The Circle

Release: Friday, April 28, 2017

→Theater

Written by: James Ponsoldt; Dave Eggers

Directed by: James Ponsoldt 

I don’t know if “knowing everything is better” but I do know that The Circle is an experience I need not have again. I wish I never even had it. A parable about the dangers of being too plugged in to the digital world does little to justify both your time and its high-profile, talented cast.

Director James Ponsoldt, known for his sensitive character studies like The End of the Tour and The Spectacular Now, adapts the 2013 Dave Eggers novel of the same name. Seemingly having little faith in the material itself he overhauls what could have been another indie sleeper hit with a one-sheet of Hollywood names guaranteed to create a box office draw. (He wasn’t wrong; rather than bombing, his latest has gone on to become his highest-grossing effort internationally.)

Emma Watson stars as Mae Holland, a young go-getter who lands an entry job with a powerful tech conglomerate known as The Circle, run by the visionary Eamon Bailey (Tom Hanks in a Mark Zuckerbergian capacity). The film traces Mae’s rise to prominence as she goes from Customer Service representative to the first Circler to go “fully transparent” — wearable cameras giving her followers access to her every waking moment. In the process it asks us where we draw the line between virtual popularity and physical privacy.

At the Circle, a Google-like campus where every amenity under the sun can be found, employees are encouraged to throw themselves headlong into their work. To get connected and not only stay engaged, but intensify that engagement in perpetuity. Everyone comes across passionate and friendly. Only the most motivated of millennials are able to thrive here. If you’ve ever seen a movie, you’ll see right through this front and recognize this idyllic community for the insidious, disingenuous construct that it is (a similar problem plagued Gore Verbinski’s A Cure for Wellness earlier this year).

Mae takes the job initially to help fund treatments for her father who suffers from multiple sclerosis (Bill Paxton in his final role) but it’s not long before that selfless nobility gives way to a more unhealthy obsession with her own status. Before she’s drunk on the same Kool Aid that all her colleagues have been binging on, most notably her obnoxious college friend (Karen Gillan) who helped her score that interview and with whom Mae’s inevitably thrust into direct competition. She soon realizes that the benefits of going transparent are too many to count, and wants her parents and even her friend Mercer (Ellar Coltrane), the latter notorious for staying off the grid, to adopt the technology and learn to become part of the Real World.

Mae’s meteoric rise is nurtured by Hanks’ unnaturally likable CEO, who sees great, scripted potential in his protégé. After catching her breaking the law via one of his recently installed SeeChange cameras — part of a new initiative to keep the entirety of humanity more accountable for their actions and behavior — Bailey decides to give her an opportunity to become her best self. Meanwhile, comedian Patton Oswalt is stuck delivering some spiel about how none of this will manifest as one giant middle finger in the face of national and international privacy rights. Like everyone else, he’s unconvincing.

The movie from here becomes such that I really wish Hanks had just fired Watson. The movie wouldn’t have made much sense but, critically, it would have been over sooner. Declining to actually do the unpleasantries is such a Tom Hanks thing to do, and he can’t even make reading the riot act to a disobedient employee an uncomfortable experience. He’s badly miscast, though no one in this movie comes out smelling like a rose. I think it’s this fact, how even Forrest Gump has been set up to look like a dope, that makes me more mad at The Circle than its obnoxious air of superiority or the way it turns relevant social commentary into a boring, predictable and downright condescending lecture.

Recommendation: On the grounds that this is the last movie featuring the great Bill Paxton, it pains me to tell people to avoid the movie. But avoid it. Avoid it like political commentary on social media. Avoid it like the comments section underneath actors’ profiles whenever they make a statement about something other than their chosen professions. Avoid it like you would avoid anyone who tells you they’re still active on MySpace. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 110 mins.

Quoted: “We’re so f**ked.” 

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Inferno

inferno-movie-poster

Release: Friday, October 28, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: David Koepp

Directed by: Ron Howard

Ron Howard is a fairly prolific filmmaker, having maintained a schedule of roughly a film every two years throughout a 40-plus-year long directorial career. He’s not quite Woody Allen but his oeuvre is extensive enough to suggest the guy just likes staying busy, and it certainly explains his involvement with fluffy B-movie action schlock like Inferno.

