Redmayne & Jones soar in The Aeronauts

The Aeronauts (Felicity Jones, Eddie Redmayne) – The Theory of Everything featured Oscar-worthy performances for Eddie Redmayne (he won) and Felicity Jones.  They have been reunited in The Aeronauts, the story of weather forecasting pioneer James Glaisher (Redmayne).  Jones plays Amelia, a fictional compilation character who pilots the balloon that (actual) scientist Glaisher uses to try to fly higher than any person ever has.  The movie is set in London in the mid-1800s.  Not taken seriously by the scientific community, Glaisher is dismissed by his academic colleagues as a dreamer for thinking that weather can ever be predicted or forecast.

The only flying machines in the day were balloons. He seeks out Amelia, who is an experienced pilot with a flair for showmanship.  She also is haunted by the death of her husband in a balloon accident that went awry.  Their upcoming flight is considered by the public more circus entertainment than scientific journey.  Glaisher is not amused by Amelia’s antics.  They take off and climb high into uncertainty, danger, calamity, joy, and peril.

The acting, costumes, art design, stunts, and special effects are superb.  The drama is palpable.  However, the movie doesn’t feel great.  It’s too long, too talky, and too unlikely while given the dreaded “inspired” by a true story.  In reality, Glaisher made the ascent with pilot Henry Coxwell, who was kind of the Chuck Yeager (famed test pilot) of his day.  Amelia represents the female aeronauts who were more numerous than you might think.  By inventing Amelia’s character, it allowed writers Jack Thorne and Tom Harper (who also directed) to create a back story for Amelia, showcase a female pioneer, and create at least the possibility of a romantic relationship

Jones and Redmayne demonstrate great chemistry again.  Redmayne is impressive as the driven Glaisher.  Jones portrays Amelia as flamboyant, no nonsense, and totally competent.  In fact, Jones’ Amelia reminded me of Amy Adams’ Amelia Earhart in Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian.  In fact, it is not much of a stretch to believe that the character name was inspired by Earhart, the legendary, pioneering airplane pilot.

The film works as a heroes-in-peril story.  It doesn’t particularly work as historical drama.  The Aeronauts comes from Amazon Studios, which tells you that it will be featured on the streaming service either at the same time as it debuts in theaters or shortly thereafter.  You can afford to wait until it gets to Amazon Prime unless you are looking for a holiday movie with empty seats.

The Report is just boring

The Report (Adam Driver, Annette Bening) – Adam Driver and Annette Bening scowl their way through The Report, the story of the Senate Intelligence Committee investigation into the use of EITs – Enhanced Interrogation Techniques (also known as torture) in Iraq and Afghanistan.  These fine actors are worthy of a better script and film than The Report.  Maybe they never had a chance.

Driver plays Dan Jones, an investigator for the committee whose team paws through tens of thousands of e-mails, memos, and documents that prove that the CIA, other intelligence agencies and private contractors pushed interrogations way beyond moral levels to get information about Al Qaida, Saddam Hussein, and other terrorists.  They used techniques authorized by the Bush Administration and covered up by them and the Obama Administration.  And, oh yes, the techniques didn’t work.

But if you believe this movie, every Republican, intelligence official, and many Democrats ignored the information or were deceived.  Only Jones, his small group of investigators locked up in the basement of the Capitol, and Senate Intelligence committee chair Dianne Feinstein (Bening) knew the truth.  Jones moves from truth seeker to obsessed moralist to occasional whistleblower.  Feinstein never moves at all … or at least Bening never gets out of her office or the secure SCIF (Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility).

Now I get it.  It is hard to make an exciting film about a handful of people who spent six years reading.  Or to create drama from meetings in a senator’s office or a conference room.  Mostly, Driver and Bening look earnestly incredulous while raising their voices – mostly at each other.  Boring!  To make the movie even modestly dramatic, there are flashbacks to war zones to show waterboarding and other EITs as military and intelligence personnel cross the line of human decency and legality.

