Category Archives: History

Forged in Fire

Hollywood loves heroes, and this film offers up a real-life pantheon

Josh Brolin;James Badge Dale

Only the Brave
Starring Josh Brolin, Miles Teller, Jennifer Connelly & Taylor Kitsch
Directed by Joseph Kosinski
PG-13

When I was a tyke, I had a Little Golden Book and a record about Smokey the Bear, the forest-fire-prevention mascot who could “find a fire before it starts to flame.”

There’s a bear at the very beginning of Only the Brave, but it’s certainly not Smokey—it’s a blazing, charging beast made out of fire itself, barreling through a hellish nightmare of burning trees.

That bear of fire haunts the dreams of Eric Marsh (James Brolin), the grizzled supervisor of a group of elite firefighters in Prescott, Ariz., known as the Granite Mountain Hotshots. Marsh calls the burning bear “the most beautiful and the most terrible thing I’ve ever seen.”

The beautiful, terrible specter of fire hangs heavy over this rousing true tale, which recounts the heroic exploits of the Prescott firefighters, which lost 19 of its 20-member crew while battling a 2013 wildfire northwest of Phoenix, near the town of Yarnell. It became one of the deadliest wildfires in American history.

Hollywood loves heroes, and Only the Brave—based on a magazine article in GQ—offers up a real-life pantheon, one made even more timely and resonant by the wildfires currently ravaging California. Director Joseph Kosinski spends most of his movie building the story of the men who made up the Hotshots, how they became a tight-knit team and the matter-of-fact business of fighting fire. We know the tragic event, which defined the Hotshots’ legacy, is coming—but before it does, there are other fires to put out, in the mountains and at home.

Josh Brolin;Jennifer Connelly

Josh Brolin & Jennifer Connelly

We get to know the firefighters mainly through a handful of central characters in its larger ensemble cast. Brolin has seasoned into a fine actor in almost any role, and he plays supervisor Marsh with a mix of toughness and weariness that reflects the years he’s put into a dangerous, taxing, extremely physical job. The toll it continues to take on his relationship with his wife, Andrea (an outstanding Jennifer Connelly), is obvious.

“Do your John Wayne thing,” she tells him before he packs up once again to head into the hills and face down the fire he calls “the bitch.”

Miles Teller is Brendan McDonough, a pot-puffing stoner screw-up who enlists with the Hotshots in a last-ditch effort to get his life in gear after he finds out he got a girl pregnant (Natalie Hall—she was young Colby Chandler on All My Children 2009-2011) and he’s about to become a father. The others playfully haze him as the rookie, calling him “Puke” and “Donut,” but he eventually earns their acceptance and their respect.

Taylor Kitsch;Miles Teller

Miles Teller & Taylor Kitsch

Taylor Kitsch plays Christopher McKenzie, whose hapless search for a girlfriend becomes a running joke. As the Prescott fire chief, Jeff Bridges gets to flex his musical mojo in a nightclub scene by singing the classic cowboy chestnut “Ghost Riders in the Sky.”

Director Kosinski, who demonstrated his expansive visual flair in the sci-fi flicks Tron Legacy (also with Jeff Bridges) and Oblivion (with Tom Cruise), also finds the spellbinding imagery throughout this emotional, character-driven story. Fire races across a mountainside, like an invading army. Blazing trees tumble off a cliff, then explode in flashes of sparks and cinders. A lone deer runs alongside a wall of flame, looking for an escape route. A helicopter hovers in super slo-mo above a swimming pool, siphoning out water. Firefighters in gear move through the trees with military-like precision, looking like a centipede inching its way along.

And the movie shows the hard, dirty work and tools of the trade that go into firefighting—it’s a lot of digging, chopping, cutting and clearing. And much of it is “fighting fire with fire,” setting smaller fires to rob a bigger fire of fuel. But all of it involves putting lives on the line and working in the danger zone, a place where a shift of the wind or a change in temperature can mean destruction—or death.

“There are lots of other things you could do that aren’t so dangerous,” Brendan’s mom tells him.

Indeed there are.

Hollywood loves heroes, and we’re told they’re made, not born. And as this moving, heart-tugging movie about the Granite Mountain Hotshots reminds us, sometimes they’re forged by fire.

In theaters Oct. 20, 2017

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Courting Justice

Chadwick Boseman plays a young Supreme Court Justice-to-be

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Josh Gad, Chadwick Boseman and Sterling K. Brown in ‘Marshall’

Marshall
Starring Chadwick Boseman, Josh Gad, Sterling K. Brown, Dan Stevens & Kate Hudson
Directed by Reginald Hudlin
PG-13

For black history, Chadwick Boseman is becoming Hollywood’s go-to guy.

In 42, he starred as Jackie Robinson, the first African American to play pro baseball. He was the Godfather of Soul, James Brown, in Get on Up. In February, he’ll step into the spotlight as Marvel’s Black Panther, the first black superhero to get his own movie.

And he puts the Marshall in Marshall as Thurgood Marshall, the first black justice of the United States Supreme Court, in one of the early defining cases of his career.