Howard’s third cinematic translation of Dan Brown’s popular thrillers is pretty much business as usual as it once again follows Tom Hanks‘ Professor Langdon on a globetrotting adventure in search of some historical artifact/macguffin that becomes a particular point of interest, stringing along a female companion who goes from being incidental to the plot to playing a significant role in the way the mystery unfolds. Inferno shares in its predecessors’ sense of reckless abandon, often falsifying or embellishing historical fact for the sake of advancing (or even resolving) the conflict the world’s most famous symbolist finds himself in.

Unlike in The Da Vinci Code and Angels & Demons our trusted Harvard prof starts off in between a rock and a hard place, waking up in a hospital bloodied and completely oblivious to the events of the last several days. Dr. Sienna Brooks (Felicity Jones) informs him that he has temporary amnesia as a result of a bullet grazing his head. While trying to make sense of the moment, a member of La Polizia Municipale shows up on the scene and it quickly becomes clear she’s not here for questioning. The pair manage to escape to the doctor’s apartment, where she immediately demands answers.

Dr. Brooks’ apartment is where our adventure begins in earnest. An unlikely starting point, but that’s part of what makes these films entertaining. Langdon remains an unreliable protagonist for much of the first half of the film, his inability to shake visions of what appears to be Hell on Earth making for a refreshing change of pace from the infallible history geek he usually is. It’s no coincidence that the film begins with a fire-and-brimstone lecture delivered by billionaire geneticist Bertrand Zubrist (Ben Foster) on the matter of mankind’s imminent demise. His extreme views — he essentially plans to halve the global population by releasing a virus, the Inferno virus, in a popular tourist location — position him as the film’s obvious antagonist, but the story takes an unexpected turn when he commits suicide.

Langdon finds himself caught in a race against time when he learns that the maniac has left a trail of breadcrumbs for someone else to follow. The clues begin with something Langdon finds on his person, a pocket-sized digital device that has the image of Dante’s Map of Hell stored inside. From there they bounce between the crowds of Florence and Istanbul, having to contend with the interests of other organizations like the World Health Organization and shady underground entities like Harry Sims (Irrfan Khan)’s Consortium, a private security firm. These people have their own, equally convoluted agendas. Double-crossers like Omar Sy’s Christopher Bouchard only serve to make matters more complicated.

Along the way the familiar beats are delivered: a few twists, some pulse-pounding chase sequences, a lot of conveniently timed revelations and of course an inconveniently timed betrayal. All of this would have resulted in some fairly entertaining viewing, but unfortunately Inferno becomes bogged down by a plethora of technical issues that consistently undermine the film’s raison d’être, which is to provide easily digestible, easily disposable entertainment. We haven’t witnessed a production so disorganized and incoherent since Howard attempted to mount a sophisticated kind of situational comedy in the baffling and underwhelming The Dilemma.

Here, Howard almost comes across amateurish: Inferno‘s direction is spastic and, well, directionless; action set pieces are rushed and largely forgettable while the fundamental reason we are all here — the fun in solving the puzzle (possibly well ahead of the characters) — is all but sidelined in favor of an obsession with style and adrenaline-spiking editing. It gets to the point where many of the scenes depicting Langdon’s mental anguish feel like they’re sampled from a tutorial in iMovie. Those flourishes also present far too often, disrupting whatever flow the narrative is able to build while Hans Zimmer’s score is little more than a collection of uninspired electronic sound samples whose cacophonous presence only compounds the headache.

Suspension of disbelief has always been requisite of this franchise, whether you’re turning pages or experiencing Howard’s interpretation of them. You usually have to take these pseudo-intellectual adventures with a grain of salt, but Inferno will demand you swallow the entire damn jar. Hanks’ predictably amiable performance and some fun supporting performances, namely Khan’s scenery chewing, almost — ALMOST — make that kind of dry mouth worth it, but not quite.

inferno

Recommendation: Inferno‘s slapdash construction gives the impression it was thrown together last-minute. Absolutely a lesser Ron Howard film and perhaps one of his worst. The things I can recommend about it are basically limited to Tom Hanks and Irrfan Khan. Maybe Felicity Jones. These three seem to give it their all but the story around them and some atrocious editing sadly let them down. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 121 mins.

Quoted: “The greatest sins in human history were committed in the name of love.”

