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Aaron Eckhart, Tom Hanks

Aaron Eckhart, Tom Hanks

“SULLY”  My rating: B  

96 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

Clint Eastwood is not a film stylist. No fancy camera angles. No innovative editing. No signature flourishes.
What he is is a terrific and seemingly effortless storyteller, one of the best now making movies.
Exhibit A is “Sully,” Eastwood’s recreation of 2009’s “Miracle on the Hudson,”  in which a crippled jetliner landed on the Hudson River without the loss of one of the 155 souls aboard.
Tom Hanks stars as Capt. Chesley Sullenberger, the 40-year aviation veteran who within seconds of losing both engines to a flock of Canada geese realized a return to La Guardia Airport was impossible…that the only chance of salvation was a water landing.
Todd Komarnicki’s screenplay (based on the memoir by the real Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger) devotes half of the film’s 96-minute running time to the brief flight and the crash itself.  
The near-disaster is experienced from several vantage points (pilots and crew, passengers, first responders, witnesses), with each iteration providing new insights and not a few thrills.
This is absorbing, shocking, logic-defying stuff.
Now we all know that nobody died on US Airways Flight 1549. Still, the film generates tension by revealing that  NTSB investigators were all but prepared to pin the blame on Sully and first mate Jeff Skiles (Aaron Eckhart). (The film takes dramatic license by launching the hearings immediately after the incident; in reality, they came 18 months later.)
Computer simulations suggested that the damaged aircraft could have returned to the airport. Did Sully make a bad call that put everyone on board at risk?

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LifeAnimated_Trailer“LIFE, ANIMATED” My rating: A-  (Opens Sept. 9 at the Tivoli)

89 minutes | MPAA rating: PG

If you can watch “Life, Animated” without experiencing at least one throat-constricting, utterly devastating sob, you may want to consider a career as a CIA interrogator.

Everyone else had best bring a hankie or two to this autism-themed documentary.

At the center of Roger Ross Williams’ outstanding film is Owen Suskind, now in his early 20s, who was a perfectly normal little boy until age 3, at which time he began showing signs of profound autism.

His parents, Ron (a Wall Street Journal reporter) and Cornelia were devastated. Their once-bright, verbal and loving son had turned into a silent, solitary creature.

Salvation came — and this is absolutely the truth — in the form of Walt Disney cartoons.

Disney’s animated features were among the few pastimes that engaged young Owen. A breakthrough came when, while watching “The Little Mermaid,” Owen spoke for the first time in years. At first it sounded like gibberish, but when Ron rewound the tape several times he realized Owen was repeating a line from the movie: “Just your voice.”

Recalls his dad in joy and disbelief: “He’s still in there. He’s still in there.”

Ron utilized a hand puppet of one of Owen’s favorite Disney characters, the villainous parrot Iago (voiced by Gilbert Gottfried) from “Aladdin,” to engage Owen in conversation. Only then did he realize that Owen had memorized every Disney film he’d ever seen and was able to speak using the characters’ dialogue.

“Life, Animated” uses old photographs and home video to tell Owen’s story, augmenting the archival material with new animated sequences (how appropriate) as well as classic clips from the Disney canon (Disney, usually fiercely protective of its intellectual properties, appears to have set aside its litigious ways in favor of getting Owen’s story out to the public).

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Rachel Weisz

Rachel Weisz

“COMPLETE UNKNOWN”  My rating: B (Opens Sept. 9 at the Tivoli)

90 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Some films dole out facts.

Others, like “Complete Unknown,” trade in mood.

Joshua Marston’s film isn’t a thriller exactly…more like a character study…except that’s not quite right either, since the main character of Martson‘s screenplay (written with Julian Sheppard) is a sort of human chameleon.

In a brilliantly assembled opening sequence we see a woman (Rachel Weisz) in a variety of situations. She’s a grad student renting an apartment. A magician‘s assistant in what appears to be China. An E.R. nurse.

The woman is Alice (at least that’s her current name) and we slowly realize that she is a master imposter, someone who every few months or years changes her identity, personality and career.

It isn’t like Alice is antisocial. She’s witty, charming, entertaining, and has terrific stories about the various jobs she’s held all over the world.

Now she shows up at a dinner party as the date of Clyde (Michael Chernus), a schlubby government paper pusher and colleague of Tom (Michael Shannon), whose birthday is being celebrated.

Tom immediately realizes that this woman calling herself Alice is in fact Jenny, with whom he was living when she vanished 15 years earlier. Tom is now married (though that union is shaky). Nevertheless Alice/Jenny has befriended Clyde precisely so she can reconnect with her old flame Tom.

“You were the last person who really knew me before I left,” she explains.

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Brian De Palma...with "little friend"

Brian De Palma…with “little friend”

“DE PALMA” My rating: B (Now on DVD)

107 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Is Brian DePalma a giant of American filmmaking?  Or just a moderately successful journeyman?

It’s pretty clear from their documentary “DePalma” that filmmakers Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow believe in the first analysis.

In this  two-hour journey through the director’s mind and career we mostly get the 75-year-old DePalma seated in front of a camera and in more or less chronological order discussing the films he has made over more than a half century.

