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


One Life (PG)

Screen Shot 2024-04-03 at 10.35.35 PM
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she’s away on a trip, Nicky drags dozens of file boxes from his study to the front yard, where he turns the mound of historical documents into a bonfire (an ironic twist on Nazi book burning).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

Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny (PG-13)

Directed by: James Mangold
Starring: Harrison Ford
June 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!

Fifteen years after the infamous Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008), we have the fifth, and final, film in the fedora franchise.

Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny opens on a rainy night in Germany, circa 1944. While operating behind enemy lines, Indy is captured by Nazis…because what would an Indy film be without them? A protracted, passé action sequence ensues, pitting Indy and his sidekick, Basil Shaw (an egregiously underserved Toby Jones), against German soldiers and Colonel Weber (Thomas Kretschmann) on top of a train. With the bad guys vanquished and the artifact secured…

…we jump forward in time to the movie’s present—1969. It’s “Space Day,” and a massive crowd is celebrating the safe return of the Apollo 11 astronauts with a ticker tape parade in NYC. Just as Indy is about to retire from teaching, his goddaughter, Helena Shaw (Phoebe Waller-Bridge), surfaces and embroils the octogenarian archeologist in a globetrotting adventure to discover the titular artifact, which, purportedly, can open fissures in time.

So, the burning question for many fans of the series will be, does
Dial resemble the original trilogy or the ignominious previous film? Dial is a hard left turn from campy Crystal, a wise choice by studio execs and the film’s producers. It’s a serious film; perhaps too serious. In an effort not to come off like a cartoon (a la Crystal), Dial overcorrects, to its detriment. Though its action sequences are finely executed by director James Mangold—this is the first Indy film not to be helmed by Steven Spielberg—there’s little levity to counterbalance the movie’s earnest storytelling and somber mood. Indeed, despite its surfeit of high-octane action scenes, Dial is a joyless joyride.

At two hours and thirty-four minutes,
Dial is overlong and over involved. It spends too much time focusing on the past when the more interesting story elements are in the present—namely, the fate of Indy’s son (no Shia LaBeouf as Mutt in this outing) and Indy’s strained relationship with his wife, Marion (Karen Allen, who makes a brief appearance in the film).

And speaking of the past, the movie’s climax is sure to raise a few eyebrows…and make others mad enough to throw their bucket of popcorn at the movie screen. Though not as jarringly unrealistic as the alien reveal at the end of
Crystal, Dial’s time-jumping climax will surely create a debate over whether or not it “jumps the shark” (with apologies to Jaws). Spoilers: Why is Helena so insistent that the Archimedes Dial be returned to the future when she doesn’t even give a second thought to the crashed WWII plane? Hasn’t she heard of the Prime Directive (yes, Star Trek was on the air from 1966-1969)? Incidentally, the concept of a plane traveling through a time vortex has been done before, and done better, in The Twilight Zone episode, “The Odyssey of Flight 33.”

Even with her annoying stubbornness and occasional errors in judgment, Helena is the most interesting character the movie. Though not always operating on the right side of the law—Indy frequently turns a critical eye toward her shady dealings—Helena brings some much needed exuberance and irreverence to the film. Her insouciance is the proper counterweight (like a bag of sand replacing an idol) to stolid and avuncular Indy, who incessantly lectures Helena as if she’s one of his pupils.

In one scene, Indy gripes about growing old, a requisite admission one would think. Of all his failing body parts, though, what hinders him most in the film is his broken funny bone. Maybe Ford is just playing himself at this point, but his portrayal of the eponymous action hero is that of a bitter and perturbed old man who forgot to take his Geritol.

Amid its more pedestrian elements (like old Indy riding a horse through a subway), the movie has a few adult moments. In these scenes, Indy grapples with retirement, engages in self-recrimination over his son’s death and laments his relationship woes. The movie also has a couple meaningful themes; the importance of second chances and the dangers of playing God, particularly applicable to those who desire to go back in time and rewrite history, like villainous Voller (Mads Mikkelsen, the next Nazi iteration of Ronald Lacey’s Toht from
Raiders of the Lost Ark).

The main theme, which is subtly woven throughout the film, is obsession. Basil spent much of his life trying to track down the other half of the Dial. Following in her father’s footsteps, Helena also doggedly pursues the Dial, although her motivations for doing so are far from scientific or altruistic. This multigenerational search for a historical object recalls Henry Jones’ (Sean Connery) obsession with finding the Holy Grail in
Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989). Just as Henry tells Indy to “Let it go,” Indy must convince Helena to do the same before she loses her life in the reckless pursuit of the artifact.

The theme John Williams composed for the spirited heroine (“Helena’s Theme”) is absolutely gorgeous—a sweeping, romantic piece that recalls the music of Hollywood’s Golden Age. The entire score is laced with nostalgic cues and only features a few brief instances of the iconic “Raiders March” to remind us that we’re in an
Indiana Jones movie. Williams’ score is an Oscar-worthy effort made even more remarkable by the fact that he was 90 when he composed it.

Back to the burning question, is
Dial a good film? To answer in Indy speak, “Good, yes; great, no!” Dial ranks right in the middle of the Indy cycle of movies: it isn’t as epic as Raiders and isn’t as fun as The Last Crusade. But, at least Dial doesn’t feature chilled monkey brains or man-eating ants.

Dial is a well produced (except for the hit-and-miss age-regression CGI during the opening sequence), directed (Mangold isn’t Spielberg, but he acquits himself well), and acted (new: Antonio Banderas and returning: John Rhys-Davies actors deliver delightful performances) film that contains many elements of a really good Indy adventure. However, the movie isn’t all the way dialed in and fails to deliver the rousing series climax audiences expected and deserved.

In the final analysis, the movie just isn’t fun and only has a little touch of the ole
Indy magic at the very end. Sad.

So, what have we learned from the film? You can never have too much ice cream. Old action heroes never hang up their fedoras (for long). Oh, and never bring a bullwhip to a gun battle.

Rating: 2 ½ out of 4

Jesus Revolution (PG-13)

Directed by: Jon Erwin, Brent McCorkle
Starring: Joel Courtney
February 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!

Based on true events, Jesus Revolution chronicles the early days of a spiritual movement that started in California and swept across the U.S. in the early 70s.

The film opens with aging pastor, Chuck Smith (Kelsey Grammer), shepherding aging parishioners; they sit like statues, uninspired by his passionless homily. While watching TV at home, Chuck makes a negative remark about the sea of longhaired youth at a protest. His daughter says he shouldn’t pass judgment on the hippies. The next day, she brings one home to confront her father with his own prejudice. The Jesus-looking hippie is named Lonnie (Jonathan Roumie).

Lonnie invites his friends over to Chuck’s house, and soon, the church is overrun with the barefoot brigade. On the plus side, Lonnie and his lot breathe life into the church, bringing lively music, excitement and a hunger for the truth to the calcified congregation. Now Chuck is faced with a difficult decision: should he embrace these colorful newcomers and risk losing his members, or send the hippies packing and return to business as usual?

The second word in title might give you a hint as to what Chuck did.

Not only does the movie center on an inflection point in our nation’s history, it also dramatizes a major turning point in the lives of three prominent ministers—Chuck Smith from Calvary Chapel, evangelist Lonnie Frisbee and Greg Laurie (played by Joel Courtney) of Harvest Christian Fellowship. Each of these men has made an indelible impact on the way countless Protestant churches operate, serve and worship today.

Co-directed by Jon Erwin (
I Can Only Imagine) and Brent McCorkle, Jesus Revolution perfectly captures the look and feel of the late 60s and early 70s. From the shaggy coifs and grubby duds to the psychedelic “Magic Bus,” every frame of the film feels true to the period. Another layer of authenticity is the washed out, “old film stock” look; a visual style that’s effective in many of the movie’s outdoor scenes, particularly those shot at the “Pirate’s Cove” location.

The movie boasts many fine young actors, particularly Courtney and Anna Grace Barlow, who plays Cathe, Greg’s girlfriend. Headlining the cast is Grammer, who deftly negotiates the emotions of a man caught between two worlds: traditional Christianity and the new movement embraced by the youth of the era. Kudos to Grammer for choosing to be involved with this project and for being so outspoken about his faith. Many have been cancelled for less.

The other veteran actor in the movie is Kimberly Williams-Paisley, who plays Greg’s mother in a minor and fairly unsympathetic role. Of course, Roumie is a major draw for many in the audience since he plays Jesus in “The Chosen.” Tough his wardrobe is different here, Roumie retains his messianic appearance from the Biblical series. However, fans of the series might be thrown for a loop the first time they hear him speak.

Aside from its terrific cast, historical accuracy and excellent production elements, the movie has a lot to say about our culture, both then and now.

