Monthly Archives: October 2015


Steven Spielberg’s rendition of private attorney James Donovan’s (Tom Hanks) defense of a Cold War Russian spy (Mark Rylance) and then his negotiation of the swap of that spy for downed U2 flier Gary Powers and an American student detained in East Berlin is assured, workmanlike, forgettable, and plagued by the schmaltz that accompanies much of his work. Spielberg takes a can’t miss, gripping tale of espionage and burdens it with overwrought homilies to American civil liberties, repetitive scenes of bland conversation, and cheap comedy (Rylance is even given a catchphrase he repeats three times). I’m as patriotic as the next fella, but it’s not enough to show Hanks resisting the zeal of the Cold War simply because he’s Hanks. We never learn why Donovan holds his convictions. They apparently come with Hanks, no assembly required.

Worse, Spielberg juices up the action, probably because he sensed the movie was a bit of a slog. So, Donovan’s house is shot up because he is representing a Russian spy (never happened) and Donovan witnesses East Germans gunned down as they try and make it over the wall (also never happened).

It’s an okay film, it has some moments, and I’ve certainly seen worse, but it’s no great shakes, and as with much of Spielberg’s work, it stays safely in the lines.


I have an affinity for “the world is ending” movies. None of them are very good and they follow the same model, be it Earthquake, The Day After Tomorrow, Independence Day, Armageddon, 2012, Godzilla and now, San Andreas.  Disaster strikes, the warnings of smart, nebbishes notwithstanding. Heroes arise, but family comes first, so Charlton Heston, Dennis Quaid, Randy Quaid, Bruce Willis, John Cusack, Aaron Taylor, and The Rock brave the catastrophe to find and/or save their loved ones. It is in these ordeals that frayed relationships are cemented, so much so that often, new and old spouses have to be dispatched. The children are always saved and mankind perseveres. But their surroundings are ravaged. And as they witness the destruction, they say “oh my God” (twice in San Andreas).  Just like Leslie Neilsen in The Poseidon Adventure. Well, not exactly. No one says “oh my God” like Neilsen playing it straight.

It’s the ravaging I love most. The cyclones of The Day After Tomorrow thrillingly rip Los Angeles apart, the same city where those moony hippies with their “we love you, aliens” signs get satisfyingly incinerated and Genevieve Bujold’s house on stilts slides into the canyon below. Godzilla quickly stomped Honolulu and Vegas and nearly took down the Golden Gate Bridge, which – in one of the few cool moments – does not survive San Andreas. Armageddon disappoints for any number of reasons, but foremost is the fact that Willis, Affleck and company save the day. That’s no fun and its best moment is when the pre-meteors obliterate Paris.

Same story, same devastation here, but somehow, San Andreas is worse than the others. It’s as if The Rock decided to use this film as his first true test playing sorrow, and boy is that uncomfortable. So uncomfortable that Carla Gugino, playing his wife, appears to be averting her eyes. While The Rock, recalling the pain of losing their daughter white water rafting, tries to squirt a few out, Gugino plays it rather lightly, as if to say, “hey, The Rock, this is just filler until the next shot of a building collapsing. Don’t be so glum.”

And here we are in San Francisco, but for the most part, the stuff we know is left alone. Instead, most of what gets shredded are office buildings, one of which is not even a real building. Give me Coit Tower! Give me some careening cable cars! Give me Alcatraz or at least the Transamerica Pyramid! Nope. Just nondescript skyscrapers falling listlessly into each other.

Finally, the movie has no sense of humor. None. Not an aside, or an inside joke, or even the thrill of watching something cool, like Paris obliterated. It’s dead straight, serious as a heart attack, except when The Rock and Gugino sky dive into second base at AT&T Field and he says, “it’s been a long time since I got to second base with you.” And then you appreciate the film’s dull seriousness.

