The Circle

Emma Watson is great in James Ponsoldt’s “The Circle,” which thoughtfully shows how good intentions through technology can still corrupt.

As Emma Watson drives up to the campus of The Circle, the fictional, Google-like, Silicon Valley tech giant in James Ponsoldt’s film of the same name, the exterior is a massive, circular stone wall stretching to infinity on an island unto itself. It looks like a fascist fortress straight out of “The Hunger Games.” Even though the interior is a sort of millennial utopia, it’s not a stretch to ask, “I wonder if these guys turn out to be evil?”

“The Circle,” based on Dave Eggers’s novel, takes aim at the consequences of an overly connected, internet-obsessed digital culture. And like any movie warning of the dangers of technology, it can’t help but be cheesy. When every Bourne and Bond and HBO sitcom has taken on Big Brother, “The Circle” already looks a bit outdated.

Watson however has the idealism and innocent demeanor in her performance that actually makes you believe and embrace the Silicon Valley ideology. In Watson’s real life, she’s grown to resist taking photographs with fans and values her privacy. So she’s interesting casting as Mae, a girl who starts out as a “guppy” in a massive pond, only to become someone who broadcasts her every waking moment to the world. Continue reading “The Circle”


“Sully” offers a more nuanced portrait of heroism than “American Sniper”

sullyposterIt’s fitting that “Sully,” the latest film by Clint Eastwood about the “Miracle on the Hudson” pilot Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, has been released on the weekend of 9/11’s 15th Anniversary. The worst happened that day, and we’re lucky to have first responders to celebrate this weekend. But what Sully experiences in Eastwood’s film casts doubt over whether he’s a hero at all, or whether he or all the other “heroes” could’ve done more to save others.

Eastwood’s “Sully” offers a compelling and dramatic story that proves to be a far more shaded and nuanced portrait of heroism than Eastwood’s own blockbuster “American Sniper.” It’s a film about doubt and uncertainty within even the best of us. For those like Sully, we hope that they can overcome their memories of the tragedy and accept the good they’ve done.

In the aftermath of the plane crash in which he and his co-pilot Jeff Skiles (Aaron Ekhart) emergency landed on the Hudson River, Sully (Tom Hanks) imagines what would’ve happened if he failed. In January of 2009, both engines on his plane gave out within seconds of taking off, an ordeal that lasted just 208 seconds. In the end he saved the lives of all 155 “souls” on board. Had he chosen to try and return to the airport, he imagines that he would have not just cost the lives of all those on board, but perhaps hundreds of others in a densely populated Manhattan. Continue reading “Sully”

Bridge of Spies

Steven Spielberg casts Tom Hanks as an insurance lawyer negotiating prisoner exchanges during the Cold War in “Bridge of Spies”

BridgeofSpiesPosterIn Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln”, the President worked nobly to free the slaves through the passage of the 13th Amendment, but in the context of the film his work was a thankless task, controversial and even reviled. What’s more, the film’s signature set piece, the Congressional vote, was a simple re-enactment of political theater but played for the biggest suspense on the grandest stage.

Spielberg’s follow up “Bridge of Spies” is a Cold War drama that follows a character with a similar plight. James B. Donovan (Tom Hanks) is a pariah, a man without a country despite working on behalf of it, and his job is equally simple and thankless: defend the rights of a Soviet Spy and negotiate his exchange. As he did with “Lincoln”, Spielberg is taking the small-scale conflicts and telling them writ large, with all the style and Hollywood storytelling of any of his more ambitious action or sci-fi films. “Bridge of Spies” may be the story of a humble, average American insurance lawyer, but it isn’t modest, and the film’s simplicity is exactly the point.

Donovan is tasked with defending Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) in court after he’s captured and outed as a spy for the Soviet Union. Hanks plays Donovan with the same spark as James Stewart in “Anatomy of a Murder,” a man with principles and values but not without an attitude and the ability to tell off a CIA agent who demands to know what Abel has been telling him. Twice Donovan invokes people as cowardly for shirking their responsibility to the American justice system. He’s a boy scout, but he’s often on the offensive.

Abel on the other hand is without emotion, soft-spoken and displaying no fear or worry in his conversations with Donovan, and the two have an awkward chemistry that Spielberg feeds off of. Everything in “Bridge of Spies” is simple and straight-forward in its discussion of politics, and Spielberg hones in on the awkward silence that drives their understanding of one another.