These range from the off-the-cuff craziness of “Greetings” to boxoffice champs like the first “Mission: Impossible” and “The Untouchables” to genuinely provocative works like “Scarface,” “Carrie,”  “Casualties of War” and “Carlito’s Way.”

Of course there are flops, too: “Bonfire of the Vanities” (he maintains that if no one had read the book they’d like the film), “Mission to Mars” (he was a last-minute replacement who joined a production that already had left the station) and the politically-drenched war-on-terror spasm “Redacted.”

The film makes extensive use of film clips, not only from DePalma’s resume but from other filmmakers who have influenced him (Hitchcock’s “Vertigo” is a major touchstone).

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Alicia Vikander, Michael Fassbender

Alicia Vikander, Michael Fassbender

“THE LIGHT BETWEEN OCEANS”  My rating: C+ 

  132 minutes | MPAA rating:  PG-13

There’s a world of weeping on display in “The Light Between Oceans.”

The good news is that most of the sobbing is done by Alicia Vikander.  If you’ve got to stare for two hours at a tear-stained face, it might as well be that of this Oscar-winning actress. She makes suffering almost transcendent.

The not-so-good news is that in making its transition from best seller to big screen, M.L. Stedman’s story has lost a good deal of its power.

For all the lacerating emotions displayed by Vikander and co-stars Michael Fassbender and Rachel Weisz, relatively little of it is experienced by the viewer.

What was deeply moving on the printed page seems mechanically melodramatic when dramatized.  You want to be moved, but can’t shake the feeling that mostly you’re being manipulated.

After four years in the trenches of World War I, Tom Sherbourne (Fassbender) returns to his native Australia a hollow man. Seeking solitude and time to rediscover himself, he signs up as the lighthouse keeper on Janus Island, a windswept hunk of rock 100 miles from the nearest coast.

But he won’t be alone for long. In one of the most satisfying passages in Derek Cianfrance’s film, he meets, woos and weds Isabel (Vikander), a local girl who seems to relish life on the island. Their’s is a civilization of two…the only thing that could make it better would be a baby to share the experience.

Fate has other plans.  Isabel suffers a miscarriage (during a hurricane, no less) and later gives birth to a stillborn child.  Things are looking pretty glum.

And then a rowboat floats in on the tide. Inside is a dead man and a baby girl. Continue Reading »

our little“OUR LITTLE SISTER” My rating: A-

128 minutes | MPAA rating: PG

“If God can’t figure things out then we’ll have to,” says one of the four Koda siblings whose day-to-day lives are limned in Hirokazu Koreeda’s “Our Little Sister.”

Surely the most profound film ever based on a  graphic novel, “Our Little Sister” is a quiet revelation, a movie of seemingly insignificant moments that add up to an emotionally gripping, transcendent statement about fate and family.

Koreeda’s film (an adaptation of Akimi Yoshida’s celebrated manga) begins with the three Koda sisters — Sachi (Haruka Ayase), Yoshino (Masami Nagasaki) and Chika (Kaho) — learning of the death of their father. They are indifferent. He abandoned his marriage and his daughters years before to take up with one woman, and has since been married to yet another.

But out of a sense of obligation the three young women travel to a distant town to attend the funeral. There they meet Suza (Suza Hirose), their adolescent half sister who was the child of her father’s earlier relationship.

Sachi, the oldest and de facto leader, impulsively asks if Suzu wants to come live with them.  The girl agrees, and suddenly they are a family of four women.

“Our Little Sister” isn’t heavily plotted. In some way it resembles Ang Lee’s “Eat Drink Man Woman,” though Koreeda’s film is virtually melodrama free. Its major attractions are the characters, presented with subtlety and depth, their personalities unfolding slowly.

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Matthew McConaughey, Ken Watanabe

Matthew McConaughey, Ken Watanabe

“SEA OF TREES” My rating: C

116 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

At the outset of Gus Van Sant’s “Sea of Trees,” a university lecturer played by Matthew McConaughey buys a one-way ticket to Tokyo and has a taxi deliver him at the entrance of Aokigahara,  a vast forest and park famous — or infamous — for the number of people who go there to commit suicide (100 or so each year…some of the bodies are never found).

Even before we see the signs advising visitors to think of heir families before killing themselves, we know that the American — eventually we learn his name is Arthur — is in bad shape. He’s hollow-eyed and morose and has a vial of little blue pills with which he plans to chug-a-lug himself into the hereafter.

Arthur hikes deep into the dark and eerie forest, but before he can do the deed  he is interrupted by Takumi (Ken Watanabe), a Japanese businessman wandering about lost, his shirt cuffs bloody from a botched attempt to slit his wrists. Apparently the guy’s career has spiraled into the crapper and he can’t stand to lose face.

Altruism trumps suicide, and Arthurs decides to put off offing himself until he can steer Takumi to a trail out of the park. It’s the decent thing to do. Except that Arthur is himself seriously injured in a horrendous fall off a cliff, and now the two men must rely on each other to — ironically enough — survive.

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