For those yearning for a solid Hollywood film with something to say, “brace for impact!” Director Clint Eastwood’s solid biopic Sully (A-) turns convention on its head with an interior examination of an American hero who followed his instincts and famously saved 155 people with a famed plane landing on the icy Hudson River and then doubts himself in the wake of evidence and scrutiny. Against the backdrop of an obsessive culture in which we meticulously pour over footage of pivotal events including the “Zapruder Film” of the JFK shooting, Eastwood’s clinical study of an unlikely emergency water landing combined with a quiet, restrained and mighty performance by Tom Hanks in the title role, makes for an emotionally exciting adventure wrapped in a contemplative piece of cinema. Minor quibbles include a discordant score (Eastwood wrote his own theme music) and a moment or two when the flashback-laden structure does a disservice to forward momentum. But it’s ultimately a stand-up-and-cheer/think experience, made even better by Aaron Eckhart as a charming first officer. Those who think they know the whole story already will be enriched by what Eastwood does here. It’s also an essential big screen theatre experience with magnificent sound and visual effects. With a tip of the hat to the pilot, his crew, the passengers and the first responders, it’s the hero story we may not have known we needed at this exact moment in time.
In the tradition of the talky and compelling Before Sunrise trilogy, a new movie takes a similar approach to the fateful first date of one of the most historic and captivating couples of modern times. Writer/director Richard Tanne’s Southside with You (A-) stars Parker Sawyers and Tika Sumpter as a young Barack and Michelle Robinson Obama, respectively, circa 1989 in Chicago. This slice of life – literally one day in the life – is buoyed by radiant performances by the two leads and a timeless tale of a young couple challenging each other to become their best selves. Sawyers brings charisma and persistence and Sumpter a fierce intelligence and drive to the love story. Both are indelible and delightful in the roles. The incidental nature of a first-date-in-the-making that involves a picnic, an art gallery, time in The Gardens, an organizing meeting, drinks, a screening of Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing and a trip to an ice cream parlor illuminates so much more about a future First Couple than a traditional montage-filled biopic ever could. It is a lovely story, gorgeously filmed and beautifully acted. It’s gimmick free and groundbreaking in its own way as a chronicle of history unfurling before our eyes.
It’s an inspired idea indeed to have celebrated actress Meryl Streep perform in a most meta Emperor’s New Clothes style homage as an infamous no-talent. But as the titular character, a songstress oblivious of her pronounced vocal limitations, in Stephen Frears’s 1944-set biopic Florence Foster Jenkins (B), Streep’s seriocomic riffs are often on the mark even while the notes are all over the map. It is clear Frears finds his mercurial Manhattanite subject endlessly fascinating; and like Ed Wood, Bullets Over Broadway, Grey Gardens or The Producers, he finds fits of dry wit amidst the Schadenfreude. Hugh Grant as Florence’s conflicted husband is serviceable and occasionally sentimental, despite the actor’s limited range. Simon Helberg is a bit of a misfire as the songbird’s pianist, registering on the nebbish scale somewhere between Alan Cumming and Jason Schwartzman but with little of the charm. Nina Arianda is funny as a gangster moll type but is given strange motivations during a critical sequence. At the film’s heart is Streep herself, demonstrating with droll doses of heart and high-note heinousness that throwing yourself into an artistic passion with gusto, even when all the pieces aren’t altogether effective, can still be somewhat satisfying.
I saw David O. Russell’s Joy (D+) so you don’t have to. Loosely based on the life of a divorced mom who transforms herself into the entrepreneur of the Miracle Mop empire in the early days of television home shopping, this maudlin seriocomedy takes roughly 90 minutes before it gains a pulse. By the time the story stirs any momentum in a prolonged TV studio sequence, Russell has already failed to generate any consistent tone or believable characters. Bits of the inspirational loosely true story and some facets of Jennifer Lawrence’s occasionally compelling performance as the title heroine (Mother of Invention? Mopping-Jane?) are the only components that bring any life at all to the proceedings. The auteur’s usual repertory ensemble including Robert DeNiro and Bradley Cooper are painfully dull and inconsistent in their roles. The final reel unspools unceremoniously to the finish line but can’t compensate for the inert narrative that led us there. For a film about a magnate of retail, the writer/director fails to make the sale.