Abel is inevitably convicted, but Donovan successfully helps him avoid the death penalty by hinting at the possibility of a trade of spies between the Russians and the Americans. After a spy pilot goes down in Russian territory, Donovan is whisked away to the far side of the Berlin Wall, which we see actually being constructed, in order to negotiate the exchange.

For all its Cold War theatrics, including one thrilling action sequence involving the crash landing of the American spy pilot, “Bridge of Spies” is for the most part a courtroom drama, the stuff of conversation, negotiation and debate. Spielberg, working from a screenplay by the Coen Brothers and Matt Charman, never incorporates elaborate chases or thriller set pieces to complicate the core tension of whether this one man will win his freedom. Spielberg finds the most drama in how Donovan can talk his way out of tight spots, like when his German counterpart parks him in front of border patrol agents as a negotiating tactic. And when “Bridge of Spies” reaches its climax of the actual exchange, the simple act of just walking across the bridge has all the suspense of the voting sequence in “Lincoln”.

Janusz Kaminski’s cinematography is calm and more classical in its lengthier shot lengths and composition. But it has a lush look full of deep blues and gets more ragged and handheld as Donovan navigates his way through East Berlin. Thankfully his work here is more understated than the “Gone with the Wind” artificiality of “War Horse” (still a gorgeous film in its own right), but “Bridge of Spies” still has that Old Hollywood quality that can make it timeless.

At the film’s close, Donovan looks out the train window into Brooklyn and sees a specter of the demons he witnessed in East Berlin of children clambering over a fence in desperation. At that moment we learn his hardships are just beginning. The real Donovan went on to negotiate the exchange of countless more spies that could arguably cement his contribution as an American hero, but with “Bridge of Spies” Spielberg has the audacity to tell the story of just one.

3 ½ stars

Oscar Nominations 2014 Analysis: Full of Surprises and None

All the Oscar surprises that really weren’t surprises after all

The Oscar nominees rarely satisfy, only surprise and enrage, although never in the way people expect, which I guess is its own surprise.

It was expected that Amy Adams could “surprise” by breaking into the field of Best Actress nominees, but did anyone suspect that it would be at Emma Thompson’s expense? There were predictions that Christian Bale or Leonardo DiCaprio could get into an even tighter race, but both of them? Sally Hawkins was less expected behind perhaps Octavia Spencer and others, but was Oprah really the weak link?

These are the kinds of revelations that both delight and frustrate Oscar pundits. In a way, they were right that the Academy after all did not love “Inside Llewyn Davis” or “Saving Mr. Banks,” but then those prediction tallies never seem to match up.

The fact that there are surprises each year really shouldn’t be a surprise at all. If the Oscar nominations were as easy to predict as picking all the top ranked favorites, then what would be the fun of waking up at 7:38 in the morning to watch them? For instance, why was there doubt that David O. Russell couldn’t lead yet another cast to a sweep of the acting categories like he did with “Silver Linings Playbook” and nearly did with “The Fighter”? That’s one of those “surprises” that people should’ve seen coming a mile away, but no one did.

I guess it’s less of a surprise that Oscar pundits will now all turn around and rationalize the nominations in the way I’ve just done, as though it made sense or was expected all along, but no one “knew” that Thompson would be out, or no one “knew” that “Philomena” was a sure thing thanks to Harvey Weinstein after all. (I did however bet Hanks would get nothing) Continue reading “Oscar Nominations 2014 Analysis: Full of Surprises and None”

Saving Mr. Banks

There’s nothing wrong with a little bit of Disney nostalgia for “Mary Poppins.”

I don’t think there’s anything wrong with a little bit of nostalgia. Some critics seem to think Disney is committing a Cardinal Sin by putting out a movie like “Saving Mr. Banks,” as though it were so shamelessly self promoting of their own golden age in order to further their brilliant marketing schemes. But if the story is strong, I typically have no issues. P.L. Travers’ story with Disney is a good one, and “Mary Poppins” most certainly is, so what seems to be the big fuss?

That said, where Disney steps over the line is in turning what is quite simply a movie into something more than precious and whimsical. “Saving Mr. Banks” can be as melodramatic and straining to be profound as it is frivolous.