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

Sully

sully-movie-poster

Release: Friday, September 9, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: Todd Komarnicki

Directed by: Clint Eastwood

The Miracle on the Hudson is a perfect fit for good ole Clint Eastwood’s fascination with heroism and how Americans celebrate heroes. The story of how a commercial airline pilot managed to improvise an emergency water landing in the Hudson River mere minutes after takeoff from LaGuardia Airport on January 15, 2009 without sacrificing any lives in the process seemed, even at that time, primed for the big screen treatment. It was an event too unique to be left alone.

Sully turns out to be the movie anticipated. It’s confidently acted, noble in its pursuit of the truth, and just somber enough in its paralleling of this particular incident with the horrors that occurred on September 11, 2001. Tom Hanks, playing Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, once again proves he’s one of the best in the business when it comes to portraying decent, upstanding individuals with reputations to defend. The profile contrasts how his decision to land on an icy river instead of return to the airport was perceived by the public, who viewed the act as courageous and necessary, while internal investigations within the NTSB and the FAA sought out all the little details that could prove the difference between human error and legitimate equipment failure.

The film feels natural and self-contained, representing one of Eastwood‘s most focused and disciplined efforts in recent years. Very little goes to waste, be they measured doses of world-building — the mundanity of air travel from the perspectives of crew and passengers alike — or supporting roles fostering an atmosphere of relief and gratitude in the aftermath. Alongside Sully there is First Officer Jeff Skiles (a mustachioed Aaron Eckhart) who provides his unwavering support throughout. He doesn’t have nearly as much to do as his costar but Eckhart is nonetheless effective, as is embattled wife Lorraine Sullenberger (Laura Linney) who can only contact her husband through brief telephone calls amidst media chaos threatening to consume their private lives.

Eastwood’s dramatization of the crash itself is wisely restrained, with moments of peril scattered throughout a narrative that is more concerned with what happens next, specifically how the Captain is supposed to relay what actually happened to those who were not there in the cockpit. It’s a tale of almost two movies — that which occurs on the flight itself, which is staged extremely realistically (almost to a fault for nervous flyers I’m sure), and that which occurs on the ground in the investigation process. Much of Sully broods in a strange psychological state somewhere between reality and surreality, with Sullenberger unable to rid himself of vivid images of what could have happened while grappling with the notion of his instant celebrity. Those flashes of a nightmarish scenario here represent the more striking and unsettling visual parallels to 9/11. It tends to raise the hair on your arms.

In a film that prioritizes achievement over practicality, it’s perhaps not surprising that members of the NTSB — here represented by Mike O’Malley (Nickelodeon’s Global Guts, anyone?) as Charles Porter, Jamey Sheridan as Ben Edwards and Anna Gunn as Elizabeth Davis — are all fictional creations inserted for the purpose of having some sort of antagonistic presence. (Flocks of birds, apparently, only serve as villains when directed by Alfred Hitchcock.) Why Eastwood needed to vilify one group while heralding another is beyond me, and it is a major issue in a film that otherwise dedicates itself wholeheartedly to realism.

Barring Hollywood’s never ending desire to conflate actual, real-world drama with that which can be synthetically created for the sake of perpetuating traditional storytelling models, Sully manifests as a heartfelt “thank you” to an individual who will probably forever claim that all he did was his job.

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Recommendation: I have this feeling actual pilots or aspiring pilots will get a bigger kick out of the stresses endured by this flight crew. Lessons learned by the layperson: 1) being heralded a hero doesn’t always feel as such; 2) the NTSB, despite what Eastwood portrays them as for three-quarters of his film, isn’t really comprised of bloodthirsty, vindictive asses (see the enormously contrived ending scene); 3) New Yorkers are some damn resilient people. If there’s any real lesson to be taken away from Sully, it’s perhaps best summarized by one of the captain’s final reflections: he didn’t save all these people based on his actions alone. It was a real team effort, from the immediate response of Port Authority and NYPD officials, to the actions taken at Air Traffic Control, to the calmness of his entire flight crew and the bravery of the passengers themselves. A true crowd-pleaser. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 95 mins.

Quoted: “This is the Captain. Brace for impact.”  

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

TBT: Toy Story (1995)

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Given that today is a holiday I don’t really celebrate being British and all, I figured now would be as good a time as any to go back and visit an absolute classic from the mid-90s. Upon reading up on the film I realized it is also the 20th anniversary of the release, which by all accounts made feel quite old. It’s also surprising to me that it has taken me until now to feature 

Today’s food for thought: Toy Story.