Like The Insider and Erin Brockovich, Peter Landesman’s Concussion (B+) depicts an individual’s courage in standing up against a real-life institutional cover-up. In this case, it’s an immigrant pathologist versus the National Football League in terms of who knew what and when on the issue of head trauma to players causing specific and unusual side effects at a relatively early age. It’s a film the NFL doesn’t want you to see. Despite its takedown of one of the nation’s pastimes, it is nonetheless a film about faith and the American dream. Smith’s sensitive doctor communes with the dead through his job at the Philadelphia coroner’s office, and his perpetual attention to detail prompts him to look deeper into the case of a famed football center who lost his mind before dying. From there, his findings escalate. Lifting this effort above its message movie trajectory is an absolutely exemplary performance by Will Smith that plumbs notions of science, spirituality and destiny. Like Liev Schreiber’s character in the recent Spotlight, he’s the outsider it takes to reveal an inconvenient truth. Albert Brooks and Alec Baldwin are strong as unlikely allies, but it is Gugu Mbatha-Raw as the female lead who helps anchor the film’s emotions brimming under the surface. Her character as well as Smith’s reflect an admirable stoicism against the odds they face, rendering the powder kegs that threaten to pierce their armor all the more dramatic. The film doesn’t break much new ground in its cinematic storytelling, but it will definitely color the way you watch tackles in football if the mounting facts over the past years haven’t altered your perceptions already.
Thanks to The Sistah Chick for sharing this review on her popular news compilation Web site.
Bill Pohlad’s Love and Mercy (B) is the unconventional telling of the life of musical wunderkind Brian Wilson, the producer mastermind behind The Beach Boys and one of the most acclaimed albums in history, Pet Sounds. Akin to Bob Dylan biopic I’m Not Here, which famously showcased a parade of performers playing the musician, this Wilson narrative casts its subject in two parts, representing a personality in fissure – Paul Dano as the crazed savant in his creative experimental peak in the ’60s and John Cusack as a man medicated into oblivion searching for redemption in the ’80s. The Dano sequences of Brian-Past are by far the strongest as the phenomenal actor displays the spark of creation, the cusp of genius and the brink of madness. He is vulnerable to his own demons and the fear of an abusive father and stunningly alive as a genius savant. Cusack doesn’t stand a chance in the weaker parallel plotline. The film is at its best putting music front and center and posits that the musician summons songs and sounds as a way to cope with and corral the voices in his head. For Wilson, the studio itself becomes a critical instrument that helps heal his soul. Paul Giamatti is effective as a stern therapist and Elizabeth Banks a delight as the love interest of Brian-Present. Flashbacks and fancy film stocks help buoy the character’s misunderstood vibrations. Music lovers will revel in the film’s unusual portal to finding rhythm, and admirers of good acting will enjoy the yin and yang harmony of the Dano/Cusack portrayal. A bit like A Beautiful Mind put to melody at the pace of West Coast cool, this biopic is definitely worth a spin.
The repeated refrain, “There’s a good story in there somewhere” is extraordinarily prescient in Jay Roach’s Trumbo (C), a rather tedious true story that finally gets compelling in its final act. Bryan Cranston plays the titular protagonist, an eccentric blacklisted Hollywood screenwriter and family man who improbably manipulated a Tinseltown underground to coax the powers that be out of their heavy-handed paranoia. Cranston shape-shifts into the role with wild abandon as a veritable Gandolfian gadfly and sly provocateur. Diane Lane gets the thankless spouse role and Dame Helen Mirren is wasted in her annual Golden Globe bait performance, in this case as a sassy socialite. Roach meanders and holds tight to too chronological a narrative, blunting the impact of the proceedings and clamping down on fruitless nuances. The tone never really gels. Some of the best bits involve actors playing real-life stars such as John Wayne and Kirk Douglas, who factor into the controversy. Ultimately far less than the sum of many interesting contributions, the film is an okay biopic that has a lot to say a little too late.