The story goes that in 1961 P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson) was strapped for cash, was fresh out of ideas for writing books and now had no choice but to turn to Walt Disney Studios’ long standing request to adapt Mary Poppins into a movie. She reluctantly accepts a trip to L.A. to review the script, provide notes and then, only then, will she agree to sign over the rights to her book.

She looks at a mess of plush Disney animals littering her hotel room and notices a Winnie the Pooh doll. “Poor A.A. Milne,” she opines, and fears that she, another British author with a beloved children’s character, might meet the same fate. But Walt Disney himself (Tom Hanks) assures Travers that he won’t do anything to tarnish the story and the creation she cherishes as family. After all, he too was once a kid with only a drawing of Mickey Mouse to his name, questioning if he should sell his work. Continue reading “Saving Mr. Banks”

2014 Oscar Predictions Round 3

“Her” and “American Hustle” give “Gravity” and “12 Years a Slave” a run for their money.

Checking Twitter in the past few weeks has been exhausting. It seems as though every hour there’s a new Top 10 list or set of nominations from a guild or critics group being handed out.

It’s not enough to merely list the best movies of the year but to give the best cast, score, soundtrack, performances, breakout performances, breakout directors, best movie posters, most underrated, most under the radar, best documentaries, best animated films, best foreign films and so on.

Would you know that each needs to be analyzed and has an impact on this thing we call the Oscar race? Critics awards in New York and L.A. (as dictated by people who live in New York and L.A.) hold a lot of influence, while others get laughed out of the room because they’re horrible barometers for the actual Oscar winner, as evidenced by statistics and numbers that often don’t hold up to a science anyway (ask Nate Silver).

What’s worse is when many of these Oscar pundits are shocked (SHOCKED) that a given critics’ group went the way it did. It’s as though every critics group is not just voting for the things they liked but are scrutinizing the “message” that a given selection will send. “Ooh, well we can’t choose ‘Gravity’ because that’ll make us look populist, but if we choose ‘American Hustle’ it’ll look like we were goaded by the most recent press screening, so we better choose ‘Her’ so that we keep our hip, indie cred.” How dare they not go for “12 Years a Slave” like everyone was sure they must?

The point is, all of these intangible drops in the pond do color the race as a whole. If we can pick up on those trends perhaps we can better predict. Suddenly it seems as though we have at least a four-horse race between “Gravity,” “American Hustle,” “12 Years a Slave” and “Her,” as all have picked up some major victories in the past few weeks. At the same time, certain contenders like Octavia Spencer, Tom Hanks or Paul Greengrass seem conspicuously absent from major nominations while people like Joaquin Phoenix, Will Forte and those behind “Before Midnight” look a lot less hopeless.

This remains anyone’s race, but somehow this wide open field feels a lot more treacherous.

* Designates a movie I’ve seen

Bulleted entries are Dark Horse candidates ranked in likelihood of getting in


Best Picture

  1. Gravity*
  2. American Hustle
  3. 12 Years a Slave*
  4. Her*
  5. Captain Phillips*
  6. Saving Mr. Banks*
  7. Inside Llewyn Davis*
  8. Nebraska*
  9. The Wolf of Wall Street
  • Lee Daniels’ The Butler*
  • Dallas Buyers Club*
  • Fruitvale Station*
  • Before Midnight*
  • Rush*
  • All is Lost*
  • Blue Jasmine*
  • August: Osage County*
  • The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

If you want to make this easy, look at the American Film Institute’s unranked Top 10 list for the year, and that might be your Best Picture slate right there. Each of the movies selected has had well-rounded praise. “Gravity” is getting the populist vote, “American Hustle” scored with the New York film critics, “Her” with the Los Angeles critics and the National Board of Review, while “12 Years a Slave” has scored with everyone else.

As for the rest, the remaining films are using their winter season releases to drum up steam where those like “The Butler”, “Before Midnight” and “All is Lost” have to fight their way back into a crowded room. And those movies are getting no help from places like the Golden Globes. “The Butler” picked up a goose egg of nominations. But they did manage to shove “Rush” back into the hunt.

But Steve Pond has the reason above all why the cutoff may be at “The Wolf of Wall Street”: math. The Academy has yet to nominate 10 films under the new flexible rules, and in past years when the ballots were rerun, the magic number resulted in everywhere from five to nine movies, but never 10. Things could change, but as he explains, even the sheer numerical breakdown is against such an outcome. Continue reading “2014 Oscar Predictions Round 3”

Captain Phillips

“Captain Phillips” is a shrewd thriller about leadership and respect more so than action and bullets.

