A Sullied Reputation

It’s a given that when you think you know everything about a story, you simply don’t. Unless you’ve lived it yourself, you’re on the outside looking in, and you miss much about the experience. One of the powers of film, though, is it lets you vicariously experience what a character goes through in a well-done true life story. That’s the accomplishment of Clint Eastwood’s new film Sully.

There was a huge amount of coverage about the “Miracle on the Hudson” when an Airbus A-320 with 155 passengers and crew on board was successfully landed on the Hudson River after both of its engines were taken out by bird strikes. It’s the kind of scenario that ends in tragedy, but Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, assisted by First Officer Jeffrey Skiles, pulled off an incredible maneuver to safely bring the plane down, and first responders and ferry boat captains sprang into action immediately so all were saved.

Director/Producer Eastwood, assisted by screenwriter Todd Komarnicki working from Sullenberger’s book “Highest Duty,” focuses on the fallout of the event, beginning with a nightmare scenario of what could easily have happened. Following the water landing, Sullenberger (Tom Hanks) and Skiles (Aaron Eckhart), are stuck in New York City while the NTSB does its investigation into the incident. Sully can only reach out to his wife Lorraine (Laura Linney) by phone. The airline wants Sully and the crew to do publicity – Eastwood recreates interviews with Katie Couric and David Letterman – but at the same time the NTSB informs them that computer simulations say they didn’t have to ditch in the river. They could have made it back to LaGuardia or to Teterboro Airport in New Jersey. So while the public is hailing him a hero, Sully is looking at the possibility of being found negligent by the investigation, which will mean the ruin of his career and life.

It’s strange to think that this is the first collaboration between Clint Eastwood and Tom Hanks, but it was worth the wait. Hanks is the perfect choice to play Sully, not just because with his hair dyed white he bears a certain resemblance to the Captain. Hanks can present emotional depth and turmoil without moving hardly a muscle, yet at the same time he presents rock-like confidence. Eckhart’s interplay with him is nuanced and realistic. It’s a pleasure to see two fine actors give memorable performances marked by restraint.

Laura Linney has the challenge of presenting her character’s relationship with her husband without them actually being in the same frame once during the film. However, she pulls it off. The movie underlines that, regardless of the incredible nature of the events on that day, the lives of the Sullenbergers had to go on, and what seemed a great thing meant hardship for them. As the triumvirate of NTSB investigators, Eastwood has cast Mike O’Malley, Jamey Sheridan, and Anna Gunn.

What’s interesting, though, is the appearance by actual participants in the events. The captain of the first ferry boat to reach the passengers, Vincent Lombardi, plays himself in the film, as do reporters Bobby Cuza and Katie Couric. During the credits, you also get to see a reunion of the passengers with the Sullenbergers.

The recreation of the events, and the other scenarios that could have happened if Sully had made different choices, are enthralling. Eastwood spaces out the story of the events throughout the film which actually adds clarity to the story. You have time to understand everything that is going on.

I saw Sully on the afternoon of September 11th. That anniversary received an acknowledgement in the course of the movie, when a character mentions how wonderful it is to have a positive story in New York City that involves an airplane. At just under 100 minutes, this is Eastwood’s shortest movie, but every single frame is used effectively. If you want to see a thrilling, uplifting movie, go see Sully.

High Water Mark

I do enjoy a well-done disaster flick, not to be confused with a flick that’s a disaster. Historically this genre is the province of Hollywood, with studios laying out big bucks for special effects, but the digital revolution has broken borders. Some of the premier SFX houses are spread around the globe, like Weta Workshop in New Zealand. A great example of disaster films breaking out of Hollywood is 2015’s The Wave, which is now available on Netflix.

Just as American films focus on possible disasters in the United States like the recent San Andreas (earthquakes) and Into the Storm (tornadoes), this Norwegian film deals with a disaster on the home front – in this case a massive landslide into a narrow fjord that sets off a mammoth tsunami. Indeed, the film opens by citing earlier instances of this taking place. It then focuses on the town of Geiranger, nestled at the end of a fjord, that will have ten minutes to evacuate if a cliff-face down the fjord lets go and crashes into the water. In this, the film is factually correct, and the director was guided by the actual geology of an event that will happen. The only question is when.