For a Christian film, there’s a surprising surfeit of drug content here, although most of the drugs are mentioned, not shown. Speaking of his generation, Lonnie says, “Drugs were a quest…for God.” Though many claimed “acid would save the world,” it was a lie; there was “still a void.” He admits that his contemporaries were “searching for all the right things in all the wrong places.”

This highlights one of the movie’s main themes—the search for truth. The youth of the 60s and 70s were tired of being lied to by parents and a corrupt government, and turned to sex, drugs and rock and roll to try and escape a world gone mad.

Ironically, what the youth of that period were searching for, “Peace and Love,” are hallmarks of Christianity (Galatians 5:22-23). Observing the similarities between the rallying cry of the countercultural youth of the day and the mission of the church, Chuck’s daughter wisely asks him, “Don’t you want the same thing?”

In one scene, Cathe says, “What if there is no truth?” Greg picks up on her reference to one of the popular philosophies espoused by Allen Ginsberg. Greg rejects this notion: “Some things are absolutely true.” Even before his conversion to Christianity, Greg believed that there’s one objective truth.

Chuck’s wife Kay (Julia Campbell) makes this profound statement, “The truth is always quiet; the lies are always loud.” She buttons up her point with, “The truth is simple.”

I sincerely hope our politicians are reading this.

Jesus Revolution is much more than a religious biopic. It’s a heartfelt drama that also has comedic and romantic elements. It’s a story of renewal and redemption. A tale of faith and friendship.

It’s been said that with God there are no coincidences. So then, it’s no coincidence that just before the release of
Jesus Revolution, a revival broke out at Asbury University in Kentucky. Perhaps what’s started there will be the beginning of a new Jesus Revolution. And considering the fact that this movie opened the same weekend as Cocaine Bear, boy do we need it!

Rating: 3 out of 4

The Courier (PG-13)

Directed by: Benedict Cumberbatch
Starring: Dominic Cooke
March 2021

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!

The Cold War heats up in this political thriller from director Dominic Cooke (
On Chesil Beach).

A Russian spy, Oleg Penkovsky (Merab Ninidze), secretly believes Soviet leader Khrushchev’s (Vladimir Chuprikov) policies and rhetoric have become too aggressive (“…we…will…bury them!”), and that he shouldn’t be in control of an arsenal of nuclear weapons. Penkovsky sends a message to MI6 in London, outlining his plan to relay top secret information to British Intelligence in exchange for extraction from Russia.

In a bold move, MI6’s Dickie Franks (Angus Wright) and CIA agent Emily Donovan (Rachel Brosnahan) recruit a British businessman, Greville Wynne (Benedict Cumberbatch), to establish contact with Penkovsky. Wynne flies to Russia on a business trip to meet Penkovsky, and the two men begin an association that will lead them into ever greater intrigue and danger.

I’d love to tell you more of the plot, but then I’d have to kill you…and I like you. So I won’t.

There are two reasons I wanted to see this film:

1. Though it doesn’t directly deal with the conflict, the subject of the movie is the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. This is a personal historical event for me since my father served aboard a destroyer that was part of the blockade (his ship turned its large deck gun on a Russian U-boat, which promptly tucked tail and headed back to the U.S.S.R.).

2. The movie stars Cumberbatch, whom I esteem as one of the finest actors of our generation. His acting in the film has further reinforced that opinion. Not only is Cumberbatch’s performance finely-nuanced, his Tom Hanks (
Philadelphia and Cast Away) and Christian Bale (The Machinist) style emaciation is startling.

So, have you seen this movie before under different guises? Yes.

Penkovsky’s plan to leave Russia is reminiscent of Marko Ramius’ (Sean Connery) intention to defect from Russia to the U.S. on the eponymous nuclear submarine in
The Hunt for Red October (1990). Another similarity between these films is Penkovsky’s desire to live in Montana; the same state Captain Borodin (Sam Neill) wants to live in after he’s defected from Russia in the Red October.

Of course, a more recent touchstone for this film is Steven Spielberg’s
Bridge of Spies (2015). In that movie, American insurance lawyer, Jim Donovan (Tom Hanks) is sent to Berlin to mediate the exchange of an American pilot for a captured Russian spy, Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance).

There are many parallels between
The Courier and Bridge of Spies. Both films are set during the Cold War and both are based on real events. Also, both Wynne and Donovan are hardworking everymen with no prior espionage experience. They both befriend a Russian spy, albeit for completely different reasons. Both men step up to the challenge (lesser men simply wouldn’t have gotten involved) and exhibit courage in the face of danger.

The entire thrust of the movie is about spying. Not only are Penkovsky and Wynne spying against the Russians, the Russians are spying on themselves. This fills the film with a pervasive paranoia.

It also provides a stark contrast with the scenes in London, where there isn’t the same feeling of anxiety that’s present in the scenes that take place in Russia. It’s the difference between a nation spying on its enemies (Great Britain) versus a country spying on its enemies
and it own citizens (Russia).

Sadly, we’ve had a long litany of spying in America. We’ve gone from spying on our neighbors (the Red Scare), to spying on political adversaries (the Watergate scandal), to spying on terrorists in our midst (the Patriot Act), to spying on individuals (Carter Page), to spying on the masses (hackers and social media platforms).

The script by Tom O’Connor is a slow-boil political yarn in the vein of
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011), which also featured Cumberbatch in its cast. For those who enjoy a well-structured plot with riveting intrigue and mild action, this film is for you. Those who prefer more action in their spy film (a la James Bond) might be disappointed by this movie’s slow start and deliberate pacing throughout.

Cooke’s sure-handed direction is further abetted by Sean Bobbitt’s crisp, moody cinematography. Though many of its scenes take place indoors, the film makes excellent use of its Prague and London locations. Most of the on location work was shot under overcast skies, which further enhances the film’s melancholy mood.

At first glance, you probably wouldn’t consider this is a buddy movie, but Penkovsky and Wynne (just like Donovan and Abel in
Bridge of Spies) forge an unlikely partnership that leads to a sacrificial friendship.

When the KGB begins to close in on Penkovsky, Wynne tells Franks and Donovan, “I’m not leaving him.” Wynne flies to Russia to help extract Penkovsky at great personal risk. Penkovsky and Wynne are willing to die in order to protect the secrets that can save millions of lives.

In the final analysis,
The Courier features deft direction, top-shelf writing and fine performances. It’s a finely mounted period piece that superbly captures the Cold War milieu.

Aside from these artistic considerations, the film recalls one of the most dangerous periods in history and leaves us with some nagging questions regarding the nature of spying.

It also spotlights courage and friendship. Penkovsky tells Wynne, “Maybe we’re only two people…but this is how things change.”

That haunting line is the heart of the film and begs the question: If these two men from enemy countries could work together for the common good, why can’t our politicians find consensus to solve the many pressing challenges currently facing our nation?

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

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

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

Dunkirk (PG-13)

Directed by: Christopher Nolan
Starring: Fionn Whitehead
July 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!

Who else but Christopher Nolan (Inception) would be ambitious, or insane, enough to helm a film that depicts one of the worst military defeats in history? Based on the true account of how British and French forces were cut off and surrounded by the German army with their backs to the sea, Dunkirk is a prime example of how military intelligence often lives up to its reputation as an oxymoron. With the large troop transports blasted into flotsam, a flotilla of fishing boats and pleasure yachts was mobilized to rescue the 330,000 soldiers stranded on the beach at Dunkirk, France. But with enemy planes bombing the beachhead, the stranded soldiers were the very definition of sitting ducks. The film’s action takes place in three different arenas: land (getting off the beach), sea (boarding boats and evading enemy bombs) and air (destroying inbound enemy fighters and bombers). As would be expected with a Nolan film, the action sequences are absolutely mind-blowing and the cinematography by Hoyte Van Hoytema is meticulously crafted. Some of the finest sequences in the film are the dogfights, which effectively meld newer camera techniques with the shuddering, metal shearing, bolt-popping rawness of a classical Hollywood war film. The performances are adequate to the task, but there’s a dearth of dialog and a surfeit of long, penetrating gazes in the film. Case in point, the great Kenneth Branagh (as Commander Bolton) is reduced to a series of slow zoom close-ups that make him appear as if he’s struggling to hold in a suppository. Likewise, James D’Arcy (as Colonel Winnant) does little more than pace back and forth in a state of perpetual agitation, fretfully delivering the same line a dozen different ways over the course of the film. Young performers Fionn Whitehead and Damien Bonnard do the majority of the physical acting, but really aren’t given much to say either. Ironically, the character we are most drawn to is ace pilot Farrier (Tom Hardy), whose face is partially concealed for the majority of the movie. Also ironic is the fact that the film’s biggest drawback is Nolan’s writing. The cause and effect narrative takes us from one event, happening or action scene to the next with very little, if any, character moments in between. Dunkirk’s narrative is comprised of a series of storyboarded sequences and, as such, plays like a cinematic comic strip. The lack of character development leads to a disinterest in the few characters that actually have lines in the film. Indeed, due to the dearth of emotional investment in the characters, we don’t really sympathize with them at all. Though vastly different in theme and tone, Dunkirk is exactly what Titanic would’ve been without the love story. The reason Titanic was a titular success is that James Cameron crafted real characters that we could identify with so that when the inevitable disaster struck we were right there with them, in essence inhabiting their bodies and experiencing the tragedy with them firsthand. Aside from its marvelous acting, directing, detailed period elements and high production values, it’s that immediacy, that soul-possessing intimacy, which made the movie resonate so powerfully with audiences. In Dunkirk, we never get under the skin of the characters…everything is external. Because Dunkirk is so well made, scores of people will disagree with my assessment of the film. However, how much more powerful would the film have been if our connection with the characters was so strong that we could feel the sand between our toes as we stood beside the soldiers or felt the bone-jarring concussion of the bombs impacting on the beach? Taking nothing away from Nolan, who is a fine director in his own right, but in the hands of Steven Spielberg, who would’ve sent the script back for a massive rewrite insisting on richer back stories and more poignant character moments, Dunkirk would’ve been a four star film and Best Picture nominee.

