Texas Art & Film's Dr. Donna Copeland's Film Reviews & Features
The To Do List is about high school students, and seems to have been written by someone with a high school mind.  Yes, I know Maggie Carey, the writer/director, is a grown-up—and I even heard the film is based at least to some extent on her own life.  So it is not as if the story doesn’t have some connection to reality, but the plot and the lines for the actors are very mechanical—much like the main character Brandy’s (Aubrey Plaza) checklist of sexual acts.  It is redeemed a bit toward the end when emotions are finally touched upon, but most of the film is a series of sketch comedies about sex acts, shown one by one.
            The actors, for the most part, do well with the lines they are given, and Aubrey Plaza is convincing as a brainy nerd who is stuck in the bossy sister role.  I remember her in Safety Not Guaranteed, skillfully mastering a well-written role.   And her parents, Clark Gregg as the father and Connie Britton as the mother, are fine-tuned in their portrayal of a concerned couple who differ in their ideas about their daughters’ sex education.  Similarly, Brandy’s friends—played by Johnny Simmons, Scott Porter, Bill Hader, Alia Shawkat, and Sarah Steele—play their roles well. 
            This film reminds me of I’m so Excited, the recent Almodovar film, in showing sex in a mechanical way (trying to be frank and open), but with the intent to loosen up a repressed audience.  (Not really the way to do it.)  In this respect, they are hoping to titillate, but sadly, they have the opposite effect.  I do not think sex portrayed as it is in these two movies is normal, in the sense that people will see it and have “aha” or “That’s the way it was for me” experiences.  My hunch is that this film relates in a slim way with someone’s real experience (as in a grain of truth), then the filmmakers ramped it up to fit with producers’ hopes of what will please naïve audiences and rake in money.
            Certainly, there were plenty of laughs in the screening I attended, so indeed many people will like The To Do List.  These are not people I know, so I have no idea what exactly they were laughing at.  To each his/her own.                        Grade:  D

Everyone knows Bowie, Charles, Crow, Jagger, Midler, Springsteen, Sting, Vandross, and Wonder; but how many have heard of the back-up singers for these artists, women like Judith Hill, Merry Clayton, Lisa Fischer, Darlene Love, Janice Pendarvis, Tata Vega, and Claudia Lennear?  Morgan Neville (director/producer) and Gil Friesen (producer with the original idea for the film) have created one of the best documentaries I have seen about a subject few know anything about.  The singers—mostly black women—have remained largely in the shadows, although by the stars’ admission, they have been intrinsic to the lead singer’s success. 
            Many began in gospel choirs and had a passion for music.  Many are the daughters of preachers. They entered the professional music world in various ways, learning how to meld their own voices with that of the group and not stand out.  Across time, either because of their own ambitions or because back-up singing began to fade, some had aspirations to go out on their own.  We hear those stories and are reminded of what a long, difficult pathway that is, and how it requires a business sense as well as pure luck.  Judith Hill was a back-up singer and in rehearsals with Michael Jackson when he suddenly died.  This was devastating, of course; however, her singing at his memorial service brought her to the public’s attention, and after appearing on the TV show “The Voice”, she seems well on her way to becoming a star in her own right.
            A part of the film that is most rewarding is to hear artists like Springsteen, Sting, Wonder, and Jagger talk about the women and what they have brought to their concerts.  A couple of them say, “I just receded to the background and let her do her thing.”  We find out about the times they have spent together, simply enjoying one another and having fun.  The back-ups seem to have a particular knack for pleasing others similar to what they have done with their voices:  So, ironically, part of the reason for their not achieving lead status is that most of their lives have been geared toward acquiescing and blending—not enough “ego”, as some have said.
            Twenty Feet from Stardom stirs up all kinds of emotions—like inspiration, joy, heartbreak, laughter, sadness—while informing us about the tremendous work and talent required for success in the music industry.  It is a very well made film, with plenty of opportunity to learn about each singer, the group as a whole, and the industry in general.  Most importantly, the segments of music are long enough for us to appreciate their songs.                                            Grade:  A

