(On Cable TV, December 2018) Many movies are entertaining, but far fewer are life-affirming. Joe Versus the Volcano is one of them. From the memorable first few moments, as a crowd of workers trudge toward a nightmarish factory to the sounds of “Sixteen Tons”, this is a special film. Tom Hanks stars as a man who, upon learning of an incurable disease, quits his job and decides to see the world before his death. In the process, he meets a girl, finds himself on a deserted island and (as one does in those circumstances) volunteers to be a sacrifice by throwing himself in a volcano. It’s really not as grim as it sounds, though—it’s charming, optimistic, whimsical and far more expressionistic than you’d expect from a Tom Hanks/Meg Ryan romantic comedy, fitting with the sometimes-outlandish material. Writer/director John Patrick Shanley manages to create a universe flirting with magical realism (people more familiar with his dour 2008 film Doubt will be shocked at how different it is) and keeps playing in this outlandish slightly fantastic sandbox, all the way up to having Meg Ryan play three different roles. Hanks is in full late-1980s charming young lead mode, while Ryan has seldom looked better with straight hair. While the inconclusive conclusion didn’t sit right with me the first time I saw it (this is the kind of film that deserves a full-fireworks kind of triumphant coda), I like it better a few days later. Joe Versus the Volcano is weird, wild, fun and heartening. Not only has it aged far better than many of its more realistic contemporaries, and it probably plays better today given the expansion of mainstream cinematographic grammar in the past thirty years.
(On Cable TV, October 2018) There’s something quietly amazing in how Steven Spielberg, now that he has mastered the filmic form, can go from wide-screen spectacle to a far more restrained drama and deliver said smaller movie in the time it takes for the bigger movie to complete post-production. As the story goes, Spielberg read The Post’s script in February 2017, started shooting in May, wrapped up editing in November and the film made it to theatres in time for the December Oscar season—all the while blockbuster Ready Player One underwent post-production and release. That’s ludicrously fast, but you can understand the urgency while watching the film. After all, The Post is a full-throated defence of the power of a free and independent press unafraid to aim for the biggest targets—something very much needed considering the authoritarian behaviour of the current American administration. It specifically tackles the story of the Pentagon Papers, and specifically the decision of The Washington Post to publish from the papers at a time when it wasn’t clear if this was an illegal act. You know how it’s going to end, but the script wisely focuses on then-new owner Katharine Graham as she wrestles with the decision to publish, balancing legal and business exposure with journalistic duty. With Meryl Streep playing Graham and Tom Hanks as the legendary Ben Bradlee, Spielberg can rely on screen legends to deliver the drama, and the film is never quite as good as when it features characters batting around big ideas as they relate to their current situation. It’s an inspiring film, perhaps a bit too rearranged to suit dramatic requirements but not outrageously so. Spielberg’s direction remains satisfying even when there are no car chases, supernatural creatures or fantastic landscapes to behold—this is one of his tight dramatic films that would have been released straight to video had it not featured his producing and directing skills. The Post also explicitly positions itself as a prequel to All the President’s Men and generally sustains the scrutiny created by the association. I’d call it essential viewing in these troubled, often truth-alternative times, but I fear that the only people willing to watch the film are those already convinced of its righteousness.
(Netflix Streaming, August 2018) There’s something really weird at play in The Circle, and I’m having a bit of trouble untangling my exact issue with it. I think that it has a lot to do with its unimaginative techno-skepticism, as it follows a young woman who starts working for a (fictional) tech giant and becomes gradually disenchanted by the disconnect between its lofty public ambitions and the less-than-positive impact it has on her life and society at large. It’s not a bad premise on which to base a film, but The Circle does itself no favours by being lazy and trite about it. There is a surprising lack of interest from the film in spelling out what exactly is so awful about the company for which our character works: it seems to rely more on common assumed notions about the evils of Facebook, Google, Apple, et al. There’s a conspiracy angle to the film that never goes farther than two senior executives saying to each other, “Oh no, we’re in trouble now!” when their emails are leaked. Paradoxically, the crutch of using viewer’s anti-tech prejudices also points at why the film feels so useless—so it simply confirms those awful suspicions about the evils of tech giants? That’s it? Nothing more? Why bother watching the film when I can just look at my favourite newspaper and read articles that go far beyond The Circle‘s freshman-level musings? Even the dumb moral at the end of the film feels badly under-thought. It doesn’t help that the film doesn’t have much in terms of energy or paranoia. Writer/director James Ponsoldt has done much better in the past. Poor dull boring featureless generic actress Emma Watson looks annoyed for ninety minutes or however long it takes to make it to the end of this ordeal. Tom Hanks seems to have fun playing the sinister CEO visionary, but there’s—again—nearly nothing of substance behind the vague menace he’s supposed to present. What a dull movie. What a hypocritical movie. What else is on?
