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Under normal circumstances, this is a 4, maybe even a 5 star film.  Clint Eastwood’s assured meditation on trauma and heroism is briskly plotted and Tom Hanks –as he often does with quiet, internal characters (see Apollo 13, Road to Perdition, Cast Away, Captain Phillips) – renders Captain Sully Sullenberger with poise and introspection.  As we all know, Captain Sullenberger saved the lives of 155 crew and passengers by doing the near-impossible – landing his passenger aircraft on the Hudson River after a bird strike – and  Hanks shows all of the intricate frailties of the man as he weathers the resultant pressures of PTSD, a federal investigation, and his own self doubt.

Alas, I have to stick it to this film, because Eastwood cheats.  And he admitted he cheated.   Upon evaluating the story, Eastwood is reported to have said, “Where’s the antagonist?”  So he went hunting and found one, transmogrifying the National Transportation Safety Board (“NTSB”) – the governmental body charged with investigating the incident – into a panel of witch hunters.  Well, maybe that is too strong, but the performances by two of  the members – replete with sneering, condescending charges that Sully could have made Newark or Teterboro airports to land – veer into the cartoonish, and in something so instrumental to the story, that is really problematic.  Indeed, Eastwood did not use the real names of the NTSB panel, which speaks volumes.

In the critical scene, the NTSB uses a computer simulation to show that Sully could have landed at two airports rather than on the river.  But Sully, old salt that he is, demands they put in 35 more seconds for reaction time.  The bureaucrats reluctantly do so, and voila!  The planes crash.  Very dramatic, but in reality, the NTSB was the body that suggested the adding of time.  As reported by a member of the NTSB team, “There was no effort to crucify him or embarrass him.  If there were questions, it was to learn things.” Another member stated, “I think we’re getting the dirty end of the stick here.”

The sad part is that the film didn’t need such an antagonist.  It’s a gripping, well-told, simple story that stands on its own without the bogeyman.  If you are not afraid of the bogeyman, I highly recommend the picture .

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My own Star Wars experience goes something like this.  I saw the first film in the theater and like any 13 year old boy, was enthralled.  My father was captivated as well, because it harkened back to the serials of his youth.  By the time the next two films came out, I was in high school/early college, and I did not see them because I was too cool to go to a kiddie movie.  Fast forward to the late 90s, early 00s, and I have children.  I couldn’t wait to show them Star Wars and the two that followed, in anticipation of the next trilogy.  They were enthralled by the first three movies, and like most folks, bored by the mind-numbingly antiseptic and stupid second set.

Fast forward to last year, and the triumphant return of a Star Wars movie that is not in the hands of the animatronic George Lucas, and everybody cheers.  Sure, the movie was pretty much a replica of the first film, but it breathes life and marked the fact that the series had been wrested from the dolt Lucas.  So, rejoice!

Which brings us to Rogue One, a prequel to the 1977 debut of the series.  As you likely know, in that first film, the rebel alliance must stop the Death Star, and the iconic figures of Luke Skywalker, Han Solo and Princess Leia take on the task.  Rogue One gives us the story of how the alliance was able to get the plans to do exactly that.

Now, to my introduction.  When I watched Star Wars with my Dad, it was exciting and engaging and even spine-tingling because I was 13 years old.  It also had the added bonus of speaking to my father through nostalgia encased in a rip-roaring yarn.  So, he didn’t have to sit through an insipid child’s movie.

But now, an entire industry and ethos has grown around Star Wars, and the series has had to deal with an unexpected but incredibly lucrative development – the emergence of an audience who demand that same feeling they had when they were 13 years old, in perpetuity, until the day they die or are kicked out of their parents’ house.  And that is a hard row to hoe.

Now, you can’t put the failure of the horrible Lucas trilogy on the demands of the arrested development audience.  Those films were execrable, to anyone, anywhere.  And as noted, last years’ coming out party had to merely not suck.  And it didn’t.

Rogue One, however, is a little better than not sucking.  It is a rip-roaring yarn but, in an effort to keep the interests of the 36 year old man living in his parent’s basement surrounded by his collectibles, it gives him all the normal elements but in a dirtier, darker package.  Space looks more like Blade Runner and Alien than the gleaming, clean world of the earlier films.  Moreover, one of our protagonists (Diego Luna) is a rebel spy and, if necessary, a cold blooded killer of the innocent (it is a sharp rebuke to Lucas’s fey re-imagining of the shoot-first cad Han Solo when Luna mercilessly puts down a friend who may jeopardize the mission) .  The other lead (Felicity Jones), is an embittered castaway, neutral on the issues of the day.  Together, they embark on a decidedly dour suicide mission that is deftly handled by director Gareth Edwards.

There are problems.  Jones’s transformation from cynical to heroic is clumsy and way too fast.   The first half is slow.  Forrest Whittaker and Mads Mikkeslen, as, respectively, the father-figure and father to Jones, are thin characters.  And the idea that information is still held in what essentially are super floppy disks in the future is weird.

Still, I liked this film and respect the attempt to please the kiddies, the geeks and the critics all at once.  It is vulnerable to attack on all sides, but it does a fair job at a difficult task, giving folks iconic moments, gritty semi-realism, and winking nods to characters and circumstances that die-hard fan know are forthcoming.  I am particularly thrilled at something truly and wonderfully surprising that happens at the end which I cannot share.

