Back Rowe Reviews
Real Time Movie Reviews from the Back Row of a Theater


One Life (PG)

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Directed by: James Hawes
Starring: Anthony Hopkins
March 2024

Warning! This is NOT a movie review. This is a critique of the film. Intended to initiate a dialogue, the following analysis explores various aspects of the film and may contain spoilers. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. Ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

One Life chronicles the extraordinary true story of Nicholas “Nicky” Winton (Johnny Flynn), a young stockbroker at a London bank, who rescued hundreds of children from the streets Prague on the eve of World War II.

From a young age, Nicky’s mother, Babette “Babi” Winton (Helena Bonham Carter), instilled in him a desire to help those in need. This “If you see a need, lend a hand” mentality compelled Nicky to help the refugees in Prague. All told, his efforts led to the rescue of 669 children who were transported on eight trains—a ninth train, with over 200 children aboard, never arrived because Hitler’s invasion of Poland ignited World War II. The children from the failed mission, many of whom ended up in concentration camps, weighed heavily on Nicky’s conscience for the rest of his life.

Nicky’s nagging melancholia over the people he wasn’t able to save mirrors the titular character’s plight in
Schindler’s List (1993). In a haunting scene at the end of that film, Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson) laments the fact that he could’ve rescued more people; he calculates how many more lives could’ve been saved had he sold his watch and car. Despite the crushing weight of underachievement, both men secured a lasting legacy, namely the descendants of the people (largely Jewish) they saved.

Fifty years after the rescue effort, old Nicky (Anthony Hopkins) reflects on his earlier exploits, which are dramatized in a series of flashbacks. Nicky’s wife Grete (Lena Olin), tells him it’s time to let go of the past. While she’s away on a trip, Nicky drags dozens of file boxes from his study to the front yard, where he turns the mound of historical documents into a bonfire (an ironic twist on Nazi book burning).

The one item from the past Nicky just can’t bring himself to part with is a leather briefcase that contains a scrapbook of all the children he helped rescue. Nicky presents the scrapbook to a local London newspaper, but a decades-old account of Jewish children being rescued from another country fails to pique the editor’s interest.

When Nicky meets with a museum director, she says the scrapbook is too important for her collection, but asks if she can borrow it. That decision creates a chain of events that brings Nicky face-to-face with his legacy.

I must admit, I knew nothing about this film before I went to see it; Anthony Hopkins was on the poster and I’d gladly pay to hear him read binary code (formerly: from a telephone book) for two hours. A consummate craftsman, Hopkins is, in my estimation, the finest living actor on planet Earth. And, despite only appearing in about half the movie, the octogenarian delivers an authentic portrait of a man tormented by the lives he couldn’t save.

Bonham Carter is also impressive. Unfairly typecast for her off-kilter roles in many of Tim Burton’s films, Bonham Carter is a really good dramatic actress. Here, her “Not gonna’ take no for an answer” characterization is finely-calibrated—Babi’s assertiveness could’ve come off as bullying.

The rest of the cast, including Jonathan Pryce as Nicky’s long-time friend, Martin, and Romola Garai as the spirited leader of the refugee committee in Prague, is also excellent. Flynn has the movie’s most pivotal role as the younger version of Hopkins; fortunately, he’s up to the task and credibly, if not slavishly, mimics the speech and mannerisms of the veteran actor.

Despite a slow start, the story begins picking up steam when young Nicky visits Prague. The crosscutting between the movie’s two time periods helps sustain viewer interest; the mostly urgent, mission-driven scenes set in the late 30s serve as an appropriate counterbalance to the largely contemplative, character-driven scenes set in the late 80s.

Director James Hawes makes the most of his UK and Czech Republic locations, but never quite elevates the look of the film above its modest budget. Still, with a story (written by Lucinda Coxon and Nick Drake, based on the book
If It’s Not Impossible…: The Life of Sir Nicholas Winton by Barbara Winton) this strong and performances this good, a bigger budget and more lavish production would’ve upstaged the film’s poignant message.

Though set decades in the past, the movie has more than just a little relevance to current events. With antisemitism on the rise and wars raging in Ukraine and Israel, this film is a timely reminder of the dangers of placating evil and vilifying any race or group of people.

One Life boasts tremendous performances and a riveting true story of courage in the face of unspeakable evil. It’s also a powerful reminder of how many people can be positively impacted by just one life.

Despite its disturbing themes and images,
One Life is an inspirational movie that should be seen by everyone…lest we forget the horrors of war and repeat the mistakes of the past.

Rating: 3 out of 4

Oppenheimer (R)

Directed by: Christopher Nolan
Starring: Cillian Murphy
July 2023

Warning! This is NOT a movie review. This is a critique of the film. Intended to initiate a dialogue, the following analysis explores various aspects of the film and may contain spoilers. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. Ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

A while back, I blasted director Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk (2017) for being an all action/no story WWII tale. Though set on another continent, and radically different in theme and tone, Oppenheimer also focuses on an inflection point in the war. However, Oppenheimer is the mirror image of Dunkirk; it’s all story with no action.

The film’s nonlinear story crosscuts between J. Robert Oppenheimer’s (Cillian Murphy) rapid ascent during his collegiate years, his shepherding of the teams developing the atomic bomb in New Mexico, and his appearances at two governmental inquiries years after the war had ended. Keeping all the various storylines/timelines straight might be a challenge for some audience members. Wading through stretches of dense dialog dealing with physics or quantum mechanics also may be a challenge for those who just squeaked by in high school Science classes. However, the greatest challenge facing the film’s spectators, especially those approaching middle age, is the three hour running time.

So, the big headline leading up to the film’s release is that this is the first Nolan film to contain sex scenes. Unfortunately, they’re completely unnecessary. As with any sex scene in any movie or TV show, it’s possible to show the act without showing the goods. Here, Nolan flaunts his new-found filmic freedom by staging a naked couple sitting in facing armchairs as they carry on a post-coital conversation, or, far worse, by showing the same couple in the throes of passion during an official state meeting. The latter is a very inappropriate, very unsexy sex scene.

But enough about butts; let’s talk about the eponymous figure. Murphy was perfectly cast and his performance doesn’t hit a single false note. The actor deftly modulates between science professor, pick-up artist and tortured soul post-bomb drop. But this portrait is the first area where the film is disingenuous.

The movie, written by Nolan, Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin, exalts Oppenheimer as the “father of the bomb,” a man whose brilliance brought about the end of WWII. In contrast, the real Oppenheimer, according to many accounts, was a womanizer and glory hog.

Buttressing this opinion is the fine TV series on WGN America,
Manhattan, which portrayed Oppenheimer as a creepy weirdo who did none of the work but took all the credit for creating the bomb. The latter point is obliquely verified by Nolan’s film, which doesn’t give any credit for the bomb to the other teams operating around the country, or to the army of scientists, physicists and engineers tirelessly laboring at the NM facility. The movie focuses on Oppenheimer and his contributions to the project to the virtual exclusion of everyone else’s (even Einstein (Tom Conti) is a mere footnote in the story). It’s as if Oppenheimer did all the work himself. Ridiculous!

The movie’s other, major disingenuous note deals with the bomb itself…and there’s a lot to unpack here. In short, while the movie lionizes its hero, it sanitizes the bomb. To its eternal discredit, the movie only briefly mentions Hiroshima and Nagasaki and fails to show even one still image (much less archival video clips) of the unimaginably devastating results of the atomic bombs: cities blasted to rubble and, most importantly, innocent souls being turned to mounds of ash. That’s the lasting legacy of Oppenheimer and the Manhattan Project.

Downplaying the significance of the bomb drops in Japan is a tremendous disservice to future generations—who otherwise may be doomed to repeat such atrocities. Indeed, merely quoting statistics of the deaths in Hiroshima and Nagasaki is tantamount to saying Hitler killed lots of Jews without showing the ghastly, gut-wrenching images of Auschwitz, Dachau, or other concentration camps. It’s a rated R movie, so why not show the horrors of war?

But Nolan eschews such horrific realities in favor of a bloodless retelling of one of the most heinous chapters of human history. In that regard, how much of what we’re seeing is the truth? Since Nolan omits such a crucial part of the story, can we really trust anything else in the film?

To whit, after the successful detonation of the Trinity bomb (a rather unspectacular explosion compared to the one in
Manhattan, or the haunting, mesmerizing slow push in of the mushroom cloud in an episode of the 2017 revival of Twin Peaks) in a remote region of NM, and after Germany has surrendered, some scientists in the movie question the need to use the bomb against Japan. The subtext is that to do so would be inhumane (true) and a show of wanton aggression (false). Anyone in favor of bombing Japan is portrayed as a warmonger.

Did Nolan forget the predicate for U.S.’s involvement in the war; namely, Pearl Harbor? Apparently so, because there’s no mention of Japan’s devastating sneak attack in the movie. So yes, without Pearl Harbor, dropping the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki seems like unmitigated savagery on a grand scale. The bittersweet calculus of dropping the bombs in order to end the war and, thereby, save millions of lives, is brushed over in a line or two of dialog. Again, there’s a clear agenda at play here.

Final bit about the bomb: is it significant that the only atomic bomb explosion we see in the movie is on American soil? Could it be that Nolan planned it this way to give his America-hating liberal friends something to get off on (other than Florence Pugh’s tatas)? Also, consider the many foreign nations that would love to see the demise of America. Will they be emboldened (and titillated) by this terrifying tableau?

Perhaps I’m reading too much into this, but you can’t argue the fact that the only giant plume of smoke and debris audiences (both foreign and domestic) will see in the movie is the one violently expanding above the desolate NM plain. The film’s lasting image will be of America burning, not Japan. Subliminal propaganda?

The most distressing aspect of Nolan’s revisionist history is the impact it will have on the youth of today/leaders of tomorrow. As a highly anticipated film with a wide release, many people who aren’t familiar with the actual events the film is based on may fall prey to Nolan’s agenda-laden interpretation of history.

When I screened
Oppenheimer, I was in a row with a surprising number of teenagers. As the credits rolled, I wondered what they would take away from the film. Conflicted hero? Heartless president (Truman, unexpectedly played by Gary Oldman)? Lots of talking? Not much action?

My greatest fear is that people, especially young people, will draw all the wrong conclusions from this flawed portrait of a flawed man. With the willful omission of the tragic events that preceded and succeeded the Trinity test, Nolan’s
Oppenheimer is much ado about nothing—just like Dunkirk.

But at least that Nolan debacle delivered some good action scenes.

Rating: 2 ½ out of 4

Sound of Freedom (PG-13)

Directed by: Alejandro Monteverde
Starring: Jim Caviezel
July 2023

Warning! This is NOT a movie review. This is a critique of the film. Intended to initiate a dialogue, the following analysis explores various aspects of the film and may contain spoilers. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. Ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

Heavy! If I only had one word to describe Sound of Freedom—the new film from Angel Studios, producers of the popular Biblical web series, The Chosen—that’s what I’d choose.

From the opening montage, which features real security camera footage of child abductions, to an early scene where traffickers use a faux talent photo shoot to exploit and abduct young kids, the mood is set for a horrific, heart-breaking film.

The story is based on the actual experiences of Homeland Security Investigations agent, Tim Ballard (Jim Caviezel). Near the beginning of the movie, Ballard earns the trust of convicted pedophile, Ernst Oshinsky (Kris Avedisian), who eventually divulges the location of Miguel (Lucas Avila), a young boy who was taken from his parents. Oshinsky is shocked when he learns he’s been betrayed. As the police arrive, Ballard tells him, “Never trust a pedophile.” The win feels good. Then, a short time later, a nurse tells Ballard that 8-year-old Miguel has lesions which indicate he’s been violated…words just fail.

Events escalate when Ballard meets former cartel accountant, Vampiro (Bill Camp), and they hatch a plan to locate Miguel’s sister, Rocio (Cristal Aparicio). When they learn Rocio has been sold to a drug lord who operates deep in the jungles of Cambodia, Ballard’s resolve is tested. To rescue Rocio from a life of slavery and prostitution, Ballard will literally need to go to the ends of the Earth.

Writing about a movie that deals with such topics as child exploitation, child sex trafficking, and pedophilia is exceedingly difficult. With such graphic, adult subject matter, this movie certainly isn’t recommended for anyone under 18. However, every adult on the planet should see this film—to be confronted with the ugly reality of the fastest-growing form of illegal trade today and made aware that the biggest perpetrator of this vile practice is America.

And where is Hollywood, the supposed purveyors of truth and exposers of injustice in our society? Gone are the days of films like
All the President’s Men (1976) which blew the lid off the Watergate Scandal (but maybe the only reason that movie was produced was because Hollywood is liberal and Nixon and his top men were conservative, revealing partisan hypocrisy even back then). Hollywood is all too happy to champion causes near and dear to its heart, like awareness of climate change or advocacy for the LGBTQ+ community. But where are they on the issue of child sex trafficking? Crickets.

It doesn’t further their liberal agenda to take sides on this extremely black-and-white (ethically, not ethnically) issue, so they turn a blind eye on it, along with the open border crisis, which is causing ballooning increases in sex trafficking, drug (especially Fentanyl) trafficking, known terrorists entering our country, and illegals crossing the border, many of whom have diseases and/or no practical work experience and have selfishly jumped the line in front of people who are legally seeking entry into the U.S. So, why do cowardly liberals remain silent on the issue of child sex trafficking? The border must stay open so that they can recruit a cheap labor force, which also will double as a new voter base for the Democrat party.

Keep in mind, these liberals belong to the political party that used to be inundated with bleeding hearts. No longer. Today, they don’t seem to care about any of the above issues and are collectively in denial that such existential crises exist. Their hearts are callous to anything except that which keeps them in power and keeps their bank accounts flush with cash.

These abused, endangered and sexually victimized kids, plus anyone who dies from a Fentanyl overdose, are just collateral damage to those who scheme to remain in power. That makes many political animals, power brokers and unscrupulous billionaires just as complicit as the traffickers and pedophiles. We would surely be revolted if we knew how many people in our country condone, profit from, or commit sexual acts with young children (as young as 6-years-old according to one of the characters in the movie). And that’s why Hollywood won’t touch this topic; they’d fall out of favor with those in power. So that makes Hollywood complicit too.

The number one job of any nation is to protect its citizens. When a government fails to fulfill that basic task, such dereliction can give rise to vigilantism and anarchy. As has happened repeatedly throughout history, people will take matters into their own hands if their security is threatened. But when the cause is just, as Ballard’s actions are in the movie, is it really vigilantism or just doing what’s right? And why should doing the right thing come at such a high price? As Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, “The ultimate tragedy is not the oppression and cruelty by the bad people but the silence over that by the good people.” Thank God for good people like Tim Ballard, who are willing to risk their life to save others.

For an independent film,
Sound is surprisingly well produced. Director Alejandro Monteverde does a fine job of utilizing his locations, especially the island and jungle environs. Caviezel delivers an intense, well-modulated portrayal of Ballard, a man whose soul is weary from slaving away in a system where perpetrators frequently slip though the cracks and innocents are victimized en masse. Caviezel is surrounded by some really fine actors including Mira Sorvino, who plays Ballard’s wife, Katherine; Kurt Fuller as John Bryant, Ballard’s sympathetic but by-the-book boss; and Camp, who steals the show as Ballard’s sidekick—he earns some of the biggest laughs and delivers some of the best lines in the movie, including one that contains the titular phrase.

Sound beat Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny on its opening day. Hopefully grassroots support and strong word of mouth will keep this film in theaters for several weeks…if not months. The film exposes the ugliness of the human condition and presents a message that must be heard, lest the immoral malignancy of child sex trafficking forever malign the soul of our nation.

Sound has put a human face on the issue of child sex trafficking. You can’t unsee the horrific tableaus in the film; the images, particularly the visages of the young children, are indelible. Unless you’re a perpetrator of the crimes the film exposes, it’s impossible to walk away from the movie unmoved.

Sound is one of the most important films I’ve ever seen, and certainly the most urgent.

Rating: 3 out of 4

Richard Jewell (R)

Directed by: Clint Eastwood
Starring: Paul Walter Hauser
December 2019

Warning! This is NOT a movie review. This is a critique of the film. Intended to initiate a dialogue, the following analysis explores various aspects of the film and may contain spoilers. Views are my own and elaborate on comments that were originally tweeted in real time from the back row of a movie theater
@BackRoweReviews. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. Ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

Based on the horrific events that transpired at Centennial Olympic Park in Atlanta, GA during the 1996 Summer Olympic Games, Richard Jewell tells the true account of how the right security guard at the right time saved countless lives, but then went from hero to prime suspect in a matter of days. The movie is based on the book The Suspect by Kent Alexander & Kevin Salwen and the Vanity Fair article “American Nightmare: The Ballad of Richard Jewell” by Marie Brenner.

The movie begins with Richard Jewell (Paul Walter Hauser) delivering mail (and Snickers bars) to his new boss, Watson Bryant (Sam Rockwell). Jewell soon leaves that job to pursue a career in law enforcement. Years later, after being fired from his security position at Piedmont College, one of Jewell’s friends recommends that he try getting on one of the security crews at the Olympic Games.

We jump forward to when Jewell is working security for AT&T during the Olympics’ nightly concert series. One night, Jewell sneaks up behind his mother, Bobi (Kathy Bates), and joins her in singing the chorus to “The Gambler” as Kenny Rogers performs it live on stage. The following night isn’t as festive. Backpack. Explosion. And the rest is history.

Whereas the film’s central event is explosive, the story isn’t. Billy Ray’s (
Captain Phillips) screenplay is extremely slow out of the starting gate. We follow Jewell as he bounces from job to job before finally getting hired on at the Olympics. Though we learn a good deal about Jewell’s personality and eccentricities during these preliminary scenes, it would’ve been nice if the early stages of the movie had been more intentional.

Much of the movie’s geriatric pacing can be attributed to the octogenarian director’s filming style. With a few exceptions, the majority of Clint Eastwood’s recent films have lacked urgency. He tends to capture the reality of a story in a very deliberate manner. Here, that purposefulness almost works in his favor, since the film is set in the Deep South, a region known for its slower pace. Negative critiques aside, after a series of average (
The Mule) to awful (The 15:17 to Paris) films, this is Eastwood’s best effort in years.

Eastwood has tapped some fine talent for his biopic. Simply put, Hauser (
I, Tonya) makes this movie work. You can’t help but feel pity for the quirky, vigilant and by the book security guard.

There’s a great scene where Bryant accuses Jewell of not being mad enough about what’s happening to him. The remark succeeds in triggering Jewell’s indignation. Jewell tells Bryant he can’t react the way the lawyer would and that he has to be true to himself. Even when provoked to anger, Jewell still had integrity.

Rockwell is flawless as Jewell’s “loud lawyer.” Bryant repays Jewell’s loyalty by sticking with him through the media circus that ensues after Jewell becomes the assumed perpetrator of the bombing. Bryant’s hard-nosed approach is a huge asset in preventing the FBI agents from intimidating Jewell and coercing him into surrendering his rites.

Though she only has a handful of scenes, Bates is exceptional as Jewell’s mother. Her impassioned speech at the end of the film is deeply moving and shows her range as an actor. Jon Hamm perfectly plays Tom Shaw, the FBI agent who continues building his case against Jewell even after it becomes obvious the security guard is innocent. Rounding out the cast is Olivia Wilde, who plays Kathy Scruggs, an unscrupulous journalist more interested in grabbing a headline (and Shaw’s crotch) than telling the truth, regardless of how such falsehoods might destroy the reputation of an innocent person.

And therein lies the crux of the story. Jewell was falsely accused of a crime he didn’t commit. Though the judicial bedrock of our nation has been eroding for decades now, it’s clear that the time-honored standard “innocent until proven guilty” was tenuous even at this point in our history.

Indeed, more than ever, people are rushing to judgment and vilifying perceived offenders before they’ve been sentenced, tried or convicted. This type of trial by media is incredibly dangerous to individual rights. Though the media scrutiny was unbearable in 1996, can you image the living hell Jewell would’ve endured if the bombing had occurred during the age of social media?

Despite the fact that his reputation was besmirched by an overeager reporter and an overzealous federal agent, Jewell is one of history’s greatest unsung heroes since the bombing would’ve claimed many more lives were it not for his training, awareness and aggressive evacuation of the concert venue. Even though Jewell fits a certain profile (gun owner, lives with his mother, knows how to make a pipe bomb, wants to be seen as a hero, etc.), estimations of his character, by various news outlets and key law enforcement officials, couldn’t have been further off base. Using Jewell as a case study, one wonders how many others in our society are just like him…misunderstood heroes in the making?

Ironically, the real Olympic bomber, Eric Rudolph, confessed to the crime in 2005. Two years later, Jewell died of heart failure at age 44.

In the end,
Jewell is a bittersweet tale that illustrates just how quickly someone can go from being lionized to villainized. The movie is a sobering reminder of the media’s prevalence and the government’s ostensible omnipotence.

Jewell is a cautionary tale of how easily lives can be destroyed when powerful institutions succumb to knee-jerk reactions and turn public opinion against innocent citizens. It’s a lesson that’s just as salient today as it was in 1996.

Rating: 3 out of 4

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (PG)

Directed by: Marielle Heller
Starring: Tom Hanks
November 2019

Warning! This is NOT a movie review. This is a critique of the film. Intended to initiate a dialogue, the following analysis explores various aspects of the film and may contain spoilers. Views are my own and elaborate on comments that were originally tweeted in real time from the back row of a movie theater
@BackRoweReviews. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. Ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, the biopic based on the life of Fred Rogers (better known as Mister Rogers), features a casting coup. Tom Hanks is astounding as the soft-spoken, affable creator of the children’s educational program, “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” which aired on PBS from 1968 to 2001. Even though he isn’t a dead ringer for Rogers in appearance, Hanks nails the TV host’s mannerisms and speech patterns…and he rocks the red sweater.

The story takes place in 1998, when struggling journalist, Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys), is handed an assignment to write a piece on Rogers. After conducting his initial interview with Rogers, Vogel walks away with more questions than answers, largely owing to the fact that Rogers is much more interested in learning about Vogel than talking about himself. After witnessing Rogers preempt filming to talk to a disadvantaged child, the jaded journalist is left to wonder if it’s all part of an act.

Rogers takes a liking to the “broken” writer and tries to get Vogel to open up about his past, specifically his strained relationship with his father, Jerry (Chris Cooper). With Rogers’ wise council, Vogel attempts to patch things up with Jerry, who has fallen ill and is nearing death.

For those who grew up watching Mister Rogers on TV, the film will be a nostalgic trip. The show’s opener, where Rogers changes into his sweater and exchanges his tennis shoes for slippers (with the iconic slipper toss from one hand to the other), is an indelible sequence. The miniature sets, replete with tiny homes and moving trolley cars, will be a stroll down memory lane for many in the audience.

Speaking of those scaled-down sets, the movie’s art department cleverly constructed several Rogers-esque neighborhoods to stand in for real housing developments in the movie. City skylines, like Pittsburgh and pre-9/11 NYC, are brilliantly realized and come complete with blinking lights at night. The shot of a toy plane taking off from a play-set airport is also amusing.

Though nothing alike thematically,
Beautiful reminds me of Julie & Julia (2009) structurally. That story bounced back and forth between Julia’s (Meryl Streep) experiences in a Parisian culinary school in the past and Julie’s (Amy Adams) blog challenge in her NYC flat in the present. Even though it doesn’t involve any time jumping, Beautiful splits its focus between Vogel and Rogers, with their shared scenes serving as the heart of the story.

Disappointingly, Rogers’ story doesn’t exist apart from Vogel’s, except during the reenactment of various scenes from Rogers’ show. Lest we forget (and the savvy audience surely hasn’t), this is supposed to be a movie about Rogers, not the troubled journalist who writes an article about him—in real life, Tom Junod’s article “Can You Say…Hero?” appeared in
Esquire. Though not without magical and memorable moments, the movie could’ve used a lot more Rogers and a little less Vogel.

That isn’t to say the Vogel storyline is devoid of meaning or relevance.
Beautiful’s father/son estrangement subplot would feel right at home in many other movies dealing with familial strife. Here, the Vogel family drama consistently upstages the movie’s main storyline and its central figure.

The Rogers/Vogel pairing is an intriguing juxtaposition of attitudes and worldviews. Theirs is truly a tale of two eras.

Rogers represents the past—the early to mid-20th century, an era when people treated each other with decency, civility and respect. It also was a time when people placed an emphasis on hard work, family, community and faith. Fittingly, Fred Rogers had a very Will Rogers perspective on people (apparently, the latter once remarked that he never met a person he didn’t like).

In a similar vein, Rogers believed that everyone is precious. As portrayed in the movie, Rogers spoke kind and wise words in near-hypnotic tones. Then he would look into a person’s eyes, listen to them intently and remember what they said…an interpersonal skill set that eludes many members of today’s perpetually distracted society.

By contrast, Vogel represents the late 20th century (and opening 1/5
th of the 21st century). He’s angry, cynical and self-important. If Vogel doesn’t want to talk to someone, he just walks out of the room (or kicks them out of his house). He’s skeptical of genuine kindness and often struggles to express his emotions.

Vogel won’t let anyone get too close to him, which is why it’s remarkable that Vogel eventually opens up to Rogers. The fact that Rogers and Vogel become friends proves that the generation gap can be bridged. Rogers becomes a type of surrogate father to Vogel.

Vogel and his real father eventually find common ground too. Vogel’s decision to forgive Jerry, despite his past mistakes, is a beautiful moment. The movie’s recurring theme of relational reconciliation finds its fullest expression during the deathbed scenes, which, despite their inherent solemnity, initiate a heartwarming, crowd-pleasing resolution.

In the end,
Beautiful is an uplifting tribute to a truly kind and caring soul. Even though this slice of life spotlight on Rogers is inspiring, it would’ve been nice to see the full sweep of his life and career. The movie barely scratches the surface of who Rogers was as a person (like the fact that he was a Presbyterian minister and attended the University of Pittsburgh’s Graduate School of Child Development). For a well-orbed portrait of Rogers, watch the superb documentary, Won’t You Be My Neighbor? (2018).

Let’s all follow Rogers’ example and share some kindness with others today. It’s a beautiful day for it.

Rating: 3 out of 4

Ford v Ferrari (PG-13)

Directed by: James Mangold
Starring: Matt Damon
November 2019

Warning! This is NOT a movie review. This is a critique of the film. Intended to initiate a dialogue, the following analysis explores various aspects of the film and may contain spoilers. Views are my own and elaborate on comments that were originally tweeted in real time from the back row of a movie theater
@BackRoweReviews. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. Ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

Based on the actual events that took place at the 24 Hours of Le Mans race in 1966, Ford v Ferrari sets up a David v Goliath scenario where an American driving car brand (Ford) tries to dethrone the perennial champion Italian race car brand (Ferrari). To mix sports metaphors, if this sounds like the “Miracle on Ice” for the racetrack, you’re in the ballpark.

The movie opens at the 1959 Le Mans, where bleary-eyed Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon) pushes through fatigue and rainy weather to win the famed European car race. Jump forward a few years to a board room meeting at the Ford Motor Co. Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts) wants some new ideas to move the company forward. A member of the marketing team, Lee Iacocca (Jon Bernthal), comes up with a wild idea…a Ford race car.

Ford PR specialist, Leo Beebe (Josh Lucas), enlists the aid of Shelby and his team of engineers to build a prototype car for the express purpose of defeating Ferrari at Le Mans. Though designing and building the car proves to be a colossal effort (especially since they’re only given 90 days), an even greater challenge is getting everyone to agree on who should drive the car. Shelby wants his long-time friend, Ken Miles (Christian Bale), but the Ford team wants anyone but the abrasive, hotheaded speedster. The drama that ensues has just as many treacherous turns as the legendary racetrack.

What initially attracted me to this film, after seeing the trailer, was the winning combination of Matt Damon and Christian Bale. Here are two A-list actors at the top of their game in perfectly-cast roles delivering pitch-perfect performances. Acting of this caliber is a joy to behold and screen chemistry this refined is a true rarity.