The Report is one of several movies debuting on screening services (Amazon, Prime Video, Hulu, Netflix) at the same time as they open in limited release in theaters.  This makes the movies eligible for the Oscars, a controversial trend best exemplified by movies like Mudbound and Roma.  This year’s most heralded joint release is Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman.

The Report is not a great film. But if you want to know at least one version of the backstory behind the way the use of EITs was made public, you may want to watch it … particularly if you already pay for Prime Video.

“Dark Waters” swims in familiar territory

Dark Waters (Mark Ruffalo, Anne Hathaway, Tim Robbins, Victor Garber, Bill Pullman) —  If you liked the 1998 John Travolta film, A Civil Action, you will enjoy Dark Waters.  Mark Ruffalo stars as Rob Bilott, a corporate lawyer from Cincinnati who takes a case about chemical contamination in a town in West Virginia.

As in A Civil Action (also based on a true story), the case becomes a compulsion for Bilott.  It becomes his life, his only case.  It impacts his health, his family, his stature in the firm, and his reputation.  His obsession lasts years as he fights DuPont, the kind of company he used to defend.  As he uncovers their deceit and the hundreds of lives their actions have impacted, the audience in drawn in.

Filmed in dark tones and replete with atonal, ominous music, Dark Waters attempts to turn a dull, prolonged legal case into a taut drama.  It succeeds about as well as A Civil Action or Erin Brockovich does, which is to say it is clearly contrived but not boring.  It is a character study with an interesting story where the outcome is predictable.

Ruffalo is perhaps the least well known 3-time Oscar nominee.  He has done best in ensemble films like Spotlight, The Last Castle, the Now You See Me films, and a series of super-hero movies, but he is also an incredibly reliable reluctant-hero type.  His co-stars in Dark Waters, Anne Hathaway, Tim Robbins, and Victor Garber, deliver good but not memorable performances.  Hathaway, particularly, seems wasted.

I doubt this film will garner much box office, but it is well worth your time if you enjoy these types of “loner takes on corrupt corporate giant” stories.

“The Good Liar” is a disjointed deception

The Good Liar (Helen Mirren, Ian McKellen, Russell Tovey) – The joy of seeing Helen Mirren and Ian McKellen together bantering on screen isn’t enough to offset the flaws in The Good Liar.  Two of the greatest British actors of our time, Mirren and McKellen clearly are having a good time as an older couple courting each other.  But there is much beneath the surface.

McKellen plays Roy Courtnay, a con man with a history we learn about in painfully slow ways. Mirren’s character, Betty McLeish, lives well in a very comfortable house on the outskirts of London.  They meet online, give each other false names, and create fictional likes and dislikes to obscure their online identities.  By the time they meet for a meal, they come clean and proceed to enjoy each other’s company.  Or do they?  We know that Roy is trying to get to her money.  And we sense that she is either terribly naïve or uncannily cagey.

The story seems to be headed toward a predictable climax when Betty agrees to put her money in a joint account with Roy.  But is Roy falling in love, and will he go through with the con?  It is here, more than hour into the film, that the plot turns abruptly and implausibly.  The couple heads on a trip to Berlin where Betty’s grandson, Stephen (Russell Tovey of TV’s Quantico), meets them and takes them to an unexpected place.  Suddenly, we see flashbacks that seem out of place.  The rest of the movie plays out the con, the relationship of Roy and Betty, and the deceptions afoot.  I won’t give more away.  Suffice to say, the story seems contrived.  It feels like the audience is being deceived.  In some ways, it feels like the movie starts again as Mirren’s character becomes the provocateur and McKellen’s the victim.

While the acting is excellent, the story (based on a novel by Nicholas Searle) feels disjointed.  I’ll bet the book is way better than the movie. At 109 minutes, it feels very British and, consequently, slow.

It’s not that The Good Liar is a bad film.  It is reasonably entertaining.  But it just doesn’t do justice to the actors and creates whiplash for the audience.