We meet Thurgood in the early 1940s as a young attorney for the N.A.A.C.P. in Hugo, Okla., dispatched to Bridgeport, Conn., to represent a black man, Joseph Spell (Sterling K. Brown from TV’s This Is Us), accused of raping and attempting to murder a wealthy white woman (Kate Hudson).

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Kate Hudson

As an out-of-state attorney, Marshall must enlist the aid of a local lawyer—a legal technicality—in order to work the case. He partners with Sam Friedman (Josh Gad), a whiz at insurance and accident cases but zero experience in criminal law.

This being the 1940s, and the case being a “negro” accused of “ravishing” a white woman, the climate in Bridgeport isn’t exactly welcoming to Thurgood. The crusty judge (James Cromwell) begrudgingly allows Marshall to accompany Friedman in the courtroom, but bans him from speaking, arguing or examining witnesses.

After early years of forgettable movie comedies (unless you count Eddie Murphy’s Boomerang or Tim Meadows’ The Ladies Man as milestones—and I’m guessing you won’t) and later TV, director Reginald Hudlin makes his first big-screen drama in a fairly old-school, traditional mode. Marshall is essentially a courtroom showdown, with the story spinning around the odd-couple pairing of Boseman and Gad’s characters, the difficult circumstances in which they have to work and the high-pitched racial tensions and prejudice of the times.

And of course, the question: Did Joseph Spell do it?

There are flashbacks and recreations, from various characters’ points of view. Both Thurgood and Friedman—who is Jewish—are harassed by local thugs. Marshall gathers evidence and, as Friedman’s “silent partner,” gives him a crash course in the basics of criminal law and courtroom procedure.

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Dan Stevens

Legion TV star Dan Stevens, who played the Beast in Beauty and the Beast, plays a real-life “beast,” a smarmy defense attorney. Keesha Sharp (Trisha Murtaugh on TV’s Lethal Weapon) is Marshall’s supportive wife, Buster. And fans of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, as well as the Chicago P.D./Med/Justice franchise, will recognize Sophia Bush, who plays police detective Erin Lindsay in all those shows. She has one scene as a woman in a bar who provides Thurgood with an observation that becomes a case breakthrough.

The movie looks handsome and polished, but the production values are just a little too tidy. The automobiles all appear to be restoration-shiny, and everyone is dressed to the nines, like they just came…well, from the wardrobe department. Nothing about Marshall really looks or feels lived-in.

And modern audiences, with appetites primed by violent, graphic, gory TV crime procedurals, might not have the patience for the more stately, dignified pace of Marshall. It’s closer to Perry Mason than How to Get Away With Murder.

Brown gives a powerful standout performance as Spell, a character who becomes the heart and soul of what the movie is truly about—a black man seeking justice in a white man’s world, in the grinding gears of a white man’s system, and fearing for his life, no matter what he says. The film’s resonance today with themes of racial division and ugly displays of hate and bigotry are impossible to miss.

Can a black man get a fair trial with an all-white jury in Bridgeport, a gaggle of white reporters asks Marshall. Can blacks expect to treated fairly at all? “The Constitution was not written for us,” Marshall tells them. “But we’re gonna make it work for us.”

In one scene, Marshall counsels Spell about a plea deal he’s been offered, in a conversation couched in a discussion about the slavery in both their family’s pasts. Spell recounts a moving story about his grandfather fighting for his freedom, and Thurgood spurs him to never stop fighting himself.

“We’ve got weapons we didn’t have before,” Marshall tells him. “We’ve got the law.”

During Marshall’s 24-year tenure at the U.S. Supreme Court, beginning in 1967, he would argue more than 30 cases, prevailing in all but three. This feel-good biopic reminds us of a formative chapter in the life of a lifelong crusader—for civil rights and justice, for African Americans and all—who never gave up the fight.

In theaters Oct. 13, 2017

 

Fly Boy

Tom Cruise soars as real-life drug-smuggling, gun-running aviator 

Film Title: American Made

American Made
Starring Tom Cruise, Domhnall Gleeson & Sarah Wright
Directed by Doug Liman
R

The sky… that smile… those sunglasses—Tom Cruise is flying again!

Three decades after playing swaggering Navy ace “Maverick” Mitchell in Top Gun, the actor once chosen as People magazine’s Sexiest Man Alive (1995) is back, climbing into the danger zone in this comedy-drama based on the real life of a former TWA pilot who became involved with a South American drug cartel in the 1980s.

Cruise’s character, Barry Seal, works as covert operative for the CIA, runs guns to fighters in Nicaragua, smuggles cocaine for the Mendellín Cartel, trains Contras in Arkansas and eventually ferries home so many bags, satchels and suitcases bulging with cash that he literally runs out of places to hide them.

Seal was a bit player in a much bigger governmental shell game of collusion, intervention and South American involvement, spanning eight years and two administrations, that eventually culminated in the Iran-Contra Scandal.

“Is all this legal?” he asks his cryptic CIA contact, who goes the name of Schafer (Domhnall Gleeson).

Film Title: American Made

Domhnall Gleeson

“If you’re doing it for the good guys,” Schafer tells him with a shrug. “Just don’t get caught.”

