ELVIS (2022)

June 23, 2022

Greetings again from the darkness. I’m one who grew up spinning my mother’s Elvis 45s and LPs for hours on end. Long before I ever saw one of his movies, I had memorized and mimicked the vocals and stylings of his early recordings. For me, the love of his music was ingrained before any understanding of the cultural influence and impact that had occurred years prior. This background undoubtedly played a significant role in my enjoyment of this film. Many will find bashing this movie to be easy and justified, and I do understand. There are those who view Elvis Presley as little more than a punchline – a drug addicted fat guy chomping on peanut butter and banana sandwiches and forgetting lyrics on stage. Then there are those who view writer-director Baz Luhrmann (THE GREAT GATSBY, MOULIN ROUGE) as a cinematic trickster more committed to flashy visuals than facts and story. For me, the visuals and music of this spectacle were driven by a fully committed actor and a filmmaker serving up a tribute to a cultural icon.

Luhrmann co-wrote the script with Sam Bromell and Craig Pearce (a frequent Luhrman collaborator), and their approach seems three-pronged: the background history and influences of Elvis’ music, the “caught-in-a-trap” life he led, and the force that was Colonel Tom Parker (Elvis’ manager). In fact, much of the story is told from the tainted perspective of an elderly Parker, who is in poor health and near death. In Parker’s mind, he is the ‘hero’ who delivered Elvis to the world, and not the evil huckster who rode his meal-ticket into the ground, while severely limiting artistic opportunities like serious movie roles and international tours.

Playing Colonel Tom Parker, buried beneath a fat suit and facial prosthetics, is Oscar winner Tom Hanks. Further distractions come courtesy of the accent, which is actually pretty close to Parker’s speech pattern. We see Parker’s carnival background and hustler mentality, and watch as he first drools over Elvis along with the teenage girls in the Louisiana Hayride audience … although while the girls enjoy the sexuality, Parker sees nothing but dollar signs. It’s atop a Ferris wheel that Parker entices Elvis with dreams of stardom and wish fulfillment. Elvis is played by Austin Butler (Tex Watson in Tarantino’s ONCE UPON A TIME … IN HOLLYWOOD), and Butler perfectly captures Elvis’ early innocence and naivety, as well as the immense physicality of those early stage performances that sent girls (and some boys) into a tizzy.

Luhrmann takes us back to Presley’s childhood in poverty while living in Tupelo, Mississippi, and it’s here as a young boy wearing a Captain Marvel Jr logo (played by Chaydon Jay) where he is first moved by the gospel music from inside the black church. In fact, Luhrmann makes a point throughout the film to connect Elvis to the music roots of blacks – gospel, blues, R&B. He later befriends BB King (Kelvin Harrison Jr), and is awed by Little Richard (Alton Mason), Big Mama Thornton (Shonka Dukureh), and a stunning Sister Rosetta Tharpe (Yola). This is crucial as Luhrmann is aware of the ’cultural appropriation’ talk associated with Elvis these days, and how the singer absorbed the music that moved him and presented it to the wider audiences that had been previously untouchable by black artists. The influences are beyond debate just as the opening of doors was welcome.

Elvis’ path from Beale Street to Sun Records to RCA is tracked. The Sam Phillips and Sun Records connection is shown only briefly, but Phillips (Josh McConville) is acknowledged for releasing Elvis (driving his Crown Electric truck) so that he could sign with Parker. It was a remarkably standup thing to do and a familiar situation that has resulted in many court battles over the years for other artists and agents. We get a glimpse at Elvis’ extremely close bond with his mother Gladys (Helen Thompson), whose faith and heavy drinking are both on display. We can see the pride Elvis carries as he shows her Graceland for the first time. Richard Roxburgh plays Elvis’ father Vernon, and as time goes on, he’s not portrayed in a flattering light – seemingly more interested in money than in doing right by his son.

Elvis enlisting in the Army is viewed as a necessary public relations step due to the outcry from religious conservatives over his onstage movements clearly sponsored by the devil himself. We see one scene of Elvis courting Priscilla (Olivia DeJonge), but she’s only described as a teenager, so Luhrmann has chosen to gloss over the age difference and the unusual circumstances of those years between meeting and marrying. Also receiving the ‘glossed over’ treatment is Elvis’ movie career. It’s handled via montage with Austin Butler’s face superimposed into actual clips of the films. Another element that the film quickly skips through is the “Memphis Mafia”, Elvis’ entourage of assistants and hangers-on. They are mostly shown here as background characters, and some of these guys went on to write ‘tell-all’ books to line their pockets after Elvis died. It turns out the Elvis’ loyalty to them was not reciprocated once the gravy train ended.

