THE FINEST HOURS (2015)

January 29, 2016

finest hours Greetings again from the darkness. The U.S. Coast Guard has played a role in many movies over the years, but only a few have placed this service branch directly in the heart of the story … most recently The Guardian (2006), which was little more than a cheesy, too-talkative water-based rip-off of Top Gun.  Director Craig Gillespie (Lars and the Real Girl, 2007) takes a much different approach as he presents a look at one of the most legendary and heroic real-life rescues in Coast Guard history.

The Oscar-nominated writing team behind The Fighter (2010): Scott Silver, Paul Tamasy, and Eric Johnson have collaborated on the screenplay based on the book from Casey Sherman and Michael J Touglas. It’s a worthy tribute (and clearly Disney-influenced) to what is described as the greatest Coast Guard small-boat rescue. It combines a boat-load (sorry) of tension-filled ocean-based sequences with some pretty interesting character-based sub-plots within a Massachusetts community that has become all too familiar with storm-based catastrophes.

Chris Pine stars as Bernie Webber, an awkwardly shy and obsessive rule-follower, who has lived under a cloud of doubt ever since a previous rescue mission failed, resulting in the death of a local fisherman/husband/father. We first meet Bernie as he bungles through a first date with Miriam (Holliday Grainger, a young Gretchen Mol lookalike). The film then jumps ahead to 1952 when they become engaged and Bernie is ordered into a questionable mission by his “not-from-around-here” commanding officer Daniel Cluff (Eric Bana). See, a huge storm has literally ripped apart not one, but two giant tankers, leaving crew members battling for survival. It should be noted that Bana the Australian, tosses out a laughable southern accent that is a joke within the movie and within the theatre (for different reasons).

Bernie and his crew: Richard Livesay (Ben Foster), Andy Fitzgerald (Kyle Gallner), and Ervin Maske (John Magaro), take off against all odds in a too-small boat against too-big waves in a desperate attempt to rescue the tanker crew that includes brilliant engineer (and quiet leader) Ray Sybert (Casey Affleck) and characters played by John Ortiz and Graham McTavish. Affleck excels as what can be termed a quiet leader. Of course, we know how the story ends, but the heroic efforts against a very powerful Mother Nature show-of-force make for compelling movie watching.

The special effects are stout, though not be as spectacular as The Perfect Storm (2010) or In the Heart of the Sea (2015), and it’s the human-factor that provides more than enough thrills, excitement, and tension. In fact, the biggest issue I had was that I saw a 3-D version which is an absolute disservice to the film. Most of the story takes place at night and at sea, so the 3-D consequence of dimmed light and muted colors results in a far too dark and dull look to the film. I spent much of the movie sliding the 3-D glasses down my nose in a simple attempt to enjoy a bit more brightness. The recommendation would be to skip the higher-priced (money grabbing) 3-D version and take in the more pleasing “standard” version.

Disney makes feel-good movies. Their target market is not cynics or the overly critical among us. The romance pushes the “corny” meter, but keeps with tradition of other Disney movies based on true stories like The Rookie (2002) and Dreamer: Inspired by a True Story (2005). Keep this in mind you’ll likely find this one pretty entertaining. Stick around for the closing credits as a slew of real photographs from the actual 1952 event are displayed, as are photos of the real heroes from that night.

watch the trailer:

 

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STEVE JOBS (2015)

November 5, 2015

steve jobs Greetings again from the darkness. Does it take the smartest guy in the room to write about the smartest guy in the room? Probably not, but as Aaron Sorkin shows in writing about Steve Jobs, it can’t hurt. It’s an impressive filmmaking team that, in addition to Sorkin, includes director Danny Boyle, and a cast of Michael Fassbender, Kate Winslet, Jeff Daniels, Michael Stuhlbarg, Katherine Waterston, Seth Rogen, John Ortiz and Perla Haney-Jardine … that’s a lot of talent, prestige, and award-winners.

The film is based on the terrific authorized biography written by Walter Isaacson (which I recommend). Rather than tackle the entirety of the book or Jobs’ life, a theatrical approach is taken with three distinct acts covering 16 years centered on product roll-outs: Macintosh, 1984; NeXT, 1988; and iMac, 1998. You might notice that two of those products are considered major flops, but the focus is on the persona of Jobs, not the performance of the products. Director Boyle makes his presence felt by filming appropriately in each of the segments: 16mm for 1984, 35mm for 1988, and digital for 1998. He also brings a sweeping beauty to the visuals … whether it’s Jobs storming through a hallway, or the maze of activity backstage at each roll-out.

In today’s world, it’s humorous to witness the cult-like atmosphere that develops around Apple products, and it’s equally comical to see the small-minded types who refuse to credit Jobs or Apple for catapulting consumer technology ahead by decades, and for achieving levels of financial success never before reached. Although it’s difficult to separate Jobs from Apple, Sorkin and Boyle are very clear in their focus on the man. In fact, the movie could be viewed as a kind of dysfunctional family – both genetic family and work family.