The Case for Christ (PG)

Directed by: Jon Gunn
Starring: Mike Vogel
April 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!

Based on the true story of how Chicago Tribune reporter, Lee Strobel (Mike Vogel), set out to debunk Christianity in the early 80s, The Case for Christ is a challenging biopic that proceeds in an investigative manner and delivers its evidence fairly and without being overly preachy. As a stone cold atheist, Lee launches into a zealous, one-man crusade to discredit Christianity when his wife, Leslie (Erika Christensen), starts attending church and becomes a follower of Jesus. Lee embarks on a cross-country trek to discover the truth, interviewing experts on both sides of the argument. In the end, Lee comes to the realization that either way, believing or not believing in Christ, requires a leap of faith. Vogel (Under the Dome) and Christensen (Parenthood) are effective in their leading roles as a couple struggling to reconcile their divergent worldviews. Robert Forster, as Lee’s estranged father, and Faye Dunaway, as a professor of psychiatry at Purdue University, are dependably good in their ancillary roles. The coifs and costumes are all appropriate to the milieu, as are the product placements, i.e., the yellow bottle of Joy dish soap and Lee’s Motorola pocket pager. For a pro-faith film, this is an impressive production, especially when considering the quality of the typical Christian film. In the end, no matter which side of the argument you’re on, you must admit that this movie makes a compelling case.

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.

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.

The Young Messiah (PG-13)

Directed by: Cyrus Nowrasteh
Starring: Adam Greaves-Neal
March 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 Young Messiah
How to draw a camel in the sand.
Death by apple.
Early miracle. #BirdResurrection
“Cavemen in Britain.” Was Britain even around back then?
“Destined to wander.” Israel has a history of wandering.
“How do you explain God to his own son?” #Dilemma
“Next time there will be no mercy.” True. #Crucifixion
Dreams run in the family. Keen observation.
“The boy must die.” Good luck with that...he dies at 33.
“He is not just a child.” Amen.
A glimpse of the future. #CrucifixionRoad
“The Romans fear the young.” With good reason.
“I like this child.” Me too.
The #AngelChild tells #Satan to keep his hands to himself.
Don’t say the word rain around #Jesus or it’ll start raining.
“She’s just a woman.” Show more respect for Mary.
Romans in the temple. Oh my!
“God is your father.” A big question is answered for #Jesus.
Final analysis: a unique telling of #Jesus’ early years with some beautiful locations and a solid cast.
2 1/2 out of 4. Perfect casting of the central role infuses the film with joy and compassion.

A host of films have focused on the life of Jesus, and the vast majority of those have included the same basic story elements, i.e.,: his birth, ministry, crucifixion, resurrection, ascension, etc. Since the entire film focuses on the titular savior at age seven (even though the temple scene actually took place when he was twelve), The Young Messiah is an exception to the typical theological presentation. But with little to no Biblical backing for many of the events in the film, what Messiah gains in originality it loses in authenticity. Taking its cue from the recent Roman soldier spotlight film Risen, Messiah applies the 80/20 Rule to its narrative structure, with 80% of the story extrapolated from recorded history and dramatized for a mass audience and only 20% coming directly from passages in the Bible. The most noticeable deviation from the holy text is when young Jesus (Adam Greaves-Neal) performs miracles while he’s a boy living in Egypt. There’s no scriptural support for this plot point, and to the contrary, the Bible records Jesus’ first miracle at the wedding in Cana (John 2:1-11) when he was thirty. Be that as it may, the young lad having to conceal or constrain his supernatural powers is an interesting plot point that’s analogous to many comic book yarns where the hero tries to hide his abilities in order to blend in with the general populace (Superman being chief among these archetypes since, as many have noted, the Man of Steel’s messianic origin story and miracle working abilities directly parallel Christ’s). However non-canonical this subplot is, it does create tension and intrigue, especially in the early passages of the film (although I could’ve done without the gimmicky bird resuscitation scene). Also, like in Risen, Messiah features several new story elements that work quite well, including: Sean Bean as Roman centurion Severus, a conflicted soldier who is tasked with killing the young healer, and the Spartacus (1960) style Roman road flanked with crucified Jews. I was hoping that young Jesus would look up and knowingly stare at a cross…a foreshadowing of his impending demise. But alas, this is just one of many examples in the film of how an opportunity to create art was passed over (pun intended), which might speak to a lack of vision on the part of director Cyrus Nowrasteh or a shortage of shekels which shackled the production. All is not lost artistically though, since there’s a really nice aerial shot of Jesus’ family traversing the serpentine road lined with crosses at the end of the sequence. Despite period appropriate costumes and a handful of decent location shots, the film has a decidedly cash-strapped appearance. Sometimes acting can help elevate a budget-challenged picture (like Ben Kingsley in Walking with the Enemy), but such is not the case here. Other than Greaves-Neal, Bean and Sara Lazzaro (who plays Jesus’ mother, Mary), the rest of the cast members deliver par or subpar performances. All things considered, this was a valiant attempt at focusing on a brief chapter in Christ’s early years, but the writing, acting, directing and overall production didn’t support its vision or potential. Ironically, Messiah will go down as just another average Bible film that failed to inspire its audience.

Risen (PG-13)

Directed by: Kevin Reynolds
Starring: Joseph Fiennes
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!

Rolling stones used in combat. Symbolic of the big one later in the story. #RollingStones
“Until then...” #RomanBrutality
“Order...order.” I got it the first time. #BreathMint
Unusual for a #Bible movie to begin with the crucifixion.
“Never killed a king before.” Not just a king. #KingOfKings
“It’s as if he wanted to be sacrificed.” Like a lamb to the slaughter. #NoGreaterLove
“A day without death.” Great dialog during the pool scene.
“We must find a body.” Let the investigation begin. #CSIJerusalem
“Wait ‘till you see combat.” Ha!
“Some say he has risen.”
The scene where #Clavius asks which of his men knows #MaryMagdalene is hilarious.
“This is what you missed.” #RomanNail #Crucifixion
“They’re everywhere!” #Bartholomew is a great character who provides some much needed #ComicRelief. #12Disciples
The sword slips through #Clavius’ fingers. Seeing #Yeshua is a disarming experience.
“No one dies today.” The pursuit by the #Roman soldiers is an exciting sequence.
#CliffCurtis is very good in his portrayal of #Jesus.
The healing of the leper gave me #Goosebumps.
The #Ascension is spectacular!
“I doubt we’ll ever hear from them again.” Wrong!
Final analysis: the #Resurrection story told from a unique POV. Benefits from solid acting and gorgeous locations.
3 out of 4. An original yet reverent #Bible epic with one of the finest #Redemption stories ever told.

