise help make this a must-see film.   Grade:  A


 
 
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Shin Bet is Israel’s secret service particularly charged with anti-terrorism responsibilities.  It functions alongside two other intelligence services, the Aman (military) and Mossad (foreign), and its head answers directly to Israel’s Prime Minister.  In this documentary, six former heads of the service report on their tenures in Shin Bet and their current views, which take into account insights they gained along the way, and are based upon their experiences in encounters with terrorists, their families, politicians, peacemakers, and government and military officials.  Their spans of service extended from 1981 to 2005, during which time, significant events occurred, such as the Kav Affair, the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, and the al-Aqsa Intifada.  The Kav Affair involved terrorists hi-jacking a bus.  The perpetrators were captured, but were tortured and killed without a trial, giving Shin Bet a black mark.  The al-Aqsa Intifada was the second Palestinian uprising against the Israelis, lasting five years and resulting in the deaths of over 4,000 on both sides, as well as some foreigners.
          In 2003, four of the six men in the documentary called upon the Israeli government to enter into talks with the Palestinians and come up with a peace agreement.  One related how he was taken aback when a Palestinian friend pointed out to him that the Palestinians had achieved a victory because “we have made you suffer” [just as we have].  Another observed that “Peace must be built on a system of trust”, not through military confrontations.  He notes that after they bombed the house of a terrorist, the collateral damage from killing innocent people, as well as the backlash that ensued, simply gained them more terrorists to deal with.  Much of their emphasis is on the critical need for enemies to talk together and see their commonalities, as opposed to simply getting riled up and taking military action.  The film ends with the observation that the Israelis could possibly win every battle, but lose the war, unless they pursue a peace treaty.
          The Gatekeepers sheds some light on the recent history of Israeli-Palestinian conflicts, and is especially remarkable in airing second thoughts and regrets of the former Shin Bet heads about their terms of service.  This documentary would be instructive for all, but especially for young people who are political activists, to hear their perspectives.  The film well deserves its nomination for an Academy Award for Best Documentary.
Grade:  A 





 
 
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The main intent of The Sapphires is to tell the story about four young Aboriginal Australian singers who “make it big” and end up performing for the U.S. troops in Vietnam.  At the forefront is another theme, which is racial discrimination based on color.  I found that aspect of it as moving as the singers’ professional success.   It was shocking to find that at that time, the Aboriginals were considered “flora and fauna”; not human beings.  When they are treated as such in their town, we are pulled back into our own history in the south during that same period, and it reminds us of why the civil rights movement in this country was so essential.  Not that we can rest on our laurels, given that there still remains outrage on the part of some that we have a black President.
          The story of the Sapphire group is an intriguing one to hear; they come from a culture where people do not sugarcoat as much as we do.  The women in this family seem particularly cheeky, and require others to prove themselves first before they’re respected and trusted.  The positive side of this trait is that they are also tough and able to tolerate criticism without withdrawing.  They will even concede a point to the group when they are “voted down.”  For instance, the oldest, Gail (Deborah Mailman), who is something of a mother hen to the others, shows great strength in adapting when she is told that she must give up her position as lead to a younger, better singer.
           One of the strengths of the film, finely executed by the Australian writer-director Wayne Blair, is that the viewer is kept guessing as to how everything is going to turn out.  When Emcee Dave (Chris O’Dowd) rashly offers to be their agent, we do not know whether he is up to his task, whether they can as a group come to agreements, how the women will fare in Vietnam, and so on.  That is, there is enough drama and suspense to make this an entertaining and moving film.  O’Dowd is perfect in the role of Dave with a myriad of qualities, and each of the women has a distinct personality and different life situations.  The actresses (Mailman, Jessica Mauboy, Shari Sebbens, and Miranda Tapsell) are all very fine as well, with beautiful voices.

I recommend this film both for its entertainment value as well as an opportunity for the viewer to be reminded of how irrational and destructive racial prejudice can be.    Grade:  A-


 
 
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The title of this film is something of a double entendre in that the main character Portia (Tina Fey) works as an admissions officer at Princeton, and the story contains several personal admissions characters make over the course of time.  Portia has worked at Princeton for 16 years, and is vying with another woman, Corinne (Gloria Reuben), to be appointed head after the current chief retires.  Both are hard working, competent women who desperately want the job.
Complications for Portia enter in after John (Paul Rudd) interjects himself into her life, in the interest of seeing that one of his students is accepted.  She is very proper, and tries to maintain objectivity and appropriate boundaries, but he has a special hook that draws her in.  Actually, he has several hooks, and before long, she is emotionally compromised.  As the story plays out, it becomes more and more outrageous, and that is the main problem I had with the movie.  It is too farcical, which detracts from some of the realistic situations and depth of emotions experienced by the characters, devolving into an extended situation comedy.
            Part of the farce involves rather stereotypical portraits of women.  Yes, after a typically rendered cat fight between Portia and Corinne, they do make up and begin to cooperate with one another, which goes against many stereotypes in films.  But Portia is drawn as highly emotional and unable to maintain her professional boundaries—not believable with the way she is portrayed in the beginning.  The story seems to imply that if such a woman is exposed to children and maternal instincts, she will melt every time, setting aside her decision not to have children and compromising her values and professional self.  Portia’s tough mother, played expertly by Lily Tomlin, is another stereotype who melts and suddenly becomes maternal as soon as a man comes into her life. 
            I enjoyed very much two of Director Paul Weitz’ previous films--Being Flynn and About a Boy—and this one is entertaining and even absorbing at times.  There are a number of heartfelt scenes, particularly those involving the two kids, teenager Jeremiah (Nat Wolff) and younger Nelson (Travaris Spears), and the chemistry and skills of Paul Rudd, Tina Fey, and Lily Tomlin are eye-catching.  If the comedic parts had been reined in a bit, I would say the film might have been first-rate.

Grade:  B

 
 
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Olympus Has Fallen is a rather unbelievable (it better be!) account of the U.S. White House being attacked and the President being held captive by terrorists from North Korea.  They attack from the skies first, then manage to get inside the White House.  That so many airplanes with weapons could get past our security is the first unbelievable part; then, that a single ex-secret serviceman could ward off numerous physical attacks all by himself while generals and other officials are making poor decisions is likewise not credible.  There is enough loud gunfire, soaring music, and tense moments to produce a headache, but somehow the film does maintain a fair amount of suspense.
            Another misfire is the casting, most notably with Aaron Eckhart as the President.  Although he is a good actor, he simply does not come across as presidential.  Nor does Gerard Butler seem much like someone from the secret service.  I would have expected the villain Kang (Rick Yune) to be much more sinister; here, he seems cold, but not particularly ominous and threatening as someone who displays and orders the degree of violence he does.  The brutality shown to the President’s secretary was offensive, and came across more as extended woman bashing than as a serious part of the story.  The rest of the cast is very competent, especially Morgan Freeman in a role that is almost a trademark for him.
            The movie was directed by Antoine Fuqua and written by Creighton Rothenberger and Katrin Benedikt who have inserted lines that, to me, are absurd.  After the White House has been attacked, who would say to someone involved, “How was your day”?  Or “This has been a rough day, hasn’t it”?  After a kid has been traumatized by murder and mayhem all around him while he is alone, it seems ridiculous to have someone say, “Are you OK?” 
            In my opinion, there is not much to recommend in Olympus Has Fallen.                        Grade:  D