Colonel Tom Parker was neither a Colonel nor a Parker. He was born Andreas van Kujik in The Netherlands and emigrated to the United States in order to pursue the American Dream and boat loads of gambling debt. Supposedly he treated Elvis pretty well, but it’s frustrating to know that so many business decisions were based on Parker’s personal needs rather than Elvis’ artistic development. As you would expect, Tom Hanks handles the role of ‘villain’ and Snowman quite well.

Austin Butler portrays Elvis from the early 1950’s to the mid-1970’s. It’s a terrific performance and one worthy of great admiration. Butler immersed himself in Elvis and it shows, perhaps never better than the infamous 1968 Comeback special. Black leather in the round, rocking to his hits, was a smash in TV ratings, and re-established Elvis as the star he was. The special also features Elvis in white suit belting out “If I Can Dream”, and Butler nails the emotion-filled performance. I consider this (Elvis’ actual song) one of the all-time most memorable rock/pop moments alongside Bill Haley and the Comets releasing “(We’re Gonna) Rock Around the Clock” (1954), Chuck Berry’s “Maybellene” (1955), Bob Dylan going electric at Newport Folk Festival (1965), Sinatra singing “My Way” (1969), Hendrix at Woodstock (1969), Live Aid (1985), and Kurt Cobain/Nirvana unplugged on MTV (1994).

We go behind the scenes for the dealings that brought Elvis and his new big band approach to the International Hotel (now The Hilton) in Las Vegas. Once again, Butler is spot on during the stage performances, and this brings the musical catalog full circle. Elvis’ musical roots and that early fascination never left him – regardless of whether it was his early trio, or the orchestra in Vegas. Despite the extended run time of 2:49, Luhrmann had to make some tough choices on what to include and what to omit. In a career that spanned less than 25 years, Elvis recorded more than 700 songs … none with the help of Auto-Tune. His amazing voice could be smooth, soulful, playful, or powerful, depending on the song – even at the end. We see one of his final stage performances (with Butler’s face superimposed over the clip) recorded a mere two months before his death in 1977. With guitarist Charlie Hodge holding the microphone, a bloated and drug-addicted Elvis delivered a most memorable rendition of “Unchained Melody”. He would soon be dead at age 42.

Baz Luhrmann and Austin Butler have provided a dazzling look at a remarkable career that changed the music industry and society. The film is quite a visual and musical and historical treat. We have grown so accustomed to reveling in the “bad” side of celebrities, that a celebration of one might seem trite to some. However, fans will enjoy most of this, despite the constant feeling that Elvis was trapped and lived with an underlying sadness for so many years. Elvis may have left the building, but Baz Luhrmann, Austin Butler, and the musical legacy continue ‘Taking Care of Business in a Flash.”

The film opens in theaters on June 24, 2022

WATCH THE TRAILER


NEWS OF THE WORLD (2020)

December 25, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. Even in the midst of a pandemic, December is Oscar-qualifying time. And that means we get Tom Hanks’ latest movie. This time out, the two-time Oscar winner reunites with his CAPTAIN PHILLIPS (2013) director Paul Greengrass (three “Bourne” movies, and Oscar nominated for UNITED 93, 2006) for Hanks’ first ride into the western genre. Luke Davies (Oscar nominated for LION, 2016) adapted the screenplay from Paulette Jiles’ 2016 novel.

The beloved Mr. Hanks stars as Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd. We know his full name because he proudly announces it at each stop of his news-reading route. That’s right, even in 1870, which is before television and radio and internet, a person could earn a living reading the news. OK, so it wasn’t the millions that national anchors make these days, as he was dependent on the audience dropping a coin or two in the tin cup. For this they were treated to Captain Kidd’s robust presentation of news and events (and some gossip) from around the nation … straight from the news clippings he collected during his travels.

On the trail one day, Captain Kidd comes across a horrific scene of violence, and a 10 year old girl with a shock of blonde hair. She only speaks Kiowa, but the found paperwork lists her name as Johanna (the first American film for Helena Zengel). It turns out, tragic events in her family’s home many years earlier left Johanna being raised by the Kiowa Indians. Captain Kidd is now on a mission to return her to her surviving relatives (an aunt and uncle), but there are at least three obstacles to his plan: it’s a rigorous trip of about 400 miles, the girl doesn’t want to go, and there remains much tension in the split among the post-war citizenry. So what we have here is a western road trip (trail ride) that’s a blend of TRUE GRIT (minus the witty banter) and THE SEARCHERS.