Buzz Lightyear

Toying with our emotions since: November 22, 1995

[VHS]

One of the great tragedies of life is that it always changes. Nothing stays the same. The notion of a child’s toy collection having lives of their own, getting into trouble and having adventures in clandestinity (i.e. when no human is around or paying much attention) is the epitome of creative filmmaking, but it wouldn’t be nearly as memorable without its poignant commentary on the nature of change and how people — in this case, toys — adapt to and more often than not benefit from it.

Tom Hanks’ Woody finds his little cowboy boots turned inside out when a new toy arrives in Andy’s room in the form of Tim Allen’s sophisticated, tech-savvy, Star Command-loyalist Buzz Lightyear. Worried that Andy’s attention is, at the very least, going to be henceforth split between his old buddy and a new shiny ‘play thing,’ Woody goes on the defense, making sure Andy’s room and all that it contains doesn’t make him very welcome. It’s a fruitless effort, because in a matter of minutes Buzz manages to win everyone over with his flying abilities and his voice-activated thing-a-ma-jigs.

This film, the simplest of the three, rarely leaves the confines of Andy’s room, much less the house, and when it does, the world feels massive: massively unexplored and massively intimidating. When Woody accidentally knocks Buzz out of the window and inadvertently turns the rest of the toys against him, he is chosen reluctantly by Andy as the single toy he gets to take to a family outing at Pizza Planet. Buzz soon confronts Woody about the situation, and just when their future looks as uncertain as it could possibly become, they fall into the clutches of the evil Sid when Buzz mistakes a rocket-shaped arcade game for the genuine article. Potentially damned to a life of destruction, the odd couple must resolve their differences and find a way back into the loving arms of Andy.

Yet there are issues further complicating the end game. Buzz still thinks he’s a legitimate space ranger and Woody is still hated by the rest of the toys, who believe he intentionally eliminated Buzz out of jealousy. The pair may be imprisoned, but ultimately they’re within reach of all that was once familiar — they can even communicate with the other toys through open windows — but at this point in the story the two groups may as well be on opposite sides of the planet. And not even Slinky believes Woody is a good guy anymore.

Changed environments and slowly changing perspectives force a contrived, but nonetheless effective, reconciliation between a psychologically weakened Buzz who, after a bit of plastic brainwashing, is convinced he is now Mrs. Nesbitt, and a cowboy who recognizes phrases like “Somebody’s poisoned the water hole!” indeed have a shelf life. (Of course, Woody is more concerned with the literal sense of that term, not wanting to end up on a dusty shelf for the rest of his life.)

Toy Story, the first in a long line of incredibly successful Pixar campaigns, became so influential it spawned a trilogy of adventures featuring the jealous pull-string cowboy and his former intergalactic rival. And for once, the universe within which these adventures were first created seemed spacious enough to warrant further exploration. Toy Story is one of few sagas that actually builds naturally upon what came before, satiating audiences who fell in love with the original with grander aspirations and more complex schemes that would take the toys right out of the toy chest and confront them with the harsh realities of “real world” environments. In some senses, these movies are almost too good for children. It’s like handing them a piece of German chocolate and expecting them to know the difference between that and a Hershey bar.

As a child I don’t think I ever ‘got’ what was going on in the lives of these once-fictitious toys in a larger sense; it certainly never occurred to me that there would come a day when Bo Peep, Slinky, Rex, Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head, the Etch-a-Sketch, the barrel of monkeys, Mr. Spell and an infantry of green plastic soldiers would be faced with an existential crisis: the proposition of being sold off to someone not named Andy. Similarly, as a child, I didn’t quite understand that life would perpetually get more difficult with each passing year and eventual decade. I always thought the bubble would never pop. In fact I couldn’t even tell I was floating in a bubble.

This animated classic set the bar for a studio that would go on to create an unprecedented run of high-quality cinematic releases but for some reason I care much less about what came after as I do about this mid-90s release. Make no mistake, though: I loved Inside Out and in all likelihood I’m going to greatly enjoy The Good Dinosaur. I skipped out on Cars, Planes, Monsters Inc., Up and Brave. In essence, Toy Story is virtually all I know about the world’s most successful animation studio. I’m scared of and don’t welcome all that easily the concept of things changing. But maybe it’s time to start embracing it.

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Recommendation: One of this blogger’s very favorite movies, Toy Story just gets things right on every level: characters, visual presentation, story, music, the comedy, and profound themes like accepting and embracing change and making new friends. As one of the very first movies I saw in theaters, I have to say I had no idea then how good this movie really was and still is. This is such a memorable experience that I love revisiting time and again.