“Beautiful Day” is way more than a biopic of Mr. Rogers

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (Tom Hanks, Matthew Rhys, Susan Kelechi Watson, Chris Cooper) – This almost perfect film is a salve for our turbulent times.  Tears will flow for many of you (the way they did for Julie and me) at many points in this movie.  Tom Hanks is so good at portraying Fred Rogers that we felt like we were being transformed to childhood, to a softer time when hokey props and a cardigan sweater felt like a safe, warm home.

I grew up with Fred Rogers.  A lot of you can say that; even more of your kids would echo that.  But for those of us who grew up in Pittsburgh, we knew Mr. Rogers way before the rest of the country.  Trained as a preacher, he chose kids as his ministry.  But there were those people who thought he was a prissy, untalented, too-good-to-be-true children’s entertainer.  Those people were wrong.

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood follows the exceptional documentary, Won’t You Be My Neighbor.  See both.  They get to the essence of a man who was bullied as a chubby kid and who ultimately treated children as little humans with minds that needed nurtured and straight talk about the scariest parts of life.

But A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is not in any way a biography of Mr. Rogers.  It’s the story of an award-winning, cynical reporter, Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys), assigned the task of writing a mere 400 words about Rogers for an issue of Esquire magazine about heroes.  A good investigative reporter, Vogel heads to Pittsburgh to interview Rogers and, potentially, to expose him.  What follows is a human drama about anger, marriage, fatherhood, death and forgiveness.

The acting is impeccable.  This starts with Hanks, who slows his cadence to a lazy drawl as he creates an angelic tone that softens Vogel and emanates such raw compassion that the audience gets introspective.  In one amazing scene, Rogers asks Vogel to commit to one minute of silence while thinking of the people who have loved him.  The screen goes quiet for a full 60 seconds with the only images being Vogel’s face, Rogers, and the people in the restaurant in which they are sitting (including a cameo by Joanne Rogers, Fred’s wife).  And during that minute, Hanks, as Rogers, looks at the cameras as if to ask each of us to take the minute.  Wow!

Rhys, who played Daniel Ellsberg in The Post, is phenomenal.  His facial expressions alone allow us to feel his pain, his cynicism, his revelations, his soft side, and his despair.   He absolutely holds his own with Hanks.  The supporting players, Susan Kelechi Watson (Beth on This Is Us) and Oscar Winner Chris Cooper (Adaptation), shine as Andrea Vogel (Lloyd’s wife) and Jerry Vogel (his estranged father).  Their performances are absolutely perfect – prominent without being intrusive, notable without being screen-eating.

Director Marielle Heller, who also helmed the exceptional Melissa McCarthy vehicle Can You Ever Forgive Me? coaxes these layered performances while using a fascinating mix of models and photography to tell this story of the legendary Mr. Rogers as healer, pastor, and humanist.

If ever we needed a story about kindness, hope and salvation, it is now.  A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood will warm your heart, delve into your soul, and entertain you while giving you a welcome respite from the trials and tribulations of the times.

Knives Out cuts straight to the funny bone

Knives Out (Daniel Craig, Chris Evans, Jamie Lee Curtis, Michael Shannon, Don Johnson, Toni Collette, Ana de Armas, Christopher Plummer) – What fun!  Knives Out is a classic “who-done-it” with lots of enigmatic characters and loads of laughs.  Think Murder on the Orient Express with a touch of Inspector Clouseau.

Famous, rich murder mystery writer Harlan Thromby (Christopher Plummer) is found dead with his neck slashed in his 19th century mansion following his 85th birthday.  Was he murdered or a clear case of suicide?  As his not-so-loving family and the other party attendees (the housekeeper and the nurse) are re-gathered by the police at the house on the day after the murder, we hear everyone’s story and the discrepancies therein.  As they are questioned by the police, a shadowy character sits in the back of the room, occasionally striking the highest key on the piano.  It’s Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig), legendary investigator, who soon takes over the case.  Working with his counterparts and the nurse who was Thromby’s only real friend, he peels back the stories and the case.

We get to know the characters, almost all of whom are despicable in their own ways.  They’re entitled, dependent, and opportunistic.  We find out that Thromby uses the family get-together to cut off a few of them, thus, lots of people have motives.

