“We Have Our Heading:” Reclaiming the Past in Dead Men Tell No Tales

“We Have Our Heading:” Reclaiming the Past in Dead Men Tell No Tales

Quite a few people seemed to enjoy my discussion of Wonder Woman this past weekend (you can read it here) so I’d like to do something similar in discussing another recent release, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales.  The fifth film of the saga seems to be your standard sequel, carrying with it all the burden of expectation that comes with each progressive member of a series.  Critics have almost unanimously chastised Pirates for its failure to carry such a burden and provide anything meaningful and new to the series.  Pirates replays many scenes and scenarios in what seems like lazy filmmaking.  However, a closer look at this replaying as a deliberate film tactic with a deliberate message can present this critically-maligned film in a different light.  Dead Men Tell No Tales intentionally remembers the earlier films to reclaim an audience who pines for the original trilogy.

Such a remembering of old times is a standard practice in melodrama.  We have witnessed such a harkening back to previous times this past year in melodramatic politics when Donald Trump’s campaign slogan, “Make America Great Again,” appealed to some Americans’ desire to return to an unclarified time of greatness.  Trump never defined what “great” American era he would return the country to or what made that era “great,” he merely noted that times were not what they used to be and he planned to fix that.  Pirates plays on a nostalgic longing for the past as well, though decidedly less controversially.

On Stranger Tides
New characters with no attachment to originals dominated screentime in On Stranger Tides

The fourth Pirates film, On Stranger Tides, tried to take the series in new directions with new characters and new goals.  Disney clearly determined that if the film had Jack Sparrow, it could replace old characters with vaguely similar new ones and continue on.  Fans responded negatively, scoring the film below 60% on Rotten Tomatoes (the only Pirates film with such a fan response).  I argue that the studio took notice and implemented a return to the past in this most recent film.  Critics still found little to appreciate in the film, scoring it the lowest of all Pirates films at 29%.  Fans, however, appreciated the return to the past, scoring it a 70% (the original trilogy average 76%).  I hope to briefly discuss what Dead Men Tell No Tales did that fans appreciated but critics obviously missed.

There is an obsessive desire to seek out or return to the past in Dead Men, first represented in the characters of the film.  Every major character has either appeared in the previous films or is drawn from the past storyline of the established players.  Jack Sparrow, Captain Barbosa, Gibbs, and even protagonist Henry Turner were introduced in the original trilogy, as was their ultimate goal.  New characters Carina Smyth and Captain Salazar have backstories revealed in the film that connect their story to the same pre-established past rather than fully new storylines.

The character’s goals further link them to the past.  Captain Jack is a washed-up version of himself, seeking a way to return to his former glory.  Barbosa is wealthy beyond imagination but seeks something else he had to part with long ago.  Henry seeks reunion with his cursed father.  Caryna is also driven to reconnect with something from her past, though I dare not spoil anything.  Even the villainous Salazar seeks to return to his previous living self rather than the cursed-undead nature he has lived in for decades.

Finally, several scenes and scenarios are played out almost identically to those of previous films.  The hangman scene is framed and blocked very similarly, the beach scene has shades of all three early films, and Salazar’s ghostly crew is a hybrid of Barbosa’s undead army, Davy Jones’s cursed crew, and the Spanish ghosts of Guillermo del Toro’s The Devil’s Backbone.  I would argue that all of these allusions to previous films of the series serve to redirect the saga back towards the characters audiences knew and loved, many of which make appearances (or their appearances are suggested) during the film or final post-credits stinger.  This connects Dead Men Tell No Tales to the fan favorite original trilogy rather than setting it out on its own.

Ghosts
Dead Men Tell No Tales (Left), The Devil’s Backbone (Right)

Does Pirates lack originality?  Perhaps, but as I’ve stated above, this mimicking of previous films is done with intention (like The Force Awakens did, as well).  Based on the positive fan reaction in contrast to the critical reaction, Pirates’ target audience seems to be appreciative of this nostalgic return to earlier films.  Disney maintains this is the final film of the series.  The stinger, however, certainly leaves room to revisit these popular characters, many of which have just been reclaimed in this last episode.  Given the overwhelmingly positive response from fans, I won’t be surprised if Jack Sparrow and the Turners find themselves on another adventure in the near future (with a villain possibly reintroduced after the credits).  Given Disney’s recapturing of the original story’s elements, I would be on board.