(On Cable TV, July 2018) Contemporary reviews of Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close were fairly clear and unanimous: this was schmaltz of the highest grade, cynically manufactured to bait audiences and perhaps even the Academy Awards. As a jaded reviewer, surely I didn’t need to watch it and so decided not to. (I was also busy with a newborn.) But what if it worked? Years later, running down the list of Oscar-nominated pictures I hadn’t yet seen, I ended up starting Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close with low expectations and a considerable amount of built-in reluctance, leaving it in the background as I was doing something else. It really doesn’t help that the opening moments of the film hammer the premise home: Here’s the semi-autistic kid of a good man who died in 9/11, and he’s still having trouble coping. Buzzword bingo. From a conceptual standpoint, the film is still disastrous and a masterwork of manipulation. But as it unfolded and I kept interrupting what I was doing to pay attention to the film, I realized that the execution of the whole preposterous thing was gradually seducing me into accepting its reality. It helps to have good actors—Tom Hanks and Sandra Bullock are exactly the screen persona that the posters promise us, but then there’s Max von Sydow, Viola Davis, John Goodman and Jeffrey Wright in small roles. But the real draw of the film is Stephen Daldry’s inventive direction, which takes us into the dynamic mind of its young protagonist, and treats the edges of the screen as mere suggestion—there’s a lot of image blending here, flights of fancy from strict realistic mimetism and to see this after a few weeks spent deep in classic film was a reminder of how the state-of-the-art in terms of direction has considerably evolved over the past decade, with unprecedented ability to make reality malleable. Of course, the film is far too often too much for its own good: Daldry piles on the weepy triggers by the end of the film and if some of them work, the others feel far-fetched. I’m almost sure that my reaction in 2018 is far more positive that if I had seen the film in 2011—at the time, the film was pitched as a sure-fire Oscar candidate, tied to the tenth anniversary of 9/11 and still playing with raw wounds. Seven years later, well, the first kids without direct memories of 9/11 are finishing high school, we have more pressing urgencies to think about and the film has retreated into semi-respectability as “one of those Oscar nominees”. As a result, it now feels like a discovery more than an imposed viewing and that does make quite a difference. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that the film needs a critical revaluation (I mean: it is still schmaltzy), but it’s probably quite a bit better than critics said at the time.
(On Cable TV, September 2017) Given its enduring popularity, it seems almost amazing that I’d never seen Big until now. But it’s never too late to see what the fuss is about, and so a first viewing shows that its reputation is well deserved. The story of a boy who wishes he was big and then seeing his wish being fulfilled, Big is, at times, a celebration of boyhood, a fish-out-of-water comedy, a wistful meditation on the responsibilities of adulthood and an unusual romance. It works as a heartwarming comedy, even though some of the implications of “age of consent” are too uncomfortable to contemplate for long. There have been many body-switching movies in which kids have to deal with adulthood, but Big remains a reference because it does try something interesting with the concept—allow the boy hero to actually grow up along the way, and seriously have to choose between staying an adult or returning to childhood. I suspect that I will best appreciate Big the second time around—even though it’s recognizably a comedy from its first few moments, it’s not too clear how bad the experience will be for our protagonist the first time, and the movie does get better once we realize that nothing terrible will happens to him. The film’s biggest asset, of course, is Tom Hanks: His wide-eyed performance as an early teen in a man’s body is filled with well-observed mannerisms, and his latter transformation into something closer to a responsible adult is one of the film’s biggest pleasures. Robert Loggia also has a good turn as an unusually sympathetic boss—the iconic floor-piano sequence still works remarkably well due to a sense of fun shared between those two actors. While Big does have a few unpleasant undertones, it does deal seriously enough with its themes to remain current. Plus, you get top-form Tom Hanks at the beginning of his stardom.
