Sully

sullyDirector: Clint Eastwood

Screenwriter: Todd Komarnicki

Cast: Tom Hanks, Aaron Eckhart, Mike O’Malley, Anna Gunn, and Laura Linney

When the FX series American Crime Story: The People vs. OJ Simpson and the subsequent ESPN documentary OJ: Made in America came out earlier this year, many wondered if anyone would watch them. The events detailed in these shows happened only 20 years ago and they were so overtly covered by the media that many wondered, “What’s left to tell?”  The same can be said about the announcement for the film Sully, a film based on the “Miracle on the Hudson” where Captain Chesley Sullenberger successfully landed a commercial aircraft on the Hudson River with no casualties. And the events of this film took place only 8 years ago!

What happened with the OJ Simpson programs was rather surprising. People watched. Lots of people. And awards upon awards were laden upon these projects. The reason being that creative measures and expert storytelling were combined with strong performances and new information to create an emotive project that stood for more than simply a retreading of public knowledge.  Fortunately, Clint Eastwood’s film detailing Sullenberger’s story follows suit by avoiding pointless exposition and crafting a deeply watchable and at times powerfully evocative depiction of American heroism in the face of insurmountable odds.

Tom Hanks plays Sullenberger, nicknamed Sully, a commercial pilot with over 40 years of experience in the air and over a million passengers safely delivered. The film opens post-event with a shaken Sullenberger preparing for a hearing with the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) who believe Sullenberger may have been negligent in his decision to not return to LaGuardia Airport. Sullenberger and his co-pilot Jeff Skiles (Aaron Eckhart) are holed up in a Marriott hotel in a surreal twist of fate where on one hand Americans are celebrating their heroism and on the other, they are being investigated for endangering 155 passengers aboard the plane.

Sully is not a biopic. It is based upon Chesley Sullenberger’s memoir Highest Duty: My Search for What Really Matters and focuses almost entirely on the events of January 15, 2009 and the subsequent investigation.  Bits of ‘Sully’s’ past are sprinkled throughout, but the film’s main objective is to feature the tremendous fortune that results from having the right people performing the right jobs. Time is a major motif in the film, making outstanding use of factual evidence to show us just how much can happen in a short amount of time – for better or for worse. Hanks plays Sullenberger with quiet confidence, and Eastwood crafts his story with intensity and enlightenment. The effects in the plane crash scenes are second to none, and at a svelte 96 minute running time, the film clips along at a swift pace. One criticism on the film would be its handling of Sullenberger’s wife Lorraine, played by Laura Linney.  The film holds her at arm’s length and only features her in reactionary mode on the phone with Sully or as a way to illustrate the invasiveness of the media on the Sullenbergers’ daily lives. Linney joins a long list of good actresses cast in good films as wives who are written as screenplay tools to manipulate emotion.  Think Helen Hunt in another Hanks film, Cast Away. This is becoming a rather sad state of things, and is only highlighted by a scene during the credits where the real Lorraine Sullenberger gives a tearful speech to the survivors of Flight 1549 about how these survivors continue to send Christmas and greeting cards to them every year. This little moment in the credits gives more depth, heart, and life to who she is than anything Laura Linney does in the film.

Sully is a solid film delivering its message and entertainment as effectively as Sullenberger’s miraculous water landing on the Hudson.  Like it’s protagonist, the film showcases a couple of the right men for the job (as well as the right woman for a job that wasn’t there). A testament to superlative acting and creative filmmaking that breathes freshness into a story so recently and so publicly told. B+

Sully is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 1 hour and 36 minutes.  

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Shot from The Martian

The Martian

Martian PosterDirector: Ridley Scott

Screenwriter: Drew Goddard

Cast: Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Michael Peña, Kate Mara, Chiwetel Ejiofor, and Jeff Daniels

Quite honestly, if you have seen Apollo 13, Cast Away, Interstellar, or The Right Stuff, then ironically, The Martian, the new film from Ridley Scott about an astronaut left behind by his crew on Mars, treads no new territory.  That being said, why did we all love those movies if they basically explored the same things?  The answer is that we have an insatiable appetite for watching humankind’s intelligence put to the test.  When The Martian is over, that is the piece that stays with you, not the performances or even the directing, but the way human intellect is pooled to solve unsolvable problems!