The Attack is another fine film that illustrates many of the complexities in the ongoing conflict between Arabs and Jews.  The story is about a Palestinian physician in Tel Aviv who has just received the highest honor for a surgeon in Israel.  He gets a telephone call just as he is being introduced at the ceremony, but says he will call back.  It is his wife, who has not been able to attend, and when he tries to reach her later, he discovers she has accidently left her cell phone at home. 
The next day, his hospital is beset with emergencies following a bomb attack in the city.  It is not clear whether the bomb was left in the restaurant at an earlier time, or whether it was carried in by a suicide bomber.  The story thereafter is about uncovering the mystery, and Dr. Amin Jaafari’s (Ali Suliman) searching for his wife, who has not returned from a visit to her hometown in Nazareth, the largest city in the North District of Israel, populated primarily by Muslims and Christians.  His wife is a Christian.
                  As Dr. Jaafari searches for answers as to the whereabouts of his wife, who has not returned home at the expected time, he encounters suspicions by both the Israelis he works with and the people in Siham’s (Reymond Amsalam) hometown.  But he is undeterred, and continues to ask questions everywhere he goes.  Unfortunately, it turns out his wife also died in the bombing, which not only devastates him, but forces him to question how/why she was there and their relationship in general.
                  Ali Suliman, who played Warzer Zafir in the TV show “Homeland”, is well cast in this role as an esteemed surgeon who takes it upon himself to be a detective and find out what happened to his wife.  He makes a visit to the Nazareth area where he and Sihim are from, and talk to relatives who are happy to help, until it puts them in a compromising position with the locals.  He encounters the same distancing from his Israeli friends who now begin to question his loyalty.
                  The writer/director (Ziad Doueliri) is from Lebanon, and he keeps a neutral position throughout the film.  Nevertheless, The Attack has been banned by the Arab League in 22 countries, simply because part of it was filmed in Israel and has an Israeli actress, and because it did not take sides (against the Jews).  But it is precisely this neutrality that makes The Attack such a great film, in giving those of us not familiar with the region what it is like to reside in the middle east where residents are pressured to be on one side or the other.

Grade:  A

Nicolas Refn’s Only God Forgives is like a highly stylized modern dance with operatic drama.  Colorful music soars or gracefully lilts, but there are also long silences punctuated by extreme violence.  These silences serve to heighten the threat of whatever is about to occur.  The tale is one of power and revenge, juxtaposed with “family values” that either involve nurturance and protection or the dark side of parental concerns and punishment.  As with Refn’s previous film, Drive, this one leaves the viewer taken aback and mulling over what he/she just saw.  

Ryan Gosling as Julian embodies the strong silent male with pronounced ambivalence toward his mother, scandalously played by Kristin Scott Thomas (Crystal).  He rarely speaks, and if he does, it is usually to say, “Go!” or “No!”, but his facial expressions are eloquent. Without saying or doing much at all, he exemplifies the psychopathology engendered by horrific parenting. As the primary perpetrator of this parenting, Crystal is steely cold, wishing only for the semblance of devotion from her son, e.g., lighting her cigarette, a peck on her cheek, except when she wants revenge, then she demands full compliance.  The two actors electrify the screen when they are on together.

A critical figure in the drama is Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm), who metes out justice based on his own code.  He is ruthless toward those whom he perceives as morally weak, but is more brutal to those who have been responsible for others’ weaknesses.  Strangely, he always gives a transgressor a chance to explain—although of course, he usually punishes even so.  Some of the rare moments of comedy in the film are of him singing what sounds like Thai love songs after scenes of brutality.

Cinematography (Larry Smith) is a character in the movie, setting the mood with its shadow and light, close-ups—particularly of hands symbolizing guilt and anger—brilliant colors, and surreptitious following of shady characters.  Fortunately, some of the violent scenes were cut away to alleviate overload of blood and gore.  Cliff Martinez’s music enhances the cinematography and mood of the film throughout.

