Saturday, October 15, 2016

September 2016

SULLY (2016)
    While the landing on the Hudson River of a passenger jet just after take-off from LaGuardia Airport after a bird encounter disabled both engines makes for an incredibly dramatic moment, the event hardly offers enough grist for a feature-length film.
    Yet in the hands of master storyteller Clint Eastwood and the dependable, spot-on acting of Tom Hanks—both Hollywood royalty if that still exists—a fine piece of historical drama, a tribute to American professionalism and a jab at over-reaching government oversight has been crafted, with an essential assist from the startlingly convincing special effects.
    The film skips around the incident of Jan. 15, 2009, showing the workaday mentality of Capt. Chesley Sullenberger before and after the incident, eventually flawlessly recreating the audacious landing on the river and the Coast Guard rescue of the 155 passengers and crew.
    The only drama of the film centers on the FAA post-incident investigation that after studying simulated recreations, doubts the decision of Sully and his copilot (played by Aaron Eckhart) to scuttle suggestions to return to LaGuardia or land at the nearby Teterboro Airport. While the world is hailing Sully as an authentic American hero, the FAA officials, at least as depicted here, are looking to scapegoat Sully.
      Even weaker is the script’s (by Tom Komarnicki, based on Sully’s book) attempts to show Sully’s relationship with his wife (Laura Linney), which comes off as forced and pointless.
      Trimmed down to its essentials, this could have been an amazing 60-minute film; but that wouldn’t have given Hanks time to stretch the character out, reveal his doubts in the aftermath and show Sully as a real human. Hanks makes him even more heroic for his humble questioning of himself even as he offers a convincing defense of his decisions.
     In many ways, this is a better performance than Hanks’ recent, showier roles, including “Captain Phillips” and “Bridge of Spies.” There is a cleansing of pretense that occurs with actors when they reach their mid 50s or early 60s that can open a whole new door of performances. At 60, Hanks may be about to reach a level beyond his earlier peak in the 1990s in films dramas as “Philadelphia,” “Forrest Gump,” “Apollo 13,” “Saving Private Ryan” and comedies “You’ve Got Mail” and the “Toy Story” movies.
       As for Eastwood, it grows more difficult each year to come up with stronger adjective to describe his post-65 career, now covering 20 years of some of the best filmmaking anyone has ever done. While “Sully” isn’t a great film, coming right after the equally impressive “American Sniper” (2014) erased any doubts I had after the disappointment of “Hereafter,” “J. Edgar” and “The Jersey Boys,” about this director’s continued relevance.
    No one in the history of American film has ever been entrusted with so many high-profile, major studio films at this stage of life. At 86, Eastwood has more leverage in Hollywood than almost any director in town.
      As much as I may find his political and social commentary offensively dated, Eastwood, with six great films (half in the past 13 years) and another 10 first-rate efforts, continues to climb the pantheon of filmmakers, more than 55 years after he became a television star on “Rawhide.”

    Set in the early 1950s, with the Korean War and the draft looming in the background, this adaptation of a slim, but memorable Philip Roth novel explores the disastrous, often ironic, results of choices by a young man, ones that seem perfectly reasonable at the time.
    Logan Lerman, who starred as an anxious high school freshman in “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” (2012), one of most insightful coming-of-age film ever made, has matriculated to college here, playing Marcus Messner, who escapes the stifling life in New Jersey under the thumb of his butcher father only to find equal frustration at the white-bred Winesburg University in Ohio.  
     Even a date with blonde dream-girl Olivia (Sarah Gadon, who manages to be both vulnerable and icy) leaves him confused, but it’s that relationship, along with his hatred of the requirement to attend chapel each week, that seals his fate.
    At the center of this exceptional film is a long scene between Marcus and his pompous dean (a memorable Tracy Letts) as they discuss what the dean sees as Marcus’ refusal to acclimate to life at Winesburg (starting with the dean’s reference to Marcus’ father as a “kosher” butcher).
     Writer-director James Schamus, best known as Ang Lee’s producer on such films as “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” and “Brokeback Mountain,” achieves a rare feat: He brings a thoughtful piece of literature to the screen without losing the author’s purpose and vision. Schamus doesn’t give in to recent Hollywood conventions—there’s no big-name in the cast, the tone remains far from upbeat and the protagonist is a contentious loner (there are similarities to “The Graduate”).    
     While Lerman dominates the film, expertly portraying the conflicting desires of an ambitious, yet tragically naive youth, Linda Emond, a veteran character actress in films, on TV and the stage, deserves Oscar consideration for her searing performance as the boy’s mother, whose visit to the campus changes everyone’s world.
    Roth, one of the most acclaimed novelists of the post-World War II era, has suddenly become popular among filmmakers, with five of his books adapted for the big screen in the past 15 years.
     Before “Indignation” were the less successful “The Human Stain,” “Elegy” and “The Humbling;” in a few weeks, “American Pastoral,” his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel from 1997 about ‘60s radicalism, will open in theaters, directed by and starring Ewan McGregor.

