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Out in Theaters: ‘THE POST’ 

The Post, a Steven Spielberg-directed drama about the Washington Post’s critical role in discriminating the notorious Pentagon Papers, has Very Important Movie Streep written all over it. A newspaper procedural starring awards giants Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep, lit to resemble an Oscar winner by Janusz Kaminski and following a script from first-timer Liz Hannah and Josh Singer (The Fifth Estate, Spotlight) that touts the importance of its subject at every turn (sometimes in painfully obvious soliloquy), The Post is part important meditation on the unimpeachable import of the First Amendment, part desperate plea for Award’s attention and part Spielberg doing his Dramatic Spielberg thing.  Read More

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Out in Theaters: ‘SULLY’

To return to a parlance that my colleague Mike Ward continues to hit upon, Sully is an odd duck. The American hero’s homage/introspective biopic from director Clint Eastwood is at once a moving portrait of accidental heroism and an undisciplined head-scratcher. As expected, Tom Hanks flies high as the titular pilot-turned-national-icon, joined by an Aaron Eckhart who for the first time in years seems interested in revitalizing his sagging career. There’s moments of emotional tumult and high-flying glory joined to editing that defies explainable and a weirdly non-linear act structure that has the film kinda just starting and kinda just ending and the resulting jumble is a mix of good and bad that still somehow works for the most part. So for those in the market for a good ol’ fashion celebration of aw-shucks American gallantry fixed to sturdy performances, taut set pieces and relatively lightweight uplift cinema, Sully is just the fix you’re looking for. Read More

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Out in Theaters: ‘BRIDGE OF SPIES’

Now this is confident filmmaking. But what else would you expect from the accomplished pairing of artful overlord Steven Spielberg and American everyman maestro Tom Hanks? Bridge of Spies is in its very essence a showcase of Spielberg’s directorial prowess; it neatly highlights the auteur’s ability to shape the mundane into the magical, of his expert craftsmanship behind the camera, of his articulate (if not subtle) storytelling capabilities. It is at its very core a reminder of why Spielberg has become a harbinger of prestige pictures and why Hanks will never be replaced. It is, without a doubt, an excellent film. Ladies and gentlemen, we’re looking at our first assured best picture nomination lock. Read More

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Out in Theaters: SAVING MR. BANKS

“Saving Mr. Banks”
Directed by John Lee Hancock
Starring Emma Thompson, Tom Hanks, Paul Giamatti, B.J. Novak, Jason Schwartzman, Bradley Whitford, Colin Farrell, Annie Rose Buckley, Ruth Wilson, Rachel Griffiths
Biography, Comedy, Drama
125 Mins
PG-13
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Saving Mr. Banks may as well have been called How Walt Disney Saved The Day From The Curmudgeonly P.L Travers. It’s as whitewashed a narrative as can be, oozing Disney hallmarks to reinvent the notorious asshat that is Walt Disney into a salt of the earth type inspirationally adept at picking himself up by his bootstraps. He’s the American Dream personified and he circles Emma Thompson‘s P.L. “put the milk in the tea first” Travers with the predatory knack of a hawk.

 

Travers, whose opaque Britishness sticks out like Andre the Giant’s thumb if it’d been slammed in a car door, is a woman desperately struggling to maintain artistic control of a character she’s poured her very heart and soul into: Mary Poppins. Having either run dry in the ideas department or simply too stubborn to pen another Poppins adventure, Travers straddles the line of bankruptcy. Her only option lays in Walt Disney, who’s been hounding after the Poppins property for the past ten years.

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While Travers flies over to LA to be courted by Mr. Disney himself, the earnest, creative folks at Disney are pouring themselves into turning Poppins into a product, equipped with sing-a-long numbers and dancing animated penguins. It’s a far cry from her original vision, and she battles tooth and nail to preserve the soul of these stories that mean so much to her but in the process only comes across as a mean old kook. I mean, this is the 60s, women have no place asserting themselves, amiright?

As audience members, we’re expected to cheer for this moustachioed monopoly man trying to ink out another deal with his enterprising smile. And after Saving Mr. Banks dresses Disney’s acquisition of Mary Poppins up as a promise to his children to one day turn their favorite storybook into a delightful family video, how can you not want him to succeed? Think of the children!

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I don’t think I have to tell you whether or not Disney got his grubby hands on the rights to Poppins. So with that, the moral of this Disney story reads something like: big business always triumphs over the solitary artist. How sweet.

For all the tomfoolery that tries to pass as morals here, Thompson is undeniably powerhousing it as Travers. She’s confounding, frustrating, pitiable, and, for a majority of her screen time, detestable. Her 50 shades of gray comes in two flavors: frowny and disappointment. With a no-nonsense attitude so caustic she makes Professor McGonagall look like a bonafide class clown, Travers is the stuff of fairytale stepmothers – strict, rude, and utterly indifferent. But Thompson plays her with understanding, lacking an ounce of judgement. This year’s Best Actress talks have been all about Cate Blanchett but, with a performance of this caliber, Thompson might just have what it takes to knock her off her horse. There is one big thing standing in the way of that though: Travers is entirely unlikeable.