It should be noted that Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd has served in three wars, including the recently concluded Civil War. He may make his living wearing bifocals and reading newspapers, but Kidd is no nerd. He handles pressure quite naturally, as we witness in chase scene up a rocky hill. The resulting shootout not only creates the first bond between Kidd and Johanna, but also flashes the Captain’s calming influence. This is a soulful and principled Tom Hanks (as usual), but this time he’s riding a horse and his furrowed brow is working overtime.

The trip to Johanna’s home coincidentally takes Kidd very close to where he once lived – a place that holds his best and worst memories. As viewers we see what Captain Kidd and Johanna don’t. They are both headed back to a past they no longer belong to. Along the way, the two travelers cross paths with characters played by Elizabeth Marvel, Ray McKinnon, Mare Winningham, and the always great Bill Camp. There is nothing rushed about the story or these people. Fans of director Greengrass will be surprised to find an absence of his trademark rapid-cut action sequences, but he has delivered a sweeping epic with superb cinematography (Dariusz Wolski, “Pirates of the Caribbean” franchise), expert editing (Oscar winner William Goldenberg, ARGO), and a terrific score (8-time Oscar nominee James Newton Howard). Mr. Hanks delivers yet another stellar performance (of course), and young Ms. Zengel’s assured performance likely means we will be treated to her work for years to come. It’s a quasi-western period piece that is plenty interesting to watch, yet lacks the memorable moments to justify multiple watches or a place among the genre’s best.

Opens December 25, 2020

watch the trailer

 


TOY STORY 4 (2019)

June 17, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. Yes, it’s another instant classic from Pixar. No, we shouldn’t be surprised. Their track record is beyond compare. But I can’t help it. How the heck do they do it time after time, movie after movie? We have known (most of) the characters for 25 years now, and this fourth entry seems every bit as fresh and creative as the first one. We like these characters, and it doesn’t matter that they are animated. We laugh and cry and worry about them as if they are our friends.

Tom Hanks returns as our favorite cowboy Woody (yes, he still has a snake in his boot), and Tim Allen is back as Buzz Lightyear (still unable to grasp that he’s not a real space ranger). Also returning is Annie Potts as Bo Peep, now a strong, independent “lost” toy with excellent survival and scavenging skills. Some new toys and voices inject real pizazz to the adventures. Christina Hendricks charms as Gabby Gabby, a doll quite desperate for her own kid; Keanu Reeves shines as Duke Caboom, a showboating motorcycle stunt rider who may not be as daring as his big talk; and Tony Hale turns Forky into a lovable little cockeyed spork-toy. Also bringing fun and a new comedic element are the hilarious team of Jordan Peele and Keegan-Michael Key as Bunny and Ducky, respectively.

The opening sequence takes place 9 years ago, and we see how Bo Peep became separated from the others, and how the toys transitioned to Bonnie and how Bonnie transitioned to Kindergarten, and how Forky transitioned from trash to toy. And fear not, the old favorite toys are all here: Wallace Shawn as Rex, Joan Cusack as Jessie (I expected a bigger role for her), Timothy Dalton as Mr. Pricklepants, Pixar stalwart John Ratzenberger as Hamm, Blake Clark as Slinky Dog, and courtesy of archival recordings, two posthumous appearances by Don Rickles as Mr. Potato Head, and Bud Luckey as Chuckles the Clown.

With his first feature film as director, Josh Cooley follows up his screenplay for the brilliant INSIDE OUT with a touching and superbly funny film. The screenplay comes from Andrew Stanton (2 time Oscar winner, FINDING NEMO, WALL-E) and Stephany Folsom, while the original story credits are many, including John Lasseter in his last project with Pixar. Even though the film is Rated G, it should be noted that it’s a pretty complex story for youngsters, and the Charlie McCarthy dolls are kind of terrifying – at least to me and Forky. TOY STORY (1995), TOY STORY 2 (1998), TOY STORY 3 (2010) get the send-off they deserve, so “move your plush” and go see it! Randy Newman is back with a new song, as well as the familiar melody and lyrics from his Oscar nominated “You’ve Got a Friend in Me” … a friend indeed.

watch the trailer:


THE POST (2017)

December 25, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. It’s the first time a movie marquee has read “Spielberg-Streep-Hanks”, so expectations are sky high – and rightly so. The result is level of cinematic preciseness we don’t often see. As an added bonus, it also features both historical and contemporary relevance – the type of relevance that forces us to consider where we stand and what type of society we prefer. So for the price of a ticket, we get Hollywood star power, a history lesson, and current societal commentary … now that’s a holiday bargain!

