Friday, October 30, 2015


      Back in 2004, "60 Minutes" ran a story that ultimately forced Dan Rather to resign and got producer Mary Mapes fired. This is the newsroom drama of the story behind that story.

       Cate Blanchett stars as Mary Mapes, the hard driving "60 Minutes" producer who "doesn't like bullies" and is a relentless journalist. Robert Redford co-stars as Dan Rather, long time anchor of "60 Minutes" and a iconic journalism figure in television news.  Mr. Redford looks nothing like the real Dan Rather but he does a good job capturing his vocal mannerisms and of course his acting is excellent. Ms. Blanchett looks very little like Mary Mapes as well but her acting is outstanding  and I wouldn't be surprised if there is another Oscar nomination in her future.

        There is a terrific supporting cast as well. Topher Grace, Elisabeth Moss,  and Dennis Quaid are all part of Ms. Mapes investigative team. Bruce Greenwood is Andrew Heywood, the head of the CBS News division. Stacy Keach, John Benjamin Hickey, and Dermot Mulroney all play key roles in the drama.

        The story is a compelling look at news and politics and a cautionary tale for any news reporter. Watching the story behind the story unfold and then have everything fall apart is fascinating. Does the film ever get to the actual "truth" is debatable but there is no question Ms. Mapes and Mr. Rather are portrayed as scapegoats by CBS management.

Crimson Peak

         Writer/director Guillermo del Toro has crafted a beautiful ghost story that unfortunately is more style than substance.  What it lacks in scares, it makes up for in a gorgeous set piece of a haunted house. 

          When Thomas Sharpe (played by the dashing Tom Hiddleston) marries Edith Cushing ( a plucky Mia Wasikowska), he brings her home to to his crumbling mansion, nicknamed Crimson Peak because of the red clay under the grounds. He lives there with his sister (A very creepy Jessica Chastain). Part of the problem is that the second half of the film is just three characters, only one unfamiliar with the ghost that haunts the house. After one or two preliminary appearances, the ghost just isn't very scary. Ms. Chastain is actually the scariest thing in the film, her character revealing more and more of an evil side as the film progresses.

           The first half of the film is all set up with one quick "scare" at the onset but it takes too long to get to the "haunted House" half of the film. Mr. Hiddleston is dashing but weak willed compared to his sister who has obvious plans for his new bride. Ms. Wasikowska is a luminescent heroine but how many times can we watch her wander the empty halls of the mansion? Charlie Hunnam also co-stars as a family friend of Edith's who harbors a secret love for her.

             It's the mansion itself that is the star of the film. Mr. del Toro has a distinct visual style and pulls out all the stops with amazing art direction (and costumes for that matter). The ghosts of the film look creepy enough but there is a lack of suspense that dampens the scares.

              Mr. del Toro will be had pressed to top his masterpiece, "Pan's Labyrinth" and for real scares, check out his earlier film "The Devil's Backbone".

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Bridge of Spies

     Once again director Steven Spielberg has crafted an impeccable film that holds it's own with the best of the cold war dramas.  With Tom Hanks as his "go to" leading man, the film is a suspenseful, thought provoking drama based on a true story.

      The Jimmy Stewart of his generation, Mr. Hanks is perfectly cast as James Donovan, an insurance lawyer who is asked to defend Russian spy, Rudolph Abel (played by the wonderful Mark Rylance). It's clear it's a case he can't win but his morality and ethics still move him to do the best job possible. When U.S. pilot, Gary Powers is shot down over Russia and accused (rightly so) of spying, it is Donovan who is asked to negotiate the exchange of spies in East Berlin. But of course it comes with a twist that complicates matters .

       Mr. Hanks has played these kind of roles before, the straight laced hero but it's fun to see his character annoyed by a head cold, downing scotches to feel better throughout the film. Mr. Rylance is brilliant as Abel and I hope to see him get a best supporting Oscar nomination.  Co-starring as Donovan's wife is Amy Ryan and Sebastian Koch as a shadowy East Berlin lawyer.

