Boston Strong

Mark Wahlberg leads all-star cast in drama built around 2013 Boston bombings 

041816_PATRIOTSDAY_KB_419.CR2

Patriots Day
Starring Mark Wahlberg, Kevin Bacon, John Goodman, Melissa Benoist, Alex Wolff & J.K. Simmons
Directed by Peter Berg
R
In theaters Jan. 6, 2017

After escaping an exploding oil rig just a couple of months ago in Deepwater Horizon, Mark Wahlberg is now back on the job as Boston police officer, hobbled with a bad knee and thrust into the middle of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings.

Both Deepwater Horizon, based on the 2010 BP oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, and Patriots Day were directed by Peter Berg, who also worked with Wahlberg on Lone Survivor, the 2013 true-life military drama about a team of U.S. Navy SEALs on a mission to capture a notorious Taliban leader.

The two Bergs seem to have a thing for real-life action sagas.

An ambitious, sprawling, detailed dramatization of the events around the bombings that killed three people and injured more than 250 others at the 2013 Boston Marathon, Patriots Day takes its title from the Massachusetts state holiday on which the iconic race has been run for more than a century.

Director Berg, aided significantly by the gritty, street-level, you-are-there cinematography of veteran lensman Tobias Schliessler, packs some serious multiplex meat to the factual framework of the widely reported contemporary event, one that received massive media coverage at the time. He creates a gripping, freshly compelling story by first introducing us to a wide variety of characters that we come to care about, each of whom is intricately woven into the narrative tapestry as the movie unfolds, creating a stirring theme of “Boston strong.”

Kevin Bacon, Mark Wahlberg & John Goodman dig into the case.

Kevin Bacon, Mark Wahlberg & John Goodman dig into the case.

Walhberg gets top billing as Boston police Sgt. Tommy Saunders (a composite character based on several real individuals), who becomes key to the investigation as it becomes a citywide manhunt for the suspects. He’s surrounded by a terrific cast in a spectrum of supporting roles, including Tamerlan Tsarnaev (Termo Melikidze) and his younger brother Jahar (Alex Wolff), who carried the homemade, pressure-cooker explosives in their backpacks before leaving them in the crowd close to the marathon’s finish line.

John Goodman plays Boston Police Commission Ed Davis. Kevin Bacon is FBI special agent Richard DesLauriers, who steps in when the bombing is declared an act of terrorism. J.K. Simmons hovers around the edges as Jeffrey Pugliese, the police sergeant in Watertown, outside Boston, until the fleeing suspects finally arrive there to meet their violent Waterloo.

Melissa Benoist gives a chilling performance, far away from her good-girl type as TV’s Supergirl, as Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s white, Boston-born Muslim-convert girlfriend. Khandi Alexander (who played Maya Lewis on TV’s Scandal) is riveting as an “undercover” interrogator.

Other, lesser-known actors portray the movie’s real heroes, like Sean Collier (Jake Picking), the MIT campus policeman who refused to let the terrorists take his service revolver, even after they’d shot him. Jimmy O. Yang (from HBO’s Silicon Valley) plays a young Chinese-immigrant college student whose path fatefully crossed with the bombers after the marathon.

Rachel Broshahan (Rachel Posner on the Netflix series House of Cards) and Christopher O’Shea (Jareth Glover on TV’s Madam Secretary) portray newlywed race spectators who were both seriously injured in the explosions but survived. Their mini-story is one of the movie’s most moving, and bookends its overlay of hope, resilience and community-wide, real-life rebound.

042516_PATRIOTSDAY_KB_568.CR2

Michelle Monaghan

Definitely stay for the epilogue, when you’ll meet some of the real people—including Jessica and Patrick—depicted in the film.

“These images in my head,” Walhberg’s character tells his wife (Michelle Monaghan) in the bombing’s horrific aftermath, “they ain’t goin’ away.” The powerful images in Patriots Day will linger with for with you for a while, too. But so will its bigger, uplifting depiction of a town and its citizens united—healing, tougher than ever and determined to not let the bad guys win—after an almost unthinkable tragedy.

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

You Rang?

‘A Monster Calls’ scares away terrors of childhood

A MONSTER CALLS

A Monster Calls
Starring Lucas MacDougall, Felicity Jones, Sigourney Weaver & the voice of Liam Neeson
Directed by J.A. Bayona
PG-13

J.A. Bayona knows that childhood can be a scary, perilous time.