It’s a wild and crazy tale, and Cruise is perfect for the role of Seal—brash, carefree, cocky, confident, “the youngest pilot in TWA history” when he’s plucked from the cramped cockpit of his commercial airliner and offered the opportunity to do something exciting, secretive, dangerous and potentially lucrative “for your country.”

Seal’s real-life saga isn’t necessary a funny one—he did, after all, create and maintain a major pipeline for cocaine into the United States and played a role in international political meddling that cost many lives. But American Made finds the dark humor in the absolute absurdity of his unique situation, as an individual who happened to be in the right place at the right time—and who embraced it for all it was worth.

As played by Cruise, Seal is like an impossibly handsome, incredibly lucky Forrest Gump, moving from scenario to scenario, intersecting with characters who’ll later show up in the news (Panamanin dictator Manual Noriega, U.S. Marine Lt. Col. Oliver North, Columbian drug lord Pablo Escobar). He juggles home life with his wife (Sarah Wright) and two young daughters with his increasingly frenzied governmental skullduggery and his own lucrative sideline smuggling operations.

And he gets filthy rich doing it—until his luck eventually runs out.

Film Title: American Made“Hot damn!” he says. “If this ain’t the greatest country in the world!”

Director Doug Liman, whose previous films include The Edge of Tomorrow—also starring Cruise—and The Bourne Identity, keeps things crisp, concise and crackling. He uses a mixture of techniques, including cartoon animation and narration by Seal (Cruise), to tie the sprawling pieces of the story together. And he pays attention to details that remind you this tale came from the 1970s and ’80s. Seals does business with high stacks of quarters from banks of pay phones. When a character purchases a new used car, it’s a dinky Gremlin X. Soundtrack tunes (The Allman Brothers’ One Way Out, Walter Murphy’s A Fifth of Beethoven, Linda Ronstadt’s Blue Bayou, George Harrison’s Wah Wah) help set the retro mood, and the movie’s color pallet recalls the super-saturated yellows, greens and blues of Kodachrome.

Jesse Plemons plays a small-town sheriff who gets a whiff of Seals and his operation, but his part seems either underwritten, or greatly reduced in editing—to squeeze into the movie’s crammed second half, when several new characters are introduced. As Seals’ wife, Wright is given little to do, which matches the skimpy wardrobe (negligee and cut-off shorty-short jeans) she’s given to wear. If the film’s trying to make any kind of statement—about governmental collusion and corruption, amoral scoundrels on both sides of the border, greed or whatever—it doesn’t really leave that impression.

But Cruise sure does—a movie star soaring high and back in his element in this feverishly upbeat film frolic about a footnote figure in a shady chapter of American history.

In theaters Sept. 29, 2017

Hot & Bothered

Racially charged drama about 1967 riots rings chillingly true today

UDP_04534.CR2Detroit
Starring Algee Smith, John Boyega, Will Poulter & Anthony Mackie
Directed by Kathryn Bigelow
R

The sweltering summer is about to get even hotter.

In Detroit, director Katheryn Bigelow turns up the heat on the 50th anniversary of one of the most deadly and destructive racially charged riots in our nation’s history.

Bigelow, who won an Oscar for The Hurt Locker (2008) and also directed the acclaimed Zero Dark Thirty (2012), recreates events that occurred in June 1967 with an ensemble cast and a wrenching sense of timeliness.

The movie points out the toxic recipe of white suburban flight, economic plight and tensions between black neighborhoods and police that were already in play, in Detroit and elsewhere, when the Motor City riots began with a police raid on an unlicensed bar in one of the city’s segregated, all-black neighborhoods.

The officers had a legal right to shut the place down, but did they have to “make an example” of everyone who was there? Herd them like cattle onto the street and into paddy wagons to take them jail? Feel up a female or two as they were “helping” them into the vehicles?

“What’d they do?! What’d they do?!” an onlooker cries out from the crowd—before a bottle flies through the air, then a Molotov cocktail. In seconds, looting has begun, and before morning, the entire neighborhood is on fire.

UDP_03647FD.psdBy day three, the Michigan governor has called in the national guard, and soldiers in jeeps and tanks patrol the streets. Neighborhood by neighborhood, the city becomes a war zone as African-American hopelessness, helplessness and rage erupt in widening spasms of destruction—and the police and the military strike back with sometimes lethal force.

In this simmering, scalding, suffocating cauldron of racial tension, we meet our central characters, whose lives soon intersect in an excruciating crux of circumstance.

UDP_01663.CR2

John Boyega

Larry Reed (Algee Smith) is the lead singer of an up-and-coming, unsigned local vocal group, the Dramatics, who’s crushed when their big breakout gig at the Fox Theater is cancelled due to the riots. John Boyega (Finn from Star Wars: The Force Awakens) plays Melvin Dismukes, a straight-thinking overnight security guard. Will Poulter (from The Revenant, We’re The Millers and The Maze Runner) portrays Krauss, the overzealous patrolman who becomes a bully, a racist thug and a murderer.

Julie and Karen, two young women visiting from Ohio, are played by Hannah Murrah (Gilly from TV’s Game of Thrones) and Kaitlyn Dever (Eve on the sitcom Last Man Standing). Anthony Mackie is a U.S. Army veteran recently home from Viet Nam, now finding himself at the wrong place at the wrong time.