Some years ago, back when I had aspirations of plying my acting skills (such as they are) into a career, I had the lead part in an Easter cantata entitled Bow the Knee.  The story focuses on a Roman centurion who has a crisis of conscience regarding the teacher named Jesus.  The play presented a unique story told from the POV of an original character and echoed similar conceits in films like Ben Hur (1959) and Barabbas (1961).  Like in Bow the Knee, Risen narrates the Passion of Christ through the eyes of a Roman soldier, but the twist here is that most of the story takes place after the crucifixion (which occurs early in the film).  The action kicks into high gear when Jesus’ tomb is found empty and Roman Tribune Clavius (Joseph Fiennes) is put in charge of the investigation to find the body.  This procedural element keeps the story rolling along until Clavius has a life changing encounter with the subject of his pursuit midway through the movie.  Clavius falls in with the disciples and, by proxy, takes us on a spiritual journey which is punctuated by several key events from Jesus’ post-resurrection ministry. The 80/20 rule applies to this movie, with roughly 20% of the tale actually based on scripture and 80% extrapolated from the inspired text and presented for dramatic effect.  The end result here is seeker sensitive and palatable for those with an open mind, but will probably frustrate those fundamentalist theologians who maintain that a Biblical epic must be chapter and verse (and has there ever been such a film since none of us where there 2,000 years ago to determine the story’s authenticity?).  One of the most exciting elements in the story is how it weaves in and out of the official New Testament narrative, which provides freshness for those familiar with the actual events from the Bible. Some of those vignettes, extracted directly from the holy book, are extremely well executed, such as: the crucifixion, the fish bounty, the healing of the leper and the ascension. Other sequences, like when Roman soldiers pursue the disciples through tussocks of grass and winding canyons, are nowhere to be found in the Bible, but are visually exciting and help maintain audience interest throughout the story.  Aside from its pioneering plot, the acting is also a boon to the film.  Fiennes is superb in the lead role and plays his character’s gradual shift in loyalties to perfection.  Peter Firth is exceptional as Pontius Pilate, portraying the Roman official as a flesh and blood character rather than an egomaniacal caricature.  Tom Felton is effective as ambitious Roman soldier Lucius and Cliff Curtis (Fear the Walking Dead) delivers an understated, yet deeply affecting, performance as Jesus.  In addition to the movie’s fine production elements, the locations have greatly contributed to the visual veracity of the film.  Shot in Spain and Malta, these exteriors have helped the story come to life by accurately depicting the Holy Land during the First Century.  In the end, this is a compelling story of personal redemption that just happens to be based on the Bible, and as such, should have appeal far beyond the religious set. 

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.

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.

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.

Walking with the Enemy (PG-13)

Directed by: Mark Schmidt
Starring: Jonas Armstrong
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!

Walking With the Enemy
Mr. Kingsley, as you’ll recall, also played a protagonist opposed to the Nazis in Schindler’s List (1993).

1944. Hungary. Nazi invasion. Restrictions. Curfews. And so it begins.
“I’ve got a bad feeling about this.”

Not so warm welcome at the work camp.
As would be expected…this isn’t the Ritz after all.

Kingsley, the Hungarian leader, must choose the lesser of two evils.
Some good acting here, but nothing that really makes Kingsley flex his acting muscles. Also, too many of the shots in this scene were done from one camera setup, which makes the sequence feel static and unimaginative. A prime indicator of just how time and budget constrained this film is.

American planes arrive. An exciting but short-lived action scene.
Just a guess, but this sequence probably consumed about half of the movie’s budget.

German officers take what they want. Rough scene.

You definitely don’t want to get caught with a radio.

“This piece of paper is someone’s life.” A chilling statement.
This scene has considerable dramatic heft; ironic considering how lightweight the object in question is. Items purchasing freedom for the oppressed echoes the scene at the end of Schindler’s List where Schindler is willing to offer his watch and car to save more lives; a bargain, he bitterly realizes, he’s too late to make.

The greater of two evils stages a coup.
A. Germany. B. Russia. Unless you’re a student of history you have a 50/50 chance of guessing correct.

German officers joke about their “resorts.” Detestable.

Final analysis: an OK WWII tale that’s notable more for its historical importance than its filmmaking.

2 1/2 out of 4 stars. Kingsley’s involvement is negligible in a film desperate for his talent.

Despite its obvious dearth of talent, time and money, the movie makes the most of what it has by featuring some impressive on location work. Also, the film’s sets, props and outfits (uniforms play a major role in the film) are all well designed and period appropriate. What holds the movie back is middling performances by a largely no-name cast, a sputtering screenplay by Kenny Golde (the first half of the film really drags and some of it could’ve been condensed or trimmed since the film runs fifteen minutes too long anyway) and standard, largely uninspired direction by Mark Schmidt. What’s sad about the end result here is that this true account is actually an inspiring tale of courage and cleverness in the face of unspeakable evil. One wonders how significant the improvement in overall quality would’ve been if the movie had had a bigger budget, a top shelf director (a la Spielberg, who tends to do well with this period of history) and some real star power. As for Kingsley, he does what he can with what little screen time he’s given, but his presence is more like a cameo than a star turn. On this count, the movie poster, which prominently features Kingsley’s visage, is more than a little disingenuous. Fans of the performer will feel shortchanged by his blink-and-you’ll-miss-it part, while those who know Kingsley only by sight will wonder why this accomplished actor isn’t featured more prominently in the story. Either way, the movie needed more of Kingsley. And more money wouldn’t have hurt either.

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.

Noah (PG-13)

Directed by: Darren Aronofsky
Starring: Russell Crowe
March 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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Crowe and Connelly also portrayed a married couple in A Beautiful Mind (2001).

Not too worried about spoiling plot points for this one.

The intro is eye opening...never heard of the Watchers.

Noah is quite the humanitarian...looks out for white flowers and dragon dogs.
Just a guess, but his skill at taking care of animals might come in handy someday.

Noah encounters a Watcher. I wonder if it has any vulnerable spots?

Noah sings a lullaby. Guess Crowe didn’t want those singing lessons he took for
Les Miserables to go to waste.
Not that they did much good, mind you. It’s a good thing all of the canines are sedated on the ark. Otherwise, the howling over Crowe’s singing would make our ears bleed.

A cup of tea with Methuselah. I hope the tea leaves aren’t as old as he is.
Yeah, yeah. My jokes are as stale as the tea.

Amazing time lapse montage.
But it’s used once again during story time with Noah. This occurrence should’ve been skipped in favor of the latter usage of the technique, which has more dramatic impact.

Watchers remind me of
LOTRs Ents...right down to the lumbering gait and booming, gravelly voice.

You knew they’d be coming sometime...all manner of reptiles board the ark. Why did it have to be snakes?

Question: Wouldn’t the sedation incense also effect the humans?
Correction: affect. Po-tay-to, po-tah-to.

“The time for mercy is past.” Fortunately God didn’t feel the same way.

LOTR battle to repel the advancing throng.
The 5.1 quake hit right in the middle of this sequence…just added to the overall effect. Who needs IMAX?

Noah’s creation story is brilliantly visualized.
But looses its visual vitality due to the movie’s earlier instance of time lapse photography.

Final analysis: a beautifully crafted film, but a very strange take on the flood narrative.

The film fails as a faithful Biblical account but works extremely well as a fantasy epic.

Noah, a venerated man of faith, is characterized here as a misguided, manic Ahab.

2 1/2 out of 4. Had higher hopes for this one. Can theological accuracy and art coexist? Remains to be seen.

Yes, the beginning of the film contains a warning that artistic license was taken with Aronofsky’s stylized rendition of the Biblical account of the global flood as told in the book of Genesis. Despite the disclaimer, does that give Aronofsky the right to forge the Biblical narrative into anything his fertile imagination conceives (I mean, introducing aliens into a film about Napoleon might seem less odd and would certainly be less controversial)? As if to remove all doubt as to how far the director will stray from the inspired source material, within minutes we’re introduced to the Watchers, which, presumably, are a variation of the Nephilim but with the potential to achieve eternal redemption (except for the one that cracks open its chest because that’s suicide, right?). With the Watchers, Aronofsky sets the tone and expectations for the film right out of the gate. You’ll either accept his fanciful riff on the story of Noah or you’ll outright reject the whole affair as high art heresy. Theological accuracy aside, the story starts floundering once the rain starts falling. Besides a needlessly protracted battle, filmed with all the visual verve of a LOTR movie, the subplot involving Ray Winstone’s devious antagonist is utterly daft. Those who’ve heard the Sunday school story will know that Noah and his family survive the deluge, so the outcome of the fight scene is a foregone conclusion. Consider this a failed attempt at generating dramatic intensity. As for the characterization of Noah as a type of tragic and tortured Ahab, there’s really no justification for it other than the fact that Aronofsky needed something to sustain viewer interest during the 40 days/nights part of the tale. There’s no doubt that Crowe pulls off the neurotic Noah but could conflict have been generated some other way so that the hero of our story stays somewhere this side of sane? Despite the many ways Aronofsky tampers with the original Biblical account, his biggest disservice to the film is his narrative choices, which consistently sideline God during key moments of the story. For instance, in our human minds it seems impossible that Noah and his family could’ve built the ark by themselves, so Aronofsky introduces the Watchers to make the task seem more feasible, effectively eliminating any supernatural agency from the equation. Also, from a man-centric perspective, it doesn’t seem probable that Noah and his family can feed and tend to all of the animals in the world for 40 full days, so Aronofsky devises a way to sedate the animals. If God could shut the mouths of hungry lions to preserve Daniel’s life, couldn’t God put all of the animals on the ark into a state of hibernation? Explaining away divine activity also occurs in subtle ways in the film, like when Noah’s sons raise the main door to seal up the ark. In the Bible, it’s God himself who shuts the door (Gen. 7:16). These instances, along with many others, reveal that the movie’s underlying problem isn’t the creative liberties taken with the story but rather the removal of the hand of providence from appearing in the movie’s broad strokes. I’m okay with whimsical story elements like the Watchers—I wasn’t alive during Noah’s time, so I can’t deny their existence—but I’m not okay with the excision of a divine agency from the heart of the story or human explanations given for miraculous events. After all, if you erase God from the story it kind of defeats the purpose, right? Bible scholars aver that 99% truth is still heresy. The many liberties taken here evince a story that’s deserving of such ignominious status. I had hoped that this movie would finally be the perfect marriage of an artistic, commercial film with a story that’s faithful to the original text. Unfortunately, this movie isn’t the consummation of those desires. Now all I’m left with is the sinking feeling that this movie was a missed opportunity of biblical proportions.