Meryl Streep stars as Katharine (Kay) Graham, the first female publisher of a major U.S. newspaper, and she delivers her most nuanced performance in years … that of a conflicted woman coming to grips with her immense power at a time when many men believed she lacked the capacity for making such far-reaching and weighty decisions. Tom Hanks slides into the loafers of Ben Bradlee, the hard-charging editor of Ms. Graham’s newspaper, The Washington Post. The role fits Hanks like a glove, and he even brandishes Bradlee’s trademark growling speech pattern. Bradlee is laser-focused on what he believes is the right thing to do, and steadfast in his commitment to the cause.

Of course, the dilemma faced by these two involved the Pentagon Papers scandal of 1971. The film kicks off with a quick timeline of the political maneuverings that led to, and escalated, the Vietnam War. When Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys) leaked documents from the Defense Department’s study on decision-making during the Vietnam War, and the New York Times published some of the pages, the ramifications were numerous and the fallout was ugly. The complicated web of deceit and bad decisions spanned 5 Presidential administrations (Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon). It became obvious that those in power continued a war they knew we couldn’t win. The cover-up was widespread and the string of lies were delivered by many. The government lost the people’s faith, and then tried to crush the free press that had exposed its dirty secrets.

It’s only been a couple of years since SPOTLIGHT won the Oscar for Best Picture, and now that film’s Oscar winning writer Josh Singer teams with Liz Hannah on a script that is elevated by an extraordinary cast and crew. We get the real feel of the organized chaos of a newsroom, and it’s a thing of beauty. The clacking of typewriters, exuberant phone conversations, and a cloud of cigarette smoke all blend to create the fabric of an institution designed and intended to deliver the truth. As with all things, it’s never quite so simple. We learn of the historical collusion between press and politics, as reporters and editors commingled with politicians, only to draw the line when deemed necessary. Both sides have flaws, yet as citizens, we simply can’t tolerate the government manipulating and even quashing the free press – a free press designed to protect the governed, not those that govern (per the Supreme Court decision).

Steven Spielberg has delivered a master class of ethics vs legalities vs political power, touching on not just the responsibilities of all parties, but most crucially on the conflicting objectives of a free press (making money) and the government system (getting elected) it is charged with holding accountable. Cinematographer Janusz Kaminski (two time Oscar winner, SAVING PRIVATE RYAN, SCHINDLER’S LIST) captures the authenticity of the newsroom, the intimacy of private discussions, and the fascinating look back at typesetting machines and a newspaper delivery system that silently forces us to recognize the power of today’s internet.

As you would expect, the supporting cast is remarkable and deep. Bradley Whitford, Bruce Greenwood (as Robert McNamara), Alison Brie (Kay’s daughter), Carrie Coon (reporter/editor Meg Greenfield), Sarah Paulson (as Bradlee’s wife), Jesse Plemons (attorney Roger Clark), and Michael Stuhlbarg (as NY Times publisher Abe Rosenthal) all bring realism to their roles. Two particular standouts are Tracy Letts (Ms. Coon’s real life husband) as Kay Graham’s trusted advisor Fritz Beebe, and Bob Odenkirk as The Post reporter Ben Bagdikian who meets with Ellsberg.

Gender inequality of the era is front and center for many scenes – sometimes even a bit too showy or distracting. The prime example is the scene where Ms. Graham is leaving the Supreme Court through a sea of silently admiring women – an unbelievably disproportionate crowd make-up. The gender point is made clearly through the position of Kay Graham and her actions, and no further proverbial slaps upside the head were required for the audience to “get it”. A rare Hindenburg joke is tossed in, and Bradlee is referred to as a pirate … two attempts to lighten the mood on a story that deserves serious attention. Composer John Williams’ score is never over the top, and perfectly complements the various conversations throughout. The film is quite clearly meant to impress how history repeats itself = those in power believing they are above all, while the free press tries to expose the abuses. It also makes the point that we as citizens must remain vigilant in our pursuit of the truth, as all sides have an agenda … sometimes it’s as complicated as covering up bad decisions, while other times it’s as simple as driving up the stock price. With its cliffhanger ending, Spielberg’s film could be viewed as a prequel to the fantastic 1976 film ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN, and that’s pretty lofty company.

watch the trailer:


ITHACA (2016)

September 21, 2016

ithaca Greetings again from the darkness. The source material is the 1943 novel “The Human Comedy” from Pulitzer Prize winning writer William Saroyan; and it’s the directorial debut of Meg Ryan, the one-time ‘America’s Sweetheart’ who reunites with her Sleepless in Seattle co-star Tom Hanks (in a ghostly cameo). Due to these juicy ingredients, we can be excused if our expectations are a bit high.

