11 09 2016

Clint Eastwood’s ideas about America tend to get a lot of airtime, be it his decidedly anti-politically correct personal statements or the perceived xenophobia or myopia of his films like “Gran Torino” and “American Sniper.” In some regard, Eastwood’s much-ballyhooed empty chair speech at the 2012 RNC set the stage for a political lens to become the most commonly applied approach to his work. With “Sully,” the director offers up a vision to make America great again – though not in the controversial manner in which you might think.

His film is an ode to the American spirit of communal support and teamwork. It’s a tribute to those brave souls who think like caring, sentient human beings rather than machines. And this tale is not without a dark side; our nation’s faith in the extraordinary capabilities of an ordinary individual can thrust unwitting individuals into the limelight as heroes.

This message gets a perfect vessel through Tom Hanks’ Capt. Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, an experienced pilot who successfully executed a water landing in a passenger jet that lost both engines in a bird strike. Less than eight years ago, the so-called “Miracle on the Hudson” captured the public’s imagination amidst financial scandals and economic woes. The event took place just days President Obama’s inauguration, but it might as well be lumped in with the optimism his early days in office. (Most of the major news networks opted to show footage from the “Miracle” over George W. Bush’s final address to the nation.)

At one point during the ensuing scrutiny from federal investigators, Sully looks into his wallet and finds the message from a fortune cookie: “Better a delay than a disaster.” The film itself possesses about the same level of wisdom and insight. That might sound a bit like damning with faint praise, but Eastwood – and Hanks, too, for that matter – knows there is something to be learned from the simple philosophy of the common protector. Thoughts and words are just fine, yet they mean little unless backed up with action. In “Sully,” the staff aboard U.S. Airways Flight 1549 and countless New York City first responders show their commitment to human life by dropping everything to save 155 passengers on a moment’s notice.

“It wasn’t me, it was us,” says Sully after hearing the audio recording from the cockpit. The lone hero might be a staple of Eastwood’s western iconography, but he’s all about civic unity in “Sully.” Tragedies do not define our nation. Our responses to them do. Some uneven storytelling tactics might prevent the film from rousing a groundswell of collectivist feelings, although it certainly stirs the yearning for a moment that once again rallies us together in hopefulness.  B2halfstars

REVIEW: Olympus Has Fallen

3 03 2015

Lest we forget, the sight of the White House, the very icon of the American Presidency, in flames could have been a non-fiction tale (or a Paul Greengrass film). On September 11, 2001, United Flight 93 was likely headed to Washington, D.C. to take out the beloved building. So given that history, a modicum of respect – not even Christopher Nolan levels of seriousness – and reverence seems due for the landmark.

None of this registered with the makers of “Olympus Has Fallen,” however. Director Antoine Fuqua seeks to inspire anger by focusing on the sight of the edifice under siege, yet the film just feels too cartoonish in its destruction for any real emotions to register. (This is a movie where someone gets killed by trauma to the head inflicted by a bust of Abraham Lincoln, after all.)

Furthermore, the trigger-happy festival of gore devalues innocent lives taken by terrorists – NOT a smart move when trying to invoke the legacy of 9/11. As Gerard Butler’s Mike Banning seeks to rescue the prisoners of the North Korean attackers who take over the White House, the stakes feel rather low. In terms of hostage movies, this feels about on the level of a bank robbery.

“Olympus Has Fallen” will not even leave you chanting “USA! USA!” And, keep in mind, this is a movie that stars Morgan Freeman. What a squandered opportunity. C2stars

REVIEW: Battle: Los Angeles

9 10 2011

Battle: Los Angeles” may be the worst Michael Bay movie not made by Michael Bay.  And regardless of who directs a stereotypical “Michael Bay movie,” you should probably know that my recommendation for that movie can be summed up in one word: RUN!

Jonathan Liebesman directs a symphony of discordant noise and pathetic human drama without even the slightest hint that he knows he’s making a truly painful movie.  It’s a nearly two-hour long (still a marathon but no “Transformers“) montage of bullets flying and strange aliens invading shot in a gritty documentary style.  It has no substance, no emotional pull, no fantastic special effects, no impressive technical aspect.  It’s just a waste of time.

How can I fill this obligatory third paragraph?  Hmmm … I could blast Aaron Eckhart for taking two giant steps backwards from all of his independent and mainstream successes.  I could ask why Michelle Rodriguez, Bridget Moynahan, and Michael Peña chose this movie, but I don’t necessarily put their acting skills on a pedestal.  I could ask why this movie isn’t acted solely by rappers like Ne-Yo (models might have also done this nonexistent script justice), but all the “why?” questioning won’t get me those two hours back.  Maybe one of these days, I’ll learn my lesson.  D / 

F.I.L.M. of the Week (January 14, 2011)

14 01 2011

As a stage actor in high school, I’ve gained a certain appreciation for how in-tune the performances have to be.  The actor must always be acting as any member of the audience can simply shift their gaze on him at any time.  Cinema has marked a new era for the actor, where he doesn’t have to be finely in-tune for hours at a time.  The camera can cut away from him when he doesn’t speak, finding something that the filmmakers believed that impatient audiences will be more interested in than a mouth not sputtering out dialogue.