Armed Somali pirates have just boarded the Maersk Alabama. The leader of the group, a skinny pirate named Muse (Barkhad Abdi), announces to Captain Richard Phillips (Tom Hanks) that this is just business and “Every-ting will be OK.” But when Muse demands to see Phillips’s hidden crew by threatening to shoot someone, something really interesting happens.

“I thought you were a businessman! Is this how you do business?” In another movie, that trigger gets pulled. But in Paul Greengrass’s “Captain Phillips”, the clever routine of shrewd negotiation, strategy and respect continues. “Captain Phillips” is a pulse-pounding thriller, but it’s a film about leadership more so than action and bullets.

Phillips was a real shipping captain whose boat was hijacked by pirates in 2009. The film opens with Phillips saying a tough goodbye to his wife (Catherine Keener) as he leaves for his voyage around the coast of Africa. They talk of the tough job market for their son and how tough the American way has become.

It’s a feeling Muse knows all too well. His commute involves him trudging to the ocean at the behest of gun-toting warlords. He’s allowed to pick his crew from a crop of dozens, but his real options are awfully limited. Continue reading “Captain Phillips”

Rapid Response: The Green Mile

I was wondering why I had waited so long to see “The Green Mile,” possibly because it has become TNT fodder, possibly because the critical through-line on it has been that it’s “The Shawshank Redemption” with magic, and possibly because it’s on that list of potentially overhyped IMDB Top 250 movies. But none of those reasons really justify how much I loved it.

Now granted, it has its flaws, but whereas “Shawshank” is a much more hopeful movie about survival and perseverance, “The Green Mile” has a wholesome spirituality that wins you over with its inherent goodness. Ultimately, its characters are flawed and even cruel and sadistic, but only one of whom do we really dislike and feel is in the wrong. Director Frank Darabont’s gift is in making a film that embraces its fantasy head-on to make for a wonderfully moving tearjerker.

I myself did not know about the film’s fantasy element, so I will not spoil it here, but it involves the miracles surrounding a massive death row inmate named John Coffey (the late Michael Clarke Duncan) and the prison’s head guard, Paul Edgecomb (Tom Hanks). The movie approaches the giant that is Coffey with the same trepidation that a person would walk the Green Mile before being executed, so it’s a patient film that takes its time over its three hours and allows us to savor every moment. Coffey’s story is one of deep anguish, and in a way, he’s the real emotional center of the film, not Paul.

Paul’s problem involves dealing with one of his prison guard colleagues, the pestilent and cowardly Percy (Doug Hutchison), who is the mayor’s spoiled nephew and feels entitled to be an arrogant little shit. He just wants to see one of these guys cook up close, and he even wants to know what it is to torture someone in one gruesome death sequence. What I like about Percy’s character, if anything, is that as vicious and awful as he is, he reveals himself as ultimately human, pissing his pants out of terror in one scene and revealing that he’s not entirely one-dimensional. We get a sense that he doesn’t entirely deserve the cruel, ironic fate he receives in the end.

Part of me believes that because Paul and his fellow guards are no saints either. They put Percy and their most difficult inmate, Wild Bill Wharton (Sam Rockwell), through both mental and physical brutality. But these characters’ flawed depth allows Hanks to exhibit deep, everyman pain and guilt as only Hanks can. His final conversation with John puts an insurmountable amount of emotional pressure on him that I hadn’t previously imagined.

Some of the scenes, such as the flashback to John’s murder, the execution scene of Eduard Delacroix (Michael Jeter), and the present day tags with Paul as an old man, are a bit heavy-handed and even unnecessarily long, but I’ll remember “The Green Mile” for its more serene moments, not its twists. The use of “Cheek to Cheek” in “Top Hat” is an absolutely beautiful capper. Seeing the mouse Mr. Jingles fetch the thread spool is one of those all time great movie moments. And the rest of the movie is not short of miracles, big or small, either.

Cloud Atlas

“Cloud Atlas” opens with an old man muttering under his breath, talking about the juju o’ the bayou, or at least that’s what it sounds like. It’s a super close-up after looking down from the stars, so it feels a little profound, a little silly, a little captivating. Then you realize it’s Tom Hanks with really good makeup, and you realize very quickly this movie is bananas.

