Tuesday, April 25, 2017
A film review by James Berardinelli for ReelViews.net on Sept. 8, 2016.
Most of those who elect to see Sully, Clint Eastwood’s re-enactment of the 2009 ditching of a commercial airliner in the Hudson River, will remember the incident involving U.S. Airways Flight 1549 from news reports. For several days following the January 15 incident, this was the top story on all the nightly newscasts and provided food for the insatiable appetites of 24-hour news channels. As with all news stories, major and minor, this one faded from the American consciousness. However, since the story is so well-known, one might reasonably ask whether there’s enough material to warrant a feature film. As Sully argues, the answer is yes, although just barely. With a skinny running length just clearing the 90-minute bar, the movie is forced to shoehorn in some extraneous material to keep it afloat. Nevertheless, on balance, the numerous strengths are more than enough to compensate for any weaknesses and, although not an Oscar-worthy endeavor, Sully proves to be by turns engaging, exhilarating, and nail-biting.
Rather than presenting events of early 2009 in a chronological fashion, director Eastwood employs a somewhat tortured narrative that relies heavily on layered flashbacks. Although not confusing to follow, it seems needlessly cumbersome and adds little to the progression of events. Eastwood wisely keeps the movie’s focus on a meticulous recreation of the accident/ditching/rescue and the subsequent NTSB investigation. For the former, Sully is exacting in its use of existing documentation and footage. For the latter, a degree of dramatic license is employed to make things more cinematic. Attempts to portray the protagonist’s PTSD and flesh out his relationship with his wife don’t work as well as they might have.
The dramatization of the flight is Sully’s most compelling slice of filmmaking. Knowing what happens ahead of time doesn’t reduce the tension. A veteran director like Eastwood understands how to use audience expectations to the movie’s benefit. Anticipation lends an edge to the routine pre-takeoff checks performed by Captain Chesley Sully Sullenberger (Tom Hanks) and co-pilot Jeff Skiles (Aaron Eckhart) at LaGuardia Airport. The plane is airborne for only about six minutes before Sully brings it down for a near-perfect water landing in the Hudson after a bird strikes knocks out both engines and his experience as a pilot informs him that he probably can’t make it to any of several nearby airports for a conventional emergency landing.
For the most part, the NTSB is presented as antagonistic; several officials view Sully’s decisions with skepticism. The production’s portrayal of the investigation airbrushes things. For example, in the movie, it’s implied that the simulator pilots were able to land the plan with 100% accuracy. In reality, they only succeeded about half the time. Nevertheless, it’s fascinating to get a peek behind the curtain at some of what goes into an accident investigation.
Actor Tom Hanks portrays Sully as a sensible, serious, salt-of-the-Earth type whose dedication and knowledge allow him to function admirably under pressure, saving 155 lives in the process. Although this isn’t likely to go down as one of Hanks’ great roles (and his physical resemblance to the real-life Sullenberger is only passable), it’s a solid performance. Hanks’ innate appeal causes us to immediately like and believe in Sully, and that’s all the movie needs. Aaron Eckhart plays Sully’s co-pilot, the only other person with meaningful screen time. Laura Linney is Lorraine Sullenberger but the only time we see her is when she’s on the phone with her husband.
Eastwood and cinematographer Tom Stern elected to shoot Sully almost entirely using digital IMAX cameras - a decision that enhances the immersion factor for those seeing the movie on large format screens. Sullenberger’s behind-the-scenes involvement in the production gives Sully a strong window into the captain’s psyche and provides a rare upbeat story from a grim, turbulent decade - an almost old-fashioned tale of heroism. It’s a good bridge from the noise of summer to the more sedate films of fall. [Berardinelli’s rating: *** out of 4 stars]
Labels: biography, drama, history
Monday, April 10, 2017
A film review by James Berardinelli for ReelViews.net on December 23, 2016.