    There is something astonishing about watching a motion picture (in this case re-watching) that was made 100 years ago. While in comparison to other arts, the cinema remains an infant, or maybe a tween, now we have more than a century of works to consider.
     This D.W. Griffith epic, it clocks in at three hours (but, being a silent seems twice as long), is the most important picture of 1916, considered by many critics to be one of the greatest films of the silent era. It was the only pre-1920 film to make the prestigious Sight and Sound list of greatest films (No. 93) in 2012.
     The movie is divided into four separate stories, constantly shifting back and forth between each, all telling a tragic tale of human intolerance through the ages. The film, for all its faults, remains one of the most ambitious projects in American film history, possibly surpassed only by Erich von Stroheim’s “Greed,” David O. Selznick’s “Gone With the Wind” and Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy.
    Of the chapters—ancient Babylon armies fighting off invaders, the story of Jesus Christ, 16th Century France and a modern story of social reformers—the contemporary story of a laid off worker who finds himself mixed up in crime and the tragedy that brings to his young bride (a brilliant Mae Marsh) is most effective.
      While the Babylon sequences, with their mammoth, surreal sets and thousands of extra, remain eye popping, it’s more pageant than story, much like the Biblical tale. Surprisingly, all these stories lack of the visual storytelling that made this pioneering director so important. Take away the inter-titles and I would have been clueless as to what was going on.
    Just a year earlier, Griffith’s most infamous picture was released. “The Birth of a Nation” remains the most controversial movie ever made: reviled for Griffith’s depiction of the Ku Klux Klan as heroes saving the South from the violence and corrupting effect of freed slaves on the innocent white citizens; admired for advancing the art of filmmaking, utilizing the tools of visual storytelling as no movie before it had and, also maybe a first, striving for some kind of artistic greatness.
      In many ways, Griffith and “The Birth of a Nation” encapsulate the history of this country; brilliant innovation and audacious ambition flourishing side by side with hatred and fear. Is it any wonder his next major picture was titled “Intolerance”?
     At this point, watching this 100-year-old movie is too much like a homework assignment. Unquestionable, Griffith was exploring the kind of serious themes few moviemakers of the time were touching (but would in the next decade) and displaying filmmaking acumen years ahead of others, yet “Intolerance” is as plodding as “Birth of a Nation” is racist.      

     Updating the Jesse James legend (the working poor vs. the bankers), this taunt, superbly acted modern Western manages to be both an entertaining crime picture and a thoughtful character study.
      And just in case that’s not enough, the film features another priceless turn by Jeff Bridges, this time as a been-there, done-that lawman on the verge of retirement, a more slovenly, talkative version of Tommy Lee Jones’ character from “No Country for Old Men.”
      Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner (Ben Foster) Howard are your classic good guy-bad guy brothers who unite to save the farm, literally, as they are close to losing their late mother’s seemingly worthless home and land to back taxes.
      Their solution involves a series of low-key bank robberies, all branches of a small West Texas bank that has no working closed circuit cameras.
      The robberies draw the attention of a pair of Texas Rangers, Marcus (Bridges) and his partner (and butt of his racist jokes) Alberto (Gil Birmingham). While the Howard brothers are at each other’s throats as their plan seems to fall apart—mostly from Tanner unpredictability—the Rangers bicker back and forth like an old married couple.
      British director David Mackenzie (best known for “Young Adam”) and screenwriter Taylor Sheridan (who wrote last year’s fast-paced drug agent film “Sicario”) display a sharp ear for the way men communication and the manner they deal with one another. There is nothing “Hollywood” about this picture. 
      Pine, who has made Capt. Kirk his signature role, is a solid actor with an intense, world-worn look, which fits perfectly into this film, while Foster has quietly become one of the best supporting players in the business. Before this he shined in the fine remake of “3:10 to Yuma” (2007), “The Messenger” (2009) and “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” (2013).
       I’ve spend many an entry in this blog describing the masterful acting of Bridges. While this role won’t bring him any awards, it is another of the countless soulful performances he’s delivered in the past 45 years. With so many of the important actors of the 1970s retired or wasting time in throwaway comedies, it’s a pleasure that Bridges continues to find substantial roles. He makes any film he’s in that much better.