Geologist Kristian (Kristoffer Joner) has been working at a station that monitors the mountainsides, but he’s now taken a job with an oil exploration company and his family is preparing to move. When he returns from a preparatory trip to their new apartment in Oslo, he finds his wife Idun (Ane Dahl Torp) fixing the sink while their teenaged son Sondre (Jonas Hoff Oftebro) and younger daughter Julia (Edith Haagenrud-Sande) watching. Over dinner Kristian explains the technologically advanced apartment they’ll have when they move, though Idun says she will miss the soul of their older house.

The next day, Kristian goes in for a final time to the Early Warning Center, located over 100 meters above sea level. There’s a particularly unstable section that they are monitoring remotely with both sensors and video. While he’s there a warning goes off about a drop in ground water levels, but when they check the video and the other monitors everything seems fine. The next day Kristian is leaving town with Sondre and Julia, while Idun has a last day at the hotel she manages in Geiranger and will follow later. He suddenly makes a connection with what caused the change in levels and why the monitors didn’t register a problem, so he turns around and heads to the Early Warning Center.

Oftentimes Hollywood disaster films begin with a bang to get the adrenalin pumping and to foreshadow the larger thrills to come. For example, with the two movies cited above, San Andreas begins with a white-knuckle helicopter rescue while Into The Storm has a nearly invisible night-time tornado take out a car with four students in it. The Wave does a slower build, focusing on the family and people they know, so we become close to these characters. They’re completely real, not the larger than life heroic types that often populate this genre. The term “disaster flick” inherently gives away some of the plot – bad things will happen – but the films usually split into two sub-categories: 1) the focus is on the disaster, or 2) the movie is a drama that happens to include a disaster. The Wave is firmly in the second sub-category.

Director Roar Uthaug has worked only in his native Norway, though that will be changing. He’s been tapped to helm the new Tomb Raider film due in 2018 that will star Alicia Vikander as Lara Croft. The Wave only had a limited release in the US, common for a non-English film, but in Norway it sold over 800,000 tickets. Considering Norway has a population of around 5 million, that’s the equivalent of 1 in 6 people in the country seeing the film. That’s akin to a US movie having a domestic box office of approximately $500 million – about the domestic gross of The Dark Knight, which is 6th on the all-time domestic box office list.

Where many disaster movies feel over-bloated and usually have a running time in excess of two hours, The Wave is a lean 105 minutes. In the midst of the destruction – and the effects are stunning – it doesn’t lose sight of the human level. If you like this genre and have Netflix (or find it on another streaming service) I highly recommend you check out this film. It is well worth the viewing.

Bourne Again

When The Bourne Identity came out in 2002, it recreated the spy thriller for the new millennium. Director Doug Limon brought an independent film touch to the genre, with hand-held cameras and jerky motion – Limon didn’t let the cameraman see the rehearsals so he wasn’t sure who was talking next and often had to catch up. Limon also had a more jaundiced view of spies, partially from his father’s experience as the chief counsel for the Iran-Contra hearings in the 1980s. He took the first third of the source book and threw out the rest, so screenwriter Tony Gilroy rewrote the story based on an outline created by Limon. There were problems with the production because the executives at Universal didn’t like the look of the film, and re-writes and re-shoots put the film $8 million over budget and a year late for release. Because of this, when the sequel was in pre-production Limon was shut out from directing again.

Once released, The Bourne Identity was a solid it with a worldwide gross of $214 million, and it made Matt Damon an action star. For the sequel, The Bourne Supremacy, producer Frank Marshall brought in Paul Greengrass, whose visual style and independent roots lined up well with Limon’s, but who could handle the action with ease and bring the film in on budget and on time. 2004’s Supremacy was an even bigger hit than Identity (and my personal favorite of the series), and 2007’s Bourne Ultimatum had the biggest box office of them all. Greengrass and Damon, working with Tony Gilroy and Greengrass’s regular collaborator Christopher Rouse, managed to avoid the third-movie-of-a-trilogy curse (see X-Men: The Last Stand for the original cast and X-Men: Apocalypse for the reboot class). They also upped the action by introducing parkour to film for physical chase sequences. The next Bond film, Casino Royale, showed the series’ impact in its imitation of Bourne’s action sequences.

