Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Sully (2016) [PG-13] ****

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

Hidden Figures (2016) [PG] ****+

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

Lion (Australia, 2016) [PG-13] ****+

A film review by James Berardinelli for ReelViews.net on December 26, 2016.

Sometimes, it is said, truth is stranger than fiction. And, as director Garth Davis has perhaps discovered, filming such truths can be more difficult than filming fiction. Lion, based on the autobiographical tale of Saroo Brierley, tells of the author’s amazing journey from being lost at age five on the streets of Calcutta, more than a thousand miles from home, to his return journey as an adult to discover the place and people he left behind. By turns sad, frightening, and inspirational, the movie is impeded only by the difficulty of bridging the 25-year span between segments and accepting the older lead (Dev Patel) as a replacement for his younger self (Sunny Pawar).

Lion begins in a small village in India in 1986 where a young boy, Saroo (Sunny Pawar), works with his older brother, Guddu (Abhishek Bharate), to complete chores that will help their mother, Kamla (Pryanka Bose), put a little more food on the table. One day, Guddu tells Saroo that he will be traveling by train to a distant city to find work. Despite his young age, Saroo insists that he comes along. His stubbornness is such that Guddu eventually relents but, along the way, the two brothers become separated and Saroo eventually disembarks in Calcutta not knowing where he is, how to speak the language, or the name of the village he has come from. Fortune smiles on the confused and frightened young boy - he is eventually adopted by an Australian couple, Sue and John Brierley (Nicole Kidman and David Wenham), and grows up with only dim memories of his biological mother and siblings. A quarter-century later, an adult Saroo (Dev Patel), uses Google Earth to research his past and make the decision to seek out his birthplace and contact any surviving relatives. More than anything, he hopes to be reunited with his mother and Guddu.

Lion’s first half, which focuses on the young Saroo, is exceptionally well done. Davis effectively captures the boy’s fear and confusion at being separated from his brother then stranded in a strange country where he understands nothing, can’t speak the language and doesn’t know the culture. Non-professionally trained actor Sunny Pawar (who doesn’t speak English) conveys the essence of a child’s view of this big, frightening world.

The film loses traction when it shifts to the modern day. Although there’s nothing wrong with Dev Patel’s portrayal, there’s a disconnect between his interpretation of Saroo and Pawar’s. Admittedly, 25 years have passed, but it’s difficult for the viewer to accept these two actors as playing the same person. And, although Saroo’s trek back to the town of his birth is critical to finishing the film’s narrative arc, the character is less interesting as an adult than as a child and the story lacks the intensity evident during the first segment. Rooney Mara’s role as Saroo’s girlfriend, Lucy, is superfluous. She’s intended to illustrate the success he has achieved in assimilating and provide a sounding board for him but the part seems shoehorned in.

Although Mara is a poor fit for the storyline, the same can’t be said of Nicole Kidman, who puts aside her Hollywood stardom to take on a small, unglamorous role. This isn’t a flashy part but Kidman was drawn to the story and the real Sue Brierley (whom she plays) endorsed the Australian-raised actress to be her cinematic doppelganger. Although some of the key actors in Khandwa and Calcutta are professional, many are not. In the final scene, for example, there are no hired extras. Everyone is an actual resident of the area.

For Davis, the producers, and the cast, telling the story has been a passion. The documentary footage that closes the film was shot by Davis for a 60 Minutes special detailing Saroo’s life. Patel immersed himself in the history of his character in order to be better able to play him. And the production team refused to move the setting from Australia to America to acquire the support of a major studio (and the associated money). Lion represents a commitment from those involved and, flaws aside, it’s an amazing tale of resilience and determination. [Berardinelli’s rating: *** out of 4 stars]

Blogger’s notes: As a child, Saroo mispronounced his own name, so he grew up thinking it was Saroo, when actually it was Sheru, an endearing form of the name Sher which is Hindi for Lion.

If you want to take Saroo's journey yourself, simply google "ganesha talai india to kolkata india" Click on the map and start zooming in (+). You will be able to zoom in 14 or 15 times, shifting the map to keep Ganesha Talai in center, before you run out of resolution. Click the Satellite box in the lower left corner for an aerial view of Ganesha Talai.

It's interesting that Saroo remembered the word "Ganestalay" but never thought that it might be "Ganesh talay". There are probably hundreds (literally) of tiny villages named "Ganesh" or "Ganesha" in India. One example is the ashram of Gurumayi Chidvilasananda, named Gurudev Siddha Peeth, located near the tiny village of Ganeshpuri, seventy miles northeast of Mumbai.

