12 Strong


Chris Hemsworth to the rescue!

(2018) True Life War (Warner Brothers) Chris Hemsworth, Michael Shannon, Michael Peña, Navid Negahban, Trevante Rhodes, Geoff Stults, Thad Luckinbill, Austin Hébert, Austin Stowell, Ben O’Toole, Kenneth Miller, Kenny Sheard, Jack Kesy, Rob Riggle, William Fichtner, Arshia Mandavi, Elsa Pataky, Marie Wagenman, Allison King, Samuel Kamphuis, Lauren Myers. Directed by Nicolai Fuglsig

 

After the attacks of 9-11, the military was caught a bit disorganized and flat-footed. Who do we attack? There was no geo-political entity that one could say “There! If we fight them, we can keep from having more terrorist attacks on the United States.” It wasn’t like Pearl Harbor; we knew who did it and we knew who had to pay.

It is true that a group of Marines – 12 of ‘em – went into Afghanistan early in 2012 to link up with the Afghan Northern Alliance and take down some Taliban baddies. While the ads for the film hysterically said that if we didn’t win this battle that there would be MORE terrorist attacks (there’s no evidence to suggest that was true) there’s no doubt that the men who went into Afghanistan only to find out that the terrain required horses rather than trucks and jeeps – and only one of them knew how to ride – were heroic, credits to the military and to their country.

Hemsworth has become a dependable star from the Thor films to other appearances. Here he shows off that he can be a badass without a magic hammer and his charisma and charm still stand him in good stead even when the film is dead serious. It helps that he has a fine support cast behind him, including Shannon who gets a rare non-villainous role.

While the movie felt more like a recruitment poster than entertainment at times, it still accomplishes the latter goal for the most part at least. While I thought it was a little long and may have been guilty of doing an inappropriate victory dance when we’re still fighting the same bloody war sixteen years (as of this writing) and counting afterwards, it at least will get American hearts beating and American chests pounded by American fists. Military lovers, have at this one.

REASONS TO GO: Hemsworth continues to develop into a solid leading man.
REASONS TO STAY: Many times the film didn’t feel as authentic as others covering the war did.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s lots of war violence and plenty of profanity throughout.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Riggle plays Colonel Max Bowers in the film; a Marine before he became a noted actor, Riggle actually served under the real Max Bowers at approximately the same time period the film is set in.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/13/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 54% positive reviews. Metacritic: 54/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Winter Brothers

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New Releases for the Week of January 19, 2018


12 STRONG

(Warner Brothers) Chris Hemsworth, Michael Shannon, William Fichtner, Elsa Pataky, Michael Peña, Rob Riggle, Austin Stowell, Taylor Sheridan, Geoff Stults. Directed by Nicolai Fuglsig

Even as the smoke was still rising from the rubble of the World Trade Center, a special forces team was dispatched to Afghanistan to prepare the way for the conventional military. Led by a new captain and untested in battle, the team must work with a local warlord to take on the Taliban and find themselves vastly outnumbered and fighting in an unfamiliar style that may doom their mission before it even starts.

See the trailer here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard, IMAX, 4DX, DBox, XD, RPX
Genre: True War Drama
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: R (for war violence and language throughout)

Chavela

(Music Box) Chavela Vargas, Pedro Almodóvar, Laura Garcia-Lorca, Miguel Bosé.  Largely unknown outside of the Latin community, Chavela Vargas was one of the most influential ranchero singers of her time, a powerhouse whose influence echoes throughout the Latin music world after her death. A lesbian in a culture that didn’t take too kindly to different forms of sexuality, she remains an icon in the Latin LGBTQ+ community to this day. This is the latest installment in the Enzian’s monthly Music Monday series.

See the trailer here.
For more on the movie this is the website

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Music Documentary
Now Playing: Enzian Theater (Monday only)

Rating: NR  

Den of Thieves

(STX) Gerard Butler, O’Shea Jackson Jr, 50 Cent, Pablo Schreiber. The movie follows an elite unit of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department and a skilled crew of bank robbers as the two teams head on a collision course as the robbers plan the biggest heist ever – a robbery of the Federal Reserve Bank in Los Angeles.