Only God Forgives is certainly not a film for everyone.  It reminds me of Terence Malick’s work in its artistry and the way in which the symbolism is ascendant over the story told.  But it is also of the horror film genre exemplified by many South Korean movies, such as the Vengeance trilogy and I Saw the Devil.  In other words, very violent.    

Grade:  A

Turbo gives snails a better rap.  It takes the fable “The Tortoise and the Hare” and converts it to a modern-day race at the Indy 500.  Little do the participants of that race know that one particular major fan of the Indy 500, now with the pseudonym “Turbo” (Ryan Reynolds), has gotten a dose of some ingredient that powers their engines to give him super-powers.  The tale is told primarily from the point of view that snails are slow, and hence, rather dull and unimaginative—like Turbo’s brother, Chet (Paul Giametti).  It is directed toward those who assume that to follow the rules and do what one is told is better than dreaming.  But the message of this movie is “No dream is too big, and no dreamer is too small.”  This is spoken with braggadocio by the reigning star Guy Gagne (Bill Hader), who loves the limelight at whatever cost.  So children get a lesson on the rewards dreaming can bring, but on hubris as well.
                  The writers, Darren Lemke, Robert D. Siegel, and David Soren (who is also director), have created a highly entertaining film with good messages for kids.  It has a scenario that speaks to both children and adults about listening to new ideas.  To children, it says, “Dream!” even when the older people are discouraging you.  To adults, it says to listen to children; maybe all their ideas are not so unworkable and outlandish, that maybe it’s time to get up to speed with the contemporary world. 
                  Another delightful aspect of the film is the mixing up of white, Latino, and black ethnicities in a way that they are on equal footing, yet highlights the assets of each group.  Tito (Michael Pena) and Angelo (Luis Guzman) are the lovable brothers who want to make tacos for everyone.  Smooth Move (Snoop Dog), Whiplash (Samuel L. Jackson), and other snails from the brotherhood are there to demonstrate their ingenious ways to further the cause.  The message about “race” is subtle rather than overt, humorous rather than serious, which makes it more salient.  This is a message to us as adults, that cooperation and support of others outside our own group brings great rewards.  Everyone has a role to play in this drama, even the naysayers, who are often the proponents of safety and careful planning.
                  Dreamworks Animation has hits and misses, but Turbo is a clear hit.  The animation is skilled, colorful, and easy to follow.  Casting is perfect with Ryan Reynolds in the boyish lead role, Paul Giamatti as the skeptical older brother, Michael Pena and Luis Guzman as the “Bros”, and Bill Hader standing out as the silver-tongued devil, reigning star of the Indy 500.  The ticket price for the 3D version is not really essential.                                                                                                                                                            Grade:  A

This is a fine character study in the dark comedy genre.  A couple just beginning a love relationship go on a sightseeing trip in a caravan through the British Isles.  The woman, Tina (Alice Lowe), has difficulty separating from her mother, who does not like Chris (Steve Oram), her boyfriend.  As the couple is driving away, she sputters to him that she does not like him, and that he is a very bad person.  Chris takes this calmly, and tells Tina just to ignore her mother, suggesting he does not take it seriously or hold it against her.

            It turns out, this is a window into his personality—he is calm about many things, patient, and friendly.  But there is a dark side, very dark.  Tina’s reaction to this quality is the most interesting part of the film.  The story takes unexpected turns every step of the way, and in the end, it is clear why/how these two got together.  The psychology of it is plausible, and the film goes one step further in showing her mother’s influence on Tina.  The role of the dog(s) in the story is interesting to ponder, and is just another element that is darkly humorous.

I think it has something to do with Tina’s view of attachments, that one object can easily be replaced with another, a nondifferentiated outlook, and her sense of entitlement stemming from a less than nurturant mother.

            I hate to go too much into the story, because it is best for the viewer see it unfold; the writers (Amy Jump, Alice Lowe, Steve Oram) are gifted storytellers, and it is delightful—despite the morbidity—to see the twists and turns.  Interestingly, two of the writers are the main characters.  Under Ben Wheatley’s direction, this is a very well done British production.

Grade:  B+