Craig is totally surprisingly.  He plays Blanc as a southern lawman straight out of the Wild West.  Who knew he could be a comedic leading man?  He really is Inspector Clouseau without the bumbling although there is one scene where he is listening to music with earphones that is hysterical.

The other actors clearly have a great time.  It’s a wonderful ensemble.  Director/writer Rian Johnson (Brick, Looper) keeps us engaged and guessing while providing lots of laughs and a little suspense.

With all the Oscar contenders being released in the next six weeks, Knives Out is a must-see.  With a PG-13 rating, it is the perfect family film for Thanksgiving weekend or a Christmas-time outing.

“Judy” could have been so much more

Judy (Renee Zellweger, Finn Wittrock, Rufus Sewell, Michael Gambon, Jessie Buckley) – Judy Garland was nominated for an Academy Award for Judgment at Nuremburg (1962) and A Star is Born (1955) while also winning a special “Juvenile Award” Oscar in 1940 for The Wizard of Oz. She starred in Easter Parade with Fred Astaire; Ziegfeld Girls with Jimmy Stewart; Meet Me in St. Louis; For Me and My Gal with George Murphy and Gene Kelly; A Star is Born with James Mason (with whom she had an affair and who gave a lovely eulogy at her funeral); and starred in several films with Mickey Rooney.  She appeared on virtually every television variety show in the 1950s and ‘60s not to mention her own variety show in 1963.  She also performed on stage and TV with her supremely talented daughter, Liza Mannelli.  She was married five times and had several flings/affairs (according to imdb) with Tyrone Power, Yul Brynner, Frank Sinatra, and James Mason.  She was a woman looking for love in all places.

I tell you all this because you would never know it from watching the film Judy.  Instead, the movie dives deeply into the last period of her life with the occasional flashback to the period in the late 1930s when she was hand-picked by Louis B. Mayer to star in The Wizard of Oz.

For most of her adult life, Judy (born Frances Ethel Gumm) was a drunk, a pill-popper, a chronically tardy, promiscuous, self-destructive lush, much of which is displayed on screen in a script that places the blame of all of it on the way she was handled by Mayer, the studio system, and neglective parents. As portrayed in the film, she was a devoted mother who had squandered a fortune and was forced to leave her two youngest children (Joey and Lorna Luft, who became an actress herself) with one of her estranged husbands, Sid Luft (Rufus Sewell).

When Judy burned all of her bridges in the U.S. and was left homeless and in debt, she reluctantly went to London, where she was still beloved, and performed in sold-out concerts.  Often unable or unwilling to perform, she was nonetheless revered.  She hooked up with her last husband, disc jockey Mickey Deans (Finn Wittrock), who tried to resurrect her career in the states to no avail.   She died of an overdose of barbiturates while performing in London in 1969.

The movie almost all takes place in this last period.  As a result, it is a very dark portrait of a very sad person who looks 20 years older than she is, beaten down by life and no longer happy even when she does the one thing she loves, perform.

Renee Zellweger is fantastic as this latter-day Judy.  She has the mannerisms and the voice down pat.  She plays this tortured soul both sympathetic and pathetic.  It is quite a performance.  Only occasionally can you hear or see the Renee we have come so well to know.  She almost never breaks character, a tribute to her acting skills.  Plus, she sings all of the songs herself.  And while she is not Judy Garland, she IS Judy Garland.  It’s a bravura, Oscar-worthy performance.

Nonetheless, she can’t save the film.  I asked my 40-year-old son, who was born 10 years after Garland’s death, what he knew about Judy Garland.  He impressed me, knowing not only that she starred in The Wizard of Oz, of course, but that she had degenerated into a drug addict and alcoholic and died from an overdose.  He nailed the movie on the head.  It’s a little about the filming of Oz and a lot about her descent into darkness.

If you intended to see it for a broad look into the life of a cinematic and musical icon, you will be disappointed. If you want to see a great performance and see how Judy Garland died, this is a film for you.