As a viewer, it’s easy to relate to the emotions of young Homer McCauley (Alex Neustaedter) as his messenger job expedites the disillusionment that often accompanies adulthood. While Homer becomes more disenchanted the more he learns, we feel let down with each successive sequence. The adapted screenplay from Eric Jendresen never picks a direction, and instead teases us with numerous pieces from the novel with little follow through on any.

Homer’s dad (a very brief Tom Hanks apparition) has recently passed, and with his older brother Marcus (Jack Quaid, son of Meg Ryan and Dennis Quaid) off at war, Homer takes it upon himself to secure a job to help support his saintly and melancholy mother (Meg Ryan), his older sister Bess (Christine Nelson) and his little brother Ulysses (an energetic Spencer Howell). He pledges to be the best bicycle messenger ever when hired at the local telegraph company run by Tom Spangler (Hamish Linklater) and old-timer (grumpy and frequently inebriated) Willie (Sam Shepard).

Being that it’s war time, some of the telegraphs Homer must deliver are the worst possible news for the parents on the receiving end. As the film progresses, we see the light slowly go out of Homer’s once bright eyes. The accelerated coming-of-age aspect is at its best when his father-figure Willie brusquely tells him “You are 14 years old and you’re a man! I don’t know who made you that way.” It’s the most poignant moment of the film and the closest we get to a real theme.

The letters Homer receives from older brother Marcus contribute to his understanding of the world and the reading of the letters serves the purpose of story narration. The film is nostalgic and idealistic, but so unfocused that we are never able to fully connect with any of the characters. We are caught off guard when Homer proclaims his mother as the nicest person ever, although she has offered even less guidance than Forrest Gump’s mom. Ithaca, Ulysses, and Homer … we can’t miss the mythology ties, as well as the importance of home, but it always feels like something is missing.

In 1943, six time Oscar nominee Clarence Brown made a movie based on this same novel, and the cast included Mickey Rooney, Frank Morgan, Donna Reid and Van Johnson. In this new version, John Mellencamp provides the musical score, and Ms. Ryan has stated that the novel helped her work through a difficult time in her personal life. She’s likely to get more opportunities to direct; her first outing is easy enough to watch, but just as easy to forget.

watch the trailer:

 


SULLY (2016)

September 8, 2016

sully Greetings again from the darkness. Society has a tendency to go to extremes – hero worship for those who probably don’t deserve it and character assassination for those who have the gall to be less than perfect. Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger has experienced both. On January 15, 2009, Sully made the decision to land the crippled aircraft of US Airways flight 1549 right into a river … an event immediately labeled “Miracle on the Hudson”.

Surprisingly, this is the first film collaboration for Tom Hanks and director Clint Eastwood. Both have cinematic experience with true life stories and real people: Hanks most recently in Captain Phillips and Bridge of Spies; and Clint with American Sniper and J. Edgar. This one is the perfect fit as Hanks takes on a good man who takes pride in doing his job, and Clint brings to life a story that showcases the best of human nature.

Tom Komanicki adapted the screenplay from the book “Highest Duty”, co-written by Sully and Jeffrey Zaslow. Much of the attention is given to the doubts and uncertainty Sully experienced during the NTSB review. The scrutiny of his work by the committee (played here by the ultra-serious Mike O’Malley, Anna Gunn, Jamey Sheridan) left his career and reputation dangling, inspiring nightmares that are much worse than yours and mine.

Certainly we are in awe of what Sully pulled off that morning, but as movie goers, we are anxious to see the plane crash/splash/landing. Clint comes through in breath-taking fashion. While it lacks the hysterics and drama of the upside-down plane in Flight, this re-creation is so realistic that we nearly obey the flight attendants repeated instructions of “Heads down. Stay down”. Even the cockpit chatter, passenger evacuation, and first responder’s (many of whom are real life folks, not actors) activities are played in matter-of-fact manner … more people just doing their job. We shiver knowing the icy Hudson River water is 36 degrees, and we feel Sully’s anxiety as he desperately tries to get a final count … a count that he prays will hit 155.