Advertisements

Wonder Woman and the New Princess Narrative

Wonder Woman and the New Princess Narrative

I asked my Facebook followers to see Wonder Woman this weekend.  The film is not earth-shattering or stylistically innovative; I hoped people would support a film about a female superhero which received next-to-no backing by means of advertisements.  In comparison, Warner Brothers has consistently barraged cinema and TV viewers with teasers, trailers, and every product tie-in possible for films like Batman v Superman and Suicide Squad, both films leaning heavily on macho males to drive their images.  Overall, the film found success this weekend; Wonder Woman took in just over $100 million in its first weekend and is the highest-grossing open for a female-directed film.  That said, there still seems to be a good bit of criticism out there.

Steve Rose penned a review featured in the Guardian in which he argues the film rendered Wonder Woman “not feminist enough,” calling her a weaponized Smurfette who fails to shatter the glass ceiling.  I hope that Rose sees the irony in his review; he, a freelance writing male, feels that he is empowered to render verdicts about what is and is not feminist enough because… he feels he can?  There’s no discussion of traditional feminism, feminist standards, or traditional tests such as the Bechdel test (which the film passes) in his review.  Moreover, Steve Rose doesn’t look any deeper than the most surface narrative reading of the film in his “analysis,” and I use that word incredibly lightly; his “review” is really just an “opinion piece” which goes no deeper than answering the evaluative question of, “Did you like it?”  I’d like to look at one particular directing decision made by Patty Jenkins which makes Wonder Woman a much more feminist film, its pastiche of the Disney princess narrative.

WONDER WOMAN

Film pastiche is a common practice in which a film mimics certain attributes of a previous work.  Charles Z. Newman discusses pastiche as a game for the audience to play in his book Indie: An American Film Culture; you must know the source material well enough to piece together the fragmented pieces hidden in the new work and understand the film’s commentary on the old work.  Jenkins takes a script that is admittedly less feminist than ideal and injects her own deeper message into the final film through this kind of game.  I’ll discuss one moment in the film without any major spoilers to illustrate this practice.

Wonder Woman Ocean

In an early scene, Diana (soon-to-be Wonder Woman) stands on a rocky cliff looking out over the sea.  The scene almost exactly mimics a similar scene from last year’s Disney film, Moana.  Jenkins identifies her connection to the previous princess narrative by connecting to the most recent example.  As Diana looks out over the ocean, a plane crashes into the water ahead of her.  Diana springs into action, leaping into a perfect swan dive with noticeable shades of Pocahontas that have already been built in her costuming.  She pulls the man from his plane and swims powerfully to the surface.  She pulls the man up onto the beach and rests over top of him, staring down at him.  We see a POV shot from the man’s view as he awakens that frames Diana’s wondering face identically to Ariel’s in The Little Mermaid.  There are other moments of Disney princess pastiche; as it begins to snow in a later scene, Diana states that it’s magical with a delivery that almost perfectly parallel’s Princess Jasmine’s line, “It’s all so magical,” in Aladdin.

Wonder Woman TLM

These allusions, connections to previous films, are the puzzle pieces.  When you put them together, you can understand Jenkins’s commentary.  I would argue that Jenkins intentionally links to the Disney princess narrative to reframe the character of Wonder Woman.  Jenkins suggests that little girls no longer need to look to emotional princesses who teach little more than gender roles assigned by the standard patriarchy.  Instead, these girls can be Dianas, strong women who fearlessly run into the void that “no man” would dare enter.  If the measure of a film’s feminism is hinged on the female protagonist’s near omnipotence and omniscience as Rose seems to desire, then by no means is Wonder Woman a feminist film.  If you look a bit deeper, as I’ve demonstrated above, Wonder Woman has a considerably stronger feminist message than his limp reading of the narrative seems to suggest.

Savannah Film Festival Schedule

Savannah Film Festival Schedule

This coming weekend marks the start of the Savannah Film Festival. Over the course of the following 8 days or so, I will have the chance to see a large number of films, most of which either have not yet been released or are in limited release in mostly art houses, specialized theaters, and other film festivals.  I won’t have time to review everything I see that week but will try to highlight the best of the best.  Here’s a little preview of what will be playing (titles are links to the trailer on youtube).