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.

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

Valkyrie (PG-13)

Directed by: Bryan Singer
Starring: Tom Cruise
December 2008

“Riveting Slice of WWII History Hits Its Target”

A decorated, raven-haired soldier walks into a room filled with debating officers, surreptitiously places a handbag under the conference table and slowly backs out of the room. A few minutes later, the building explodes behind the escaping soldier. Inside the burning building are the strewn bodies of the chancellor and his top military advisors. Hitler is dead!

Sounds like a fictional story, right? Like they say, truth is often stranger than fiction. In reality, the above incident, dubbed Operation: Valkyrie, was just one of several failed assassination attempts made on the fuhrer’s life. The new movie based on this pulse-pounding chapter in World War II history is titled
Valkyrie and is directed by Bryan Singer (X-Men).

The soldier in charge of the Valkyrie mission was Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg, a German officer with divided loyalties, willing to risk it all in order to end the tyranny of the 3rd Reich. In the movie, Stauffenberg is played by Tom Cruise, a dubious choice at first mention but a casting coup upon further reflection (take a look at the astoundingly similar side-by-side profile photos of Stauffenberg and Cruise at this film’s wikipedia page). Cruise, known for action roles more than psychological dramas, turns in a fine performance as the conscience driven soldier who can no longer stand by and allow Hitler’s atrocities to continue unimpeded. Cruise is surrounded by a dizzying array of A-list talent that’s essentially a who’s who of accomplished British actors, including: Kenneth Branagh, Bill Nighy, Tom Wilkinson, Terence Stamp, Eddie Izzard and Bernard Hill.

Although the set-up is a tad slow at times, the story starts to snowball once the assassination plot is formulated and set into motion. There’s a good deal of political intrigue and nail-biting suspense throughout, and the execution of the plan is an exercise in high anxiety. There’s bound to be a Murphy’s Law factor to any set of “best laid plans,” but the stakes here are impossibly high for Stauffenberg and his fellow conspirators: failure is tantamount to death. The drama reaches edge-of-your-seat intensity when the mission starts to unravel and Stauffenberg is forced to make choices that will eventually seal his fate.

A few months before seeing this film, I watched a documentary on the subject entitled
Operation Valkyrie: The Stauffenberg Plot to Kill Hitler. With the accurate details of the actual mission fresh in mind from this presentation, I went into the movie expecting to find the usual fact fudging or creative embellishments that accompany far too many big screen adaptations of true historical stories these days. I must admit to being impressed and pleasantly surprised by Singer’s and writing duo Christopher McQuarrie and Nathan Alexander’s painstaking adherence to the recorded facts from the real-life account.

Singer’s attention to historical accuracy also extends to the movie’s finely mounted production elements, which populate every inch of the big screen in
Valkyrie. Sets, props and costumes are all period appropriate and draw the audience into Stauffenberg’s world with their authenticity; noticeable flaws or inconsistencies would similarly take the audience out of the movie’s mesmerizing action. The virtually identical reconstruction of the Wolf’s Lair sets is awe-inspiring and many of the scenes in Berlin and the German forest were shot at the exact same locations where the actual events took place.

It’s a testament to the arresting events of the factual story that it can so effectively sustain viewer interest throughout its two hour running time. Likewise, it’s a testament to Singer’s unwavering vision—which has realized the Stauffenberg plot in exacting detail while also adding the visual urgency and narrative expediency befitting a big screen adaptation of such a crucial chapter of WWII history—that the story works at all in its cinematic form. Those who go in expecting all-out action (and the casting of Cruise is certainly disingenuous on this account) will surely be disappointed by this psychologically and politically complex docu-drama, but for those who can sit through the denser intrigue in favor of its suspenseful action scenes will find a film that educates while it entertains. If only there had been more men of conviction like Stauffenberg to stamp out the evil and injustices committed in our generation. If only…

Rating: 3

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas (PG-13)

Directed by: Mark Herman
Starring: Asa Butterfield
November 2008

“Chilling, Childs-eye View of the Holocaust”

Many who see The Boy in the Striped Pajamas will describe it as Schindler’s List through the eyes of a child. Though essentially accurate, the statement is oversimplified and quickly unravels when minor comparisons between the two films give way to vast differences in perspective, style, narrative, scale and tone. Schindler’s List told the true tale of a German altruist who saved hundreds of Jews from the horrors of concentration camps. By contrast, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas is a fictional story that focuses on a German lad’s forbidden friendship with a Jewish boy of the same age; the two are separated by status, race and an intervening electric fence. The epic is exchanged for the intimate in this short and somber holocaust film, written and directed by Mark Herman. Taking into account the above variations in form, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas has left its own indelible mark on the most dire and dismal subcategory of World War II films.

The movie opens with a German family moving from Berlin to a mansion in the countryside. The father, Ralph (David Thewlis in a masterful turn as a duty-bound German soldier), has been reassigned as the commandant of the nearby concentration camp. Ralph’s son, Bruno (Asa Butterfield), resents having left his friends behind and is perpetually bored, spending much of his time in a tire swing. One day, Bruno’s innate curiosity and insatiable desire to explore the natural world gets the better of him and he blazes a trail into the neighboring wood; Bruno eventually happens upon a barbwire fence, behind which sits a young boy clothed in what Bruno perceives as striped pajamas. Bruno introduces himself and discovers that the young boy’s name is Shmuel (Jack Scanlon). Shmuel’s striped shirt has a patch with numbers on it, which Bruno mistakenly thinks is used in some kind of game. Bruno inundates Shmuel with questions about the camp, the strange looking “farmers” that work there, and why it smells so bad when smoke is billowing out of two nearby chimneys. Upon learning that Shmuel is trapped inside the fence, Bruno incredulously asks, “Are you not allowed out? Why? What have you done?” Shmuel simply replies, “I’m a Jew.”

Bruno’s confusion regarding his newfound Jewish friend intensifies when Bruno’s tutor tells him, “If you ever found a nice Jew, you’d be the best explorer in the world.” Befriending Shmuel becomes even harder to justify when Bruno’s sister, Gretel (Amber Beattie), refers to Jews as “evil, dangerous vermin.” Turning to his father for answers to his burning questions, Bruno is told that Jews aren’t even human.

It’s hard to imagine that such racial epithets and derogatory remarks could be made by members of a civilized society, especially by a race of people so preoccupied with proving their own superiority. As difficult as it is for adults to fathom the atrocities committed by Nazis, the holocaust makes even less sense to children. Bruno simply can’t comprehend why his friend is made to endure harsh conditions or abusive treatment from Nazi soldiers. The movie’s climax is a heartrending chain of events that culminates in a shocking conclusion guaranteed to leave you, and the rest of the audience, in stunned silence.

Based on the novel by John Boyne, Herman’s script somehow manages to conjure up complex emotions from within its simple structure. Herman doesn’t overstate his case, but allows his superb cast to carry the story forward in organic, realistic ways: Thewlis and Vera Farmiga, who plays Bruno’s mother, are perfectly matched as a couple polarized by the unthinkably inhuman deeds being undertaken at the camp. Farminga delivers one of the finest crying scenes ever committed to film, and the look on Thewlis’ face at movie’s end says far more than an elaborate monologue ever could.