Ganesh, or Ganesha is the name of the son of Shiva and Parvati. He is traditionally pictured as a boy with an elephant's head. The story is that Shiva impregnated Parvati but was away from home when the boy was born. When Shiva finally showed up Ganesha, protecting Parvati, would not let him in the house. Angered, Shiva took Ganesha's head off with his sword, upon which Parvati told him that was his son, and what had he done? Shiva immediately began looking for a head to put on the boy's body and searched far and wide for a sinner he could kill, until he found a baby elephant who was sleeping with his head facing north. He killed the baby elephant, brought his head home and placed it on the body of his son Ganesha. True story. Wikipedia

Labels: biography, drama




Journey Back to Christmas (2016) [NR] ****

Since the loss of her husband in France during WWII, Hanna (Candace Cameron Bure), a nurse, has devoted herself to helping those at the small town hospital in Central Falls, Vermont. One evening, having spent time with Toby, a young orphan child, talking about the Christmas comet, Hanna leaves the hospital and returns to her empty home. Finding a stray dog on her doorstep, she sets out to return it to its owners only to end up driving her Hudson into a snowbank and spending the night in a small shed, sheltered from a major snowstorm. As the Christmas comet passes overhead, there’s a loud thunderclap and Hanna hits the wall of the shed, falling unconscious.

The following morning, Hanna awakens and manages to climb out of the window of the locked shed, leaving her purse behind in the process. She finds herself in Central Falls, but not the one she recognizes. It’s 2016, 71 years later, and Hanna is completely disoriented by the strangeness of her new world. Some townspeople think she has amnesia, while others suspect her of being a con artist, running a scam. Fortunately, a local police officer, Jake (Oliver Hudson) has an open mind and takes a personal interest in her, convincing the police chief to let him invite Hanna into his parents' family home for Christmas, while Jake’s partner Sarah (Brooke Nevin) is suspicious of Hanna’s motives and jealous of Jake’s interest in her. As Jake learns more about Hanna, he becomes convinced that she could, somehow, have actually traveled through time from 1945, but it’s only when Hanna meets Tobias (Toby) Cook (Tom Skerritt) a town elder in his 80s, who converted the 1940s hospital into a library, that the pieces of the puzzle begin to fall into place.

Since this is a Hallmark film, 1940s period costumes and sets are beautiful, and while the acting performances are adequate, there isn’t the quality of character development, drama depth, dialogue or musical score that you’d expect to find in a time-travel romantic drama from a major studio, some examples being: Somewhere in Time (1980), Peggy Sue Got Married (1986), Forever Young (1992), Pleasantville (1998), Kate & Leopold (2001) and Midnight in Paris (2011).

Journey Back to Christmas does, of course, have lessons to teach about how times have changed, how people have changed with it, and how traditions such as Christmas caroling and lighting public buildings have been lost along with our sense of innocence and willingness to believe in the goodness of others.

As is typical of a Hallmark film, there isn’t really any evil, and the ending is positive and uplifting, with a strong feeling of completeness and satisfaction. While you may not experience the nail-biting tension of one of the major studio films noted above, if you are fascinated by the concept of time travel and you enjoy seeing how people respond when put in that situation, you’ll likely enjoy Journey Back to Christmas.

Labels: Christmas, drama, romance, space-time

Florence Foster Jenkins (2016) [PG-13] ****

A film review by Anthony Lane for NewYorker.com on August 22, 2016.

The defining talent of Florence Foster Jenkins (1868-1944) was that she had no talent. Of this she was unaware. As a singer, she could not hit a note, yet somehow she touched a chord—murdering tune after tune, and drawing a legion of fans to the scene of the crime. Never has ignorance been such cloudless bliss; her self-delusion, buoyed by those about her, amounted to a kind of genius, and the story of that unknowing has now inspired a bio-pic. Florence Foster Jenkins, written by Nicholas Martin and directed by Stephen Frears, stars Meryl Streep in the title role. Who better to play the incompetent Florence than someone whose plenitude of gifts has been an article of faith for almost forty years?

There is something of a pattern here, and a risk. If you want to see real-life women of a certain age incarnated by the most formidable actresses, then Frears is your man. Think of Philomena (2013), in which Judi Dench played a simple soul on a quest for her long-lost son. The tale was astutely told, though it couldn’t avoid a murmur of condescension. Seven years earlier, in Frears’s The Queen, Helen Mirren took the part of Elizabeth II and lent it a musing reflectiveness that, however winning, seemed slightly at odds with the dutiful pragmatist, braced by common sense, who occupies the British throne. In both cases, sheer dramatic skill threatened to overwhelm the facts of the character, and you half-expect Streep to follow suit. Yet her performance is the most successful of the three; not once do you feel that she knows better than Florence—that the leading lady is looking down on her creation, as it were, with an arch of the eyebrow or a taunting glint in the eye. On the contrary, Streep is right there, solidly invested in the folly of Florence’s dreams. When she declares that music has been, and is, my life, you believe her.