(Second viewing, On DVD, September 2017) I remember standing in line to watch this film on opening week, and being energized by the result. Decades later, Apollo 13 is still as good as it ever was—as a triumphant look at the American effort to land on the moon, it remains unequalled, and while the then-astonishing special effects have aged, they still hold up reasonably well—that launch sequence is still awe-inspiring. They may never be a movie about Apollo 11 because it went so well, but the Apollo 13 mission was a different story, and it’s through that fateful flight that we get a look at the astonishing achievement of the American space program. The historical details are immediately credible, and there’s much to be said about a film made in the nineties to reflect events that were then barely more than twenty years past—trying to recreate 1973 today would be more difficult and probably less authentic, without mentioning all the people who have since died and wouldn’t be there to provide their advice. Reportedly free of major inaccuracies, Apollo 13 can’t quite escape some artistic licensing issues, whether it’s leaden explanatory dialogue, scenes set up to discuss a thematic concern or the vastly overwrought climax played up for all it’s worth. Still, these are small concerns compared to the entire film—it remains one of director Ron Howard’s most successful films, and it features a cast of a half-dozen great actors, from Tom Hanks’ immediately sympathetic commander Jim Lovell to Kevin Bacon, Bill Paxton, Gary Sinise and one of Ed Harris’s career-best iconic performance as no-nonsense flight director Gene Kranz. Everything clicks together to make up that elusive movie magic, effective even when knowing exactly how everything will play out. It’s not meant to be subtle (the last-act passage in which NASA reflects that Apollo 13 will be remembered as one of their “finest moments” lays out what viewers are expected to take away from the film itself) but it’s remarkably effective. As a lapsed space buff, I can’t help but love Apollo 13, but I’m reasonably sure that it remains a great movie for everyone even today.
(On Cable TV, May 2017) It may be just another biopic, but Sully does a few things to take it beyond being a simple biopic barely seven years after the events it’s portraying. The first is probably the cinematic nature of the events it re-creates: The dramatic “Miracle on the Hudson” in which an entire flight was saved by the decision to land on the Hudson River … in January. This aspect of the story is portrayed clearly, with alternate scenarios in which other decisions are shown as ending up with a fiery crash in Manhattan. The structure of the film is also notable, as it begins with a fake-out, work its way forward through the investigation of the events and then only portrays the event in detail. Tom Hanks is his usual self as the protagonist—looking different from other roles, but acting with the same core of honour and sympathetic humility that has ensured his success as an actor. Director Clint Eastwood turns in another dependable film, with a higher-than-usual number of special effects but the same kind of middle-America appeal. There’s some bit of repetition in the way Sully digs deeper and deeper into its central events, but the recreation of the disaster is evocative and the whole thing is cleanly presented. The conclusion does appear too pat—from the moment “machines” and “simulations” are mentioned, it’s obvious that the film will fall back on fuzzy notions of humanity … but knowing how the computers will be blamed for everything is another way of ensuring that Sully is comforting to everyone. It amounts to a solid, if only occasionally spectacular film. Come for the true story of flight 1549—stay for the ghoulishly striking sequences of plane crashes in the city.
(On DVD, April 2017) Mmm mmm, mmm, delicious crow. I’ve long been an immature know-it-all, but now that I’m undeniably middle-aged, it’s time to atone and repent—part of it being recognizing Forrest Gump’s greatness. For, alas, dear readers, I have been boycotting Forrest Gump since it came out, since I was a mid-nineties neckbeard taking Bruce Sterling’s opinion as gospel. (True story: I was the guy who, while standing in line to see True Lies, sarcastically said “Awww, noooo” when they announced that Forrest Gump was sold-out.) Now, it’s true that I’ve never been a fan of holy fool stories. It’s also a given that I didn’t know enough about recent American history in 1994 to fully appreciate Forrest Gump’s little jokes and subtle inferences. It’s particularly true that my taste in movies has expanded quite a bit since then. All of which to say that while I’m late to the Forrest Gump party (to partly exonerate myself, I have read the novel a decade ago), I’m more than ready to cover it with praise. Perhaps the most noteworthy thing about the movie is that it’s actually dealing with very clever matters under the guise of telling how a simple-minded man made his way through thirty tumultuous years of American history. At this stage in my life, I’m seeing it as a parable about how being good is better than being smart. But it’s also about the advantages of letting go, the synthesis of different views (Forrest vs Jenny) about life and history, the strengths of expressionist filmmaking and just how good Tom Hanks can be at incarnating the spirit of the United States in its multifaceted quality. Robert Zemeckis pushes the envelope of filmmaking so well that the special effects remain convincing even twenty-some years later—the use of “invisible” special effects to heighten reality remains close to the gold standard even today. Hanks is terrific as the lead character, finding a tricky balance between simple dialogue and complex acting while the film also has good turns for Robin Wright and Gary Sinise. The various nods and jokes at 1950s–1980s American history are hilarious (I’m sure I missed a few) while the film does manage to escape its episodic nature by weaving a few subplots in and out of the episodes. It’s a weirdly compelling film, with short comic bits combining with an overall story to make for sustained watching pleasure. A smart movie about a not-so-smart (but admirable) man, Forrest Gump has since ascended to the status of a modern classic, and I now see why. I may not wholly embrace it as five-star perfection, but I concede happily that I should have seen it earlier.