Aaron Eckhart plays co-pilot Jeff Skiles and has a couple of memorable scenes, and Laura Linney embraces the thankless role of telephone wife of Sully during the aftermath and hearings. We get a glimpse of Sully’s background with flashbacks to his flight lessons at a Denison Texas private airfield, as well as a portion of his military service. Hanks is the perfect choice for a role that would have suited James Stewart just fine were it the 1940’s.

The conflict here comes from the NTSB inquiry. Backed by computer simulators that show the plane could have coasted back to LaGuardia, we get the distinct feeling that the committee’s goal is finding human error – naming a scapegoat (other than Canadian geese) for their “lost” plane. It’s Sully who reminds us that the committee is simply doing their job … just as he was, Skiles was, the Flight Attendants were, and the first responders were.

This is technically expert filmmaking. We know the ending, but are glued to the screen. Frequent Eastwood collaborator Tom Stern handles the cinematography, and like the acting and story-telling, the camera work avoids any excess or over-dramatization. The film provides one of the best examples ever of the duality of hero worship and intense scrutiny, and how a person can be a hero by simply doing their job. The closing credits show clips of the flight’s reunion and every survivor would agree that the best among us allowed a continuation of life … something that could have gone to the other extreme.

watch the trailer:

 


BRIDGE OF SPIES (2015)

October 16, 2015

bridge of spies Greetings again from the darkness. For a director, true power in the movie industry means you can obtain the financing and assemble the cast and crew you need to make the films that have meaning to you. With his 40 year career of unmatched combined box office and critical success, Steven Spielberg is the epitome of film power and the master of bringing us dramatized versions of historical characters and events. In his fourth collaboration with Tom Hanks, Spielberg tells the story of James B Donovan.

You say you aren’t familiar with Mr. Donovan? In the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, the CIA (Allen Dulles was director at the time) persuaded James Donovan to provide a bit of Cold War legal service. Mr. Donovan was by trade an Insurance attorney, but after others in his profession passed on the “opportunity”, his commitment to justice and human rights drove him to accept the challenge of defending suspected Russian spy named Rudolph Abel. In the face of an angry populace and government, Donovan took the case all the way to the Supreme Court – and his exact words are spoken in the movie by Hanks.

Not long after, Francis Powers (played by Austin Stowell) was piloting a CIA U-2 spy plane when he was shot down over Russia and taken captive. This sequence in the film is breathtaking to watch. Enter James Donovan again … this time to negotiate an exchange of prisoners: Rudolph Abel for Francis Powers. It’s these negotiations that provide the element of suspense in the story. Mr. Donovan was a family man, but he was also very confident in his ability to negotiate on the biggest stage and under the brightest spotlight (or darkest backroom).

The movie is exactly what you would expect from a master filmmaker. Spielberg slickly re-creates the era through sets, locations, and costumes. He utilizes his remarkable eye behind the camera, an interesting use of lighting, and the score from Thomas Newman. Nope, that’s not a misprint. It’s the first Spielberg movie in 30 years not scored by John Williams (who was unable to work on the project). Of course, the cast is stellar and it all starts with Tom Hanks. He just makes everything look so darn easy! Whether he is talking to his wife (Amy Ryan), his kids (including Bono’s daughter Eve Hewson), his law partner (Alan Alda), or agents from the U.S. or Russia … Hanks manages to make each scene real and believable.

It’s the scenes between Donovan and Rudolph Abel that are the most fascinating to watch. Mark Rylance plays Abel, and to see these two men grow to respect each other for “doing their job” is a true acting and screenwriting clinic. We find ourselves anxious for the next Rudolph Abel scene during an extended span where the focus is on Donovan’s negotiations. When the two finally reunite, it’s a quietly affecting moment where much is said with few words.

Spielberg utilized many of the locations where the actual events took place, and this includes Berlin and the Glienicke Bridge where the real exchange took place in 1962. While missing the labyrinth of twists and turns of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, it’s knowing that these are real people in real situations that make this historic drama so thrilling and riveting to watch.  Film lovers will also get a kick out of the fact that the script was co-written by the Coen Brothers, and history lovers will enjoy seeing some of the details provided by the written words of those involved, as well as their surviving family members. It’s an era that seems so long ago, yet the topics are so pertinent to what’s happening in the world today.  Beyond all of that, it’s a story of a man standing up for what’s right at a time when that was not the easy or popular way.

watch the trailer:

 


SAVING MR. BANKS (2013)

December 22, 2013

banks1 Greetings again from the darkness. Surely it’s a coincidence that Disney Studios has released this movie just a few months ahead of the 50th anniversary of the classic Mary Poppins film. Regardless of the promotional angle, the story of Walt Disney (played by Tom Hanks) going all out to woo stuffy Brit writer PL Travers (Emma Thompson)actually turns out to be a well made and pretty interesting story of two stubborn people butting creative heads. Even better is a behind the scenes glimpse of the creative and collaborative process of bringing the Travers book(s) to the big screen.