Hidden Figures is an old-fashioned, inspirational tale about the downtrodden overcoming. Based on real people, real times, and real events, the film uses the never-say-die attitudes of three women to provide a window into the racism and sexism that permeated all facets of American culture during the middle of the 20th century. Although softer than many other recent movies about this subject (the PG rating creates stringent limits on how edgy things can get), Hidden Figures is nevertheless able to illustrate the exclusivity of the white male corporate power base and show how three unlikely black women were able to punch through the barrier.
Those who want to use Hidden Figures as a history lesson should beware, however. Although the three women featured in the film, mathematician Katherine Goble Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), coordinator Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer), and engineer Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe), aren’t likely to be found in many text books, the screenplay takes liberties with their lives. The time stream is collapsed to streamline the narrative - many of the events presented in the film transpired during the 1950s while Hidden Figures is set in the 1960s (in the lead-up to John Glenn’s historic mission). The production also massages the facts to fit Hollywood’s vision of how the story should be told. It’s mostly accurate from an overarching perspective but there’s artifice in the details. At times, bits and pieces of Hidden Figures seem manufactured. There’s nothing new about this for a based-on-a-real-events movie but it’s something to be aware of.
Katherine, Dorothy, and Mary are three best friends who work as computers in NASA’s pre-electronic era. The racially segregated computers are women who perform the menial computations that allow the male engineers and scientists to plot orbits and determine safety margins for rocket launches. Katherine and Mary are selected for assignments to work directly with the men while Dorothy remains behind to run the colored computer room, despite lacking the title and pay raise that should go along with her job. Working on a team designing heat shielding for capsules, Mary determines that she has an aptitude for engineering and, despite obstacles based on both her sex and race, she pushes forward with a single-minded determination that requires a court challenge of segregation laws. Meanwhile, Katherine’s skills as a mathematician get her noticed by Al Harrison (Kevin Costner), the director of the Space Task Group, who gives her increasingly important tasks as the Friendship 7 (Glenn’s Earth orbit) mission approaches.
By telling three separate stories, writer/director Theodore Melfi (Saint Vincent) has an opportunity to present not one, not two, but three moments of triumph. Since the story slants toward Katherine, hers is the most forceful but Dorothy and Mary get their time in the spotlight as well. The movie works best during the NASA scenes. Many of the home/life segments feel canned - we’ve seen these character-building incidents before. Hidden Figures does a better job of humanizing its protagonists when they’re at work than when they’re at home. The freshness and authenticity of the NASA material is at times undercut by the clichés that are knitted together to form the women’s domestic circumstances.
Hidden Figures does what it can to convey the lack of workplace equality without resorting to the use of racial epithets or physical violence, neither of which would be allowed in a PG-rated movie. The film’s most pointed statement is presented with a flair of absurdist comedy as it shows the long, time-consuming trek Katherine must endure any time she needs to use the bathroom since the only lavatory in the laboratory is a whites only facility. So, rain or shine, she must go all the way to the computers’ building to find a place where she is allowed to go. Harrison’s reaction when he learns of this is a reminder that some in the 1960s were able to see past skin color.
Melfi has assembled a strong cast, led by Oscar and multi-Emmy nominee Taraji P. Henson, Oscar winners Octavia Spencer and Kevin Costner, multi-Emmy winner Jim Parsons (in a straight role), and multi-Golden Globe nominee Kirsten Dunst. Recording artist Janelle Monáe gives a solid performance in one of her first dramatic appearances (she’s also in this year’s Moonlight). Henson’s acting has the heart and power to potentially earn her another nod in the 2017 sweepstakes. Costner continues to show growth in front of the camera, evincing layers we never saw when he was a dominant force at the box office. Age has brought maturity. He won’t get an Oscar nomination for his portrayal of the NASA honcho but it is one of the movie’s pleasant surprises.
Historical fudges aside, Hidden Figures provides an example of determination and talent triumphing over an unfair and repressive system - something that, although grounded by the time period in which the story unfolds, has relevance beyond the decade or the century in which it transpires. [Berardinelli’s rating: *** out of 4 stars]
Labels: biography, drama, history
A film review by James Berardinelli for ReelViews.net on November 22, 2016.