MAX ROSE (2016)
     I just couldn’t resist. Jerry Lewis, a 90-year-old showbiz legend, plays a retired jazz pianist who must deal with the loss of his wife of 65 years. Could this be the final, career-topping performance for this irascible star who burst on the national stage as a nightclub sensation with singer-comedian Dean Martin in 1946? It seemed to be the perfect role, like his kidnapped TV comic in “The King of Comedy” or as the overbearing father of a young comic in “Funny Bones.”
      Almost immediately, my hopes were dashed, as the film begins at such a slow, dreary pace that I struggled to stay awake. The first 30 minutes of the film consists of Max’s granddaughter (a game Kerry Bishe) trying to rustle him out of his funk and referee angry exchanges between her father (Kevin Pollack) and the unpleasant old man. The complexities of the relationships are mostly left unsaid as Max (or is it Lewis?) sits in his chair moping about his life.
       I wasn’t sure if it was just a bad script or that Lewis lacked the energy to give a real performance. Yet the film (and Max) picks up when the family moves Max to a nursing home and he begins in earnest his search for a mystery man who seems to have had an affair with Max’s wife 50 years ago. But he remains the least interesting character in the film; for someone who worked as a musician all his life, he displays little charisma.
      While Max grows more and more obsessed with tracking down the scoundrel who has ruined Max’s memory of his wife, the flashbacks—the great Claire Bloom plays Mrs. Rose—don’t reveal much of a loving relationship.
       Writer-director Daniel Noah’s script is filled with enough conventional wisdom and homilies for a half-dozen Hallmark TV movies. Even when Max finally meets his rival (though a coincidence that stretches believability to its breaking point), the film has nothing of interest to say.
       And even worse, the director never even has Max to sit down at his piano and remember his music; disappointing, to say the least.

    Since Shakespeare, one of the tried and true comedic devices has been mistaken identity. Even at its most unbelievable, the device provides a dramatic irony that is hard to resist—there is great pleasure in knowing what a character in the film doesn’t.
     In this vehicle for two of the era’s most attractive stars, Tyrone Power plays the preposterously named Thomas Jefferson Tyler, who has written a series of unflattering newspaper profiles of socialite and heiress Sara Farley (Gene Tierney). In hopes of obtaining quotes for his next story, he heads to a Colorado resort where Sara is vacationing and, pretending to be a reporter for a local paper, quickly becomes very cozy with her. (Isn’t it amazing how easy it is to meet people in movies?)
     When the ruse is exposed, she has an unusual response: She tells all the rival New York papers that she and Tyler were secretly married. Without a convenient way to disprove her claim, Tyler finds life difficult, losing his job (for getting scooped and involved with the story’s subject), straining his relationship with his real fiancée and, ironically, chaffing under the harassment of fellow reporters and photographers.
     While he comes up with inventive ways to make her deny the marriage, including moving into her house, getting free groceries at her family’s store and crashing high-society parties, the audience knows there is only one way this amusing tale can end.
    Both stars were at the peak of careers destined to be short lived.
    Power was coming off his two best performances, “The Razor’s Edge” (1946), co-starring Tierney, and “Nightmare Alley” (1947), but his roles in the 1950s were less interesting until two 1957 films, “The Sun Also Rises” and “Witness for the Prosecution.” The next year, at age 44, he died of a heart attack.
    Tierney had a few more good roles (“Night and the City,” “Where the Sidewalk Ends”) before she stopped acting in the mid 1950s, suffering from depression while in her 30s. She didn’t work for about seven years. After her 1962 comeback in “Advise and Consent,” Tierney gave only a handful of performances, mostly on TV, as her star had dimmed. She died at age 70 in 1991.
      For director Robert Sinclair, it was the last feature he ever made, moving to TV where he directed on such series as “Johnny Staccato,” “77 Sunset Strip” and “Lawman.” In 1970, at age 64, he was stabbed to death by a UC Santa Barbara graduate student, apparently attempting to rob Sinclair’s home.