See the trailer here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard, Dolby Atmos
Genre: Crime Action
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: R (for violence, language and some sexuality/nudity)

Forever My Girl

(Roadside Attractions/LD Entertainment) Alex Roe, Jessica Rothe, John Benjamin Hickey, Tyler Riggs. After leaving his fiancé at the altar, a young man returns to his small home after achieving stardom in country music. He hopes to rebuild the relationships that his actions wiped out – and one in particular – which has a specific complication he never counted on.

See the trailer here.
For more on the movie this is the website

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Romance
Now Playing: AMC Altamonte Mall, AMC Disney Springs, AMC Lake Square, AMC New Smyrna, AMC Universal Cineplex, AMC West Oaks, Amstar Lake Mary, Cinemark Artegon Marketplace, Epic Theaters of Clermont, Old Mill Playhouse, Regal Ormond Beach, Regal Oviedo Mall, Regal Waterford Lakes, Regal Winter Park Village

Rating: PG (for thematic elements including drinking, and for language)

Mary and the Witch’s Flower

(GKIDS) Starring the voices of Ruby Barnhill, Kate Winslet, Jim Broadbent, Ewen Bremner. A teenage girl finds a strange plant with a beautiful flower growing in the wild and discovers that it grants her fantastic powers. She is whisked away to a magic school where witches are cultivated and trained. She finally has found a place where she fits in – but discovers there’s a dark side to the school.

See the trailer here.
For more on the movie this is the website

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Anime
Now Playing: AMC Disney Springs, AMC Universal Cineplex, AMC West Oaks, Cinemark Artegon Marketplace, Regal Pointe Orlando

Rating: NR

Phantom Thread

(Focus) Daniel Day-Lewis, Vicky Krieps, Lesley Manville, Gina McKee. A renowned dress designer in London during the 1950s lives a very precise, ordered life – one might say fastidious. Into that life comes the strong-willed Alma who becomes his lover and his muse, turns his life upside down and leads him down paths he never would have imagined taking. Day-Lewis has said this is his final film performance so this is worth seeing on that basis alone.

See the trailer, clips and featurettes here.
For more on the movie this is the website

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Biographical Drama
Now Playing: AMC Altamonte Mall, AMC Disney Springs, Cinemark Artegon Marketplace, Cobb Plaza Cinema Café, Epic Theaters of Clermont, Regal Ormond Beach, Regal Oviedo Mall, Regal Pointe Orlando, Regal Port Orange, Regal Waterford Lakes, Regal Winter Park Village, Rialto Spanish Springs

Rating: R (for language)

ALSO OPENING IN ORLANDO/DAYTONA:

Freak Show

ALSO OPENING IN MIAMI/FT. LAUDERDALE:

A Better Tomorrow 2018
Felcite
The Final Year
Freak Show
Gintama
Happy End
Mom and Dad
The Wound

ALSO OPENING IN TAMPA/ST. PETERSBURG:

Delirium
Mom and Dad

ALSO OPENING IN JACKSONVILLE/ST. AUGUSTINE:

Mom and Dad

SCHEDULED FOR REVIEW:

12 Strong
Chavela
Den of Thieves
Forever My Girl
Mom and Dad
Phantom Thread

FILM FESTIVALS TAKING PLACE IN FLORIDA:

Saint Augustine Film Festival

Battle of the Sexes


Billie Jean King and Bobbie Riggs: together again.

(2017) True Life Drama (Fox Searchlight) Emma Stone, Steve Carell, Andrea Riseborough, Natalie Morales, Sarah Silverman, Bill Pullman, Alan Cumming, Elisabeth Shue, Eric Christian Olsen, Fred Armisen, Austin Stowell, Wallace Langham, Martha MacIsaac, Lauren Kline, Mickey Sumner, Fidan Manashirova, Jessica McNamee, Ashley Weinhold. Directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris

 

The 1973 tennis match between Billie Jean King, then the best female player in the world, and Bobby Riggs, a middle aged former Wimbledon champion was in many ways the epitome of excessive hype and sensationalism, two things America does particularly well. Some have looked at it as a metaphor for the struggle of women to gain equality but in many ways it really was just an over-bloated carnival sideshow that caught the attention of the world when it happened.