Rated: G

Running Time: 81 mins.

TBTrivia: Jeffrey Katzenberg often gave notes that he wanted more edge. Pixar presented an early draft of the film to Disney on November 19, 1993. The result was disastrous. The film was deemed unwatchable and John Lasseter recalls simply hanging his head in shame. It presented Woody as a “sarcastic jerk” who was constantly insulting the other toys. Katzenberg took Walt Disney Feature Animation president Peter Schneider in[to] the hall after the screening and asked him why it was bad; Schneider responded that it “wasn’t theirs anymore.” Disney immediately shut down production pending a new script. The story team spent a week on a new script to make Woody a more likable character, instead of the “sarcastic jerk” he had been.

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Bridge of Spies

Release: Friday, October 16, 2015

[Theater]

Written by: Matt Charman; Joel Coen; Ethan Coen

Directed by: Steven Spielberg

The Red Scare may be long since over but in Steven Spielberg’s 29th feature (!) we’re thrown right back into the thick of it as Tom Hanks is tapped to negotiate the swapping of two major (human) pawns caught in a protracted and ugly chess match of intel gathering, fear mongering and society dividing.

Bridge of Spies, the collaborative effort of almost too many Academy Award winners (is there such a thing?) — directed by Spielberg, brought to life by Hanks and penned by the Coens in conjunction with relative unknown Matt Charman — has all the makings of another Spielberg classic. While it certainly does no harm to anyone’s reputation — to state the obvious, this is a thoroughly enjoyable picture — it falls just shy of greatness. Then again, that’s a bar set so high it becomes paradoxical: not even Spielberg can top Spielberg at his finest.

In 1957 Brooklyn, suspected Soviet spy Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) is arrested at his apartment and taken into custody. The American public, having been rattled by the recent Rosenberg conspiracy in which an American husband and wife had been found guilty of selling secrets to the USSR about the Americans’ development of an atomic bomb, demands Abel be sentenced to death. Insurance lawyer James B. Donovan (Hanks) is called upon to represent Abel for reasons that are still bewildering to this critic. I suppose it’s enough that Donovan’s firm knows how seriously he is committed to his duties, or maybe it’s because everyone else who was asked said no. It’s not exactly clear either way, though fortunately his meteoric rise to national prominence isn’t clumsily handled.

Of course no one, not even Donovan’s family — most notably his wife Mary (Amy Ryan) — expects Donovan to seek Abel’s acquittal; the assumption is Donovan would facilitate a fair trial as a kind of courtesy to the currently most-hated man in the country. The atmosphere is such that Abel’s fate is all but a foregone conclusion, yet Donovan seeks a lighter sentence, a 30 year stretch in prison, which would all but ensure Abel’s death anyway. He finds himself at the mercy of the Supreme Court after trying to argue evidence gathered against the Soviet (whom Donovan has curiously been sympathetic to from day one) has been tainted by an invalid search warrant. He loses the case, 5-4.

Meanwhile, an American pilot by the name of Francis Powers (Austin Stowell) has been shot down over Russian soil while on a reconnaissance mission, captured, convicted and imprisoned by a somehow less empathetic government who subjects him to torture as they similarly assume him to be a spy. Following his perhaps predictable defeat, Donovan is asked to negotiate the release of Powers in exchange for Abel, putting him at even greater odds with his fellow Americans. To further complicate matters, Frederic Pryor (Will Rogers), an American graduate student studying German economics in East Germany, is captured when he finds himself on the wrong side of the newly constructed Berlin Wall.

As we shift into the middle third of the film the environment becomes decidedly more chilly, and tension begins to build in earnest. What was supposed to be a simple, though by no means easy, exchange of one American for one Soviet, devolves into a circus of lies and misdirection, with Donovan receiving none of the hospitality overseas that he extended to Abel back home. It’s against a backdrop of post-World War II devastation and the bitter European winter our embattled lawyer has to have the toughest conversations yet. After much deliberation and with his patience wearing thin, he bluntly tells Wolfgang Vogel (Sebastian Koch), Donovan’s German equivalent, there will be no deal between the U.S. and the Soviets if they can’t negotiate the release of both Powers and Pryor for Abel. If there’s anything to be gained from such a hugely risky request, it’s our appreciation for why he is the man for this job — I don’t even think Hanks, the person, is quite this principled.

