Short takes: Steve Jobs, Bridge of Spies & The Martian

Steve Jobs

Steve Jobs — I was pleasantly surprised that Steve Jobs was honed in on three specific product launches in the late Apple prodigy’s life rather than a straightforward biopic.  There are flashbacks to key moments in his past, but they come in at spontaneous and fitting moments.  Each launch captures the personal and professional turmoil in Jobs’ life, and their pacing is unrelenting. The movie doesn’t shy away from how much of an asshole he was, though it does give him an overly sappy, redeeming conclusion.  Michael Fassbender captures his opportunism and arrogance, and the movie is able to make him sympathetic by focusing largely on his failures.

Aaron Sorkin’s screenplay, a rapid-fire burst of bitterness, denial and outright cruelty, is the true star of the movie.  This is both a good and a bad thing; the dialogue is brilliant, and delivered at such a breakneck pace that it’s often overwhelming, especially with Daniel Pemberton’s feverish score.  However, this also means Steve Jobs never really leaps off the page.  Sorkin, Fassbender and director Danny Boyle tap into Jobs’ magnetism, but it feels too calculated.  The dialogue sparkles, but other than a board meeting during a rain storm or a feverish crowd waiting for Jobs to take the stage, the images almost never do.   Grade: C

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BEST PICTURE NOMINEE: Captain Phillips

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Captain Phillips
Directed by: Paul Greengrass
Written by: Billy Ray (screenplay), Richard Phillips (book)
Starring: Tom Hanks, Barkhad Abdi, Barkhad Abdirahman and Faysal Ahmed

The final scenes in Captain Phillips are some of the most disturbing and haunting of the year.  They also somewhat erase the good guy/bad guy mentality and replace it with raw humanity. (Spoiler ahead) They involve Richard Phillips (Tom Hanks) screaming his head off while covered in the blood of recently-killed Somali pirates who were holding him hostage.  It is a raw portrayal of trauma, and it resonates more than anything else in this taut if mostly unsubstantial movie.

Like Gravity, Paul Greengrass’ latest film operates on the built-in history audiences have with its Hollywood star.  Hanks doesn’t disappear into the title character as much as he uses his image to enhance the terror of the situation.  It’s the actor we are meant to see struggle with a pirate raid on his cargo ship while traveling off the African coast.  Those last scenes in particular are crucial reminders of that.

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Short Takes: Saving Mr. Banks, Anchorman 2 and More

Saving-Mr-Banks1

Saving Mr. Banks- A Disney propaganda film intent on making the definitive statement on how Walt came to pry the movie rights for Mary Poppins from the claws of its author, P.L. Travers.  It’s surprisingly nimble and entertaining propaganda, though, leaning heavily on the dry wit of Emma Thompson, who plays Travers, and the natural charm of Tom Hanks, whose casting as Disney is a huge indicator of the movie’s slanderous intentions.

Despite the sour taste the movie’s historical rewrite leaves, there are many funny and well-directed sequences involving Travers combating the Disney crew over the Poppins film adaptation.  I felt like I was being forced not to identify with her, though.  Like director John Lee Hancock did in The Blind Side, he overplays the fairly decent hand the story and actors gave him by suffocating it with Disney sugar.  Thompson is fantastic here, but the movie never misses an opportunity to make her seem like a shrew who needs taming. Grade: C-

anchorman-fros

Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues- For a movie that tries desperately for two hours to elicit laughs at any cost, Anchorman 2 isn’t nearly funny enough.  Ron Burgundy (Will Ferrell) goes global on a CNN spinoff with the rest of his news team, played again by Paul Rudd, Steve Carell and David Koechner, and their idiocy is a natural fit.

The script gets a few good jabs in about the ridiculousness of the 24-hour news cycle, but most of the jokes that don’t involve the comedic anarchy of Carell’s weather guy Brick are just stale.  It exists more as an SNL episode with a bunch of celebrity cameos than a movie.  Grade: D

Upstream-color

Upstream Color- Shane Carruth’s second feature is a wondrous creation.  Unlike his first, Primer, it thrills more on a sensory level, and he surpasses what’s in the script instead of just presenting it.  The story focuses on a woman named Kris (Amy Seimetz) who is subjected to mind control and stripped of her identity, but he keeps the narrative in constant limbo by being more interested in examining the experience than stopping to explain it.

Kris meets a man (played by Carruth) who also seems to have undergone the same procedure as her, and the two fall in confused love, their identities and memories eventually clashing but not getting in the way.  Describing the movie’s story does little justice to the spontaneous beauty Carruth sustains throughout.  Its meaning unfolds for the audience at the same time as the characters, though to apply any concrete meaning trivializes the breadth of its power.  Grade: B+

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Movie 43- I’m offended that this movie exists.  Grade: F

REVIEW: Captain Phillips

Captain Phillips

Captain Phillips
Directed by: Paul Greengrass
Written by: Billy Ray (screenplay), Richard Phillips (book)
Starring: Tom Hanks, Barkhad Abdi, Barkhad Abdirahman and Faysal Ahmed

The final scenes in Captain Phillips are some of the most disturbing and haunting of the year.  They also somewhat erase the good guy/bad guy mentality and replace it with raw humanity. (Spoiler ahead) They involve Richard Phillips (Tom Hanks) screaming his head off while covered in the blood of recently-killed Somali pirates who were holding him hostage.  It is a raw portrayal of trauma, and it resonates more than anything else in this taut if mostly unsubstantial movie.