Jackie

Life, Animated

Paterson

La La Land

The Red Turtle

American Pastoral

Bleed for This

Me Before You

Arrival

Manchester by the Sea

The Eagle Huntress

The Sweet Life

Trespass Against Us

Loving

The Birth of a Nation – Review

The Birth of a Nation – Review

The life of a film can be a very perplexing history to follow.  In early 2016, an independent film burst on to the scene with some great accolades at the Sundance Film Festival.  It was picked up for distribution by Fox Searchlight with a nationwide release set for October.  Then, controversy arose.  The writer/director/star of the film was previously accused of sexual assault and talk of boycotts came to the forefront.  October arrived and the film finally became public.  That film is Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation, the true story of Nat Turner, the slave-preacher who led a famous slave rebellion in the early 1830s that would intensify the American discussion of slavery towards an eventual Civil War.  The question at hand, could the positive reviews overcome the negative controversy surrounding the film.  The verdict: The Birth of a Nation stands on a wealth of artistic merit worthy of celebration independent of the external conflicts surrounding those who made the film.

cinematographyThe Good:  First and foremost, the cinematography of this film is exceptional.  Not only are the visuals incredibly beautiful, they are also well composed; mise-en-scene is a huge strength for this film from start to finish.  The gorgeous visuals work in stark juxtaposition with the fairly graphic violence and unsettling mistreatment of the story’s characters.  Lighting is used in a very subtle but effective way to relate scene significance and hone the viewer’s attention on important details.  Camerawork is used cleverly to reveal information and accentuate emotional undertones and really drives the story.

The sound design is also a terrific attribute of this film.  While the average person will not walk out commenting on it, the trained ear will note a very rich and complex sound design.  There is a very obvious attempt by this film to demonstrate the serenity of nature (God’s design) through sound and visuals in contrast to the hellish existence of the slaves reminiscent of The Thin Red Line’s similar strategy.  Quite simply, it works.

The narrative is overall pretty strong with some hiccups I will discuss.  It is entertaining and holds your attention, moving fairly well-paced towards the conclusion we all anticipate before the film even begins.  Most importantly, the film itself has very little to do with the actual events on screen and everything to do with its social commentary on the continuing racial tensions in America and even Hollywood specifically.  There are numerous lines delivered in the film that could easily be delivered in direct relation to such conflicts today rather than as smaller pieces of a greater narrative.  This is a credit, of course, to writer Nate Parker, who also directed and starred in the film as Nat Turner.  His performances, along with the vast majority (but not all) supporting roles, are emotional and effective in telling the story.  Parker faced a great deal of resistance in making this film and yet every aspect that he touched was brilliant.

The Bad:  I’ve discussed the fantastic visuals of the film but I would be remised if I failed to discuss the flip-side of that coin.  The sharp clarity of the visuals provides an incredibly vivid picture and thus requires careful attention to detail.  There were some times that this betrayed the film, causing it to feel a bit too clean and staged to be believed.  Production design was often pristine and, though aesthetically pleasing, ineffective in building the gruesome nature of our characters’ existence at times.

rebellionI referenced some slips in acting before with promise of expansion.  There were a few supporting characters who seem to be somewhat limited in their depth and ability, causing certain scenes or bits to feel like, well, a small independent film instead of an Oscar contender.  These are limited and not overwhelming when they do arise.

12-years-a-slaveMaybe the most difficult obstacle for this film to overcome, is the close similarities to another recent Oscar winner about slavery, 12 Years a Slave.  The stories are different but also hold striking similarities at times, relying on many of the same thematic ideas and plot points.  At times, it feels almost like an unintentional spin off of the aforementioned film rather than a film that stands on its own.

Lastly, the biggest detraction from this film’s worth was the final act.  The movie builds up towards the historic rebellion led by the protagonist, motivating him and providing a great deal of emotional support from the audience along the way.  However, when the rebellion itself comes, it is carried out and finished in a few minutes.  The rebellion itself lasted two days and resulted in the death of over 50 people.  It doesn’t feel like the “success” that it truly was.  The action of this film moves along pretty quickly and an additional 10 minutes of rebellion would have done more justice to the historic event.  Understandably, the climax of the story is not the rebellion but the final sacrificial scenes that feel, like much of the film, like a page out of Braveheart.  However, the limited poetic justice of the film is crammed into just a few quick scenes and, as such, appears to not be much of a success.

