My Top Films of 2020

These are some of the films that I enjoyed from 2020. Because I watched more new releases than is typical in the last few years, I went ahead and wrote capsule length reviews to keep it more manageable. Enjoy!

Minari 

Minari plays as another perspective on the American Dream. It’s an immigrant story insulated by the family unit. You have a melding of cultures born across a smattering of languages and cultural references from Mountain Dew to the resilient minari plant. I can’t think of anything more resolutely American. Any conflict comes from within and there are real decisions to be made, whether it’s in service of a father’s compulsion to provide for his family or a mother’s commitment to stay together at all costs. Steven Yeun and Han Ye-ri are wonderful, but it’s just as much a story about their children or about the spirited grandma who comes to live with them.

These are living, breathing folks inspired by Isaac Lee Chung’s own experience and colored with the deep affections of personal filmmaking. There’s a tranquility about the film that feels like some sort of balm for the world we live in — if not this entire year — because hardship besets them as it does us. It’s taxing and dire. This is all but inevitable. This is life. Our only true sustenance comes from bringing family together, holding onto our loved ones, and praying for God’s daily mercies as we push forward. Though our experiences all differ, they converge at this one vital crossroad of understanding. Notice there is no “ending” to Minari. The fact that this lowly water wort flourishes, only after hardship, provides a symbolic glint of hope. 

Nomadland

There’s a reassuring shorthand that comes with Willie Nelson’s “On The Road Again” familiar to anyone who has ever trekked across America or been on a road trip. Chloe Zhao’s film is cinema, travelogue, and National Geographic all rolled into one with spectacular images of both intimate and indescribable beauty. Because they are snapshots of life imbued with a resolute empathy. What an incomparable and honest treasure Frances McDormand remains fully humanizing this itinerant lifestyle. There’s a striking a cadence between Fern and the flora and fauna of the world around her. It joins the lineage of meditative, hypnotic moviemaking that’s come before it — films collaborating with nature — and thus blending God’s green earth and the human experience. By the end, we come to realize how unified they really are. 

Wolfwalkers

Draped in folklore and armed with long-held political division, Tomm Moore’s latest with Ross Stewart is as visually resplendent and verdant as ever with its golden hues of green. The fact that the local city is the picture of Cromwellian drudgery and repression only puts the adjoining forest in sharp relief. The populous is made to fear it and the wolves that live there, but it’s also a space of unimaginable magic.

Myth is effectively brought down to its most relatable and intimate. It becomes a war between worlds and ideologies made tangible through the trials of an intrepid girl and her hunter father. There’s a debilitating fear in the face of the powers that be and religious faith is militarized. Life is man vs. wolf. And yet in the face of this unyielding landscape, something extraordinary is born. Fairy tales become fact. Resurrection is real. Grief is ultimately supplanted by newfound joy.

Sound of Metal 

Riz Ahmed proves himself to be thoroughly committed to his role as a drummer who is impacted by a sudden loss of hearing. The premise is immediately intriguing, but he busts the story wide open as it becomes far more than a handy idea. We get so much in the realm of performance and sound, existential weight, and deep wells of human empathy. Olivia Cooke is in a symbiotic relationship with him — his fellow bandmate and lover — and as the movie evolves what a revelatory thing it is to see them both change. He finds a community that he can grow into even as he comes to terms with his hearing and the distant hope of regaining his senses through the latest technology.

She also has facets of her character and background that we only understand when they reconvene overseas. But we also witness how lives can go in different directions, and that’s not always a bad thing — it can somehow be cathartic even in the waves of ambiguity. The same might be said of silence in the face of noise. That stillness can be the Kingdom of God for some people. It’s not a deficiency or a tragedy, but an entirely new beginning. Sound of Metal also featured one of my favorite extended cameos of the year. 

Small Axe: Mangrove

I’ve seen In the Name of the Father and I’ve seen Notting Hill, but what Mangrove gives us is a powerful portrait showcasing another facet of this world. That is the rich Trinidadian culture that holds its rightful place in the ecosystem of mid-century London. Steve McQueen’s film makes it more about the world than the words spoken. We have the privilege of existing in a neighborhood, frequenting a local establishment fraught with all sorts of opposition.

Mangrove is a validation that big historical events are not the only way to galvanize — though the movie does evolve into a stunning courtroom drama. Still, this only reaps fruit when the grassroots ambitions of everyday people standing up for what they see as justice, join together as one. Self-representation is a powerful thing indeed and there’s something extraordinary about McQueen bringing to life a world that is so near and dear to his own heart. 

Small Axe: Lovers Rock

It feels like such an unassuming picture. We’re accustomed to blockbusters or Oscar hopefuls with often gluttonous runtimes. Lovers Rock is nothing like that. It’s lithe and exuberant in all the best ways, identifying this universal sense of burgeoning romance. And yet it plays as such a full-bodied, deeply engaged, and present evocation of a specific moment. This specificity is key, supplying its vital life-blood and culture while allowing it to be a fitting ode to a bygone era.