Like Gravity, Paul Greengrass’ latest film operates on the built-in history audiences have with its Hollywood star.  Hanks doesn’t disappear into the title character as much as he uses his image to enhance the terror of the situation.  It’s the actor we are meant to see struggle with a pirate raid on his cargo ship while traveling off the African coast.  Those last scenes in particular are crucial reminders of that.

That isn’t to say that Greengrass rests on his laurels because he has one of the most famous stars in the world in his movie.  He films Captain Phillips as if it were a documentary, as if the source material (written by the actual captain and adapted by Billy Ray) were an absolute truth.  It is an exhilarating, immersive approach to the material, but also flawed.  Richard Phillips obviously has a very biased account of these actions, and though the movie attempts to offer slight sympathy to the pirates, Phillips’ crew largely comes off as a mindless herd that would be nothing without their captain.

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Once Phillips is taken hostage in the claustrophobic confines of a lifeboat, this ceases to be an issue.  The captain of the Somali pirates, Muse (Barkhad Abdi), becomes less an antagonist than he does a man trapped by a life’s worth of bad options.  In a crucial scene, Phillips ask him why he has to steal and loot, that there must be some other choice in life.  “Maybe in America,” he replies.

The scenes inside that lifeboat are truly riveting.  If the movie had stayed pinned inside that action and not over-indulged the Navy officers attempting to rescue Phillips, it would have been much stronger.  Thankfully the tactical efficiency of the military is offset by moments of moral ambiguity, much like Zero Dark Thirty.

I wish the movie had spent more time with Muse at the end, because although it makes its point by showing officers coldly tell him “your friends are all dead,” it spends much more time with Phillips, who is so traumatized that he can’t even form a coherent sentence.  This is another example of the movie’s flawed, if riveting, subjectivity.  Greengrass and Ray attempt to rise above it in those final scenes, but they partially fall prey to star power, which will likely be the biggest audience (and Oscar) draw to their movie.

Grade: C+

REVIEW: Cloud Atlas

Cloud Atlas
Directed by: Tom Tykwer, Lana Wachowski and Andy Wachowski
Written by: Lana Wachowski, Tom Tykwer and Andy Wachowski (screenplay), David Mitchell (novel)
Starring: Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent and Hugo Weaving

Tom Hanks and Halle Berry have come unstuck in time.  Over the course of Cloud Atlas’ wildly ambitious 172 minutes, the two mainstream Hollywood actors and a plethora of others- Susan Sarandon, Jim Broadbent, Hugh Grant- appear as wildly different characters in just as wildly different time periods, from California in 1973 to post-apocalyptic Hawaii hundreds of years from now.

The six varying and intersecting narrative threads in Cloud Atlas are stunningly shot and at times narratively captivating.  As adapted by Andy and Lana Wachowki and Tom Tykwer (who all co-wrote and directed), it amounts to a beautiful mess.  There are too many narrative threads and characters to begin with, and adding poor execution and editing to that just makes it worse.

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BEST PICTURE NOMINEE: Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close
Directed by: Stephen Daldry
Written by: Eric Roth (screenplay), Jonathan Safran Foer (book)
Starring: Thomas Horn, Tom Hanks, Sandra Bullock and Max von Sydow

The opening image of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is of a man falling to his death, with papers behind him that fade into the title; its closing image is of a boy swinging upward on a swing, triumphant.  It freezes on this image, asking the audience to pause and share in that triumph.  This is hard to do for many reasons, but mostly because that man who was falling to his death wasn’t doing so because he wanted to.  He is falling from the Twin Towers, and it is Septermber 11th, as the movie and its director, Stephen Daldry, will remind you of several times.

Oskar (Thomas Horn), the troubled boy at the film’s center, torments himself endlessly with the messages his father (Tom Hanks) left on their answering machine while he was trapped in the World Trade Center on what Oskar calls “The Worst Day.”  After finally working up the courage to enter his father’s room, he searches the top shelf, knocking over a blue vase in the process.  Inside that vase is a key whose mysteries occupy the remainder of the narrative.

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BEST PICTURE NOMINEE: Toy Story 3

Toy Story 3
Directed by: Lee Unkrich
Written by: Michael Arndt, John Lassetter, and Lee Unkrich (screenplay)
Starring: Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, Joan Cusack, and Don Rickles

You always know the latest entry from the people at Pixar is going to be a marvel.  To see how great they are, like a Hattori Hanzo sword, you compare it to every animated movie that wasn’t made by Pixar.  In that respect, the Toy Story trilogy is the greatest animated trilogy animation has ever seen, with help from the exceptionally brilliant third entry.

Adult themes are always under the beautifully varnished animated images of the best animation, and nobody does it better than Pixar.  Last year’s Up was probably enjoyed more by adults than it was by children for that very same reason.  Though this is a story about play-things, the despair over uselessness has never been done quite so well.  Though the film is hilarious, it is at times also heartbreaking.

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