“Cloud Atlas” is a wild mess of a movie. It tells six stories over countless centuries, sharing actors and thematic structure, but only just barely narrative. So at times the whole thing is pegged to be philosophical and thought provoking, and then Jim Broadbent learns to drive an SUV and runs over Hugo Weaving wearing drag as they escape from a nursing home.

Whether or not it’s actually about anything is beside the point. It has the same transcendent, sci-fi possibilities and mumbo-jumbo that “The Matrix” did, which was also directed by Andy and Lana Wachowski (the siblings have paired up with “Run Lola Run” director Tom Tykwer), but at the end of the day it’s a fun journey through time with just as much visual imagination.

Describing how the plot functions is an effort in futility, but the movie itself actually does it best. “Each thing is understood moment to moment, but at any moment it could be headed in a different direction.” This may just be the movie accounting for its own jumbled narrative, but that is how “Cloud Atlas” feels. It flits in time, but none of it is particularly dreamlike or even surreal. Each of the six stories, if you broke them apart as they are, are presented linearly.

The only confusing part is the excessive crosscutting that the Wachowskis and Tykwer employ. They may jump from a barbarian attack scene in the dystopian future to the performance of a sonata in 1932 to a sex scene in the 22nd Century to a sight gag or punch line in modern day London. The brilliant thing is that they’re often edited as though they are one scene, completely different in terms of even the mood we’re supposed to feel, but fluid in their pacing and action. At one point when Halle Berry crashes her car off a bridge and plummets into the water, the movie leaves her hanging for nearly 20 minutes before we see her making her escape. To have it happen when it does, a theme of rescue seems to permeate throughout all the other story threads.

“Cloud Atlas” is all about its themes rather than concrete ideas. We start with each character sharing in an unlikely encounter. We see them experience feelings of escape, rescue and discovery, and before long they’ve all suffered loss and hardship, if not action. Voice over narrations, the image of a comet shaped birthmark and miniature Easter eggs connecting the stories suggest that our lives are not our own, that our spirits carry through generations, but because the stories never truly intersect, do they mean anything beyond wispy ideas?

I don’t think it matters much, because the movie’s lushness sweeps us up in its visuals and ideas. We see futuristic cityscapes, treacherous mountain ranges, majestic long shots on the high sea and colorful rooms that materialize with possibilities right before our eyes.

On a technical level alone, “Cloud Atlas” is a remarkable achievement. The running time is nearly three hours, but because the stories are so out of sequence we’re not checking our watch awaiting the next one to start. We’re mystified by the makeup that makes Tom Hanks, Hugo Weaving and Hugh Grant at times unrecognizable. We’re moved by the complex and exuberant performances of Jim Broadbent and Doona Bae, a South Korean actress who fully owns a rare lead part for Asians in a big budget movie.

Something that was more art house would also be more metaphorical in its ideas and imagery. The Wachowskis and Tykwer however put all their brainstorming right into the mouths of their characters. So moment to moment we get a line that resonates on an intellectual level, another that comes from a crazed Mad Hatter and seems laughable and another that is intentionally laughable. These ideas would be a slog if it jammed them down our throats, but perhaps like the way the filmmakers think the world operates, these possibilities are released like spirits floating in the movie’s universe.

I imagine I’ll see “Cloud Atlas” again very shortly, not because it’s a dense movie that needs to be unraveled, but because it’s a magical movie that makes it fun to be insightful.

3 ½ stars

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

On the heels of a much-undeserved Best Picture nomination for “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close,” I began to wonder how it could’ve appealed to so many Academy voters. On paper, Stephen Daldry’s film is total Oscar bait, but in execution it feels more genuinely hurtful than exploitative, melodramatic and weepy.

Much of that has to do with “Extremely Loud’s” extremely unlikeable lead character, the 9-year-old Oskar Schell. Oskar is portrayed brilliantly by the first time actor Thomas Horn, who carries the film and has a strong assertion over this character’s mannerisms, but Oskar’s irritating characterization, either stemming from Jonathan Safran Foer’s popular novel of the same name, or from Eric Roth’s (“Forrest Gump,” “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”) screenplay, does the movie wrong. Continue reading “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close”