The Spanish director’s first major movie, The Orphanage (2007), was a poignant, unnerving haunted-house horror tale about ghosts of the deep past. His second, The Impossible (2012), swept a couple (Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor) and their three children away in the great Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004.

Now A Monster Calls finds a 12-year-old boy, Conor (Lucas MacDougall), visited in the night by a giant “tree monster” who tells him a series of stories to help him cope with the inevitable consequences of his mother’s incurable cancer and the bullying of his schoolmates.

_MG_5478.CR2Is the monster (voiced by Liam Neeson) a fantasy creature from Conor’s dreams, a figment of his fertile imagination, or one of his pencil drawings come magically to life?

Like the ancient, towering tree that “becomes” the monster every night, just past midnight at exactly 12:07 a.m., there’s a lot going on both above the surface and beneath it in this beautiful-looking film of great depth, heart and soul. It’s a coming-of-age tale of a boy and his mom (Felicity Jones, who’s terrific), and how he gets tangled up by his grandmother (Sigourney Weaver) and his estranged father (Toby Kebbell), who’s now remarried and living stateside.

Not to mention those bullies, who tease and threaten him, push him around, ambush him in the schoolyard and debase his artwork.

_MG_4431.CR2

Felicity Jones plays Conor’s mom.

Conor is haunted by a recurring nightmare about being on the maw of a dark, seemingly bottomless pit, where he’s holding on for dear life to the hand of his mother, who’s fallen over the edge. Curled up one evening on the couch with her, watching King Kong on late-night TV, it’s no wonder Conor can relate to the great beast, dogged by biplanes peppering him with gunfire until he can no longer hold on to the top of the Empire State Building. The mighty Kong loses his grip and falls to his death.

Conor’s eyes fill with tears and he asks his mom why Kong had to die. Why did people hate him? Why did they kill him? “People don’t like what they don’t understand,” she tells him.

A MONSTER CALLSYoung people will certainly be able to relate to Conor and his plight, an adolescent symphony of anger, resentment and righteous rage that will ring true in a variety of circumstances. Grownups will appreciate the movie’s craftwork and gorgeous artistry, especially when the monster tells Conor his stories; each one is a mini-parable with a lesson, illustrated and animated differently.

Monsters come in all shapes and sizes. If they more of them were as cool as a storytelling tree that sounded like Liam Neeson, maybe the world might not seem like such a scary place.

Tagged , , , , , ,

Space Racers

Spotlighting black female brain power that boosted America’s space program

DF-03283_R3 - Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae, left), Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson) and Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) celebrate their stunning achievements in one of the greatest operations in history. Photo Credit: Hopper Stone.

Janelle Monae, Taraji P. Henson and Octavia Spencer star in ‘Hidden Figures.’

Hidden Figures
Starring Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monáe & Kevin Costner
Directed by Theodore Melfi
PG
In theaters Jan. 6, 2017

Behind every successful man, the old saying goes—as archaic and sexist as it may be—there’s a woman.

In the case of this movie, it’s literally, historically true.

Hidden Figures is the story of a group of black women who broke through racial and gender barriers in the late 1950s and early ’60s to work as mathematicians and other number crunchers and help NASA get America’s first astronauts, and its space program, off the ground.

In the pre-digital age, there were known as human “computers,” doing complex calculations about flight trajectories, orbit, reentry, splashdown and recovery with pencils, paper and pure brain power.

Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer and singer-actress Janelle Monáe star as their real-life counterparts Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughn and Mary Jackson.

Kevin Costner

Kevin Costner

Kevin Costner is the director of the Space Task Group, spurring his engineers to find a way ahead of the Soviets, who’ve already moved into an early lead in the space race. If you got a rousing rah-rah pep talk from the guy from Bull Durham, Field of Dreams, Draft Day and McFarland, USA, wouldn’t it make you push that pencil just a little bit harder, a little bit later into the night, to beat the ruskies?