Flawed and fascinating like its titular hero, Danny Boyle’s Steve Jobs (A-) is a biopic film seeking a new form factor. Told in three critical flashpoints of the computer industry titan’s life – namely, his launch of the overhyped Apple Macintosh, of the failed NeXT computer and of the wildly popular iMac that ushered in a new digital renaissance – Boyle and auteur screenwriter Aaron Sorkin fashion the tale of a fabulist impresario windbag who surrounds himself with people who act as fun house mirrors and lenses into his control freak world and undeniable genius. Michael Fassbender is simply phenomenal in the demanding and often unlikable role, with Kate Winslet and Jeff Daniels providing bright but thankless support as workplace foils to Jobs’ most repellant qualities. By jettisoning linear storytelling and embracing backstage patter, tone poem and near-requiem, the film is sure to confound most in its viewing audience. The movie’s distancing subject matter and petulant protagonist are near certain to be off-putting to most. Boyle rarely hits a false note and makes superb points about man and machine. Like underappreciated works of Kubrick, this austere film is likely to be better received years from now. It is telling that the movie focuses more of Jobs as artist than scientist, with his meta-theatrical launches taking place in symphony halls and his maestro metaphors falling from the lips like sweet sonnets. As film, it’s a perplexing and quixotic gallery. Given the early box office returns, it’s a fever dream most viewers will save for home viewing; but it’s absorbing for sure and nearly as odd and inventive as the man who inspired it.
Related article: Learn PR tips inspired by Kate Winslet’s character on the Cookerly PR blog.
Even though the film purports to be about dreaming up the impossible, Robert Zemeckis’s The Walk (D) has larger plausibility issues in the form of plot, performances and purpose. This film about the French daredevil who walked on a wire from one Twin Tower to the other in 1974 NYC goes down as one of the filmmaker’s most stunning disappointments. The inventive director who once romanced a South American stone, took us on time travels with Marty McFly, framed a cartoon rabbit into real-life and integrated a famous Gump into modern history has, for the past two decades, turned his attention and technical wizardry to tedious affairs involving dead-eyed CGI characters, blustery performances by A-listers and special effects in search of a story. Awkwardly narrated in an atrocious French accent by its central character played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, this true-life tightrope tale is ham-strung by a trite script, a silly tone and petty plotting to arrive at a daffy denouement. Ben Kingsley even out-does Gordon-Levitt in the game of strange accents. Plus the much-heralded effects re-creating the majestic skyscrapers of the past are odd, with the protagonist’s promenades filmed at one of about five of the same angles again and again. Devoid of the high-stakes heights or tension that are supposed to be at its centerpiece, this film is instead an all-time low for a moviemaker in a slump.
F. Gary Gray’s Straight Outta Compton (A-) tells the origin story of rap group N.W.A. with a sense of immediacy that reflects today’s headlines and a genuine gravitas that traces the family tree of the gangsta rap movement with poignancy and panache. Jason Mitchell is the breakout star as charismatic tragic hero Eazy-E, with O’Shea Jackson, Jr. as Ice Cube and Corey Hawkins as Dr. Dre also giving outstanding performances as the music group members each put their personal stamp on the sound and the fury of a business born in chaos. Paul Giamatti is also effective as their duplicitous manager. Gray does a strong job coloring in the period details against a backdrop of events such as the L.A. riots and with a singular soundscape that pulses with momentum. He transforms the biopic and its usual tenets into an epic that rings true today with insights about the first amendment, crime and policing in America and finding one’s own voice no matter where you’re from.
Morten Tyldum’s The Imitation Game (A+) does everything a great movie should: intrigue, involve and inspire. The real-life dramatic and suspenseful story of recalcitrant British WWII code breaker Alan Turing, played masterfully by Benedict Cumberbatch, offers a veritable sudoku of surprises and a surprising testimony to unexpected heroism. The smart screenplay is matched by sterling performances across the board, especially by Keira Knightley as a problem solving trailblazer who becomes emotionally involved with the prickly protagonist. Tyldum successfully interlaces several timeframes and historical insights into the spy games and builds to various levels of resonance both personal and profound. It’s a prestige picture in every sense of the word, plumbing the implications of both artificial and emotional intelligence, and it’s highly recommended.
Jean-Marc Vallée’s Wild (B-) plots the course of a lost, grieving young woman along a thousand mile journey on the Pacific Crest Trail as she grapples in both adventures and flashbacks with the demons that haunt her and the passages of inspiration that could set her free. Reese Witherspoon gives an uncommon, relatable and lived-in performance as this drifter with a purpose and she imbues her character with a salty, off-kilter vernacular that’s like Hallmark for Heathens. Despite being a true story, it piles it on a bit thick: Our heroine even struggles with heroin. Few of the film’s episodic segments involving the struggle of the hike or the proto-feminist viewpoints about a “woman on the verge” are as moving or suspenseful or meaningful as seemingly intended, despite a feather-touch observational directorial style filled with montages of Laura Dern as a saintly but underdeveloped mother of the protagonist. Viewers will endure a bit of a slow-burn to the life lessons, yet it’s possible you might enjoy the trip.