       The screenplay is by Matt Charman and the Coen Brothers. It is cerebral yet accessible to a broad audience with more than one clever line. Mr. Spielberg's recreation of cold war Berlin and the Berlin wall is chillingly authentic (no pun intended) as is everything else in the film. It's a heartfelt tribute to Mr. Donovan, who's work for our government deserves the recognition.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

The Walk

       Robert Zemeckis and his team do the impossible and bring the World Trade Center "Twin Towers" back to life for two hours in this technical marvel of a film. Mr. Zemeckis has always been on the cutting edge of new technology but he outdoes him here in a beautifully rendered recreation of the iconic buildings and the man who dared to cross them on a high wire.

        The film is based on the true story of wirewalker, Philippe Petit and his dream to walk across the Towers in 1974 just as the buildings were being finished. There is an excellent documentary about it called "Man on Wire" if you want to know more. Mr. Petit is played by Joseph Gordon Levitt, who's french is better than his accented English, but still charms as Petit. He obviously trained for sometime to be competent on the wire, as well as juggling and acrobatics.

        Mr. Gordon-Levitt narrates the film from the torch of the Statue of Liberty (with the towers in the background) telling us about his early years and how he found his life's calling when he meets Papa Rudy (played by Sir Ben Kingsley) an accomplished wirewalker and circus performer. He then goes on to explain his obsession with the Towers and how, with a small gang of "accomplices", he pulls off the stunt (or what he calls the coup) of the century.

         When the action shifts to the actual stunt, it plays like a great cinematic robbery and the characters that come to life and steal the film are the towers themselves. The film must be seen in 3-D as it's possibly the best use of the technology I've even seen. As Philippe walks his wire, my hands were actually sweaty during the entire sequence (confession, I'm not a fan of heights to begin with).

            The film is a testimony to human endurance and a loving tribute to The World Trade Center. For those brief two hours, the towers are back, vibrant in the New York skyline and all is right in the world.

All Things Must Pass

         Actor and now director Colin Hanks charts the rise and fall of Tower Records in this new documentary. For many years Tower Records was a music retail powerhouse with stores all over the world. It's founder, Russ Solomon had a laid back style that suited his management style well. By the year 2000, Tower was bringing in a billion dollars but few short years later, it landed in bankruptcy court.

           Using archival footage, interviews with Mr. Solomon and his senior staff (including son, Michael), Mr. Hanks chronologically presents the viewer with how the mega-chain grew out of a small section in a drugstore but hit a combination perfect storm that brought it all crashing down. In many ways it's a business 101 cautionary tale.

             Cameos from Bruce Springsteen, Elton John, and Dave Grohl are fun and interesting but the film would have been better served if a few more big names with more variety had also been included.  Considering all the great in-store appearances over the years, it would have been nice to see some footage from them as well but the film is still interesting from start to finish.

              Mr. Solomon is such a colorful and iconic figure, he is natural subject matter. There are interviews with former employees and a few music industry executives who are colorful characters in their own right. If you are a music lover familiar with Tower or an industry insider looking for a nostalgic trip, despite a few shortcomings, you will enjoy this film very much.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Bone Tomahawk

           If you like westerns and you're looking for something different, this is the film for you. Written and directed by S. Craig Zahler, on the surface it's a simple story of a rescue but Mr. Zahler takes that simple premise and throws convention out the window. Without any "A" feature credits to his name, Mr. Zahler has assembled a high caliber cast including Kurt Russell, Patrick Wilson, Lili Simmons, Richard Jenkins, and Matthew Fox and gives them a script that is destined to become a midnight cult classic.

           Mr. Russell is the sheriff of "Bright Hope", a town that harbors a terrifying danger just a few days ride away. David Arquette and horror film veteran Sid Haig set things in motion when they trespass across some kind of ancient ceremonial plot in the mountains. Mr. Arquette finds himself wounded in Mr. Russell's jail being attended to by Ms. Simmons. When they, along with a deputy disappear, Mr. Russell forms a four man posse to search for them. Mr. Wilson is Arthur O'Dywer, Ms. Simmons's  husband who, despite a bad leg wound is determined to find his wife. Richard Jenkins is "Chickory", the grizzled old deputy and Mr. Fox is a dandy ( his clothes match the color of his horse) who is also a skilled gunfighter. The four men ride off with no idea what they are about to encounter.