Fortunately, the great performances don’t end with Damon and Bale. The movie is chock-full of terrific supporting actors like Letts (
The Post), Lucas (Glory Road) and Bernthal (The Walking Dead). Other memorable performances are turned in by Caitriona Balfe (Outlander) as Miles’ wife Mollie, Noah Jupe (A Quiet Place) as Miles’ son Peter, and Ray McKinnon (Fear the Walking Dead) as Shelby’s reliable and wise assistant, Phil Remington.

Director James Mangold (
Walk the Line) strikes the perfect balance between character moments and action scenes, lest one or the other should drive away with the movie. Mangold captures gritty, organic performances from his actors. One of the most remarkable bits of acting is when Ford II breaks down after Shelby takes him on a test drive in the new race car. Letts masterfully modulates (gear shifts) his emotions to the point where we’re not quite sure if he’s laughing or crying. An unforgettable scene.

Although all of the movie’s race sequences are spectacular (like the unforgettable “brake fade” scene), the start of the Le Mans race is a ferocious, frenetic experience, especially the images shot from Miles’ POV, where cars spin out of control or shatter into mounds of debris right in front of him. Thanks to Mangold (and his cinematographer, Phedon Papamichael), the race scenes aren’t overly jarring or one big motion blur as seen in many action movies today. Also effective is the way Mangold crosscuts action on the track to drama (or comedy) in the pit.

The movie perfectly captures the milieu of the 60s. From clothes, coifs and cars, to products (sodas in glass bottles) and advertisements (a giant billboard of the Coppertone girl), the attention to historical detail in the film is remarkable.

Though all the main characters are well-drawn, Miles is a particularly fascinating character study. Despite his propensity to spout off about whatever’s on his mind (his critique of the new Ford Mustang is priceless), Miles has trouble communicating with his wife. Miles initially keeps her in the dark when he’s approached by Shelby to help design the new Ford race car. Later, when Mollie drives recklessly down the road (in a humorous role reversal, the race car driver has fits of anxiety over his wife’s driving), he finally confesses that he might be in line to drive at Le Mans. Interestingly, Miles’ Le Mans experience begins and ends with the words “slow down.”

Unlike with his wife, Miles has no problem talking with his son. There are two beautiful father/son scenes in the movie. The first is when Miles takes Peter out to the racetrack at night. Miles envisioning the “perfect lap” is a magical moment. On the eve of his departure to France, Peter shows his father a hand drawn map of the Le Mans race course. In another teary moment that reveals the special bond between father and son, Miles describes to Peter how to handle each part of the track.

The political tension between the suits and the grease monkeys is a diverting story element and serves a necessary role since there isn’t an actual villain in the movie. If there’s a downside to the constant friction between the pit and the box seats, it’s that it takes our attention away from the race. As a result of the political sidebars, the movie never quite captures the war of attrition that’s waged on the racetrack as was convincingly portrayed in Steve McQueen’s
Le Mans (1971).

In the final analysis,
Ford v Ferrari is a high-octane biopic fueled by sure-handed directing and top-tier acting. Though not an overt “buddy movie,” Damon and Bale deliver stellar performances as loyal friends who have a need for speed.

Ford v Ferrari is a long film that never feels long thanks to its bracing drama and pulse-pounding action sequences. The movie should receive nods in many categories come awards season.

Ford v Ferrari is a fairly clean and wholesome movie. The movie’s major blemish (grease stain) is that it’s inundated with unsavory dialog, specifically expletives and crass speech. Other than that caveat, the film is recommended for history buffs, gearheads or lovers of well produced films.

The most accurate description of the film comes from one of its most amusing lines…
Ford v Ferrari is “finer than frog fur.”

Rating: 3 1/2 out of 4

Tolkien (PG-13)

Directed by: Dome Karukoski
Starring: Nicholas Hoult
May 2019

Warning! This is NOT a movie review. This is a critique of the film. Intended to initiate a dialogue, the following analysis explores various aspects of the film and may contain spoilers. Views are my own and elaborate on comments that were originally tweeted in real time from the back row of a movie theater
@BackRoweReviews. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. Ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

Tolkien focuses on the formative years of the eponymous author, who created the races, languages and lands of Middle-earth as featured in, arguably, the finest fantasy books ever written: The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy.

The movie begins in the trenches of WWI as Lieutenant J.R.R. Tolkien is searching for his friend while ducking bullets and evading chlorine gas. The narrative crosscuts between these intense action scenes and various points in Tolkien’s past: from when he was a young orphan all the way through to his days at the University of Oxford.

Along the way, Tolkien forms an indelible bond with three other boys (a fellowship that mirrors the four Hobbits in the
LOTR). We’re given glimpses into Tolkien’s inner thoughts; the completely original languages he creates and the dark creatures he draws in notebooks. Of course, we know where Tolkien’s flights of fancy will eventually take him, but it’s an enjoyable journey to see how Tolkien was inspired to write his seminal fantasy saga.

Although the pacing is slow at times and the overall mood is somber, there are a handful of magical scenes in the film. Many of these moments come during the climactic battlefield sequences where we see a dark figure riding a black horse and ethereal wisps of black smoke writhing over the corpse-riddled plain like sinister wraiths.

Nicholas Hoult does a fine job of depicting Tolkien’s real-world challenges and internal struggles. Lily Collins is delightful as Tolkien’s love interest, Edith Bratt; a young woman who somehow manages to ground Tolkien while simultaneously setting his imagination free. The ever dependable Colm Meaney plays Father Francis, Tolkien’s guardian and mentor. The different actors who portray Tolkien’s friends at various ages are solid across the board.

Though it’s a fascinating character study and an effective biopic,
Tolkien isn’t very exciting, which is downright tragic when considering Tolkien’s works. In the end, one wonders why a movie based on the life of this revered fantasy scribe wasn’t more imaginative.

Oh, and since linguistics play such a prominent role in the movie, it’s pronounced “Toll-keen.”

Rating: 3 out of 4

The Best of Enemies (PG-13)

Directed by: Robin Bissell
Starring: Taraji P. Henson
April 2019

Warning! This is NOT a movie review. This is a critique of the film. Intended to initiate a dialogue, the following analysis explores various aspects of the film and may contain spoilers. Views are my own and elaborate on comments that were originally tweeted in real time from the back row of a movie theater
@BackRoweReviews. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. Ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

Remember the Titans (2000) tells the true story of how two high school football teams—one all-white and the other all-black—integrated into one team in Alexandria, Virginia, circa 1971.

Though it doesn’t feature any pom-poms or pigskins,
The Best of Enemies has a similar premise to Titans. Also based on a true account and set in Durham, North Carolina in 1971, Enemies concerns a group of black students who are displaced after their school burns down. A two-week community meeting is held to determine if the black students will be allowed to continue their studies at a white school.

The twist is that the co-chairs chosen to ensure a fair vote are Ann Atwater (Taraji P. Henson), an outspoken civil rights activist, and C.P. Ellis (Sam Rockwell), leader of the local Ku Klux Klan. Living up to the movie’s title, the two bicker and scheme, but eventually become lifelong friends.

The downshot here is that the film suffers from slow pacing and is predictable from one set of credits to the other. The upshot is that Rockwell and Henson, along with the rest of the solid supporting cast, maintain audience interest with genuine performances (although Rockwell has become a bit typecast with his recent string of Southern-fried roles).

There isn’t anything revolutionary about the film, but its core theme of racial reconciliation is poignant…and is just as relevant today as it was in 1971. If you can get past the many utterances of the “N” word, you might find
Enemies an enjoyable, even heartwarming, film. At the very least, you’ll learn a new word: charrette.

Rating: 2 1/2 out of 4

Green Book (PG-13)

Directed by: Peter Farrelly
Starring: Viggo Mortensen
November 2018

Warning! This is NOT a movie review. This is a critique of the film. Intended to initiate a dialogue, the following analysis explores various aspects of the film and may contain spoilers. Views are my own and elaborate on comments that were originally tweeted in real time from the back row of a movie theater
@BackRoweReviews. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. Ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

Inspired by a true account,
Green Book tells the story of an Italian driver (Viggo Mortensen) and a black piano player (Mahershala Ali), who embark on a concert tour to the Deep South in the 60s. Book is a poignant snapshot of the attitudes and mores of the period in focus. It’s also a road trip/buddy film that deals with racism in powerful, yet unexpected ways. The image of a white man driving around a black man makes many people stop and gawk; this role reversal stands out as one of the movie’s more ironic elements. Book has some magical moments, like: the chicken bone toss, lucky rock, confession in the rain and Christmas dinner scenes. The movie’s production is sensational, especially its period appropriate coifs, costumes and cars. Book also boasts tremendous acting from its two top-tier stars. Mortensen (virtually unidentifiable from his role as Aragorn in The Lord of the Rings films) and Ali (Moonlight) deliver extraordinary performances that should garner Oscar attention. Though Book is a tad idealistic, it contains a powerful central theme: namely, that reconciliation can win out over racism when people from different cultures choose to see things from the other’s perspective. Equal parts humorous and bittersweet, Book never sermonizes as it spotlights this less enlightened period of U.S. history. As a kicker, Book features one of the most heartwarming resolutions in recent film history.

Rating: 3 1/2 out of 4

First Man (PG-13)

Directed by: Damien Chazelle
Starring: Ryan Gosling
October 2018

Warning! This is NOT a movie review. This is a critique of the film. Intended to initiate a dialogue, the following analysis explores various aspects of the film and may contain spoilers. Views are my own and elaborate on comments that were originally tweeted in real time from the back row of a movie theater
@BackRoweReviews. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. Ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

I must confess…space was my first love. Practically before I knew the alphabet, I knew the names of the nine planets (I grew up before Pluto was downgraded to a dwarf planet). I’m also reasonably certain that I knew the names Neil Armstrong, Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin and Michael Collins before I knew my multiplication tables; an assumption made even more likely by the fact that I’m terrible at math. To say it’s a thrill to see a movie that chronicles the historic first mission to the moon is a galactic understatement. What a critical period in our nation’s history. What a sacrifice (ultimate, in some cases) made by the army of scientists, engineers, mechanics, support personnel and, of course, intrepid astronauts; all of whom made the Apollo 11 mission possible and successful. Based on the book First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong by James R. Hansen, First Man begins in 1961 when Armstrong (Ryan Gosling), a test pilot in California, gets a taste of space when he flies his X-15 jet high into Earth’s atmosphere. When the plane malfunctions, Armstrong relies on his mechanical know-how, piloting acumen and nerves of steel to help him return safely to terra firma. Turns out this brush with death was just a dress rehearsal. When an initially successful Gemini 8 mission takes a dangerous turn, also instigated by a mechanical failure, Armstrong’s skills are put to the test as he attempts to salvage the mission and save his crew. Of course, anyone familiar with the Apollo 11 mission knows it wasn’t exactly smooth sailing and that, once again, Armstrong’s mettle was challenged. Besides being a natural-born pilot, one of the reasons Armstrong was able to survive so many close calls with death was his preparedness. Even when he was at home, Armstrong was constantly working out solutions to potential problems on the dining room table. One of the best lines in the film is when Armstrong tells Deke Slayton (the ever dependable Kyle Chandler) “We need to fail down here so that we won’t fail up there.” That kind of dogged determination to get things right helped to preserve Armstrong’s life and the lives of those under his command. The gritty, metal-creaking realism during the heart-stopping flight scenes is enough to induce a panic attack. Cinematographer Linus Sandgren brilliantly builds tension by keeping his shots tight on the performers, which creates an overwhelming sensation of claustrophobia. Adding visceral punch to the cockpit scenes are the many POV shots of the characters looking out the small windows at lunar landscapes or, most nauseatingly, the Earth zipping past at regular intervals as the ship spins out of control. Of course, if First Man was simply a period picture that recounted the failures and successes of the space program during the 60s, it would get pretty boring pretty fast. Wisely, writer Josh Singer grounded the story with several significant events that impact the character’s personal lives early in the film. At its core, First Man is an examination of the effects of trauma. Armstrong loses a family member and several close friends. He uses that anger and grief to fuel his resolve to make it to the moon. But before he can set foot on that distant rock, Armstrong must overcome adversity, tragedy and the laws of gravity and probability. Gosling, who previously worked with director Damien Chazelle on La La Land (2016), delivers a beautifully understated performance as a grief-stricken man who summons the courage to rise above the many tragedies he’s been forced to endure. First Man is a nuanced character study of a man trapped between two worlds…the pain of the past propels him toward the promise of a brighter future. As with similarly themed films set during this era, such as The Right Stuff (1983) and Apollo 13, (1995), First Man reveals the plight of the astronaut wives who anxiously waited at home for days on end as their husbands traversed the dark expanse of space. As Armstrong’s wife, Janet Shearon, Claire Foy effectively embodies the debilitating effects of such constant worry. In addition to the individual price that was paid during the missions into space, there was also a societal toll. While the Space Race raged on, many people questioned the exorbitant appropriations for the space program. One of the movie’s more poignant passages is a brief montage of various political protests from the 60s, which is accompanied by the Gil Scott-Heron song, “Whitey on the Moon.” This exposes the adverse consequences of the space program—America’s quest to beat Russia to the moon brought about the suffering of many people. First Man is a staggering cinematic achievement, both in terms of its immersive, pulse-pounding space sequences and in its accurate depiction of the often tragic early days of the space program. The film boasts tremendous production values, deft direction and stellar performances from Gosling, Foy and the impressive array of journeyman actors. The evocative score by Justin Hurwitz features a number of unusual instruments, including the theremin, which was used to great effect in many 50s sci-fi movies. Delicate harp tones are heard during several space scenes; the ethereal arrangement produces an appropriately otherworldly score which is both inspiring and haunting. Like many of the aircraft/spacecraft it features, First Man has some serious flaws. At 2 hours and 21 minutes, the film is 10-15 minutes too long. Also, the stark contrast between the deliberate scenes on Earth and the frenetic sequences in space make this an exasperatingly uneven movie. The moon walk sequence is a visual marvel, yet is sadly lacking in magic. Where’s the elation of hoping along the lunar landscape (we only catch a brief glimpse of this)? Where’s the national pride of planting the American flag on the moon? The entire sequence is shot in a strangely detached manner. Lightheaded euphoria is eschewed in favor of art film moodiness. This is a tremendous disservice to spectators, who patiently waited the entire movie for an exhilarating, triumphant climax. The moon landing was one of the defining moments in human history and deserved far more grandeur and excitement than what Chazelle delivers. Another disappointing choice by Chazelle is the muted, ho-hum ending. Rather than fanfare and ticker tape, the director closes out the film with an awkwardly unemotional reunion between Armstrong and his wife. Regardless of its many missteps, First Man is a deeply-affecting biopic that somehow manages to achieve maximum intensity despite its slow pacing. The film is relentlessly jarring, so if you suffer from motion sickness you might want to take a Dramamine before entering the theater. First Man is one bumpy ride.

Rating: 3 1/2 out of 4

Operation Finale (PG-13)

Directed by: Chris Weitz
Starring: Oscar Isaac
August 2018

Warning! This is NOT a movie review. This is a critique of the film. Intended to initiate a dialogue, the following analysis explores various aspects of the film and may contain spoilers. Views are my own and elaborate on comments that were originally tweeted in real time from the back row of a movie theater
@BackRoweReviews. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. Ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

Throughout film history, there have been several WW2 dramas with “Operation” in the title, including: Operation Crossbow (1965), Operation Daybreak (1975) and Operation Pacific (1951). Now there’s Operation Finale, a historical biopic from director Chris Weitz and actors Ben Kingsley and Oscar Isaac. The movie has an intriguing premise… Adolf Eichmann (Kingsley), one of the chief architects of Hitler’s “Final Solution,” disappeared after the war. Since Eichmann evaded capture, he was never brought to justice during the Nuremberg trials. Fast-forward to 1960. Mossad agent Peter Malkin (Isaac) and his team of secret agents track down Eichmann, who’s been living under an alias in Buenos Aires. After a series of narrow escapes, Eichmann is captured and delivered to Israel, where he finally stands trial for his crimes against humanity. If that synopsis makes the movie seem straightforward, predictable and inevitable, it is. Here’s a movie that could’ve been a first-rate period piece with a poignant message, but instead squandered its potential on a ponderous plot. Surprisingly, Weitz is responsible for much of the movie’s underachievement. I say “surprisingly” because Weitz has had a good deal of success contributing (as director, writer or both) to adventure driven fantasy/sci-fi movies in the past, like: The Golden Compass (2007), The Twilight Saga: New Moon (2009) and Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016). Here, Weitz’ direction is consistently arthritic, and his stiffness of form isn’t aided by rookie scribe Matthew Orton’s sluggish script. Orton’s story is adversely uneven: the first half is terminally slow while the second half is a taut thriller with a satisfying, if haunting, resolution. The movie is just over two hours in length and a good 15 to 20 minutes could’ve been excised with negligible impact on the story. If the movie has a saving grace, it’s the superb performances of the two lead actors. The scenes with just Isaac and Kingsley are the meat of the movie; the screen chemistry between the two actors is palpable and undeniable. The mental chess match that ensues between their characters is utterly enthralling, and it’s to Isaac’s credit that he’s able to hold his own against grand master Kingsley. Isaac does a fine job of keeping his character’s emotions in check…he delivers a beautifully understated performance and is believable throughout. Kingsley, as would be expected, is the movie. His portrayal of the nefarious mastermind of the Holocaust is effectively restrained and finely measured—our utter loathing of the character gradually turns to sympathy when we learn more about the man from his back stories. It’s plain to see that Kingsley elevated the production with his very presence. Without him, the movie would’ve been a glorified indie film with a gravitas vacuum. Kingsley, no stranger to WW2 films, acted in Schindler’s List (1993) and Walking with the Enemy (2013). There’s an appreciable disparity in ages between character and actor: at the time of his capture, Eichmann was 54; at the time of filming, Kingsley was 74. The early stages of the film are inundated with a number of distasteful racist comments. One anti-Semite makes the reprehensible remark that Jews seem to “pop up everywhere, like mushrooms after the rain.” Another rabble-rouser refers to Jews as the “rot in society.” Though upsetting, these remarks are an important reminder of the ugliness of racism and how it pervaded the 60s and, sadly, still persists in the world today. At the heart of the film is the theme of loss. On an individual level, Malkin and Eichmann have each lost something—the former, his sister; the latter, his humanity. Widening the lens, the film’s mass scale loss was the deaths of 6 million European Jews during the Holocaust. One of the compelling aspects the film foregrounds is the fine line between justice and revenge. In a couple scenes, Malkin admits that putting a bullet in Eichmann’s head would be far easier than smuggling him out of Argentina. Though it’s tempting for Malkin to exact revenge for what Eichmann did to the Jewish people, he is determined to capture the Nazi so that justice can be served. Rather than torture Eichmann to obtain his signature, as his fellow agents want to do, Malkin opts for a more humane approach. Malkin’s “good cop” strategy proves successful both in securing the signature and in creating a bond between himself and Eichmann. Even though Eichmann claims that all humans are animals, he reveals that he tried to facilitate the escape of some of the imprisoned Jews and shows remorse over his past actions, which serves to redeem his character…at least a little. In the end, Finale is a mild disappointment because it’s slow-moving and overlong. Still, it showcases the talents of two superb performers; one is an Oscar winner at the top of his game, the other is named Oscar and is an emerging star. Finale touches on many universal themes, including the deceptive nature of evil and our intrinsic need for justice. It’s a worthwhile film because it memorializes the Holocaust without glorifying it. Finale reminds us of the heinous acts that were committed during one of the darkest chapters in human history…lest we forget.

Rating: 3 out of 4 stars

Won't You Be My Neighbor? (PG-13)

Directed by: Morgan Neville
Starring: Joanne Rogers
June 2018

Warning! This is NOT a movie review. This is a critique of the film. Intended to initiate a dialogue, the following analysis explores various aspects of the film and may contain spoilers. Views are my own and elaborate on comments that were originally tweeted in real time from the back row of a movie theater
@BackRoweReviews. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. Ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

The documentary spotlighting the life and legacy of Fred Rogers, entitled Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, takes us on a journey from Rogers’ humble beginnings as “Fat Freddy” all the way through his career as the host of a children’s variety program on PBS to his death in 2003, plus ruminations and speculations regarding the impact his life had on society. Strewn throughout Morgan Neville’s film are archival clips of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” interviews with Rogers’ family, coworkers, guests on his TV program (Yo-Yo Ma) and selected spoofs (Eddie Murphy) of Rogers, which he took with a gracious sense of humor. Despite the fact that he was captivated by the medium and felt it had incredible potential to educate kids, Rogers hated TV. He took it as a personal challenge to fill the programming gap with quality, substantive and meaningful content that had a positive message and affirmed that all kids…all people, are special. As a Presbyterian minister turned TV host, Rogers regarded kids as his congregation. Although he didn’t proselytize in the conventional sense, Rogers’ positive message of “love thy neighbor” (Mark 12:31) permeated the themes and topics of his show, a message needed now more than ever. In his later years, Rogers produced special shows that dealt with tragedies such as the Challenger explosion in 1986. Rogers never shied away from difficult issues such as divorce, death or unplanned pregnancy and used his child psychology background to soothe the fears of children during traumatic times ranging from Robert F. Kennedy’s assassination all the way up to 9-11. Rogers took flack for being a friend to the gay community and raised eyebrows during one of his shows when he invited a black man to wash his feet in the same kiddie pool where he was cooling off his feet. Also, Rogers’ message that everyone is special has been blamed for producing the narcissistic generations of kids who grew up during the decades his program was on the air. Dubious accusations aside, Rogers was a decent man who genuinely loved kids and, by all accounts, was the same on and off camera—a refreshing role model that stands in direct opposition to the scandalous scoundrels of our modern society (i.e., the Weinstein’s of the world). The only downside here is that, like Rogers’ show, Neighbor is slowly paced at times. On the plus side, the movie gives us generous glimpses into Rogers’ quirky mentality. The numerological significance of 143 in Rogers’ life is a fascinating aside. Times have changed and Rogers now seems like a milquetoast caricature of a 50s dad…and the sweaters do little to discourage that notion. Rogers is an effective barometer for how far we’ve descended from the kinder, nobler and more inclusive world portrayed in his neighborhood. At movie’s end, there’s a profound feeling of sadness; certainly at the passing of a great man, but also at the closing of an era. Will we ever again see such a period of decency and goodwill toward our fellow human beings? All things considered, this is an inspirational, tear-jerking documentary and a nostalgic trip for those of us who were privileged enough to grow up watching “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.” So now the only question is: Won’t you be my neighbor?

Rating: 3 out of 4 stars

The Post (PG-13)

Directed by: Steven Spielberg
Starring: Meryl Streep
December 2017

Warning! This is NOT a movie review. This is a critique of the film. Intended to initiate a dialogue, the following analysis explores various aspects of the film and may contain spoilers. Views are my own and elaborate on comments that were originally tweeted in real time from the back row of a movie theater
@BackRoweReviews. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. Ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

The Premise

The Washington Post threatens to expose a government cover-up involving inaccurate reporting about the Vietnam War.

The Evaluation:

Directed by Steven Spielberg and starring Meryl Streep as the owner of
The Washington Post, Kay Graham, and Tom Hanks as her “pirate” editor, Ben Bradlee, The Post is based on actual happenings and readily recalls such expose films as All the President’s Men (1976) (ironically, this film ends with the events of Watergate…the subject of President’s Men) and Spotlight (2015). Spielberg’s direction is nearly invisible, which is a supreme compliment. He uses a classical style of directing, which is period appropriate and places the burden on his performers to carry the film rather than on elaborate camera setups, highly stylized shots or flashy editing (all of which were staples of Spielberg’s early career). Unless you spotted Spielberg’s name in the credits, you probably wouldn’t know he directed this film. Over the years, Spielberg’s collaborations with Hanks have been legendary…and lucrative. Adding Streep to the mix almost seems like too much talent for one film—after all, how many Academy Award nods and wins are represented by this trio? The chemistry between Hanks and Streep is undeniable and inestimable. The easy exchanges between these movie maestros makes it appear as if they’ve been performing together for years. However, as unbelievable as it seems, this is the first time these two top-tier actors have appeared in a film together. The supporting cast is also impressive. Curiously, Spielberg tapped some of TVs top talent for the side characters. Matthew Rhys (The Americans), Bob Odenkirk (Better Call Saul), Jesse Plemons (Friday Night Lights), Tracy Letts (Homeland), Bradley Whitford (The West Wing), Carrie Coon (The Leftovers), Sarah Paulson (American Horror Story), Zach Woods (Silicon Valley), Michael Stuhlbarg (Boardwalk Empire), Dan Bucatinsky (Scandal), David Costabile (Billions), Alison Brie (Mad Men), Bruce Greenwood, (American Crime Story), Johanna Day (Madame Secretary) just to name a few. Writers Liz Hannah and Josh Singer do a remarkable job of servicing the stars as well as the many ancillary characters. If the story has a weakness, it’s the lack of action. The movie’s narrative is largely composed of characters standing around and carrying on conversations about things that might not be readily apparent to audience members who weren’t alive during the period in question. In the end, this film is a sobering reminder of the pervasive and persistent nature of government corruption, a message that’s just as (if not more so) salient today as it was in the early 70s. With a timely theme and superlative acting and directing, The Post should be a strong contender for Best Picture. Maybe the headline on March 5th will read “The Post Nabs Best Picture Oscar.”

The Breakdown:

Directing- See review

Acting- See review

Story- See review

Costumes/Make-up- Authentic and period appropriate.

Cinematography- Less is definitely more in a film with such fine actors. Just roll the camera and let them do their thing.

Music- Another stellar score by John Williams, who, at age 85, is still composing vital and transcendent music. There’s an occasional hint of the main title from Lincoln (2012) here and the overall style resembles the many jaunty, jazzy refrains in Catch Me If You Can (2002). The soft piano pieces played during the restaurant scenes seamlessly blend into the action and the sprightly cues when the presses start rolling are vintage Williams.

Visual FX- NA

Production Values- Top-notch. I only wish we could’ve seen more of the world during this time period since most of the movie takes place indoors.

Movie Magic- There are a few tense scenes throughout and a rousing climax, but much of the movie is political and procedural. And dry.

Rating: 3 ½ out of 4 stars

Darkest Hour (PG-13)

Directed by: Joe Wright
Starring: Gary Oldman
December 2017

Warning! This is NOT a movie review. This is a critique of the film. Intended to initiate a dialogue, the following analysis explores various aspects of the film and may contain spoilers. Views are my own and elaborate on comments that were originally tweeted in real time from the back row of a movie theater
@BackRoweReviews. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. Ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

The Premise

In the wake of Neville Chamberlain’s failed policy of appeasement, which has unwittingly abetted Hitler’s aggressive advance across Europe, Winston Churchill is enlisted to stem the tide of evil and help end WWII.

The Evaluation:

Darkest Hour is an immersive period piece with authentic, and finely mounted, production elements. The film’s success or failure largely depended on its casting. Fortunately, the actor chosen to inhabit the central role was more than up to the task. Gary Oldman delivers a career turn here as Winston Churchill. Could another actor have pulled off the part? Perhaps. But sometimes roles are tailor-made for a performer and such is the case here as the melding of character and actor was a feat of cinematic alchemy. Writer Anthony McCarten opens the movie with typist Elizabeth Layton’s (Lily James) first day on the job. McCarten introduces Layton and the audience to Churchill at the same time; an effective decision that thrusts us right into the heart of the action. Darkest Hour references the events portrayed in Dunkirk (2017); it was Churchill’s Operation Dynamo that mobilized a flotilla of 800 boats to rescue the 338,226 Allied soldiers who were surrounded by German troops on the infamous French beach. Also mentioned here is Churchill’s earlier failure (yes, this is a redemption story) at Gallipoli, which is chronicled in the fine 1981 film of the same name starring Mel Gibson. The sequence where Churchill rides the underground (subway) with commoners is the film’s standout moment as it serves to humanize Churchill while also fortifying his resolve to reject Hitler’s demands. Since the movie ends in the middle of the war, there’s still plenty of material to support a sequel. Maybe it will be called Darkest Minute, to be followed by Darkest Second to round out the trilogy. Sorry, just trying to lighten the mood.