The Martian stars Matt Damon as Mark Watney, a NASA botanist who is part of a six-person, 31-day mission to explore the surface of Mars.  When an unexpected dust storm escalates with no warning, Watney is struck by debris, disabling his spacesuit’s communication device and forcing his crew to assume he has been killed.  With the storm jeopardizing the integrity of their ship, Commander Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain) makes the tough call to evacuate the planet early and consequently leave Watney’s body behind.  Now as Lewis and her crew begin the 10-month journey back to Earth, Watney awakens from being struck unconscious to discover that he is alone on a dessert planet 34 million miles from Earth and potentially years from being rescued, and that is if he can somehow communicate to NASA that he is not dead.

For a film with such a discouraging scenario at its heart, The Martian is extremely upbeat thanks to a terrific performance by Matt Damon who masterfully captures the brilliance of Andy Weir’s original character from his novel of the same name.  Damon displays a resourcefulness, wit, and spirit with his portrayal of Watney, and it reminds us all of the importance of “mindset.”  A film that could so easily present a protagonist’s slow dissent into madness at the mercy of isolation is instead wisely turned on its head early on when Watney declares, “I will not die here.”  Whether or not this declaration becomes fact remains to be seen, but this decision to persevere is precisely why this film is such a joy to watch and not a test of our sensibilities.  Watney’s decision to live comes with the caveat of finding a way to survive for an indeterminate amount of time on a planet with no atmosphere, extreme temperatures, and no food or water source.  It is endlessly fascinating to watch Watney work his way through these dilemmas and according to director Ridley Scott, NASA validates nearly all of the survival methods Watney employs in this film.

It is no spoiler to reveal that Watney does eventually manage to contact Earth and establish that he is alive, creating a new element of tension as the film evolves from a survival film (like Gravity) to one that introduces the concept of rescue.  As exciting as it is to examine the power of the individual in films like Gravity and Cast Away, The Martian introduces a type of global effort that can be assembled when the people of Earth put aside their differences and work together on a common goal.  Consequently, like Apollo 13, The Martian wisely balances the space scenes with others that show the ingenuity and frustration of the scientists on Earth as they try to develop some kind of plan to save Watney.  That being said, a simple glance at the promotional poster for The Martian clearly demonstrates that this film was developed as a vehicle for Damon, but there are many other big names in this movie and boy are they wasted.  Michael Peña, Jessica Chastain, Kate Mara, Jeff Daniels, Kristin Wiig, Sean Bean and others all share about 20% of the running time and don’t get to do very much.  This is slightly disappointing especially when one thinks back to Ed Harris and Gary Sinise in Apollo 13 and realizes how powerful these roles could have been with some slight refocusing.

With Gravity, Interstellar, The Martian, and soon Star Wars: The Force Awakens, we are firmly in the midst of a science-fiction renaissance.  While box office has plenty to do with this current fad, what makes these films most enticing to the big name directors is their opportunity to dazzle us visually.  I saw The Martian in 3-D, which I normally avoid.  I still believe that 3-D releases are nothing more than a way to make you pay an extra few dollars for a ticket, but I will admit that Ridley Scott has crafted a beautiful and exciting film with The Martian that does use the technology to immerse the audience in the experience better than most.

The Martian is everything you want in a big budget, exciting, tense blockbuster.  It is entertaining, researched, and impressive.  Still, while it features brilliant people doing brilliant things, The Martian does all of the heavy lifting.  It would have been nice to walk away with a little bit more to think about, but it does let you walk out with plenty to celebrate, and that is good too. A-

The Martian is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 2 hours and 21 minutes. 

Wild

wildDirector: Jean-Marc Vallée

Writer: Nick Hornby

Cast: Reese Witherspoon, Laura Dern, Gabby Hoffman, Thomas Sadowski

As a high school English teacher, I have a soft spot for films that look to inspire the individual spirit in the name of Romanticism and transcendentalism. Still, one can have too much of a good thing. Films like Cast Away, Dead Poets Society, Into the Wild, The Motorcycle Diaries, and 127 Hours are just a few films that successfully explored the dangerous beauty that is our natural world. Dallas Buyers Club director Jean-Marc Vallée and writer Nick Hornby bring just enough passion, beauty, and emotion to their adaptation of Cheryl Strayed’s 2012 memoir Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail to keep this film from being too ordinary.

Reese Witherspoon plays the real life Cheryl Strayed, a waitress and self proclaimed sophisticate who when life throws her a curveball, decides to ruin her life further with promiscuous sex and hard drugs. Marriage ruined, family and friends alienated, Cheryl finally hits rock bottom and when a Pacific Crest Trail guidebook catches her eye, Cheryl decides to drop everything and take on the 1100 mile hike in the hopes of reclaiming her life and finding some harmony.