Rules Don’t Apply is a strange, schizophrenic sort of movie. Despite moments of emotional strength and bursts of quirky comedy, the film is undone by its generally lethargic tone and the film’s insistence on shifting its focus from the putative lead characters to a supporting player who would have been better off left (literally and figuratively) in the shadows.
For the 79-year old actor/writer/director/producer Warren Beatty, Rules Don’t Apply is his first project since 1998’s Bulworth and his first appearance in front of the camera in a decade and a half. The film, like nearly all of Beatty’s projects, is entirely his. He wears almost every hat that matters and his micromanagement and attention to detail are legendary. Sometimes it works; sometimes it doesn’t. Although Rules Don’t Apply is far from a disastrous outing, there’s nothing special about it. It features some nice performances and contains some strong material but, as a whole, the movie is too slow and too long to really work.
As it warns at the beginning, Rules Don’t Apply doesn’t adhere to the historical record. A subtitle advises us that names and dates have been changed, and this isn’t an exaggeration. The film is set in the late 1950s and early 1960s but many of the events presented herein transpired during the 1940s. Likewise, although various characters resemble real-life individuals, only a handful actually existed. In fact, the two protagonists, Frank Forbes (Alden Ehrenreich) and Marla Mabrey (Lily Collins), are Beatty’s inventions.
Rules Don’t Apply opens as an unlikely romance between Frank, a driver for reclusive billionaire Howard Hughes (Beatty), and Marla, one of Hughes’ small stable of contract players. Marla, a devout Baptist, has come to Hollywood (chaperoned by her mother, Lucy, who is played by Beatty’s wife, Annette Bening) to chase fame. The attraction between Frank and Marla is immediately apparent but there are obstacles to a love affair. In the first place, Hughes has a hard-and-fast rule against flirtations between drivers and their charges. In the second place, Frank has a flame back home to whom he is practically married. However, as things heat up between Frank and Marla once Lucy has departed, Hughes inserts himself forcefully into both of their lives. He enters into a business venture with Frank and something more personal develops between him and Marla.
The love story, although full of clichés, is well-told. The characters are likeable and actors Ehrenreich and Collins display good chemistry. The movie starts to unravel, however, as Hughes moves from being a background player to taking center stage. Suddenly, the carefully developed romance loses its prominence. Beatty’s interpretation of the legendary eccentric is on-target but the film’s shift in focus isn’t welcome. The character is so much larger-than-life that he sucks all the oxygen from every scene in which he appears. Rules Don’t Apply is much better in the early-going when Hughes is only briefly glimpsed. He’s like the shark in Jaws - less is more. Had the shark dominated the screen and demanded frequent close-ups, Jaws wouldn’t have worked.
Arguably, part of the problem is that Beatty is too good as Hughes to be left out of the spotlight. He brings sufficient humanity to the role to avoid Hughes becoming a caricature. Alden Ehrenreich, who will be portraying Han Solo in an upcoming Star Wars story, is handsome and personable. However, although Lucasfilm may have cast him because of a perceived likeness to Harrison Ford, in Rules Don’t Apply, he is eerily similar to a younger Leonardo DiCaprio. Lily Collins is uneven - she’s excellent in the early scenes when her character exudes bubbly enthusiasm and she has a powerful drunken seduction sequence but there are moments when her acting is as off-key as her singing. Although Beatty, Ehrenreich, and Collins have the lion’s share of screen time, recognizable faces like Matthew Broderick, Candice Bergen, Martin Sheen, and Oliver Platt make appearances, and there is a flotilla of cameos.
If Rules Don’t Apply deserves an Oscar nomination, it’s in the cinematography department. Acclaimed cinematographer Caleb Deschanel has done his usual superlative job of creating another time and place. Lighting, shot selection, and mood all combine powerfully to suggest Hollywood’s bygone era - the time between its period of legendary greatness and its current climate of excess. During those times when the story doesn’t hold our attention, Deschanel’s lensing keeps us watching.