The Breakdown:

Directing- Joe Wright (Atonement) does yeoman’s work here and evokes dazzling performances from his cast. The overall style is effective, but the interiors are exceedingly colorless and drab. However, it could be argued that such an aesthetic is the perfect accompaniment to the movie’s sullen subject matter.

Acting- An astounding performance by Oldman, who should be a strong contender for the Best Actor Oscar.

Story- A terrific screenplay by McCarten. The only drawback is that sometimes descriptions of off-screen actions are unclear and the pacing is a tad slow.

Costumes/Make-up- The costumes are well crafted and are period appropriate. The make-up (including latex appliances and torso padding to help Oldman resemble portly Churchill) is truly exceptional.

Cinematography- Limited to building interiors and claustrophobic corridors for much of the action, the cinematography by Bruno Delbonnel succeeds despite its limitations.

Music- Dario Marianelli delivers a solid score that supports the film without distracting from the action.

Visual FX- NA

Production Values- The limited sets are a drawback, but everything else is top-notch.

Movie Magic- Slow pacing and familiar subject matter are minuses, but the powerhouse central performance and rousing ending are huge pluses.

Rating: 3 ½ out of 4 stars

Only the Brave (PG-13)

Directed by: Joseph Kosinski
Starring: Josh Brolin
October 2017

What follows is the full-length review based on comments that were originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. Ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

Like many based-on-a-true-story films, Only the Brave suffers from an ironic dichotomy—our familiarity with the firefighter film (Backdraft, Ladder 49, etc.) ignites our interest in seeing it, but our knowledge of the actual account (or educated guess based on viewing the trailer) renders the story more than a little predictable. However, there are some decent character moments in the film: particularly Brendan McDonough’s (Miles Teller) inspirational recovery from a drug addiction and Eric Marsh (Josh Brolin) and Amanda Marsh’s (Jennifer Connelly) struggles in dealing with Eric’s dangerous job and his unwillingness to have kids. The subplot of how Eric’s crew becomes (through rigorous training and physical fitness) the first municipal fire department in the U.S. to be certified as Hotshots is one of the more enjoyable aspects of the film. Sadly, most of the Granite Mountain Hotshots, save for James Badge Dale’s Jesse Steed and Taylor Kitsch’s Christopher MacKenzie, are given cursory character development (aside from cursing a blue string and making crass jokes) and are nothing more than set dressing. Jeff Bridges and Andie MacDowell have a few meaningful scenes but, sadly, only serve an ancillary function in the story. The blazing infernos are both star of the movie and unpredictable, all-consuming villain. The movie’s visual effects are exceptional—never do we sense that we’re looking at CG flames or plumes of smoke. Though purely perceptual, it’s almost possible to feel heat radiating from the screen when a wall of flame rapidly advances on the firefighters. These scenes are terrifying and trilling all at the same time. If the film has a downside it’s the ending, which stays just this side of being schmaltzy. Some scenes are played for emotional effect, like when Brendan insists on going to the gym after the fateful fire. Since the word has gotten out that there was only one survivor, Brendan’s appearance effectively crushes the hopes of the other Hotshot wives (and Brendan’s wife isn’t even among the community members keeping vigil for the firefighters…contrived). Despite its inevitable outcome, shallow characterizations and miscues during the denouement, Brave is a quality entertainment and a sobering reminder of how selfless firefighters throw themselves into harm’s way to protect us and nature. May we never forget the sacrifice of these fallen heroes.

Hacksaw Ridge (R)

Directed by: Mel Gibson
Starring: Andrew Garfield
November 2016

What follows is the full-length review based on comments that were originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. Ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

There are a number of similarities between Mel Gibson’s new World War II story, Hacksaw Ridge and the WWI set Sergeant York (1941). Hacksaw’s Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield) and York’s Alvin C. York (Gary Cooper) are both devout Christians and conscientious objectors. Due to the sixth commandment in the Bible, both men object to war since war is killing. Both men face heat for their beliefs from their families, friends, fellow soldiers and commanding officers. However, the persecution is much more severe for Doss, who is berated and beaten by the men in his barracks for his refusal to bear arms. Ultimately, both men join the service, but for completely different reasons: Doss, who wants to heal people rather than kill them, becomes a medic while York, an expert marksman known for blasting his initials in trees and winning a local turkey shooting contest, decides to use his skills to protect the lives of his loved ones and to defend American freedom. The heroic actions of both men defy the conventions of reality and are two of the more inspirational stories in the annals of war. And both stories have been adapted into top-tier films. Hacksaw’s narrative is divided into thirds: the early stages are dedicated to Doss’s boyhood, where he roughhouses with his brother and is raised by a long-suffering mother, Bertha Doss (Rachel Griffiths), and ex-soldier alcoholic father, Tom Doss (Hugo Weaving), and his late teen years when he meets and marries Dorothy Schutte (Teresa Palmer). The middle of the film deals with the adversity Doss faces at boot camp and the ensuing court martial. The movie’s concluding chapters focus on Doss’s exploits in the war, specifically the Battle of Okinawa in 1945, one of the bloodiest struggles of WWII. During lulls in the action, Doss crawled over the corpse-riddled battlefield searching for survivors while evading Japanese patrols whose objective it was to kill any American soldiers still clinging to life. Doss devised an ingenious way of lowering casualties down the side of a cliff to safety—easily the most awe-inspiring, heart-stopping sequences in the film. In the end, Doss saved 75 lives without firing a single shot at the enemy. As such, Doss was the first ever non-combatant soldier to receive the Medal of Honor. Garfield is pitch-perfect in his portrayal of Doss; his flat affect and aw-shucks demeanor hasn’t been a natural fit for many of his roles, i.e., The Amazing Spider-Man films, but works wonders here. Weaving, best known for his roles in The Matrix and The Lord of the Rings films, paints a tragic portrait of a once-heroic man now controlled and triggered by the bottle. Vince Vaughn is a laugh-a-minute drill sergeant who injects some much needed comic relief into the story to counterbalance the movie’s horrific and grisly scenes. Griffiths is effective in an ancillary role and Palmer is delightful as the sweetheart nurse who first inspires Doss to become a healer. Sam Worthington plays one of Doss’ superior officers, Captain Jack Glover, a man who initially distrusts Doss but comes around when Doss heroically sacrifices himself for his squad mates. The biggest name in the film, of course, is director Mel Gibson. Gibson’s anti-Semitic remarks and longstanding troubles with alcohol have kept him on the outs with Hollywood for the better part of a decade now. Tom Doss’ character reflects some of Gibson’s struggles, so you can tell that this project was personal for the director. Those who are turned off by the non-stop action of the typical war film will find plenty of character scenes to offset the onslaught of action in the latter stages of the film. At its core, this is an anti-war war film. Hacksaw boasts fine performances, tremendous production values and an incredible true story. Just as Doss’ acts of valor redeemed him in the eyes of his fellow soldiers, hopefully Gibson’s efforts here will help him to regain a measure of respect from his Hollywood peers. We’ll see come awards season.

Lion (PG-13)

Directed by: Garth Davis
Starring: Dev Patel
January 2017

What follows is the full-length review based on comments that were originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. Ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

What could be more frightening for a five-year-old boy than being separated from his family and not knowing how to get home? Such is the premise for Lion, the alternatingly heartbreaking and heartwarming missing person’s story which is based on true events and stars Dev Patel, Rooney Mara, David Wenham and Nicole Kidman. The story begins in India, moves to Australia in the middle and then returns to India for its stirring conclusion. The film’s exotic locations (which include West Bengal, India and Tasmania, Australia) are absolutely breathtaking and are wholly immersive—it’s almost as if we can feel the pebbles under characters’ sandals as they walk on gravelly paths, or get a chill from the cold, hard train station floor as Saroo (Sunny Pawar) sleeps alongside other indigent kids, or taste the sweet flavor of the bubbly orange soda offered to Saroo by a seemingly helpful woman. Though the film certainly engages the senses it also stimulates the mind and accesses the emotions in powerful and profound ways. The early stages of the movie detail the traumatic events of Saroo’s separation from his family, the hair-raising episode where he narrowly avoids being sold as a sex slave, the brief passage where he is taken to an orphanage and then finally, the life altering transition and subsequent ambivalent reaction to being adopted by a couple (Wenham and Kidman) from Australia. After a few scenes depicting his difficulties adapting to a new family and culture, we jump forward twenty years in Saroo’s (Patel) life to 2008, where he now speaks English and is a reasonably well-adjusted adult. A chance encounter at a party brings Saroo and Lucy (Kate Mara) together and they fall madly in love. After learning about Saroo’s tragic past, Lucy introduces Saroo to a new computer application named Google Earth. With the assistance of the program’s aerial and topographical features, Saroo starts to reconstruct the ill-fated journey that took him away from his loved ones with the hopes of being able to identify his hometown. However, Lucy soon realizes that she’s created a monster when Saroo’s obsession with finding his family consumes his every waking moment and strains their relationship to the breaking point. Revealing the movie’s ending would be a tremendous disservice, but suffice it to say, Lion contains a powerhouse payoff that satisfies without being overly sentimental. The performances are pitch-perfect across the board, especially Patel (Slumdog Millionaire), who is emerging as a tremendous A-list talent. The soundtrack by Volker Bertelmann and Dustin O’Halloran is also very good and contains an eclectic mix of Indian flavored tunes along with beautifully intimate piano pieces. I always get a rush of elation when a movie’s meaning is preserved to the very end, like Citizen Kane’s “Rosebud.” The explanation of the movie’s title here is a tremendous emotional kicker. Be sure to stay through the ending credits for footage of the real Saroo, who wrote the book “A Long Way Home,” which was adapted for the big screen by Luke Davies. Most movies leave audiences feeling thrilled, haunted, entertained, challenged or, at best, inspired. Lion leaves its audience feeling transformed. This isn’t merely a physical or emotional journey…it’s a spiritual one. So, if you’re ready to take the trip of a lifetime, jump aboard. When I say this movie will change your life, I’m not Lion.

Hidden Figures (PG)

Directed by: Theodore Melfi
Starring: Taraji P. Henson
January 2017

What follows is the full-length review based on comments that were originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. Ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

Hidden Figures is an inspirational biopic that transports its audience back to a less progressive, yet more purposeful, period in American history. The story centers on three African American women who make substantial contributions to NASA’s rocket program during its most crucial decade, the Space Race 60s. Taraji P. Henson plays Katherine G. Johnson, a human “computer” with mad math skills. Octavia Spencer depicts Dorothy Vaughan, a mechanical genius who becomes an expert at operating the newfangled mainframe computers manufactured by some company named IBM. Janelle Monae portrays Mary Jackson, an ambitious young mother of two who wants to become an engineer. Each of the women is faced with significant obstacles along the way which threaten to sabotage their dreams. Johnson, who is treated with barely concealed hostility by many of her white coworkers, must run fifteen minutes in heels just to get to the closest “colored” bathroom and is eventually replaced by a real computer. Vaughan does the work of a supervisor but doesn’t receive the recognition or compensation for it. In order to be considered for an engineering position at NASA, Jackson must augment her Bachelor’s degree with extension courses which, as fate would have it, are only offered at night at an all-white high school. Although most of the story’s depictions are skin-deep, the acting elevates the cursory character development and the Caucasian co-stars certainly assist in that regard. Jim Parsons, in a very un-Sheldon like role (The Big Bang Theory), plays Paul Stafford, an arrogant, prejudiced physicist who seeks to undermine and discredit Johnson at every opportunity. In a similar role, Kirsten Dunst plays Vivian Mitchell, a persnickety boss who keeps Vaughan under her thumb and constantly quashes her ambitions for advancement. The closest thing we have to a decent white person in the film is Kevin Costner’s Al Harrison. What makes Costner’s performance here stand out from his typical role is that he isn’t portraying a hero or a villain…Harrison is a beleaguered supervisor tasked with putting a man in space and is simply trying to do that job to the best of his ability. One of the most refreshing aspects of Harrison’s character (a fictitious composite of three different directors at NASA Langley Research Center during Johnson’s tenure at the facility, according to is that he utilizes the best person for the job, regardless of race or gender—an admirable quality when considering the period when this movie was set. Although Costner has always looked at home in films (like JFK) set in the 60s, his appearance in Figures, which comes complete with horn-rimmed glasses, white dress shirt with thin tie and short cropped coif, is so authentic to the period that the line between actor and character becomes exceedingly blurred at times. The storyline is bifurcated between Civil Rights issues and a fly-on-the-wall perspective of the riveting operations inside NASA’s Space Task Group during Alan Shepard’s and John Glenn’s landmark missions. Unfortunately, the plot is fairly predictable, especially for those knowledgeable about these historical happenings, but credit goes to screenwriters Allison Schroeder and Theodore Melfi (also the film’s director) who have adapted Margot Lee Shetterly’s book into a compelling yarn that adroitly modulates between the home and work struggles of its three main characters. The addition of archival footage of various rocket launches and the newscasts that covered them also lends credibility and aids in maintaining viewer interest throughout the film. In the end, the movie’s objective was to raise awareness that there were many capable women, and what’s more African American women, working at NASA during the 60s. The film certainly succeeds on that front but also excels at being an enlightening endutainment. In addition to containing a first-rate double entendre in its title, Figures is a crowd-pleasing true story that underscores just a few of the myriad issues that faced our nation during one of its most turbulent decades. Figures affirms that it’s possible to reach the stars if we shoot for them.

Sully (PG-13)

Directed by: Clint Eastwood
Starring: Tom Hanks
September 2016

The below comments (in Black) were originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appear @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation (in Red). For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

The opening scene is intense. #PilotsNightmare
“Forced water landing,” not a crash.
“Everything is unprecedented until it happens for the first time.” Tell him, Sully.
Headline: “Heroism on the Hudson.”
“The right man for the job at the right time.”
Sully hallucinates a plane crashing into a building. #PlaneCrashPTSD
“Porterhouse will stop your heart.” Ha!
Airplane safety instructions...the one time people need to be paying attention.
“Brace, brace, brace. Heads down, stay down.” Words you never want to hear.
“People don’t survive water landings.” Wrong.
“I had to land in the Hudson.” Sully says it like it’s an everyday occurrence.
“I’ve never been so happy to be in New York in my life.” LOL
155. The number Sully was hoping to hear.
“A delay is better than a disaster.” Timely #FortuneCookie message.
“You’ve taken all of the humanity out of the cockpit.” You got ‘em there, Sully.
“Does anyone need to see more simulations?” Yes!
“We did our job.” Yes you did, Sully. And you saved everyone’s life.
“I would have done it in July.” Ha!
Final analysis: a powerful testament to human ingenuity and courage.
3 1/2 out of 4 stars. Peerless acting and directing in this incredible true story of uncommon heroism.

In the hands of less skilled artisans, this film could’ve been a methodical, mediocre mess. By artisans, of course, I’m referring to the dedicated cast and crew of Sully, along with the dream team of director Clint Eastwood and actor Tom Hanks in their first cinematic collaboration. Having helmed Changeling (2008), Invictus (2009), J. Edgar (2011) and Jersey Boys (2014), Eastwood is no stranger to films based on true stories. Whereas his style in the past was marked by a formal stiffness, his direction here is steady and fluid, like a jet cruising at 30,000 feet. It would be unfair to label Eastwood’s earlier directorial efforts as boring, but other, more euphemistic words could certainly be employed, like: conservative, deliberate and restrained. In this film, purposeful pacing has been replaced with a sense of urgency rarely witnessed in an Eastwood picture, a change in style necessitated by the story itself—a pseudo-disaster movie mixed with a docu-drama with a twist of a legal procedural. Much like the subject matter itself, Eastwood’s direction is taut, terse and sufficiently streamlined…the film’s running time is a lean 96 minutes. Amid plane safety checks, aviation emergency procedures, media oversaturation and review board regulations, Eastwood keeps his finger firmly on the pulse and purpose of the film—the 155 lives that were saved by the instinctual, heroic actions of an experienced airplane pilot. It’s to his credit that Eastwood never loses sight of the human factor while regaling the terrifying events from the headline-dominating story from January 15, 2009. This is as complete a film as Eastwood has delivered and, as such, should garner attention from Academy voters, something he’s failed to seize since winning Best Director and Best Picture Oscars for Million Dollar Baby in 2004. Eastwood has always tapped top tier talent for his films and actors don’t come any more highly sought-after than Hanks. As would be expected, there isn’t a single false note in Hanks’ brilliantly multilayered and underplayed portrayal of Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger. From his reactions during the actual plane crash (as well as the PTSD fantasy of a plane colliding with a NYC building), to interactions with his screen wife (Laura Linney), co-pilot (Aaron Eckhart), members of the media (including Katie Couric in a choice cameo) as well as the board of inquiry (Mike O’Malley, Jamey Sheridan and Anna Gunn), Hanks is simply masterful here, effortlessly conveying Sully’s dignity and sagacity. One look at Hanks in the captain’s uniform and it’s clear that he was born to play an airplane pilot…and just as with his costume, the role was tailor-made for him. Will this superlative effort generate another Oscar nod for Hanks? Also worthy of Oscar consideration is Eckhart, who plays co-pilot Jeff Skiles. Though it isn’t a colorful, edgy or overly nuanced part, Eckhart perfectly captures Skiles’ unwavering loyalty to Sully in an expertly measured performance. Ultimately what helps this movie achieve liftoff is the harmonic prosody between writer Todd Komarnicki and the editing team. Komarnicki’s screenplay is based on the book Highest Duty, written by Sullenberger and Jeffrey Zaslow. If told in a straightforward manner, this story would’ve never left the tarmac. Komarnicki’s effective use of wistful memories back to Sully’s early days as a pilot (a la 1957’s The Spirit of St. Louis), dream and daydream sequences and non-linear plotting all prevent this film from becoming a prototypical biopic. Likewise, the way Komarnicki breaks up the procedural portion of the film with character sidebars, video simulations and flashbacks is also flawlessly executed. Unlike the balance of the action, which is dominated by weighty life-and-death matters, the film ends on a humorous note—another indication that Eastwood has finally learned how to loosen up in his dotage. All in all, this is a first-rate true story adaptation that soars despite being grounded for most of the film. Be sure to stay through the end credits for clips of the real Sully along with the crew and passengers from US Airways Flight 1549. Tissues required.

Bonus material:
By some strange coincidence, Hanks’ career has been punctuated by plane crashes and water landings: his characters have survived two plane crashes in
Cast Away (2000) and Sully and three water landings including those two films along with Apollo 13 (1995). Additionally, many of Hanks’ films have centered on similar settings and situations, including: a whole other kind of water landing in Saving Private Ryan (1998), the stranded in an airport character study in The Terminal (2004), a boy coping with his dad’s death in the 9/11 plane attacks in Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close (2011) and terror on the high seas as a cargo ship is besieged by pirates in Captain Phillips (2013). Incidentally, Hanks played a courageous captain in that true story too.

Race (PG-13)

Directed by: Stephen Hopkins
Starring: Stephan James
February 2016

The below comments (in Black) were originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appear @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation (in Red). For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

“God spared you for a reason.” To run like the wind.
Nice to see that Jesse used the envelope system. #FiscalResponsibility
“Can you work?” Love how Jesse throws it back at him with his #CottonPicking story.
Metals not records. Important distinction.
“So long as they’re American citizens, we’ll accept Martians.” #RacialIntegration
“We’re going with the higher time.” #BS
Three #WorldRecords in 45 minutes. Unbelievable.
“You think track and field is hard, you should try marriage.” NK
Close vote, but no boycott.
Out on the track there’s “no black and white, there’s only fast and slow.” You tell him.
“Stop thinking so much, Jesse. It’s not what you’re good at.” Ha!
Luz helping Jesse out on the long jump is a nice moment.
The German crowd chanting “Owens” is a higher honor than the three gold medals.
“Don’t lose.” Don’t worry, he won’t.
The guest of honor has to go through the service entrance. Sad.
Final analysis: a comprehensive look at Owens’ plight as a black athlete during the 30s and his rise to fame.
2 1/2 out of 4. Despite being overlong and slowly paced #Race is an inspirational biopic with an important message.

There’s a double meaning implied in the title of this latest Jesse Owens biopic, Race.  The obvious reference is to the movie’s focus on Owens’ career as a track legend, culminating with his astounding performance (four gold medals) at the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin, Germany.  The other meaning inferred by the title is Owens’ race—African American.  The bitter irony here is that despite his tremendous athletic talent, Owens was treated with contempt both by Caucasian members of his own team and especially by citizens of the host nation, whose white supremacist ideals sought the eradication of Jews and blacks (ironically, two Jews were bumped from the 4 x 100 meter relay so that Owens could participate, so apparently blacks were a bit better than Jews in the twisted minds of the Aryan adherents).  There was no safe haven for Owens on American or German soil, which makes his courageous story even more remarkable.  Ultimately, this movie isn’t about black and white or fast and slow (as Owens avers in the film), but heroes and villains.  Aside from Owens himself (Stephan James), Owens’ coach, Larry Snyder (Jason Sudeikis), is a driving force for good (and progress) in the film.  Other heroes come from unexpected quarters, such as the appropriately named German long jumper Carl “Luz” Long (David Kross), who helps orient Owens to the course and German film director Leni Riefenstahl (Carice van Houten), who dared to defy Hitler by filming the 200 meter dash for posterity, an event Owens was predicted to win.  The movie’s villains are the racist white Americans (like the brutish Ohio State University football players who force Owens to take a shower after them) and the many nationalized and propagandized Germans.  Of course the Kaiser himself is the greatest villain here—besides initially banning Jews and Blacks from the Games, which nearly sparked an international boycott, Hitler refused to shake Owens’ hand in clear defiance of Olympic tradition for gold medal winners.  Granted, there are a few gray characters in the film as well, such as the duplicitous Avery Brundage (Jeremy Irons) and prejudiced Olympic team coaches like Lawson Robertson (Defiance’s Tony Curran).  Race has greater scope than earlier films based on Owens’ life and has the added benefit of CGI as a storytelling tool.  These computer effects are most noticeable in the sweeping crowd scenes when Owens first enters the Olympic stadium in Berlin.  But is the movie better off for all of its technological advances and advantages?  Opinions will vary, but I think CGI was judiciously employed in the film.  The effectiveness of the movie’s broad stroke approach to telling Owens’ story is also a matter of debate.  Some will appreciate the movie’s in-depth history lesson and the many ancillary story lines (Riefenstahl) that are woven into the movie’s narrative tapestry.  Others (like moi) will maintain that the film takes us away from the focal point (Owens) too frequently and tries to achieve too much in the social and political arenas instead of adhering to its core identity as a historical sports movie…unlike the exploits of its main character, the story isn’t very streamlined.  How ironic that a movie about sprinting should be paced like a long distance run and have the running time of an average half marathon.  Race is an educational and inspirational film that ultimately fails to move its audience.  Sad to say, but despite its efforts to decry the injustices of prejudging a person based on their appearance, Race is skin-deep. 

The Big Short (R)

Directed by: Adam McKay
Starring: Christian Bale
December 2015

The below comments (in Black) were originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appear @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation (in Red). For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

The Big Short
Appropriate quote from #MarkTwain to open the film.
“It all came crashing down.” #Greed #Tragic
“You have a very nice haircut. Did you do it yourself?” Ha! #SocialIneptitude
How to #Hijack a #SupportGroup.
Short the #HousingMarket. #IncitingIncident
I learned more about #SubprimeLoans from @MargotRobbie in a #Bubblebath than any news story...and I liked it.
A #Short deal for 100 million. #GoldmanSachs is laughing now.
“Who bets against housing?”
“No one is paying attention.” #Scary
#CDO is like three day old halibut. Love the visual illustration by #AnthonyBourdain.
Four people per 100 houses in FL. There are more alligators per the one in the swimming pool.
They’re not confessing. They’re bragging. Pride comes before the fall.
“Fueled by stupidity.” The short definition of our entire system.
“A completely fraudulent system.” Imagine that.
The AAs are like Bs. “Kinda brilliant.”
#SyntheticCDO Atomic bomb to the #SubprimeBubble.
“I say when we sell.” Phenomenal acting by @SteveCarell.
Final analysis: a sobering look at greed run amok with amusing direct addresses and educational sidebars.
3 1/2 out of 4. Superb acting with an educational, accessible story from writer/director Adam McKay.

As Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas) enthusiastically declared in Wall Street (1987), “Greed is good.” However, when a glut of greed causes an entire financial institution to become fraudulent, which in turn threatens to crash that nation’s economy, greed most definitely isn’t good. The Big Short is based on the book of the same name (subtitled: “Inside the Doomsday Machine”), written by Michael Lewis, and chronicles the events that precipitated the financial meltdown in 2008. Just like other movies that have focused on the subject at hand, i.e., HBO’s Too Big to Fail (2011), Short is less an entertainment than a cautionary tale wrapped inside a biopic. If the movie’s subject matter conjures images of a dry, narrated documentary, you’ll be pleasantly surprised to learn that Short is nothing of the sort. Writer/director Adam McKay (Anchorman, 2004) has done a superb job of describing complex financial concepts in layman’s terms, and has employed luminaries like Margo Robbie, Anthony Bourdain and Selena Gomez to explain those concepts in amusing vignettes. As in the similarly themed The Wolf of Wall Street (2013), Short allows numerous characters to break the fourth wall and address the audience in supplemental, anecdotal or humorous asides. All of these story devices lend the film a unique narrative flow, which makes it accessible to a mass audience and prevents it from degenerating into a derivative snore-fest. The cast is headlined by Brad Pitt, despite the fact that his character is ancillary to the action and his screen time is far less than many of his co-stars. Christian Bale is extremely effective as glass-eyed, socially awkward hedge fund manager Michael Burry, the first person (according to the movie) to bet against the housing market. The most impressive (and unexpected when considering his typical role) performance is turned in by Steve Carell, who plays Mark Baum, the low empathy, high maintenance ringleader of a small team of renegades inside Morgan Stanley. The freeze-frame shot of Baum’s face when he learns about Synthetic CDOs perfectly mirrors our own expressions of confusion, disbelief and betrayal. For scores of people who were adversely affected by the bursting of the “credit bubble,” it will take the rest of their life to wipe that look off of their face. If Short has done its job properly, you should leave the theater furious over how the banks have destroyed millions of lives and very nearly tanked our economy. Short is an important film, not only as an edutainment, but also as a reminder for us to never again commit this kind of financial blunder…as is hauntingly hinted at in the final scene of the film.

Concussion (PG-13)

Directed by: Peter Landesman
Starring: Will Smith
December 2015

The below comments (in Black) were originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appear @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation (in Red). For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

“Banging’s not a natural thing.” Sounds like the movie’s central thesis.
“The science of death.” Macabre study. Takes a special person.
“Talk to them in your head.” Ha! #CadaverWhisperer
“Those are my peaches. They should not be there.” LOL!
“I’m dying in here!” Some amazing acting by #DavidMorse.
“One should eat breakfast in this country.” Got him!
“People do not go mad for no reason.” This one did. #MikeWebster
The jar illustration is downright frightening.
“God did not intend for humans to play football.” Scientifically accurate, but not a popular view among fans.
“Uneducated quack.” Idiot!
“The NFL owns a day of the week.” And Monday and Thursday nights too. #NFL
“This does not show up on a CT scan.” Get a #SPECT. #CTE
“They have to listen to us now.” #BurdenProof
“Tell the truth.” #Goosebumps
“If you don’t speak for the dead, who will?” #SpeakerForTheDead
“Please ask him to help me.” Touching scene. #HonestPrayer
Bennett finally gets to speak about concussions.
America’s forensic pathologist. #HighHonor
Final analysis: a sobering look at the dark reality of America’s favorite pastime.
3 out of 4 stars. A transformative performance by #WillSmith in a David vs Goliath tale of courage.