With Ultimatum the producers finished the original three books written by author Robert Ludlum, though beyond the titles and main character the last two films bear almost no resemblance to the novels. (The use of an adhesive thumbprint in Supremacy is in the book.) They crafted a satisfying finish to the series, and Greengrass and Damon moved on. But just like the nine subsequent novels the Ludlum estate published, written by Eric Van Lustbader who’s a decent thriller writer in his own right, the studio wanted to continue to capitalize on the story. They had Gilroy both write and direct The Bourne Legacy. While it took place at the same time as Ultimatum and shared some of the same characters, Gilroy didn’t attempt to imitate the Bourne series film style. It wasn’t as successful as the Damon movies, though Universal is planning a sequel with star Jeremy Renner.

Now nine years after Supremacy, both Greengrass and Damon are back for the eponymus Jason Bourne. For the first time Gilroy didn’t do the script, ceding those duties to Greengrass (who previously scripted his movies Bloody Sunday and United 93) and Rouse. While a novel series can extend through dozens of books, it’s much harder to accomplish that with films since you only have two-plus hours to tell the story rather than 90,000 plus words.

The plot of Bourne expands on the original three movies. Julia Stiles returns as Nicky Parsons, who’s been off the grid since the end of Ultimatum. She hacks the CIA and discovers a new black ops program that does for surveillance what the previous programs Treadstone and Blackbriar did for active espionage. While in the files she also discovers more information about Bourne’s background and how he was recruited. She heads to Greece to connect with Bourne, unaware that the head of the CIA (Tommy Lee Jones) has had his assistant Heather Lee (Alicia Vikander) plant a tracking virus in Nicky’s computer. The CIA sends an asset left from the Treadstone project (Vincent Cassel) to deal with Nicky and Bourne.

In some respects the plot feels like a trash bag ad where they stuff more into a bag that’s already full. The bag holds in this case, but just barely, and if they intend to do a fifth Damon/Bourne film they’ll need to use a fresh bag. That said, the film does have its pleasures. As with the previous movies, the action flows from Greece to Berlin to London before its final reckoning in Las Vegas, though it’s never a travelogue like the Bond films. Greengrass finds common streets where he frames his action, and even manages to turn down the gaudy bright lights of Vegas to create a world of shadows and menace. Once more the physical action is intense and exciting, especially the extended sequence in Greece where Bourne and Nicky try to escape the CIA with a motorcycle run through an austerity riot.

For Damon the character is like a favorite suit, perhaps a bit worn and shiny but still a good fit. I enjoyed the interplay of Jones as the classic CIA officer and Vikander as the new generation. I missed the emotional resonance that I believe Gilroy brought to the other Bourne films, since you see it in his other films like Michael Clayton and State of Play, but Gilroy was tied up with the new Star Wars prequel Rogue One as well as Damon’s next film, The Great Wall.

Still, in spite of its weaknesses there are enough strengths with Bourne to make it worth seeing. It could have been a second chance at the third-movie-of-a-trilogy curse, but once again Greengrass and Damon have avoided that trap.

There and Back Again

I’ve been a Trekkie since I watched the first episode on NBC when I was a kid. Maybe because of that, the original series was always closest to my heart. When Star Trek: The Motion Picture came out I watched it, but my reaction was they’d bleached out what I loved about the original series (even though they recycled an episode’s plot). It didn’t have the banter and emotional bond between the crew that made the original fun to watch. It also lost its humanity of exploring worlds for the benefit of all. While there were phasers and proton torpedoes in the original, the best episodes were where Kirk, Spock, et al used their intelligence rather than their weapons to overcome obstacles. While the subsequent movies (at least the even numbered ones) recaptured some of the original’s flavor, they were more action adventures and the message was lost.

With Star Trek Beyond, screenwriters Simon Pegg & Doug Jung have gotten close to the original’s perspective. They’re assisted by director Justin Lin, who took a third movie in a series with none of the original actors in major roles and turned The Fast and the Furious into a billion-dollar franchise with the three subsequent films he directed. While moving from hot rods to outer space may seem strange, the two series are surprisingly similar: a multi-ethnic crew that is like a family travels the world(s) on their mission that they accomplish because they work together in the face of huge odds.

