Soon after their latest collaboration Lone Survivor, director Peter Berg and Star Mark Wahlberg team up for another real-life story, the depiction of the “well from hell” known as the BP oil rig disaster: Deepwater Horizon (B+). The film draws viewers in to meet a collection of sympathetic characters including protagonist Wahlberg, Kate Hudson as his supportive spouse and Kurt Russell as a plainspoken veteran of the industry. John Malkovich plays the sinister, serpentine Big Oil executive with relish. The film does a good job explaining the science and mechanics of drilling on the sea and depicting the political machinations behind making decisions, both brave and expedient, when the stakes are high. The effects are top-notch as the towering inferno reaches full-fledged disaster. Berg has found a mid-career specialty in these types of films; and this one is an unexpectedly thrilling entry into his true life adventure series. Wahlberg doesn’t really try an accent but is a sturdy, strong everyman in the role. We’ve seen a lot of this before, as high-paid folks ignore warning signs and innocent people suffer dire consequences, but this one is particularly timely in an age of pronounced corporate avarice. It’s missing a strong thematic point of view and nuance. Mostly, it’s got strong action and melodrama and delivers a powerful punch.
It’s like Thomas Hardy crafted two thirds of an epic and let Nicholas Sparks finish the final chapters. Derek Cianfrance’s The Light Between Oceans (C), itself an adaptation of M.L. Stedman’s popular post-WWI Australian romance, features Michael Fassbender as a former soldier turned lighthouse keeper and Alicia Vikander as his new bride on an isolating island where intrigue about their offspring becomes the stuff of tempestuous melodrama. The presence of veteran Aussie actors Bryan Brown and Jack Thompson and a few verses of “Waltzing Matilda” are basically the clues you’re down under (thankfully no koalas) long before the narrative seeps below sea level. Fassbender and Vikander are wonderfully charming until their character motivations require them to become a bit stupefying. They commit to their craft well after the story strains credulity. A thankless supporting role does Rachel Weisz no favors. What starts out pulpy, electric and suspenseful simply becomes sudsy, irritating and overlong. Add to this mix an inconsistent narration, an overuse of reading letters and an awkward framing device, and you have the formula for a tepid September studio release.
Although many viewers may be feeling “no más” to the prospect of another boxing movie, Jonathan Jakubowicz’s Hands of Stone (A-) turns out to be stunningly good and one of the most unexpected character dramas of the year. The film is a sports biopic about the career of Panamanian former professional boxer Roberto Durán, and he is fiercely portrayed by Édgar Ramírez in one of those performances that defies every expectation. His brute deconstruction of machismo, his hunger for victory and justice and his nationalistic zest for life seeps out of every frame. The character is often hard to like, and that makes it even more intriguing. Through superb period detail and art direction against a backdrop of a revolutionary time period in Panama paralleling a transformation in the boxing industry through television and sponsorships circa late 70’s and early ’80s, the filmmakers create a soaring narrative that turns the tables for American audiences expecting to root for their native son. Usher Raymond is a delight in a small part as U.S. boxing hero Sugar Ray Leonard, conveying magnanimous authority. Ana de Armas is remarkable as Felicidad Durán, imbuing the spouse role with grace and verve. Magnificent in other supporting parts are Ellen Barkin and Rubén Blades, the latter legend contributing mightily to the soundtrack as well. But it is Robert De Niro who reclaims his mantle as one of the cinema greats as champion trainer and narrator Ray Arcel. He is splendid in the supporting role; and like Ramírez, you can’t take your eyes off him. De Niro’s corner of the ring pep talks with the Panamanian boxer are part inspiration, part confessional and part master class in quiet dignity. Whether you love sports movies or actively resist them, you will find this story – and the style of telling it – captivating.