During a conversation focused on the growing problem of head injuries in sports, Alec Baldwin (as Dr. Julian Bailes, former team doctor for the Pittsburg Steelers) makes this statement about American football: “It is a mindless, violent game, and then it’s Shakespeare.” This ironic dichotomy not only serves as the film’s underlying premise, it also effectively expresses the ambivalence felt by many players and fans who must grapple with the bitter reality that the fun and exhilaration they derive from the popular pastime comes with a price. By dint of its classification as a contact sport, you can’t have a high level of excitement without punishing tackles and vicious blows to the head. And yet, most people, especially with what we now know about the sport’s potentially devastating effect on the brain, would agree that we must do more to protect football players from TBIs (traumatic brain injury) or, as Dr. Bennet Omalu (Will Smith) discovers in the film, CTEs (chronic traumatic encephalopathy). Omalu first encounters the disease while conducting extensive tests on the brain of legendary Steelers center Mike Webster (David Morse). As Omalu continues conducting autopsies on deceased football players, he detects a pattern which becomes the basis for his landmark journal article, which leads to an official diagnosis (CTE), which generates skepticism from many in the medical community and outright hostility from the NFL…after all, it owns a day of the week. As ironic as it seems, discovering the degenerative condition inside players’ brains turns out to be a far easier task for Omalu than convincing the NFL of his findings. What kicks off as a standard sports movie morphs into a medical procedural and ultimately ends up as a David vs. Goliath political thriller. Above all, Concussion chronicles one man’s dogged pursuit of the truth and the considerable diametrical forces that attempt to discredit and squelch his work (this struggle of opposing views is not too dissimilar from the basic arrangement of players on the football field: offense and defense). Smith turns in a remarkable performance as Nigerian pathologist Omalu and absolutely nails the accent. The supporting players are also extremely effective in their roles, especially Morse, whose portrayal of the deteriorating NFL star is heartbreaking and haunting. Honorable mention goes to: Baldwin, Albert Brooks (as Omalu’s supervisor), Gugu Mbatha-Raw (as Omalu’s wife) and Luke Wilson (as NFL commissioner, Roger Goodell). One wonders how much interference director Peter Landesman encountered while spearheading this even-handed effort to expose the ugly truth of the NFL (in specific and football in general). With the considerable connections and bankroll the league has at its disposal, it’s a minor miracle that a movie like Concussion ever made it to the big screen. And the fact that the film was released on Christmas Day, deep into the NFL’s regular season, shows that Columbia Pictures isn’t the least bit intimidated by the institution it’s brazenly indicting. I admire that kind of pluck, and, judging by his onscreen characterization, something tells me Omalu would too.

Spotlight (R)

Directed by: Tom McCarthy
Starring: Mark Ruffalo
November 2015

The below comments (in Black) were originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appear @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation (in Red). For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

Goodbye cake. #Depressing
“Are you familiar with Spotlight?” That’s why I’m watching the movie.
“You wanna sue the church?” David vs. Goliath. #Ironic
“Would you consider picking this one?” A new story for Spotlight.
“Twenty grand for molesting a child?” A pittance for destroying someone’s life.
SNAP. #CrummyAcronym
“Not prayed for, preyed upon.” Utterly reprehensible.
“How do you say no to God?” #AbuseOfPower
“A recognizable, psychiatric phenomenon.” #ProtectedPredators
A break in the case. #SickLeave
“It takes a village to abuse one.” Horrifying.
“Six percent of all priests.” Absolutely frightening!
“I never got any pleasure out of it.” Just when you thought this movie couldn’t get any more shocking.
“It’s like everyone already knows the story...except for us.” #Obstruction
Story runs and the phones start ringing off the hook. The truth finally comes out.
Final analysis: An expose of corruption for the ages. Flawless acting & superb direction bolster this true tale.
3 1/2 out of 4. Deplorable subject matter makes it hard to watch at times, but a vitally important film.

Spotlight dramatizes a watershed event from 2002 when the Boston Globe published a story that blew the lid off of the Catholic Church’s complicity in allowing known pedophile priests to continue serving in parishes. Spotlight is also the name of the small group of intrepid reporters at the Globe who exposed that pattern of corruption and dared to take on the Church. The movie is an ironic twist on the David versus Goliath tale from the Bible with the small team of reporters taking on the centuries-old religious institution. The story is told in a manner similar to that of All the President’s Men (1976), with reporters pounding the streets in order to piece together clues that will eventually aid them in confronting a social injustice. The newsroom dynamic in this film is also echoes President’s Men and other media focused movies of that period like Network (1976). The casting of the Spotlight team is pitch-perfect. Liev Schreiber, as editor Marty Baron, beautifully underplays his role in one of his finest performances. The star of the show is Michael Keaton, who plays Walter “Robby” Robinson, the ringleader of the Spotlight journalists. Each of the supporting actors are superb here, especially Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, John Slattery, Brian d’Arcy James and Stanley Tucci. Insuring that everything onscreen accurately reflects the actual events as well as the styles, attitudes and settings of the post-millennial era is director Tom McCarthy. Each aspect of the production feels period appropriate, especially the dimly lit, cluttered office spaces and claustrophobic boardrooms. Writers Josh Singer and McCarthy have done a superb job of taking the morally reprehensible subject matter and making it appropriate for a mass audience. They’ve also skillfully and artfully depicted the actual events without politicizing or bashing organized religion. Just as the Spotlight team treaded carefully as they built their case, so too have Singer and McCarthy walked the tightrope between exposing the heinous behaviors of the outed priests and remaining reverent to the Church. Many have trumpeted this film as the frontrunner for Oscar’s top prize...and it’s hard to argue with such a sentiment. If Spotlight should happen to clinch Hollywood’s highest honor, it would be two Best Picture wins in a row for Keaton.

Trumbo (R)

Directed by: Jay Roach
Starring: Bryan Cranston
November 2015

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!


Love the jazz score for the opener.
The infectiously upbeat music not only sets the tone for the film, it perfectly characterizes Trumbo’s unflagging energy and ambition.

“What writers write, builders build.” #PicketLine
This is an important reminder that no film would ever be produced without an army of people behind the scenes who build and create everything seen onscreen.

Post-movie shower. Sad.
Throwing a cup of water at someone was enough to make a point back in the 50s. Today they just shoot someone they disagree with. Tragic.

“We both have the right to be wrong.”
Trumbo was attempting to take the high road, but his strategy backfired since the person he was addressing had an extreme point of view. There’s nothing more dangerous that someone who knows they’re right.

Trumbo meets the Duke...and promptly insults him on where he was stationed during the war. #Ballsy
A really good scene, but I just couldn’t buy David James Elliott as John Wayne. But really, who else could they have cast in the part? Love him or hate him, the Duke was a true original.

Putting Communists in internment camps. Yikes!
I’m definitely not pro-Communist, but herding people like cattle into camps is morally reprehensible. We need look no further than Nazi concentration camps or US internment camps for Japanese Americans for examples of these atrocities.

Plan implodes when justice dies. Off to the pokey.
“The best laid plans…”

“Spread your cheeks.” How undignified.
Especially for an Academy award winning screenwriter.

“The luckiest unlucky man.” Touching and well written letter.

“No, you don’t want my name on it.” Ha!
Emphasis on the “you.” Having already been blacklisted and imprisoned, it made sense that Trumbo would use a pseudonym when trying to reestablish a career in the industry. While on the subject, many female writers also broke into the industry during this period by using pen names.

“The Alien and the Farm Girl.” Lesson: don’t mix political commentary with schlock.

Too busy for birthday cake. Sad. #SweetSixteen
Amazing how quickly people’s priorities can change. When Trumbo was in prison, his family was his main focus…at this point in his life it’s his work.

Who is Robert Rich? #
The story that kept nagging Trumbo over the years ends up becoming and Oscar winning screenplay. Just goes to show that it’s always best to write from the heart.

“It simply lacks genius.” Preminger was a tough customer.
But he was just as tough on actors, so there’s something to be said for his consistency.

Academy awards: 2. Yes!
Those who have an overdeveloped sense of justice, like me, will revel in this scene.

The scene where Trumbo’s screen credit is reflected on his glasses is absolutely brilliant.
Ingenious cinematography and inspired acting.

“It was a time of fear and no one was exempt.” #Blacklist
No one was exempt because this was such a polarizing issue. There really was no middle ground.

Final analysis: a timely true story of one man’s plight during a dark chapter in American history.
This film is timely because of what’s going on in the world at present. How will we treat the Syrian refugees when they arrive in our country? How will we treat Muslims in light of the recent terror attacks in Paris?

3 1/2 out of 4. Rich in historical detail and social relevance with a towering performance by Cranston.

As a huge fan of Spartacus (1960), I’m very familiar with the name Dalton Trumbo and of his plight during Hollywood’s blacklist phase. However, even with a previous knowledge of his story (anecdotally, at least), there were many aspects of Trumbo’s life and career that I was completely unaware of, like his penchant for writing in the bathtub. Trumbo effectively melds disparate narrative elements—a socially conscious biopic, an enthralling character study, a bittersweet dramedy and an accurate, if abridged, survey of film history—into a cohesive edutainment. As such, there’s something here for everyone. The movie’s big draw, of course, is Breaking Bad’s Bryan Cranston, who is utterly spellbinding as the titular script writer. Like a virtuoso pianist, Cranston hits every note with precision and acumen and mesmerizes with a performance so unique and veracious that at times the line between character and actor is exceedingly blurred. I can gush about Cranston’s portrayal of the eccentric writer for the rest of this review, but in all fairness, the supporting players are dazzling in this picture as well. First of all, Michael Stuhlbarg (Boardwalk Empire) is exceptional as Edward G. Robinson. Though he doesn’t quite favor the diminutive actor, Stuhlbarg makes the part his own without trying too hard to provide a perfect portrait of the Classic Hollywood mainstay. On the flip side of the coin is David James Elliott, whose depiction of John Wayne is, ironically, more wooden than any part the Duke ever played. However, is it really possible for any actor to accurately dramatize Wayne since he was a walking caricature? Although Diane Lane, Alan Tudyk, Roger Bart, Elle Fanning and John Goodman are all superb in their roles, honorable mention goes to Louis C.K. as Trumbo’s writer friend Arlen Hird and Helen Mirren as the Hollywood gossip queen Hedda Hopper. John McNamara’s (Aquarius) script is witty and nuanced and delicately negotiates some rather turbulent political terrain. At its core, this movie is about courage and cowardice. Trumbo goes to jail for his convictions. Both actor Kirk Douglas and director Otto Preminger fight for Trumo’s name to appear in Spartacus and Exodus, respectively. Standing in stark contrast to the courageous actions of these men are individuals who named names in order to save their own skins, like Robinson. Ironically, as the film aptly depicts, many of the finger pointers also suffered career setbacks due to the very suspicion of their involvement with the Communist party. Director Jay Roach (Meet the Parents) has delivered a conscientious film that, in addition to showcasing the authentic details of the milieu, also captures the moods and attitudes of proponents on both sides of the politically charged issue at the heart of the movie. Inserting the film’s actors into archival footage via CGI, a la Forrest Gump (1994), is yet another of the film’s many masterstrokes. The way I see it, a movie that educates while it entertains is a double whammy winner. And if it also happens to have a message, so much the better. Topical and timely, this film is not to be missed.

Bridge of Spies (PG-13)

Directed by: Steven Spielberg
Starring: Tom Hanks
October 2015

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

Bridge of Spies
It is.

Self portrait. Add a few more wrinkles there, buddy.
Being a painter is a nice cover for a spy.

Opening the coin. Intricate work.
Interesting how a different faux coin (silver dollar) also appears later in the movie.

“Not my guy.” Splitting hairs. #LimitingLiabilities
It’s amazing how ridiculous our system has become.  We split hairs so fine that we can’t even see the truth anymore.

Jim gets roped into doing a “patriotic duty.” #IncitingIncident
Alan Alda was the perfect choice for the part of Donovan’s superior…a symbol of the old, male Caucasian leadership of the era.

“Do many foreign agents register?” Good point.
Hi, I’m a spy for an enemy country.  Oops, guess I just blew my cover.

“You don’t seem alarmed.” Ha! #ElectricChair
There’s a man resigned to his fate.  Occupational hazard.

“You cannot be shot down. You cannot be captured.” No pressure.
Your country will disavow any knowledge of you.  Sign me up!

The “duck and cover” film shown in school is horrifying.
With Iran getting nukes, we might want to bring this instructional film back for today’s schoolchildren.

Pariah on a train.
What an awful feeling it would be to have everyone’s disapproving gaze trained on you.

The “standing man” story is a nice moment.
And pays off beautifully later in the movie.

Are there any “bigger issues” than justice?
It’s frightening how often justice is waylaid by misguided ploys or knee-jerk reactions.

If there’s a threat of capture, #SpendTheDollar.
It’s the last one you’ll ever spend.

“Will we stand by our cause less resolutely then he stands by his?” #KillerLine
An elegant line delivered with exceptional precision by Hanks.

The jet explosion scene is intense.
The only bona fide action scene in the movie.  Not nearly as pulse-pounding as the action sequences in this year’s Furious Seven, but it’ll do.

“Indulge their fiction.” #PrisonerExchange
This is where the plot gets convoluted.  Everyone’s angling for something different and it’s up to Donovan to outsmart all parties involved.

Watching the wall as it’s being built is #Historic.
A strange feeling washed over me as I watched this scene—viewing such a historic divide, as it’s being built, is…weighty.

Jim trades his coat for directions...and safe passage through East Berlin.
The expensive coat might have saved his life.  Good thing his passport wasn’t in it.

Jim’s “impatient plan” is the only sensible one.
Our timetable in the US does seem to be much more accelerated than the ones in many other places around the world.

“Every person matters.”
A very positive message that’s reinforced by Donovan’s insistence that Russian spy Abel (Mark Rylance in a terrific performance) be imprisoned, not sent to the electric chair.

“We’re on. Two for one.” Hot dog!
Easier said than done.

“I can wait.” Yeah!
An amazing moment of respect and solidarity.  Most people would’ve run toward freedom.

“This is your gift.” Touching.
Grab a hanky.

“I thought daddy was fishing.” Nope, he was off being a hero.
A stand and cheer moment.

A different kind of train ride this time. #Redemption
This is telling of just how fickle people are—how quickly their opinion can change. Remember High Noon (1952).

Final analysis: a slow-boil political thriller, brimming with historical accuracy and social significance.
And touching humanity.

Rating: 3 1/2 out of 4. Spielberg has delivered a gorgeous film and Hanks’ performance is Oscar-worthy.

As with any Hanks/Spielberg collaboration (their first since The Terminal, 2004) Spies is sure to be a hit with critics and audiences alike.  Based on the true story of how an insurance lawyer, Jim Donovan (Hanks), got caught in the middle of a political tug-o-war during the height of the Cold War, the film is a timely reminder of our nation’s tensions with Russia in the not-too-distant past.  The age-old adage that greatness is often thrust upon ordinary individuals at unsuspecting times certainly applies here.  Donovan, the very portrait of an unassuming leader, becomes the hero of the hour when his negotiation skills are called upon to secure the release of two American prisoners who are being held in prisons on the dark side (Communist) of Berlin.  Aside from the peerless acting and directing, the high end production is really what puts it over the top for this political potboiler period piece.  Peter Piper agrees.  The attention to detail and historical accuracy evident in every frame of the film is simply awe-inspiring; look no further than the startlingly realistic bombed out sections of Berlin for an example of this. The one possible snafu I have with this movie is that Spartacus appears on the marquee of a German theater in one scene.  Spartacus was released in the US on October 7, 1960.  It’s snowing in Germany, so we can assume that it’s Nov or Dec of 1960 when this scene takes place.  Since it normally takes three or more months for a movie to be distributed overseas, the timing of Spartacus’ release here is questionable. More research is required. If the movie has a downside it’s its length (2 hours, 21 minutes) and slow pacing. It’s unclear whether or not the inclusion of the Coen Bros. on the scripting team helped or hindered in this regard, but I’m reasonably confident, judging from their past work, that they had something to do with the overall quality of the script. Incidentally, the Coens’ are also currently co-executive producing the second season of Fargo on FX. One of the stars of that show, Jesse Plemons (Friday Night Lights) also appears here in an ancillary, but vital, role. So where’s all of the action we’ve come to expect from the man who brought us Indiana Jones and the first two Jurassic Park movies? The entire subplot involving the shot down pilot could’ve been explained in a couple lines of dialog.  The auteur wisely chose to add this story line (and the storyboarding for the sequence is vintage Spielberg), which provides the only real action in the movie.  However, even though the cross-cutting is nothing short of brilliant, these scenes are ultimately superfluous and don’t significantly move the story forward, and, ironically, only serve to make the film that much longer.  Despite these niggling criticisms, there’s a lot to appreciate here, not the least of which is the film’s humanitarian message and fish-out-of-water tale of courage and honor.  This historical biopic will go down as one of Spielberg’s finest films and should earn a raft of Oscar nods.  Spies is educational and inspirational and will stand the test of time as a top-shelf Cold War yarn.  Parting thought: if you ever visit Germany during the winter season, be sure to pack an extra coat.

Everest (PG-13)

Directed by: Baltasar Kormakur
Starring: Jason Clarke
September 2015

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

If only psychologically. Actually, most SoCal theaters are like ice boxes year-round, so watching a flick is a great way to beat the heat.

20 teams. “A scrum on the ropes.”
Unfortunately, the more people there are on the mountain, the greater the chance of casualties. The grim reality of statistical probability.

“Mailman on Everest.” Long way to deliver a letter.
The Mailman is played by indie actor, John Hawkes (Winter’s Bone, 2010 and The Sessions, 2012).

Climber’s memorial. Last chance to turn back.
A graveyard for climbers whose lives were claimed by the mountain.

“The last word always belongs to the mountain.” Know who you’re competing against.
A good reminder to always pay the proper amount of respect to the mountain.

“One pound down here is like ten pounds up there.” #LightAndFast
This is a reference to shedding weight from a backpack, not personal weight. Although, that would factor in as well, one would think.

“Head down, one step at a time.” The only way to attack the mountain.
What a grueling task it would be to climb Everest. It’s not just how cold the air is, but also how thin it is.

“The mountain makes its own weather.” And it can change in an instant.
As the characters in the movie find out…the hard way.

Beautiful night view of the mountain.
There’s nothing like being on top of the world, breathing crisp, clean air and watching the moonlight glistening off of snow peaks. A spiritual experience.

No fixed ropes. You slip you die.
That’s okay. I’ll sit this one out.

Hopefully the call from home gives Rob the motivation he needs to get moving.
Wishful thinking on my part. In my defense, I was unfamiliar with this story before watching the film.

Final analysis: a heart-stopping, man vs. nature tale where respect for the mountain is paramount for survival.
And respect for fickle weather.

2 1/2 out of 4. What the film gains in production it loses in predictability. A true story worth watching.

This type of extreme sports movie has been done many times throughout cinema history. Mountain climbing films like K2 (1991) and Vertical Limit (2000) are presented more as thrillers than man versus nature cautionary tales. Whereas many of those mountain movies are fictional, Everest is based on the horrific events that occurred on the big mountain in 1996. Rob Hall (Jason Clarke) lead a team to the top of Everest, but on the descent, conditions rapidly worsened and many climbers either slipped off the edge of a cliff or became one with the mountain…permanently. Survival thrillers, along with disaster films and murder mysteries, usually employ a thinning of the herd narrative approach, and such is the case here.  As macabre as it sounds, it almost becomes a spectator sport to guess who will live and who will die when things go south, as they always do in this brand of film.  This Darwinian winnowing of characters is much harder to guess in fictional stories, but in true events, like the one featured in this film, anyone familiar with the historical account will know who survives and who doesn’t.  However, the writing here is as taut as a climbing line and should hold the attention of everyone in the audience with its skillful recitation of the harrowing events that befell this particular group of adventurers nearly twenty years ago. Bringing the characters to life is an eclectic cast of fine actors including: Clarke, Josh Brolin, Jake Gyllenhaal, Keira Knightley, John Hawkes, Emily Watson, Robin Wright and Sam Worthington.  If there’s a downside to having such a large cast it’s that screen time is at a premium, especially since personal stories are constantly upstaged by action on the mountain.  Some of the individual episodes are tragic, like when Hawkes’ mailman, Doug Hansen, sends himself express to the bottom of the mountain, while others are heroic, like the subplot focusing on Brolin’s ironically named character, Beck Weathers, who, despite losing his nose, miraculously survives two gelid nights up on the slope.  Although the death scenes aren’t overly graphic, some of them might be frightening for younger kids.  However, despite a handful of death scenes, there really isn’t anything else that’s objectionable in the film.  Indeed, one of the producers of the movie is Walden Media, which is the family friendly company that brought us the Narnia trilogy.  Aside from the decorated cast, the biggest draw here is the gorgeous scenery filmed on location in Nepal and Italy.  As the de facto star of the movie, the mountain scenes had to be spectacular, and they are, thanks in large part to director Baltasar Kormakur and cinematographer Salvatore Totino. All things considered, this movie is exactly what you’d expect from a tragic true tale set on the frozen tundra.  The movie is a humbling reminder of the awesome power of nature.  Moral of the story: don’t play games with Mother Nature.  You’ll lose.

Pawn Sacrifice (PG-13)

Directed by: Edward Zwick
Starring: Tobey Maguire
September 2015

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

Pawn Sacrifice

“There are bad people out there.” Way to teach you kid, Ms. Fischer.
No wonder Fischer is so messed up later in life. Correction: “you” should be “your.”

“He taught himself.” Incredible.
The way the onscreen graphics illustrate the various moves that Fischer is seeing in his head is utterly brilliant.

“I want silence.” Woah!
I remember yelling that in my college dorm when knuckleheads were causing a commotion in the hallway while I was trying to study. Under the circumstances, I think my reaction was far more rational than Fischer’s here.

5 against 1. Fischer has a meltdown.
Fischer detects a pattern, something John Nash (Russell Crowe) was also pretty good at in A Beautiful Mind (2001).

“Russians are like boa constrictors.” Amazing how Fischer can remember every move of every game.
Although, some people can do the same for every baseball game they’ve ever seen on TV or listened to on the radio.

“Without chess he doesn’t exist.”
Not much of an existence if your whole world is wrapped up in one thing.

“A war of perception.” #ColdWar at its finest.

“World War III on a chess board.” Fischer vs Spassky.
The intrigue and action start kicking into high gear at this point.

Game 1 is decided by loud camera sounds.
And people in the audience whispering, coughing, etc. Noise pollution to the ultra sensitive.

Game 2- No show.
Fischer is busy looking for bugs in his room. No, not bedbugs.

Game 3. Bobby employs the “suicide” opening.
Dispensing with convention is what enables Fischer to get back into the tournament. A fact punctuated by his ingenious strategy in Game 6, which chess experts consider the finest game of chess ever played. Let that sink in for a minute.

The X-ray of Spassky’s chair reveals two dead flies. Nice to know Bobby isn’t the only one who’s nuts.
A great sequence that makes us question whether Spassky is just messing with Fischer or if he’s just as paranoid as his American opponent. The scene in Spassky’s room gives us a possible clue.

Chess is the search for truth.
Hmm…here I thought it was about humiliating your opponent.

Final analysis: a true story of a rare genius tragically plagued by a mental illness.
As we’ve seen in many examples throughout history, genius always has a trade-off: Vincent van Gogh, Brian Wilson (watch Love & Mercy), the aforementioned John Nash, etc.

Maguire delivers as a paranoid, angry perfectionist in an Oscar-worthy turn.

3 out of 4. Archival footage is a plus in this Cold War drama featuring U.S.’s most eccentric hero.

Steeped in Cold War intrigue, Pawn Sacrifice (how awesome is that title?) is like a John le Carre spy novel merged with a psychological drama couched in a historical biopic. Not to be confused with Searching for Bobby Fischer (1993), which told the story of a young chess prodigy who was trying to become the next Fischer, this film features the real account of Fischer’s turbulent life and career. Fischer, who rose to prominence in the sport of chess during the early years of the Cold War, made defeating the Russians his personal mission in life, an objective that met with extreme resistance since the Russians ruled the game during the 60s and 70s and had a system in place to ensure their continued dominance. Even though Fischer’s ambitions to singlehandedly dismantle the Russian juggernaut set him on an arduous path, the toughest opponent Fischer ever faced was himself. In the throes of a co-morbid stew of symptoms (which, according to my unprofessional opinion, included: OCD, paranoia, manic depressive disorder and some form of autism), Fischer’s brilliance certainly came with a price. Bringing such a multifaceted character to life would prove challenging to any performer and former Spider-Man actor, Tobey Maguire, probably wouldn’t appear on anyone’s short list to play such an emotionally demanding part. However, sometimes defying conventional wisdom produces greatness and such is the case here as Maguire turns in his finest performance since Seabiscuit (2003). Although Maguire’s acting is consistently superb in the film, and should attract the attention of the Academy, the tantrum on the beach and the scene where Fischer tears his room apart looking for bugs are standouts. As with any good story, a hero can never truly shine without a formidable foil—that role is filled by Liev Schreiber, who is exceptional in his portrayal of Russian chess god Boris Spassky, a man who, as characterized in the film, had some mental troubles of his own. If the idea of watching a series of chess matches for two hours doesn’t appeal to you, know that director Edward Zwick (Glory) has done an excellent job of building tension through interpersonal and intrapersonal conflict and that very little of the movie is spent hunched over a chess board. That said, even if you aren’t a chess fan, the mesmerizing performances and bracing drama should hold your interest throughout the movie. The use of nightly news clips and archival footage from the actual chess tournaments also infuses the film with a degree of historical accuracy that should effectively transport you back to these significant events, which took place over forty years ago. So if you’re in the mood for a Cold War yarn, or just a fascinating character study of a mad genius, this movie is for you. That’s my gambit. Your move.

Love & Mercy (PG-13)

Directed by: Bill Pohlad
Starring: John Cusack
June 2015

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

Love & Mercy
Paul Dano also plays the younger Wilson.

“Well the master lock feature works.” #SellingPoint
Elizabeth Banks is charming and compassionate throughout the film, but this meet-cute really sets the tone for what’s to come.

“Lonely. Scared. Frightened.” Most people write their number on the back of a business card.
Or a matchbook. Those three words are a cry for help and, fortunately for Wilson, Banks perceives his unspoken plea. I also love the fact that Wilson’s star power is completely lost on her. She’s attracted to the real person not the celebrity. Refreshing!

“We can’t let them get ahead of us.” Musical #ArmsRace with #TheBeatles.
The period in question was before my time, so I had no idea that such a competition existed between these two groups. It makes sense, since they were popular around the same time, but they hailed from different countries and had radically different musical styles.

“If you repeat a mistake every four bars, it’s no longer a mistake.” #Improvisation
This is a really fun scene and demonstrates Wilson’s genius. He definitely had an ear for complex chord structures and unusual sounds.

“He scared me into making great records.” The rough road to greatness.
This traumatic back story really humanizes Wilson and garners a tremendous amount of sympathy from the audience.

“Do you think we can get a horse in here?” Ha!
Fitting, since the album was called “Pet Sounds.”

“Help me help Brian.” #ControlFreak
Dr. Landy is a conniving, manipulative twit. Paul Giamatti plays the loathsome psychiatrist to perfection.

Hang on to your ego.
Actually, letting go of it is probably the better course of action.

A chorus of plate scrapes. Deafening and annoying.
This scene gives the audience an insider’s understanding of how sounds tortured Wilson. An extreme OCD.

Something’s wrong with the recording studio. #BadVibrations
Another indication of Wilson’s mad process.

“Could you at least drive me home?” Funny.

Final analysis: a fitting, touching tribute to a true musical genius.
And, most poignantly, how such genius often comes with a price. Remember van Gogh.

3 out of 4. Dano and Cusack deliver tremendous performances as Wilson. Good vibrations, great film.