In Beyond, that mission takes them physically beyond their known universe. The Enterprise is midway through its 5-year mission, and the long duration has caused some fraying of the bonds between the crew. Kirk (Chris Pine) is feeling the stress of the mission, especially after an attempt to establish relations with a planet goes horribly – and humorously – wrong. He’s applied for the position of Vice-admiral on the Starbase Yorktown, a huge snow-globe in space whose artificial gravity has created a real-life M.C. Escher world. In his interview with the base commander (Shoreh Aghdashloo) he recommends Spock (Zachary Quinto) as his replacement as captain, unaware Spock is considering leaving the Enterprise as well.

When a lifeboat ship arrives at Yorktown, its passenger asks for help. She’s the captain of a ship that’s been disabled on a planet at the far side of an unexplored nebula. They need help to survive, so Kirk and crew, including Bones (Karl Urban), Zulu (John Cho), Uhura (Zoe Saldana), Chekov (Anton Yelchin), and Scotty (Pegg), head out to save them. But when they arrive a brutal trap is sprung by Krall (Idris Elba), the violent warlord who controls the planet. Marooned, the crew is split up – some captured by Krall, others seeking a way to rescue them. Scotty is saved by Jaylah (Sofia Boutella) who had escaped Krall herself and survived as a scavenger.

Boutella is an excellent addition to the Trek Universe. She’d had a memorable performance as Samuel L. Jackson’s sharp assistant in Kingsman: The Secret Service. Here her physical skills, honed as a dancer, are even more on display, though she also makes you feel for her character. Elba’s power as a performer communicates even though he’s hidden under extensive makeup and prostetics. The crew’s characters have been set between the original series and the reboot, but Pegg and Jung’s script lets each of them shine a bit brighter since they’re broken down into smaller units rather than all sharing the same space. In particular, Saldana’s Uhura plays a more pivotal role than in the past two films.

Just as with the Fast and Furious, Lin keeps the action moving at a, well, a fast and furious pace. The set pieces and special effects are awesome, but whenever they seem to teeter close to overwhelming the story, he brings it back from the edge.

The original Star Trek series had its staying power because, although the scene was set in space, the stories dealt with conflicts and problems that related to a person’s everyday life. Episodes like “The Devil in the Dark,” “Let This Be Your Last Battlefield,” and “The Savage Curtain” retain their power to this day. Beyond follows in those original footsteps with a message that works as a space story, but also talks to this world in which we live now.

Dark Days

Johnny Depp has been having his problems finding a hit recently. His last unabashed success was 2010’s Alice In Wonderland, but since then there’s been The Tourist, The Rum Diary, Dark Shadows, Transcendence, Mortdecai, the 4th Pirates of the Caribbean installment, and the major stink bomb The Lone Ranger. Even the recent Alice sequel landed with a thud after the original made over a billion at the box office. Sadly, the general malaise over Depp’s movies meant that people stayed away from his best performance since Finding Neverland (a personal favorite of mine). In this role he was the antithesis of the over-the-top strange characters he’s often played, and instead communicates the still menace of a coiled rattlesnake ready to strike. The movie is Black Mass, and the role is James “Whitey” Bulger.

Bulger was an Irish mobster from the south side of Boston who ruled the town from the 1970s into the 1990s. He got the nickname Whitey from his white-blond hair, though he hated it and preferred people call him Jim or Jimmy. Born in 1929 two months before the Stock Market Crash, Bulger was a handful for his parents, and his wild behavior included actually running away to join the circus when he was ten. In contrast, Bulger’s brother Billy excelled in school and grew up to become a politician, serving in both the state assembly and senate, and was later the President of the University of Massachusetts.

As a teenager Bulger joined a gang during WWII, leading to a reform school sentence when he was 14. After he got out, he joined the Air Force as a mechanic. Although his service record included several trips to the stockade for fighting, he managed to get an honorable discharge in 1952 after four years of service. He returned to Boston and his gang ties, and was incarcerated in federal prison for bank robbery. He served time in Alcatraz, Leavenworth, and other facilities. During that time he volunteered to be a human guinea pig for a medical trial run by the CIA that investigated the use of LSD.