However, director SteveMcQueen also allows time to flow at its own pace, capturing the vibes in a room alive with black joy and a myriad of a cappella voices. It’s so easy to get lost in it as if we are in that very room experiencing the tremors and pulses making their way across the dance floor. Far from being a mere jukebox movie, it has a kind of real-world substance about it that feels genuinely pure and honest. For the uninitiated, it’s a pleasant surprise and no doubt worthy of future viewings. 

The Assistant 

Kitty Green’s film shies away from sensationalized drama and settles into a far more harrowing and morose sense of powerlessness. I’ve had the ability to stay well outside the film industry so it’s never been able to fully envelop me. But here there is no place to hide. We imbibe the weight of depression and helplessness piled on Julia Garner. One particularly excruciating scene with an HR rep turns painfully cruel.  However, this is not only a film about sexual harassment — although this is a crucial piece — it’s indicative of a toxic culture and mindset from the top down. 

Still, in showing her plight and the network of similarly situated co-conspirators, it doesn’t so much provide them greater agency as it shifts the story away from the bosses. It also provides some much-needed empathy. In the quiet rhythms of an oppressive job, undertaken by aspirational people who feel like they’re trapped and their dreams have turned into a nightmare, suddenly we’re there with them. It’s a powerful film just as it is pressing. It speaks into our cultural moment not with a blaring megaphone, but a whisper we would do well to heed. 

Collective 

This Romanian documentary exposé lays out the groundwork for the story ahead of us so there is no initial confusion. That comes later when we are enveloped in a harrowing world that feels akin to the “follow the money” moments in All The President’s Men and even takes cues from the dirty black marketeering immortalized by Orson Welles’ charismatic cad Harry Lime in The Third Man.

Here everything is current and fresh happening in front of us. First, a horrible fire and then incompetence throughout the national health system that leads to greater human tragedy. The aftermath brings out shockwaves of negligence within the government and more sinister intentions with national implications. It’s worthy of righteous anger from us all, but what’s greater and more profound is this pursuit of veracity in the face of deception. Transparency and truth are still powerful instruments for good. 

Farwell Amor

The movie begins with the kind of opening shot that makes you hold your breath. Long takes can be boring, but they can also imbue scenes with such a greater understanding. Farewell Amor is about a family living in the transitory state as immigrants reunited after many years apart. It becomes increasingly apparent that they must now cross another great divide. It’s no longer geographical but beholden to cultural differences and lost time. A husband and wife hardly know one another. Religious faith does not hold the same import in their lifestyles.

Meanwhile, a daughter must acclimate to a father who she has not seen since her youth. Through its Rashomon structure, we are privy to three empathetic points of view, and it makes for a powerful experience. How lives can be outwardly connected — sharing the same space — and somehow disengaged and aloof. You have three people living in their own worlds, coming to terms with what it means to be a family again. There’s such care and sensitivity, when it falls apart it galls me. There’s not so much a Pollyanna happy ending to the movie. Rather it’s a vow to abide and share each other’s burdens. After all, that’s what families are meant to do. 

Never Rarely Sometimes Always

The film title remains effectively obscured until a pivotal scene where the submerged depths of the iceberg are unearthed and human frailty is made fully known to us. But until that point, the movie is defined by this overarching bleakness — a high schooler’s slice of life — inundated with the numbing rhythms of work and school. Sidney Flanigan brings so much to the young woman even as she bends away from us. A pilgrimage to New York with her cousin to take care of an unwanted pregnancy makes us come face to face with her innate wounds.

Suddenly the movie unravels and becomes one of the most emotive empathy machines of the year. It breaks your heart. It’s so vulnerable. But the bottom line, the song she sings, is “Don’t Let The Sun Catch You Crying.” The very same issues at the core of this film are full of emotional baggage in both religious and social spheres, but here they are allowed to be fully human, and I won’t say anything more for the time being. Broken people deserve dignity. This film looks to extend them this basic courtesy even as we can still grieve the outcomes. 

Beanpole 

Set in the context of post-WWII Russia, more so than almost any other country, you feel like these people know what hardship and tragedy engenders. There’s a matter-of-fact immediacy to everything that happens to these people — two young women who fought in the antiaircraft during the war and now serve the wounded as nurses. Of course, they have their own wounds both physical and emotional. Written on the page, moments of grief, pain, and blackmail feel like high drama, and yet here they are distilled into something both mundane and vulnerable. What a beautiful cast of characters they are and by this I mean in a way antithetical to conventional Hollywood glamor.

They feel real and honest with bodies and features that take on almost classical dimensions. Eyes say so much as do silence or an uninhibited, frenzied twirl in a dress. Against the rigidness and the jadedness of the world, there are these tiny acts of rebellion and by that I mean humanity. What does it mean to try to condone their behavior? Far more than that, it starts with beginning to understand even an iota of what they have experienced. 

One Night in Miami…

There are four men at the center of Kemp Howard’s reimagination of a fateful meeting: Malcolm X, Muhammid Ali, Sam Cooke, and Jim Brown. It’s sobering to acknowledge that only one of them is still living and only two lived into old age. It’s talky and stagy, for good reason, but it’s also a film about those core issues at the very fabric of America’s tumultuous heart. There’s a moment late in the movie where Leslie Odom Jr. as Cooke sings “A Change is Gonna Come.” It signals a change in Cooke’s ambitions as an artist — more in the vein of a Bob Dylan perhaps — but I wasn’t thinking of that. I was nearly moved to tears. It’s moments like these I turn out to movies for — to be moved in unexplainable ways — but what is this emotion if it doesn’t lead to a visible change in my own life?