In some ways, this film reminds me of Julie & Julia (2009), a biopic based on the life of renowned chef Julia Child (Meryl Streep) and a young woman (Amy Adams) who decides to make all of the recipes in Child’s cookbook in one year. Though vastly different thematically, both films are decades-spanning biographical pieces that sustain their parallel narratives with riveting drama and superb performances. Whereas Julie featured two different people, Love features one person played by two different actors: Paul Dano as 60s Wilson and John Cusack as 80s Wilson. The most significant comparison is that the earlier (chronologically) stories in both films are far more compelling than the later ones. Streep is thoroughly mesmerizing as the French chef, but Adams, despite her disarming charm in playing a struggling chef who blogs about her culinary experiences in a Soho flat, just can’t elevate the ordinary story that comprises her half of the film. Unfortunately, that same pattern holds true here as the story of how Wilson created some of the Beach Boys’ greatest hits is far more fascinating than Wilson’s deterioration under the mismanagement of a shady psychiatrist. Dano is dynamic as young Wilson, while Cusack struggles to gain emotional footing as the adult Wilson in arguably the more difficult role. And then there’s the matter of appearances: while Dano looks a little like a twenty-something Wilson, Cusack looks nothing like a middle-aged Wilson. Since both Cusack’s appearance and performance fail to capture the essence of Wilson, one wonders why the actor was selected to play the superstar singer to begin with…and was real life Wilson consulted on the casting choice? The only thing that salvages the 80s storyline is the supporting players, especially Paul Giamatti and Elizabeth Banks. Giamatti plays one of the most despicable antagonists to have crawled out of a dark corner of the silver screen in quite some time. When he swears out Banks at the car dealership you literally want to throw something at the screen. As for Banks, she exudes uncommon compassion for the emotionally troubled musician and singlehandedly makes the entire adult Wilson section work. But enough about the Wilson’s later life; all of the film’s fun and energy occurs in the earlier time period. The making of the music is simultaneously enthralling and thrilling and Wilson’s traumatic childhood and slow descent into mental instability are utterly captivating. Even though snippets of the Beach Boys catalog can be heard throughout the movie, I could’ve used a lot more of their music here, along with more concert vignettes. Despite the movie’s Jekyll and Hyde narrative (which makes for an emotionally uneven movie), this is still a worthwhile glimpse into Wilson’s world and the mad process that forged the many unforgettable tunes he’s churned out over the years. Maybe the next time we can have a film with a unified tone and a lead actor that actually looks the part. Wouldn’t it be nice?

Mr. Turner (R)

Directed by: Mike Leigh
Starring: Timothy Spall
December 2014

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

Mr. Turner
Whenever I think of Spall, I’m reminded of that creepy rodent-man he played in Enchanted (2007). Another decidedly eccentric role.

Opening scene with sunset behind the windmill has a painterly quality.
Something that isn’t lost upon Turner, who sketches the scene as reference for a future painting.

“Do you need anything else?” Dangerous question.
Turner cops a feel. Every man has his needs, I suppose.

Don’t know that I could keep my food down with that hog’s head staring up at me.
Or at the very least I would push it down to the other end of the table and make someone else look at it.

“Remember me” is forgettable the way Mr. Turner sings it. He should stick to painting.
His voice is so awful; it could make a dog go hoarse from howling.

I was expecting a bigger ah-ha from the prism experiment.
An intriguing setup that ends up being a Huh? moment.

Is that crying or travailing?
Turner cries like he’s in labor. It’s a nerve-grating braying.

Turner ruins his masterpiece with a blot of red.
Just to make a mockery out of a fellow painter. Cruel, but not without an element of humor.

The discussion of gooseberries is zzzzzzz...
Whenever I hear the word gooseberries I think of Ergo “the Magnificent” from Krull (1983), a goofy, would-be magician who was fixated on pies filled with the berries.

“A dirty yellow mess.” Turner overhears this rather unflattering critique of his painting.
I just think he ran out of other colors.

Turner is resolved to bequeath his collection...turns down a fortune.
What unassailable integrity. Turner desired his paintings to be enjoyed by the masses not just one rich person. His focus was on posterity, not fiscal security.

“So I am to become a non-entity.” It is appointed to each of us.

Final analysis: a deliberately paced biopic that paints a vivid portrait of the eponymous artist.

3 out of 4 stars. Surely not everyone’s cup of tea, but a gorgeous film by director Mike Leigh.

As a film featuring and focused on fine art, it’s fitting that director Mike Leigh should so deftly capture with a camera the same sumptuous vistas that the titular artist, J.M.W. Turner (Timothy Spall), created with his paintbrush back in the early to mid 1800s. Indeed, Leigh’s landscape shots are framed as photo real representations of the various paintings featured throughout the movie. Many of these tableaus are, in a word, painterly, and serve as the perfect compliment to Turner’s impressionistic, maritime paintings. Visual elements aside, the film is a fascinating character study of its central figure, a man who, as a former member of the Royal Academy of Arts, is regarded as one of Britain’s finest painters from his or any other era. As depicted in the movie, Turner is an eccentric individual whose gruff exterior is tempered only by his heart of gold. Spall’s portrayal is exceptionally nuanced, capturing Turner’s quirks and questionable behaviors in a manner that’s intriguing rather than revolting. As the lead performer in a two and a half hour movie, Spall has a surprising dearth of dialog, and many of his lines are little more than grunts…incomprehensible mumblings that lose in clarity what they gain in personality. Perhaps the highest praise for Spall’s performance is that he makes such an oddball character so sympathetic and, to a greater or lesser extent, relatable. History buffs, art critics and cinephiles will surely fall in love with this movie for its artful depiction of…art. But aside from those special interest groups, a broad swath of this movie’s audience will probably find the film: pretentious, dull, tedious, interminable or all of the above. Indeed, for many those viewers, this movie will be about as exciting as watching paint dry.

Wild (R)

Directed by: Jean-Marc Vallee
Starring: Reese Witherspoon
December 2014

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

Or sandals with duct tape. Hiker’s choice.

Loosing a toenail is painful. Loosing a shoe is devastating. Not a promising beginning.
The film does a great job of beginning right in the middle of the action…a tried-and-true guideline for good writing.

Walk a thousand miles? Piece of cake.
I mean, Forrest Gump ran from one coast to the other.

Reese wrestles with her mondo backpack. It has her pinned for a moment, but she prevails in the end. #CloseCall
There comes a point when too much planning is counterproductive.

No wonder Reese’s backpack is as big as she is, she’s lugging around journals and poetry books. #TravelLight
What she really needed was a book on how to pack light. Oops…more space.

Always bring the right fuel.

Divorce tattoos. Hmm. I thought the idea was to move on from the other person not to be constantly reminded of them.
I’ve never heard of this before and it seems a bit ridiculous. But to each his/her own.

Don’t get stuck in a rock crevasse, Reese. Learn from James Franco’s mistake.
She had me worried for a moment. Getting wedged in a rock outcropping would’ve changed the whole tone/theme of the film though. And not for the better.

“Seriously, you have no Snapple in that pack?” Nope, just the kitchen sink.
Actually, her backpack is about the size of a sink.

Pruning time. Lose the library and the...prophylactics? 12 of them? How much action was she expecting on the trail?
I understand that women have expanded awareness (thank you, John Gray) and that they always like to be prepared (like any good Boy Scout), but the inclusion of this item baffles me. Was she planning on humping a cactus? Or worse still…a coyote?

Find your best self.
A tad Hallmark-ish, but a nice reminder/sentiment just the same.

“Here’s to a young girl all alone in the woods.” Reese encounters the most dangerous predator...a horny redneck.
The rattlesnake doesn’t even come close to rivaling this threat.

Queen of the PCT. It’s better than Jane.
PCT = Pacific Crest Trail, locus for the majority of the film’s action. Jane = Tarzan’s mate, referenced earlier in the movie.

The polite boy is adorable.
And has a nice singing voice to boot.

Reese finds forgiveness at the Bridge of the Gods.
Self-forgiveness. The hardest kind to accept.

Final analysis: a well told journey of self-discovery and redemption, with some gorgeous scenery.

3 out of 4. This emotionally, physically demanding role brought out the best in Witherspoon. Wild about it!

The premise here is pretty straightforward: a survival plot with a spiritual journey subplot. Though the progression of incidents makes the story fairly predictable, a few minor twists along the way add variety and intensity to the laser like through line. What breaks up the formulaic narrative is a series of flashbacks which fill in the gaps of Cheryl Strayed’s (Reese Witherspoon) tumultuous life leading up to her fateful decision to set out on a thousand mile schlep across the California desert. If the film has any art, it’s achieved during these dreamlike reflections that pop into Reese’s mind at random intervals during her trek. Wild is based on the book of the same name, which is based on the actual events of the brazen journey Strayed embarked upon in 1995. It’s hard to know if any other actor could’ve portrayed Strayed as effectively, but there can be no doubt that Reese pulls off the part…which is somewhat surprising since, thematically speaking, it’s a million miles away from Legally Blonde (2001). This role is quite a departure from the typical dolled up, good girl part Reese has played in many of her previous movies, so kudos to her for getting in touch with her inner Annie Oakley. Although much of the movie centers on Strayed’s often arduous attempts at negotiating her way through physical and emotional wastelands, she does encounter several people along the way (played by Thomas Sadoski, Gaby Hoffmann, Kevin Rankin and Cliff De Young) who provide her with valuable wisdom and resources. The standout supporting performance comes from Laura Dern, who plays Strayed’s mother, Bobbi. Bobbi’s bright, beaming face belies the inner pain she experiences from her bought with a terminal illness. Though her screen time is limited here, Dern, whose heartfelt portrayal is humbling and inspiring, has garnered an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress. Perhaps it’s the fish-out-of-water, against type casting, but Reese has also received a nod in the leading female category. All things considered, this film isn’t earth-shattering, but it is gritty, flawed and genuine, much like its central character. Though many of us will never attempt such a challenging journey, we can live vicariously through Strayed’s incredible accomplishment by watching this movie from the comfort of a theater or our own living room. Unless someday we get a wild hair to have a wilderness excursion of our own.

The Theory of Everything (PG-13)

Directed by: James Marsh
Starring: Eddie Redmayne
November 2014

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

The Theory of Everything

Science meets Arts at a party.
They say opposites attract. Here it’s not only a contrast in field of study but also in political/religious views.

A test to separate the quarks from the quacks. Amusing.
David Thewlis, best know for his portrayal of Remus Lupin in the Harry Potter movies, is a really good journeyman actor and is perfect in the role of Hawking’s professor.

“Celestial dictator.” Hawking’s rather unflattering moniker for the Almighty.
He finds “your lack of faith disturbing.”

“A false conclusion.” True love, however, can never be false.
Proof positive that love isn’t logical or quantifiable. It’s the only thing in the universe that an equation can’t solve. In short, love is the theory of everything. A curious aside: in John Nash’s (Russell Crowe) final speech in A Beautiful Mind (2002), he refers to “the equations of the mind” and credits love as the answer and solution to life’s mysteries. Two brilliant contemporaries arriving at the same conclusion. Fascinating!

Chapter four is “brilliant.” Secures Hawking’s professorship.
Chapters 1-3? Eh.

Need stress relief? Join the church choir.
Hawking’s wife eventually does find relief from her stress…in the arms of the choir director. Scandalous? Look two tweets ahead.

A lesson in pees and potatoes.
Some of the science goes right over my head, but the vacillation of theories regarding divinity is amusing. First Hawking proves the existence of God and then the scientist kills the Almighty. Don’t worry, Stephen, He believes in you even if you don’t believe in Him.

Hawking gives his wife a hall pass.
That was really big of him. Sheesh, I didn’t mean it like that.

A spelling quaint. And crude. What a torturous way to communicate.
Seems like an alphabet chart with a pointer or even a Ouija board would be more efficient.

Hawking slips into a coma...his own personal black hole.

“That is for a friend.” Nice cover.
Oops, I guess that’s a double entendre.

A dot matrix printer. What a blast to the past.
Slow, loud printing. Hard to read. Perforated edges that you had to tear. Don’t miss it at all.

“Look what we made.” Touching.

Final analysis: a bittersweet biopic that deals with personal tragedy and life’s big questions.

3 out of 4. An inspirational tale and an astounding, body-wracking performance by Redmayne.

As a film that focuses on the extraordinary life and career of renowned theoretical physicist, Stephen Hawking, the story is exactly what you’d expect it to be: a chronological, cause and effect period piece with fine performances and a plot that’s diligently moored to the actual account. Some will consider this middle-of-the-plate approach to be acceptable while others will regard it as inexcusably uncomplicated and lacking in imagination. In either case, the plot is a linear progression of significant moments in the mathematician’s life and, as would be expected, the narrative proceeds in a very logical and methodical manner. Save for Hawking’s occasional mental flash of celestial lucidity, there’s very little style here. Since much of the story focuses on Hawking’s preoccupation with time, it would’ve been effective, even fitting, if the story had employed flashbacks, flash-forward’s, disjointed continuity or other causal devices in reflecting the fluid nature of the movie’s temporal plot. Mind you, I’m not advocating a reverse polarity plot like in Christopher Nolan’s Memento (2001), but maybe something with leaps forward or backward in time like TVs Lost would’ve served the movie in good stead. Standard storytelling choices aside, any serious discussion of the film begins and ends with Eddie Redmayne’s mesmerizing, transcendent portrayal of the ALS afflicted central character...due to the inherent physical demands of the part, Redmayne justly deserves the Oscar nod he’s received for this role. Redmayne’s nuanced, effortless depiction of Hawking’s gradual physical deterioration is a study in brilliance. It’s a performance that exacted a considerable toll from the actor—the contortions required to mimic Hawking’s degenerative condition must’ve been agonizing to model and maintain. Somatic challenges aside, Redmayne’s facials reveal a man who appears to be virtually unaffected by his malady. If this portrayal is accurate, Hawking is far more jovial and enthusiastic about life than most of us would be in his position. The fact that Hawking can still smile at all is truly inspirational. All in all, this is a decent film that’s a fitting tribute to one of the brightest minds of our generation. However, the movie lacks the narrative savvy required to effectively convey its chrono-centric theme. The logic over emotion methodology has resulted in a film that fails to make any deep, lasting connection with its audience. So, will this film go down as one of cinema’s finest biopics? Time will tell.

American Sniper (R)

Directed by: Clint Eastwood
Starring: Bradley Cooper
January 2015

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!


The opening scene is the trailer. Right into the action.

Three types of people. A stern lesson.
Chris Kyle’s dad dispenses this harsh wisdom in order to toughen up his sons. Interestingly, in the early goings of Eastwood’s Jersey Boys (2014), a mentor tells Frankie Valli and his cronies that there’s only three ways out of the neighborhood. Maybe it’s just unfounded numerology, but the similarities between these scenes seemed worthy of highlighting.

She did it to get attention. Any excuse will do, I suppose.
If you’re caught red-handed, just confess. The “you weren’t supposed to be back until tomorrow” excuse is lame to the degree that it’s almost worse than the act of indiscretion.

Playing darts on a guy’s back. These SEALs are tough!
Lots of machismo in this scene. And a fateful night for Kyle, who meets his future wife at the bar.

“The space between heartbeats.” Who knew target practice could be so poetic?

He can’t hit a target, but he can tag a snake.
Reminds me of Paul Hogan’s Lightning Jack (1994), a self-styled Old West outlaw from Down Under who needed glasses to read but could hollow out a coin with a bullet from fifty feet away.

New Olympic sport...sniping.
The addition of the Syrian sniper is one of the film’s main criticisms. Apparently this nemesis is largely fictional, finding inspiration from a solitary chapter in Kyle’s book. However, the addition of a competent counterpart to Kyle ratchets up the tension and provides a de facto villain to the proceedings. The cat and mouse contest between the two top snipers reminds me of the taut action sequences between expert marksmen Jude Law and Ed Harris in Enemy at the Gates (2001).

Nitpick: Despite what the smart Alec says, it is a comic book. Graphic novels are much thicker.
A graphic novel is an expanded story or a collection of loosely related, non-continuous stories. It should be obvious, to anyone who’s ever picked up a comic book, that what the cocky character is holding in his hands is a single issue of a serialized comic book series, not a graphic novel.

“Horny preggers.” Ha!

Clear houses with the marines...takin’ it to the street.
I applaud Kyle’s assertiveness. Instead of just following orders and sitting around, Kyle was instrumental in saving the lives of many Marines while also extracting vital intel with his advanced negotiation/coercion skills.

Neighbor’s lawnmower turns on...the first signs of PTSD.
And speaking of PTSD…

The shell shocked brother scene is sad.

A direct action squad...bold new plan.

Squeaky floor, hidden cache.
So much for the hospitality. Hope the meal was good.

“You saved my life.” Goosebumps.
Cooper’s performance, as a man uncomfortable with accepting praise from others, is thoroughly convincing here.

“You can only circle the flame so long.” Sobering. And prescient?
It looks like that statement was prescient after all, although what ultimately does Kyle in completely took me by surprise.

Zales bites the bullet.
A tragic story line since it looked like he would pull through.

Tour Four: is this a vocation or addiction?
A condition we also saw in The Hurt Locker (2008) when soldiers were shown playing FPS video games on their downtime. Here, Kyle watches video recordings of some of the military operations he was a part of and, even more frighteningly, relives battles in his mind while starring at the black screen of a turned off TV.

“Don’t pick it up” scene is heart-stopping.
This is the ultimate crisis moment in the film. What an awful decision to be faced with. No wonder he had PTSD. Who wouldn’t?

Sandstorm. Visibility nil. How the heck do they know who they’re shooting at?
Talk about the fog of war! These are prime conditions for friendly fire.

“Who’s the legend now?” Ha!
Eastwood lays the “legend” status on pretty thick, especially since I’d never heard of Kyle before watching this film.

Final analysis: a haunting look at conflict in the Middle East and the toll it takes on our soldiers.
And at how little we invest in their lives after they return home.

3 1/2 out of 4 stars. A career turn by Cooper and Eastwood’s finest film in years.
What was Eastwood’s last great movie: Invictus (2009)? Gran Torino (2008)?

For all of the active/retired members of the military reading this, thank you for your service.

How fitting that an actor/director whose name has become synonymous with bullet-riddled actioners over the last half century should helm a movie based on the incredible true story of Navy SEAL sniper Chris Kyle. There can be no doubt that this is Clint Eastwood’s finest directorial effort in years and that, when his illustrious career finally comes to an end, this film may very well go down as his behind-the-camera magnum opus. Based on the book of the same name by Jason Hall and Kyle himself, American Sniper follows the exploits of this decorated soldier and his plights on the battlefield and on the home front. Bradley Cooper, in an unequivocally brilliant performance, fully inhabits the title role and imbues Kyle with genuine emotions and reactions to the most stressful, unenviable circumstances imaginable (reference the “Don’t pick it up” scene). Regardless of the location or situation, Cooper eases himself into scenes that require: decisiveness on the front lines, tenderness at home with his family, awkwardness when praised for his heroic accomplishments and startling deftness at picking off enemy combatants in the heat of battle. With appropriate kudos going to the two men who made this film an indelible, inescapable biopic, it’s time to shift focus to the elephant in the room—as you’re probably aware of by now, thanks to media saturation, this film has generated a generous amount of controversy. Other than the fact that there are just as many F bombs dropped as bullets fired in the film, it’s hard to see how anything in this movie can be construed as controversial. Some will argue that the movie glamorizes violence, but in reality it does the exact opposite by depicting the horrors of war and the devastating effects it has on our troops. With all due respect to those who maintain a dissenting viewpoint, and at the sake of fanning the flame of an already incendiary topic, those who assess this film as a pro-war endorsement are completely missing the point. War is hell and its effects on soldiers are often mentally debilitating, as evidenced by Kyle’s severe PTSD in the movie. Despite several protracted battle sequences, which detail some of the major skirmishes Kyle participated in, the film in no way glorifies war. By contrast, the film shows good people getting their faces blown off or innocents being tortured by a drill, examples that underscore the need for our continued participation in ending the reign of terror in the Middle East. Again, I vehemently oppose the notion that this is a pro-war propaganda piece…it’s a brutally honest portrait of one man’s combat experiences and the traumatic effects those four tours of duty had on his psyche and his entire family; as the movie subtly reveals, everyone suffers when the soldier returns home from active duty. It’s a shame that the well advertised controversy, which hangs over the film like an oppressive layer of cloud, has cast an unflattering light upon this superlative film. However, judging from the way this movie has engendered long lines and packed theaters (I was shut out on its opening weekend), the controversy surrounding the film has generated a buzz that’s done wonders for its bottom line. Bottom line, Eastwood and Cooper are worthy of Oscar attention and the story is a potent reminder that freedom is never free. This film will stand the test of time, and with good reason. Parting shot: the extended “moment of silence” during the end credits is sobering and haunting.

Selma (PG-13)

Directed by: Ava DuVernay
Starring: David Oyelowo
January 2015

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!


The movie opens with an unexpected bang. What a senseless act of violence.
And it always seems like it’s the kids who pay the price…sad.

The right to vote unencumbered. No small ask.
Especially in the Deep South in the 60s.

“Dismantle the family.” A cruel strategy.
J. Edgar Hoover isn’t painted in a very favorable light in this film. He was also portrayed very unsympathetically in Clint Eastwood’s J. Edgar (2011), which is probably one of the reasons why that film didn’t do too well critically or financially.

“Give us the vote” speech is sensational.
In fact, it makes you want to stand up and cheer. But save your applause for MLK’s final rousing speech from the steps of the capitol building in Montgomery, Alabama.

“God was the first to cry for your boy.” Rough scene.
What a powerful sentiment and reassurance for a grieving father. Even when he wasn’t reciting a speech, MLK had a way with words.

MLK takes a long time to answer no. An uncomfortable and telling scene.
And an agonizingly ambiguous scene. But, with as much time as he spent away from home, it’s no wonder why MLK had relational problems with his wife.

The debacle on the bridge is a rough sequence.

March 2.0 with mixed races.
The tide begins to turn. The scene where MLK kneels to pray and the masses behind him follow suit reminds me of when Aragon kneels to pay homage to the hobbits and his entire kingdom kneels behind him in The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003). Note to women: that level of respect is enough to make a grown man cry. Works on me every time.

LBJ strikes down voting restrictions. Victory at last.
Persistence pays off…but at what price?

Footage of the actual march is deeply affecting.
Such archival footage provides authenticity and a profound weight to its historicity.

Final analysis: a deeply moving biopic centered on the landmark march for human rights in Selma, Alabama.

3 out of 4. A difficult film to watch at times, but the uplifting ending makes it a journey worth taking.

This film is riddled with pro/con contradictions. On the plus side we have a story that focuses on an iconic figure from American history at the crux of his most monumental mission to affect a sea change in our country’s civil rights. On the minus side we have a story that focuses on an iconic figure from American history at the crux of his most monumental mission to affect a sea change in our country’s civil rights. In other words, because this story is so familiar to our collective consciousness (MLK’s name should be familiar to every citizen in our country, if only because of the national day named in his honor), the subject matter is easily comprehendible but also entirely too predictable. The movie’s main challenge was how to capitalize on the story’s immediacy and accessibility without making it perfunctory or hackneyed. The results here are a mixed bag. First to what works well in the film. The use of original locations where the actual events took place, accompanied by period appropriate cars, costumes, etc, is a huge boon to the movie; they add the kind of authenticity that’s a prerequisite for quality biopics. Also, the film boasts a dazzling array of top shelf talent, including: Oprah Winfrey as Annie Lee Cooper, Tom Wilkinson as former U.S. President LBJ, Giovanni Ribisi as Lee White, Common as James Bevel, Dylan Baker as J. Edgar Hoover, Tim Roth as Alabama Governor George Wallace, Stephen Root as Colonel Al Lingo, Cuba Gooding Jr. as Fred Gray and Martin Sheen as judge Frank Minis Johnson (uncredited). Whereas the performers certainly did their part in effectively portraying key figures from the era of civil unrest depicted in the movie, the writing and directing are the more culpable culprits for the film’s underachievement. Director Ava DuVernay’s technique is fairly invisible, which is fairly consistent with the framing methods employed during the mid 60s, but the resulting film has very little visual panache and is somewhat muted and bland—the very antithesis of the period in question. It seems as if DuVernay was so concerned with accuracy and veracity that she eschewed creative impulses at every turn, sacrificing any modicum of style or art in the process. At times, the plot feels like a cause and effect string of the significant events and speeches in MLK’s life. Since these public addresses are mere dramatizations of his original talks, wouldn’t showing clips of MLK’s actual speeches have been more emotional and impactful (and economical)? One of the biggest detractors to the narrative is that it’s so preoccupied with telling a historically accurate tale that it sacrifices character development in every case except for the title character. Other than the scene where MLK’s wife asks him if he loves her, the event-driven plot preempts any kind of heartfelt interactions and, indeed, stays just outside the circumference of genuine, human emotion. Granted, this film isn’t remotely as insipid as a Lifetime special, but it’s a far cry from being a bracing biopic like Argo (2012). Final thought: when I screened the film, I ended up sitting next to two teenage girls in a packed theater. Though they whispered back and forth a few times, the movie seemed to hold their attention the whole way through. This heartened me since there were plenty of other, more age appropriate entertainments in the Cineplex for them to choose from. That they selected this film meant that either their parents/teachers obligated them to go or that they had a genuine interest in learning more about MLK’s amazing life story. If the latter is true, we can find some comfort in knowing that today’s young people still want to learn about history—an encouraging sign since we all know what happens to those who fail to learn from the past.

The Imitation Game (PG-13)

Directed by: Morten Tyldum
Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch
December 2014

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

The Imitation Game

The opening narration admonishes us to “pay attention.”
Thanks to Sherlock, I’ve been conditioned to automatically pay attention whenever Cumberbatch is onscreen.

Cumberbatch is recruited to study the “crooked hand of death.”
Otherwise known as Enigma. If you remember the movie U-571 (2000), their mission was to board a German sub and steal an Enigma device. Hey, maybe the encryption machine Cumberbatch’s team is trying to decipher is the same one from U-571?

“Should we leave the children alone with their new toy?” Ha!

Mission: check twenty million settings in twenty minutes. No problem.
If you’re Data (ST:TNG).

A machine to defeat a machine.
Sounds like a Terminator movie. This concept doesn’t sound like rocket science, but, inexplicably, it was back during WWII. The fact that Turing’s insistence on building/funding a machine was resisted by the military is simply incredible. How shortsighted and…illogical.

Crossword audition is clever.
But the chauvinistic tryout is disappointing. Apparently only men were good at crosswords back then.

Christopher is turned on for the first time.
This was the only child Alan Turing ever had, but what a brainchild. His creation (a rudimentary computer) not only single-handedly shortened the war; it’s changed the course of human evolution.

A rudimentary key word search is devised. Bloody brilliant!

“Turns out that’s the only German you need to know to break Enigma.”
The movie avers that love ended the war, but it was really Germany’s undying allegiance to Hitler that did them in—in more ways than one.

“We’ll have each other’s minds.” Uncommon bravery.
This is an astounding scene. Clarke’s (Knightley) willingness to marry Turing even after he reveals that he’s gay is mind-boggling. Turing knows that a life with him would be unfulfilling and rife with hardship so he pushes Clarke away with a vicious lie. In reality, he loves her too much to consign her to a life of unhappiness with him. It’s a bitter exchange with incisive dialog and superlative acting.

Final analysis: a staggering true story with a tremendous lead performance by Cumberbatch.
Cumberbatch continues to astound with each new part he plays…be it human or dragon.

3 1/2 out of 4 stars. A superb period piece that should garner a great deal of Oscar attention.