King (Stone) was busy trying to get the Woman’s Tennis Association off the ground; wearied by years of being dismissed by the male elite of the USLTA, then the ruling body for American tennis, and worse yet receiving only about one eighth the prize money that men received, she and her fast-tallking chain-smoking publicist Gladys Heldman (Silverman) are not looking necessarily to make a statement other than create an organization that will promote women’s tennis properly. King wasn’t particularly political but she did have a sense of fairness that was more developed than most.

Riggs (Carell) was a hustler and a man with a gambling problem whose career greatness was well behind him. Hitting upon an idea that he thought would generate him the kind of money that would keep him and his family comfortable, he wanted to play the best female player in the world and beat her to show that even an over-the-hill male player could beat the best woman. King at first refused but when Margaret Court (MacIsaac) who had the number one ranking at the time accepted the challenge – and lost – King felt obliged to take the match, particularly since the defeat could sink the WTA before it was even afloat.

To complicate matters, King had begun a romance with hairdresser Marilyn Barrett (Riseborough) that gave King the first realization that she was a lesbian. Of course it was a much different time back then; the revelation of her sexuality could wipe out the credibility of the WTA and of course destroy her marriage to her husband Larry (Stowell) who was genuinely supportive and someone she didn’t want to hurt. There was a ton of pressure on Billie Jean King coming to a head in the Astrodome on September 20, 1973.

Stone does an outstanding job as King, despite not having a particular physical resemblance to the tennis great. She does pull off King’s high wattage squinty smile very nicely and many of her vocal mannerisms. She doesn’t play King as a confident leader which was perhaps the public perception of her, but as someone who was thrust into a role she didn’t particularly want to play but accepted the role she’d been given. Stone has an outside chance of an Oscar nomination for her work but because the movie was released in September, kind of a no man’s land for award season, the chances are a little bit more slender than they might have been had the movie gotten a November or December release.

Carell also does a really good job as Riggs, capturing the huckster public persona and the personal charm Riggs displayed on the camera. We also get the sense – which those who knew Riggs well, including Billie Jean King have often stated – that the chauvinism was an act for him, a means of hyping up the match and of making a buck. There are moments of genuine warmth and Carell delivers them note-perfectly.

Dayton and Faris really give us a sense of the era nicely including a killer soundtrack – it’s nice that movies are really nailing era soundtracks these days – and the fashions and design of the time. They do make a tactical error in spending so much time on the romance between Billie Jean and Marilyn; while I do think that King’s discovery of her sexuality was an important component to her life at the time it was by no means the only one. The romance is over-emphasized and slows down the movie’s momentum and pads the running time a bit much. There really aren’t a lot of sparks between Stone and Riseborough and it makes the movie overall feel a bit flatter than it needed to be.

Still, this is a fairly enjoyable movie that if you’re patient can be quite entertaining. I wouldn’t call it a gem (some critics have) but neither would I call it a failure either. Misogynists will probably detest the movie and radical feminists may think it’s a bit soft. However those of us in between will find a good comfortable place to enjoy the spectacle.

REASONS TO GO: The performances of Stone and Carell are stellar. The directors evoke the era of the 70s nicely.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie has a bit of a soap opera-esque feel. The film is a bit flat.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some sexual content and brief nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Carell previously worked with Dayton and Faris in Little Miss Sunshine.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, Fandango Now, Frontier, Google Play, iTunes, Movies Anywhere, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/6/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 86% positive reviews. Metacritic: 73/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Wimbledon
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Victoria and Abdul

Colossal


Put ’em up!