Jim Parsons—Sheldon Cooper on TV’s The Big Bang Theory—plays another egghead, time-shifted here to suit the situation: He’s a prickly lead engineer wary of a woman—and a Negro woman, at that—coming into his group. As the gentlemanly military man who courts Johnson, Mahershala Ali continues to add to his growing resume, on top of his breakout in the movie Moonlight and his recurring appearances in TV’s Luke Cage and House of Cards. Kristin Dunst is a supervisor who struggles to overcome the era’s hurdles separating employees into whites and coloreds.

John Glenn (Glen Powell) meets the "computers," the female mathematicians with whom he would come to trust his life.

John Glenn (Glen Powell) meets the “computers,” the female mathematicians with whom he would come to trust his life.

Glen Powell plays young hotshot astronaut John Glenn, who won’t get into his space capsule for blastoff until NASA brings in Johnson to double-check the crucial—life or death—math on his orbit and re-entry.

But the clearly movie belongs to its three central stars, and director Theodore Melfi (who also directed Bill Murray in the wonderful St. Vincent) gives them all plenty of room to shine in a story that oozes inspiration and rings with righteous pride, thanks to the zippy, well-rounded script by Melfi and Alison Schroder, based on the nonfiction book by Margo Lee Shetterly. Henson, Spencer and Monáe all bring spunk, sass, heart and humor to their roles.

The title “hidden figures” refers to just how deep behind the scenes women like Johnson, Vaughn and Jackson were at NASA—and elsewhere—in the early 1960s. Even though their contributions proved to be immense to the space program, they were practically “lost” in a sea of white men in white shirts. But it also refers to the math required to get America into space and headed to the moon—numbers “that aren’t there yet,” as Costner’s character tells Johnson, calculations so advanced, they hadn’t been invented, figures waiting somewhere yet to be found.

Katherine Johnson was the woman who found them.

The movie tells the “hidden” story of three super-smart, headstrong women who made tremendous strides in a time of shameful segregation and civil unrest, a time when a group of black women helped white men get into space—but couldn’t use the same bathrooms, coffeepots, water fountains or schools.

Three women, it reminds us, who had another kind of “the right stuff.”

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , ,

Over The Fence

Powerful leading performances move ‘Fences’ from stage to screen

FENCES

Fences
Starring Denzel Washington & Viola Davis
Directed by Denzel Washington
PG-13
In theaters Dec. 25, 2016

Fences can keep things in, keep things out, make it difficult for people to see what’s happening, and mark lines of division, separation or conflict.

Oscar-winning actor Denzel Washington directs as well as stars in this big-screen adaptation of August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 1987 Broadway play, an epic domestic drama about a black family in Pittsburgh in the mid 1950s.

Washington reprises the lead role of Troy Maxson, a garbage collector and former baseball player haunted by his glory days in the Negro leagues. It’s a role Washington also performed on stage in the play’s 2010 Tony Award-winning Broadway revival, alongside Viola Davis, who also returns to her role as Troy’s long-suffering, loyal wife, Rose.

Much of the movie is set in the scrappy, cramped, grassless backyard of Troy and Rose’s modest brick home, in the shadows of the town’s smoke-belching factories, where Troy spends his weekends working on the construction of a wooden fence. It’s to separate his home from the eyesore of the abandoned house next door.

And it’s obviously a metaphor for much more.

Bono (Stephen McKinley Henderson) and Troy (Denzel Washington) watch Cory (Jovan Adepo) work on Troy’s backyard fence.

Troy is a fiercely proud patriarch who crows about how much he loves Rose, how hard he works, how he deserves a promotion, and how much he’s done to provide for his family. He boasts about what a great baseball player he was (better than the new black players, even Jackie Robinson), and how he danced with death more than once and lived to tell the tale.

But Troy is a jealous bully to his youngest son, Cory (Jovan Adepo), blocking his promising athletic path to college. He’s stingy and dismissive of his oldest son, Lyons (Russell Hornsby), whose easygoing musical ambition doesn’t seem like “real” work. And when his secretive philandering puts his marriage to the test, the world of which he so loudly proclaims himself to be the center begins to crumble.

In a powerful performance, Washington makes Troy both sympathetic and pathetic, a tragic character of almost Shakespearian proportions grappling with fate, family responsibilities, work, racial injustice and carnal desires. You may not like him, or love him, but Washington makes Troy a force of nature you cannot ignore.