As Turing’s (Benedict Cumberbatch) voiceover narration attests, intelligence wins wars…not planes, ships or boots on the ground. Though Imitation resembles neither a traditional, action-packed war film, nor a spy thriller, it’s much more than just a true story about how the Brits subverted the German intelligence apparatus: it’s a bracing character study, a tragic tale of unrequited love, a psychological war film (with only brief glimpses of actual combat) and a true account of how Turing’s machine helped to end the war while ushering in the computer age. A non-action war movie might not sound all that exciting, but thanks to its engaging story and fascinating character interplay, interest never wanes during the two hour drama…a tribute to Graham Moore’s screenplay (based on Andrew Hodges’ book) and Morten Tyldum’s taut direction. Of course, the name and face on the poster is what will attract viewers to this low-key, slow-boil period piece. Due in large part to his work on TVs Sherlock and big screen blockbusters like Star Trek Into Darkness (2013), Cumberbatch has become a household name and is fast becoming one of the finest actors of his generation. If Cumberbatch’s portrayal of Sherlock is noticeably ADHD, his turn as Turing more closely resembles someone on the spectrum. The lunch invite scene is uproariously funny and features a spot-on Asperger-ish delivery by Cumberbatch. As for the movie’s romance, Cumberbatch and Keira Knightley are brilliant as mismatched lovers. It’s profoundly sad that the mental compatibility these characters possess doesn’t translate into physical compatibility. This failed romance begs an interesting relational question: is the meeting of minds more important than physical infatuation? Many would respond in the affirmative, and if true, Turing and Clarke had a deep, meaningful love affair in spite of its platonic status. The procedural component of the film drags at times but contains enough unexpected turns to keep the audience engaged. The team of code breakers includes some interesting characters, one of whom has extracurricular allegiances, a subplot that provides the movie with a spot of intrigue. The size, composition and specialties of the group are strikingly similar to the members of the implosion team on WGN America’s Manhattan, a WWII set TV series that chronicles the mad scramble by American scientists to discover a way to split the atom. Though on opposite sides of the pond, Manhattan and Imitation both center on groups of scientists and mathematicians working on top-secret projects to defeat the Nazis amid an oppressive military presence; and both objectives are challenged by unforeseen consequences. The burden of knowledge has rarely been as devastatingly depicted as in this film. Indeed, Enigma becomes a Pandora’s Box of sorts when the code is finally cracked but restraint must be exercised so as to not tip off the Germans that their complex cipher has been decoded. The implications of this ethical dilemma erupt in a scene where one of the young men on Turing’s team, Peter Hilton (Matthew Beard), realizes that warning his brother’s ship of an impending German attack would expose their discovery and effectively nullify the years of work that went into breaking the German code. It’s a bitter twist on Star Trek’s “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few…or the one” maxim that Peter’s brother must die in order to preserve the secret that can win the war. How ironic that the team was so preoccupied with cracking the code that they failed to consider the implications and ramifications of what that knowledge would bring. Armed with substantial narrative and emotional complexity, this highly intelligent intelligence movie will go down as one of the finest non-war War movies in cinema history. There’s nothing Imitation about the film…it’s one of a kind.

Unbroken (PG-13)

Directed by: Angelina Jolie
Starring: Jack O’Connell
December 2014

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

And co-written by the Coen brothers, based on Laura Hillenbrand’s bestselling biography. You’d be hard pressed to find a stranger amalgamation of creative talent on any movie project, much less a historical biopic.

Heavy much for the sneak attack.
Correction: flak. Flack is what I’ll get for misspelling the word.

“Love thine enemy.” An apropos homily for what’s to come.

Run, Louie, run!
With apologies to Forrest. But seriously, this scene reminded me a lot of the early running scenes in Forrest Gump (1994).

Brother’s parting words are profound.
In fact, Louie’s brother has some of the most inspirational lines in the film and is, arguably, the reason why Louie has the mental tenacity to survive his many ordeals.

Certified by Helen Keller. Ha!
Helen Keller jokes are usually made in poor taste, but I couldn’t keep from laughing at this one given the context.

A bump on the raft in the middle of the night. Doesn’t get much more terrifying than that.
I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t get a wink of sleep…in fact, I’m positive.

The barf scene is disgusting. Glad I didn’t see this in 3D.
Lest you grow frustrated searching Fandango for a 3D version of the film, know that I was using hyperbole here. My comment was solely intended as a jest. Still, Jolie didn’t have to film the puke coming straight at the camera…and audience by extension.

Take your pick: a strafing plane or man eating sharks.

Would you rather die on the open seas or be taken to a Japanese internment camp?
There’s a card game with similar hypothetical quandaries, but I’d be willing to bet that this scenario isn’t one of them.

Louis refuses to read a false statement...becomes a human punching bag.
The price of allegiance…and integrity.

The Tokyo Ritz turns out to be a coal barge.
Instead of a chocolate on their pillow they get a lump of coal as their pillow.

Louis lifts a heavy beam over his head...his own personal cross.
In addition to being beaten with a bamboo stick and repeatedly punched in the face, this is yet another parallel between Louis’ sufferings and Christ’s.

Final analysis: a heavy true story that captures the triumph of the human spirit amid tragedy and suffering.

3 out of 4 stars. Not an enjoyable film but an important and inspiring one.

I must admit, when I first learned that this film was directed by Angelina Jolie and co-written by the Coen brothers, I had serious doubts that it would adhere to Laura Hillenbrand’s bestselling book or, more importantly, honor the extraordinary life of its central personage, Louis Zamperini. I’ve never been happier to have been proven wrong. Jolie’s direction isn’t masterful but it’s very good…perhaps even surprisingly good. Of course, Jolie was supported by some exceptional talent behind the camera, beautiful location work and finely crafted, period appropriate props, sets, costumes and other production elements. The story hews fairly close to Hillenbrand’s novelized biography with a few notable embellishments and exclusions. While the book mentions the survivors catching birds and fish for food, grabbing a shark right out of the water by its tail seems a bit Hollywoodized. One significant omission from the film is that during the Summer Olympic Games in Berlin (1936), Zamperini actually met Hitler, who complimented the runner on his record-shattering final lap of the 5000-meter race. While on the subject of the Olympics, I wish Jolie would’ve spent more time on this aspect of Zamperini’s amazing life journey…it would’ve served as a lighter, happier counterbalance to the bleak and tragic events that dominate the back half of the film. To whit, for those who are disturbed by images of violence, the movie’s torture scenes may be difficult to endure. Though a far cry from torture porn, squeamish spectators are advised to avert their eyes or make a run to the concession counter during the beating scenes. All things considered, Jolie acquitted herself well in her second directorial effort and the story itself, though difficult to watch at times, is undeniably inspirational. It fills me with profound sadness that Zamperini never got to see his life story on the big screen—he passed away on July 2, 2014. This was a true account that deserved to be experienced by a mass audience, so I’m thrilled that it’ll now be immortalized on the big screen for future generations to experience. Your life and legacy are an inspiration to us all, Louie. RIP.

Big Eyes (PG-13)

Directed by: Tim Burton
Starring: Amy Adams
December 2014

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

Big Eyes
No Johnny Depp? No Helena Bonham Carter? Boy, Burton really is turning over a new leaf.

“You’re better than spare change.” Quite a pick up line.
It’s on the opposite end of the spectrum from “You look like a million bucks!”

“You are on the threshold of untold success.” Something tells me Adams’ fortune is about to come true.
Of course, I’ve seen the trailer, so I cheated.

The “Hobo Kids” paintings are all the rage thanks to the altercation reported on the front page.
A surefire way to create a sensation is to couch it in controversy.

Charging for posters of paintings...what a concept.
It was revolutionary for its time, but would be an obvious move by modern marketing (which, of course, would utilize the internet to drive sales).

The grocery store scene is the first traditional Burton flourish in the film.
This scene might weird some people out, but it’s really telling of Adams’ character’s psyche. On the other hand, maybe she’s completely sane and that particular store just happened to be invaded by aliens hailing from the same world as that big eyed nurse seen at the beginning of Star Trek (2009).

S. Cenic. The cat’s out of the bag.
“Scenic” is such an obvious tipoff that I’m surprised nobody in the art world caught it and ousted Walter Keane on the spot…unless this was artistic license taken by Burton in order to preserve the anonymity of the not-so-innocent artist/huckster until late in the film.

Adams works on a “defining statement” for the World’s Fair.
One set of big eyes per painting is manageable, but a throng of such bulging ocular orbs painted on a mural is overkill, right? And a bit creepy?

The “infinity of kitsch” is lambasted in the Times.
Terence Stamp is superb here and really gets in touch with his inner Anton Ego (Ratatouille).

“Eye did it!” The truth comes out.
A clever headline. Puns were more en vogue in the 60s, so it probably got better comedic mileage back then.

The courtroom “choreography” scene is humorous.
It’s the type of buffoonery you’d expect to see in a Looney Tunes short.

The verdict will be based on a paint off. Saw that coming.
The audience can predict the necessity of this scene twenty minutes earlier in the film, but the payoff is still extremely satisfying. The sequence has a very classical Hollywood feel to it.

Final analysis: a superbly crafted true account with tremendous performances and brilliant direction by Burton.

3 1/2 out of 4 stars. Burton has redefined himself as a “serious” director. Who knew?

This is Tim Burton’s most enjoyable film in ages. Perhaps not incidentally, it’s also the least fanciful film he’s helmed in the same span of time. Have Burton’s recent box office bombs forced him into becoming an honest filmmaker? If the quality work he’s turned in here is any indication of his potential to become a dramatic director, one can certainly hope. Without the assistance of his usual thespian crutches—Depp and Bonham Carter—Burton has tapped Christoph Waltz and Amy Adams as his leads and not only was the casting pitch perfect, so are the performances themselves. Adams is extremely adept at generating pathos for her struggling artist single mom and Waltz is masterful at imbuing his deceptive opportunist with enough rakish charm to prevent his character from degenerating into a caricatural villain. Taking nothing away from the superb directing and writing, it’s really the acting that elevates this film above the scores of well crafted biopics. In fact, the performances are so mesmerizing that much of the time we’re completely oblivious to the finely appointed, period appropriate sets, props, costumes and other production elements that effectively transport the viewer back to the 50s and 60s. The attention to detail here is staggering and furnishes the film with a level of authenticity that’s absent from less meticulous, less immersive period pieces. And let’s not forget the film’s most valuable and vital props—the paintings. Some will find them appealing while others will find them creepy, but however you view them, the “big eye” paintings are the film’s focal point and silent co-star…and basis for the title. Burton has always had a yen for bizarre, disproportionate and askew characters, so doing a film about big eyes seems like a natural fit for the director, especially when recalling his walleyed Mad Hatter in Alice in Wonderland (2010), who could easily be a grownup version of one of the dejected waifs in Margaret Keane’s (Adams) paintings. Not only does Burton like big eyes, it would appear that he also likes the word big itself—this is the third movie he’s directed with that word in its title (1985’s Pee-wee’s Big Adventure and 2003’s Big Fish—to cover all the bases Burton should call his next movie Pee-Wee’s Big Eyed Fish). This film is a watershed event in Burton’s career; against all probability, he’s reinvented himself as a director of independent dramas. Burton can always return to his fanciful fantasy film roots if he so desires, but at least he has something to fall back on now if those projects should flounder. That might not mean anything to you, but to the baron of the bizarre, I’m sure it’s a pretty big deal.

Jersey Boys (R)

Directed by: Clint Eastwood
Starring: John Lloyd Young
June 2014

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

Jersey Boys

A nick at the barber shop. “What’s a little blood between friends?”
Tapping Christopher Walken for this film was a casting coup. He was born to play this part…an absolutely pitch-perfect performance.

Three ways out of the neighborhood, two types of women. A severe world.
My parents were born and raised in that world. I’ve spent my entire adult life trying to divest myself from such a rigid worldview.

Jam session on the organ is a cool scene.
But comes with a price.

Manually loading bowling pins...what a job.
And the identity of the young teenage boy loading the pins is sure to take you by surprise.

A gift for the newest member of the group...a left shoe.
If you sense a sleight, you sense correctly.

“The musical equivalent of room service.” Always read the fine print.

The Four Felons get tossed out of the bowling alley, but a “sign” changes their fortunes.
Actually, The Four Felons, cast as an aspersion, is far better than the group’s original name…The Four Lovers. As a male quartet, did they not consider how such a name could be misconstrued? Ah, the innocent 50s.

A “Jersey contract” threatens to tear the group apart.

Valli’s pep talk to his daughter hits the right emotional chord.
And is really the only scene in the movie that contains any emotional resonance.

Final analysis: a well crafted spotlight on Valli and his group.

3 out of 4 stars. An immersive film that captures the sound and mood of the period in focus.

I must admit, I’ve never been much of a Frankie Valli fan. His high falsetto work, especially on songs like “Walk Like a Man,” is like fingernails on a chalkboard to my ears. Musical preferences aside, I’m now a fan of the singer, thanks to the insightful portrait of Valli’s life and career, brought to us by the man who once tried his hand at singing in “Paint Your Wagon” (1969) and then wisely stuck with his day job. It’s evident that Eastwood has a profound affection for the subject matter and his attention to historical detail is peerless. The film is saturated with nostalgia for the music and mores of the 50s and 60s and the sets, costumes, cars, etc, are all period appropriate to a superlative degree. Those familiar with Valli’s greatest hits will find it nearly impossible to refrain from singing or humming along when snippets of those songs, played in chronological progression of course, blast from the theater speakers. Despite the many qualities that recommend the movie, however, it remains strangely unmoving. The same can be said of Eastwood’s previous directorial effort, J. Edgar (2011)…a finely mounted and acted period piece that provides a vivid history lesson without really engaging the heart in any meaningful way. Eastwood needs to reevaluate Changeling (2008) to see what’s been missing in his recent films. The story here is remarkably similar to that of a concurrent group, The Temptations (as chronicled in the 1998 self titled TV miniseries). It seems that many popular acts from this era had a meteoric rise to fame followed by a catastrophic meltdown, instigated by the group’s requisite prima donna: David Ruffin for The Temptations and Tommy DeVito for the Four Seasons. But besides the group’s internal drama and Valli’s relational challenges on the home front, this movie resides on the outskirts of substantive emotion. Indeed, despite the film’s ability to engage the ear (music) and mind (human interest story of a group of guys trying to parlay their talent into fame), the movie plays like a Lifetime movie (with a ton of expletives added) punctuated by dramatized Time Life archival music video clips. As things stand, the movie is a finely produced “true story” that’s memorable more for its music than its standard story or static direction. If you’re in the mood for this type of movie, Jersey might satiate your hankering; otherwise you’re sure to be disappointed by its predictable plot and surficial story. In other words, you might want to save your money and make this one a rental. Capiche?

Personal note: My uncle was lead trumpet for Valli’s touring group for a couple years in the mid-sixties, so it was fun for me to get a glimpse of what his life might have been like during that stretch of time.

Million Dollar Arm (PG)

Directed by: Craig Gillespie
Starring: Jon Hamm
May 2014

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

Million Dollar Arm
Million Dollar Baby was already taken, so Disney settled on Arm. Don’t believe a word I say.

“A highly improbable challenge” to turn a cricket bowler into a baseball pitcher.
With unlimited time and money, this feat might be attainable. But training two Indian teens (who have never even touched a baseball before) to become pitchers on a professional baseball team within one year would be a ludicrous proposition, right? Keep watching.

“Indians love honking and bypassing the system.”
This makes for a funny scene, but I wonder how many Indians would feel mischaracterized by this statement. The two Indian lads (neither of whom like cricket, which exposes another stereotype imposed upon Indians…that they all love cricket) observe that Hamm’s character is always hustling. By extension, making the comment that all Americans maintain a fast pace of life would be an equally prejudicial remark to the one quoted above.

Tryout day. Long lines of low velocity throwers. Arkin gets plenty of shut eye.
As always, Arkin is a hoot in this movie. He seems to be Hollywood’s go-to actor for playing a curmudgeon with a heart. As a side note, I was in the audience when Arkin introduced a movie he starred in at this year’s TCM Film Fest. The “real” Arkin seems far less irascible than his frequent onscreen personas, but every once in a while I detected a hint of that patented back east brusqueness.

The last contestant is called “The Flamingo.” Aptly named.

The double hurl scene is disgusting.
I’d trade my sports car in for a minivan after that too. Can you really ever get the smell out?

Finger cut shouldn’t effect the cutter.
Correction: affect, not effect. Didn’t have time to reason it out.

All of India will be watching. No pressure.

Tough sledding in Tempe.
Arkin’s ploy with the Pirates’ scout not only keeps the Indian boys’ dreams alive, it also saves Hamm’s bacon. Er…

“Thank you” meal is a sweet scene.

Final analysis: a predictable, yet heartwarming true sports story.

2 1/2 out of 4 stars. The footage of the actual players during the end credits is a nice touch.

Though there isn’t anything earth-shattering in the movie, it tells a mildly intriguing tale of courage in the face of impossible odds. There’s virtually no narrative complexity here and the characterizations are fairly cardboard, except for Lake Bell’s next door nurse, whose compassion and honesty lend the film the smallest modicum of genuine human emotion. The uncomplicated plot and a cause and effect, some might even call it paint-by-numbers, story line render the movie predictable at every turn. Those who prefer straightforward stories with lollipops and roses endings will be pleased to no end with this movie. Those who prefer more complexity and artistry in their entertainment will find this film borderline insufferable. There’s no doubt that the follow-your-dreams elements are a tremendous asset to the movie, as is the location footage shot in India, but the sum total here is far less than it could’ve been…and one could justifiably blame Disney’s family friendly formula for that. Is the film inspirational? Undeniably. Is it as inspirational as other Disney sports films such as The Rookie (2002) and Miracle (2004)? Not even close. Like the early efforts of the Indian pitchers, this movie is slow and out of the strike zone.

The Railway Man (R)

Directed by: Jonathan Teplitzky
Starring: Colin Firth
April 2014

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

The Railway Man

A meet-cute on a of Hollywood’s oldest romance movie tropes.

I would get rid of my mustache in three seconds flat with that kind of offer.

Kidman challenges the “code of silence.”
Amazing how men can get together and talk about anything under the sun except for what’s troubling them.

Clever makeshift radio.
MacGyver would be proud.

Kidman’s “interference” has dire consequences.
But Firth’s callous remark is far more shocking than the preceding incident.

“You will be killed shortly.” Blood doesn’t flow any colder than that.
That line actually seems like it belongs in an action movie, not a historical drama.

“No one would believe what you did to us.”
The atrocities of war are unfathomable to all but those who willfully choose to perpetrate its evil acts.

I’ve never seen a more meaningful bow. Tearing up.

Final analysis: a deeply moving tale of the devastating effects of war...

...and the miracle of racial reconciliation.

Firth and Kidman are simply masterful in their roles.
As would be expected. Let’s see if Oscar nods in their direction.

3 1/2 out of 4 stars. Not an easy movie to negotiate emotionally, but well worth watching.

As is indicated by the title, railways and trains play a pivotal role in the movie’s plot. It’s fitting, then, that director Jonathan Teplitzky and his film crew should so elegantly isolate images of trains, tracks and bridges from different countries (England and Japan) and different time periods (the WWII 1940s and the film’s 1980 milieu). The train track motif works on an aesthetic level as well as a symbolic one. Ironically, other than the opening meet-cute and closing restorative encounter, every other instance involving a train or its tracks in the film results in the occurrence of something unpleasant, sometimes even tragic. The overcast sky and seething ocean are also an effective metaphor for the inner turmoil Firth’s character is made to endure. These artistic and canny directorial choices populate a movie rich in visual splendor and narrative complexity. With the exception of the protracted torture scenes (you’ve seen worse on 24), there isn’t anything objectionable in the movie, making the R rating a bit curious…other than the fact that the majority of Best Picture winners share that rating. Though it’s far too early to predict with any accuracy, the film seems well positioned to make a run at Oscar’s top prize. Firth and Kidman also seem poised to garner nominations for their roles here which have, yet again, redefined the measure of a tour de force performance. Some might find the movie a bit ponderous in the plot department, which is a shame. However, if you can hang in there to the end, you’ll experience one of the finest emotional payoffs to have graced the cinema in recent years. Pacing issues notwithstanding, this is a nearly flawless film with powerhouse performances and a harrowing historical account that won’t soon be forgotten.

The Wolf of Wall Street (R)

Directed by: Martin Scorsese
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio
December 2013

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

Pasted Graphic 51

DiCaprio’s internal monologue becomes a direct address to the camera. Interesting narration method.
American Hustle, a concurrent release, also features an unusual mode of narration.

McConaughey’s chest thumping is truly bizarre.
And his protruding buck teeth only add to the strangeness of the scene.

DiCaprio gives a clinic on how to sell stocks.
Jaws go slack all over the call center.

Hill’s “present” sets DiCaprio on a bad course.

New company with a new script.
Wages increase while inhibitions decrease.

Robin Leach’s extravagant description of the yacht is amusing.

“Pick up the phone and start dialing.” DiCaprio’s rousing speech verges on the manic.
No verge about it…he falls over the cliff.

DiCaprio and Kyle Chandler’s amiable showdown on the yacht is amusing.

The Cerebral Palsy Phase. Funny stuff.

DiCaprio decides not to be sold to and creates an army of chest-thumpers.
Not to worry, they’ll all be making cameos in the next Planet of the Apes Movie.

Somehow the story just morphed from
Wall Street into The Perfect Storm.
A very bizarre narrative left turn.

Chandler delivers a yellow “go to jail” card.

Final analysis: an overlong tale of greed, sex and drugs with an unrelenting blitzkrieg of F bombs.

Slick direction by Scorsese and fabulous acting all around.

Owes a debt to
Wall Street and The Boiler Room, but pushes the boundaries of excess to the extreme.

2 1/2 out of 4 stars for being derivative & excessive. Now I need Benihana & a mind cleanse.

There’s a great divorce in my evaluation of this film—a giant chasm which makes reconciling both sides a quandary of epic proportions. On one side is Scorcese’s sumptuous direction, DiCaprio’s utterly captivating performance and top-notch work in every phase of the production. On the other side is the ostensibly hyper-real lifestyle of the characters which comes complete with lewd behaviors of every kind imaginable and pervasive drug use all being done at work, out in the open for everyone to see, enjoy and clap and cheer for. If you’re still under the assumption or misguided, idealistic hope that some things are still sacred in the world, give this film a watch and it will shatter any such notions. I think the disconnect for me is a matter of identification…the lifestyle placed on display in the film isn’t even remotely appealing to me so it’s hard for me to sympathize with any of the characters. As such, this get rich, live large philosophy holds no fascination for me. Despite its stellar production values, I just can’t endorse this film because its excesses detract from its entertainment value. In the final analysis, Scorcese’s wonderfully woven Wolf is merely a celebration of corruption and debauchery. Morally reprehensible from one set of credits to the other, this film is gratuitous to its own peril.

The Monuments Men (PG-13)

Directed by: George Clooney
Starring: George Clooney
February 2014

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

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A blunder right out of the gate…no apostrophe appears in the title.

Two spits for Stahl. Drink up!

Who will make sure the Mona Lisa keeps smiling? Compelling argument.

“They’re not blanks.” Ha!
This training sequence feels like it was lifted right out of a classical Hollywood war movie. Uproariously funny.

Post D-Day Normandy. Gorgeous revolving shot of the characters as they step onto the beach.

Damon’s poor French ensures brief subtitle scenes...thankfully.
A very clever decision on the part of scriptwriters Clooney and Grant Heslov.

Clooney’s speech to his men is inspiring...and depressing.
Inspiring for the audience, depressing for his team.

A German standoff. Smoking with the enemy.
Another riotously hilarious scene. Balaban and Murray are pitch-perfect in their deliveries.

Murray’s gift 45 hits all the right emotional notes.
A really special moment amid the atrocities of the war.

Talk about a bad place to take a cigarette break.
This scene is shot in Germany, and for those who’ve never been there, this is exactly how it looks…right down to the overcast sky.

Blanchett entrusts Damon with “her life.”
She actually wants to give him something more.

Talk about a national treasure!
The Dwarves or Erebor couldn’t have stacked it any better.

Grab and go...the Russians are coming.
No, Alan Arkin doesn’t make an appearance here, although that would’ve been a choice inside gag.

Final analysis: for the often heavy subject matter, this is a surprisingly feel-good movie.

Phenomenal production values, fine performances and a gorgeous score from Alexandre Desplat.

3 out of 4 stars. An important film with a poignant message. Will it be forgotten by next Oscars?

To start with, it’s just a blast to see all of these stars together on the big screen. Secondly, it’s nice to see a war movie that doesn’t take itself too seriously and is affecting only when it needs to be. There are some gorgeous shots (Dujardin sprinting across the field) and scenes (Bonneville’s heroic stand to protect the Madonna and Child statue in Bruges) in the film and the production perfectly captures the look and feel of Europe in the 1940s. This is just an incredible story that illuminates a sidebar event during WWII. Much appreciation goes to Robert M. Edsel and Bret Witter, who wrote the book upon which the movie is based, and to director Clooney for capturing these recreated events with such verve and veracity.

Saving Mr. Banks (PG-13)

Directed by: John Lee Hancock
Starring: Emma Thompson
December 2013

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

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In case anyone cares for this brand of trivia, this is the second film Hanks has starred in with “saving” as the first word in the title.

Chlorine and apt description of L.A.
Actually, chlorine is probably one of the city’s nicer smells.

I feel the same way about pears.
Eating sandpaper would have about the same effect.

An audience with Walt. The first/last name preferences are hilarious.
Some great dialog and performances by Hanks and Emma Thompson here.

No red in the picture. The demands keep coming.

The music goes up on the word down...ironic.
And ingenious.

Farrell’s speech is incredibly uncomfortable.
In fact, it’s squirm-in-your-seat awful.

“Get on the horse, Pamela.”

The penguin’s out of the bag...animation.

Walt’s story about delivering newspapers in the snow features some astounding acting.
Even by Hanks’ lofty standards.

Escorted to the premier by Mickey himself.

Be sure to sit through the end credits for an amusing extra.

Final analysis: an amazing production with stellar acting from a dazzling and diverse cast.
Especially Colin Farrell, Paul Giamatti and Jason Schwartzman…who can actually sing. His rendition of “Feed the Birds” is one of the film’s emotional high points.

A great deal of magic and heart here along with some bittersweet revelations of the past.

3 1/2 out of 4 stars. Walt would be proud of this genuinely moving biopic.

When you think Disney, you think magic. Whether someone casting a spell in an animated feature or a woman pulling sundry items out of a bag in a movie like Mary Poppins (1964), the Disney classic which this movie is framed around, magic is a word very closely associated with the Mouse House and its numerous and diverse productions. If you’re doing a movie about Walt, it’d better be magical, and fortunately, there’s nothing to worry about here. Additionally, you’d better cast someone amazing to play Mr. Disney. Again, no problem since the namesake studio nabbed Hanks for the title role. For those who love classic Disney films, and Mary Poppins in particular, this movie will fill you with a rare form of elation that derives from deep admiration and fond memories. Some would define that special kind of feeling as…magic.

Dallas Buyer's Club (R)

Directed by: Jean-Marc Vallee
Starring: Matthew McConaughey
November 2013

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

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Emaciated McConaughey is virtually unrecognizable.
Following in the footsteps of Tom Hanks (Philadelphia, Cast Away) and Christian Bale (The Machinist), McConaughey, emaciating himself almost beyond recognition, sold out for this role. McConaughey’s appearance adds immeasurably to the veracity of his performance.

Low T cell count equals a dire prognosis.
The first time I ever heard of T cells was ST:TNG’s “Genesis” where the crew devolves into an assortment of early primates. But that has absolutely nothing to do with this movie. Feel free to tip me on the way out.

“Screw the FDA, I’m gonna’ be DOA.”
Great line.

Playing cards in the hospital with Ms. Man.

Building a clientele the hard way.

A line at the motel to buy memberships.

World tour to procure life saving meds.
Why was it so difficult and why was the FDA (Federal Death Agency) so slow to respond to the AIDS crisis?

To wild flowers and bone-in rib-eyes.
Nothing wrong with that toast…unless you eat the flowers and use the steak as a centerpiece.