            The characters are familiar yet original and don't fit together in any way that makes sense. The dialog is very original and filled both with unexpected humor and deep thought. What the men find in the mountains turn the story incredibly violent and gory during the last part of the film. Be warned that one scene, in particular, is like nothing you've ever seen and quite gut retching.

             Everything about this film is unusual (even the song played over the credits deserves a close listen) but somehow it all works and is quite entertaining (except maybe that particular scene) in it's own weird way.

Steve Jobs

        Director Danny Boyle and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin team up to give us still another look at Steve Jobs, the iconic mastermind behind Apple. There are many documentaries and books about Mr. Jobs and Mr. Sorkin's screenplay takes a very different approach to peel back the curtain behind the man.

         Rather than try to be biographical, the screenplay focus is on three of the most important product launches in Mr. Jobs career, "The Macintosh", " Next" and the "iMac". The film is literally divided into three sections and the same characters appear each time to basically argue and fight with Mr. Jobs about his products and his approach. The one character that adds an emotional connection to the story is  Mr. Jobs's daughter, Lisa who we first see as a five year old, then nine, and finally nineteen. During the first arc, Mr. Jobs vehemently denies Lisa is his daughter but there is a growing connection between them as the story progresses and his seeming acknowledgement by the end is the core of the film. 

         What is most appealing is the terrific acting of Michael Fassbender as Steve Jobs and Kate Winslet as Joanna Hoffman, his long time head of marketing. While Mr. Fassbender is certainly no dead ringer for Mr. Jobs, he does an excellent job capturing the essence of the man and Ms. Winslet disappears completely into Ms. Hoffman. Jeff Daniels co-stars as John Scully, Apple's CEO and it's a typical role Mr. Daniels can do in his sleep. Also in smaller but significant roles are Seth Rogan as  Steve Wozniak and Michael Stuhlbarg as Andy Hertzfeld. 

          Mr. Boyle directs with his signature kinetic pace and Mr. Sorkin's screenplay is filled with his signature verbal barrages. Normally both would impress but the structure of the film doesn't serve them well. They strive more for entertainment than truth but end up with just a series of incredibly repetitive confrontations that don't really entertain and certainly play hard and fast with the facts.

Saturday, October 03, 2015

The Martian

       Director Ridley Scott goes back to space in this film version of the bestselling book, "The Martian". He is very much in his element directing with precision, a faithful recreation of the novel. The film is so realistic, it's like watching a documentary in real time. Even if you have read the book, you will still find yourself holding your breath multiple times during the film.

      Mr. Scott brings the realism but star Matt Damon and the rest of the cast bring the entertainment value. Mr. Damon is Oscar caliber as Mark Watney, the astronaut left behind and thought dead during an aborted space mission to Mars. His fellow astronauts are played by Sebastian Stan, Aksel Hennie, Kate Mara, Michael Pena and as the mission commander, Jessica Chastain. They spend a great deal of the film off screen returning to Earth, believing Watney is dead. They do, however, play a integral part in the second half.

       Back on Earth, the head of NASA is played with much gravitas by Jeff Daniels and various other NASA staff are played by Chiwetel Ejiofor, Sean Bean, Mackenzie Davis  and Kristen Wiig. It's a strong cast that plays every scene with convincing realism.  The one exception is Ms. Wiig, who I realize is trying to widen her range as an actor, but seems out of place in the serious role of the NASA Media Director.

       Of course the film really belongs to Mr. Damon who spends the majority of the film alone and many times dialog free. It is a testament to a great script and his terrific acting that we are fully engaged with his character. The script is infused with much unexpected humor and it's a welcome relief to laugh occasionally during this suspenseful story. 

       The film is being offered in both 2D and 3D versions. I wouldn't recommend paying the extra fee for the 3-D as it didn't seem to add much to the visuals except make the film seem darker than necessary. I would recommend though, seeing the film on a large screen to appreciate the vastness of space and the replicated Martian landscape.

       "The Martian" is first rate entertainment and a great initial launch for the holiday movie season.