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Kaitlyn Dever

The singer, the security guard, the patrolman and the vet, along with Julie and Karen and several other characters, all end up at a bustling motel, where the movie takes a turn toward the horrific after police believe there’s a sniper hiding inside. What follows is a protracted, nightmarish sequence of brutality and intimidation as raw racism flexes its ugly muscle behind the authority of a badge.

Before the night is over, the bodies of three innocent victims lie dead in pools of their blood.

The movie does a tremendous job of recreating scorched, seared late-’60s Detroit. Cinematographer Barry Ackroyd, using handheld cameras much of the time, makes you feel like “you are there” in the sweat, smoke and the shaken, smashed and shattered lives.

In the modern era of cell phones and dashboard and body cams, with social media and television highlighting incidents of overreach and outrage—and #BlackLivesMatter rallying to spotlight America’s miserably ingrained culture of racial violence—the film’s themes of tragedy and injustice resonate with chilling contemporary relevance.

The film ends on a note of spiritual uplift about love overcoming hate, a message of hope and the hope of healing, one that rings across the distance of the ages.

And the message certainly rings across the 50 years since the events of Detroit, which painfully reminds us of how close to home this harrowing history lesson hits today.

In theaters Aug. 4, 2017

Beach Boys

Christopher Nolan’s newest epic puts Dunkirk on the cinematic map

DUNKIRK

Dunkirk
Starring Fionn Whitehead, Tom Hardy & Mark Rylance
Directed by Christopher Nolan
PG-13

D-Day, Iwo Jima, Pearl Harbor, the Bulge—you’ve probably heard about these pivotal World War II battles. They were decisive, dramatic events where the tide of history was turned. And Hollywood has helped keep their memory alive.

Now Christopher Nolan, the director of the blockbuster Dark Knight Batman trilogy and the mind-bending sci-fi epics Inception and Intersteller, wants you to remember another decisive WWII event.

But unlike D-Day, Iwo Jima, Pearl Harbor and the Battle of the Bulge, what happened on the beaches of Dunkirk occurred in 1940, more than a year before the United States entered the war. And it was more a miracle than a military success. It involved the rescue of some 333,000 British, Belgium and French troops after they’d been routed and surrounded by the German army after fighting in Nazi-occupied France.

With some 26 miles of shallow English Channel separating them from safety, the stranded troops waited in mounting desperation for small boats to load them up and ferry them to Britain—before they could be picked off by snipers or blown to pieces by German Messerschmitt airplanes.

But even boats weren’t safe. A torpedo or a strafe of airplane bombs could sink a ship in an instant.

Nolan’s intense, immersive historical spectacle breaks the story down into three separate parts—the beach, the sea and the air—overlapping them and their timelines and only bringing them all together at the very end of the movie.

Bodega Bay

Fionn Whitehead

On the beach, we meet a young soldier, Tommy (Fionn Whitehead), whose struggle to leave becomes a nearly Homeric odyssey, a gauntlet of combat-survival horrors. In the air, we follow the derring-do exploits of an RAF Spitfire pilot (Tom Hardy), who makes the most of his 40 minutes of fuel to shoot down German planes.

And in the water, we’re introduced to a father, Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance), one of many civilians from the British mainland who’ve launched their leisure vessels to cross the channel and retrieve soldiers. Dawson sets out with his son (Tom Glynn-Carney) and another boy (Barry Keoghan). Halfway there, they pick up a shell-shocked soldier (Cillian Murphy) who’s been stranded in the water after a German U-boat attack.

mark-rylance-in-dunkirk-2017-large-picture

Mark Rylance

The unnamed soldier, horrified at the thought of going back to Dunkirk, begs Dawson to return to England, telling him he has no business taking his motorboat into a war zone. “You should be at home!” he says.

“There won’t be any ‘home’ if we allow a slaughter across the channel,” Dawson replies.

The “miracle” of Dunkirk, as the movie makes clear, was the civilian effort of Dawson and many others like him. As Great Britain contemplated the specter of Nazi Germany and Adolph Hitler a sliver of water away, the nation—and Prime Minister Winston Churchill—knew they had to get their boys home.

The Dunkirk rescue galvanized Britain for other, bigger battles to come.

The movie tells this tale of steely British resolve exclusively from a British perspective—and rightly so. There are no German characters, and certainly no Americans. It has very little dialogue. It’s visual, visceral, gut-level storytelling.

Harry Styles, the singer from the pop group One Direction, makes an admirable acting debut as another soldier, and veteran British actor Kenneth Branagh plays the highest ranking officer on the beach.

BB-T2-0044

Tom Hardy

Nolan has crafted a powerful, moving, harrowingly magnificent film experience that puts the viewer in the middle of the action. You feel the clang, rattle and vibration of Tom Hardy’s Spitfire, the terrifying panic as sinking ships fill with rushing water, the sense of doom as thousands of troops watch helplessly while another German plane swoops low for another bombing run.

There’s a bare minimum of computer effects. Those are real ships, real airplanes. The movie looks and feels authentic—because so much of it is.