The high pitched ringing is back. Not a good sign.
Or sound, as it gets annoying after a few minutes.

Final analysis: a new career landmark for McConaughey in a role not soon forgotten.

3 out of 4. A realistic portrait of AIDS in the 80s & the extreme measures taken to find a cure.

There can be no doubt that this is a superlative, career defining performance by McConaughey. And let’s not forget Jared Leto and Jennifer Garner who are also terrific in the film in pivotal supporting roles. The subject matter here certainly isn’t breezy popcorn fare, but the movie’s historical significance and cultural relevance is undeniable. What should’ve ended as a tragedy is an inspirational tale of a man who wouldn’t take no for answer and in the process managed to save his life and the lives of countless others in the process.

12 Years a Slave (R)

Directed by: Steve McQueen
Starring: Chiwetel Ejiofor
November 2013

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

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The N word is used in the first line of dialog. Could be a rough film to stomach.

The horizontal mambo is filmed horizontally. Fitting.

Waking up in chains. Apparently there’s no such thing as a free dinner.

Giamatti sells slaves to the ubiquitous Cumberbatch.
C’Batch washed the bleach out of his hair for this one.

“You are no better than prized livestock.” Woah!
A bit of jealousy perhaps?

The letter goes up in flames...and hope of freedom along with it.
Just when things couldn’t get any worse.

Pitt challenges Fassbender on what is true and right. Some great dialog in this scene.

The whipping sequence is unbearable.
Not quite as unconscionably inhumane as the scourging in The Passion of the Christ (2004), but horrific just the same.

From Platt back to Solomon.
What a difference a name makes.

Final analysis: a difficult movie to navigate emotionally.

Not an enjoyable entertainment, but an educational one.

3 out of 4 stars. Fine acting and directing, but rough subject matter makes it difficult to watch.

It goes without saying that this isn’t popcorn entertainment, so it’s suggested that one be in the right mood or state of mind when subjecting oneself to the more uncomfortable or objectionable aspects of this film. The historical attention to detail here is staggering and the overall production is fittingly praise-worthy. The story is compelling and the acting is superb, especially Chiwetel Ejiofor as main character Solomon Northrup. This is the kind of story that can very easily feel like a dramatized documentary, but fortunately, director Steve McQueen (not the guy who jumped the barbed wire fence on a motorcycle) turns the historical events into a riveting drama. This is edutainment at its finest.

The Fifth Estate (R)

Directed by: Bill Condon
Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch
October 2013

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

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Talk on whistleblower is intriguing.

The nucleus of a radically new approach to the dissemination of information.

I’m no Sherlock, but I’m pretty sure someone poured bleach into Cumberbatch’s shampoo bottle.

“Courage is contagious.”
Platitudinous but true.

Cumberbatch and Thewlis lock horns.
Nothing like a little professional competition to ratchet up the drama.

Two couples exited the theater during the multiple wipe montage.
The plot might be hard to follow for some. Others might be like “who cares?”

“Am I interrupting something?” The pursuit of truth has its consequences.
And some people have no boundaries…or common decency.

Alexander Siddig sighting. Any
DS9 fans out there?
Dr. Bashir, I presume.

Collateral murder...big leak.

An information war with the US government. Assange makes a deal with The Guardian.
Did he sell out?

Thewlis’ conversation about the creation of the fourth estate is exceptional.

So is Cumberbatch’s extended, edited monologue in the final scenes of the movie.

Final analysis: an important film that effectively, if not adroitly, tells the story of WikiLeaks.

Afflicted by a furiously paced narrative that requires frequent visits to Wikipedia in order to keep up.

The filming style is irksome at times and the story runs twenty minutes too long.

Still, Cumberbatch is utterly captivating and Linney and Tucci turn in solid supporting performances.

2 1/2 out of 4 stars. Not very exciting or entertaining, but worthwhile because of its message.

This isn’t the type of film most people would naturally gravitate toward, unless they’re C’batch fans or are interested in the subject matter, since it’s more educational than entertaining. Still, the educational component is salient since we’re all affected by media and the dissemination of information. It’s a brave new world out there and thank goodness for Assange for daring to expose corporate and political corruption both here and abroad.

Captain Phillips (PG-13)

Directed by: Paul Greengrass
Starring: Tom Hanks
October 2013

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

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Phillips runs a tight ship. Safety drills are abruptly interrupted.

Warship ruse turns back one skiff. Well played, Phillips.

Skinny stages a coup.

One pirate makes the same mistake John McClain did in the first
Die Hard...never walk around barefoot.
Unless you’re a Hobbit.

Stay put in seat 15.
I don’t think I’d move a muscle. Probably wouldn’t breathe either.

Phillips caught writing a note in class. Pays the price.

Three tangos down. Game over.

Not all of this blood is mine. Phenomenal acting by Hanks.
We’ve been waiting for this all movie. A good performance suddenly transforms into the kind of scenery-chewing extravaganza we’ve come to expect from Hanks.

Final analysis: a taut biopic that delivers just what you expect it to.
But little more.

Maintains suspense throughout, but never reaches thriller level intensity.

Rating: 3 out of 4 stars. Everything works here except for the predictable “true story” plot.

Paul Greengrass’ (The Bourne Ultimatum) direction is a bit safe here. Everything about the story feels paint-by-numbers. The movie is important for its historical significance, but if the movie had any less dramatic urgency it would be a documentary. Hanks, though central to the story, seems to take a back seat to Skinny and the Glass Walkers (would make a great blues band name). As was mentioned earlier, Hanks only shines in one scene near the end of the film…an egregious waste of his talent. This story was big news in 2009. As such, what the movie gains in familiarity it looses in originality. Or to put it another way, it’s hard to build suspense when the audience already knows what’s going to happen in the end (like when viewing Titanic or The Perfect Storm). A thriller with a foregone conclusion isn’t much of a thriller.

Jobs (PG-13)

Directed by: Joshua Michael Stern
Starring: Ashton Kutcher
August 2013

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

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Town hall meeting...introducing a tool for the heart.
Inspirational from the word go.

Jobs walks across campus Hobbit-style.

A drug-induced psychosis—hearing classical music in a wheat field.

Stirring things up at Atari. The genesis of Pong.
Boy do those two names bring back memories. Oops…just dated myself.

Friend’s advice, “Nobody wants to buy a computer.” Thankfully, Jobs didn’t listen.
Apparently, in real life, Jobs maintained this notion not his steadfast sidekick Steve Wozniak. But the movie is called Jobs not Woz, so…

“Welcome to Apple Computer.”

Social currency. Make the small things unforgettable.
A shaping philosophy of things to come.

Jobs salvages Macintosh. It’s “insanely good.”
Quality parts make a quality computer. Rocket science to the rest of the industry.

Windows...a blatant rip-off.

Personal/product disconnect plagues Job’s life and work.

A natural extension of the individual. Well said.

Final analysis: an effective biopic that paints in broad strokes while missing some of the fine brush work.

To whit, Pixar, iPhones, iPads and Jobs’ final days before passing.
It would’ve been nice if the movie had featured these Jobs accomplishments and covered his life up to his untimely death. As such, the movie feels like a book with the final chapters torn out.

Still, I wasn’t ready for the movie to end, so the old writer’s adage of always leave them wanting more is fulfilled.

3 out of 4 stars. A seamless performance by Kutcher and a fitting tribute to an uncompromising visionary.

Final thought: I write my reviews on tech Jobs pioneered. A debt of gratitude is owed for how he’s changed our lives.

I was initially a bit dubious over Kutcher’s casting in the title role, but I must admit that he delivers an utterly convincing performance as the late inventor extraordinaire. The unheralded technologies pioneered by Jobs (listed above) should’ve been included in the movie, even if in a post-movie crawl of all of his accomplishments. Still, the movie does a fine job of capturing the essence of the man, his shortcomings and his many achievements. This biopic is yet another of Job’s products that’s worth consuming…insidious.

Lee Daniels' The Butler (PG-13)

Directed by: Lee Daniels
Starring: Forest Whitaker
August 2013

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

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Off to the shed...this can’t end well.
After all, chickens tend to loose their heads there.

“The law was against us.” A sad commentary of our past.

“We don’t tolerate politics in the White House.” Ironic.
And highly dubious.

Cusack hands out pins. Awkward scene.
An interesting casting choice for Nixon, but an unexpectedly fine performance by Cusack.

The restaurant scene is unbearable...awful beyond words. Inhuman treatment.

Freedom bus takes a wrong turn in ‘bama.
Another gut-wrenching scene.

A tie from one prez and a tie clip from another. Priceless gifts.

Butlers are subversive...interesting viewpoint.
The central thesis of the movie.

Invited to a state dinner...movin’ on up.

“You’ve served your country well.” A statement normally reserved for those in the military. A nice moment.

“I know the way!” You tell him.

Final analysis: rough subject matter at times, but an exceptionally well made/acted film.
The ending is a puff piece for President Obama. The slant here is painfully obvious.

Rating: 3 out of 4 stars. Should be plenty of Oscar nods for this one.

The only drawback here is that the film feels like a documentary at times, reciting the major moments of butler Gaines’ life and career in a fairly straightforward manner…and the “true story” factor does little to discourage this observation. The politics of the film could also serve as a debit depending on which camp you belong to. However, this is an important film that confronts us with an ugly chapter of human history from the not-too-distant past. Story aside, Whitaker seems well positioned for another Oscar nod for his truly fine performance here.

Argo (R)

Directed by: Ben Affleck
Starring: Ben Affleck
October 2012

“Inspired by actual events” movies can either be, well, inspirational or emotionally overwrought. Fortunately,
Argo has a healthy dose of the former along with great performances and a steady hand at the helm in star/director Ben Affleck. Instead of being merely based on a true story, Argo is “Inspired by the incredible true story,” as the movie’s marketing materials would have us believe. When you use a superlative like incredible to describe your movie, you open yourself up to a world of ridicule if the film doesn’t live up to such a lofty assertion. Again, the movie has nothing to worry about as the word incredible is far too paltry a word to describe this Oscar contending powerhouse…that just happens to be a true story.

Superlatives aside, the film chronicles the historical account of six Americans who are displaced from the US embassy in Iran during the violent riot/siege in 1980. Forced to hide out at the Canadian ambassador’s (Victor Garber) house, our half dozen citizens must evade capture long enough for our government to figure out a rescue plan. Enter CIA agent Tony Mendez (Affleck), a specialist in such dangerous extractions. He has a plan…sort of. Gleaning inspiration from his son’s choice of TV entertainment, a
Planet of the Apes movie, Tony devises a scheme where he will fly into Tehran as a location scout for a sci-fi movie and fly back with his “film crew.” What could possibly go wrong with that plan?

As Bryan Cranston’s Jack O’Donnell says, in one of the movie’s many memorable lines, “This is the best bad idea we have…by far.” However, if the cause is just, sometimes fate will conspire against probability and even a bad plan will work like magic. Such is the case here, except for the magic part. It takes forces far more powerful than that to get our citizens back home…teamwork, tenacity and a ridiculous amount of happy coincidence.

However, when it comes to movie magic, the film has it in spades: besides a terrific script by Chris Terrio (based on Mendez’ memoir), sure-handed direction by Affleck, sweeping cinematography by Rodrigo Prieto, milieu appropriate coifs, costumes, sets and archival news footage (and an old toy collection I’d die to get my hands on, shown at movie’s end), what puts it over the top is the film’s knowing jabs at Hollywood. John Goodman, in a sensational supporting role as make-up expert John Chambers, tells Mendez that he’ll fit right in pretending to be a Hollywood big shot. Another terrific supporting role is turned in by Alan Arkin, who plays an out-of-step movie producer whose every utterance in the film lands like a well-timed punch line, particularly the oft used play on words, “Argo f@!k yourself.” The film never takes itself too seriously, which is its greatest weapon and asset. So then,
Argo can be called a biopic with bracing drama and selective moments of comic relief. This is as close to a complete movie as you’re ever likely to experience.

When the action heats up in the later acts, the film becomes a first-rate thriller. Indeed, the film’s climax, specifically in the way all of the moving parts have to work just perfectly in order for our heroes to be saved, is reminiscent of the pulse-pounding intensity of
Apollo 13 (1995), another high stakes drama based on actual events. In addition to edge-of-your-seat climaxes, both films also have stand-up-and-cheer endings.

Any way you slice it,
Argo is a superior film and should rack up a clutch of Oscar nominations/wins come awards season. Depending on how Mr. Spielberg’s Lincoln turns out, Argo just might waltz off the stage with the top prize: an Oscar for Best Picture certainly isn’t out of its reach. Prognostications aside, Argo is the finest biopic that’s come along in quite some time. Sometimes true stories based on bad ideas make for great movies.

Rating: 3 1/2

J. Edgar (R)

Directed by: Clint Eastwood
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio
November 2011

What everyone will be talking about after seeing the Clint Eastwood helmed biopic,
J. Edgar, is Leonardo DiCaprio’s performance as the title character…and why shouldn’t they? It’s a career defining turn by the actor who once stood on the bow of a ship and yelled “I’m the king of the world!” If he keeps turning in performances like this one, DiCaprio may someday own that very title.

A fascinating character study of the former FBI director during the 40s and 50s,
J. Edgar is psychologically complex despite the character’s single-minded furor to rid our country of any trace of Communism. The central thesis of the film, as is conveyed in an opening narration by DiCaprio portraying a doting J. Edgar Hoover, is that “even great men can be corrupted.” J. Edgar spent his entire life and career ferreting out communists and other nefarious agents with an unholy zeal.

The bitter irony here is that J. Edgar himself was corrupted, not by the system, but by his own hubris and egomania. J. Edgar’s bloated view of himself is powerfully exposed near the end of the film by his good friend and assistant Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer). The essence of Tolson’s scathing comments, if they are to be believed, rewrites some of the major events of the film effectively excluding J. Edgar from many of the story’s main events, which, of course, would make for a brief and dull movie.

Tolson gives his friend a reality check when recounting arrests that were made not by J. Edgar, as he claimed, but by other agents. Tolson’s frank assessment of his friend’s consistent self-aggrandizement stuns J. Edgar at first, but the moment of mental sobriety is short-lived and the FBI director is back to ridding the world of perceived evils. There’s something poignant here about how we see ourselves versus how others see us.

As portrayed in the film, J. Edgar was a grade-A narcissist who was in love with himself and his work, to the exclusion of anyone else. J. Edgar had mommy issues (his mother is played by the inimitable Maggie Smith) and eschewed heterosexual (Naomi Watts) and homosexual (Hammer) offers for companionship. There’s something to be said for the ardent adherence to an ideal, especially one that ensures domestic tranquility, but all extremes are dysfunctional and J. Edgar’s rigidity of behavior and thought alienated even the few people in his life who actually cared about him. Though addled by a different form of psychosis, J. Edgar was just as mentally ill as John Nash was in
A Beautiful Mind (2001).

None of these broad stroke characterizations take anything away from the intricate nuance of DiCaprio’s performance and one wonders how much instruction the actor received from Eastwood, who is notorious for getting what he wants in the first take. It seems to me, and this is just a guess, that Eastwood was more hands-off than micromanaging with respect to the film’s performances. As an actor himself, Eastwood is an actor’s director, so it stands to reason that he would just roll the camera and trust his talent to deliver fine performances—which they do to a superlative degree here.

Eastwood’s direction might feel a little labored at times, but his method is actually an unqualified work of genius. Most of the shots, with a few notable exceptions, are done in the style of a classical Hollywood film. As such, Eastwood mirrors the filming techniques employed in the period he’s portraying—clever. Though difficult to defend, it’s also my belief that Eastwood’s conservative direction is the perfect parallel for the conservative politics displayed in the film. In a sense, Eastwood, whose career has been marked by decidedly conservative narratives or sentiments, was the perfect choice to helm this Oscar bait biographical period piece about such a fiercely conservative political figure from the not-too-distant past.

Though the production values are superb across the board, we hardly even notice the sets due to DiCaprio’s scenery-chewing performance. Indeed, there are moments when the actor so inhabits the character that we no longer see DiCaprio—only J. Edgar. This is especially true of his scenes as the older J. Edgar where his acting is genuinely convincing despite that fact that he’s buried under latex and make-up. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of the make-up or performance by Hammer as Tolson. We often get the sense that Hammer is “playing” an old person rather than simply being an old person. In many instances that noticeable disparity pulls us out of the reality of the film. Granted, Hammer’s make-up isn’t as good as DiCaprio’s, but he’s decisively overmatched by DiCaprio and one wonders if a different casting choice would’ve served the story better.

J. Edgar might be a name frequently bandied about come awards season. Although a nod for Eastwood’s directing is uncertain at this time, DiCaprio seems to be a strong contender for Best Actor and might just walk away with the golden statuette. It’s anyone’s guess if the film will win Best Picture, but one thing’s for sure, come February, J. Edgar will be well acquainted with Oscar.

Rating: 3

Moneyball (PG-13)

Directed by: Bennett Miller
Starring: Brad Pitt
September 2011

So here we have one of the timeliest movies regarding the current state of our society and economy. Oh, and it just happens to be about baseball.
Moneyball chronicles the actual events surrounding a general manager’s brazen decision to eschew the tried-and-true recruiting strategies employed by MLB franchises for over a hundred years in favor of a statistical algorithm developed by an economics graduate from Yale.

Oakland A’s general manager, Billy Beane (Brad Pitt), indicts his team’s old guard for upholding errant philosophies of recruiting talent—i.e. don’t trade for a player if his girlfriend is ugly because that means he has no confidence. In 2001, the A’s put 39 million dollars worth of talent on the field while the New York Yankees fielded a team worth 114 million. Knowing that his David will never be able to slay the Goliath’s of the league, Beane tells the room of stodgy scouts, “It’s an unfair game…we’ve got to think differently.”

Enter Peter Brand (Jonah Hill) and his paradigm shattering notion of buying wins not players. Beane sticks his neck out for Brand and his revolutionary concept, but club manager, Art Howe (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is resistant to the radical adjustments made to his line up. In the early goings, it appears that Beane will get the axe, but by season’s end something magical happens in the other City by the Bay as statistical probabilities turn into logic-defying reality.

There’s little suspense here for MLB fans who know the results of Beane and Brand’s experiment, but the storytelling is compelling and the performances—across the board—are superb. Also, those normally turned off by “sports” movies just might enjoy
Moneyball because it’s more about characters and convictions than memorializing some legendary game from the past. However, Moneyball isn’t completely devoid of competition as it effectively weaves actual game footage along with reenactments by actors into a seamless tapestry that supports the story rather than dominates it. All of this to say, Moneyball is an engaging “true story” drama that just happens to be about sports.

So what does all of this have to do with the current state of our country? Well, maybe it’s just me, but doesn’t it seem like we can use some of Beane’s and Brand’s open-minded strategizing on Capitol Hill about now? Clearly the old ways, promulgated by old guard politicians (many of whom are, well…old), just don’t work anymore. I’m not suggesting that we throw the baby out with the bathwater, but there can be no doubt that some new ways of thinking are needed in order to get our economy back on track.

Moneyball exposes, in microcosmic form, the kind of myopic and rigid reasoning that’s lead to stagnation and entropy (not to mention apathy) in that colossal franchise called the USA. So I guess it’s true what they say about baseball imitating life. Heck, for many people, baseball is life!

Rating: 3

The Express (PG)

Directed by: Gary Fleder
Starring: Rob Brown
October 2008

“Inspiring, if Derivative, True Story Adaptation”

We’ve seen this kind of film many, many times before. As a story centered on an individual athlete, it pales in comparison to Rudy. With respect to its tragic resolution, it resembles Brian’s Song, although it’s not nearly as emotionally overwrought as the James Caan, and Billy Dee Williams’ gridiron classic.

The movie in question is
The Express: The Ernie Davis Story. Recruited by legendary Coach Ben Schwartzwalder (Dennis Quaid) to play running back for the Syracuse Orangemen, Davis (Ron Brown) follows in the footsteps of such greats as Jim Brown. We’re afforded glimpses into Davis’ childhood, how pursuing bullies forced him to become a fast runner, as well as an overview of his college years with actual footage of Davis’ real games. His college career culminated with a landmark event in collegiate sports…Davis became the first African American to win the Heisman Trophy.

Brown (
Coach Carter) is adequate as Davis but is somewhat laconic, which beautifully fits the part since Davis was the kind of athlete who did his talking on the field. Quaid is much more gruff here than in his past sports movies; his gravelly, smoker’s voice is used with great effect for the no-nonsense coach. Of the supporting cast, two standout performances are turned in by popular character actors Clancy Brown, who plays the assistant coach, and Saul Rubinek, who portrays the owner of the Cleveland Browns, Art Modell.

Though primarily focused on Davis, the story touches upon racism, which was certainly a major social challenge of the period in question. In one scene, rowdy fans toss glass bottles down at the players (even the white ones) because the team had a prominent black athlete as a starter. Even though we’ve seen racism portrayed in other sports flicks, such as
Remember the Titans and Glory Road, the movie would’ve been remiss had it not at least touched upon this hot-button, contextualizing, topic.

There’s an inspiring thread of tradition that runs through the film. Coach Schwartzwalder coaxes Jim Brown into recruiting Davis and near the end of the film, Davis, again at the urging of his former coach, helps persuade Floyd Little to play for the Orangemen. The color orange was present during Little’s entire football career: after college, Little went on to play for the Denver Broncos, becoming the nascent franchise’s first star running back. Inspiring, if not amazing,
The Express pays fitting tribute to the brilliant career of a class athlete and all-around decent human being who left us far too soon.

Rating: 3

Amazing Grace (PG)

Directed by: Michael Apted
Starring: Ioan Gruffudd
February 2007

“Inspiring and Moving, but Not Quite Amazing”

You would naturally think that a movie named after the venerated church hymn would feature the song’s writer, John Newton, but, as Miracle Max from The Princess Bride would say, you’d only be “mostly” correct. Though Newton does appear in the film in a minor role (Albert Finney plays the blind composer with the appropriate degree of nobility and sagacity), the movie’s main character is William Wilberforce (Ioan Gruffudd, Reed Richards from Fantastic Four), an idealist championing social reform in Britain circa 1797. While fighting for the abolition of slavery, Wilberforce also contends with a debilitating illness which ultimately claims his life.

There are a number of memorable scenes in the film, but two standout moments reveal the ways in which good can overcome evil, even when using less than virtuous methods (See:
Star Trek’s “The Savage Curtain”). The first instance of righteous chicanery occurs near the middle of the movie when Wilberforce instigates a poignant object lesson under the guise of an extravagant lunch served aboard a sailing ship drifting along one of London’s channels. Wilberforce tricks the assembled members of high society into experiencing, firsthand, the plight of African slaves when the elaborate vessel pulls alongside a slave ship. The inhuman conditions that exist on such ships, which have produced what Wilberforce terms the “smell of death,” confront the affluent onlookers with a graphic tableau of how the other half lives. There’s a bit of populist pride that creeps in when Wilberforce demands the wealthy spectators to lower the handkerchiefs from their noses and deeply inhale the fetid aroma. It’s a brief sequence that makes an indelible impression on the memory.

The other episode of legerdemain takes place near the end of the movie when Wilberforce tries pushing though legislation that will abolish the country’s slave trade policies. The strategy he uses to manipulate Parliament into getting the motion passed is a stroke of genius…it’s
the stand and cheer moment of the movie. Even though his stunt is highly deceptive, the cause is just: Wilberforce’s tactics surely would’ve met with approval by the great emancipator himself, Abraham Lincoln. Hopefully, as a result of viewing this film, many will now esteem Wilberforce as the slavery abolitionist from over the pond.

Although it’s quite obvious from the outset that the film isn’t a big budget extravaganza, director Michael Apted (
Nell) does an excellent job of maximizing what little star power and budget he has at his disposal in crafting this inspirational tale of Wilberforce’s unwavering courage and conviction in the face of unspeakable evil. Apted also effectively capitalizes on the strength of the exceptional supporting cast: Michael Gambon, Ciaran Hinds, Rufus Sewell and Toby Jones are all well-known and well respected British actors who perform their respective roles with the requisite degree of competence and brilliance. Aside from the cast, the bulk of the film’s meager budget was allocated for location shooting and period appropriate sets and costumes, and though the results have a decidedly Hallmark look to them at times, the overall production is bolstered by the film’s fine performances, an engaging narrative and Apted’s sure-handed direction.

With another marvelous performance turned in by Gruffudd, I guess we now must consider which superlative will accompany the title of his next project. After all, his most recent films have been fantastic and amazing. Regardless of what his next movie is named, I’m sure it’ll be stupendous.

Rating: 3

Breach (PG-13)

Directed by: Billy Ray
Starring: Chris Cooper
February 2007

“Cooper is Mesmerizing in Political Potboiler”

Based on the gripping true story of how the worst traitor in the history of U.S. Intelligence was discovered and brought to justice, Breach is a fascinating post-Cold War yarn which underlines the unsettling notion that the last person you’d suspect of being a criminal often times is.

FBI agent, Robert Hanssen (Chris Cooper) has projected such a sanitary image of himself throughout his distinguished career that he’s been placed in charge of a special task force to ferret out a rogue agent who’s been selling secrets to the Russians. A devout Catholic and family man, Robert never drinks (even off duty) and frequently extols the virtues of prayer. But Mr. Clean, it turns out, has some dark secrets which are eventually unearthed by Agent Burroughs (Laura Linney). Burroughs “promotes” Robert to a new post and assigns callow agent, Eric O’Neil (Ryan Phillippe), to serve as Robert’s assistant and her informant. As the high stakes chess match plays out, the questions become: is Robert guilty of treason, and if so, is anyone clever enough to beat him at his own game?

Breach, even without car chases and shootouts, is a first-rate potboiler that contains enough intrigue to fill two movies—the PDA download and car sweep scenes are especially suspenseful. Director Billy Ray does an excellent job of gradually building intensity throughout the film, and the script by Adam Mazer and William Rotko doesn’t miss a beat. The movie’s incisive dialogue is finely crafted and contains several memorable gems, like Robert’s first line to Eric, “Tell me five things about yourself and four of them true.”

Cooper turns in a spellbinding performance as Hanssen and almost single-handedly carries the movie: when it comes to chewing scenery, Cooper could give Pac Man a run for his money. Cooper’s wonderfully nuanced portrayal of straight-laced, no-nonsense, yet privately perverted Hanssen (the scene where he lusts after
Entrapment’s Catherine Zeta-Jones is downright disturbing), is utterly captivating and convincing. An Oscar nod would be the appropriate response to this powerhouse performance.

Though some have exiguous onscreen time, the supporting actors play a vital role in servicing the plot as they fall into orbit around Cooper: Linney and Phillippe are joined by Caroline Dhavernas as Eric’s wife, Kathleen Quinlan as Robert’s wife, Bruce Davison as Eric’s father, Gary Cole as Agent Garces and
24’s Dennis Haysbert as Agent Plesac.

Besides touting the acting, directing and writing, there’s little more that can be said here without spoiling the plot to this truly riveting tale; a story that’s made all the more alarming by its factual elements. As the shock and horror of 9/11 continues to fade from our collective consciousness,
Breach is a jarring reminder of the ever-increasing need for intelligence and vigilance…lest we should forget the tragedies of the past.

Rating: 3

Freedom Writers (PG-13)

Directed by: Richard LaGravenese
Starring: Hilary Swank
January 2007

“Standard ‘True Story’ Formula Shackles Inspirational Tale”

From MTV Films, producers of Coach Carter, comes Freedom Writers, another inner-city portrait which is also based on a true story and features Academy award winning Hilary Swank as indomitable educator, Erin Gruwell. In the wake of 1992’s Rodney King riots in L.A., Woodrow Wilson High School, while embroiled in a tumultuous integration program, was reeling from violent turf wars not dissimilar to the ones taking place outside the school’s barbwire brimmed walls. Enter into that seething cauldron of bigotry and race hatred Mrs. Gruwell, a prim and proper freshman teacher who insists on wearing a real pearl necklace while also wearing a perpetual smile. Her smile is quickly erased when a knockdown, drag out fight ensues in her inaugural class.