Whether or not Beatty’s ego has anything to do with the lack of definition that limits the movie’s effectiveness, it’s hard to argue that less of Hughes and more of the old-fashioned romance would have made Rules Don’t Apply a more satisfying experience. Despite a solid cast, it’s difficult to envision this movie as a mainstream success. It’s a niche film with limited appeal and its tendency to curdle instead of gel will further diminish its box office potential. During the one season of the year when there are plenty of good movies to see, there’s little reason to put Rules Don’t Apply near the top of the list. [Berardinelli’s rating: ** ½ out of 4 stars]
Labels: comedy, drama, romance
Friday, April 7, 2017
A film review by James Berardinelli for ReelViews.net on July 28, 2016.
Bucking the summer movie empty spectacle approach, Captain Fantastic is about something. Despite the title, which might stir images of a superhero story, this is a human drama about the bonds that hold and sever families and the conflict between two very different philosophies surrounding how to raise children in today’s world. Matt Ross’ screenplay occasionally stumbles (especially late in the proceedings) and the ending opts for a too-facile resolution but the director/writer offers moments of genuine power and pathos that make it easy to forgive the missteps.
Ben (Viggo Mortensen) has taken a back-to-nature lifestyle to an extreme. He and his wife, Leslie (Trin Miller), have moved to an isolated Pacific Northwest homestead to raise their six children: Bodevan (George MacKay), Kielyr (Samantha Isler), Vespyr (Annalise Basso), Rellian (Nicholas Hamilton), Zaja (Shree Crooks), and Nai (Charlie Shotwell). When Leslie is admitted to a hospital for treatment, the task of raising the children falls on Ben’s shoulders. The daily regimen includes not only the intensive studying of literature, mathematics, science, and history but a full diet of physically taxing activities and chores. When Leslie takes her own life, Ben is faced with the difficulty of re-entering society (if only temporarily) with his children to attend the funeral. There, he encounters well-meaning relatives (Kathryn Hahn, Steve Zahn) who view his parenting choices with skepticism, and Leslie’s wealthy and influential father, Jack (Frank Langella), who is determined to take his grandchildren away from their father.
Although Captain Fantastic sides with Ben’s parenting techniques from an emotional perspective, Ross’s script shows the pros and cons of his approach as contrasted with the more conventional philosophy espoused by Jack. For most of the film, it remains an open question whether the children - bright, independent, articulate, and socially awkward - are better served by being separated from society or whether they would benefit from being integrated. The film’s resolution is too pat and pushes aside the idea that the back-to-nature style might not only be detrimental to the children’s social and emotional well-being but could be physically damaging as well.
Captain Fantastic’s most potent scenes focus on how the family copes with Leslie’s death. Although we see her only in flashbacks, her importance to everything is evident and the hole left by her departure is profound. This is most clearly shown by the reactions of the two youngest children (played perfectly by Shree Crooks and Charlie Shotwell), who have trouble coping with the thought of never seeing their mother again. The need for closure forces Ben to re-enter society and, although this leads to a few quasi-humorous fish-out-of-water scenarios (including Bo’s first kiss), there are also some painful situations. Jack, although presented as an antagonist, is effectively humanized. He is motivated not by malice but by a genuine belief that Ben is dangerous and deranged.
The performances are strong across-the-board, with all of the child actors providing fully realized interpretations of their characters. Kathryn Hahn and Steve Zahn, better known for comedy, are effective in small (but important) roles. Frank Langella, as always, captivates with a ferocious portrayal. Viggo Mortensen, so far distanced from his career-defining role as Aragorn in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, displays tremendous range as the film’s foundation; his scenes with Langella are riveting. He also provides some (admittedly gratuitous) full frontal nudity.
Captain Fantastic stands as a testimony to the difficulty of raising children in an unconventional way, especially when the fabric of the family is torn asunder by grief and the inevitable need for independence exhibited by the older offspring. Although the film contains enough comedy to prevent it from becoming maudlin, this is primarily a dramatic story and its most potent and memorable scenes are aspects of the central conflict - a refreshing change-of-pace in one of Hollywood’s most emotionally inert years in recent memory. [Berardinelli’s rating: *** out of 4 stars]
Labels: adventure, comedy, drama