AC/DC? “New” film chronicles the war between Edison & Westinghouse

The Current War: Director’s Cut (Benedict Cumberbatch, Michael Shannon, Nicholas Hoult, Tom Holland) – Thomas Edison is widely known as the inventor of the incandescent light bulb, the phonograph, motion pictures and so much more.  He is an American icon, rock star, and historical giant.  George Westinghouse is virtually unknown by the American people.  He isn’t studied in school.  Nicola Tesla is known more for the car named after him than for his incredible insight into the future.

The Current War is a badly named film.  It isn’t about Afghanistan, the current war.  It’s a period piece about the epic battle between Edison and Westinghouse to establish the country’s electrical standard. Set from 1880 through the turn of the 20th century, the movie dramatizes the fierce rivalry between these two giants of industry to decide whether Edison’s direct current (DC) will electrify the nation or whether Westinghouse’s alternating current (AC) will prevail.  Edison may have been the more famous of the two, but it was Westinghouse who ultimately won although both AC and DC continue to exist today.  Some might even argue that DC has made a comeback.

Edison will forever be revered, and for good reason.  The light bulb revolutionized the world.  And his other inventions proved his amazing foresight.  He changed our lives.  Westinghouse (who was based in my beloved hometown of Pittsburgh), invented the air brake and led the eponymous corporation that eventually was a pioneer in appliances, broadcasting, and manufacturing.  Tesla invented the motor that ran on AC current, translating electricity into practical use beyond just lighting.

The film tells this generally unknown story and gives us insight into these three people.  Edison is portrayed by Brit Benedict Cumberbatch (with an impressive American accent) as an insecure, competitive genius whose quest to control the dispersion of electricity forces him to sacrifice his principles in order to win.  Michael Shannon plays Westinghouse as a principled businessman who wants to turn electricity into a business asset.  Tesla, as played by Nicolas Hoult, is a brilliant, confident thinker who worked for both men but bonded with Westinghouse, who gave him free rein to use his considerable skill.

The acting is exceptional.  The pacing is a bit slow and contrived.  This is a mood film that fails to deliver much emotion.  But its strength rests in the story it is telling, one that few people ever learned yet is so important to the history of our country and the world.

There is a fascinating back-story to this film.  Originally financed by The Weinstein Company, this film was in the editing process in 2017 when the Harvey Weinstein scandal hit.  Everything stopped.  And after that company declared bankruptcy, this film was premiered at the Toronto Film Festival to middling reviews.  Another company bought it, re-cut (re-edited) it, and is about to release it this month, a full two years after it premiered.

Renamed with the Director’s Cut label in the title, it was shortened with some new scenes shot.  It is a very good, if not a great, film.  Look for it in art houses later this month.

“The Goldfinch” survives a terrorist attack. Too bad!

The Goldfinch (Ansel Elgort, Oakes Fedley, Finn Wolfhard, Nicole Kidman, Jeffrey Wright, Sarah Paulson, Luke Wilson) – One of the most highly anticipated film adaptations of the year is The Goldfinch.  Based faithfully on the Pulitzer Prize-winning book by Donna Tartt, The Goldfinch is a brooding, long soap opera that loyalists to the book will love.  In other words, if you liked the book, you will like the movie.  But if you didn’t read the 700+-page novel, you will likely be disappointed.  That appeared to be the consensus at the advanced screening I attended.

The basic story is that our protagonist, Theo Decker, survives a terrorist attack on the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York that killed dozens, including his mother.  As he awoke in the ashes of the explosion, he takes the famous Carel Fabritius painting, The Goldfinch, which is presumed destroyed.  Taken in by rich socialites in the wake of his mother’s death, he becomes part of the family, which includes his friend, Andy.  Andy’s repressed mother (played by Nicole Kidman) protects Theo, identifies the child’s trauma, and even gives him prescription sleeping medication.  When Theo’s estranged and derelict father, Larry (Luke Wilson), finally shows up to take his son to a new home in Las Vegas, the boy enters a new life.  In Vegas, we meet a new cast of characters, including Larry’s self-centered, smart-alecky girlfriend, Xandra (Sarah Paulson), and a new schoolmate, Boris (Finn Wolfhard of Stranger Things).  Both Xandra and Boris are drugheads with Theo becoming a willing addict.  Boris is bold but he is also regularly beaten by his Russian father.  In short, everyone in this film is damaged.

