The Aeronauts


Up, up and away in my beautiful balloon…

(2019) Adventure (AmazonFelicity Jones, Eddie Redmayne, Tom Courtenay, Himesh Patel, Phoebe Fox, Lewin Lloyd, Vincent Perez, Tim McInnerny, Rebecca Front, Anne Reid, Robert Glenister, Julian Ferro, Gian Kalch, Mia Hemmerling, Kamil Lemieszewski, Thomas Arnold, Steve Saunders, John Taylor, James Daniel Wilson, Guy Samuels, Fran Targ, Zander James, Elsa Alili. Directed by Tom Harper

 

We sometimes envy the birds, soaring free above the bounds of the ground, winging their way on the currents of the atmosphere, seeing our planet from a perspective we could never really understand. We have sought to control the air, learning to fly with balloons before eventually creating the airplane and consequently shrinking our planet.

In 1862 that was far away. While balloonists regularly performed exhibitions, aeronauts (as they were referred to as back then) were not taken too seriously as much more than performers. James Glaisher (Redmayne), who believed that studying the upper atmosphere would allow us to better understand weather patterns and eventually allow us to predict the weather, wants to go up higher than any other balloonist ever has. The Royal Science Academy basically thinks he’s cracked but he does find a taker in Amy Wren (Jones).

Wren is about as unconventional as a woman could get in the Victorian era. She makes grand entrances riding on the top of carriages, stuns her onlookers by throwing her beloved Jack Russell terrier out of the balloon (don’t worry folks – the pup has a parachute) and is apt to do cartwheels on the stage. Glaisher finds all of this distasteful and distracting from the scientific endeavor he is undertaking, but he needs a pilot and Wren is, like it or not, his bird.

Once they get airborne, they realize that their task is going to be much more difficult than they first thought, particularly since they manage to soar right into a thunderstorm. They have already overcome much adversity to begin with – Amy dealing with the awful death of her husband, Glaisher with the deteriorating mental state of his father and the ridicule of his peers. If they can learn to rely on each other they might just figure out that they have the skills to survive.

This is (very) loosely based on real events – not a single ascent, but rather several ascents. However, a great deal of liberty has been taken with history, although that’s nothing new for the movies. While I love Felicity Jones as an actress, her character is extremely improbable for the times she lives in. On the way to the record-breaking ascent, she orders the carriage to stop and gets out, plopping her butt down on the curb with ankles and calves on full display – and nobody pays attention. In 1862, the sight of a woman’s calf would have been scandalous. Felicity accentuates the girl’s spunk, but she certainly doesn’t seem a product of her times which I suppose fits right in with modern narratives.

Redmayne, who the last time he was paired with Jones won an Oscar, is curiously restrained here. I realize he’s supposed to be a stuffy scientist but he’s almost inert. Given his usual on-screen charm, it’s almost shocking how leaden his performance is here. This is not the Eddie Redmayne that we usually get to see. I suppose everyone is entitled to an off-film.

The action sequences are for the most part well-staged and Jones holds her own as an action hero, just as she did in Rogue One. This is the kind of adventure movie that went out of vogue with the advent of the anti-hero 70s, and has never really come back. However, before you classic movie fans begin to celebrate, this isn’t nearly as good as some of the films you remember. However, this is a solid piece of entertainment that while it doesn’t hold a candle to such films as The African Queen, for example, it nonetheless should hold even a casual movie fan’s interest.

REASONS TO SEE: Some of the sequences are marvelously staged.
REASONS TO AVOID: Nonsensical and anachronistic.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some sequences of extreme peril as well as some disturbing images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although James Glaisher was a real person who was a pioneer in meteorology, Amelia Wren is a fictional character albeit one based on actual women. Glaisher did indeed set a record for highest ascent in a balloon in 1862 but his partner, Henry Coxwell, was decidedly male.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/24/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 72% positive reviews: Metacritic: 60/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Around the World in 80 Days
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
22-July

Beginners


Beginners

Oh look..."The Sound of Music." Lovely, just lovely.

(2011) Drama (Focus) Ewan McGregor, Christopher Plummer, Melanie Laurent, Goran Visnjic, Kai Lennox, Mary Page Keller, Keegan Boos, China Shavers, Melissa Tang, Amanda Payton, Luke Diliberto, Lou Taylor Pucci. Directed by Mike Mills

Relationships are more complicated than nuclear physics. There are no hard and fast rules that govern them and just when you think you have them figured out, the rules change. In love, as in life, we all muddle through as best we can and come to the realization that there are no experts – we are all, in reality, just beginners.