The innovative soundtrack by Hans Zimmer—Nolan’s frequent collaborator—is an ambient, mostly electronic soundscape that reminds you just how important sound can be to a movie, and how “music” can be many different things.

And you understand that heroism, especially in wartime, comes in many shapes and forms, and it doesn’t always wear a uniform.

A contemporary war movie that echoes classic combat films but eclipses them at the same time, Nolan’s new epic puts Dunkirk on the cinematic map.

In theaters July 21, 2017

Hughes Corporation

Warren Beatty salutes Howard Hughes in gauzy, farcical rom-com

RULES DON'T APPLY

Rules Don’t Apply
Starring Lily Collins, Alden Ehrenreich, Warren Beatty & Matthew Broaderick
Directed by Warren Beatty
PG-13
In theaters Nov. 23, 2016

Warren Beatty’s long-awaited Howard Hughes movie is a nostalgic love letter to old Hollywood, a farcical rom-com about a couple of young Tinseltown transplants and a semi-sympathetic portrait of one of 20th century America’s most famous, successful and eccentric business tycoons.

Howard Hughes was a huge deal back in the previous century. His tremendous wealth, high-profile enterprises, dashing daredevil antics and widely reported quirks made him one of the most famous personalities on the planet until his death in 1976. He made headlines and newsreels as a do-er, dreamer, inventor, movie mogul, Las Vegas developer and aviation pioneer.

Actor-director Warren Beatty caught a rare, fleeting glimpse of Hughes in a Hollywood hotel in the early 1970s and vowed to make a movie about him. He’s been chipping away at it ever since.

Lily Collins

Lily Collins

In Rules Don’t Apply, set in the late 1950s, Marla Mabrey (Lily Collins), a young, devoutly religiously beauty queen from Virginia, is summoned to Hollywood to become one of Hughes’ female contract players at RKO, the movie studio he took over in 1948. She and her overly protective mother (Annette Bening, Beatty’s wife) are assigned a lavish house in the Hollywood Hills and provided studio transportation. Fresh-faced Frank (Alden Ehrenreich), himself a Hollywood greenhorn just off the farmlands of Fresno and also a Sunday-go-to-church kind of guy, is appointed as one of their drivers.

Marla discovers she’s among the many young female hopefuls under contract to Hughes, a well-known Hollywood womanizer. But even though she’s paid well and treated royally, she’s dismayed when days—then weeks—go by and she doesn’t get to meet her famous boss and benefactor, doesn’t get a screen test and doesn’t get any sign that her Hollywood career is going anywhere.

She laments that she doesn’t look like the other—mostly blonde, all busty—starlets, doesn’t feel worldly and with-it like them, and, as more of a musician and songwriter, she’s not even really an actress. “I’m a square,” she pouts.

Frank consoles her, tells not to worry about everyone else. “You’re an exception,” he says. “The rules don’t apply to you.”

Love blossoms between Frank and Marla. But it whirls and swirls around Hughes, who’s given a gauzy, wistful gloss-over by Beatty, who also directed, co-produced and wrote the screenplay. This movie feels like a project he’s been thinking about, and working on, for a long time: It’s jam-packed with nearly everything and everyone. Matthew Broderick is Levar, Frank’s fellow driver who warns him to keep his hands off the movie “merchandise,” since Hughes prohibits any employee hanky-panky. There’s Candace Bergen, Ed Harris, Martin Sheen, Amy Madigan, Dabney Coleman, Steve Coogan, Alec Baldwin and Paul Sorvino. Watch for Haley Bennett, from The Girl on the Train and The Magnificent Seven, and Broadway actress Megan Hilty, as other contract players.

The movie meanders through several themes and ideas—daddy issues, the splash of Frank and Marla’s puritanical upbringings in Hollywood’s cauldron of vice, and Hughes’ various quirks, fetishes and fixations. Award-winning cinematographer Caleb Deschanel washes them all in the same gorgeous, golden tones that got him Oscar nominations for The Right Stuff, The Passion of the Christ, The Natural and The Patriot, making the whole film glow like a time capsule from a L.A.’s picture-postcard past. The details—Rayon fabrics, rabbit-ear TV antennas, clunky rotary phones, big shiny tank-like Buicks, Cadillacs and Oldsmobiles—are pure eye candy.

Lily Collins, the daughter of pop star Phil Collins, who launched her movie career as the teenage daughter in The Blind Side (2009), is radiant as Marla, with the freshness and spark of a young Elizabeth Taylor, especially in adoring close-ups. One of the movie’s sweetest spots is when her character sings “Rules Don’t Apply” (by Lorraine Feather and Eddie Arkin), the tune Marla is inspired to write based on Frank’s advice that becomes the movie’s theme and its theme song.

Alden Ehrenreich

Alden Ehrenreich

And Alden Ehrenreich, who was a standout as singing sodbuster Hobie Doyle in the Coen Brothers’ Hail, Caesar!, has the chiseled, classic looks of a 1950s leading man, as if he were sculpted specifically for his role. For one of his next ones, he’ll be fast-forwarding into the future as the new Han Solo in the Star Wars’ character’s origin story, due in theaters in 2018.