(2017) Sci-Fi Dramedy (Neon) Anne Hathaway, Jason Sudeikis, Austin Stowell, Tim Blake Nelson, Dan Stevens, Hannah Cheramy, Nathan Ellison, Sarah Surh, Haeun Hannah Cho, Carlos Joe Costa, Melissa Montgomery, Christine Lee, Rukiya Bernard, James Yi, Alyssa Dawson, Miho Suzuki, Charles Raahul Singh, Jenny Mitchell, Maddie Smith, Everett Adams, Agamdeep Darshi. Directed by Nacho Vigalondo

It is said that within all of us there are both angels and monsters. For the most part, the majority of us try as hard as we can to keep that monster inside and let the angel out but it can be difficult, particularly if we are coping with more than we can handle. That’s when those monsters can show their faces and take control.

Gloria (Hathaway) has some issues. She is chronically unemployed or underemployed. She goes out and parties with friends most nights; sometimes for days. She drinks far too much and often doesn’t remember what she did the night before. Finally, her boyfriend Tim (Stevens) has had enough. While he loves Gloria, he can’t stand being around her anymore. Nothing he can say or do has helped. It’s time for him to remove this toxic person from his life and he not only dumps her, he packs up her stuff and tells her she has to move out of their New York apartment…or rather, his New York apartment.

With no other options, Gloria moves back to her childhood home upstate that her recently deceased mom left to her. While there she runs into childhood playmate Oscar (Sudeikis) who has an inheritance of his own – his parents bar. He offers Gloria a job waitressing there which she gratefully accepts although perhaps working in a bar isn’t exactly the best place to be for an alcoholic. By day, Oscar helps out by buying her things to help furnish her empty home; by night, they work at the bar which has bottomed out in popularity in recent years. Oscar has closed off a huge chunk of it, decorated in cowboy fashion. Gloria resolves to spruce it up and reopen it. In between, there are late nights drinking with Oscar and his friends Garth (Nelson), a philosophical drunk and Joel (Stowell), a handsome local who catches Gloria’s eye.

But things take a turn for the strange when news reports show a gigantic monster rampaging in Seoul, South Korea and then disappearing. Like everyone else, Gloria is amazed and alarmed. Unlike everyone else, Gloria discovers she has a strange connection with the monster. The monster makes strange hand gestures that are very much reminiscent of the same quirky gestures Gloria makes. She also discovers that the monsters rampages take place when she is in the playground at a local park. She begins to realize that she is the monster.

Before too long, a second monster appears – a giant robot and Gloria’s monster is needed to do battle with it. She also finds she needs to do battle in real life as well with someone she trusted who has become abusive and controlling. Can she summon the strength to fight on both fronts and in doing so, save the lives of millions of people in Seoul?

Giant monster or kaiju films have regained popularity recently with the successes of Godzilla and Kong: Skull Island as well as dozens of films in Asia. This is a very different take on them. Spanish director Vigalondo has been an up-and-coming name in horror films in recent years and this might just be his best work yet. It’s imaginative and thought-provoking, the latter of which being a rare quality in movies that are as entertaining as this one.

Hathaway gives a marvelous performance as a woman who has lost control of her life and who’s made a ton of bad choices, many of which were informed by alcohol abuse. She is appealing here as she is in most of her films and even though her character isn’t always doing the right thing we still end up rooting for her. Sudeikis is also a very likable screen personality and while the movie begins with him playing a role that is typical for him it changes somewhat as the film progresses. It’s really a marvelous role for him as it allows him to expand his range.

While the special effects reflect the movie’s small budget, the movie explores all sorts of things during the course of its run time from living with substance abusers to domestic violence and taking responsibility. These are some heavy topics for what is essentially a kaiju comedy that turns into something a little deeper.

This played the Florida Film Festival last month and one of the programmers for the Festival reported that a couple of angry ladies accosted him following the screening of this film and complained that it glorifies domestic abuse. Quite frankly with respect to the ladies making the complaint, I believe that their interpretation is quite a bit off the mark. One of the points that the movie is making is that domestic violence can come from people who are the nicest of guys outwardly; that’s why it’s so shocking when it happens in the film. Rather than glorifying domestic violence, the scenes depicting it show it for what it is – a disgusting, cowardly act.