And Davis, too, is formidable; she’s already won a Critic’s Choice award, and she’s all but certainly bound for an Oscar nomination. The emotional, confrontational scene where Rose stands up to Troy, and her wounded pride comes spilling out in a fierce spew of anger, hurt, betrayal, tears and snot, goes far deeper than any of the holes Troy’s put in the yard for his fence posts.

Mykelti Williamson plays Gabriel.

Mykelti Williamson plays Gabriel.

Familiar character actor Stephen McKinley Henderson does a great job in a supporting role as Troy’s longtime friend Bono, who serves as the moral compass Troy mostly ignores. Mykelti Williamson, best remembered as Bubba in Forrest Gump, gives a touching performance as Troy’s brother, Gabe, who came back from World War II with a metal plate in his head—and an otherworldly gift.

Sometimes Fences betrays its roots as a Broadway play, with more words than action. But any stilted “staginess” is offset by its commanding performances—especially by Washington. As the star and director, he’s created a majestic movie with both gravity and grace that feels too big, and too significant, to be fenced in by anything.

 

 

 

 

 

Tagged , , , , , , ,

Lost in Space

Chris Pratt & Jennifer Lawrence heat up sci-fi mush of ‘Passengers’

Chris Pratt; Jennifer Lawrence

Passengers
Starring Chris Pratt & Jennifer Lawrence
Directed by Morten Tyldum
PG-13
In theaters Dec. 23, 2016

A gigantic rocket ship on a 120-year journey to a faraway space colony has a glitch mid-route, mistakenly waking up one—and only one—of its 5,000 passengers from suspended-animation hibernation early.

Ninety years early.

And once your personalized alarm clock goes off on this intergalactic cruise, there’s no way hit the snooze and go back to deep sleep—you’re up.

That’s what happens, alas, to Jim Preston (Chris Pratt), who awakes to find himself all alone on a big, spinning luxury cruise liner of a spaceship auto-piloted to a lush new world, set to arrive…well, a couple of decades now after he’s dead.

Michael Sheen plays the android bartender Arthur.

Michael Sheen is android bartender Arthur.

Jim at first explores the ship and avails himself of all its amenities (holographic dance-offs, no lines in the food court, great robotic restaurant service). He finds a “companion” in the lounge’s android bartender, Arthur (Michael Sheen from TV’s Masters of Sex). But he’s smitten when he catches a glimpse of one of the other hibernating passengers, a writer named Aurora Lane (Jennifer Lawrence).

Weighing the moral and ethical considerations against his own crushing loneliness, Jim eventually makes the decision to rouse Aurora from her hibernation—without telling her he did so. What she doesn’t know can’t hurt her, right? Right???

The starship in Passengers runs on a whirring nuclear reactor. But the movie itself is powered by two of Hollywood’s hottest, most likeable, bankable stars, and the film’s storyline bends around them and the heat they generate. There’s a genuinely creepy, unnerving nugget of a tale—of obsession, desperation and survival—in Passengers about what might happen under the futuristic circumstances it depicts, but it mostly gets lost in the sweet, sci-fi mush—and rush—of its intergalactic romance.

Aurora (Jennifer Lawrence) swims...a lot.

Aurora (Jennifer Lawrence) swims…a lot.

Things get better for Jim, then worse—much worse. He grows a beard. He shaves off his beard. Aurora and Jim walk among the stars—a big-ticket “shore excursion”—and make out in spacesuits. Aurora laughs. Aurora cries. Aurora rages. Aurora attacks Jim. Aurora swims—a lot. She gets trapped in a big, floating water “bubble” when the ship’s artificial gravity goes out.

Norwegian director Morten Tyldum, nominated for an Oscar for The Imitation Game, creates a space-station world, and an atmosphere, that feels like a cross-pollination of a Carnival Cruise, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Robinson Crusoe and The Twilight Zone. He pays attention to small details and never lets his “big” space movie get overrun and overblown with special effects.

Another big-name star, also awoken early by a system malfunction, makes a late appearance, mainly to sound the alarm that things have really taken a turn for the worse. Can Jim and Aurora right the ship—and realign their own stars?