By the 1970s when Black Mass begins, Bulger was firmly established in an Irish gang, but then events took an unexpected turn. A boy from the neighborhood, John Connolly, had become an FBI agent and was assigned to Boston. He recruited Bulger to help him smash the Patriarca crime family, the head of the Mafia in Boston. In exchange, the FBI protected him from investigations. This allowed Bulger to consolidate his power while using the FBI to eliminate his competition.

This may sound familiar if you saw Martin Scorsese’s movie The Departed. While the movie was an adaptation of a Hong Kong police thriller, Scorsese incorporated aspects of Boston crime history since the movie was set there. Jack Nicholson’s crime boss was (very) loosely based on Bulger.

But where Nicholson comes across as a dissipated slime ball, Depp’s performance is electric, and he communicates raw menace in the most casual of conversations. When they were filming Black Mass in Boston, on the same streets Bulger once ruled, locals saw Depp embodying the role and actually thought Bulger had returned. The menace also fits better with a man who was tied to 18 murders.

The movie was directed by Scott Cooper, who was an actor before he moved behind the camera as the writer and director of Crazy Heart, which earned Jeff Bridges an Oscar. He assembled a first-tier supporting cast that includes Joel Edgerton as Agent Connolly, Benedict Cumberbatch as Billy Bulger, and Kevin Bacon, Peter Sarsgaard, Dakota Johnson and Julianne Nicholson in other roles.

While it doesn’t have the overall power of Scorsese’s movies based on true stories like Goodfellas and Casino, it’s a strong, well-told story of good intensions leading to corruption and destruction. I’d planned to see it in the theater last fall but it came and quickly left before I could make it there. It didn’t deserve that fate. The film’s recently come to HBO and it’s definitely worth a viewing.

Drawn to Animation

A couple of months ago, NBC Universal announced it was acquiring Dreamworks Animation. It’s a medium historically controlled by Disney, and Disney’s merger with Pixar ensured it’ll remain at the top for the foreseeable future. Dreamworks, though, had carved out a strong position of its own thanks to its franchises of Shrek, Kung Fu Panda, Madagascar, and How to Train Your Dragon. Universal already has its own animation division, Illumination Entertainment, and while the head of Dreamworks Animation, Jeffrey Katzenberg, will remain with the company, the day-to-day running of the studio will be under the control of the head of Illumination, Chris Meledandri. Meledandri had been head of 20th Century Fox Animation, where Ice Age, Horton Hears a Who, and Alvin and the Chipmunks were made under his watch. He moved to Universal to run Illumination in 2007; its main hits have been the Despicable Me/Minions movies, though through over-exposure that series has pretty much run its course. Because of it, kids now don’t like yellow. Illumination needed to set off in a different direction, and the studio’s new film The Secret Life of Pets does that. However, it’s a direction that’s been explored before.

The movie focuses on Max (Louis C.K.) and his owner/soul mate Katie (Ellie Kemper). Max’s friends are the cat Chloe (Lake Bell), the friendly girl dog Gidget (Jenny Slate), the sarcastic dachshund Buddy (Hannibal Burress) and the pug Mel (Bobby Moynihan). However, Max’s world gets turned upside down with the arrival of Duke (Eric Stonestreet), a huge mop of brown hair who threatens Max’s relationship with Katie.

The conflict between the two ends up casting them adrift in the city where they run into a gang of discarded pets led by a magician’s former rabbit (Kevin Hart). Realizing Max is lost, Gidget mobilizes his friends and others, including a falcon name Tiberius (Albert Brooks) and an older dog named Pops (Dana Carvey).

The screenplay by Cinco Paul & Ken Daurio and Brian Lynch, who’d worked together on the Minions movie, is at its best during the opening snippets that introduce the animals: Buddy using a mixer as a backscratcher, Chloe trying – unsuccessfully – to resist eating a cooked turkey, a poodle with a love of heavy metal music. (See the trailer below) After that the story loses energy and wit and becomes predictable. Tiberius and Pops bump the energy back up temporarily, but they’re brief respites.

When Max and Duke first enter the lair of the discarded pets, it may be a bit too intense for younger children, especially a sequence involving a huge snake. The scene ends with what seems to be a paean to the Roadrunner/Wyle E. Coyote cartoons, though without the comic timing of the classic Warner Brothers cartoons. Later there’s a dream sequence in a hot dog factory that’s both bizarre and unnecessary.