Yet it’s in those stray moments where we really see the power of the actor.  It’s in these moments that usually get left out of movies where we can truly visualize an actor’s vision for their character.  Through extensive use of split-screen, “Conversations with Other Women,” my pick for the “F.I.L.M.” of the week, is able to capture those moments and bring them to a largely unfamiliar destination: the silver screen.

After spending 80 minutes with Aaron Eckhart and probable 2010 Oscar nominee Helena Bonham Carter in “Conversations with Other Women,” you’ll have no doubt that they have complete understanding and mastery of not only their characters, but of the craft of acting as well.  They play unnamed people, but just because we can’t identify them through nomenclature doesn’t mean that we can’t connect with them.

Eckhart and Carter strike up amicable conversation at a wedding reception, but the dynamic slowly changes to reveal that these aren’t just perfect strangers.  The methodical unraveling makes for a fascinating watch, as does their banter, which is very much like something that would be performed on stage.  Eckhart and Carter’s two-actor conversation works marvelously well, and the fact that they can keep us drawn in for the entire movie without ever letting go or letting up is nothing short of astounding.  With comedy, drama, and intrigue, “Conversations with Other Women” is a quirky but immensely satisfying showcase of two actors doing what few screen actors dare.

REVIEW: Rabbit Hole

20 11 2010

Losing a child is painful in the real world, but in the sphere of cinema, it’s hardly breaking new ground.  In order to communicate the emotional trauma of such an event, movies have to take the material in different and unexpected directions.  “Rabbit Hole” is a success story, presenting the story of husband and wife affected by the preventable death of their four-year-old son in entirely different ways.  John Cameron Mitchell takes the great theatrical aspects of David Lindsey-Abaire’s Pulitizer Prize-winning play and reminds us the power that great dialogue can have while also using the great resources of film to supplement the already incredibly powerful film.

Nearing the one-year anniversary of their son Danny’s passing, Becca (Nicole Kidman) and Howie (Aaron Eckhart) are still reeling.  Caught in the unenviable conundrum of choosing to mourn or move on, each find a different way to cope with the void in their lives.  Becca tries to find life by acting like the hole isn’t there, removing the traces of Danny that remind her that he is gone.  She finds solace, strangely, through talking with the teenager that hit her son.  Becca also has to deal with the pregnancy of her irresponsible sister (Tammy Blanchard), which only complicates her volatile emotional state, and the intervention of her mother (Dianne Wiest), eager to offer advice after going through the loss of a son in her own right.

Howie, on the other hand, tries to hang on to the fading memories of his son, particularly by watching a video of Danny on his phone.  Rather than try to adjust to life without his son, he advocates starting a new life altogether.  He pitches selling their house and having another child, neither of which are received well by his wife.  Howie has faith in the traditional methods of dealing with grief, holding onto the belief that the group therapy sessions can work long after Becca gives up on them. When those who look to religion to solve their problems finally drive her away from the group for good, he strikes up a friendship with an eight-year veteran (Sandra Oh) still looking to make peace with the loss of her child.

Read the rest of this entry »

Oscar Moment: “Rabbit Hole”

29 10 2010

We didn’t really enter 2010 with a huge frontrunner, but when “Rabbit Hole” was cast back in spring 2009, it sure looked like one.  With Nicole Kidman and Aaron Eckhart tackling an intensely dramatic Pulitzer Prize-winning play, how could it not be an instant contender?

The movie flew under the radar for quite some time until it reemerged with a bang on the festival circuit, making a premiere in Toronto that got critics talking and buzzing.  In mere minutes, Nicole Kidman was sure-fire Best Actress nominee, and the trailer let everyone else know that this is a performance to make the Oscar voters giddy.  (For a hilarious take on Kidman and the trailer, see Stuart Heritage’s post for The Guardian.)

Kidman hasn’t exactly fared too well since her 2002 Best Actress win for The Hours, suffering unfortunate role after unfortunate role in the typical post-winner fashion.  Over the past fifteen years, only two winners in this category have been nominated again (Charlize Theron and Frances McDormand) and one has won again (Hilary Swank).  I think the Academy would love to recognize her again and show that an actress can maintain poise after winning their prize.  It also helps that the role won a Tony for Cynthia Nixon.  However, unless she gets serious traction from critics groups, I doubt she could be a real threat to win given the deserving factor of Annette Bening, Julianne Moore, and potentially even Natalie Portman.

But beyond Kidman, what are the movie’s chances?  Her spouse is played by Aaron Eckhart, a fantastic actor deserving of some Academy recognition.  He has been getting good marks for his role as a grieving father from people in high places.  Dave Karger of Entertainment Weekly writes:

“[Eckhart] shines in the film’s comedic and dramatic moments, showing range I’ve never seen before. And he gets to rant and rave a bit more than Kidman does, which doesn’t hurt with the Academy. He’s delivered sturdy work for years (“In the Company of Men,” “Nurse Betty,” “Thank You for Smoking”), and I’d love to see him score his first career nomination. And fortunately, the supporting actor field isn’t nearly as dense.”