“Lay some bartender wisdom on me,” Jim implores Arthur at one point. “I feel like I’m lost in space here.” After riding along in Passengers’ interstellar love boat for two rocky hours, you may agree that some course correction might have indeed been helpful—especially when this rocket lands on one of the cheesiest spaceball wrap-up endings of anything this year.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tagged , , , , ,

Happy Feet

Gosling & Stone sweep you away in sweet sunshine of musical movie magic

La La Land
Starring Ryan Gosling & Emma Stone
Directed by Damien Chazelle
PG-13

I remember, when I was a kid, a Mad magazine parody of the classic movie musical The Sound of Music. That film’s regal Rodgers & Hammerstein theme song begins with the lyric, “The hills are alive…with the sound of music…”

In the Mad spoof, a character all by herself on a hilltop wonders in song, “How come I’m alone—and there’s so much music?”

That’s always been the thing with musicals—stories move along, then all of a sudden characters break out into song or dance. What? Why? And where does all that music come from? It’s all so phony, fabricated, fake—and fabulous, for people who love musicals: the songs, the spectacle, the perkiness and cheer, the sense of something bigger, grander, more expansive and more exuberantly alive than ordinary, day-to-day reality can contain or mere words can express. Movies have always been vehicles for escapism, but musicals crank it up to 11, sweeping viewers away to places where dreams can come true, everyone has magic feet and music comes out of nowhere.

Ryan Gosling & Emma Stone

Ryan Gosling & Emma Stone

In writer-director Damien Chazell’s enchanted, visually stunning La La Land (which recently received seven Critics Choice movie awards, including Best Picture), a struggling actress, Mia (Emma Stone), and an aspiring musician, Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), meet and fall in love in Los Angeles, where their courtship is wrapped into a tapestry of songs—composed by Justin Hurwitz, Chazelle’s Harvard University classmate, with lyrics by the Tony-nominated team of Benj Pasek and Justin Paul—eye-popping choreography, a visually sprawling love letter to the city and to cinema itself, and a snazzy subplot flowing with the funky fusion-juice of jazz.

A sumptuously old-fashioned movie musical set in stylish, contemporary settings, La La Land will sweep you off your feet with every sequence, beginning with the very first one. Less than a minute into the opening, a traffic jam on a gridlocked L.A. freeway overpass suddenly erupts into a jubilant, swirling celebration of Southern California weather, outlook and optimism, “Another Day in the Sun,” with dozens of dancers and vehicles stretching as far as the eye can see. Like many of the film’s other sequences, it’s one continuous, uninterrupted take, and it’s jaw dropping.

Stone and Gosling, who’ve appeared together in two movies previously (Gangster Squad and Crazy, Stupid, Love), are perfectly cast and couldn’t be more likeable, more adorable or appear more at ease in their roles. They dazzle in a Fred-and-Ginger-esque song-and-dance number, “A Lovely Night,” set against a Hollywood sunset, and quite literally soar into the stars in the breathtakingly lovely “Planetarium.”

Suffice it to say you will not have seen anything like La La Land in a long, long time. It’s a singing, swinging, prancing, swooping spectacular, full of hopes and heartaches, uplifts and downdrafts. Majestically, symphonically grand, yet intimately, elegantly tender, it’s piercingly sweet, rapturously lovely, fancifully wistful and achingly honest.

Gosling is terrific, but Stone has never been better—and her raw, close-up performance of “Audition (The Fools Who Dream),” the final vocal performance in the film, will make you want to stand up and cheer.

J.K. Simmons, who won an Oscar for his supporting role in director Chazelle’s critically lauded Whiplash (2014), appears as a nightclub owner who prefers Christmas ditties instead of jazz improv. Grammy-winning musician John Legend plays one of Sebastian’s former band mates whose offer of a gig and financial security comes with a downside of compromise.

La La Land, a nickname for Los Angeles, is a place where tradition and innovation—and dreams and reality—collide and comingle, where seasons morph into each other, where the days always seem warm and bright, but the nights can be cold and lonely.

LLL d 13 _2607.NEFIt’s a place where two people can come together, fall in love, and sing and dance and make music all over a crazy, classic town—at least in the movies.

It ends with one of the best scenes of any movie this year, bursting with emotion and built around a montage that zips through time and loops back on everything that’s gone before, and also everything that didn’t, hangs you in midair and finally slaps you back to “reality.” It’s beautiful, bittersweet and breathtaking.