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

Denzel Washington has shouldered a sacred mission to introduce the works of August Wilson to the uninitiated such as myself. What Ma Rainey has to offer has much to do with performance and a dialogue with heady topics, nevertheless carried out in a kind of cajoling, free-flowing style brimming with life, laughs, and animosity. It’s a film born on the stage and as such, it utilizes a limited, intimate space to navigate the cultural climate of the Jazz Age for black folks in particular. Conversations of cultural clout, the arts and ambitions of blacks in a white man’s world remain pertinent to this day.

While Viola Davis feels like the obvious standout as the eponymous, irascible, unfathomable Ma Rainey, it’s equally easy to be entranced by Chadwick Boseman. His spiritual anguish is probably one of the most affecting and terrifying cinematic experiences of this year. Oftentimes we are quick to heap praise or christen a posthumous performance a triumph, and yet in Boseman’s case, it feels true. He tears through his role with relish, alive with an irrepressible vitality and plagued with the kind of demons that make the film burn with a fire far greater than its simple premise. It’s the kind of characterization that sears into your mind’s eye, not soon to be forgotten. The same might be said of him. 

News of the World

Paul Greengrass hardly feels like a director of westerns, but here he helms one that takes the grand, blustering landscapes of the West and somehow makes them feel slight and less consequential. Try as I might, this is meant to be a compliment. Because at its center is Tom Hanks and a perfect riding companion Helena Zengel. Although, as the modern generation’s Jimmy Stewart, I would love to see Hanks dip into his vengeful side out on the range, his steady candor provides a disarming uprightness.

He need not revise the West just as he doesn’t rewrite his persona. Aside from his trade, he’s no Herculean gunslinger, and there are few grandiose moments, but the bits of characterization give us something to be relished for their universal humanity. Sometimes all you need is an actor set against a cinematic panorama and being rapt up in the moment is enough. It’s not quite John Ford and hardly Anthony Mann and yet it’s still a distinct pleasure to have a western again. 

On The Rocks

What a light and marvelous film this is because it’s not trying to be anything more. It’s about the mid-life malaise, it’s about a wife’s (Rashida Jones) suspicions of her ambitious husband (Marlon Wayans), and fathers and daughters, but it never aims for anything sordid. The streets of New York feel out of reach to me, but they are magical, and Coppola looks to be in love with the world as she is with Bill Murray. He has that same winking charm, older now (aren’t we all); always incorrigible, but real and honest. When he and Jones whistle “Laura’s Theme” in the back of a limo, I knew I was invested in the ride. It’s not Lost in Translation, and I’m thankful for that. 

Recommend: Driveways, I Used to Go Here, The Personal History of David Copperfield, I’m Your Woman, Boys State, Athlete A, Apocalypse ’45,

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (2019): Mr. Rogers as The Helper

A_Beautiful_Day_in_the_NeighborhoodAs of late, it feels like the world has entered a bit of a Mr. Rogers Reinnaissance. He’s been gone since 2003 and yet last year we had Morgan Neville’s edifying documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? There are podcasts galore including Finding Fred and then Mr. Rogers’s words, whether before the Senate Committee or pertaining to scary moments of international tragedy, seem to still provide comfort and quiet exhortation to those in need.

Now to the array we can add A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood. Although partially fictional, it borrows inspiration from Fred Rogers and his real-life friendship with journalist Tom Junod. Their interview and subsequent meetings became the basis of a front-page spread in Esquire Magazine. That was back in 1998.

Surely, this cannot be a mere chance at publicity. Too much time has passed in this regard for it to make a shred of commercial sense. And yet here we are in 2019 welcoming in yet another tribute to Fred Rogers. The man who taught many of us once upon a time (including this viewer) what it means to realize you are special, that there are ways to deal with feelings, and what a lovely thing it is to be a good neighbor and reach out an inquisitive hand to learn and ask questions.

What Marielle Heller’s gently radical film does well is capturing the spirit of the man. He was always so caring and engaged with others as a listener and concerned friend. There was real intentionality present and a candor toward both children and adults within him. But he was also humble and deferential. These qualities are much admired and somehow so difficult to replicate in our own lives. But the beauty of this portrait is the reminder that no one’s life is picture-perfect.

Lloyd Vogel (Mathew Rhys) is a man with a lot of pent-up, unresolved anger. He’s married now and has a child. But he still holds onto the grief of a beloved mother who died when he was young and an estranged father (Chris Carter) who was never around and is now trying to make an effort at reconciliation in his old age. Lloyd must come to terms with his own issues. But simultaneously his editor has enlisted him to write something out of his comfort zone. It’s an article on a hero: Fred Rogers. Here is the crux of the story.

So Mr. Rogers isn’t necessarily the focal point inasmuch as the film has his fingerprints all over it. In screenwriting terms, he is the helper and in life or film, there is no better title for the man. Because in Lloyd’s own family issues and private hurts, we see a projection of all of us sitting out in the dark.