Beatty, himself a Hollywood living legend, has more than 30 film and TV roles to his credit, including Bonnie and Clyde, Shampoo, Heaven Can Wait, Dick Tracy, Bulworth and Reds, for which he received an Oscar for directing. Even with Collins and Ehrenreich, this is still his movie through and through, and it all revolves around the sad, odd gravity of its soft-focused central character, a man who loved women, airplanes and banana nut ice cream and who lived out his final days in strange shadows of seclusion and self-isolation as a prisoner of his obsessions, phobias and kinks.

At one point in the film, there’s comedic confusion about an actress whose initials are MM—is it Marla Mabrey, or another Hughes contract player, or Marilyn Monroe? It’s sorted out onscreen, but the bigger issue for today’s multiplex crowd—especially younger viewers—will be with another pair of initials. To really appreciate Beatty’s passion project, it would help to be old enough to remember something about HH and all the hoopla and the hype that became part of his personal history.

One of Hughes’ most publicized projects was the so-called Spruce Goose, a gigantic transport seaplane made entirely of wood, born from the need to move troops and materials across the Atlantic Ocean during World War II. The task was made even more challenging by wartime shortages of steel and aluminum.

Skeptics doubted the Goose, six times bigger than any other airplane of its era, would ever fly. But it did, for one flight at an altitude of 70 feet, for one minute. After proving it could at least do what it was designed to do, it was done, spending the rest of days in hangars and never flying again.

Rules Don’t Apply also does, at least, what it was designed to do, fulfilling Beatty’s quest begun 40 years ago. But also like the Goose, it’s a big, cumbersome, well-intentioned project that just gets off the ground but never really soars, and it’s probably not going to go very far with contemporary audiences.

 

—Neil Pond, Parade Magazine

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Birth Rights

Bracing, provocative ‘Birth of a Nation’ resonates with righteous unrest

The Birth of a Nation
Starring Nate Parker, Armie Hammer & Penelope Ann Miller
Directed by Nate Parker
R
In theaters Oct. 7, 2016

In 1831, 31-year-old Nat Turner led a slave uprising in Virginia that resulted in the deaths of more than 50 white men, women and children, and the retaliation of white mobs and militias that killed some 200 blacks—including many who were not involved in the rebellion.

A “literate” black who could read and write, Turner grew up on Bible stories and later held worship services for his fellow slaves. He eventually came to believe that God had finally seen enough of the injustices of slavery, and was calling him to lead a slave army on a march of vengeful, wrong-righting insurrection.

When a solar eclipse darkened the sky over the cotton fields one day, Turner knew he’d seen his sign—he’d gotten his “go” signal. The timing, as they say, was right.

The timing was right for director and star Nate Parker, too, when he opened his movie about Nat Turner earlier this year at the Sundance Film Festival. The Birth of a Nation was a smash, a stunner, a shocker. Landing smack in the middle of the #OscarSoWhite controversy—about the lack of diversity among the 2016 Academy Awards nominees—it was a bracing, provocative blast of black-powered, top-to-bottom talent, and a topic, that couldn’t be ignored.

And it wasn’t. Fox Searchlight forked over $17.5 million for the distribution rights, a Sundance record, to get the film into theaters by the end of the year.

The film also recently opened the 10th annual International Black Film Festival in Nashville, Tenn., just ahead of its wide theatrical release.

 Armie Hammer as Samuel Turner Nate Parker as Nat Turner and Jayson Warner Smith as Earl Fowler

Armie Hammer as Samuel Turner, Nate Parker as Nat Turner and Jayson Warner Smith as Earl Fowler

The Birth of a Nation is a powerful piece of filmmaking, and a mighty impressive work, especially as Parker’s debut as a director. It takes a little-known event from America’s shameful past and elevates it to rousing, epic proportions. Both in front of and behind the camera, Parker shows the humanity as well as the horrors of slavery in the antebellum South, and the evils of an entire economic system built upon the systematic exploitation of a population for profit, regardless of the “kindness” or cruelty of any individual master, landowner, merchant or anyone else who benefitted.

Armie Hammer plays Turner’s second-generation master, Samuel Turner, whose benevolence is eclipsed by his desire to keep his estate financially secure and reputable—at whatever the cost. Penelope Ann Miller is Samuel’s mother, who teaches young Nat to read, which has enormous repercussions. Jackie Earle Haley is a sadistic slave hunter. Gabrielle Union portrays Esther, a slave wife forced to spend an evening as “entertainment” for one of Samuel Turner’s drunken guests.

Aja Naomi King plays Nat Turner's wife, Cherry.

Aja Naomi King plays Nat Turner’s wife, Cherry.

Yes, it’s sometimes hard to watch—to see Turner tied to a post and horsewhipped to a pulp, to watch a little white girl lead a little black girl around with a rope “leash” around her neck, to witness a slave get his teeth get bashed out with a hammer. And a couple of—pivotal—rape scenes are particularly discomforting, given how the movie has reactivated the spotlight on Parker and his screenwriting collaborator Jean Celeste and the charges that were brought against them in 1999 as college students that they raped a fellow student; Parker was acquitted, the charges were dropped on Celeste after he appealed, and the woman who accused them committed suicide.