Director John Lee Hancock is the perfect fit with his track record of glossy, feel-good, inspired by true life stories with The Blind Side and The Rookie. We never lose sight that this is a Disney production of a Disney story. The only Disney blemish shown is a quick shot of him stubbing a cigarette in an ashtray. Mr. Disney was an expert at hiding his smoking habit from the public … well at least until he died from lung cancer in 1966, a mere two years after the premiere of Mary Poppins. Mostly Walt is depicted as working diligently to provide the trust and security that Travers sought in protecting her most precious flying nanny.

banks2 The real star here is Emma Thompson’s portrayal of Travers. Her desperate need for money is mentioned once, but the story is more concerned with her innate need to protect the legacy of her story … no animation, no mean Mr Banks, no Dick Van Dyke, and no silly songs. Watching her interact with the songwriting Sherman brothers (Jason Schwartzman, BJ Novak) and the Disney screenwriter played by Bradley Whitford is the most fun this movie has to offer. Her “no, no, no” mindset is quite frustrating for the quite successful Disney creative team. The armchair psychology is really where the movie falters a bit. Watching Walt struggle to mesmerize Travers with his Disney magic feels a bit forced, and when combined with numerous flashbacks to her childhood, leave the audience way ahead in figuring out the key to her heart and mind.

Once the daddy issues come to light, we get Hanks’ best scene in the film. As he finally connects with Travers by laying bare his childhood (and fatherly) challenges, he eloquently explains the importance of imagination and storytelling for both children and adults. A desire to re-write or re-imagine our childhood seems to be at the core of many adults. It seems many dwell on the negative aspects of childhood, and even here, Travers’ dad (Colin Farrell) may be the nicest alcoholic who ever inspired their kid to be a writer.

PL Travers (born Helen Lyndon Goff) wrote 8 Mary Poppins books between 1934 and 1988, but was so unhappy with the film version that she never agreed to a sequel and it wasn’t until the 1990’s when she agreed to a stage version (no Americans allowed!). She passed away in 1996 at the age of 96, and the actual recordings played over the closing credits show just how well Ms. Thompson captured the strong will of the author.

**NOTE: Tom Hanks has an impressive family tree.  He is a distant cousin of Walt Disney and Abraham Lincoln.

**NOTE: On his deathbed, the last words Walt Disney wrote were “Kurt Russell”.  The reason for this was never discovered, although Mr. Russell was under a 10 year contract with Disney at the time.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are interested in the creative collaboration process between two very talented sides with extremely different motivations

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are expecting a kids’ or family movie about the classic Mary Poppins movie.

watch the trailer:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a5kYmrjongg

 


CAPTAIN PHILLIPS (2013)

October 13, 2013

capt phillips1 Greetings again from the darkness. Director Paul Greengrass seems to thrive on finding the line for unbearable tension and hectic, claustrophobic action. He gained fame for helming The Bourne Supremacy and The Borne Ultimatum, but this one has more in common with his excellent United 93. Somehow he keeps us gripping the armrests despite knowing full well how the story ends. That is a talented filmmaker.

What adds to the stressed-filled fun here is that the world’s greatest everyman, Tom Hanks, meets his match with fire-eyed Somalian pirate Muse, played by first time actor Barkhad Abdi. The scenes pitting these two against each capt phillips2other are fascinating studies and the perfect example of vastly different worlds colliding. Hanks plays Captain Phillips, who is charged with guiding the cargo ship Maersk Alabama through the pirate filled waters. Phillips is not the warmest of guys, but seems to be a competent captain with respect from the crew.

Most of us remember watching on TV in 2009 as the 5 day sequence ended thanks to yet another perfectly executed Navy SEALs rescue mission. Greengrass does a terrific job of reenacting this moment. The other two moments that are sure to leave an impression both involve Mr. Hanks. The initial scene on the bridge as the pirates assume control of the ship … when Muse tells Phillips that he is now the captain, we see a flash of surrender in Phillips’ face. A stunning scene for both Hanks and Abdi (and congrats to Abdi for going toe to toe with the acting legend). The other scene worthy of discussion occurs after the rescue as Captain Phillips is escorted to sick bay to be checked out. His “in shock” actions are startling and very brave for an actor. Some may argue that Hanks took it too far, but I would encourage you to imagine yourself in that lifeboat and determine just how courageous you would be. Abdi also has a scene where he first discovers capt phillips3this is an American ship. He reacts as if he has won the lottery.  Since he is now serving time in a US prison, he has probably figured out that American roads are not paved with gold.