In fact, just as the man in the red cardigan spoke to us throughout our lives, he’s speaking to Lloyd; he forms a relationship. This is not a television neighbor. He is a cinematic one, but it’s purely semantics because it doesn’t make much difference when Mr. Rogers is concerned. As you might have guessed, he likes Lloyd just the way he is. We witness the man change from a cynical, distant workaholic to someone who is trying to change and reach out to others in love. It’s imperfect, but it’s a start.

Tom Hanks in many ways is too much Tom Hanks for me to lose him in Mr. Rogers and this works out fine. Again, he captures the spirit of the man. As best as can be gathered, it comes down to two integral pieces. First, there is the genuine candor.

The words coming out of his mouth, the salutations, the affirmations, even the words spoken with a puppet on-hand (like Daniel Striped-Tiger) run the risk of sounding insincere and making a joke out of Mr. Rogers. But that would run contrary to the man himself who gave attention and respect to everyone no matter who they were. Thankfully, Hanks extends his subject the same courtesy. The words leaving his lips don’t sound exactly like our television neighbor, but they feel like him.

Equally important, Hanks gets down the rhythm of Mr. Rogers. So much about him comes down to how to utilize time, slowing down and being okay with stillness and silence. Heller aids with one brazenly unassuming scene where Rogers entreats his friend to take a quiet minute (as he famously did at the Emmys) to think about the people who got him there. The movie obliges including a brief cameo of fan favorites Joanne Rogers and David Newell. Again, in 2019 it all feels a bit quaint and yet — if I speak for myself — it’s also appealing.

Here is the man who built his life on disciplines. He woke up early to pray for his acquaintances and read his morning devotionals. He swam daily at his local pool. Letter correspondence was a rich part of his relationships. But they weren’t disciplines for mere discipline’s sake. All these things beget goodness and kindness toward other people. Because Fred followed the greatest rule: Loving others as you love yourself.

Yet the movie points out he wasn’t a saint. Not that there are hidden caveats to his characters. (For the record, he wasn’t a marine and he didn’t have tattoos.) Rather, he was human like each of us, and it is possible to grow in these same skills no matter the skeletons we have in the closet and the messiness under our rugs.

The movie has a couple bizarre dream sequences, but these are Lloyd’s and not Mr. Rogers. They are part of his emotional journey, tapping into his various attributed issues going back into his own childhood and a bit of his mind’s own neighborhood of make-believe.

Otherwise, Heller’s film does well to bring satisfying touches of the original show. There’s that unmistakable tint to the camera on-set that takes me back. That front entryway. The closet. The zip of the zipper. The toss of a shoe.

The script penned by Noah Harpster and Micah Fitzerman-Blue uses this familiar format of the program as a comforting window into Lloyd’s story. It allows us back into the world even as it puts us in touch with someone existing in our own.

Miniatures were also always an integral part of the show indicating Mr. Rogers’s home and where he was off to in the neighborhood. The movie entends this by utilizing models to chart the majority of Lloyd’s travels between Pittsburgh and New York. One other unique commute has Lloyd and Mr. Rogers receiving an impromptu serenade of “Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” on the Subway.

Fittingly, music holds such a special place in the film, both the television set sequences and outside its scope. Johnny Costa’s distinct jazz playing always colored and left such memorable accents on the show’s myriad of interludes, whether it was the opening and closing tunes, the skittering of fish, or ready-made trolley sound effects. Mr. Rogers had such a gift for music as well. His compositions and aphorisms were deceptively simple but filled with so many brilliant articulations of content (“Everything mentionable is manageable”).

If they are gauged toward children that’s wonderful. I was struck by “Just Do It” playing over the credits — a less-remembered song I probably hadn’t heard since childhood; it all flooded back in a euphoric moment of recollection. Only as an adult do you begin to realize the impact this man had, how formative a television program could be. We want to write it off and cast off “childish things” and yet give him a second look and you realize how timeless he is. Why else would we be coming back to his well of modest wisdom?

It doesn’t seem like a coincidence, in a landscape that feels more antagonistic, mean-spirited, and divisive than ever, Mr. Rogers feels like a beacon from a happier time. During the film, I thought 400 words were far too short to chronicle the man. Sure enough, Lloyd took 10,000 instead. I would probably be capable of doing much the same. I can only gather many of us have a story about Mr. Rogers and how he impacted us.

For me, it was a photo signed and addressed in his immaculate calligraphy: With kindest regards from Fred Rogers. That was in 2003. He would pass away from stomach cancer in February of that same year. I lost a good friend that day…

When I was frightened after 9/11 he provided reassurance, when I doubted he reenforced my worth, when I didn’t know how to love my neighbor he showed me the way with graciousness. Because the brilliance of Mr. Rogers is how he backed up words and songs with action and feelings of radical affection. I want to be like that. I want us all to be like that. It can still be a beautiful day in the neighborhood. Sometimes we just need a reminder. We are all human. Just like Mr. Rogers. But we’re also special just the way we are.

4/5 Stars

Saving Private Ryan (1998)

saving-private-ryan-1There’s something remarkably moving about the beginning of Saving Private Ryan. I’ve only felt it a few times in my own lifetime whether it was family members recognizing names on the Vietnam Memorial tears in their eyes or walking over the sunken remains of the U.S.S. Arizona at Pearl Harbor.  It’s these types of memories that don’t leave us — even as outsiders — people who cannot understand these historical moments firsthand.