Early review from the Atlanta Film Festival – debuted on HBO
Rick Famuyiwa’s Confirmation (B-) is the sturdy true story of Anita Hill’s revelation about sexual harassment during the judiciary committee’s hearings about Supreme Court Justice nominee Clarence Thomas. Although Kerry Washington and Wendell Pierce are note-perfect as the real-life characters, the film doesn’t delve much beneath the surface of history as it happened or illuminate much that motivates these characters, except to put it all in context about what it meant for a woman to stand up against establishment. The film’s most colorful components are in the margins with surreal and extremely accurate portrayals of a duo of senators – Joe Biden played by Greg Kinnear and Peter McRobbie as Alan Simpson. The former, undisciplined and agitated by a dental malady, and the latter, quoting bits of Shakespeare in stunning tangents, seem the Rosencrantz & Guildenstern who might have formed an unlikely central role in a more compelling narrative. Still, it’s instructive, engaging and sometimes soapy to revisit this salacious scandal. The political theatre is often compelling, but it could have used more able hands to truly break through.
On the red carpet for the Atlanta Film Festival movie premiere (#ATLFF), actor Wendell Pierce describes preparing for this role:
One of the most acclaimed Hungarian films in recent years tells the tale of a father endeavoring to bury his son, but there’s so much more to the story. László Nemes’s chilling you-are-there style Holocaust drama Son of Saul (A-) takes viewers deep into horror and chaos where a heroic dad’s singleminded mission to provide a proper burial for his offspring is complicated by his role as a Jewish prisoner inside a WWII Auschwitz Concentration Camp where he serves as part of the “Sonderkommando” unit that disposes of the dead. Told within stifling quarters over the course of less than two days in 1944, the story is focused on Saul’s leviathan task while he fends off SS-guards and smugglers in his midst as the burial and even overall escape becomes either elusive or imminent. Much falls on the shoulder of lead actor Géza Röhrig, and he is magnificent in a muscular role requiring few words. Nemes’ direction often relies on tight close-ups and sound effects that prompt viewers to fill in an even more terrifying complete picture. Told with the propulsion of near-constant motion, it is an extraordinarily effective glimpse into history. Due to some of the labyrinthine plot details that undergird the narrative, the emotional core occasionally gets short shrift. It is essential viewing in this historical sub-genre and a harrowing, insightful experience.
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.
Pretty as a picture as it slow-dances into a watercolor daydream, Tom Hooper’s The Danish Girl (B) is a graceful historical true story often told at a beguiling distance. In 1920’s Copenhagen, the plaintive painter played by Eddie Redmayne awakens into his true gender identity with the loving support of a very open-minded artist wife, magnificently played by Alicia Vikander. Redmayne is committed to the performance and conjures great empathy with his porcelain features showcasing a full master class as both confused lad and emboldened lady; but the script and direction don’t always do the audience favors of helping get under the emotional surface. The third act fails to build successfully on the promise of the preceding plot and sticks a bit by the book, albeit impeccable costumed and gorgeously lit. It’s an important work and a daring topic, but it keeps within a museum glass what might have been a more well-rounded, frank, raw and conflict-laden human drama.
Hey, kids! There’s a new movie you can recommend to both your dad and your mom, whether they enjoy spy stories of two-for-one BOGO deals. Steven Spielberg’s old-fashioned Cold War-set Bridge of Spies (B+) thrusts a real-life insurance lawyer played by Tom Hanks into a role negotiating the exchange of a Russian spy for two, count ’em two, captive Americans. Mark Rylance is a standout as the aging Eastern operative, and his sequences opposite Hanks are poignant and illuminating. Spielberg excels in pacing and period detail and helping the story surge into escalating stakes. The movie takes shape as more of a drama than a thriller when the most taut moment involves two men with umbrellas chasing each other down a rainy sidewalk, but the creative cadence of a Coen Brothers screenplay allows the words to stimulate intellectual adventure. Plus, Hanks is enjoyable rather than irritating in his latest Everyman role. The film is sturdy and entertaining; and while it breaks no amazing new ground, sometimes a good film by a great director is enough.
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.
As a movie musical, Tom Hooper’s Les Miserables (A) gets nearly every sonic and emotional note right. Hugh Jackman, Eddie Redmayne and Anne Hathaway are the standout performers in this silver scall-singing spectacular that toggles between moments both intimate and epic. Fans of the theatrical show will have a lot to love, and the modest revisions nearly all serve to clarify the story in its cinematic translation. Themes of rebellion and redemption ring true through the urchins, anthems, baritones and barricades of a gangbuster movie musical.