The Ugly Truth:  Rating (1-5) 4 (see it in theaters)

The Birth of a Nation is the first contender of the year.  It isn’t perfect but considering the extensive lengths that Parker had to go to just to make the film, it is an impressive presentation.  I will note, it is a difficult watch, similar to the previously mentioned 12 Years a Slave, but that should not deter a screening (I don’t ever plan to watch Room, Beasts of No Nation, or American Sniper again but that doesn’t make them bad films).  Visuals and sound, teamed with a timely narrative, are definitely worthy of the price of admission.  Hopefully, the Academy will look past the “controversy” surrounding the film and judge it on its own merits.  Should they do so, they too will find a film worthy of the Sundance accolades it received as well as Oscar consideration.

poster

The Suffering – Review

The Suffering – Review

This is a first for me but certainly a welcome occurence.  I received a request from an actor to watch this film and provide my review.  I’m certainly not one to turn down such a request, especially as I’ve worked with this actor in the past.  That said, I’ve entered my viewing of this film objectively and impartially and will not hold against him that my miserably bad student film is not listed in his filmography on his IMDB account.  Without any further adu, my review for The Suffering.

I’m pretty hard on horror films.  Over the past few decades, many horror films have gotten away from telling a concrete story and have instead relied on gore and grotesque violence to sell fear to their intended audiences.  That’s not what movies are about.  It is rare today to find a good story that uses the elements of horror to its narrative advantage.  Rare but not unheard of.  The original Saw for example has at its heart an interesting story and social commentary buried within the horrific game.  The Sixth Sense, more a thriller than a horror movie, employs a strong narrative known for its show-stopping plot twist.  The Suffering, an independent film written and directed by Robert Hamilton and starring Nick Apostolides finds itself in the rare category of a modern horror film built around a well-crafted story.

The Good:  This film lives and dies on its sound design.  Many of the visuals and natural sound of the film do very little to create the tension and suspense necessary for the overall effect of the movie.  This problem is made that much larger or more apparent due to the distinct difference in funding of an independent film such as The Suffering as opposed to a similar thriller made by a major studio.  This sound design overcomes that issue and levels the playing field, largely building the world of the film and dictating the pacing and tension of the narrative through a surprisingly effective score and a clever motif of music boxes and churchy organ music throughout.  I had pretty high expectations for the sound design going into the film based on the trailer’s use of repetition reminiscent of the flashbulb in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre(the real one, not the remakes).  I’m glad to say, it lived up to and maybe even exceeded those expectations.

searching-henry
Apostolides searches for atonement in The Suffering

The sound design works hand in hand with the narrative, another strong point of this film.  As the story opens and we meet the characters of our journey, most are seemingly void of any interesting backstory; the driver, the house attendant, even our protagonist, Henry, seems to be lacking that major nugget of likability (we sympathize with his growing family but there still seems to be something rather bland about him).  Henry arrives at the old house in a black car which you cannot help but compare to a hearse, then enters a house filled with organ music and the immediate funeral-style arrival hints at the macabre nature of the coming subject matter.  Over the next twenty minutes or so, we largely search for the purpose of the story, not knowing that it has been spelled out for us in terms we don’t yet understand.  It is the back two thirds of this movie, the highly symbolic characters Henry meets, and its narrative that shine; the biggest mistake you can make on this movie is giving up on it too soon.  The third act offers a plot twist Shyamalan would be proud of, one I dare not give away.  As any good reveal should do, it puts to rest many of the earlier questions of plot irregularity and serves as an “ah-ha moment” to an audience who has grown increasingly confused or frustrated with the direction of the story beforehand.  The Suffering is, if nothing else, clever storytelling and a prime example of the power of a good script.

 

The Bad:  As mentioned above, independent films have an inherent lack of resources in comparison to the blockbusters of Hollywood’s major studios which get to set par.  Most of the elements of this film that don’t work are likely a result of just that.  However, in reviewing a movie, you cannot put it on a separate scale based on circumstances.  I’m a firm believer that a lack of resources simply requires an abundance of creativity to overcome; Val Lewton is well known for producing horror B-movies that were considerably better than your standard B-movie.