La La Land is a lovely, lush reminder of old Hollywood, with a vibrant jolt of young, exciting energy, pizzazz and romance for audiences too young to remember when singing, dancing stars filled the silver screen. The (Hollywood) Hills are alive again with the sound of (new) music, and wherever it’s coming from, it’s impossible to not be swept up and away in the sweet sunshine of its movie magic.

Tagged , , , , , , , ,

We Are Stardust

‘Rogue One’ is Rollicking Prequel to Original ‘Star Wars’ Saga

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
Starring Felicity Jones, Diego Luno, Forest Whitaker & Riz Ahmed
Directed by Gareth Edwards
PG-13
In theaters Dec. 16, 2016

Space, science tell us, just continues to expand—endlessly, forever.

How else would it have room for Star Wars, the multi-billion-dollar franchise that just gets bigger all the time? It’s listed by Guinness World Records as the planet’s most successful movie merchandising series, a gargantuan, ever-growing realm of films, TV shows, games, comic books, toys and other products.

It all started back in 1977, sort of. As fans know, the first movie was really the fourth—or Episode IV—in the middle of a much bigger story arc to come, one that would play out over the following four decades. And now, the rollicking eighth film takes us back some 30 years, prequel-style, before the big bang.

Ben Mendelsohn

Ben Mendelsohn

In the new Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, Felicity Jones is a feisty fireball as Jyn Erso, the daughter of a brilliant scientist (Mads Milkkelsen) kidnapped by a fascist operations director (Ben Mendelsohn) of the Galactic Empire to complete his ultimate weapon of mass destruction, the Death Star. When Jyn finds out her father has built a secret booby trap, deep inside the device, by which it can be destroyed, she knows she has to help the Rebel resistance find and steal the blueprint of the weapon so the Death Star can be blown to smithereens.

These events, you may recall, preceded and set up the original Star Wars, and are summarized in that film’s iconic opening scroll: “It is a period of civil war… Rebel spies managed to steal secret plans…”

That alone should be enough to send goose bumps up and down the spine of any true fan. British director Gareth Edwards was only 2 years old when the original film—introducing the world to Luke, Han Solo and Princess Leia, and the loveable droids R2-D2 and C-3P0—came out, but he obviously immersed himself in the culture as he grew. While buzzing and humming with new characters, the visually splendid, dramatically stirring Rogue One remains steadfast to the legacy of the franchise and offers some delightful surprise appearances by “old” familiar faces—good, evil, human and droid.

Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) and K-2SO (Alan Tudyk)

Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) and K-2SO (Alan Tudyk)

Jyn gradually becomes part of a motley, multicultural, Dirty Dozen/Ocean’s 11-esque crew on a mission to steal the Death Star plans. Diego Luno is Capt. Cassian Andor, a veteran resistance spy, this movie’s version of Han Solo. Forest Whitaker plays Jyn’s mentor, Rebel insurgent Saw Guerra. Hong Kong action star and martial artist Donnie Yen is a blind warrior monk guided by the Force.

Riz Ahmed plays Bhodi Rook, a defected Imperial pilot seeking atonement. Alan Tudyk (the voice of the Duke in Frozen) provides the voice of K-2SO, or Kaytoo, a retooled, wisecracking Imperial droid who gets many of the movie’s best lines. Chinese actor-director Wen Jiang is fearless machine gunner Baze Malbus.

There are Imperial Destroyers, gigantic AT-ACT Walkers and fleets of Jedi Interceptors and X-Wings in pounding, eye-popping sky and land battles. Much of the action has strong military vibes, such as a rousing speech to the “troops” before a beach landing preceding a blistering assault with guns, grenades and aerial bombing. Filmed in the tropical island atolls of the Indian Ocean, the sequence is like a gritty, futuristic throwback to classic WWII cinema.

Off the battlefield, Rogue One works the themes of family, camaraderie and loyalty, and how—throughout time—the heavy hand of rule and repression has masqueraded as “peacekeeping.” When Jedha, a Jedi holy mountaintop city and rebel base, is attacked by the Death Star, it’s no stretch to think of the ancient Roman hammer coming down on Jewish cities like Jerusalem or Masada.