And that’s why Saving Private Ryan is a truly breathtaking, at times horrifying, and wholly visceral experience. Words cannot actually describe the visuals on the beaches of  Normandy at Omaha. The utter chaos, death, and tumult engulfing the scene — above and below the surface of the water.

The cast includes a number of memorable players including Tom Hanks, Barry Pepper, Giovanni Ribisi, Vin Diesel, Paul Giamatti, Matt Damon, and even Nathan Fillion. And yet it’s not about any one man or even a singular act of valor. Even Private Ryan is only a starting point of a far more universal tale.

It’s also easy to say that this is a film cheapens life in the number of bodies that are blown to bits and slaughtered seemingly needlessly on screen. However, it’s even more difficult to acknowledge that in one sense life is cheap — transient to the extent that our bodies are not indestructible. We are fallible beings and breath so easily leaves our lungs and no time is this more evident than in the wake of war.

One sequence that springs to mind involves two surrendering men who, on first inspection, look German and sound German. The men under Captain Miller’s (Tom Hanks) command gun them down and they do it with smiles on their faces. This, after all, is the enemy, pure and simple. Except they were not “Nazis.” They weren’t even Germans, but Czechs (based on what they say). Men who historically had been captured by the Nazis and press-ganged into military service. And in the end, they get shot by Americans. Even the undertones of this scene point to the fact that their lives were so easily snuffed out, without even a second thought.

So, yes, life seems cheap in this film in the physical sense, even from just one example. But it is granted a great deal of depth and richness in many other ways. Families and brothers. Comrades and compatriots. Personal convictions and disillusionment in war revealed through the many characters we come to know. All of that bleeds out of this film along with the blood from the bodies.

In that sense, it’s all difficult to watch and Spielberg never intended this to be easy going.  I cannot speak for others but within the intense moments of bloodshed, the lulls in the action, and unrest within the ranks, there’s a solemnity developed.

War is at times the everyday. It’s indescribable and inscrutable. But Saving Private Ryan’s suggests that there are certain things that we hold onto. High and lofty things such as liberty and freedom that are often so easy to discount. They seem easily besmirched, dragged through the mud by all of our human inadequacies and evil. But perhaps that makes them even more important to hang on to, because just like life, these ideals are worth the fight, though they might so easily be lost. It doesn’t make the wrong right or cover up all the pain, even found within this film, but it latches on a tiny bit of good within a whole lot of messiness.

It goes back to the basic implications of the film’s main conceit — the task of saving one man — Private James Francis Ryan (Matt Damon). It’s  representative of not only the entire war but each and every one of us as we traverse roads of tribulation. Every story, whether wartime or our own, deserves an ending with some type of salvation. Because Saving Private Ryan is imbued with so much more meaning. Our human experience is wrapped up in it. There is no greater love than a man giving his life for his friends. But imagine if you are dying for the freedom of others or even the preservation of someone who you hardly know? That’s what happens in this story.

That’s why when elderly James Ryan comes back to Normandy so many years later, there’s a gravity to the situation. This is by no means a corny piece of Hollywood drama. It’s the ultimate act of love that he has received and he can hardly comprehend it, just as we as an audience must grapple with it too. In that way, Saving Private Ryan is indubitably affecting not simply as a war drama but an epic human narrative. It pertains to all of us.

The profound and terrifying thing about this gift that he has received through the sacrifice of so many others is that he cannot “earn it.” Because, in this sense, life proves to be far from cheap. There is no way to earn that back. There is no way for us to live a wholly “good” life or be completely “good” people. The whole entirety of the film tells us otherwise. Still, we can live our life with a sense of freedom knowing that cannot be expected of us. A life of purpose is all that can be asked of us. It’s that kind of purpose that makes Saving Private Ryan continuously compelling.

5/5 Stars

Bridge of Spies (2015)

Bridge_of_Spies_poster.jpgSteven Spielberg is this generation’s Alfred Hitchcock in many ways. True, he’s not as much of an audacious experimenter, but he most certainly knows the movie making craft. He understands suspense, good storytelling, and strong production values. Because he still is one of the most entertaining filmmakers to date, maintaining a grasp of all the integral details that make a Hollywood film interesting.

Hitchcock famously made two Cold War thrillers of his own in Torn Curtain and Topaz that were unfortunately rather disappointing. In this respect, Spielberg may have just bested the Master with his own espionage thriller Bridge of Spies. The secret is that he too grabs hold of an everyman story, utilizing one of his most magnetic collaborators Tom Hanks, but he also has an immense appreciation for the historical subtext. This is as much a historical drama as it is a human drama or a spy thriller. The fact that it functions on multiple levels gives it a greater degree of depth.

The film starts with a rather ordinary fellow (Mark Rylance) who we don’t know anything about, except he is rather old and likes to paint. Soon the FBI is on his tail and we quickly remember that this is 1958 — the Red Scare is real — the Cold War is freezing over. Ethel and Julius Rosenberg are fresh on everyone’s mind as Rudolf Abel  (Rylance) is imprisoned on multiple accounts of conspiracy.