Oliver (McGregor) is very sad. It’s 2003 and his father Hal (Plummer) has passed away from cancer recently. Oliver’s relationship with dear old Dad is extremely complicated. Six months after his mom Georgia (Keller) died, Hal came out of the closet. It turns out that Hal had realized he was gay for the length of the marriage, more than 30 years.

As we flash back to young Oliver (Boos), we see with startling clarity that Georgia was in a marriage that was without passion, a lonely institution that left her sad and bitter, a non-conformist in all other respects but apparently unable to divorce her husband when she was clearly unhappy.

Oliver himself has been unable to commit to a relationship, ostensibly because he didn’t want to end up like his parents, lonely in their relationship. He meets Anna (Laurent), a French actress living in New York shooting a film in L.A. Like Oliver, she’s damaged goods but she might well be the love of his life.

As he tries to navigate his way through this relationship and find a way at last to commit rather than creating a reason not to, he flashes back to the last years of his father’s life, when he embraced the gay community – indeed, embraced life – and found happiness at long last with Andy (a nearly unrecognizable Visnjic). When his dad got ill and Oliver became his caretaker, the two men finally connected in ways they never had been able to when Oliver was growing up. His father had found joy late in life; would Oliver find it too, or would he turn it away as he always had?

Mills based much of this on his own experiences with his dad, reportedly. For that reason, the relationships ring true. They are very imperfect and fraught with land mines and machine gun nests. Nobody in this movie gets out unscathed, which is as it should be because that’s how life and relationships are.

Mills cast the movie brilliantly. McGregor is an immensely likable actor who here has to play an emotionally closed off man who desperately wants more than it looks like he’s going to get. He has a constantly befuddled expression on his face, with an occasional detour to sad. Oliver is never so alive as when he’s with Anna, and McGregor lights up around her as a man in love must do. He also gets the single most powerful moment in the film when one of his father’s friends gently wakes him to tell him his father is gone. The grief is so raw, so close to the surface that I wept, relating as a son who lost his father too young.

Plummer as that father has a touch of pixie in him, a kind of rakish twinkle in his eye that is immensely appealing. Hal discovers life and revels in everything about it. He awakens his son to ask him about a style of music he heard in a night club that he’s unfamiliar with. When his son tells him that it’s called House Music, Hal writes it down dutifully as an old man who can’t trust his memory would. Little touches like that make characters live and breathe.

Anna is lustrous and free-spirited and Laurent captures both the quirky qualities that make her endearing as well as the self-doubts and demons that make her fragile. It is a nuanced performance that those who remember her from Inglourious Basterds won’t be surprised by. Visnjic, once the hunk in “E.R.” is less brooding and hunky, but still crazy handsome as Andy, a man plagued with the suspicion that everyone hates him because he’s gay.

Some may shy away from the movie because of Hal’s sexuality; they do themselves a disservice. This is not a story about gay people; it’s a story about people. People who are imperfect, who make terrible choices and also wonderful choices – people who leave adorable Jack Russell terriers behind that communicate in subtitles. These are flawed people but flawed in the way real people are flawed. Now, I will grant you that at times I had problems figuring out the storyline because they aren’t all told sequentially which can make you scratch your head trying to figure out where you are in the scheme of things, movie-wise. Still, I found myself liking this movie and being deeply affected by it long after I left the theater. For someone who sees as many movies as I do, that’s a precious gift indeed.

REASONS TO GO: A realistic depiction of a man coming to terms not only with the loss of his father but with his own inadequacies. Great performances from McGregor, Laurent and Plummer.

REASONS TO STAY: Disjointed storytelling leaps back and forth from Dad’s story to young Oliver to modern Oliver.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a bit of bad language and some sexual situations.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Plummer and McGregor have both played Iago in separate stage productions of Othello.

HOME OR THEATER: This is an intimate drama befitting an intimate setting.

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

TOMORROW: An Inconvenient Truth

Water for Elephants


Water for Elephants

Pattinson and Witherspoon may come with their own baggage but the elephant brings her own trunk.