Comparisons to Christopher McCandless’s story in the film/novel Into the Wild are hard to avoid. Similarly, like McCandless, Witherspoon’s character is trying to escape the corruption of modern life with a voluntary long-term immersion into nature. Much of what Strayed is running from directly relates to a catastrophic series of events involving her mother Bobbi (Laura Dern). Bobbi was a woman of considerable spirit and clearly what Cheryl is truly looking for is where, deep within her, is that same spirit that her mother possessed?

Wild is a surprising film of perseverance and beauty, and Witherspoon plays a character as far from Legally Blonde’s Elle Woods as possible. Unlike many films of this genre, Wild spends more time examining the human instinct and its conflict with reason. This is what makes it most compelling and oddly most relatable. We don’t have to agree with Cheryl’s choices, and we don’t have to understand them, but we can certainly empathize with them. At each mile marker on the Pacific Crest Trail (referred to as the PCT), Strayed leaves short passages from self-proclaimed Romantic poets like Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman as well as those labeled Romantics like Robert Frost and James Michener. The distinction is subtle, but far more relevant to Strayed as she searches for her identity amongst what her instinct suggests and how reason advises.

Wild is a real showcase for Witherspoon. Where Walk the Line demonstrated the actress’s range and singing talent, Wild shows she is a real force. Laura Dern is superb as well, playing a mother but also a metaphor for idealism. The one area of disappointment with Wild is in its final scene, which strives for epiphany and comes up short. There is great strength in Wild and great heart. Quite honestly, this film resonated with me more than last year’s Oscar darling, Dallas Buyers Club, but originality does count for something, and this film does not have much in that arena. Still, Wild is an inspiring film and a great step forward for Witherspoon.  A-

Wild is rated R and has a running time of 1 hour and 55 minutes.

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The People’s Critic with his #1 fan!

Incidentally, The People’s Critic would like to announce he has been published! Volume 1 of his reviews are hard bound and beautifully rendered in a 2-book set containing over 150 individual pages of film reviews, commentary, lists, and articles. He would like to thank his wife for her undying support and help in this venture as well as his biggest fan of all, seen here!

Flight

Director Robert Zemeckis has given us the latest “disaster” movie. In the case of Flight however, Zemeckis’ first live-action film since 2000’s Cast Away, this is less the Die Hard kind of “disaster” and more the Leaving Las Vegas type. Zemeckis is a well-known director, whose films have peppered the pop-culture lexicon for the past 35 years. He is a pioneer who took Marty McFly Back to the Future, taught Forrest to run in Forrest Gump, and broke new ground in live-action/animation film making with films like Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Beowulf, The Polar Express, and A Christmas Carol. This year, Zemeckis showcases his craft with a strong character study of a disturbed pilot in Flight.

The intensity and effectiveness of Flight rests on the shoulders of its star, Denzel Washington, and it turns out Denzel Washington has some pretty strong shoulders. Washington dives head first into the character of pilot Whip Whitaker (a classic “pilot” name). Whitaker is a closeted addict, shrouded in denial. He routinely drinks to excess and uses stimulants to even out before flights. His lifestyle has cost him virtually any relationship or contact with his wife and son and has led him down the path of womanizing and heavy substance abuse as a desperate form of distraction.

Flight sets out to tell a story of moral ambiguity. Its protagonist is one who tests the ethical boundaries of the audience where at one moment we are rooting for him and the next, we are disgusted by him. This ambiguity fuels the pace and power of the film, and makes its 138 minute running time literally “fly” by. Washington is excellent, but Zemeckis is precise in his style, editing, and (yes, Pam and Eric) in his cinematography. Washington makes us see Whitaker’s struggle, but Zemeckis makes us feel it with expert use of camera movements, showing us a static sober Whitaker and a flowing, frantic intoxicated Whitaker. The crash sequence is compelling and exceeds expectations, regardless of its assumed predictability. These nuanced touches make Flight deeply engaging and provide for some harrowingly primal audience reaction.

Furthermore, Washington’s stellar performance is complemented at every turn with a pitch perfect supporting cast including Don Cheadle, Bruce Greenwood, Melissa Leo, and John Goodman (who is 2 for 2 with electric supporting roles this year with Flight and Argo). While the performances and the story are excellent, Flight does not accomplish all it is trying to do. A motif of religious purpose and providence feels crow barred in. Also, while excellent, the soundtrack is a bit heavy-handed in its relevance to what’s happening on the screen, which can be distracting. However, these are minor quibbles. Overall, Flight is an excellent narrative that explores the dangers of addiction in an impressively unique way. This is a strong film that expertly demonstrates the talent of its cast and director. A-