It was interesting to see how Greengrass and screenwriter Billy Ray (The Hunger Games) provide the contrast of the pressure the warlords put on the poverty stricken Somalian citizens and the high-tech, global view of the shipping company and crew.  This same contrast is apparent in the pirates vs. Phillips intrigue.  The film also begins with a peek at Phillips’ personal life and marriage (wife played by Catherine Keener).  We see the signs of a long-term relationship between people who communicate by talking around an issue (their kid and Phillips’ risky job).

Some scandal surrounds this story as there is a lawsuit against Maersk and Phillips brought by members of the crew. The contention being that Phillips knowingly steered the ship too close to the pirate waters in order to save time and money. Phillips went on to write a best selling book recounting the ordeal and he also returned to his job as ship captain. Hanks was the perfect choice to play Phillips as the story is more about a regular guy being thrust into an extraordinary situation. Phillips is no superhero … he doesn’t disarm four pirates. Instead, he uses guts and a will to live …  characteristics we all hope we would exhibit should we ever find ourselves in such a traumatic situation.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you enjoy tension-packed, based on a true story movies with expert acting

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF:  you prefer light-hearted Tom Hanks (Big, Larry Crowne) to heavy-drama Tom Hanks (Apollo 13, Saving Private Ryan)

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TzU3UJuV80w

 


CLOUD ATLAS (2012)

October 27, 2012

 Greetings again from the darkness. Ambitious and mesmerizing. Those are the two words that best describe my reaction to this stunning film based on the David Mitchell novel. Hopefully, you have not come here for answers to the many mysteries offered up by this most unique film experience. If you are the type that loves to think, analyze and discuss complex movies, you will be challenged and satisfied. If you prefer your stories clean, straightforward and gift-wrapped, you will be like some of those in my audience who walked out of the theatre at various stages -not to return.

 While there are no easy explanations for what we see on screen, this is undoubtedly one of the more complex and multi-faceted and challenging movies to watch. There are six stories that span approximately 500 years (beginning in 1849 and going through 2346 or so). We see many actors playing multiple characters of various ages, crossing racial and gender lines depending on the specific story.  We track the progression/regression of their souls through time. This will prove more challenging to you than it sounds on paper, as the make-up work is some of the most extreme ever seen on screen.  Many will describe the film as messy or convoluted, but the argument can be made that those traits add to the fun. Certainly, this won’t be to the taste of most; however, if you thrive on life’s puzzles, the film will hit your sweet spot.

 The six stories are co-written and directed by Tom Twyker (Run Lola Run) and The Wachowski’s (Lana and Andy, The Matrix trilogy). These six segments are split evenly between the two director groups, yet then blend seamlessly thanks to the truly expert editing of Alexander Berner. You will recognize the influence and similarities of such films as Master and Commander, Cocoon, Silkwood and Blade Runner, as well as many others.

Filling the costumes, donning the make-up and spouting the dialogue in manners that you often won’t recognize are such disparate actors as Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Hugo Weaving, Jim Sturgess, Donna Bae, Ben Whishaw, Keith David, James D’Arcy, Xun Zhou, Susan Sarandon and Hugh Grant. Especially entertaining are Hugo Weaving as a sadistic female nurse and Hugh Grant as a violent tribesman. The best laughs in the film are courtesy of the great Mr. Broadbent whose facial expressions are near clown-like in elasticity.

 As for the themes and points of the film, that is a topic for debate. A couple of lines of dialogue offer some clues. Hanks’ nasty ship doctor spouts “The weak are meat the strong do eat“, and we notice the recurring theme of the strong dominating the weak across all story lines. There is another line: “One can transcend any convention so long as one can conceive of doing so“, that provides the glimmer of hope in each story. Love and oppression are always present, but it’s clear to me that the human spirit remains strong and is capable of overcoming oppression in the past, present and future. You may disagree but our debates will be colorful … and may change after a second viewing!

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you enjoy assembling the pieces of multiple storylines and numerous interconnected characters OR you just want to see Hugo Weaving play the toughest on screen nurse since Nurse Ratched

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you prefer movies to be short and sweet (this one is almost 3 hours and anything but sweet)

Watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pQFAPeaJOf8