While the movie’s final third is a little less impressive than the first two, it maintains interest throughout. Vigalondo has the annoying habit of having the onscreen characters visibly react to things that the audience can’t see which after having been done a few times gets to be a little bit annoying, but that’s really small potatoes. This is an inventive take on the giant monster movies that is both retro and modern. It’s cinematic fun of the highest order and should be a must-see for anyone who likes good entertainment with a dash of perspective.

REASONS TO GO: It’s definitely a different take on kaiju films. Hathaway makes an appealing drunk. Sudeikis is so charming to begin with his attitude change is all the more shocking. It is refreshing for a movie this entertaining to be this thoughtful as well.
REASONS TO STAY: It loses steam about 2/3 of the way through. The film has the annoying habit of showing actors reacting to things not revealed to the audience.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a whole lot of profanity and scenes of mass destruction and violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Hathaway was in the second trimester of her pregnancy while she filmed this.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/5/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 79% positive reviews. Metacritic: 70/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Big in Japan
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: Unrest

New Releases for the Week of May 5, 2017


GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY VOL. 2

(Disney/Marvel) Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Vin Diesel (voice), Bradley Cooper (voice), Kurt Russell, Karen Gillan, Michael Rooker. Directed by James Gunn

The summer blockbuster season is here and it kicks off with a bang as the ragtag bunch of outsiders who saved the galaxy in 2014 return to save it again and boy, does it need saving!  As the Guardians try to fathom the mystery of who Peter Quill’s father is, a new threat looms that will challenge this somewhat argumentative team and lead into next summer’s Avengers: Infinity War. Stay after the closing credits roll for no less than five post-credits scenes.

See the trailer, interviews and B-roll video here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard, 3D, IMAX 3D
Genre: Science Fiction
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: PG-13 (for sequences of sci-fi action and violence, language and brief suggestive content)

Colossal

(Neon) Anne Hathaway, Jason Sudeikis, Austin Stowell, Tim Blake-Nelson. Gloria has to pick her life up and start all over again after her boyfriend, tiring of her constant partying and her alcohol issues, throws her out. She heads to her old hometown to live in the house her mom left her when she passed away. Gloria runs into an old school chum who gives her a job at his bar, but the two watch in horror as a giant monster terrorizes Seoul, South Korea. When it turns out Gloria has a strange connection with the creature, things get really weird. This Florida Film Festival favorite is the first movie to play the Enzian post-festival.

See the trailer and clips here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Comedy
Now Playing: Enzian Theater

Rating: PG-13 (for crude humor, sexual references and gestures, and for brief nudity)

The Dinner

(The Orchard) Richard Gere, Laura Linney, Steve Coogan, Rebecca Hall. Two brothers – one a popular congressman running for governor, the younger a troubled man estranged from his golden boy older brother since childhood, get together for dinner at one of the most fashionable restaurants in town. Their teenage boys, despite the hostility between their dads, are the closest of friends – and together have committed a horrible crime. While their guilt hasn’t been discovered and may never be, their parents have to face their consciences and decide how far they are willing to go to protect the ones they love.

See the trailer here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Drama
Now Playing: AMC Disney Springs, AMC Loew’s Universal Cineplex, Regal Oviedo Mall, Regal Pointe Orlando, Regal Waterford Lakes, Regal Winter Park Village

Rating: R (for disturbing violent content, and language throughout)

Norman

(Sony Classics) Richard Gere, Dan Stevens, Steve Buscemi, Michael Sheen. Norman, a man living on the fringes of New York City’s powerful manages to give an Israeli politician a gift of expensive shoes when the latter is visiting the Big Apple at a low point in his career. Cut to several years later when that politician is now Prime Minister and Norman uses the cache of his legitimate connection to put together a complex financial deal that threatens to blow apart and cause an international scandal. Norman, finally where he wants to be, could lose everything if he doesn’t make things right.

See the trailer and clips here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Dramedy
Now Playing: Regal Winter Park Village

Rating: R (for some language)

Bridge of Spies


Tom Hanks meets the press.