To reiterate, Spies isn’t vintage Spielberg and because it isn’t, it’s all too easy to dismiss as a minor entry. There’s nothing minor about a private citizen brokering this historic deal, though. There’s nothing forgettable about the way the Coens and Charman manage to create a clear dichotomy between Russian and American sentiments, even if the Coens have to censor themselves more than usual here. Spies could have been a truly dark picture, yet it understands that often violence is more potent when suggested rather than demonstrated. That’s not to say the film isn’t a sobering reminder of the state of the world in the late ’40s through the ’50s. The rampant paranoia is best captured in an early scene in which Donovan’s school-aged son is preparing for the inevitable dropping of the atomic bomb, while struggling to understand why his father is trying to protect “one of them.”

As per usual, the Spielbergian approach encompasses several different genres — historical drama, loosely-defined biopic, espionage thriller — and it’s compelling in each capacity, combining historical elements while exploring the many layers that make human beings what they are, regardless of nationality. Once more he delivers a wholesome product that’s equal parts entertaining and informative. It’s a quietly powerful picture and one well worth visiting.

Recommendation: Reliably strong work from Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg makes Bridge of Spies an unexpectedly warm and enjoyable outing. Though not quite top-shelf stuff, this Cold War-set thriller should please fans of either camp and American/European history buffs. Perhaps its biggest shortcoming (maybe it’s more of a disappointment than a flat-out failure) is that the Coen brothers’ signature quirky, dark humor gets lost in the shuffle here. There’s comedy to be found, sure, but this doesn’t really feel like a product of their writing. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 141 mins.

Quoted: “The next mistake our governments make could be the last one.”

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com

TBT: Saving Private Ryan (1998)

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In trying to keep with a theme for this month’s batch of TBT’s, I have failed. 😦 I kind of put myself in a bad spot by opening the month (and the year) with Arnie’s disastrous adventure involving Armageddon in End of Days, a film I didn’t really feel comfortable with “associating” with any others as it’s just so poorly made. Unless I wanted a month of movies that fell well below their potentials I would have to go with some randoms for January. With that in mind, it’s time to get down to brass tacks and explore 

Today’s food for thought: Saving Private Ryan.

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Storming Normandy since: July 24, 1998

[DVD]

Steven Spielberg’s magnum opus is one of those films you can recall precisely where you were when you first watched it. For me, that was crammed into a small bedroom in Columbus, Ohio on a road trip me and a high school friend took in the fall of 2003. He had suggested watching it since he had never seen it, and up until that point I hadn’t been overly enthusiastic over putting myself through something I had heard was so grisly violent. Finally, on the last night of being in town, we slipped the disc into the DVD player.

I’m not sure how many I’m talking to here when I say that if you are anything like I was, reluctant, you have good reason to be if you have yet to experience Saving Private Ryan, particularly the opening half hour. More akin to a form of psychological boot camp designed to test viewers’ resolve than just another confronting scene of blood and gore, the infamous D-Day invasion of Normandy beach cements the film as essential viewing. The reality of war has never manifested as a nightmare so uniquely absurd, what with bodies being engulfed in walls of fire only to emerge as liquefied flesh.

Grenades rendering the very unlucky without a face.

That boy crying out for his mama.

Good thing film can’t tap into our sense of smell and taste; although there comes a point where the blood becomes so much its coppery taste is palpable. It’s also ironic: while wartime violence is something no one should ever witness, this harrowing sequence is history no one can afford to ignore.

After I had made it through this part and the room had righted itself again — I sometimes get the feeling the room is turning sideways whenever I get very uncomfortable in my seat — I felt uplifted, as though I had just achieved something. At the same time I felt callousness as I had this sense that whatever would pass by my eyes next would not be as severe as . . . well, that. There would be continued loss of life and likely there’d be other confronting passages — goodbye, Medic Wade (Giovanni Ribisi) — but I knew even then that Spielberg had crafted something unique once Tom Hanks and his band of brothers gained the hill and bunkers and managed to regroup.