Leatherface.png
Horror under the Texas sun in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre

The visual style of the film seems somewhat disjointed, largely the early part as compared to the latter.  Many of the early scenes are considerably brighter than later scenes (and the majority of the film could use another pass through color correction).  Daylight seens aren’t necessarily a bad thing though it is a little out of the ordinary for the genre, and considering the amount of genre tropes and clichés used in the film, it seemed that adherence to genre was the name of the game.  The scenes could have easily been filmed in less light, sunset, dusk, etc. with an added effect both narratively and visually.  Bright light can be used effectively in horror/thriller genres however it must be done with careful deliberation.  For example, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre mentioned before baits you with the safety of daylight only to force you to endure the same or even worse terror in the light.  Perhaps a higher contrast in the color range could have helped to achieve less of a misleading brightness.

 

Additionally, there were some concerns with the acting.  While Nick Apostolides does an overall admirable job as Henry, there are certainly moments in his performance that lack the depth or reaction necessary to drive the story.  One great example occurs on his first full day appraising the estate when he finds something very unexpected in an attic.  His reaction feels forced and lacking authenticity; he is clearly acting and not experiencing what the character would be feeling.  This is an important scene, as is the following scene, and an inability to connect to the protagonist’s humanity in this instance does detract a bit from the believability of the story.  Additionally, many of the characters in the story are given accents.  This can be a powerful technique for representing the different backgrounds of the many characters, which makes a lot of sense looking back knowing the full scale of the story.  However, with inconsistency of those accents, it can easily draw attention to the fact that this is a performance and can take the viewer out of the world of the film.  As such, filmmakers must be very careful to utilize only strong and consistent accents or the compromise the integrity of the entire performance.  Lastly on acting, there were some performances that simply did not work for me.  The house attendant or “nurse” has a forced zombie-like performance.  Given what we know about the character by the end, this may very well have been intentional but to me was very distracting.  In one scene we get to see a much more human side of her and I think it plays considerably better.  The driver pushes the creepy factor as much as possible, sometimes going a bit too far and becoming very obviously acting.  For both characters, a slightly subtler representation could have portrayed the ominous vibe they sought without going too far and making their performances obvious.

henry-close-up
The Suffering personalizes the individual’s struggle with their own sins

The Ugly Truth:  Rating (1-5) 2 (Worth a view on Amazon)

That’s a misleading rating.  First of all, this film is solidly between 2 and 3 (maybe 5 out of 10 sounds better and more accurate).  Unfortunately, I never round up but I do concede that without the inherent roadblocks of being a low-budget independent film, it easily could have been a 3 or higher.  Secondly, this is not a film in theatrical release.  That said, if I was given the chance to see it on the big screen (and especially hear the sound design in a theater) I would probably be willing to pay for the matinee ticket for it.  As it is, The Suffering is available on Amazon and other for-purchase streaming services and I do recommend a viewing, especially as we enter the fall months that carry that need for horror and suspense.  The film has a great center in the story and sound design.  It is held back a bit from its full potential but it is entertaining and clever.  Also, keep in mind, I gave Sully a 2 (my review here) and this is decidedly better than that, just not a 3.  So this independent film is better than a Clint Eastwood film; that should give you enough incentive to watch.

Snowden – Review

Snowden – Review

Moral dilemma is an issue that unfortunately plagues many people.  Ranging from minor issues in your personal life to matters of national or global scale, nearly every person will face a decision at one point in their career to do what they feel is morally correct or to compromise those morals to allow continued status quo.  Upsetting the established order often has massive repercussions, sometimes in the form of retaliation against the whistleblower, sometimes in the ending of a friendship or relationship, sometimes in people losing their jobs, and sometimes in the end of a well-established standard which has actually been thoroughly corrupted.  Anyone who faces such a dilemma, whether of small or great scale, must know these possibilities and weigh their options; only they can decide if correction of such missteps is worth the possible repercussions.  Snowden, an Oliver Stone film, is the true story of Edward Snowden, played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, a former CIA and NSA contractor who discovers massive illegalities in common daily practices of the two agencies and must weigh his responsibility to his country and his obligation to do the right thing.  The film largely explores Snowden’s discovery and deliberation process with a crescendo towards the release of information that made headlines across the world about the American government’s practice of monitoring its citizens without just cause or legal warrant.

split-screenThe Good:  It is impossible to find any marketing material or even brief mention of this film that doesn’t reference its star, Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Edward Snowden, and rightfully so.  JGL carries much of the narrative and does so in a transformative presentation, replacing his voice with a deeper, gruffer tone more akin to Snowden’s.  The physical similarities between JGL and the real life Snowden, with a little help from hair and make-up, are uncanny and help to allow the viewer to experience Snowden’s story and not simply JGL’s acting.  But more than this, JGL tackles the internal struggle of a man who cannot say much about the problems he is struggling with.  The anxiety and tension of the character come through clearly, balanced with moments of happiness, fear, and disappointment when appropriate.  The vast majority of screen time is given to JGL and he guides the story with his mostly understated performance.