Though told on a much smaller canvas than most holocaust films,
The Boy in the Striped Pajamas is just as effective. As the screen gradually fades to black, in one of the slowest dissolves in motion picture history, the horrific tableau of a gas chamber forms ghost images in our eyes; a haunting reminder of the unconscionable activities that took place in Nazi concentration camps. There’s no reconciliation here; just grim reality. The only happy ending that can be derived from the film is a personal determination to never again allow such heinous crimes to be visited upon any race of people. Due to a few graphic scenes, the film isn’t recommended for children, but is strongly encouraged for teens and adults as a sobering reminder of this dark chapter in human history.

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

Joyeux Noel (PG-13)

Directed by: Christian Carion
Starring: Diane Kruger
March 2006

“Inspiring True Account of History’s Most Miraculous Truce”

Based on the incredible true story of the night peace and good will visited the trenches of French, Scottish and German soldiers during WWI, Joyeux Noel (aka Merry Christmas) chronicles the events surrounding history’s most astonishing ceasefire. On Christmas Eve, 1914, a German tenor started singing “Silent Night” and, upon recognizing the sacred Christmas carol, French and Scottish soldiers added their voices to the multicultural chorus from across the blood-soaked, corpse-littered battlefield. A miraculous event transpired when white flags ascended and soldiers from both sides descended upon the soiled plain; soon mortal enemies were communicating with each other (with only gestures in some cases), trading valuables and proudly showing off pictures of loved ones.

At the conclusion of a solemn Latin mass officiated by a Scottish priest, the three leaders had a summit and mutually agreed to lay down arms and sort out the fallen soldiers the next day. On Christmas day, one soldier ironically observed, “We’re burying the dead on the morning when Christ was born.” The day after Christmas presented a perplexing challenge as many of the soldiers on both sides struggled with resuming combat—men with whom they had played a friendly game of kickball the day before were now lined up in their crosshairs. Having seen the face of the enemy, many were reticent or flat-out refused to fight.

The irony of the story is how perspective can paint or taint our reality. For many of the soldiers, once the floodgates of friendship and mutual understanding had been flung aside, there could be no going back to the clear-cut, good guys/bad guys patriotism that prevailed in their home countries. The repercussions of treating the enemy with the tiniest shred of humanity were severe—most of the soldiers were sent home in disgrace, branded as traitors and replaced by fresh troops who were all too eager to raise the Sword of the Lord against the unholy hoard that was the German army. Though this makes for a bittersweet ending,
Joyeux Noel, as a whole, is uplifting and inspirational, and the movie’s salience, in light of current events, is profound.

Despite the exemplary effort exhibited by the costuming, props and art departments, the movie suffers from slow pacing and static direction from writer/director Christian Carion, especially in the early goings. The only familiar face among the cast is Diane Krugger (
National Treasure), who plays Anna Sorensen, an opera singer and wife of the German soldier who initiates “Silent Night.” The rest of the cast is comprised of foreign actors who adequately inhabit their roles with three standout performances: the singing German soldier, the French commander and the Scottish priest, who is the beneficiary of the best lines in the movie.

Joyeux Noel will undoubtedly find its place among the vast catalog of seasonal treasures, but the movie will be remembered more for its political commentary than for its Christmas-related story elements, which, though vitally important, comprise a very small part of the overall plot. They say music is the universal language, and if sworn enemies can find fellowship and common ground in the midst of the hellish realities of war, the adage is supremely accurate.

Rating: 3

Memoirs of a Geisha (PG-13)

Directed by: Rob Marshall
Starring: Ziyi Zhang
December 2005

“Finely Mounted Retrospective of Oriental High Art”

Essentially an Asian Cinderella, Memoirs of a Geisha, based on Arthur Golden’s bestselling novel of the same name, is a visual masterpiece; effectively combining authentic sets, vibrantly colored costumes and sweeping cinematography that literally can take one’s breath away, the movie transports spectators into the brutal, yet exhilarating world of a young girl living in a Japanese fishing village on the eve of WWII.

The movie opens with blue-eyed waif, Sayuri (Ziyi Zhang), being sold into slavery and separated from her sister, Pumkin. Just like the downtrodden step-daughter in
Cinderella, Sayuri is blamed and punished for every familial mishap and has no purpose in life or hope for the future until she’s sold to Mameha (Michelle Yeoh), a stern matriarch who sees the young girl’s potential and trains her to be a geisha.

Though the movie’s earlier stages are plodding, the training sequences are extremely engaging and serve as a window into mid-twentieth century Japanese mores and customs. In a scene reminiscent of the horserace in
My Fair Lady, Sayuri must prove herself as a full-fledged geisha by catching the eye of a prominent chairman (Ken Watanabe) at a sumo match; selling herself to the highest bidder is how a geisha earns her stripes.

The movie takes an abrupt left turn with the onset of WWII; the effects and ramifications of the war, as seen through the eyes of Sayuri and the other geisha girls, affords the audience a unique perspective on the war and the turbulent rebuilding process. This dark time—when geishas, accustomed to the perks of high society, find themselves working in the rice fields in order to survive—is one of the more interesting chapters in the film.

The word geisha means artist, and geisha girls are judged as moving works of art; in addition to extensive training in dance and creative movement, an experienced geisha will also have the ability to stop a man dead in his tracks with just one look. It’s fitting that a story so focused on art should excel at acting, directing, set decoration, costuming, makeup and cinematography. Also, John Williams’ oriental-flavored score perfectly accents the gorgeous, finely crafted film, and is worthy of Oscar consideration.

Though the movie suffers from slow-pacing and is, perhaps, a bit too long, it approaches high art with all the grace and elegance of a highly-skilled geisha thanks to an excellent script by Robin Swicord and superlative direction by Rob Marshall (
Chicago). Memoirs of a Geisha is a touching story of integrity amid fierce rivalry and is a visual spectacle unlikely to be surpassed in the near future.

Rating: 3

Good Night, and Good Luck. (PG)

Directed by: George Clooney
Starring: David Strathairn
November 2005

“Literate and Intensely Focused Reflection on the McCarthy Era”

This is one of those rare films (and not just because it was shot entirely in B&W) where historical accuracy and artistic license beautifully meld into an engaging narrative so taut, so terse and so poetic that it transcends the medium to become something far grander than just a movie.

Two insights struck me as I took in the experience that is
Good Night and Good Luck, director, co-writer and co-star George Clooney’s incisive treatise on the U.S. during the McCarthy Era: 1. The more people change, the more they stay the same. That is to say, it’s easy to play armchair historian and pass judgment on our American forebears, circa early 1950’s, for their rampant hysteria over rumored Communist spies in high governmental positions (Jr. Senator from Wisconsin, Joseph McCarthy, and his minions believed that our country was contaminated by Communists and took it upon themselves to ferret out and/or blacklist said individuals from every strata of society). The names, faces and headlines have changed over the decades, but have we truly evolved past our petty prejudices, bigotry and racial profiling (in the wake of 9-11, for instance)?

2. What happened to our education system? The mode of speech employed by all of the characters, and CBS news reporter Edward R. Murrow (David Strathairn) in particular, is at a far superior level to anything you’d hear in the media today, much less in casual, everyday conversation. Much more than just a list of SAT words, the movie’s dialogue is permeated with abstract concepts, euphemistic jabs, figurative descriptions, satirical quips and quizzical notions. Continually catering to the lowest common denominator has clearly taken a toll on our education system and the citizens of our nation by extension.

Lending the movie a sense of time and place is the preponderance of cigarette smokers; roiling wisps of smoke can be seen throughout the movie and at times the cloud of carcinogens was so dense on-screen that I had to hold my breath for fear of inhaling second-hand smoke. Another historical tidbit presented in the movie (which may be a curiosity to younger viewers) is the much stricter policies regarding fraternization in the 50’s workplace, as is poignantly demonstrated by married couple Joe and Shirley Wershba (Robert Downey, Jr. and Patricia Clarkson).

Social commentary aside (if that’s possible with a movie of this ilk),
Good Night and Good Luck is a masterwork that seamlessly blends actual footage of McCarthy with Strathairn’s ardent recitation of Murrow’s actual monologues. Recitation is a heinous disparagement of Strathairn’s scintillating performance—the actor so perfectly captures Murrow’s mien and nuances that he could teach Shirley MacLaine a thing or two about channeling. Anchored by Strathairn and Clooney (who plays intransigent producer, Fred Friendly), the cast is a virtual directory of A-list actors: Jeff Daniels as the reticent office manager, Sig Mickelson, Frank Langella as the beleaguered studio executive, William Paley, Ray Wise as the troubled newsman, Don Hollenbeck, along with the aforementioned Clarkson and Downey Jr., are all pitch perfect under Clooney’s prescient direction.