Saving Private Ryan is a title that explains itself but for the sake of coloring the picture: Private James Ryan (Matt Damon) is unaware that his three other brothers have all been killed in battle over the last week, and it is now up to Hanks’ Captain Miller and his company (which is comprised of several names that would later become major players in the entertainment biz, including Vin Diesel) to track him down and ensure his safe return to the States. There’s a tension that somewhat dissipates once we’re off the beach, a transition some have misconstrued as the film losing its strength. That may be true, but only insofar as the opening scenes possess a power that no film can really maintain. Spielberg wasn’t setting out to be masochistic in his choices, nor did he have intentions of frustrating those expecting the bloodletting to continue for two full hours uninterrupted. In his orchestration of the D-Day landing, yes we suffer. And audiences suffer a lot in this sweeping chronicle, but not for nothing.

After the bunkers the narrative distinctly shifts gears, for we move behind enemy lines with Miller et al as they forge ahead through wastelands created by aerial bombings and the crushing weight of Nazi tanks and troops. We escape pervasive, shocking violence but move into a realm that’s arguably more disturbing; the aftermath of war upon civilization. The mission proper gets underway and we move through towns that now bare more of a resemblance to the surface of the moon than anything on Earth, searching for a needle in a gigantic, blood-soaked haystack. Spielberg scatters all kinds of present danger across a steadily sprawling map. From hair-raising sniper shoot-outs to savage hand-to-hand combat in abandoned homes the brutality of war manifests itself in far more personal ways.

The violence doesn’t go away because you . . . excuse me, I . . . wanted it to. Because you want the room to stop spinning like crazy. Because you feel ill. All of these things are symptoms of a person who either watches films too seriously (probably true) or effects of a director whose vision refuses to be compromised. The notion that something has been banned in several countries based on realistic depictions of wartime violence and not because it features a lot of graphic sex scenes necessarily places the film on a short list of extremely disturbing films that are remarkably without great controversy. Rightfully so. Steven Spielberg’s film, though difficult to watch and of the variety that’s good to watch once and be done with, is a cinematic landmark, and quite possibly the standard to which all war films are going to forever be held. Even the ones that have preceded it.

Not that any of this was my immediate impression having randomly thrown this on on a crappy tube-TV in Ohio. It would take me years to comprehend the depravity of its violence, and for me to appreciate how hard it is for a filmmaker to recreate such atrocities with such an unflinching eye, an urgency to tell it like it is.

Who remembers Bryan Cranston in this movie? I don't. I hope I am not alone.

Who remembers Bryan Cranston in this movie? I don’t. I hope I am not alone.

5-0Recommendation: Far from comfortable, Saving Private Ryan is compulsory viewing. An extraordinary achievement in practical special effects and committed storytelling. A powerful vision of the sheer scale and desperation of the D-Day invasion (thanks goes to Mr. Alan Turing for his helping Britain decipher the German Enigma code so they’d know where to invade and when). An altogether unforgettable experience. For all these reasons and quite a few more, you should commit yourself to this film if you have not already. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 169 mins.

TBTrivia: In the German-dubbed version of the movie, one of the actors, himself a German veteran of the Normandy invasion, couldn’t deal with the emotional realism of the film and dropped out and had to be replaced.

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.moviezmag.com; http://www.imdb.com 

Captain Phillips

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Release: Friday, October 11, 2013

[RPX Theater]

“Oh, Captain my Captain. . .!”

Expecting Tom Hanks’ name to circulate around when it comes time to talking Best Actor is about as safe a bet as expecting more movies to be made for the rest of forever. Can’t say for sure, buuuut I’m pretty sure that’s going to happen.

And so, he’ll all but confirm that outrageous theory of mine as he takes on the titular role in Paul Greengrass’ new biopic Captain Phillips, a particularly tense rendering of the experiences of the real-life cargo captain and his written accounts.

His book, A Captain’s Duty, details the drama that unfolded off the coast of Somalia in 2009, when a freight ship carrying food and other relief supplies was hijacked by four Somalian fishermen. The siege was violent and intense, and culminated in the skipper being held hostage for several days as the hijackers escaped the ship in a rescue vessel, bound for the African shores. This was the first successful act of piracy since the early 19th century. I haven’t read the book myself but considering the nature of the events and the authenticity and emotion that first-hand account narratives tend to offer up, I’m sure it’s a compelling read, and one I cannot wait to get my hands on. Especially now.