A charming film, with surprisingly substantial performances by Hugh Grant and Simon Helberg (The Big Bang Theory).  The year is 1944 and Florence Foster Jenkins (Meryl Streep) is a patron of music in New York City.  She also has aspirations to perform and her singing voice is, well, it is what it is.  Through the protective machinations of her husband (Grant) and the support of her young accompianist (?) (Helberg), she gives rare public performances, until she squirms out of her protective bubble . . . to Carnegie Hall.

I got down on Streep after two lazy and insufferable performances (the execrable Ricki and the Flash and the loud, gaudy August: Osage County), but she’s back on her game here, infusing in Foster Jenkins a gusto and vulnerability that justifies the latitude she is given by those around her.   The filmmakers portray Foster Jenkins as wholly ignorant of her shortcomings (history suggests she may have been in on the joke), but the decision pays dividends in the creation of greater empathy for her character.  Director Stephen Frears (The Queen, Philomena) has a way, even in this somewhat broad comedy, of finding the little moments that connect characters, tapping into the hardest of hearts.  A beautiful, simple scene where Helberg and Streep play piano together is one of several such moments.

By the way, Foster Jenkins suffered from syphilis, which I immediately studied (i.e., “Googled”).  I was aghast to learn of its prevalence.  From Essays in History:

Around the turn of the twentieth century, syphilis was a public health disaster in the United States of America. Because of the lack of official reporting of cases to public authorities, estimates of its incidence are difficult to obtain; however, the figure has been estimated conservatively at ten percent to fifteen percent of the general population from about 1900 to 1920, although its occurrence was presumed to be higher among men than women.

 

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With the weather becoming depressingly cold, on Friday night, my wife and I decided to stay in, order Chinese, and watch something mindless. We could not have asked for a better choice than this picture. The backstory takes about six minutes. We, the United States, bomb the wrong Middle Eastern family, who, for matters of what I presumed to be political correctness, are not radical jihadists, but rather, generic arms dealers who sow misery and discord wherever and whenever they can. Our chickens come home to roost several years later, when the family unleashes their long planned assault – a decapitation of world leadership at the state funeral for a British prime minister in London. Our own president (Aaron Eckhart) and his Secret Service superman (Gerard Butler) are trapped in the besieged capital, and it is up to Butler to extract the president in the face of what appears to be hundreds of bad guys.

Whatever concerns I had about excessive political correctness were quickly dashed by the character of Butler. In one instance, just before killing a bad guy, he screams at him “go back to Fuckheadistan.” In another instance, he tortures the brother of the primary bad guy, while the primary bad guy listens in via cell phone. After shoving his knife in the brother’s  stomach several times with a cruel twist, the president says to him “was that really necessary?” Butler responds “no.”

When Butler delivers the final coup, he prefaces it with a speech that is jingoistic, excessive, and hilariously satisfying.

“You know what you assholes don’t get? We’re not a fucking building! We’re not a fucking flag! We’re not just one man! Assholes like you have been trying to kill us for a long fucking time. But you know what? A thousand years from now, we’ll still fucking be here!”

Hoorah!!!

Yes, it is stupid, but it is also an exciting, well executed escape flick, with a lot of ingenious stunts, a cool re-creation of the destruction of London, and little attempt at what would otherwise be a cardboard and time-wasting story.

Full disclosure: I’m leery of space alien movies where the aliens are non-threatening, such as Contact or Close Encounters (when they are hostile, at least you know there will be action).  I don’t know anything about the aliens, the genre doesn’t lend itself to backstory, and I have tired of the persistent trope of the dewy-eyed scientist versus the steely militarist.   Add to that prejudice my own limitations of imagination and intelligence  – space-time continuum fare has the same effect on me as the math part of the SAT (“C, C, C, C, C, C . . . “) – and you have what you need before reading my take on Arrival.

It’s not bad.  Amy Adams is effective as the grief-stricken linguist brought in to communicate with aliens who hover above the earth, causing worldwide panic, and Jeremy Renner plays her colleague with some verve and the appropriate amount of dew in his eyes.  As the stern military liaison, Forest Whitaker surprises us all by under-acting, and the plot is, at times, engrossing.

It’s not all good either.  It is a dark, dreary film; it gives us the process of communication-through-translation without a shared form of discourse, which is both admirably ambitious and a little boring; and it can be lazy (there is an entirely underdeveloped subplot involving a treasonous act that comes completely out of nowhere; the idea that Sudan and Sierre-Leone have militaries capable of doing much to the aliens is hilarious; and the geopolitical moralizing – “can’t we all just get along?” – silly).

I sense, however that this is a smart film, and likely too smart for me.

A very smart, evocative crime spree flick, elevated by a high-minded motive, a feel for the rich texture and other-worldliness of Midwest Texas, soulful performances by lawman Jeff Bridges and dead-ender cowboy Ben Foster, and a subversive sense of humor/political streak.  People screw these films up in any number of ways; by over-elegizing the working man, slicking up the action, or emphasizing quirk over heart.

Writer Taylor Sheridan avoids all the tropes and also draws beautiful relationships between Foster and his sweeter brother (Chris Pine), Bridges and his long-time, beleaguered partner (Gil Birmingham, whose fixed resolve to not allow Bridges to get a rise out of him is one of many pleasures of the script), and all the characters and the milieu.  Director David MacKenzie’s handle is restrained and assured.

One of the best of the year.

Now available at Red Box or Netflix DVD.