(Second viewing, On TV, March 2017) I was wary of revisiting The ’burbs: what if it didn’t measure up to my good memories? Fortunately, I shouldn’t have worried: As a comedy, it’s still as increasingly anarchic as I recalled, and the film has aged relatively well largely due to director Joe Dante’s off-beat genre sensibilities. Baby-faced Tom Hanks stars as a driven suburban man daring himself to spend a week at home doing nothing. But his holiday soon turns to real work as he starts obsessing over his neighbours and, egged on by friends, suspecting them of the worst crimes. Set entirely in a quiet cul-de-sac, The ’burbs still has a few things to say about the hidden depths of suburbia, dangerous obsessions and the unknowability of neighbours. It’s also increasingly funny as actions become steadily more extreme—by the time a house blows up in the middle of the climax, it’s clear that the movie has gone as far as it could go. Corey Feldman (as a fascinated teenager treating the whole thing like a reality-TV show), Bruce Dern (as a crazed survivalist), Carrie Fisher (as a voice of exasperated reason) and Henry Gibson (deliciously evil) are also remarkable in supporting roles. The “burbs may take a while to heat up, but it quickly goes to a boil and remains just as funny today.
(On Cable TV, March 2017) Back when Meg Ryan reigned supreme as America’s Sweetheart, the idea of pairing her with American Everyman Tom Hanks seemed like a natural fit, and why not? Seeing Sleepless in Seattle, the result speaks for itself. Unusually structured (the two main characters barely meet for much of the movie) but successful thanks to some wit along the way, the film doesn’t revolutionize anything as much as it shows two actors at the top of their game. A lot of it feels like filler, as befits a narrative that holds back reunion for a climax—there’s some back-and-forth about Ryan’s character “settling” for a comfortable life that feels particularly dragged-out. Still, Sleepless in Seattle remains a bit unusual even twenty-five years later. Some of the father/son dialogue is clever, and the way the film moves forward is almost enough to sidestep how contrived it is. Relying on tired clichés about true love, love at first sight and soulmates destined to meet, it’s not a particularly inspiring movie, but the charm of the two lead actors somewhat compensate for a manufactured hollow core. It’s squarely within the confine of the romantic comedy subgenre, but Sleepless in Seattle does play well with familiar elements, and casts them in sufficiently unusual situations that it almost feels fresh again.
(On Cable TV, February 2017) There’s a good-natured quality to A League of Their Own that makes it hard to dislike, but that doesn’t mean the film is a solid home run. As a look inside all-women baseball leagues during World War II, it manages to thread a fine line between social concern and outright entertainment. You do have to be a baseball-loving American to get the most out of it, though, as the script quickly takes the familiar route of making baseball a national prism rather than a simple sport. At least Geena Davis is a good lead, with able supporting performances from Tom Hanks (in an out-of-persona turn as a boozy has-been) and (believe it or not) Madonna back when she was trying to be taken seriously as an actor. Jon Lovitz also shows up in a surprisingly non-annoying role. Much of the story will feel familiar, but the epilogue stretches our affection for the film by trying too hard for instant nostalgia for characters we’ve barely met. Thanks to Penny Marshall’s no-nonsense direction, A League of their Own is an effective, basic movie. Not too challenging, not too dry—just good enough to leave everyone happy but not bowled over.
(On Cable TV, February 2017) It’s a good thing that Tom Hanks stars in A Hologram for the King, because I’m not sure that the film would have been as interesting with another actor. Bringing his everyday-man charm to a damaged character (a down-on-his-luck salesman with substantial familial, psychological and health issues) thrown in the weirdness of modern Saudi Arabia as he chases an important contract, Hanks shines even without meaning to do so. There are multiple obstacles in his way, from an unfamiliar culture to unhelpful receptionists to a big ball of guilt permeating his every action. Writer/director Tom Tykwer brings some welcome energy and visual polish to some sequences but otherwise delivers a far more conventional film than some of his best-known work. Other actors distinguish themselves in smaller roles: Alexander Black is frequently hilarious as the protagonist’s accidental companion, while Sidse Babett Knudsen is very likable as the first helpful person encountered by the hero, and Sarita Choudhury gets a great age-appropriate romantic role. A Hologram for the King plays well, especially during its early scenes, largely due to the attachment that viewers already have to Hanks’ screen persona. The accumulation of details about life in Saudi Arabia gives the film a manageable amount of strangeness, and by the time we understand that this will be a character study with a strong internal component, we’re already under the film’s unassuming charm. A Hologram for the King is certainly not without faults (some plotlines get resolved very quickly, some subplots feel easy, some moments feel implausible or too easy contrived) but it works well enough.