The Secret Life of Pets tries to follow the path of another trilogy of films that looked at a secret life, though those movies involved toys. But Pets mistakes sentiment for real emotion. It will give you some “ah” moments, but it doesn’t go any deeper than that. Think of it as Toy Story lite.

Pets did knock Pixar’s Finding Dory out of the top spot in the box office, though it had been there for a couple of weeks and has already grossed over $400 million in the US so far. While Pets received a decent 74% on Rotten Tomatoes, Dory hit a stellar 95%. Based on Pets, I don’t think Disney/Pixar has any need to worry about Illumination/Dreamworks any time soon.

Life’s a Beach

Another movie I missed the first time around but streamed recently was Love & Mercy, the biopic of Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys. Wilson was a musical genius as well as a very troubled man who was almost destroyed by misdiagnosed mental illness. The movie details his descent and eventual recovery in an unusual but effective way, by having two actors portray Wilson.

The first period roughly covers 1964 through 1966 when the Beach Boys rivaled the Beatles in popularity. The Beach Boys had actually come on the scene a couple of years before the Beatles with the California sound that they created and refined. They were close to a family act, made up of Brian’s brothers Carl and Dennis, their cousin Mike Love, and high school friend Al Jardine. The Wilsons’ father Murry was their manager early on. However in ‘64 panic attacks and other problems led Brian Wilson (Paul Dano) to stop traveling with the group. While the others toured, Brian concentrated on writing, including creating the groups seminal album “Pet Sounds” as well as their biggest hit “Good Vibrations.”

In the mid-1980s, Brian (John Cusack) is under constant supervision by psychiatrist Dr. Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti). When shopping for a car, Brian meets saleswoman Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks). He’s attracted to her, and she to him. However, as she draws close to him she learns how completely Landy controls Brian’s life. He’s diagnosed Brian as a paranoid schizophrenic and keeps him in a fog with prescription drugs. Melinda sees Landy as a threat to Brian’s life and is determined to save him, even if it means they’ll be separated.

The movie flips back and forth between the two periods. Director Bill Pohlad and screenwriter Owen Moverman (who reworked an earlier script by Michael A. Lerner) had also considered adding a middle act to cover the three years in the 1970s that Brian stayed in bed and ballooned to 300 lbs. They would have cast Philip Seymour Hoffman for that section, but they ended up covering the period briefly with Dano and Cusack.

Pohlad’s reputation is as a producer, having worked on Brokeback Mountain, Into the Wild, Fair Game, 12 Years a Slave, and Wild, among other films. He’d only directed one other film 25 years earlier, his initial production credit Old Explorers. However, he does an excellent job in the director’s chair integrating the two facets of the story. He and Moverman have also done an incredible job with the accuracy of the story, even shooting scenes of the creation of Pet Sounds in the actual recording studio used for the album. (The scenes of Dano working with the musicians were improvised, though Dano listened to the tapes of the sessions and incorporated some lines that Brian Wilson actually said, including “You think we could get a horse in here?”)

Dano can be a very idiosyncratic actor, but as Brian he tones down those flourishes. It makes you feel the fragility of the character and understand when his world breaks apart. Although they didn’t collaborate at all on their performances, Cusack blends well with Dano, and having the two actors enhances the storytelling. As Landy, Giamatti is intense and scary. When he watched the film after it was completed, Wilson suffered a temporary disassociation and thought Giamatti actually was Lundy, which speaks to the veracity of his performance. The role of Melinda could have been one-dimensional, but Banks infuses it with a quiet strength and warmth.

The sound department for the film deserves special kudos, for sound becomes part of the plot. the dissonance within Brian’s brain is expressed in the film through heightened noise. A family dinner becomes excruciating for Brian as all the incidental background sounds are amplified. It’s like the music in his mind has turned on him and become a monster. It’s very effective.

During the credits, there’s footage of a recent performance by Brian Wilson of the song “Love & Mercy” that he wrote in the 80s, during the Landy years. (Landy had claimed co-writer status for all the work Wilson did at that time, though that was later corrected.) After watching the film, the song is a tender and poignant coda. So often the story of a musical genius ends as a tragedy. Love & Mercy shows how close Wilson came to that, but in the end it’s the story of resilience and survival.