I can’t vouch for its faithfulness to the source material, but Greengrass’ film is simply magnificent, and a more-than-competent stand-alone piece of work. He marries the formula of a biopic to an unusually intelligent script (written by Billy Ray) that grounds all characters in a reality often lacking in films similar to it. (Sorry Sam Jackson, The Negotiator may have more “motherf**ker”s in it, but this film is just so much more engaging.) The director’s latest also benefits from a performance from Hanks that may be his most inspiring yet. Those who appreciated his level-headedness as astronaut Jim Lovell haven’t seen anything yet. And his Chuck Noland in Cast Away now just seems to be practice. The New England-born Rich Phillips is truly a remarkable human being, and Hanks does the man justice, as only an actor of his caliber can.

The film begins with a suspiciously insouciant opening scene in which Rich and his wife, Andrea (a very limited Catherine Keener) are headed to the airport for his upcoming assignment off the coast of Africa. Despite its initial immateriality, there’s plenty of exposition to be had here and Hanks’ character instantly is painted as a doting, concerned parent who’s just having to do his job.

Phillips seems to be quite the meticulous and cautious man, albeit a thoroughly disciplined and capable leader, whose experience on the water has always served him well. His latest route will take him and a crew of twenty around the horn of Africa, to dock in Mombasa, Kenya with a massive shipment of food and other relief supplies. However, they soon find themselves in hostile waters off the coast of Somalia and become the latest target of a group of vicious and desperate fishermen/hijackers.

The degree to which Hanks elevates the film cannot be overstated, yet the rest of the cast deserves equal attention. Newcomer Barkhad Abdi who plays Muse, one of the hijackers, is mesmerizing, bringing a level of despair and aggressiveness to a character that is acting completely out of necessity, motivated by desperation.

Along with him, the other hijackers represent varying states of fraying sanity as they impose their will upon the crew of the Maersk-Alabama. The advantage we are given as the audience is that we are introduced to these folks in their towns; we watch them gather frantically in the hopes of scoring another payday, fighting for the right to be the next person to get to hijack a ship.

Indeed, one of the achievements of Captain Phillips is providing many perspectives, all the while Greengrass remains neutral with his camera. Points of view shift with increasing frequency between the rapidly high-profile hostage, the pirates and the numerous Navy officials who work tirelessly to solve the situation peacefully. The moment in which the ship falls under control of the pirates is so much more compelling as we see both walks of life converging in one chaotic, unbearably tense scene. Early on in the film, we are treated to a moment that may rival the stress levels of anything demonstrated in Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity

Greengrass also really knows how to wrap up his film. The ending is one of the most emotional and difficult things to watch in the entire two-plus-hour hold up. I won’t call it a predictable film, but at the same time, it can’t really end in any way other than how one will probably suspect from the very beginning. The takeaway here will be the way in which Hanks sells the aftermath of his rescue; the emotional and physical toll that he suffers from is remarkable, and should leave you in a state of exhaustion when its all said and done.

Sharp character writing and a well-developed story, one that withstands the toughest of scrutiny, propel Captain Phillips into the league of 2013’s finest offerings. Not only is it a well-articulated recounting of the hellish experiences of Rich Phillips in the days following his ship’s hostile take-over, but there are larger brushstrokes at work as well.

Time and again the ever-diplomatic captain is apt to question the motives of his captors. It’s a 36 hour boat ride from where his Maersk-Alabama sits dead in the water and to the Somalian coast, where the pirates are attempting to reach. All Captain Phillips can do to pass some time in incredible discomfort is chat up his captors, at one point suggesting that “Surely there’s more you can do than fishing and kidnapping people. . . ,” to which Muse has only one response: “Maybe in America, Irish. Maybe in America.”

Ultimately, this movie comes down to an acting battle between Abdi and Hanks — a competition to see whose spirit will crack first, and when it does, what will happen next? A surprisingly complex morality tale, Cap’n also demands strong willpower from its viewers — its long, somewhat limited in terms of its scenery, and emotionally draining. That said, it’s a voyage you’ll completely regret not embarking on, especially on the big screen.

Tom Hanks

4-5Recommendation: I can’t believe I am doing this yet again, but Captain Phillips makes a strong bid for one of my favorite movies of this year. (October and the tail-end of September seems to have been a sweet spot this year.) I HIGHLY suggest as many people as possible get to the theater to experience the latest Tom Hanks masterpiece. The setting isn’t quite as novel as Gravity‘s, but its just as intense, if not more so. I could not get enough of the adrenaline rush this film provides.

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 134 mins.

Quoted: “Look at me. I am the captain now.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited. 

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com