Tom Hanks meets the press.

(2015) True Life Drama (DreamWorks) Tom Hanks, Mark Rylance, Amy Ryan, Alan Alda, Sebastian Koch, Peter McRobbie, Austin Stowell, Dakin Matthews, Eve Hewson, Jesse Plemons, Scott Shepherd, Lucia Ryan, Wil Rogers, Nadja Bobyleva, Joe Forbrich, David Wilson Barnes, Mikhail Gorevoy, Steve Cirbus, Billy Magnussen, Noah Schnapp, Jillian Lebling. Directed by Steven Spielberg

The Cold War was in many ways, anything but. While the Soviet Union and the United States weren’t shooting at each other, that didn’t mean there weren’t casualties.

Rudolf Abel (Rylance) is a painter living in Brooklyn. The FBI thinks he’s a spy for the Soviet Union and they are following him, although he manages to evade their pursuit. He picks up a nickel on a park bench and discovers the coin has been hollowed out with a message left for him inside. However, eventually the FBI catches up with him and arrests him.

Eager to make a good impression on the world stage, rather than summarily executing the spy the government is keen on putting Abel on trial. They engage insurance lawyer James V. Donovan (Hanks) to represent him. At first Donovan wants nothing to do with it; he knows that representing an accused spy would bring him into a spotlight he doesn’t want he or his family to be in; he knows that people will hate him almost as much as they hate Abel but he truly believes that every man is entitled to a proper defense and decides that this is the least he can do to serve his country after having served it well in the Second World War.

He undertakes to defend Abel, advising him to cooperate with the U.S. Government but Abel refuses. Donovan grows to admire Abel for his loyalty to his cause, even if that cause is diametrically opposed to that of his country. Donovan endeavors to give Abel the most vigorous defense he can, knowing the judge (Matthews) in his case is predisposed to let Abel swing from the highest rope in the land. Donovan pleads with the judge to consider sparing Abel’s life, arguing that it would be a good thing to have Abel in hand just in case an American spy were to get captured, not to mention it would make America look merciful in the eyes of the world.

As it turns out, they were about to get a reason to keep Abel alive when pilot Francis Gary Powers (Stowell), piloting a U2 spy plane over the Soviet Union, is shot down and contrary to his orders captured alive (his orders was to take a cyanide pill and kill himself before getting captured). The government, knowing that Powers has knowledge of their spy plane program that they don’t want the Soviets to have, discovers that the Soviets are making overtures for a prisoner swap through the East Germans and to Donovan. CIA chief Allen Dulles (McRobbie) sends Donovan to East Berlin to negotiate the exchange. However, the Berlin Wall is being built, splitting the city in two. Tensions are high and the East Germans have captured an American student named Frederic Pryor (Rogers) who was studying economics there as a spy. Everyone knows that Pryor is no spy but now there is another element to the mix – and the Soviet and East German agendas might be entirely different.

Spielberg is a master storyteller and in many ways he’s the equivalent of Frank Capra. Hanks as I’ve mentioned before is the modern Jimmy Stewart and like Capra and Stewart, Spielberg and Hanks make as dynamic a director/actor pairing as we’ve seen in the last 20 years (with the exceptions maybe of Scorsese/Di Caprio and maybe Burton/Depp in that mix. This is the fifth time the two have been paired together and they’ve never made a bad movie.

And neither is this one. Hanks imbues Donovan with decency without making him cloying. Donovan’s faith in the Constitution resonates and once more, he’s absolutely right to. Donovan – and through him Spielberg and writers the Coen Brothers – preach that the Constitution is our roadmap to guide us through difficult situations; suspending it or ignoring it lessens us as a nation. Considering how fast and loose we’ve played with the Constitution in our War on Terror, the lesson has an extra importance especially now.

Rylance, who has won his share of Tony Awards for his work on Broadway, nearly steals the show from Hanks (a daunting task) by creating a man who is loyal to his nation, intelligent but also a human being, who grows to respect Donovan for his own loyalty to the U.S. Constitution. The real Rudolf Abel was a complicated man and Rylance conveys that.