Different audiences will see this movie through different prisms, quite obviously. Some people won’t want to see it at all, for various reasons. Given the inflamed, highly polarized state of affairs across the nation, the Black Lives Matter movement and protests about police treatment of blacks, racial profiling, our national anthem and criminal injustice, the film resonates with a righteous unrest that rings far beyond events that happened 175 years ago.

“They’re killin’ people everywhere for no reason all than bein’ black,” says Turner’s wife, Cherry (Aja Naomi King).

In so many ways, the timing for Parker’s film about Nat Turner feels so right, and so right now.

—Neil Pond, Parade Magazine

Something Wicked

Potently unsettling tale burrows into your head to where nightmares live

 

The Witch

Starring Anya Taylor-Joy, Ralph Ineson and Kate Dickie

Directed by Robert Eggers

R

In the modern world, “devils” are mascots for sports teams and witches vex pretty Disney princesses. But once upon a time, such things were much more serious and much scarier.

That’s the serious, scary and seriously scary setting for The Witch, in which a devout family in early 17th century New England is exiled from their settlement—the father (Ralph Ineson, who played Amycus Carrow in the Harry Potter movies) is too overbearing in his religious beliefs even for his Puritan neighbors to bear. When their one-horse wagon finally stops, they homestead on a scruffy patch of ground at the edge of a remote, dense forest.

Just as they’re getting into the rhythms of their new life, things start to go woefully wrong, beginning with the disappearance of their new baby boy, giggling in the grass one moment and gone the next. Did a wolf gobble him up? Or was it something more sinister—maybe a shape-shifting, spell-casting, baby-snatching sorceress?

All eyes look to the woods—and to the oldest child, teenage daughter Thomasin (19-year-old Anya Taylor-Joy), who was in charge of watching the baby. She can’t explain what happened, and her inconsolable mother (Kate Dickie, from TV’s Game of Thrones) can’t forgive her. Her little brother, Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw), can’t stop casting guilty glances at her ripening signs of young-womanhood. And her very name itself includes the word “sin.”

Something wicked this way comes, indeed, especially when heinous accusations start to fly, pious prayers fill the air, crops fail, the chicken lays a bloody egg, and and the family goat, ominously named Black Phillip, begins to look, and act, more malevolent ever minute.

This super-creepy, potently unsettling film bowled audiences over last year at Sundance, where it took top honors for director Robert Eggers. It’s being marketed as a horror movie, and it certainly is that, but it has little in common with many other contemporary flicks sharing the label.

It’s a period piece rich in precise historical detail (including language), dedicated to an unflinching depiction of religious obsession driven to unholy extremes. Eggers drills into the same demonic DNA that made such movie classics as The Exorcist, Rosemary’s Baby and The Shining such disturbing dynamite; some of his images get inside your head and nest deep into cracks where nightmares live and lurk. It’s the first movie I’ve ever noticed a credit for a mental health counselor.

The movie is an eerie, roiling brew of double, double, toil and trouble, to be sure. But it also makes no bones about how Christian fanaticism in early America sometimes ran off the rails and plunged straight into the devil’s playground, especially when fear, superstition, hysteria and the suppression and oppression of females helped stir the cauldron. You don’t have to squint to see, a few decades down the road and just beyond the movie’s frame of reference, the notorious Salem witch trials looming in the distance.

The performances are riveting, especially from the youngsters, all newcomers. The soundtrack’s combination of synthesizers, dissonant orchestral tones and wordless choral pieces gives everything an unnerving underpinning of constant tension and dread. Director Eggers, a former production designer making his feature-film debut, is certainly a new talent to watch.

And The Witch, in limited release, is a knockout of a movie you should seek out—especially if you’re seeking something nightmarishly new that will chill you, and haunt you, like it’s the 1600s all over again.

—Neil Pond, Parade Magazine

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Race Relations

Jesse Owens biopic reminds us of runner and historic 1936 Olympics

Race

Starring Stephan James & Jason Sudeikis

Directed by Stephen Hopkins

PG-13

No one had ever seen anyone run anything like Jesse Owens.

The sharecropper’s son from rural Alabama began burning up the track in junior high. By the early 1930s he was setting new championship records for Ohio State University, and in 1936 he wowed the world, where he brought home four gold medals—for track, relay race and long jump—from the Summer Olympics in Berlin, Germany.

Race tells Owens’ tale, and its simple-sounding title packs a double meaning—about his fleet feet as well as the spotlight on him as a black man in a historically loaded moment in time, where he faced discrimination, racism and the pressure to represent his country and his “people.”

In the movie’s opening sequence, as Owens (Stephan James) prepares to leave home for college, his mother touches a scar on his bare chest, the leftover of a childhood tumor that almost claimed his young life. “God spared you for a reason,” she tells him.

That reason, the movie leads us to believe, was to stand up for what’s right, to walk (and run) humbly with your God-given gifts—and to stick it to the Nazis.