This is a big deal and the whole country is watching, nay, the whole world is watching including the Soviets. The job of defending Abel appears a thankless one and so the buck gets passed to an insurance lawyer named James Donovan (Hanks). Whereas everyone else sees this as a sorry position to be in, Donovan understands it’s a stellar opportunity to reflect the ideals that the American justice system are founded on. Not everyone is so keen with his ideals, especially when it involves a Communist. It is in these early scenes where we understand the fear of a nuclear threat is real. Yes, the Red Scare is real. You begin to understand how it could take root in the American public. After his face is seen in the papers, Donovan receives the ire of the public and it affects his family.

Meanwhile, no one knows it but the FBI is proceeding with a highly sensitive mission in Soviet airspace. Any slight screw-up and nuclear war seems inevitable. But of course, the long-remembered Gary Powers is shot down in a U2 plane taking recon footage and all of the sudden things have gotten a lot hotter.

The second leg of the narrative follows Donovan as he tries to broker a deal between the two superpowers for a prisoner swap. Both countries are intent on keeping  a lid on their national secrets. If Donovan’s task was just an exchange between Gary Powers and Abel it would be, shall we say, simple, but there has to be an added wrinkle. There always is. We get at least a taste of what the Berlin Wall truly did in creating a fissure between families and friends in Germany. However, crucial to this story, it also trapped an American  student named Frederic Pryor in the GDR. Now Donovan has two men to try and retrieve, one bargaining chip in Abel, and two powers he must deal with. The Soviet Union are the main priority along with Powers, but his contacts in the GDR are still miffed about not being recognized by the U.S. They are not about to be pushed around.

Really we can break Bridge of Spies down to just a few men, but these seemingly simple actions and interactions are blown up and magnified to the nth degree on a highly political scale. If this is actually, in essence, how this war played out in real time then it is almost a ludicrously crazy ordeal.

Still, as Spielberg always does, he reverts his story back to the human component and Donovan, the man who put his vocational talents to good use in ways that had global impact. Imagine, he was a civilian, a man who was hardly given any authority by his own government, and yet his fortitude was ultimately rewarded. Then, at the end of a hard day’s work, he returned quietly to his wife and kids with the jar of marmalade he had promised to bring home.

Spielberg does well to evoke nostalgia, with the coats and the ties, the hats and ’50s sensibilities. And though we can guess the outcome of this biography before we get there, that doesn’t make the historical climate or how we get there any less gripping. That’s where this story succeeds. Furthermore, Mark Rylance’s performance is thoroughly grounded and his scrupled man of honor truly reflects socialism with a human face, all the while wielding a droll sense of humor.

It’s easy to look at the past events of world history with a more tempered eye. We can see the rationale of Donovan, the blind paranoia of the American public, and the unyielding tensions on all fronts. The day and age may have changed, but just have a look around. There are still tensions rising to this day. We still need the common man to enact change, now as much as ever. It’s that type of sentiment that really separates Spielberg from Hitchcock. His every man comes with heart.

4/5 Stars

Charlie Wilson’s War (2008)

charliewilson1With Aaron Sorkin’s script as a road map, Charlie Wilson is a character that Mike Nichols can truly have fun with. You can easily see him getting an undue amount of delight in this man who was able to do such a momentous thing while simultaneously walking on the wild side. It had to be a good story to warrant the director’s cinematic swan song.

It’s a film that’s surprisingly overflowing with talent, headlined by the big three: Tom Hanks, Julia Roberts, and Philip Seymour Hoffman. However, Amy Adams, a young Emily Blunt, and even the old veteran Ned Beatty pop up. Hanks is the undisputed star and Hoffman is the other standout among all the other players. Most of the female roles feel decidedly unsubstantial which is not too surprising given Wilson’s lifestyle. However, Charlie Wilson’s War also is a necessary piece of storytelling because it attempts to understand a period of history that for some reason is often absent from film. From 1980 to ’88 during the Carter and Reagan administrations, a lot happened — even as Dan Rather remained through it all.

charliewilson2In the opening moments, it becomes obvious that Charlie Wilson is not so much an easily corruptible representative as he is a sexed-up man who enjoys charming female company. He’s “Good Time Charlie” for good reason. He surrounds himself with pretty young things, doesn’t mind playing around a bit, and even has a cocaine charge hanging over him after a potentially objectionable night in Vegas. In fact, the attorney looking into his case is, interestingly enough, one Rudy Giuliani.

But the one thing that he had driving him was the desire to end the Soviets total obliteration of Afghanistan with their helicopters, and so he tried to spearhead the most extraordinary of covert wars which ultimately had considerable consequences. His keen ally Joanne Herring (Roberts) is resolute to get support for the oppressed people of the Middle East because it’s a religious issue. Meanwhile, CIA officer Gust Avrakos (Hoffman) battles with him over acquiring more funding. Although he’s not necessarily a great man, people like Charlie and it serves him well.