Although I don’t believe there’s such a thing as a flawless film,
Good Night and Good Luck comes exceptionally close to that lofty mark. Moments of stark intensity, like the heated debate over editorializing or the moral dilemma over always posing two sides to every story, are properly balanced with guffaw-inducing sidebars like the exchange between Murrow and Liberace…the only time Murrow is left speechless in the entire movie. Another brilliant touch is Clooney’s use of mock recording sessions from neighboring Columbia Records as musical segues between dramatic sequences; adding some much needed variety, they prevent the movie from collapsing under its own weight.

Serving as bookends for the movie is Murrow’s speech at a banquet thrown in his honor in 1958: in it he warned against complacency—which was already brewing in our country—and that television, as a terribly powerful medium, must not be used for frivolous entertainments. I wonder what Murrow would think about Reality TV?

Whether or not the movie is so honored,
Good Night and Good Luck is the best picture of 2005…and good luck to anyone who gets in its way.

Rating: 4

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

King Arthur (PG-13)

Directed by: Antoine Fuqua
Starring: Clive Owen
July 2004

“Disney Revises History…Again”

The opening of the movie posits the notion that King Arthur was alive during the twilight of the Roman Empire and that he was half-Roman and half-Briton.  This historical twist is based on newly discovered documents (okay!) that reveal Arthur was alive earlier than generally supposed, as much as a thousand years before the medieval period.  Who knew?

The story follows Arthur and his band of scrappy warriors as they fight for their lives and their freedom from Rome; they have one final assignment and then they will receive their papers, but the simple mission goes south when an army of nasty Saxons shows up.  A portion of the army chases Arthur, his men and some villagers across an icy lake, and as fate and Hollywood would have it, the ice breaks and swallows most of the Saxons and none of Arthur’s men...or the scantily-clad Guinevere (Keira Knightley), who seems unaffected by the arctic conditions (more on her later).

There's a final standoff between the main Saxon army and Arthur, who rides onto the battlefield alone (he has a host of primitive Ewoks, I mean, Woads waiting in the forest under the command of non-magical Merlin).  The climactic battle goes through the motions and tries to wow the audience with gee whiz effects, but the action is static and turns
King Arthur into just another excuse to update a classic tale with modern special effects, just because we can.

Even despite the historical paradigm shift, there are way too many anachronisms in
King Arthur that detract from the overall purpose of the movie and distract the audience with unnecessary silliness.  Take potty-mouthed Sir Bors (Ray Winstone), for instance.  Although he provides some much-needed levity, his speech and mannerisms don't match a man of that time period, especially one of Arthur's handpicked champions.  Or how about the witch-doctor version of Merlin, who leads a band of hairy, wild Woads (Caucasian aborigines) into battle beside Arthur?  And what about Guinevere?  In this version of the Arthurian legend, she's less like the traditional princess and more like an Amazon woman, adorned with one, narrow strip of leather across her chest.  Are we sure these newly discovered historical documents aren't really Xena re-runs?

Other than Knightley, the only other familiar name in the cast is Clive Owen (
Beyond Borders).  Owen's Arthur is a courageous man of faith, but sometimes his delivery is too stuffy and dispassionate.  All in all, King Arthur will be an epic disappointment to anyone who isn't a Knightley fan.

Rating: 2

The Alamo (PG-13)

Directed by: John Lee Hancock
Starring: Dennis Quaid
April 2004

“Memorable Remake of Historic Tale”

Billy Bob Thornton as Davy Crockett? Dennis Quaid as Sam Houston?? No major female actor anywhere in the cast??? On the face of it, this modern take on the centuries-old massacre seems a bit underpowered and a tad ill timed. Amid the deluge of epic pictures this last fall (The Last Samurai, and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King), The Alamo was pushed back to this spring. Unfortunately for The Alamo, fervor for epics has sublimated a great deal since December, but will undoubtedly be rekindled with the upcoming Troy and King Arthur. It’s too bad that The Alamo was released during the lull period, because it is a solid effort.

There’s very little departure from the actual, historical events, which is a blessing and a curse. The blessing is that
The Alamo isn’t “cutesy” and doesn’t succumb to radically re-writing history like so many other modern “period” pieces. The curse is that the movie feels like a glorified History Channel special; a sterile, stagnant time capsule, not a living, breathing entity. The movie stays on the fringes of the action and never really accesses the visceral emotions of the tragedy. What made blockbusters like Titanic and Pearl Harbor successful is that they introduced original characters into the action and we, as the audience, experienced the historical event through the eyes of these fictitious characters. This made us feel as if we were right there with them, becoming a part of history in a very exciting and frightening way. This storytelling style has a bigger emotional payoff if it’s executed properly, but also runs the risk of being rejected by the public and lambasted by critics.

For better or worse,
The Alamo remained faithful to the original cast of characters, without introducing any new ones. The advantage to this approach is name recognition: we’re all familiar with names like Davy Crockett, James Bowie (Jason Patrick) and Gen. Santa Anna (Emilio Echevarria). The disadvantage is that there’s very little character development that can be presented outside of what we’ve already learned in history books. In the movie we see Bowie proudly display his patented knife and hear Crockett play a fiddle, and that’s nearly the extent of all character development in the picture. The only real character growth involves a lesser-known character, Lt. Col. William Travis (Patrick Wilson), who comes of age after being christened the new fort commander.

All in all,
The Alamo is entertaining and is a great reminder of the sacrifices that were made so that we can enjoy freedom today…especially in the Lone Star state. However, it remains to be seen if audiences and critics will remember The Alamo.

Rating: 3

Hidalgo (PG-13)

Directed by: Joe Johnston
Starring: Viggo Mortensen
March 2004

“Intelligent and Inspiring Action Movie”

The trailer for Hidalgo proudly boasted: “The king is back.” The king, of course, refers to Viggo Mortensen’s Aragorn from Best Picture winner, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. This assertion is no understatement. Mortensen, a journeyman actor with dozens of supporting roles to his credit, has finally come into his own as a leading man. Besides his striking features—which make most women wilt—Mortensen is adept at playing dramatic, comedic or action sequences, and can transition from one to the next faster than you can say Frodo.

Mortensen’s portrayal of real-life horse racer, Frank T. Hopkins, is a unique blend of Aragorn and Indiana Jones—Hopkins’ adventures along the 3,000 mile “Ocean of Fire” race in the Arabian Desert were equal parts exhausting and inspiring. A special relationship existed between Hidalgo, the painted mustang, and Hopkins, and this rapport serves as the spine of the tale; everything else in the movie is just historical (dubious in some instances) window-dressing. Hidalgo was mixed, as was his master—Hopkins was a half-breed, a Native American whose Caucasian features saved him from the slaughter at Wounded Knee. Enduring great internal and external adversity, these two wounded spirits drew strength from each other, overcame impossible odds and emerged as the victors of the endurance race.

Some silver screen legends appear in the film: Malcolm McDowell’s (A Clockwork Orange) character only appears for a brief instant on the trans-Atlantic cruise ship, but Omar Sharif (Dr. Zhivago) plays a more significant role as the Muslim leader in charge of the race. Director, Joe Johnston (Jumanji, October Sky and Jurassic Park III), was the perfect choice for Hidalgo, a movie with adrenalin-filled action sequences and intimate character vignettes—Johnston excels in both areas.

Hidalgo has a certain charm about it that is akin to the old-style Westerns, where the good guy always prevailed thanks to his own virtue and the loyalty of his steed. It’s this kind of old-fashioned storytelling that is sadly lacking from most Hollywood movies today. Some will find Hidalgo wanting as an action picture because of its attention to character development and plot, but these are the very elements that lift the movie above the morass of shallow, effects-laden films that seem to dominate at the box office. Hidalgo is and intelligent and inspiring adventure movie that’s appropriate for the entire family.

Rating: 3

The Passion of the Christ (R)

Directed by: Mel Gibson
Starring: Jim Caviezel
February 2004

“The Most Graphic Story Ever Told”

The Passion of the Christ
is the most powerful and controversial movie ever made. What makes the film powerful is an engaging script, emotional performances and inspired direction; it’s the first “Jesus” movie that’s ever depicted the Savior with more than just a trickle of blood flowing down His brow. It’s controversial because of the graphic scenes surrounding Christ’s torture and crucifixion and due to charges of anti-Semitism.