The narrative follows a very old and well-accepted structure reminiscent of the early Hollywood studio system.  Snowden is the moralistic hero, nearly immune to corruption and vice, striving in life with a respectable job, steady girlfriend, status among his peers, and more than enough money to live happily.  With all of this in place, he is a reluctant hero of the story, just looking to live his life happily, not hoping to change anything or make his mark in any way.  However, the events of the story slowly and systematically force action.  Moreover, the old Hollywood method of confining a universal challenge to merely a personal issue is clearly represented in Snowden’s arc.  This is represented early when Snowden and his girlfriend share a scene in Washington D.C. in which a protest against the war in Iraq and George Bush takes place.  Snowden’s girlfriend (played by Shailene Woodley, surprisingly very well) signs a petition against the war and questions Snowden as to why he doesn’t.  He responds that he loves his country and doesn’t feel right speaking up against it.  The scene then represents the central struggle that will be reduced to a personal issue for Snowden to tackle; can you love your country and speak against it in the same breath?  This idea is explored intimately for the next nearly two hours, resulting with of course the overwhelmingly moralistic decision to do what is right and not what you have been told to do.  It’s a tried and true structure and serves the story well.  Other elements, not so much, but this general structure and the strong theme work very well.protest-scene

The Bad:  As is mentioned in the film, a lot of the information of the story is very mundane and full of jargon, which can be boring to the average audience and easily lose their attention.  The Big Short had a similar issue in making the detailed information of the housing market collapse comprehensible and entertaining to the everyman.  They did so by providing explanation from Margot Robbie in a bubble bath or Selena Gomez in Vegas.  For the most part, this strategy worked.  Snowden attempts to take advantage of the same methodology, finding opportunities to inject strip club parties, pole dancing classes, partial nudity, and sex scenes into an otherwise “unsexy” story.  This, coupled with a very out-of-place score, results in a film that feels like it has lost its identity somewhere between 21 and The Bourne Identity (without all the action).bigshortrobbie

The editing is dominated by other highly questionable decisions.  The film is presented mostly chronological but with constant flash forwards to Snowden meeting with the media to leak the information and the drama of determining exactly how to do so.  These flash forwards feel largely unnecessary and take away from the actual moral dilemma of the protagonist, taking us away from the story at hand and dropping us into a second related but different situation.  This second movie running alongside the feature seems to place little or no focus on Snowden’s actions or decisions, finding our protagonist largely passive for scenes at a time, destroying any momentum that had been made in the story.  A chronological, linear story would have likely been much better as these flash forwards take away any doubt what Snowden will choose to do in the main storyline and will succeed in his efforts.  Therefore, plenty of scenes that should be full of tension fall flat with the knowledge that any obstacle that presents itself has already been overcome.

The Ugly Truth – Rating (1-5) 3 (See it, but maybe at home)

Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s performance alone is worth seeing this movie for.  That coupled with the strong narrative is enough to get a recommendation from me.  Unfortunately, the confusing editing decisions don’t have the desired effect and leave the film feeling like it is trying to be something it isn’t.  Realistically, this is a 3.5, better than most 3s but not good enough to be a 4.  It does also carry a decent amount of not-so-subtle left-leaning political slant.  Personally, I prefer that politics be left either out of the movie all together or much more understated and implied; Snowden is more of a donkey kick to the conscience.

Sully – Review

Sully – Review

It’s that time of year again.  Theaters are about to be flooded with formulaic pictures directed by big name, award-winning directors starring long lists of Oscar-nominated actors in a push for Oscar gold in February.  Many of these stories will be based on true stories, some based on books, and still fewer based on original ideas.  The first such award-hopeful story is Warner Brothers’ Sully, based on the true story of pilot Chesley Sullenberger who famously landed a badly damaged plane in the Hudson River shortly after takeoff, saving all people on board.  The film, like the flight, seemed doomed from the start.