This film is fascinating, in a sense, for the implications it had for the cultural moment in which it came out. Could Charlie Wilson and Joanne Herring have had any idea that these weapons used to fight the Soviets might have fallen into the wrong hands — the hands that orchestrated 9/11? That’s certainly a big jump and perhaps an utterly unwarranted presumption, but it’s a thought that nevertheless creeps into a skeptical mind. If nothing more it suggests that all history is so intertwined and interconnected. You cannot talk about the roots of the Cold War without starting with Word War II beforehand or you cannot attempt to get at the War on Terror without acknowledging the waning years of the Cold War that preceded it.

It’s troubling in a sense that we turned these things into a righteous war. Though it is understandable to want to do what is right, and oftentimes God is used to justify certain actions, it gets difficult when there is far greater ambiguity. It’s not always as easy as good vs. evil. We are all besmirched by greed, corruption, and the like. There’s no simple way to get around this fact, even bringing to mind Bob Dylan’s classic indictment “God on our Side” right about now.

This film carries those same undertones of religion and God that feel misguided since politicians and whoever else utilize him as their ultimate justification — their ace in the hole. Gus ironically feels the most honest for his general disdain for the practice. The war against the Soviets and the War on Terrorism are undoubtedly far more complicated matters, just as a discussion of God is a complex issue in its own right. Like the famed fable of the Zen Master, all we can really say is “We’ll see.” It takes a wise person to acknowledge they don’t know the end of the story, just like they don’t know all the answers to the big questions. They can only try their best to understand what will happen and act in the most sagacious way possible.

3.5/5 Stars

That Thing You Do! (1996)

thatthing6Recently I’ve seen a lot of films about music, musicians, and the like. There’s Llewyn Davis, who seems to have talent and yet gets little recognition for what he does. There’s the street musician in Once, who also has a lot of talent and we like to think that he makes the big-time, although the film leaves his fate open-ended. One is steeped in melancholy and the other has a raw beauty. Tom Hanks directorial and screenwriting debut That Thing You Do! seems to have very little in common with those films except in that features music. But that deserves some explanation.

Hanks’ film is a nostalgic trip for anyone wanting to get sent back to the 1960s via the 1990s. It’s a thoroughly enjoyable little romp that revolves around a group of typical teens in Pennsylvania, who go from a small-time talent show to one-hit wonders touring the state. But that’s exactly it. They’re one-hit wonders, who lack the talent of older more experienced musicians. In reality, they’re just a group of kids, still wet behind the ears, and just excited for the ride they are about to embark on. Even over the course of the film, their one smash hit, the eponymous “That Thing You Do!” can feel repetitive, and it is easy to realize that this is not the type of music that real connoisseurs want. It’s for the masses. The shrieking girls and the guys who want to dance with the shrieking girls. It’s certainly superficial, and yet there’s something quaint and at the same time infectious about it.

thatthing2We can readily get behind this little band christened The Oneders and modified to The Wonders for easier pronunciation because they’re a lovable bunch. Their members include appliance seller-turned flashy drummer Guy (Tom Everett Scott), lead singer and serious-minded Jimmy (Jonathon Schaech), the jokester Lenny (Steve Zahn), the “other guy,” and, of course, the ever-present Faye (Liv Tyler).

In many ways, they shadow The Beatles. They ditched one drummer for a better one. They both lost their first bass player. Their first hit took a ballad and sped it up to great effect. The little similarities are undoubtedly put there by Hanks, but with all the similarities it only serves to point how different these boys are. They’re not going to end up music royalty like the lads from Liverpool. And that’s okay.

thatthing3We can get satisfaction out of their first airplay on the radio or the genesis of a romance that we were always expecting. In a way, this film is like a lesser American Graffiti even going so far as giving its characters an epilogue. It takes us back to that time and place, makes us feel good, and gets a few of us nostalgic for the olden days. Although, the old televisions and dishwashers don’t exactly look like fun now.

But let’s get back to that romance. The film Starter for 10 had a similar enigma when it came to the blond or the brunette. I suppose you could call it a trope, but on one side you have the primped and provocative Charlize Theron and on the opposite side of the spectrum is Liv Tyler, who acts as the honorary fifth member of the Wonders. She is constantly faithful and encouraging in the boys rise to the top, and they are better because of her. That’s the kind of girl you’re supposed to get and the right guy gets her.

3.5/5 Stars

Note: I watched the version of the film with 39 minutes of added footage and what it really did was develop these characters a little further so you grow to appreciate them even more. Otherwise, I’m sure the original cut gives you the same narrative so either version is probably fine.

Catch me if You Can (2002)

Catch_Me_If_You_CanDirected by Steve Spielberg and starring Leonardo DiCapprio, Tom Hanks and Christopher Walken, the film chronicles the exploits of Frank Abagnale. As a boy int he 1960s he grew up with an American father and French mother but after they get a divorce Frank flees home for good. As his money runs out Frank begins to pull confidence scams and he goes so far as impersonating a Pan-Am airline pilot.

He slowly moves across the country and cashes forged checks adding up to millions of dollars. Soon the FBI catches wind of him and agent Carl Hanratty (Tom Hanks) begins to track Frank. By now Frank has masqueraded as a doctor and a lawyer while also finding time to get married. Hanratty starts to close in again and this time Frank heads to Europe where he uses more of his forged checks.

Frank has a run-in with the French authorities but Carl got him out of it only to have Frank escape once more into the U.S. This time he is caught for good and given a 12 year sentence despite his youth. But thanks to Carl, Frank is offered a job with the FBI to lend his talents to check fraud. And from that point on Frank’s life was relatively normal.