Beyond the scourging and crucifixion,
The Passion of the Christ is powerful because of the humanness of the characters and the horrific situations they find themselves in. Take Pilate (Hristo Naumov Shopov), for example; reticence is written all over his face as he presents Jesus to the seething mob. Whether filled with compassion or dispassion, it’s very clear that Pilate feels trapped and just wants to rid himself, one way or the other, of “the king of the Jews.” And then there’s Mary, mother of Jesus (Maia Morgenstern). As Jesus stumbles down the Via Dolorosa, toting the cross on His back, He falls to the ground and Mary has a flashback to when Jesus tripped and scraped His knee as a boy. Who will ever forget the look on her face? Or who will ever be able to forget Jesus’ anguish in the garden or the scourging or the crucifixion as a result of James Caviezel’s Oscar-caliber performance? Or the downright creepy portrayal of Satan by Rosalinda Celentano?

The Passion of the Christ anti-Semitic? Pilate washes his hands of Christ’s blood, so that would seem to place bloodguilt on the Jewish people. And yet, it was the Romans that nailed Him to the cross. I think the point is clear: we are all guilty. It was our sin that nailed Christ to the cross; that’s why none of the faces of the Roman guards are shown. It’s almost as if director, Mel Gibson, is saying, “insert your face here.” As has been well publicized, it was Mel’s hands that were shown hammering the nails into Christ’s hands and feet in the movie—we must all take responsibility for the weight and consequences of our sin. That’s the message of the movie, not that the Jews were solely at fault.

The film is also controversial in some Protestant circles, as Gibson textured the movie with many added or contrary elements borrowed from Catholic mystic, Anne-Catherine Emmerich. At first glance, the aberrations from the sacred text simply seem to be stylistic embellishments, but upon further scrutiny, these altered scenes would certainly smack of heresy in the Protestant mind.

Here are just a few prime deviations from scripture: 1. Satan tempts Jesus in Gethsemane, 2. Jesus is lashed thirty-nine times on the front and back, 3. Pilate’s wife gives Mary some towels, 4. Mary and Mary Magdalene wipe up Jesus’ blood after the whipping, 5. A crow pokes out the eye of the unrepentant thief and 6. Roman soldiers take Jesus off the cross (the Bible claims that Joseph of Arimathaea and Nicodemus took Him down).

Whether you view the movie as controversial or whether you even believe the story is presents, there should be no doubt in anyone’s mind that this is a stupendous achievement…a superior piece of cinema. With A-list acting, directing, writing and scoring,
The Passion of the Christ is an illumined effort, divinely crafted with images and events that won’t soon be forgotten.

Rating: 4

Miracle (PG)

Directed by: Gavin O’Connor
Starring: Kurt Russell
February 2004

“Real Story with Real Heart”

This is a defining role in Kurt Russell’s career—ironic since he got his start doing cornball movies for Disney in the sixties. Russell’s portrayal of coach Herb Brooks is natural and believable, especially his Minnesotan accent. Brooks was equal parts coach, motivational speaker and psychologist and Russell melds all three seamlessly. Patricia Clarkson (Far From Heaven) plays Brooks’ wife, a woman who grapples with her distant husband’s other love—hockey. In the end she decides to stand by her man through the stormy moments of their marriage—something that happened far more frequently in 1980 than in the present day. Noah Emmerich (Frequency) is Brooks’ loyal assistant coach, an underserved character that has more whistle blows than lines in the movie.

Nice checkered wool pants!

Miracle is based upon the true story of the gold-medal winning U.S. Hockey team at the 1980 Olympic winter games in Lake Placid, N.Y. A total David and Goliath scenario: a newly assembled American team of young college players defeats a veteran Soviet Union team which had won every gold medal in their event for the last twenty years. There’s no surprise ending here—the story of this “miracle” team and its exploits have been touted as one of the greatest moments in amateur sports for the last twenty-four years. What makes Miracle worth seeing is not so much the end result as the journey that got them there. Brooks’ unorthodox coaching strategies and the personal stories of the young men on the team create the backbone of the story—without these ingredients, the movie would be little more than a glorified sports documentary. And speaking of documentary, the historical footage that peppers the new scenes really gives the movie a proper sense of context and provides a great deal of authenticity.

Final Analysis:
Miracle is an inspirational movie the whole family can enjoy and imparts a sense of pride and patriotism. The movie is a testament to the fact that miracles can still happen with focus, determination, teamwork and good old-fashioned hard work—an important reminder to a generation that has faced very little adversity…lest we forget.

Rating: 3

Seabiscuit (PG-13)

Directed by: Gary Ross
Starring: Tobey Maguire
July 2003

“A Truly Inspirational Triumph”

The only word that readily comes to mind when reflecting upon Seabiscuit is “exquisite.” This is an exquisitely crafted, directed, acted and written film. Based upon the true story and the popular book by Laura Hillenbrand, Seabiscuit tells the story of three individuals and how their lives eventually intersect in wonderful, and sometimes unexpected, ways.

The story picks up in 1910, a time of prosperity for Charles Howard (Jeff Bridges), entrepreneur and car salesman. Life suddenly takes a left turn when his young son drives one of his cars off the cliff and his wife leaves him a short time later. Charles looses nearly everything when the Great Depression hits—no one can afford to buy cars anymore.

But, Charles’ luck changes when he takes a vacation to Mexico; he meets a new woman at the horse races and wins her heart along with a lot of cash. Charles’ life is forever changed when he meets hotheaded jockey, Red Pollard (Tobey Maguire) and an old, eccentric horse trainer, Tom Smith (Chris Cooper), outside the horse track. Converting his car shed into a stable, Charles forges ahead in a new business venture and begins racing Red on a horse named Seabiscuit. They win some small-time races, but Charles has his sights set on bigger prey; he baits the owner of War Admiral, one of the fastest horses in the country, into racing against Seabiscuit—the contest is akin to David and Goliath (or the Tortoise and the Hare). So Charles enters the high-stakes race with a horse that’s too short, a jockey that’s too tall and a trainer that’s too old. The race is one for the history books…truly inspiring.

The writing and directing is exceptional in
Seabiscuit, but the acting is nothing short of stellar. Jeff Bridges plays salesman Charles Howard to the hilt; the man is so charismatic and charming, he could probably sell a rancher his own cow. The speeches he delivers are so rousing and ennobling that you have to resist the urge to jump up in the theater and yell in agreement.

Chris Cooper (my vote for best supporting actor-2003) is so natural, so likeable and so pitch-perfect in his performance, that it’s impossible to see any other actor in his role. His character is the sage in the movie, delivering didactic delicacies like, “Just because something’s broken doesn’t mean you throw it away.”

If Cooper represents the movie’s wisdom and experience, Tobey McGuire is its heart and soul. Fresh off his
Spider-Man high, McGuire’s turn as the tortured jockey is believable and touching. Horse and rider both know a thing or two about pain and that background of brokenness is the common bond between man and animal. It’s this brand of empathy that makes the pair so in tune with each other and so formidable on the track.

The quirkiest, most hilarious character in the movie, undoubtedly, is William H. Macy’s radio announcer, whose flair for mile-a-minute speaking, incisive one-liners and variety show sound effects really lightens the otherwise somber and serious tone of the film. Though his screen time is limited, Macy’s performance is also worthy of Oscar consideration.

Framing the movie historically are snippets of David McCullough’s
Seabiscuit documentary for PBS. These historical vignettes, interspersed throughout the movie, serve as segues but also give the film added depth and authenticity. A finely crafted film, Seabiscuit is an emotional journey well worth taking.

Rating: 3 1/2

Gods and Generals (PG-13)

Directed by: Ronald F. Maxwell
Starring: Stephen Lang
February 2003

Jeff Daniels, Stephen Lang, Robert Duval, Mira Sorvino, Kevin Conway, C. Thomas Howell, Bruce Boxleitner, Billy Campbell; the list of fine actors in the excellent ensemble cast goes on and on and on…much like the movie itself. Weighing in at three hours and forty-five minutes,
Gods and Generals is, perhaps, too painstaking in its attention to historical detail—the pacing is a somnambulating lumber and huge sections of the story consist of exceedingly dry narrative. Under Ron Maxwell’s direction, the movie feels like a high-dollar documentary, lacking any kind of synergy; even the paint-by-numbers battle sequences are static (the only exception is when Daniels’ Lt. Col. Chamberlain is prone on the battlefield, frozen in fear as cannon balls and wounded soldiers fall around him all night long). All of Ted Turner’s money (and even a cameo by the financial mogul) couldn’t hoist the movie out of the slough of mediocrity. By movie’s end, I didn’t care which side won the battle; I just wanted a good, long stretch and some fresh air.

Rating: 2

K-19 The Widowmaker (PG-13)

Directed by: Kathryn Bigelow
Starring: Harrison Ford
July 2002

A Cold War sub flick with Ford and Neeson is a sure-fire winner, right? Star power couldn’t keep
K-19 afloat due to a plodding plot and static directing. This true story wasn’t all that entertaining and doesn’t hold a rudder to U-571.

Rating: 2