“We are stardust, we are golden, we are billion-year-old carbon,” wrote Joni Mitchell in her 1970 song “Woodstock,” her anthem for the hippie generation about how everyone is basically—elementally—connected. Science tells us stardust, originated from explosions billions of years ago, zillions of light-years distant, continues to swirl throughout the cosmos, regenerating in everything in the universe.

In Rogue One, “Stardust” is the nickname given to Jyn as a little girl by her father. It takes on a much deeper meaning as the movie progresses, and especially—quite literally—as it ends.

Who would have thought that a rollicking space opera so “long ago, in a galaxy far, far away,” back in 1977, could make such an impact, such a cultural explosion, still expanding and spreading? The next Star Wars, Episode VIII, is slated for December of next year, another—starring Alden Ehrenreich as young Han Solo—is tracking for spring 2018, and Episode IX is on the launch pad for May 2019.

In space, and just about everywhere else, the Star Wars stardust just keeps spreading, indeed. “We have a long ride ahead of us,” says Capt. Andor as he, Kaytoo and Jyn buckle up when their adventure gets underway. Fans will giddily enjoy every minute of Rogue One’s rousing journey spanning both yesteryear and tomorrow. And when it’s over, they’ll be ready to hop aboard again and again and again, for a ride that may just go on forever.

—Neil Pond, Parade Magazine

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Night Howl

Masterfully unsettling ‘Nocturnal Animals’ really gets under your skin

NOCTURNAL ANIMALS

Nocturnal Animals
Starring Amy Adams, Jake Gyllenhall, Michael Shannon & Armie Hammer
Directed by Tom Ford
R
Wide release Dec. 9

Have you ever read a book that really got to you, got under you skin and burrowed into your head?

Well, the book Amy Adams’ character devours sure does that to her in Nocturnal Animals, a chilling, neo-noir psychological thriller that explores the fine lines between love and brutality, art and life, regret and revenge, and having it all and losing everything.

Based on a 1990s novel and adapted for the screen, directed and co-produced by Tom Ford, the chi-chi clothing designer who was once the fashion director for Gucci and Saint Laurent, the film begins when Susan Morrow (Adams), a wealthy but unhappy owner of a tony L.A. art gallery, receives a package in the mail. It’s the manuscript for a novel from her ex-husband, Edward (Jake Gyllenhall).

Tellingly, Susan gets a paper cut on her finger opening the parcel, drawing blood.

NOCTURNAL ANIMALSAs Susan begins to read the manuscript—titled Nocturnal Animals—the movie quickly takes its basic shape: a story within a story, cutting back and forth between the events of the book and Susan’s reactions to it. There’s a third storyline, as well, about Susan’s flashbacks to her previous life with Edward, whom she met as a college student more than a decade ago, and whom her parents implored her not to marry.

Edward’s book is about a young family—a couple and their daughter—who run afoul of two carloads of brutish men on a dark West Texas highway one fateful night. For the father (also played by Gyllenhall), it becomes a quest of justice that turns to vengeance.

The movie gradually reveals how all three stories interweave and intersect, why Susan is so deeply interested in the tale, why things went south between her and Edward, what all that has to do with Edward’s book—and why he sent it to Susan.

Jake Gyllenhaal

Jake Gyllenhaal

The movie looks arty and often gorgeous; you can tell the director—whose resume also includes the critically acclaimed A Single Man (2009)—comes from world of high fashion. But this isn’t a happy, uplifting tale. A Hitchcock-ian sense of malice and dread pervades every scene, swept along by the haunting classical score by composer Abel Korzeniowski. Award-winning cinematographer Seamus McGarvey (Anna Karenina, Atonement) depicts Los Angeles as a chilly, post-modernist fortress of sharp, cold steel edges and soulless night; Texas is a harsh, merciless wasteland of tumbleweeds, sun and grit.

Naked corpses dissolve into a shot of nude, intertwined bodies of sleeping lovers. There are visual clues of distress and malaise everywhere, from the dead bird Susan discovers outside her window to the grotesque, disturbing “contemporary” exhibits in her museum—naked, obese, slow-motion baton twirlers; a life-size sculpture of a bison, punctured with arrows; an oversize, ominous-looking photo of a man in a field pointing a rifle at another man, point-blank, execution-style.

Think No Country For Old Men meets CSI: West Texas, by way of Twin Peaks.