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Typically, it requires a bit of mental gymnastics on behalf of the audience to acclimate to a character who is so legitimately awful and yet director John Lee Hancock makes no attempt to skirt around the dozen or so sticks up her butt. In fact, that seems the primary function of the first act – to reveal just how uptight Ms. Travers is. For most of the movie, she might as well be a plum. Says Hancock’s film, she’s a dried up old cooze more pleased by naysaying than any of this smiling nonsense. She wants for nothing save a paycheck so she may return to her flat in London and live out the rest of her days on trumpets, tea, and sighing. As she closes in on signing over that character which has come to define her and her career, she’s hardly a popular figure on the Disney campus. Making friends along the way is about as high a priority as stepping in a pile of dog shit. To her, they may as well be one in the same. With all her humbuging, she’s the Ms. Scrooge of the 2013 Christmas season.

But there’s no illusion that this pinecone of a woman won’t shed her crusty shell and reveal the little sweet girl inside, that flax-haired Aussie who we become well acquainted to through an unexpectedly prominent series of flashbacks. In his milking of the emotional teat, Hancock knows that you’ve got to show just how sour someone is to make their inescapable third act transformation all the more power. Most will likely fall victim to his ringing of the waterworks bell, but they’ll probably also be smart enough to see through the highly visibly emotional manipulation at work. So though you may cry, you’ll likely feel a sucker for it.

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On the sidelines, the film is stuffed full of cheery secondary characters who either have helped raise Travers into the woman she is or those unlucky dogs who have to deal with her now that she’s grown into a froofy-haired, red lipstick-wearing bulldog. B.J. NovakJason Schwartzman, and Bradley Whitford are a fine trio of slick-job comic relief and their many colored reactions to Travers’ totalitarian workmanship are amongst the best moments of the film.

In stark contrast, Paul Giamatti‘s thick take on a white version of Driving Mrs. Daisy‘s Hoke Colburn is a prime example of Saving Mr. Banks as a hokey tearjerker while Colin Farrell‘s bubbling but bumbling alcoholic father is shaded with true characterization. He’s far richer in depth than many of these hackneyed stereotypes but belongs in a whole other movie; one far darker and sadder. Then again, the wealth the flashback scenes do seem like another movie entirely. It’s not until the end that it all finally comes together and we see the pieces for a whole. Nonetheless, Hancock never really justifies the amount of division the film must carry and the emotionally stirring conclusion still isn’t enough to make up for the sluggingness that clouds the first hour.

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Saving Mr. Banks
is yet another Disney export of saccharine in the highest degree, an uplifting tale that also serves to reinforce the likeability of a dynasty that has swept up Pixar, Marvel, Stars Wars, and just recently Indiana Jones. But for those of us who’ve heard stories of Disney as a man who aligned himself with anti-Semitic organizations and would work his employees to the bone, attempts to make him seem like Saint Walt come across as disingenuous at best and full-blown falsification at worst. But it’s hard to look down your nose when Tom Hanks is playing the role with all his usual charm and gumption. Well played Disney, well played.

C+

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Out in Theaters: CAPTAIN PHILLIPS

“Captain Phillips”
Directed by Paul Greengrass
Starring Tom Hanks, Barkhad Abdi, Barkhad Abdirahman, Faysal Ahmed, Michael Chernus, Catherine Keener, David Warshofsky, Corey Johnson, Chris Mulkey
Biography, Crime, Drama
134 Mins
PG-13

“There’s gotta be something more than fishing or kidnapping people,” Captain Phillips (Tom Hanks) pleads to his captors. “Maybe in America,” Somali pirate Muse (Barkhad Abdi) retorts musingly, “maybe in America.” Paul Greengrass‘s harrowing dramatization of Captain Phillip’s 2009 kidnapping is filled with cultural misunderstandings of this nature. Vermont native Phillips fails to understand the true scope of these 21st century Somali pirates’ desperation just as Muse and his ragtag gang of automatic weapon-clutching goons can’t grasp how ridiculous their uncompromising request for a ten million dollar bounty is. On the surface, Captain Phillips may be a nail-biting tension match on par with Greengrass’s Bourne films but these surging politic undercurrents nipping at the frayed seams of a lopsided global economy takes the film to the next level of austere greatness.

As Phillips departs home on a socked in Vermont morning, he and wife Andrea (Catherine Keener) make small talk. Opposite to expectations, their relationship has never quite acclimated to Phillip’s globetrotting work. His departure is a challenge each and every time. But besides the emotional stress that comes bundled with physical distance from his family that rolls around like clockwork, there looms a far greater threat to Phillips: pirates.