Rogen plays Steve Wozniak and Stuhlbarg plays Andy Hertzfeld, both part of the original Apple team with Jobs. There are some pointed exchanges between these three characters, with the most eye-raising being when Woz asks Jobs, “What do you do?” It’s the best display of what makes Jobs different than others, and his answer is one of the most disheartening compliments ever heard. There are multiple extended sequences with Jobs and his quasi-father figure John Sculley (Jeff Daniels). These two rip through Sorkin dialogue the way Michael Jordan once sliced through defenses. Most cruel are the exchanges between Jobs and Chrisann Brennan (Ms. Waterston) – the mother of his daughter Lisa (though he refused to acknowledge being her father).

For those familiar with the role of Joanna Hoffman in Jobs’ career, you will be duly impressed with the performance of Kate Winslet … playing the only one who could consistently stand up to the relentless pressure and lofty expectations.

There are soft references to (future) iPods and iPads, and Jobs’ break-up with Apple is dramatized, but it’s the individual scenes of interaction with others that makes this entertaining and challenging to watch. There is nothing likable about Steve Jobs the man, but Fassbender’s fine performance does allow glimpses of humanity beneath the God-like aura Jobs presented. Was Jobs a genius? Was he an extreme social misfit?  Was he a cruel family man due to his botched adoption as a kid? Regardless of where you place him in the realm of technology development, it’s difficult to argue with Woz’s proclamation that one can be “decent AND gifted”. It’s not binary.

watch the trailer:

 


THE DROP (2014)

September 13, 2014

drop Greetings again from the darkness. Much of what I write here contradicts my long maintained stance that a strong story/script is the basis for any movie worth it’s proverbial weight. This neighborhood crime drama does not spin a twisty plot. Nor does it flash fascinating and colorful mobsters. Instead, it’s the acting that elevates the film to the point of neo-noir must see.

By now you have heard that this is James Gandolfini’s final movie. He passed away while director Michael Roskam (Bullhead) was in editing mode. Gandolfini plays Cousin Marv, a would-be wise-guy who never-really-was.  Now he is bitter and desperate, in a beaten down kind of way. As a farewell, Gandolfini leaves us a final reminder of what a powerful screen presence he was, and what a terrific feel for character and scene he possessed.

Beyond Gandolfini, the real attraction and the main reason to see the film is the outstanding and mesmerizing performance of Tom Hardy. In many ways, his bartender Bob is the polar opposite of his infamous Bane from The Dark Knight Rises. Quasi-effeminate in his vocal deliverings, and moving with a slow, stilted shuffle, Bob is one of the least imposing guys.  The kind that you would likely look right through. At least that’s the first impression. Hardy is so nuanced, we aren’t even certain when his character transitions and exposes his true make-up. When he does, it’s the highlight of the film.

Noomi Rapace, in yet another intriguing turn, plays local waitress Nadia, who befriends Bob after he rescues an abused puppy. Since the movie is based on Dennis Lehane’s short story “Animal Rescue”, it’s no surprise that the main characters each share a need to be rescued. Nadia’s ex-boyfriend is played to full psycho and creepy effect by Matthias Schoenaerts (so great in Rust and Bone, 2012). The scenes between Schoenaerts and Hardy show the movie at its tension-filled best.

As with most neighborhood crime dramas, there are many secrets, local legends, and allegiances in doubt. The players are weary and dream of either better times or ending the misery. Mr. Lehane wrote the novels that led to some other fine films: Mystic River, Gone Baby Gone, and Shutter Island. He has a feel for ultra-realistic characters, and his material depends on extraordinary acting for fulfillment. This slow boil benefits from some of the best acting we could ask for.

**NOTE: all due respect to the late, great James Gandolfini … we get a glimpse of him “running” from a crime scene, and his athletic prowess does detract from his otherwise imposing screen presence.

**NOTE: how good must this be if I went the entire review without mentioning Ann Dowd or John Ortiz … two excellent actors who play small, vital roles?

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you need further proof that Tom Hardy is one of the more talented actors working today OR you bask in the atmospheric neighborhood crime drama genre (this is a good one) OR you just want to see a really cute pit bull puppy.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: like me, you find it impossible to “unsee” a glimpse of James Gandolfini running on screen, in spite of his towering presence and acting ability.

watch the trailer:

 

 

 


SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK (2012)

November 24, 2012

 Greetings again from the darkness. The film is exactly what you would expect from a screwball romantic comedy steeped in drama based on bipolar disorder, depression, OCD, Philadelphia Eagles fanatics, a ballroom dancing contest, adultery, Hemingway, and a lead character who jogs while wearing a trash bag. Maybe not exactly what you would expect, but likely much more.