NOCTURNAL ANIMALS

Michael Shannon (right) is terrific in a supporting role as a local detective.

Gyllenhall gives (another) great performance; he’s essentially playing two different roles. Michael Shannon, who adds a live-wire spark to anything in which he appears, gets one of his best supporting roles yet as Det. Bobby Andes, who’s assigned to the fictional case but willing to bend the rules when time begins running out. Armie Hammer plays Susan’s philandering second husband. Laura Linney has only one scene, as Susan’s Texas socialite mom, but it’s pivotal.

Edward dedicates his book to Susan and titles it after his nickname for her—a night owl who had trouble sleeping. After seeing the impressively crafted but intentionally haunting Nocturnal Animals, you might have a bit of trouble dozing off for the next few evenings, too.

—Neil Pond, Parade Magazine

O, Jackie

Natalie Portman drills deep to the dark, complex core of ‘Jackie’

image-04afa3ee-f8cc-4059-8c62-8208612a44bc-72

Jackie
Starring Natalie Portman, Billy Cruddup, Peter Sarsgaard and Greta Gerwig
Directed by Pablo Larraín
R
In theaters Dec. 2, 2016

More than 50 actresses have portrayed Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis on TV and in the movies, including Jacqueline Bissett, Blair Brown, Katie Holmes, Gennifer Goodwin, Roma Downey, Minka Kelly and Gilda Radner on Saturday Night Live.

But everyone else might as well just put away the pink Chanel suit and pillbox hat, because now Natalie Portman owns the role.

In the simply titled Jackie, the Oscar-winning actress delivers a powerful, awards-worthy performance as the former first lady, focused on the days after the assassination of her husband, John F. Kennedy, in November 1963. The movie unfolds through the framing device of Jackie’s flashback recollections, as told to a Life magazine reporter (Billy Cruddup) interviewing her for an exclusive after the event, during which she reminds him that “people like to believe in fairy tales.”

image-31f4e978-7411-4519-9780-0c990636519eThe movie dives into the mind of the grieving Jackie as she deals with the emotional fallout of the loss of her husband, his legacy, and of her place in a world—now without him—as a Kennedy-in-law. It’s not a conventional biography, or even a historical drama. It’s deeper and darker than that, and Portman bores down to the complex, most challenging parts of its core.

Portman anchors every scene, surrounded by an exceptional supporting cast. Peter Sarsgaard plays Bobby Kennedy, her grieving brother-in-law. Greta Gerwig is Nancy Tuckerman, Jackie’s loyal White House social secretary. John Carroll Lynch does a fine job as Texan Vice President Lyndon Johnson, swept into the Oval Office after the tragic campaign motorcade in Dallas, Texas. Beth Grant is his wife, Ladybird.

John Hurt, as a priest at a cemetery, gets to the heart of the movie, and Jackie, in a conversation during which she reveals her fears and anxieties.

Danish actor Caspar Phillipson plays JFK, and he’s well cast, but you don’t see very much of him. This is Portman’s film, and the camera locks onto her like it doesn’t want to let her go.

image-14ab5e32-76ca-4363-b8d8-01408dbdf553The movie does a terrific job of recreating scenes that live in history from newspaper photos and newsreels, such as the swearing in of President Johnson aboard Air Force One and Kennedy’s funeral. Moments of Jackie alone, removing her bloodied pantyhose, looking for Kennedy’s burial site in the rain and mud at Arlington, smoking cigarettes she didn’t want the public to see, or simply wandering around her empty bedroom, alone, are haunting.

The “fairy tale” that Jackie lived at the White House, the movie suggests, was like the one depicted in the legends of King Arthur and his legendary castle, Camelot—noble, idealistic and romantic, laden with symbolism, and potent with the stuff of myth. In one moving and melancholy scene, Jackie tries on several outfits—and gets progressively more inebriated—while the iconic theme from the classic Broadway musical Camelot plays on her stereo.

image-0bdcebd6-18f3-4d74-9b21-72810110b5d4

“Don’t let it be forgot,” she tells her interviewer, “that for one brief, shining moment, there was a Camelot.” She pauses before adding, “There won’t be another Camelot.”

And there won’t be another Jackie like Natalie Portman, at least anytime soon.

—Neil Pond, Parade Magazine

Tagged , , , , , , , , , ,

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

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,