In 1936, the movie shows us, the United States was conflicted about whether to participate in the Summer Olympics at all. Germany had won the bid to host the events five years earlier, two years before Nazi Germany came to power. Adolph Hitler’s goal of a blue-eyed, blonde-haired master “Ayran race” was already making nasty international ripples. When a member of the U.S. Olympic Committee pays a diplomatic visit to Berlin to negotiate terms of America’s participation, he sees signs outside the gargantuan Berlin Sports Center reading “No Jews or Dogs.”

German filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl (Carice von Houten) keeps the camera rolling for the 1936 Olympics.

Hitler’s Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels (Barnaby Metschurat), expecting his highly trained athletes to dominate, wants to use the Olympics as the ultimate world stage to showcase German grandeur. He’s hired his country’s acclaimed filmmaker, Leni Riefenstahl (Carice von Houten), to document everything from start to finish.

Jason Sudeikis

Director Stephen Hopkins takes a mostly straightforward, meat-and-potatoes approach, especially to Owens’ life in Ohio, where we meet his wife-to-be Ruth (Shanice Banton) and his coach, Larry Synder (Saturday Night Live TV vet Jason Sudeikis, very strong in a non-comedic role). The movie doesn’t really come alive until Owens arrives in Berlin, specifically when he first steps onto the futuristic field and is awestruck by a hundred thousand cheering spectators, a massive dirigible overhead blocking out the sun, Nazi banners, athletes giving “Sieg Heil!” salutes—and the sight of dur füher in his boxed seat.

Owens was an enormous part of the history of the 1936 Olympics, where his achievements delivered a big black slap to Germany’s smug Nazi face about their so-called racial “superiority.” A subplot about his friendship with their top athlete, Lutz Long, represents the bridges—instead of barriers—of the Olympics’ loftiest ideal.

After the Olympics, the great Owens came home a winner and a new record-setter, but we’re showed how his four gold medals didn’t exactly change the world—for him or anyone else. As the movie and the Black History Month timing of its release reminds us, there was—and remains still—a much longer race to be run.

—Neil Pond, Parade Magazine

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Water Water Everywhere

Chris Pine pilots true tale of Coast Guard heroics

The Finest Hours

Starring Chris Pine, Casey Affleck & Holliday Grainger

Directed by Craig Gillespie

PG-13

In an early scene of The Finest Hours, shy Cape Cod Coast Guardsman Bernie Webber (Chris Pine) gently tries to coax his new girlfriend, Miriam (Holliday Grainger), into a nighttime boat ride. But she’s afraid of the water after dark. “You can’t see what’s underneath,” she says.

“Just more watah,” Bernie reassures her.

Just more watah, indeed, in this splashy true tale of against-all-odds nautical heroics almost 65 years ago, by four Coast Guardsmen who responded to the distress signal from an oil tanker that had been split asunder by a treacherous nor’easter, one of the worst winter storms ever in Massachusetts. What happened on that snow-piled, water-water-everywhere February evening is still considered “the most daring rescue in Coast Guard history.”

The Finest Hours

Chris Pine & Holliday Grainger

After we meet Bernie and Miriam, and watch their romance sweetly blossom into marriage plans, we’re introduced to the men onboard the soon-to-be-doomed vessel. There the chief engineer (Casey Affleck) quickly becomes the de factor leader after the captain goes down with the front half of their ship.

By the time news of the greatly distressed, disabled tanker reaches the Cape Cod Coast Guard station, Bernie hardly seems like the man for a daring rescue. Some of the locals won’t let the soft-spoken coxswain forget a previous mission in which a life was lost, and Bernie is also teased by some of his fellow, more seasoned Coast Guardsmen when they find out that the “take-charge” gal he’s planning on marrying proposed to him, not the other way around.

“You sure you got your pants on, Webber?” one of them asks him.

All of this is to set up the “perfect storm” of circumstances for Bernie to prove himself a man, and a hero, when he’s asked to round up a crew and head into the maw of the storm, find the troubled tanker shell and attempt a rescue.

Others in the Coast Guard station consider it “a suicide mission.”

After seeing Chris Pine command the starship USS Enterprise across the universe in two Star Trek movies (with a third, Star Trek Beyond, coming in July), he looks a bit odd, teeny and constrained behind the wheel of a small boat, even one battling monstrous, mountainous CGI waves. And even if he’s playing his character true to what the actual Webber did, for the star and hero of the story, he doesn’t get a lot to do—it’s not terribly exciting to watch a “good guy” stand up and steer a wooden lifeboat, squint and shout into the darkness and get splashed with water for most of half an hour.

Casey Affleck

Casey Affleck

Onboard the floundering back half of the tanker, Casey Affleck fares a bit better, bringing some gung-ho realism and a sense of cool-headed determination to his role as he figures out a way to build a massive makeshift rudder and steer the broken hull of the ship.

And with a passionate, firecracker temperament to match her red hair, British actress Holliday Grainger provides a feisty onshore grounding for the salty seafaring action.

This clam-chowder winter drama won’t win any awards, but it does stand as a rousing Hollywood salute to a little-known incident in nautical history and a stirring tale of Greatest Generation heroism “rescued” from obscurity by the big screen.

—Neil Pond, Parade Magazine

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