The movie really is divided into two halves; the first part in which Donovan defends Abel which is essentially a courtroom drama, and the second in which Donovan goes to arrange the exchange which is more of a Cold War spy thriller. The first part actually works a little bit better than the second although it is in fact a bit drier in some ways; while I suspect the average moviegoer will like the second half better (the first can be slow-moving), it is the first where the meat of the message is delivered and has much more connection with me, at least.

For those who lived through the Cold War, the fear of nuclear holocaust was a real one you lived with every day. Duck and cover was a real thing. It looks quaint to modern eyes but it was the reality of the situation. People fully expected that World War III would be the last war – and that war would be inevitable. People in America really thought the Soviet Union was as evil as Nazi German. The Soviet citizenry probably thought much the same about America.

In some ways we haven’t grown much past those days. We still need an enemy to fear. We still lose our shit when someone outrages us. We still think the constitution should be suspended when it comes to terrorists, never realizing that once you go down that road that you can never go back – and that constitution that has guided us and protected us all these years becomes a little less shiny, a little less secure. The lessons from Bridge of Spies are extremely important in that regard; that they are presented in a well-crafted tale is icing on the cake.

REASONS TO GO: Spielberg and Hanks make a terrific pair. Rylance gives Oscar-worthy performance. Period of history brought ably to life.
REASONS TO STAY: Plods a little bit. Feels like two different movies…
FAMILY VALUES: There is some violence, some brief foul language and adult thematic material.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The scene filmed on the Glienecke Bridge near the end of the film is the exact spot where the events depicted in the scene took place.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/10/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 92% positive reviews. Metacritic: 81/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Thirteen Days
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Too Hip for the Room

Whiplash


J.K. Simmons (right) prepares to march to a different drummer.

J.K. Simmons (right) prepares to march to a different drummer.

(2014) Drama (Sony Classics) Miles Teller, J.K. Simmons, Paul Reiser, Melissa Benoist, Austin Stowell, Nate Lang, Chris Mulkey, Damon Gupton, Max Kasch, Suanne Spoke, Charlie Ian, Jayson Blair, Kofi Siriboe, Kavita Patil, C.J. Vana, Tarik Lowe, Tyler Kimball, Rogelio Douglas Jr., Adrian Burks, Calvin C. Winbush, Joseph Bruno, April Grace. Directed by Damien Chazelle

Genius, by itself, is useless. Genius needs to be trained. Genius needs to be focused. Greatness is something that is earned, not given. Genius isn’t enough. Hard work, preparation and practice is what turns genius into greatness.

Andrew Neyland (Teller) aspires to greatness. He longs to be the next Buddy Rich. He is a gifted drummer and those gifts have gotten him accepted into the Shaffer Conservatory of Music, one of the best in the country located (of course) in New York City. There are a variety of different student bands in the Conservative but the one everyone wants to be in is the Studio Band led by Terrence Fletcher (Simmons), himself a professional jazz pianist. It is the band that the Conservatory sends out to win competitions. Most of those in the band are juniors and seniors.

Andrew is a Freshman and stuck in the Nassau band as an alternate drummer to Ryan (Stowell). as gregarious and likable as Andrew is arrogant and unlikable. While Andrew is practicing alone one day, he is observed by Fletcher who is critical of the boy. Andrew figures that he has a ways to go before he can impress the man he most wants to impress.

However a few days later Fletcher shows up at rehearsal for Nassau and demands to hear the drummers do double time swing beats. He listens to Ryan and Andrew as well, and then selects Andrew to come aboard the Studio band to be the alternate. Andrew is over the moon about this but soon sees the pressure the kids in Studio are under. The lead drummer, Tanner (Lang), is a miserable bundle of nerves hostile to what he perceives as competition.

He has good reason to be hostile. When Tanner asks Andrew to hold onto his sheet music before a competition, Andrew loses it. Since Tanner doesn’t know the beats by heart and Andrew does, he gets the core chair and Tanner gets to sit in the alternate’s chair. Andrew’s performance meets the standards of Fletcher and the Studio Band wins the competition.