The GoodTom Hanks does an overall good job, as he usually does, of bringing Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger to life.  He plays well on the internal struggle of the character battling with the possibility of his own errors and what they could mean for not only himself but also his family and hundreds of other people.  Ultimately, he is betrayed by a poor screenplay, worse editing, and some very odd directorial decisions by Clint EastwoodAaron Eckhart plays his copilot, Jeff Skiles, largely as a comic relief, a role he fills decently with understated humor that could have easily derailed the film that much more.

sully
Hanks usually-solid acting was a rare bright spot in Sully.

Visual effects and sound design worked very well to create a realistic and believable image of the events that took place, allowing the audience to experience the flight that only 155 people previously endured.  They are also believable in several daydream scenes, fitting seamlessly into the open visuals and chaotic mindset of the film.  They are by no means groundbreaking or exceptional but they serve their purpose very well.

The BadLaura Linney is, well, Laura Linney in her role as Mrs. Sullenberger, sharing all of her scenes on phone with Hanks and seemingly just nagging him about mostly trivial matters considering the guy just landed a dead-stick of a plane in a river without losing a single person.  I’ve never been a huge fan and that holds true with this performance as well; I’ve always felt she plays every role the same with no real depth of character.

tom-and-clint
Eastwood comes nowhere near his most recent directorial venture, box office smash and Oscar darling American Sniper.

This film is far removed from Clint Eastwood’s last production, American Sniper, which was a huge success both at the box office and in racking up Oscar nominations.  He sticks with his strong patriotic themes in Sully, though not going to quite the same extremes.  I walked out of American Sniper feeling as though I had PTSD while I left Sully just wishing I had my hour and a half back.  Eastwood makes some very interesting decisions that ultimately betray the story and leave it confused.  Most importantly, Eastwood chose to adopt a somewhat non-linear style in telling the story, meaning we bounce through time rather than watching events chronologically (though the bouncing is typically elongated flashbacks).  This can work very well; it is a staple of Christopher Nolan’s successes such as Memento, Batman Begins, and to some extent Inception.  But with this film, it just feels as though Eastwood wasn’t sure exactly how to tell the story and then pieced it together after filming.  Adding to this feeling, we see the flight twice, cut almost identically, with little dramatic effect to separate the two or prompt our replay of previous events.  There is no new information revealed, no higher stakes, just a replay of something we have already seen.  It feels like it is dropped in purely to fill time and reach the 90-minute runtime that usually serves as a floor for feature-length productions.

eckhart
Eckhart largely leads the comedic attempts in this film, usually falling flat.

Additionally, the story leans on occasional comedy to break up the tension.  I wonder if, perhaps, it would have been better with no comedy at all, Batman v. Superman style.  The jokes are often fairly cheesy and don’t progress the story much if at all.  They are out of place, as if the finished script was handed for rewrites to the uncle everyone has who always makes the bad jokes you roll your eyes at.

Another major issue within the story itself was the demonstration of Sully’s fear.  From the opening credits, we are alerted that Sully feels anxious about the proceedings.  Interestingly, he sits calmly through interrogations but the subjective imagery of the film tells us that Sully has doubts.  Soon, he starts outwardly questioning if he did something wrong.  Suddenly, he is resolute that what he did was right.   The changes in the character seem to be sweeping and without realistic motivation.  And while Hanks plays the part decently as I said above, the changes in the character make the story that much harder to follow narratively.  Is this the story of Sully against himself, debating what he did?  Is this him on trial for making the wrong decision?  Is this just a story Clint Eastwood really wanted to bring to the screen?  Yeah, probably a little bit of all of those.  Now let’s take a 15-minute break to watch the flight, then we’ll get back to the actual story.  And then at the end, let’s talk about unity and how we all did this together so we can completely confuse the message of the film.

The Ugly Truth – Rating (1-5) 2 (Wait for Redbox)
You could walk away from this film with a theme of trusting yourself; knowing that you must ultimately answer to yourself and that is more important than answering to others.  That is there for the taking but it is not played very well as confidence comes for Sully in an instant, not providing much arc, not changing the character, merely getting him through this one challenge.  It has a feel-good ending and is a well-known story so I’m sure plenty of people will go to see it.  Unfortunately, Flight 1549 made it much further than this film did in holding my attention.  I was already prepared to ditch into the Hudson myself no more than ten minutes in.  Poor scripting coupled with hokey comedic bits and a confused narrative are way more than even Tom Hanks can overcome.  I would save the money on this one and find it on Redbox or Netflix in a few months.