When Theo realizes his father is using him to get to the money left to him by his mother, he flees back to New York.  He shows up at the doorstep of an antique restorer, Hobie (Jeffrey Wright), whose niece, Pippa (Ashleigh Cummins), received a head injury in the museum explosion, which also took the life of Hobie’s partner.  Hobie teaches Theo the antiques business where the young man proves to be a brilliant marketer and front man.  But one day, he misrepresents a piece of furniture as an antique to the wrong person, who reveals the fraud and, through amazingly implausible research, reveals that Theo stole The Goldfinch.  It’s here that the movie actually develops some pace.  All this takes about an hour-and-45-minutes.  Up to here, it is all mood, piano music, and lethargic pace.  Suddenly, things happen.

Theo gets engaged to Kitsey (she is Andy’s sister), his soulmate, Pippa, returns from England, and Boris shows up in New York.  Theo’s addiction drives him down; Boris reveals the biggest secret of the movie; Hobie delivers a lecture; and The Goldfinch goes missing. The mood pic becomes a thriller in Act III, and all I can think about is how much better this movie would have been if 30 minutes had been taken out of the first two acts.

Director John Crowley (Brooklyn) stays way too true to the novel to the detriment to the movie. He lingers on the character development in the way a novel might.  All the viewer wants to do is to skip 200-300 pages and get right to the good stuff.

The Goldfinch had a real chance to be a good movie but the award-winning novel doomed its cinematic possibility.  The best acting belongs to the unknown actors, particularly those playing Theo and Boris.  Kidman is better as the repressed mother than the aging widow (she actually ages way too fast).  Wilson and Paulson are both miscast.  Jeffrey Wright is wonderful as Hobie.

Previewed in the past week at the Toronto International Film Festival, the movie has garnered generally poor reviews.  This film will not do well at the box office.  However, it is a must-see for people who slogged through the 700 pages of the book because they will generally feel satisfied that Crowley and Company were true to the novel.

Mike Wallace Is Here

Mike Wallace Is Here (Mike Wallace) – This feels like a no-holds-barred documentary about America’s most feared journalist/interviewer.  Wallace, who started out as a pitchman and game-show host, morphed into a disciple of Edward R. Morrow and Don Hewitt as well as a colleague of Walter Cronkite, Harry Reasoner, Morley Safer, and the rest of the 60 Minutes team.

 

His direct and occasionally obnoxious interview style cowered world leaders, celebrities, and unwitting victims.  A call from Wallace or his producers stoked fear in some of the most powerful people in the world.  He interviewed most of the world’s most important politicians and exposed despots and scandals.  His reputation was legendary.  His stamp on journalism was undeniable.

 

Behind the scenes, he was a self-admittedly crappy father.  He was married enough times that he avoided the question in interviews.  Where Mike Wallace Is Here showcases the intrepid reporter’s most famous interviews and his early career, it glosses over most of his personal foibles.  Whether you love this documentary or dislike it probably revolves around whether you think it gives Wallace a pass on his personal life.  I don’t think it ruins it at all.

Israeli Director Avi Belkin objectively presents the journalist who Americans know as the beating heart of 60 Minutes through all of its formidable run from 1968 through his death in 2012.  But the film also chronicles the impact of the death of his 19-year-old son, Peter, in a mountain-climbing accident in 1962.  It shows interviews of Wallace by Barbara Walters, Morley Safer, Dinah Shore, and Merv Griffin, which expose the real Wallace.  A central theme of the film is that Wallace’s on-air personality was largely constructed – first as an actor, game-show host and product pitchman and later as a hard-nosed, relentless interviewer.

This is a flawed man with a huge ego who eventually suffered depression so deep that he almost killed himself.  He changed the way Americans get the news.  He left a wake and a legacy.

Premiered at Sundance earlier this year, Mike Wallace Is Here is a compelling, penetrating documentary worth finding.