      This poetically named movie, based on a 2012 novel by M.L. Stedman, might have been more appropriately set in the 1820s rather than the 1920s.
     The tragic romanticism, at least as transferred to the screen, seems ill suited to the Twentieth Century, even given its setting on a small island off the coast of West Australia. Somehow it’d be easier to accept the coincidences, the themes of fate, guilt and self-sacrifice if it took place in the Nineteenth or Eighteenth centuries.
      Tom (played by a very solemn Michael Fassbender), deeply affect by his service in World War I, accepts a position as a lighthouse keeper, where he finds a slice of happiness, especially after his marriage to local girl Isabel (last year’s breakthrough star Alicia Vikander).
      But after two miscarriages, a gloomy mood hangs over the marriage, as Isabel desperately seeks motherhood. Then, taking a page out of a Dickens or Hardy novel, a boat drifts ashore containing an infant girl and a dead man.
      Isabel convinces her husband not to report their discovery, instead burying the man and pretending the baby is their own, as they live far from any doctors or neighbors. He reluctantly agrees, but his guilt lies heavily over his life, especially once he learns of the circumstances that lead to them receiving the child.
     Both actors are fine, with the chemistry that apparently bloomed in real life on the set evident on screen; maybe too much. I grew tired of the long, prettily photographed scenes of the couple playing with the baby, running through open fields, living their simple but loving life.
      It seems so obviously the setup for the inevitable, as Tom begins to question their decision and Isabel becomes more psychotic, more obsessed to retain the child, now two or three,
      Along with the stars, Aussie veteran Jack Thomson (“Breaker Morant”) gives a fine turn as a trusted friend of the couple, as does Rachel Weisz, playing a woman whose tragedy sends the plot in motion.
     Like his previous efforts, two intense Ryan Gosling vehicles, “Blue Valentine” and “The Place Beyond the Pines,” director Derek Cianfrance tackles the effects of a difficult, sometimes destructive relationship, this time letting in much more light and burdening the characters with plot twists that double-back on themselves. “The Light Between Oceans” is a tragedy that doesn’t seem tragic enough; a romance that doesn’t have the emotional sweep it deserves.

ELVIS & NIXON (2016)
     One of the iconic images of the 1970s captures a visit Elvis Presley made to the White House in 1970 to discuss the drug problems of America’s youth with President Nixon. As insane as the idea of such a meeting sounds, the summit of these two famous men actually happened. 
     From a script by husband and wife Joey and Hanala Sagal and actor Cary Elwes, this film offers the buildup to the events, the negotiations within the White House and the sheer nuttiness of Elvis’ life. (He shows up at the White House with two concealed weapons and a commemorative World War II pistol he wants to present to Nixon.)
     Liza Johnson, who directed the well-reviewed “Hateship Loveship,” pads the film out with a back story of Jerry Schilling (Alex Pettyfer), a confident of “E,” who went on to become an unofficial curator of the Elvis legacy. In this story, he’s caught between helping Presley arrange the Nixon meeting and flying back to L.A. for a dinner with his fiancée—as if anyone cares. But he’s also listed as an executive producer on the film and, I suspect, the source for the script.  
     Needless to say, there’s not much to this film and it’s not especially funny, yet it benefits greatly from a very quirky performance by Michael Shannon as Elvis. Though he looks like a really bad impersonator, Shannon captures the naïveté and sincerity of the King as he uses his privileged status to attempt to secure a position as an undercover DEA agent.
      The actor, who seems to thrive in smaller, offbeat films, has hypnotic glare and the ability to bring a mysterious, slightly dangerous edge to his characters.
    Kevin Spacey, a comfortable figure in the Oval Office from his role in the television series “House of Cards,” offers a believable impersonation of Nixon, but he’s never more than a supporting player as Shannon’s Elvis dominates every scene, especially in the White House.
      A pair of Nixon flunkies, Dwight Chapin and Bud Krogh (Evan Peters and Colin Hanks), later key players in the Watergate scandal, have more interesting roles, lobbying for the Presley meeting, originally rejected by Nixon, to help with the “youth vote.”
     While the film is forgettable, the actual event remains a fascinating tidbit of history; a classic case of the truth being so much stranger than fiction.




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