The first person we meet is not the heroine but her husband, St. Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant), who was once an actor and likes to keep his hand in. Resplendent in white tie and tails, he recites a speech from Hamlet, for the benefit of guests at a New York soirée. His delivery is, let us say, more impassioned than convincing, and we are instantly aware that here is someone who has fallen short. The most touching thing is that he doesn’t seem to mind. To realize that one is second-rate can be an epiphany of sorts, or, at least, an immense relief. St. Clair claims to be free from the tyranny of ambition, and you can see his point. In any case, he has found a higher calling. His earthly task is to serve the needs of his wife, who inherited money and, with it, a plush sense of entitlement. All goes well until, one evening, an old need rears its head again. The tyranny is back. Florence wants to sing.

Frears, whose slyness has deepened with the years, is not averse to teasing. Notice how he delays the first caterwaul, like a maker of war films who waits to unleash the opening boom of artillery. Before Florence can start her glass-shattering routine, she requires an accompanist, and the movie pauses to consider Cosmé McMoon (Simon Helberg), a reedy young pianist who applies for the job. Offered a wage of ludicrous generosity, he leaves Florence’s apartment, in Manhattan, with a dizzy grin on his face, and the camera, savoring the moment, watches him drift down the street. Helberg has the long sad mug of a mime and the body of a boy; instead of strolling, he seems to hover along, with his hands held stiffly by his side. (You can imagine him in silent pictures, as a hopeful stooge.) When Florence finally lets rip, what Frears attends to is not just the noise that she creates, reminiscent of a hyena giving birth, but the awestruck expression on Cosmé’s face. Why, he asks himself, is nobody laughing?

The answer, as usual, is money. David Haig, a brisk and cheering presence, plays Carlo Edwards, a vocal coach from the Metropolitan Opera, who regularly provides Florence with private tuition. This he must do, for she is an effusive patron, and his plaudits, as she lurches ferociously off key, are small masterpieces of ambivalence: There’s no one quite like you, You’ve never sounded better, and the ominous You’ll never be more ready. For Florence has plans that soar beyond the limits of her drawing room. In the course of the film, she performs first before a cluster of aging acquaintances, many of them blessedly hard of hearing, and, later, at Carnegie Hall, which is packed, at Florence’s request, with soldiers and sailors, most of them blessedly drunk.

Believe it or not, this did indeed take place, on October 25, 1944: a holy day in the annals of ineptitude. (You are taken aback by the Second World War uniforms, and by St. Clair’s report that Florence has sold out faster than Sinatra, because her demeanor, like her décor, belongs to an earlier age.) If Florence has remained a cult, it is thanks to her bravado in plowing ahead, regardless of her faults. That is certainly the view of Agnes (Nina Arianda), the wife of a rich meathead, who springs to her feet at the concert, rebukes the crowd for jeering, and whips up a storm of applause. Though the film as a whole is less raucous than Agnes, it obeys her instructions, bestowing benign approval on its subject. The result is at once a work of efficient charm and, to those of us who treasured Frears in his more acerbic phase, a mild disappointment. Would the man who made My Beautiful Laundrette (1985), The Grifters (1990), and two foul-tongued Roddy Doyle adaptations have been quite so tolerant of Florence’s fancies? After all, the wealthy of today are equally flattered and indulged, and, as Frears proved in Dangerous Liaisons (1988), costume dramas are no excuse for softness. They need a drop of venom in their veins.

The best news about Florence Foster Jenkins is that, just when admirers of Hugh Grant were asking if the poor guy would ever get a role of any ripeness, he plucks a peach. The dithering that bore him through Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994) and Notting Hill (1999) arose not merely from indecision but from a stutter of the spirit—a genuine horror of doing the wrong thing. That fear comes to fruition in St. Clair: his wife does wrong every time she opens her mouth onstage, but he reassures her, time and again, that she is in the right. He pays music critics to be nice; when one of them, refusing the bribe, writes a mean review, St. Clair tries to destroy every copy of the paper in the neighborhood. For twenty-five years I have kept the mockers and scoffers at bay, he says. His love, though true, is a perpetual agony, and maybe no one but Grant, writhing with misplaced chivalry, could bring such reverence to life. Florence may have been a one-joke wonder, and, to be honest, there is only just enough of her to fill a movie. In the eyes of her husband, however, she is no joke at all. [Lane’s rating: ***½ out of 5 stars]

Labels: biography, comedy, drama, music

The Edge of Seventeen (2016) [R] ****+

A film review by James Berardinelli for ReelViews.net on Nov. 17, 2016.