Not swashbuckling, rum-chugging, sword-swinging Captain Jack Sparrows that Hollywood has so successfully romaticized but rather pirates born and bred of desperation. There are no “pirate’s life for me” sing-a-longs, no colorful parrots, plank to walk, or skull-and-bones flags, just a ragged sense of urgent necessity fueled by a “do or die” philosophy. Greengrass scrubs any dated concepts of glamor with a lump-throated scene of “woe-is-them” exposure. Pirating is a business and like all businesses, it can only handle so many employees. In this third world enterprise, tattered Somalians are literally begging to join the bandit crew. As easy as it is to paint them as such, they are not the scum of the earth; they’re just the products of a living, breathing dumping ground, scrounging for their piece of the pie.

However you may despise the cold-eyed Muse and his radical tactics at times, there is never an instance where you don’t understand him. This finely tuned balance, achieved through tactful story telling and a deeply humanistic element, is the work of a master. Onward and upward from the utterly fantastic and heart-wrenching United 93, Greengrass has learned even more self-discipline in the past decade. With Captain Phillips, he’s managed to secure a better handle on blending tension, drama, and the cold hard facts. For the wealth of real-life drama originating from the Maersk Alabama kidnapping, Greengrass has harnessed the best elements, like a weathered jeweler cutting down a diamond, and crafted a truly moving story.

Front and center, Hanks puts in one of the finest performances of his career. For all of his great former roles, there has always been a pinch of something disingenuous. Here there’s no shoddy accent cluttering things, no slips into hammy flourishes, no reliance on melodrama to catalyze the impact of his delivery. This is 100 percent raw and real. As Phillips, Hanks delivers a master class in acting, easily revealing his most mature and finely adjusted performance, perhaps ever.

While Captain Phillips falls in a season exploring all brands of survival drama (Gravity, All is Lost), it carves its own niche and is able to get our blood boiling in its own kind of way. While Gravity explored our human fear of claustrophobia and solitude, Phillips overturns the darkest corner of human nature: the fight-or-flight survival instinct within us. Any creature with its back against the wall will battle tooth and nail for its own life, and this is the catch 22 of the Somali circumstance. They believe that they must put their lives in danger ransacking these cargo ships in order to survive, even if that means holding up vessels stocked with emergency aid for those living in Africa. They are literally Robin Hood-ing their own people under the thin veil of collective-interest while they are literally taking food from the mouths of their fellow emaciated comrade.

And while this crew may not be dying in the moment, they are literally rotting away as a result of abject poverty. Their only perceived solution is this kidnapping business – as fishing just won’t cut it in the days of cargo barges constantly scaring off schools of potential dollars. As our entrance to this “other side of the world” mindset, Muse is more than a caricature. He’s hardly more than a sack of bones but he’s downright terrifying at times, reminding us of a once-bullied school child, now clinging to notions of American grandeur that could only be the stuff of dreams. Even his nickname “Skinny” (a tag he despises) fingers poverty and false iconography as the true enemy.

The beating heart of Captain Phillips is the revolution of these two Captains around one another as they fight for their survival only as they best see fit. They both lie to each other, they both make tragic mistakes, they both underestimate each other’s ceaseless zeal but, in the end, they want the same thing and this is the true irony. Both Phillips and Muse covet the American dream. To Phillips, this means responsibility, family, and job security – basically, the right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”. He’s not asking for much, just what he’s been promised his whole life.

Muse essentially wants the same thing; he just doesn’t know how to go about it. Even more damning, he fails to understand that not every American is a millionaire nor can he really comprehend the value of the American dollar. Just as Phillips can’t quite grasp the grim lack of options presented to these sea-bound desperadoes, Muse can’t help but apply a paradise template to his Americano notions. Their inherent misinterpretation of what each other stands for creates a deliciously polarized character swirl that pulls the tension as taut as a guitar string.

Humanizing his villain is a bold step, especially since we’re rooting against him for so much of the picture, but it’s a skill that Greengrass and screenwriter Billy Ray boldly execute. It’s rare to see an antagonist so despicable and yet so secretly tender. Using the autobiography from the real Richard Phillips as a map, Ray has crafted a believable and yet supercharged hijacking film far and away better than the much celebrated but truly lacking Denmark film A Hijacking.

Greengrass has made a hero story that we don’t quite know how to feel about. Our alliances are set, our convictions are airtight, but there’s a sneaking feeling of something amiss in an American victory that we just can’t put our finger on. He’s not piling on the white guilt but maybe that’s the genesis of the moral frustration, the straw-on-camel tipping point of Western privilege. The one we didn’t see coming.

As a biopic, it’s uncompromising and doggedly raw. As a thriller, it defines “being on pins and needles”. As a showcase for Tom Hanks, it serves as a major highlight for his long and illustrious career. It is, without a doubt, a spectacular achievement.

A

 

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