(2010) Drama (20th Century Fox) Reese Witherspoon, Robert Pattinson, Christoph Waltz, Hal Holbrook, Paul Schneider, Jim Norton, Ken Foree, Mark Povinelli, Richard Brake, Scott McDonald, James Frain, John Aylward, Sam Anderson. Directed by Francis Lawrence

Be careful what you wish for, or so the old saying goes. Sometimes the things we wish for are the things we can’t have…or perhaps shouldn’t have.

A confused old man (Holbrook) is late coming to the Circus on a rainy night. He is escorted to the office by a sympathetic manager (Schneider) who is amazed to discover that the man worked at the Benzini Brothers Circus in 1931, when one of the worst disasters in circus history occurred. The old man agrees to set a spell and spin the story.

Jacob Jankowski (Pattinson) is studying veterinary medicine at Cornell, about to take his final exams. He is called out of his exam to receive some terrible news; both his parents are dead. To make matters worse, his father had gone deeply in debt to pay for his education; in a split second Jacob has lost everything.

He decides to walk to Albany to seek work but soon tires of walking. When he sees a train coming, he decides to hitch a ride. It turns out to be a circus train and a kindly roustabout named Camel (Norton) takes Jacob under his wing and finds him work. When the head animal trainer and ringmaster, August (Waltz) discovers Jacob’s veterinary experience, he brings him aboard as the circus veterinarian.

His particular charge is Rosie, a 54 year old elephant who is meant to be the star attraction. Jacob also casts his eye towards the beautiful trainer Marlena (Witherspoon) who happens to be married to August. Moreover, August turns out to be a somewhat sadistic and ruthless man who can be charming one moment, psychotic the next, often taking out his rages on the elephant and upon occasion upon Jacob.

Eventually it becomes apparent that Marlena has fallen for the callow young veterinarian and August’s rage defies all bounds. Jacob must find a way to get Marlena away from the clutches of her cruel husband if they are to find happiness – but what he doesn’t know is that the Circus and the people in it are headed for a date with tragedy.

The movie is based on the award-winning novel by Sara Gruen. Director Lawrence (who’s done I Am Legend and Constantine as well as a buttload of music videos) does a real nice job of creating the era and making it look lived-in. This is a terrific looking film, from the gorgeous outdoor shots of the train traveling in moonlit skies, to the seedy looking hotel rooms and flophouses of the towns.

Christoph Waltz made his bones as the villain in Inglourious Basterds and hasn’t looked back since. He is able to project charm and evil in equal amounts, making you at turns sympathetic and repulsed. He won an Oscar as the deranged Nazi in Tarantino’s film and he is nearly as good here, although sadly I somehow doubt he’ll get much Academy consideration.

Witherspoon has also won an Oscar (for Walk the Line) and she does good work here, playing a woman who is a star in her own limited firmament but knows that if she goes elsewhere her star won’t shine quite as brightly. She is in an abusive relationship, walking on eggshells all the time but lacks the self-confidence to believe she deserves better. It’s a marvelous role for Witherspoon and she hasn’t gotten nearly enough kudos for it.

Of the leads Pattinson fares the worst but in a very real way he isn’t in the league of Waltz and Witherspoon just yet. He plays his character as a little bit distant and unreadable. It’s hard to really get behind someone you don’t really relate to, and in many ways Pattinson is so distant that he becomes unrelatable. Doubtlessly legions of his fans from the Twilight series will disagree, but keep in mind he’s very new to the business and as he gets more experience he will be more expressive but here the chemistry with Witherspoon suffers because of it.

There are a few minor blips here and there. The climactic tragedy is a little bit disappointing; it hangs over the movie like the Sword of Damocles and when it finally arrives you hardly realize it’s there. Still, this is a quite good movie, one that at least met my expectations which were reasonably high. It won’t make me want to run right out and join the circus, but it did give me a greater appreciation for elephants.

REASONS TO GO: Waltz is terrific as is Witherspoon. Fascinating story and a nice look at circus life in the Depression.

REASONS TO STAY: Lots of cruelty to animals and humans alike.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some moments of extreme violence as well as some sexual content.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Sean Penn was originally cast in the part of August but dropped out to be replaced by Waltz.

HOME OR THEATER: Some of the scenes look very nice on the big screen but for the most part this is well-suited for the home.

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

TOMORROW: Super