Motion picture coming-of-age stories are touchstones. The best are capable of transporting older viewers back to a time of life that many of us now view through rose-colored glasses. High school was never easy and that constant hasn’t changed. Those four mid-teenage years represent a cauldron of raging hormones, exploding insecurity, and academic pressure. It’s a wonder that anyone survives them. The Edge of Seventeen reminds viewers of the good, the bad, and the ugly. With a smart, perceptive script from first-time director Kelly Fremon Craig and an arresting lead performance by Hailee Steinfeld, the film rises to the top of a crowded genre.

In high school, everyone (even the popular kids) feels like an outsider, but Nadine (Hailee Steinfeld) has earned the label. Over the course of the movie, which tracks a period during her junior year, she learns that the path of survival has less to do with doing homework, losing her virginity, or making friends than it does with becoming comfortable in her own skin. Unsurprisingly, when she embraces that conclusion, the dark mirror lightens up.

Nadine is afflicted with one of the most catastrophic ailments any nerd-leaning child can have: a popular sibling. Her sports-star older brother, Darian (Blake Jenner), is beloved by the entire student body. Nadine and Darian have a fractious relationship that isn’t helped by her mother’s obvious preference for her male child. Despite feeling isolated since the death of her father, Nadine has found solace in the friendship of Krista (Haley Lu Richardson), the sister-figure she never had. Krista isn’t just her best friend, however, she’s her only friend. When a series of unfortunate events results in Krista and Darian hooking up, Nadine’s world implodes.

With the élan of a profane John Hughes, Craig effortlessly captures Nadine’s mindset. Viewed from a neutral perspective, she might come across as weird, petty, and self-absorbed but The Edge of Seventeen makes her sympathetic. It helps that’s she’s witty (in a Juno sort of way). There are times when the screenplay veers into comedy. The scene in which Nadine tells her teacher (Woody Harrelson) that she’s going to kill herself is amusing as intended. We don’t believe her even though, on some level, she may think she’s semi-serious. For teenagers, every day is a new drama and Nadine has just raised the curtain on Act III.

Hailee Steinfeld brings forth a Nadine whose peculiar charisma is impossible to escape. She’s the outsider we all would like to be: introverted and shy yet tough and independent. She wears her cynicism like a badge of honor. Steinfeld is perfectly cast. Since breaking on the scene at the age of 13 with an Oscar nomination for her part in True Grit, Steinfeld has been on everyone’s to-watch list. This is another example of the actress fulfilling her potential.  She is ably supported by Haley Lu Richardson as her best friend-turned-brother’s girlfriend, Blake Jenner as the universally adored Darian, Kyra Sedgwick as Nadine’s mostly-absent mother, and Woody Harrelson as the teacher we all wish we’d had in high school.

This isn’t a romance (although there are romantic aspects); it’s a coming-of-age drama. The screenplay cannily presents the narrative through Nadine’s perspective and, as circumstances force her to grow and change, we see things more clearly: betrayals that aren’t really betrayals, perfect lives that aren’t quite so perfect, and people hurt by her actions who don’t deserve the pain. All of this is largely transparent and that’s what makes the film so strong. We’re getting a lot more than we initially suspect. It makes the characters and the circumstances seem real. It wouldn’t surprise me to learn that there’s an autobiographical aspect. The details are too carefully realized and the emotional balance so perfect for there not to be a personal investment by the writer/director.

Tone is as important as story for a movie like The Edge of Seventeen. The film wants to be likable and entertaining. It wants to make us laugh at times and feel deeply at others. It needs to mirror the wave-like peaks and troughs of teenage life, when one day can seem like the best day of one’s life until, an hour later, it’s the worst. For a veteran filmmaker, navigating the tricky waters of Nadine’s world might have proven a challenge but, despite not having a previous feature under her belt, Craig accomplishes it and, in the process, brings us one of the best movies of this genre in recent memory. [Berardinelli’s rating: *** ½ out of 4 stars]

Labels: comedy, drama, teenager

Allied (2016) [R] ****

A film review by James Berardinelli for ReelViews.net on November 22, 2016.