With the classroom doubling as a battleground, teaching is a daily struggle to survive. Mrs. Gruwell eventually connects with her students as she learns their back stories. There’s an excellent scene where Mrs. Gruwell plays the “line game” with her students. Two rows of students face each other with a dividing line between them; a step toward the line indicates that a particular question applies to an individual. Mrs. Gruwell’s worst fears are confirmed when statements like, “Step toward the line if you’ve lost a friend to gang violence,” reveal the grim reality her students face on a daily basis.

The movie is standard in many ways; besides adhering too closely to the
Coach Carter template, the movie comes complete with a connect-the-dots plot and underdeveloped supporting characters, played here by Scott Glenn as Gruwell’s dotting dad and Patrick Dempsey as her neglected husband. Other inherent weaknesses in the movie are a cloying resolution and an oversimplified remedy for educational and societal ills. I’m truly glad that Gruwell’s unorthodox methods of teaching paid off for a small group of young adults, but if the movie’s writers and producers are trying to champion a cause or inspire a movement, they’re being overly idealistic, much like Gruwell on her first day as a teacher. Besides, aren’t there more remarkable true stories out there just waiting to see the (green) light of day? Is Hollywood really that devoid of original material? Are we, as a society, so starved for heroes that the story of a rookie teacher who encourages her students to write about their hang-ups in journals will not only inspire us, but also induce us to shell out ten dollars to see it?

Freedom Writers is an unremarkable human interest story that has all the salience and staying power of one of those warm-fuzzy features that air at the end of news broadcasts. For those hoping to experience a feel-good flick, Freedom Writers might seem like it’s hot off the press, but for most, the movie will read like yesterday’s news.

Rating: 2 1/2

The Pursuit of Happyness (PG-13)

Directed by: Gabriele Muccino
Starring: Will Smith
December 2006

“How Determination Overcomes Marginalization”

Peering through the diamond shaped openings of an eight foot tall metal fence, Chris Gardner (Will Smith) surveys the cold, uncaring skyscrapers that have hemmed him into the prison-like confines of a craggy, weed-ridden basketball court. Standing at Chris’ side is his pouting son, Christopher (Will’s real-life son Jaden in his acting debut). Chris turns to his son and, with tension in his voice and tears in his eyes, says, “Hey. Don't ever let somebody tell you... You can't do something. Not even me. All right?”

Never before and never since have I welled up during a movie trailer. I was genuinely moved, not only by the power of the words themselves, but also by the sheer force of conviction that had impelled them. In the margin of my review notes, for whatever movie I was watching that day, I jotted down the movie’s title to make sure I kept an eye out for it. That movie, of course, is
The Pursuit of Happyness, which is based on Gardner’s memoir of the same name and is the latest vehicle for Smith, who turns in his finest performance to date.

The film is based on the incredible true story of how Gardner, a homeless man struggling to raise his son on his own, achieved the impossible by landing a highly competitive internship at Dean Witter with nothing more than the fire in his belly and the clothes on his back. At its heart,
Pursuit is a film about a man desperately trying to do right by his son while attempting to make his way in the world. However, as an under-educated African American man living in the early 80s, Gardner exists in a world where the deck has been cruelly stacked against him. With no backup plan, failing to obtain the apprenticeship simply isn’t an option for Gardner.

The movie is told in chapters, each one narrated by the Smith in a conversational manner that’s often amusing, occasionally heartbreaking, much like the narrative as a whole. Smith begins each section with a common phrase: “Now this is the part of the story where…” This opening remark is reminiscent of the internal monologue employed in many
films noir or the casual conveyance of inner musings on TV shows like Magnum, P.I. (Magnum had a penchant for saying “I know what you’re thinking…”). Though it grants the viewer direct access to Gardner’s thoughts, one wonders if the story would’ve been just as effective sans the narration. Immaterial, I suppose.

There are several standout scenes in the film, ranging from the serendipitous opportunity for Gardner and his son to watch a 49ers game from an exclusive box at Candlestick to the scene where Gardner frantically tries solving a Rubik’s Cube in a matter of minutes to impress an executive at Dean Witter. By far, the most heartrending scene is when Gardner and his son are turned away by a mission and must spend the night in a subway bathroom. The tears that stream down Gardner’s face as people pound on the locked door to get in, vividly reveal the depth of his plight and the extents to which he’ll go to protect and provide for his son.

Despite its status as a three hanky weeper,
Pursuit also has its fair share of comic relief. Case in point: the scene where the nutty homeless guy pilfers Gardner’s bone density scanner and forces Gardner to chase him all over the city to get it back is rather humorous. Though few in number, these instances of levity serve as release valves which vent some of the pressure that’s been building up during the movie’s many Murphy’s Law moments. Without such stress relievers, the movie surely would’ve collapsed under the weight of its own stark reality.

Pursuit is a film that very easily could’ve veered too sharply toward the populist or the melodramatic, but manages to achieve a balanced portrait of Gardner’s turbulent life and career thanks to Gabriele Muccino’s sure-handed direction. Additionally, screenwriter Steve Conrad adroitly negotiates each emotionally charged situation with a parity and panache quite rare among modern “true story” dramas. With its inspirational slice-of-life narrative, which provides a roadmap for how to attain the American Dream the honest way, Pursuit is more salient—and more needed—than ever. Sometimes happiness is the pursuit itself.

Rating: 3 1/2

Invincible (PG)

Directed by: Ericson Core
Starring: Mark Wahlberg
August 2006

“Wahlberg Flies Like an Eagle in Inspirational Gridiron Tale”

“Never tell me the odds!” That’s what Harrison Ford’s Han Solo told statistic-spewing robot, C-3PO, in The Empire Strikes Back. I wonder what the odds would be against a thirty-year old Average Joe earning a walk-on spot with an NFL team having only played one year of high school football. Whatever the odds, Vince Papale, a struggling Philly bartender, beat them in 1976 when he achieved the impossible and became a Philadelphia Eagle.

In the movie, Papale is played by Mark Wahlberg, who resembles the physical proportions—if not facial features—of the genuine article. Wahlberg’s performance is efficient, but certainly isn’t flashy; this also seems to mirror the real Papale, who originally was reticent to try out for the team and shied away from media attention…many reporters were all too eager to cover his miracle story.

As the movie opens, Papale is at his lowest point; his wife just walked out on him and his employment as a substitute teacher was recently terminated. New Eagles coach, Dick Vermeil (played with gridiron precision by Greg Kinnear…a touchdown for the casting department), makes an announcement that the Eagles will hold open tryouts at Veteran’s Stadium that Saturday. Vermeil’s pronouncement may have been viewed as a media stunt, but his real strategy was to shake up the entire Eagles organization—which had grown accustomed to loosing—and wake up a city that had fallen into a mental rut concerning their hometown team.

Though Papale’s friends encourage him to try out for the team, his father has a different opinion, “Let this one go; a man can only take so much failure.” Ignoring his father’s advice, Papale finds the nerve to try out, and of the thousands of Eagle wannabes that converge upon the stadium, Papale is the only person asked back to Eagle’s training camp. Spurred on by his dream to play professional football and by his ex-wife’s acerbic departure note (which basically says he’ll never amount to anything), Papale gives it his all during a tumultuous training camp and preseason, and anyone who’s familiar with the story, or who’s seen the trailer, can connect the dots from here. There’s no major twist here; history has already taken away any possibility of a surprise ending.

In the grand tradition of feel-good sports films like
Rudy and The Rookie (whose producers also worked on this film), Invincible carries the “follow-your-dreams” torch with pride and excellence. Though the film’s through line is as straight as a Bradshaw spiral, there are several character-defining subplots that flesh out the movie and broaden our knowledge of the protagonist; such as the Cheers-like moments in the bar, the back lot football games and the arrival of Papale’s new love interest, Janet (Elizabeth Banks), who happens to be a die-hard fan of the rival NY Giants.

From the sets and costumes to the shaggy coifs, every aspect of the movie appropriately fits the period in which it was filmed; the 70’s soundtrack also adds an extra degree of authenticity. And speaking of authenticity, the inclusion of actual game footage, featuring some of Papale’s highlight plays, is a really nice touch.

Invincible is pure, unadulterated inspiration; a poignant reminder to us all that no matter who you are or where you’re from, as long as you have a dream and are willing to contend for it, miracles can happen. This is one of the best films of the year!

Rating: 3

The World’s Fastest Indian (PG-13)

Directed by: Roger Donaldson
Starring: Anthony Hopkins
February 2006

“High-octane Biopic is Built for Speed”

The true story of intrepid Kiwi motorcycle racer, Burt Munro, is an inspiring journey of courage, determination and unyielding passion in the face of persistent adversity. Pushing his heavily modified, highly-experimental 1920 Indian Scout bike to insane velocities, Burt was built for speed. He tells Thomas, the neighbor boy, “You live more in five minutes on a bike going flat out than most people do in their lifetimes.”

Known about town as an eccentric hermit, Burt uses a power sander to file his toenails and an acetylene torch to heat a kettle of water for tea. He also pees on his lemon tree to help it grow. When Thomas’ father implores Burt to mow his lawn because it’s a disgrace to the community, Burt douses the ankle high grass with gasoline and sets it on fire. Some might mistake Burt’s quirky insouciance and hermit-like lifestyle for xenophobia, but nothing could be further from the truth. Burt’s the type of person who can make friends with anyone, anywhere, at any time. Individuals in pursuit of a dream generally attract a following, and so it is with Burt, who’s aided by a vast array of individuals as he makes his way from Invercargill, New Zealand to the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah.

The culture shock Burt experiences when he reaches the US is poignant in an amusing way. Rude cabbies and soliciting prostitutes soon pale in comparison to the hotel clerk he encounters in Hollywood, a cross-dresser named Tina. Burt purchases a car from Fernando, who nearly has a coronary on the test drive when Burt drives on the wrong side of the road. When Burt’s jury-rigged bike hitch looses a wheel, a Native American named Jake helps with repairs and also gives Burt something to help with his failing prostate (a powder made from ground up dog testicles). Despite considerable and frequent setbacks Burt never once looses his sense of humor—his strength of will and persistence of vision fuel his drive to fulfill a lifelong dream.

Although it’s been said a dozen times before, this is one of Anthony Hopkins’ finest performances. Hopkins wholly inhabits Burt and endues the dotting daredevil with a dignity and morality that’s quite refreshing. Tour de force doesn’t even come close to describing Hopkins’ masterful turn; not only does he anchor the film, as the only marquee name in the cast, he
is the film.

The World’s Fastest Indian is a gem of an indie flick that comes with a heartening reminder that it’s never too late to pursue a dream. The reason why Hollywood has been so heavily criticized for the frequently lacking body of work it produces? It doesn’t make enough movies like The World’s Fastest Indian. The film is a rare cinematic treasure that you’d do well to rush out and see.

Rating: 3 1/2

Walk the Line (PG-13)

Directed by: James Mangold
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix
November 2005

“Honest, Accurate Portrait of the Man in Black”

Following up last year’s smash-hit biopic, Ray, would be a daunting task for any movie, but Walk the Line, the tumultuous story of Johnny Cash’s passions and pitfalls, holds its own with remarkable performances and a screenplay that exudes authenticity thanks to its source material—Cash’s autobiography—and input from son and co-producer, John Carter Cash. Ray is referenced here because there are striking similarities between both movies, similarities that beg a closer examination.

Both Ray Charles and Johnny Cash were artists who not only rose to the highest pinnacle of the music industry, but also redefined their respective genres with charisma, innovation and sheer honesty born of tragedy. Both men battled infidelity on the road and both struggled with their addiction to drugs. Most strikingly, however, is that both men shared the same traumatic childhood event—through inaction, both Charles and Cash lost their brother to a senseless accident. It could be argued that the guilt and self-recrimination they experienced drove both men to drugs as a way of sublimating their emotional pain.

The events of Johnny Cash’s life certainly are powerful and dramatic, but the script is constrained by the need for veracity: what the story gains in authenticity, it looses in spontaneity, especially for those already familiar with the ups and downs of Cash’s career. In that regard, the movie would be easy to forget if not for the stellar performances delivered by the cast in general and the leads in specific. Reece Witherspoon is amazing as June Carter and Joaquin Phoenix is astounding as Cash—both portrayals are made all the more extraordinary by the fact that both actors did their own singing for the movie (like in
Ray, musical interludes form the timeline and structure of the story and are enjoyable and memorable excursions from the film’s dramatic episodes). Witherspoon’s experience with playing upbeat debutantes really serves her well here, and Phoenix’s dramatic training on Gladiator and the Shyamalan films has clearly paid dividends in what is arguably the stand-out performance of the year.

Though his acting is fine, I just can’t bring myself to accept Robert Patrick as Johnny’s father, Ray Cash. About a year ago, I saw Patrick and Phoenix together in
Ladder 49, and though Patrick is clearly the older of the two, he seems more like an older brother or uncle to Phoenix than a father figure. Further, I don’t feel the make-up department did a very good job of aging Patrick, especially in the final scene.

Stand-out scenes are plentiful in the movie and are certainly not limited to these: Cash auditioning with a local record producer who challenges Johnny to write songs that can change people’s lives, Cash’s ongoing struggle with substances climaxing with his meltdown and collapse on stage, Carter being verbally pummeled in a general store by a local woman who disapproves of her recent divorce, Cash’s manic attempt to free a brand new tractor from a mud pit only to land it and him in a nearby lake, Cash’s legendary concert at Folsom Prison where he makes a crack about the yellow water, and any scene that has the phrase “Where were you?” in it.

Director James Mangold (
Identity) does an adequate, if not excellent, job with the paint-by-numbers script—Cash walking down the same dusty road as a boy and later as a man is a nice touch—but one wonders what the movie could have been with a more established/renowned auteur at the helm. The film runs a bit too long—the coda is unnecessary other than to show a mending relationship between Cash and his father. Mangold would have done better to freeze-frame the embrace between Cash and Carter—after Cash finally wears Carter down and she agrees to marry him in front of a live audience—and include a line about Cash’s reconciliation with his father in the concluding footnotes.

Walk the Line should receive numerous Oscar nods: besides excellent performances, the movie is inspirational in its offering of hope to anyone who, like Cash, has made some poor choices in life (who among us is immune to this condition?). Johnny Cash may have hurt himself and others in his lifetime, but he also found redemption in his later years and will be remembered for his humanness and musical brilliance for decades, and hopefully centuries, to come. Who said good guys never wear black?

Rating: 3

Hotel Rwanda (PG-13)

Directed by: Terry George
Starring: Don Cheadle
February 2005

“Emotionally Fraught Survey of Modern Tragedy”

Hotel Rwanda easily could have fallen into the mold of other pseudo-documentaries, but two factors alleviate this creative threat. First, the story is accessible because it focuses on a man, his family and many others his life touches. Second, the story revolves around one place—the hotel is the focal point of the story, and even though characters come and go, the genocide is seen through the lens of the hotel and the activity that swirls around and through it. We catch glimpses of the atrocities that were committed by the rebel army (the scene with bodies strewn on the road is particularly haunting), but these tableaus are neither sensationalized nor sanitized and hermetically sealed in a documentary vault.

Don Cheadle, in his inspired portrayal of everyman-turned-hero, Paul Rusesabagina, expertly draws the audience into the story—we’re transported right into the middle of the turbulent events—via his truly captivating performance. It was just a month ago that I saw the actor portraying a British-speaking thief in
Ocean’s 12, and I can’t help thinking to myself, “What an amazing range!” Other actors could have filled the role, but Cheadle imbues the reluctant hotel manager with the perfect blend of courage, compassion, conviction and command as he evades, bribes and deceives the rebel guards in order to save 1,200 refugees.

Sophie Okonedo is marvelous in her supporting role as Paul’s wife, Tatiana, and Nick Nolte turns in one of his finest performances in recent years as beleaguered U.N. Colonel Oliver, a man who sympathizes with Paul’s plight but has his hands tied behind his back by the bureaucracy. Though his presence is barely felt in the movie, the American cameraman, played by Joaquin Phoenix, has the most memorable line in the film: when asked by an enthusiastic Paul if images of the heinous murders will goad America and other countries into sending additional aid, the cameraman bitterly replies that most Americans would say, “‘Oh my God, that’s horrible,’ and go on eating their dinners.”

Some, undoubtedly, will see this somber indictment as a stilted sermon, but the facts speak for themselves: the 1994 genocide in Rwanda resulted in the slaughter of a staggering one million people. The conflict between the ruling Hutu’s and rebel Tutsi’s went largely unnoticed by the rest of the world and aid from U.N. peacekeeping forces was woefully inadequate. Whether viewed as a political platform or not,
Hotel Rwanda has finally brought the events of this modern tragedy into the mainstream media, and the fact that it also entertains is so much the better.

Rating: 3 1/2

The Aviator (PG-13)

Directed by: Martin Scorsese
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio
December 2004

“A Modest Triumph in Retro-Cinema”

The Aviator is finely mounted, well crafted and star-studded, but it fails to attain its desired status as modern epic. Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio have reunited (Gangs of New York), presenting a soaring biopic of billionaire, industrialist and playboy, Howard Hughes. There’s no doubting the skill set of every person in every department that toiled on this film or the talent of the vast array of A-list actors that appear here, and yet, there’s still something lacking.

Perhaps it’s a matter of identification: how many of us have experienced the pressures of being a billionaire or struggled with the extreme mental aberrations Hughes dealt with on a daily basis? Perhaps it’s the preponderance of narrative or the scarcity of action sequences? Perhaps its film’s length—
The Aviator weighs in at three hours and five minutes—or some other, intangible, factor.

Whatever the reason, the movie succeeds as a work of art, but fails to entertain in any significant way: when Hughes repeats “The wave of the future” like a skipping CD right before the final fade, have we really been impacted on an emotional level or do we just pity the man in the mirror?

DiCaprio does a superb job of bringing Hughes’ passions, foibles and eccentricities to life and Cate Blanchett turns in a marvelous performance as Katherine Hepburn: their best scenes together are the golf game, Hughes teaching Hepburn how to fly, the meet the parents debacle and their fulminating breakup. Two foils for Hughes in the movie (other than his O.C.D. and fits of hypochondria) are Juan Trippe (Alec Baldwin), owner of rival Pan Am Airlines and Senator Brewster (Alan Alda in an Oscar-worthy performance), a crooked politician bent on destroying Hughes in a sure-fire trial that turns into a media circus.

The rest of the cast reads like a SAG roll call: Jude Law (as Errol Flynn), Kate Beckinsale (as Eva Gardner), Gwen Stefani (as Jean Harlow), John C. Reilly, Edward Herrmann, Willem Dafoe, Ian Holm, Brent Spiner, the list goes on and on.

I have to admit that
The Aviator is a lavish spectacle featuring a powerfully moving, human story, but its sheer size and power left me a little overwhelmed—it’s so overstuffed and top heavy that it collapses under its own weight. All the movie’s bells and whistles seem to cry, “Look at me. Look at what an exceptional film this is.” Some may buy into the movie’s sizzle, but the meat I crave is of a different ilk. In the end, The Aviator has Hughes-sized ambitions that render the film a high-powered oddity.

Rating: 2 1/2

Finding Neverland (PG)

Directed by: Marc Forster
Starring: Johnny Depp
November 2004

“Magical Retelling of Tired Tale”

Based on the real life trials and successes of playwright, J.M. Barrie, the visionary who brought us Peter Pan, Finding Neverland is a moving film, rich in character and imagination. Finding Neverland is pure drama, so viewers looking for anything else will be sorely disappointed (like those two, giggly teenage girls who sat right behind me). The movie really delivers emotionally, revealing the human condition at its best and worst—its brightest and darkest.

Johnny Depp (Pirates of the Caribbean) is brilliant as Barrie and pulls off a surprisingly authentic Scottish brogue. Showcasing his expansive range, Depp masterfully reveals just how adept he is at being serious or silly and how skillfully he can morph from one into the other.

In the midst of a failing marriage, mediocre theater attendance and scathing reviews for his plays, Barrie escaped into the realms of his fertile imagination and created Neverland, a magical world, but what’s more, a guiding philosophy for his life. It’s this philosophy of optimism that anchors Barrie during the storms that incessantly assail him…the theater owner (a very un-Hook-like Dustin Hoffman) is pressuring him to produce a hit, his wife leaves him for another man, rumors of inappropriate activity surround his friendship with the newly widowed Sylvia Davies (Kate Winslet) and her four sons (two of them named Michael and Peter), the palpable disdain and disapproval he receives from Sylvia’s controlling mother (Julie Christy) and Sylvia’s untimely death from an unknown disease.

Winslet plays the beleaguered-but-not-showing-it single mother to the hilt; Barrie is a breath of fresh air to her lonely life, a touch of freedom and spontaneity to banish the doldrums of her regulated existence. The Davies children were excellently cast; their appearance, accents and attitudes are appropriate to the milieu and add to the movie’s emotional impact in small, but crucial ways…especially tenderhearted, teary-eyed Peter.

Dustin Hoffman’s appearances are infrequent, but his portrayal of the laconic theater owner is touching in an impersonal way—he genuinely believes in Barrie’s talent and is willing to put his money, reputation and career on the line for the young playwright. Together, they’re a potent team: one has the vision to fill theater seats and the other has a driving passion to fill people’s hearts with adventure and wonderment.

This account depicts Barrie as the quintessential gentleman, and the movie, itself, is a gentle thunder that doesn’t “wow” you, but has a lingering quality that lasts long after you’ve left the theater.
Finding Neverland is magical cinema that transports the viewer to a place of hope and beauty that resides somewhere between our hearts and the second star to the right.

Rating: 3

Ray (PG-13)

Directed by: Taylor Hackford
Starring: Jamie Foxx
October 2004

“Touching Tale Leaves Ray on Our Mind”

Ray Charles was one of the greatest singer/songwriters of our time. He was also a womanizer and a heroine addict. To its credit, Ray doesn’t gloss over these sordid details but exposes them for what they were…every star has foibles.

The movie begins with Ray getting on a bus and heading out to join a band in Seattle. As his career progresses, so does his back-story, which is revealed a chapter at a time in dreamy flashback sequences.

Reared in veritable poverty—in a sweltering Florida slum—Ray Charles had a fairly happy childhood playing games with his kid brother and terrorizing his hardworking mother. One day, Ray’s brother, while playing near a brimming washtub, slipped and drowned. Ray could have prevented the tragedy, but he just stood there, completely frozen in the oppressive heat. He blamed himself for decades after the incident, and his guilt created the pattern of self-destructive behavior that plagued him for most of his adult life.

Another retrospective segment reveals the time when Ray’s vision began to worsen. One of the most powerful scenes in the movie depicts the agony his mother endured as she resisted the urge to help Ray navigate around the various obstacles in their house. His mother instilled in Ray a dogged resolve, warning him that no one would pity him because of his handicap and that he needed to stand on his own two feet.

Ray took those words to heart by accepting small-time gigs and eventually working his way up to touring with a band and finally becoming a solo artist. Ray’s business sense served him in good stead (he required payment in dollar bills), as did his ability to negotiate (he once charmed his way into retaining his masters).

The story is a tragedy, but also a triumph; and after enduring a tumultuous season in rehab., Ray never went back to drugs. Also, he was honored by the state that had previously banned him when that state adopted “Georgia on My Mind” as its state song.

Jamie Foxx’s portrayal of Ray Charles is simply astounding; he comes as close as anyone ever has as to perfectly capturing the nuances and soul of the real-life person they’re playing. An Oscar nod for Foxx is a foregone conclusion—his performance is a revelation of Herculean proportions (and I don’t suppose it hurt that Foxx had the opportunity to meet and study the music legend before his untimely passing earlier this year).

Regina King, who plays Ray’s feisty paramour, excels as a triple-threat fly girl; she stands out as the only supporting character that holds her own against Foxx’s overpowering performance.

Ray is an emotional journey that takes the high road of veracity in a market replete with embellished versions of “true stories.” We miss you already, Ray.

Rating: 3

Bobby Jones: Stroke of Genius (PG)

Directed by: Rowdy Herrington
Starring: Jim Caviezel
April 2004

“Inspiring, True Story is a Hole in One ”

Football has Remember the Titans and Rudy. Basketball has Hoosiers and Space Jam. Hockey has Miracle and The Mighty Ducks. Baseball has The Rookie, The Natural, The Sandlot, Bull Durham, Field of Dreams, A League of Their Own and too many others to mention here. Now golf has Bobby Jones: Stroke of Genius, the definitive film on the subject.

Bobby Jones was arguably the greatest golfer to ever play the sport—he’s the only person in history to win all four major golf tournaments (the Grand Slam) in the same year. He was sickly as a child, but fell in love with golf at an early age, watching many golf legends play at nearby St. Andrews Golf Course in Scotland. By age fourteen, Bobby was a golf prodigy, but he retired at twenty-eight due to continued failing health and his desire to start a family.

James Caviezel (
The Passion of the Christ) plays Bobby Jones, and his pitch-perfect performance reveals Jones’ many passions…both good and bad. Jones’ biggest detriments on the fairway were his explosive temper and potty mouth, both of which became manifest every time the ball went somewhere he didn’t want it to go. As a means of dealing with his debilitating condition, Jones also consumed great amounts of alcohol, which, of course, produced many additional problems. On the flip side, Jones was a decent and fair man, sometimes to a fault…at one tournament, he called a penalty on himself.

The supporting cast in the movie is exceptionally strong. Claire Forlani (
Meet Joe Black) plays Jones’ supportive wife, Aidan Quinn (Practical Magic) portrays one of Jones’ golf heroes, and Malcolm McDowell (A Clockwork Orange) is Jones’ mentor (think Obi Wan with a golf club). Also appearing in a cameo role is well-known evangelist, Alistair Begg, who plays Stanley, friend of the family and a great golfer in his own right.

Stroke of Genius is a straightforward drama film that has little action, and, therefore, will seem boring to some moviegoers. The plot contains no major twists but does posit a tidbit of social commentary; Jones’ mentor makes the assertion that money is ruining amateur sports. In recent years, we’ve seen just how prophetic that statement was. Bobby Jones: Stroke of Genius is entertaining and heartwarming, but it certainly won’t go down as the greatest sports movie ever made.

Rating: 3

Antwone Fisher (PG-13)

Directed by: Denzel Washington
Starring: Derek Luke
January 2003

Denzel Washington’s directorial debut is—was there any doubt—a great piece of cinema. Based on a true story of the title character’s life,
Antwone Fisher reveals the challenges of dealing with a painful past and the courage one can find when confronting those issues. Despite some heavy subject matter, Antwone Fisher is a triumph.

Rating: 3

Catch Me if You Can (PG-13)

Directed by: Steven Spielberg
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio
December 2002

The opening sequence is absolutely brilliant—a throwback to a sixties spy flick.
Catch Me if You Can is highly entertaining and Hanks and DiCaprio are spot-on. Catch Me if You Can is so unbelievable at times, that occasionally you have to stop and remind yourself that this actually happened.

Rating: 3

A Beautiful Mind (PG-13)

Directed by: Ron Howard
Starring: Russell Crowe
January 2002

A truly exquisite film—and would you expect any less from Ron Howard? Cerebral and convoluted (much like a brain),
A Beautiful Mind is a powerful true story of love and courage, compellingly brought to life by Crowe and Connelly.

Rating: 3 1/2

Remember the Titans (PG-13)

Directed by: Boaz Yakin
Starring: Denzel Washington
September 2000

On his impressively long list of career-defining roles, Denzel Washington’s turn as football head coach Boone, of newly-integrated T.C. Williams High School in Virginia during the early seventies, stands out as one of his very best.
Remember the Titans is so much more than a sports movie and even transcends its poignant social commentary…the movie is fun and the characters are memorable. There are many standout scenes, including: the team’s pre-dawn jog to Gettysburg, Gary Bertier’s ill-fated drive and, of course, the championship game. Remember the Titans is a winner on many different levels.

Rating: 3