I really enjoyed this story line, DiCaprio is good, the soundtrack is great (Come Fly with Me!) and the title sequence is unique. All in all this is an entertaining cat and mouse game that is well worth the time.

4/5 Stars

The Best Films of Tom Hanks

1. Saving Private Ryan
2. Forrest Gump
3. Toy Story 3
4. Toy Story 2
5. Toy Story
6. Apollo 13
7. Catch Me if You Can
8. Captain Phillips
9. Bridge of Spies
10. Big
11. The Green Mile
12. Road to Perdition
13. Cast Away
14. Saving Mr. Banks
15. A League of Their Own
16. Sleepless in Seattle
17. Philadelphia
18. Splash
19.You’ve Got Mail

Review: Forrest Gump (1994)

950b6-forrestgump1If you want to start out on the broadest level possible, the film is a lesson in 20th century American History. It charts the turbulent course of mankind including assassinations, counter-culture, Vietnam, Anti-War Rallies, The Cold War, Watergate and much much more. The substantial soundtrack dials back the clock to fully immerse the audience in that time and place.

It is the dream movie for pop culture fanatics and history aficionados. That’s why I enjoy it. However, much like the feather that flutters in the breeze drifting this way and that, Forrest Gump is a character who floats through history as it is made. It begins with his leg braces which give inspiration to the Elvis phenomenon. Ultimately, he plays football for Alabama, sees the school desegregated, and becomes an All-American who meets JFK.

Soon it’s off to Vietnam, followed by a Medal of Honor, and a trip back home thanks to a million dollar wound. Forrest gets a taste of the nation’s capital and soon becomes an accomplished ping pong player, makes it big in the shrimping business, and heads home back to Alabama once more after buying Apple stock. All these moments are absorbing to be sure, but that alone would make the film just okay as a historical drama.

Tom Hanks‘ Forrest Gump is the important piece in the entire equation because of the people that gravitate towards him. Forrest himself only has an IQ of 75, but he is so unlike many of the characters we are used to. Not because he is “simple” so to speak, because he is far from it. Perhaps it’s the fact that he is wholly genuine, loyal, and innocent. That’s almost unheard of these days. He seems to stand at complete odds with the history that is happening all around. Sometimes it looks very different from his eyes or he is completely oblivious to what is happening.

However, in some ways, he seems to have things figured out better than most. He loves those close to him, does what he loves, and never loses his positive spirit. His observations on life might be plain, but they are nonetheless powerful to those around him. To Hank’s credit, he infuses the character with a slow-witted charm and gives him a deep southern drawl. He’s Forrest, Forrest Gump. That’s all he needs to be.

Sally Field has a relatively short screen appearance, which is still extremely important because Forrest’s mother is the one who helps guide his whole outlook on life. She encourages him to make the best of what God has given him and to realize he is no different than other “normal” people. Her love, cultivation, and homespun knowledge is what seemingly allows Forrest to lead a full life, though pithy sayings only go so far, at some point you just have to live.

Jenny (Robin Wright) is another character who is perhaps a greater drifter than Forrest himself. She is constantly trying to find her way through the turbulent times while Forrest’s feet always seem firmly planted on the ground (Rather ironic since he is always running). She is a prodigal and always prone to return to Forrest who always welcomes her back with open arms no matter the circumstances. It might be a stint in a nightclub, living the hippie life, joining the Black Panther Party, or being with other men. Forrest is forever loyal and protective of her. She cannot always handle having him in her life, and she wishes to find her own way. He is always there for her, though, even up to the point of taking care of a son.

Bubba and Lieutenant Dan are Forrest’s best good friends and both men are greatly impacted by Vietnam. Bubba dies and Lt. Dan loses his legs (not to mention his self-respect). Forrest is fiercely loyal to both comrades, starting up Bubba Gumps Shrimping in honor of his late friend and giving work to Lt. Dan when he needs it most. He is a friend for the ages and he takes the title seriously.

Calling Forrest Gump just a historical drama or even sentimental tripe might be partially accurate and yet it cohesively adds up to more than its parts. 20 years have gone by, true, and some of the luster may have gone away, but certainly not all of it.  Though it might be far from perfect, it is a story that is worth any shortcomings, because it has heart and a fantastical telling of American history that is still worth watching.

4.5/5 Stars

 

Saving Private Ryan (1998)

c1b38-saving_private_ryan_poster

Telling an amazing story of bravery, Saving Private Ryan is both inspiring and moving. Beginning with the invasion of Normandy on D-Day June 6, 1944, the film follows a group of American soldiers as they look for a Francis Ryan. Since all three of his brothers are dead their mission is to find him and send the private home . Despite the dangers and the subsequent deaths of many comrades, they finally complete their mission after one last heroic fight. The movie flashes forward to the present day Ryan as he kneels at the graves of those brave men who saved him. Unsure he asks his wife if he lived a good life because those soldiers payed the ultimate price for him. With director Steven Speilberg, Tom Hanks, Matt Damon, and other good character actors, this is a powerful war film with great battle sequences as well as amazing heroism.

5/5 Stars