Allied is a World War II movie where all the action happens far from the front lines. Whether in the cafes and reception halls of Casablanca or the bombed-out streets of London, the characters face the tribulations that characterize life away from the military clashes. More a spy thriller than a traditional war film, Allied seeks to unfold like a Len Deighton novel - plenty of genuine period details entwined with a fictional story of undercover intrigue, espionage, and betrayal. On the whole, it works although perhaps not as well as it might have if the central relationship had more carefully established. There are also problems with a sense of inevitability during the second half. Despite a few halfhearted red herrings used to instill uncertainty, the resolution is too easy to sniff out.

With a nod to Casablanca, the 1942 Humphrey Bogart / Ingrid Bergman classic, one of Allied’s early scenes transpires in Casablanca, in an establishment not all that different from Rick’s Café Americain. It wouldn’t have been a shock to see Bogart or Claude Rains hanging out or to hear the strains of As Time Goes By playing over the din. In this place, Canadian intelligence officer Max Vatan (Brad Pitt) meets French resistance fighter Marianne Beauséjour (Marion Cotillard). Under the pretense of being a married couple enjoying the freedom offered in the Moroccan city, the two plot the assassination of a German ambassador. With the odds against them (Max estimates 60-40 against), the closeness and tension of the situation sparks a romance. But can a love affair conceived during an assignment survive a transition to the home front? And, with the war still raging, can the seeming security of a desk job protect Max from a tragedy that traces its roots back to Casablanca?

Over the course of a rich and varied career, director Robert Zemeckis has experimented with techniques and innovations. Titles like Back to the Future, Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, Forrest Gump, Contact, and Cast Away have confirmed his superior talent as a storyteller and put him on the A-list. Allied represents one of his more conventional films, offering little that’s unique or trailblazing and using special effects to enhance the period detail rather than to push the envelope. When Zemeckis’ entire career is considered in retrospect, Allied is unlikely to be remembered among his great productions.

Although the movie runs at a little over two hours, it could have benefitted from more screen time. The 40-minute Casablanca segment, in which Max and Marianne’s romance begins, feels at time rushed and truncated. Sometimes, it only takes a half-hour for a movie to convince its audience that two characters are in love. Unfortunately in this case, we glimpse the attraction but its culmination feels forced. More time to get to know them and witness their deeper interaction might have made a difference. Some scenes - like one in which Max covertly watches Marianne undress - are honest and believable; Allied could have benefitted from more of these. It’s not a matter of chemistry - Brad Pitt and Marianne Cotillard aren’t destined to become one of the movie world’s great screen couples although they do generate sufficient heat - but of a narrative that doesn’t want to slow down to let the characters breathe.

Allied’s second half focuses on a spy novel mainstay mystery: someone in London is sending messages to the Germans and it becomes Max’s duty to identify (and, if necessary, execute) the guilty party. The movie sets up various checks and balances about whether the methods being used to trap the traitor are reliable or part of an elaborate game and whether there are justifiable causes for the betrayal. Max, unable to watch passively as events unfold, instigates his own investigation - an action that sees him fly to France and become involved in a pitched street battle with Germans. In the end, however, the espionage elements are straightforward and the conclusion is disappointingly uncomplicated. If the filmmakers were stretching to achieve something worthy of Le Carre or Deighton, the result falls short. There’s an emotional resonance to the denouement but it could have been more potent.

Aside from small roles for Jared Harris (as Max’s commander) and Lizzy Caplan (as Max’s lesbian sister), this is a two-character play. Fortunately, both Pitt and Cotillard are seasoned thespians capable of doing wonders with uneven dialogue and an undercooked plot. Cotillard shines brighter than Pitt in this case, in part because Marianne is more dynamic than Max. Pitt plays the heroic pilot with a stiff upper lip. It’s interesting that the actor has gravitated toward World War II films (this is his third feature, following Inglourious Basterds and Fury). He’s perfectly at home in ‘40s garb and his charisma transfers intact. Cotillard’s appeal is timeless.

Allied probably isn’t prestigious enough to attract much Oscar buzz but it’s too good to be tossed into theaters without a publicity push. Films like this - offering two hours of solid entertainment with attractive leads, exotic locations, and large dollops of romance and suspense - would have done excellent business a decade or two ago but the movie business has changed since then. Allied isn’t a great film but it’s made with sufficient care and skill that it deserves to be seen. Unfortunately, a poor showing at the box office may further diminish the likelihood of Hollywood releasing more films like this one. [Berardinelli’s rating: *** out of 4 stars]

Labels: action, drama, romance, spy, thriller, tragedy, war, WWII

Rules Don’t Apply (2016) [PG-13] ***+

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

Captain Fantastic (2016) [R] ****

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