A final note. The daughter who The Rock and Gugino cover hill and dale to save (Alexandra Daddario, who played Woody Harrelson’s impossibly beautiful mistress in the first season of True Detective) is so buxom and model-like that it feels exploitative. Yes, parents have daughters that grow up to be busty bombshells, but the first time we meet her, she’s splayed out on a chaisse lounge by the pool, Kardashian-like, and you kind of want her to die. Of course, she doesn’t.

When my grandmother started to lose it, she was ingenious in masking it. If you asked her who was president, she’d say, “that fool in the White House.” If you asked her about something topical, she’d reply, “Who has time for such things?” It was her game face as her memory began to fail her.

At the beginning of I’ll Be Me, this is where we find Glen Campbell, recently diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. He is vague, folksy and stubborn in attempting to defend himself from a world ever more foreign to him. He leans heavily on his wife, who acts as his lifeline to his past, but we see his true state when he watches old home movies, and asks “who is that?” It’s achingly painful to hear his wife’s reply, “That’s you, silly.”

Campbell’s diagnosis came on the eve of his final tour, and in an effort to increase awareness about the disease, he went public and allowed a documentary crew along for the ride. The result is a bittersweet retrospective of his work (I had no idea just how big a star he was) and an examination of what it is to suffer this disease through the eyes of his family (three kids are in his touring band). I feared that this might become exploitative and was heartened to see that not only was it not, but that Campbell’s wife acknowledged the concern, explaining that they weighed the costs and benefits and decided to go forth. I also feared that it would be altered to create a “triumph of the spirit” vibe, but director James Keach (an actor in his own right and Stacy’s brother) presents Campbell and the disease in sober fashion; when Campbell’s issues become acute, it is almost too much to bear, and when they evince on stage (as is shown on the clip above), it is not sugar-coated. But the audience is with him, so are we and the fact that his music is so ingrained in him it triumphs over the disease, for a time, is a wonder to watch.

Currently on Netflix Streaming.


This story of one woman’s journey – a 1000 mile hike along the Pacific Crest Trail – is unfortunately marred by unconvincing dialogue, inconsistent pacing, and an actress not quite up to the task. Reese Witherspoon’s best actress Oscar came after her portrayal of June Carter Cash, a performance that took advantage of her quick wit, common sense instincts, and sunny disposition. She was also able to sing, no mean feat.  As the distraught daughter of a mother who died young (Laura Dern), Witherspoon cannot sing her way to our hearts, and de-glamorization and nudity do not sell the fact that she is supposed to have lapsed into a downward spiral of promiscuity and heroin addiction after Dern’s death. There is still too much of Ellle Woods and Tracy Flick in Reese Witherspoon. She doesn’t even curse authentically, much less play a waitress who has sex with two customers in the alley behind her restaurant just because it feels good. The role required an actress with more gut and greater reserves. Meg Ryan, another plucky can-do lead, tried to toughen up later in her career in In the Cut with similar results.

Even with another actress, this film still has real problems. Everyone becomes depressed upon the death of a loved one, but there is no basis to suggest why Witherspoon’s character became so self-destructive. Rather than elicit our sympathy, Witherspoon at times threatens to evoke our scorn. Her choices are presented to us in flashback, in the bedrooms of strange men, with her long suffering friend, in the heroin dens of Minneapolis, or in conversations with her mother, scenes that are supposed to give us insight into how she ended up here. They don’t. Rather, they are too disjointed to tell us much of anything, and we are left wondering “how the hell did she end up there?”

Finally, the film is too new-agey and pat for its own good. Witherspoon reminisces along the trail while inscribing the words of poets at its various check-in stations. She is followed by a mystical fox. She meets people who say wildly unrealistic things (her discussion with a little boy in particular) that are supposed to reflect her singularity and the momentous nature of her trek (she is even dubbed queen of the trail by other hikers). She finishes and tells us in an ego-centrism that lacks any self awareness that it all worked out in the end. Heck, she informs us in voiceover – she even has two lovely kids.

To the good, it is beautifully shot and the beginning of the film, when Witherspoon is starting on the trail wholly unprepared and over-fortified, had promise. I thought she might even get an appendage stuck in between some rocks.