(Video on Demand, February 2016) With Inferno, Tom Hanks is back for a third largely indifferent time as Robert Langdon, one of his career’s most undistinguished roles. One can’t fault Hank for teaming up with Ron Howard in adapting one of the most high-profile thriller series of the century so far … but the problem with Langdon is that he’s a character fully fleshed out by Hanks alone. There’s little on the page (either the book or the script) to make Langdon anything more than a fountain of information and a mannequin running through a convoluted plot. In the absence of such niceties, we’re left to rely on Tom Hanks, all-around American good guy, to give life to the series. To their credit, the filmmakers behind Inferno wisely dispensed with the most infuriating element of the novel’s conclusion, although they didn’t soften the moronic overpopulation rationale. The plot is ludicrous and the historical trivia is generally unremarkable, but the film does its best to wring a few honest moments of suspense from the result. I do believe that the film is an improvement over the borderline-unlikable book, but that’s not much of a baseline to begin with. (Inferno is the novel that finally made me give up on Dan Brown after being a bit of a contrarian cheerleader for him in post-The Da Vinci Code times.) You can argue that the story is more interesting than the previous two Langdon movies, but the freshness of the symbologist-as-hero premise has faded almost entirely. The result is average without dipping into mediocrity, which would have been a real danger at this point in the series. This being said, this is no call for a sequel. Let Hanks do something else.
(Video on Demand, February 2016) 2015 has been a year heavy in spy movies, but most of them emphasized comedy and action at the expense of any halfway realistic look at the profession. Fortunately, here comes Bridge of Spies to compensate for this sensational excess. Written by the Coen brothers and directed by Stephen Spielberg in his more serious mode, Bridge of Spies is a fictionalized account of the real-life Cold War heroics of James B. Donovan, an American lawyer who, almost by accident, became involved in clandestine activities. Selected to defend a man accused of spying in the US, our protagonist (ably played by Tom Hanks, making the most of his everyman persona) ends up ably defending universal values against an American government trying to pillory a target. His troubles aren’t over once that’s done, given how he then finds himself travelling to Berlin to negotiate an exchange of prisoners at a time where the Wall is going up and no-one seems quite sure who to believe. Relatively low in action (although it does feature a harrowing sequence in which Gary Powers’ U2 is shot down over the Soviet Union), Bridge of Spies makes up for it in portraying its hero as a man with a briefcase and strong principles. Mark Rylance provides crucial support with a laconic performance as a curiously sympathetic spy. At times, Bridge of Spies does run too long, and feels just a bit duller than it could have been. Compared to even the best of the other spy movies of 2015 such as Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation or Kingsman, it feels positively adult, though, and that’s a substantial part of its charm. Consider it an antidote when you’ll be tired of seeing spies merely shown as gun-toting action heroes.
(On Cable TV, November 2013) Disney’s become astonishingly self-referential over the past few years, riffing off its history in ways that would have seemed almost parodic not too long ago. After such films as Enchanted, Maleficient, Into the Woods, or live-action Cinderella, this is more than the reflection of an increasingly degenerate pop-culture implosion: it’s a deliberate corporate strategy, meant to groom another generation of fans as much as re-gain an older one. The stature of Disney is made bigger with the promotion of its own history, and it’s in that spirit that Saving Mr Banks goes all the way back to the fifties to offer not only a romanced look at the making of Mary Poppins, but also a myth-defining portrayal of Walt Disney by none other than Tom Hanks himself. Giving him repartee is Emma Thompson as the magnificently acerbic P.L. Travers, author of the original Mary Poppins story and definitely reluctant to let anyone adapt it to the screen. Interspaced in-between the gradual seduction of Travers are flashbacks to her childhood in Australia, dealing with a self-destructive father (another interesting secondary role for Colin Farrell). Even if not a single frame of Mary Poppins is shown on-screen, some passing familiarity with the film is best in order to catch some of the jokes and allusions. A gentle character study, Saving Mr. Banks is at its best in detailing Travers’ perpetual scowl, and Disney’s constant sunniness, along with the behind-the-scenes look at Mary Poppins’ pre-production. It’s unfortunately not as interesting in its seemingly endless flashbacks, as essential as they can be in defining Travers’ character. Still, the result has its moments and it works even if you’re not really in the mood for some deliberate Disney myth-making.