I’m a huge Eckhart fan, particularly of his underrated and overshadowed work in “The Dark Knight” and especially his fast-talking tobacco lobbyist in “Thank You For Smoking,” which I thought was the best leading performance for any male in 2006.  He could easily find a place in the Best Supporting actor category, which has some pack leaders but no top dog yet.  He would be fighting out competitive players like Geoffrey Rush, Andrew Garfield, and Mark Ruffalo, but he has enough prestige to do it.  Plus film adaptations of plays usually score acting nominations with a fair amount of ease – just look at “Doubt,” which collected four in 2008.

I have also heard lots of love for Dianne Wiest, who plays Kidman’s mother.  She’s a two-time winner of Best Supporting Actress, and something tells me that the Academy isn’t quite ready to put her in the same category as Jack Nicholson in the parthenon of actors great enough to win three Oscars.  Nonetheless, in this complete ragtag band of actress in the supporting category this year, we have to consider any possibility.  She’s clearly a favorite, 62 years old, and apparently turns in quite a performance.  According to Katey Rich of Cinema Blend, “Dianne Wiest delivers a monologue about grief that is all the more stunning for how simply and succinctly she presents it.”

Although the movie may become more of an acting showcase, let’s not forget that this play won a Pulitzer Prize, so it has to be considered in Best Adapted Screenplay.  “Doubt,” written for the screen by the same man who brought it to the stage, managed to score a nomination in 2008 for being a nearly carbon copy.  According to the film’s director, David Lindsey-Abaire, who will be adapting the movie from his play, will be staging a “complete cinematic reimagining of the material.”  If it manages to enchant on a different level, the movie could easily net a nomination.

What about Best Director?  John Cameron Mitchell has never taken on a directorial venture anything like this.  “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” and “Shortbus” were both for indie, off the beaten path niche audiences; “Rabbit Hole” is a venture into serious Academy territory.  It would take a lot to get him onto a list that is bound to include names like David Fincher, The Coen Brothers, and Danny Boyle.  Mitchell wouldn’t be the first outsider to make the cut, but it seems like a longshot at best.

And I’d say if Kidman keeps up the strong buzz throughout the season, “Rabbit Hole” is a serious Best Picture contender.  According to Jeffrey Wells of Hollywood Elsewhere, “A few people applauded at the end of [the] press screening. I haven’t heard any clapping at all at any TIFF press screenings so far, so this probably means something.”  It will clearly have support from the actors, and I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see it get a SAG Ensemble nod (along with I’ll assume “The Social Network,” “True Grit,” “The Fighter,” and “The Kids Are All Right”).  The critics seem to really like it, and their support always helps.

The deciding factor could be the audience.  Are they going to fall head-over-heels for a depressing adult drama about a couple grieving the loss of their young son?  Not exactly light and uplifting, eh?  But “Precious” got a nomination, as have many movies considered too dark for the average moviegoer.  “Rabbit Hole” is definitely in the hunt, but it’s no sure bet at the present time.

BEST BETS FOR NOMINATIONS: Best Actress (Kidman), Best Supporting Actor (Eckhart), Best Supporting Actress (Wiest), Best Adapted Screenplay


REVIEW: Love Happens

10 03 2010


Love Happens” is an ehh movie.  There’s nothing that is horribly awful with it, but it doesn’t have anything going for it either.  And sometimes that is just as bad as a flat-out bomb.  The movie is so caught up in clichés that it’s impossible not to see the whole plot from the poster and trailer.  Imagine that.

Aaron Eckhart plays Dr. Burke Ryan, an author of a self-help book about grieving the loss of loved ones appropriately after his wife died in a car crash.  Anyone care to venture what’s actually going on?

If you guessed “the man who gives advice hasn’t taken his own,” you would be correct!  Burke is secretly a wreck, giving off a façade that he has it all together.  The only person that can call it is his father-in-law, played by a scary Martin Sheen.

So how does Jennifer Aniston play into the movie?  If you guessed “love interest with problems of her own,” you would be correct!  She plays Eloise, your typical beautiful girl who always falls for the wrong guy.  After the typical bad first impression of Burke, they begin casual flirtation and start to hang out.

Is there any romantic spark between Aniston and Harvey Dent?  Not in the slightest.  There is no chemistry between the two of them, and it doesn’t help that the story is so poorly written that it doesn’t allow for much affection at all.  I don’t hate Jennifer Aniston by any stretch of the imagination, but “Love Happens” gives me insight into the minds of the people that do.

Don’t let the title fool you.  “Love Happens” is not a movie about love; besides, there would have to be love shown.  This is a movie about overcoming grief, and in that regard, it isn’t terrible.  But it isn’t good enough to redeem the nearly two hours of my time that this movie ate up.  C- /