If you were told instead that the story is based on two damaged souls who help heal each other through dancing, you would have every reason to skip this one. However, as written and directed by David O Russell (The Fighter) and based on Matthew Quick‘s novel, this story is a frenetic, emotional roller coaster ride that provides a glimmer of hope for the two damaged lead characters, while reminding that each of us may be a bit off-center in some way. Now add in the best young actress working today (Jennifer Lawrence just turned 22), a rare performance from Robert DeNiro where he seems fully engaged, a pulling back the curtain on Bradley Cooper as much more than a pretty face, and one of the best and most pointed soundtracks in recent history …and  you have one of the best films of the year.

What you notice very early on is that what could be considered a trite story line, is instead pounding you with sharp, witty dialogue that pulls no punches in directness. The many aspects of family and emotional support are given time thanks to Pat (Bradley Cooper) being released after 8 months in a mental institution. He was sent there when he snapped after finding his wife in a compromising position with another man. Perfectly understandable if you ask me, but clearly he is the explosive one despite his claims to the contrary. An uncomfortable dinner party introduces him to Tiffany (Ms. Lawrence) whose husband has recently died and her coping skills have been shared with most of those in her workplace. This odd couple spark immediately and the wild ride begins.

Pat’s wife Nikki (Brea Bee) has issued a restraining order and his strategy to win her back consists of a positive attitude and maintaining control of his emotions. His supporters include his mother (Jacki Weaver, who was so great in Animal Kingdom), his OCD father (DeNiro) who so wants to re-connect with his son, his friend (John Ortiz) whose own marriage (to icy Julia Stiles) is a messy mess, his buddy from the asylum (a funny and not over the top Chris Tucker), and of course, Tiffany. The only real problem is that each of these supporters are teetering in their own way – just like Pat.

 The brilliance of this movie is the balance struck between the near violent emotional outbursts and the sharp, exacting words spouted by each of the characters. Director Russell once again shows his flair for working class northeasterners. He understands these tough as nails people who wear their emotions on their sleeves. These people are as likely to punch you as hug you … both being acts of love.

The soundtrack deserves special mention. It is very unique and varied, with each song serving an exact purpose. Especially keen are Stevie Wonder’s “My Cherie Amour”, Led Zeppelin’s “What is and What Should Be”, and “The Girl from the North Country” a Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash duet. When the music strikes a harmony with the scene, the movie is all the stronger. Rarely do we get the perfect storm of script, direction, acting, music and relevance.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: complex relationships between characters facing life’s daily battles carries a certain artistic symmetry for you OR you just want to see acting of the highest quality led by a fabulous Jennifer Lawrence, a resurgent Robert DeNiro and a surprisingly talented Bradley Cooper

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you prefer your Rom-Com’s to be lightweight and light-hearted for easy laughs

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Lj5_FhLaaQQ


JACK GOES BOATING (2010)

October 3, 2010

 Greetings again from the darkness. We all recognize the genius of Philip Seymour Hoffman the actor. This gives us one more example of his immense talent, but also puts his eye as a first time director on display. Not surprisingly, the result is a terrific “little” film.

Based on the play by Bob Glaudini, three of the four main characters reprise their role from the stage production. Mr. Hoffman as Jack, John Ortiz as Clyde and Daphne Rubin-Vega as Clyde’s wife, Lucy. The newcomer is the fantastic Amy Ryan (“The Office”, “Gone Baby Gone”)as Connie. Jack and Clyde are good friends and work together as limo drivers. Lucy and Connie work together for some odd funeral home specialist who markets a type of  program that I never quite understood.

All that really matters is that Clyde and Lucy arrange to have Connie and Jack meet. The apparent reason is that neither of them have any friends or social skills and therefore, must be the perfect match! What we then learn is that all four of these people are fractured. Scene after scene shows off the power of friendship and/or the frailty of on-the-job relationship therapy brought about by cheating, holding grudges and keeping secrets.

For the most part, the film has the feel of a stage production and moves very slowly as these type of people would. There are moments where individual weakness gives way to outbursts of emotions – and not all in a positive way. What is clear is that they each want the best for each other, but have no real feel for what’s best for themselves.

I thought the film made some excellent points, but I was a bit disappointed in the hookah scene. That was the only scene that went too far and my guess is it worked better on stage. On the bright side, there are some tender, poignant moments and the acting is truly superb throughout the film. It is obvious that these four actors care very much for the story and these characters.  The soundtrack is a bit unusual, but fits very well with these characters.  One reggae song, “The Rivers of Babylon” plays a vital role in the film’s lone light-hearted moment.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: exceptional, nuanaced acting is your cup of tea OR you are a fan of Philip Seymour Hoffman

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: low budget indies tend to bore you OR watching Philip Seymour Hoffman learn to swim could give you nightmares