 

Fletcher is a tyrannical teacher, one who teaches through humiliation and intimidation. All of the students are terrified at being the subject of his wrath but it moves Andrew to try harder. Andrew’s obsession with becoming legendary has begun to affect his relationship with his girlfriend Nicole (Benoist) as well as with his father (Reiser) and family.

But the all-out pursuit of perfection is taking its toll on Andrew and he’s completely lost perspective which only causes Fletcher to drive him harder, further. Will Andrew achieve the greatness that he so desires? Or will Fletcher break him entirely?

Chazelle originally had troubles getting financing for the script he wrote, so he condensed it down to a short which he took to Sundance in 2013. The response was so positive that he was able to secure financing and make a feature film which he brought back to Sundance this year. It earned raves and the Audience Award. I can say that those raves and awards are well-earned.

The movie is as intense an experience as you’re likely to have at theaters this year. The battle of wills between Fletcher and Andrew is incendiary; you can almost see the sparks flying. Some critics have complained that a teacher like Fletcher would quickly and quietly be let go once allegations of abuse reached administrative ears. All I can say is that may be true in today’s lawsuit-happy world but that Chazelle based his script on his own experiences in music school so that must be taken into account.

The performances here are riveting. Teller is never better as the ambitious and obsessed Andrew. This Tampa-area native has great things ahead of him if performances like this are any indication. That Andrew is so basically unlikable – his arrogance and lack of perspective coupled with an occasional condescending tone to his conversation make him a hard guy to like – but we end up rooting for him anyway is a testament to Teller’s skills.

For me though, Simmons is the main attraction. Long a capable character actor with TV roles that include  the neo-Nazi Vernon Schillinger in Oz, a recurring role on Law and Order and the Farmer’s Insurance commercials, he has had few leads in movies as he does in The Music Never Stopped, he does exemplary work. Here he gets to cut loose as the autocratic and sadistic Fletcher. I wouldn’t necessarily characterize him as a villain but in essence that’s what he is and Simmons gives the character depth – an ability to charm one moment and be terrifying the next. I’m not saying that an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor is a sure bet but it should be.

The soundtrack mainly of jazz standards is an extra added attraction. Those unfamiliar with orchestral jazz can get a pretty decent primer on some of the best examples of that musical form, including Duke Ellington’s “Caravan,”  Stan Getz’ “Intoit” and Hank Levy’s “Whiplash” are mostly not performed by their original musicians but they are competently done here by my limited expertise.

The cost of greatness is staggering, taking a toll on family and friends alike in addition to the pursuer of greatness themselves. It can be an often-lonely undertaken and as many times as not few people other than the person in question believe in their ability to achieve that greatness. That pursuit and its costs are at the center of the movie. You have to end up asking whether it is better to be famous and alone or to be happy and unknown. Andrew seems to think it is.

The ending of the film is left subject to the interpretation of the viewer. Is it redemption, submission or madness? Who won, if anyone? These are points to ponder on your own but be warned there are no easy answers. I consider myself a fairly decent student of story but I’m still mulling it over what really happened at the end of the movie. I’ll probably be thinking about it for awhile. And that, my friends, is the true mark of cinematic greatness.

REASONS TO GO: As intense a movie as you’ll see this year. Extraordinary performances from Simmons and Teller. Great soundtrack.
REASONS TO STAY: Neither Andrew nor Fletcher are particularly nice characters. Some may find Fletcher’s tactics unrealistic in an age of lawsuits.
FAMILY VALUES: Some fairly rough language including a few sexual references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Teller has actually played the drums since he was 15 years old. Even so, he took additional lessons to learn jazz drumming techniques which are less conventional than rock drumming. He developed some intense blisters during filming and some of the blood on the sticks and on the drumset is Teller’s real blood.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/18/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 97% positive reviews. Metacritic: 87/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Dark Matter
FINAL RATING: 9.5/10
NEXT: Broken City