Movie Review ~ News of the World

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: A Civil War veteran agrees to deliver a girl, taken by the Kiowa people years ago, to her aunt and uncle, against her will. They travel hundreds of miles and face grave dangers as they search for a place that either can call home.

Stars: Tom Hanks, Helena Zengel, Michael Covino, Fred Hechinger, Neil Sandilands, Thomas Francis Murphy, Mare Winningham, Elizabeth Marvel, Chukwudi Iwuji

Director: Paul Greengrass

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 118 minutes

TMMM Score: (9.5/10)

Review:  As I sit here writing this in the second week of December, I realize that News of the World might just have been the last big potential Oscar nominee I would have had to see in theaters had they still been open.  While this grand scale western starring one of the most trusted men in America had always been targeted for a Christmas release, a number of other titles that have been mentioned as awards contenders were slated to come out over the past eight months and who knows where we’d be right now if they’d all made their original dates.  Would a film like News of the World, with its simple pleasures and old-fashioned storytelling feel as touching or impactful if we’d been inundated already with dozens of “prestige” pictures all vying for our votes?

Then again, there’s one thing all of those movies didn’t have: Tom Hanks.  That good-natured, dependable force of good who can turn your frown upside down has a way with a role that makes it uniquely his.  You may be able to imagine several other equally valid stars that could play the part and serve the material with grace but what Hanks can offer in terms of sincerity and core can’t be replicated by any ‘ole matinee idol or aging ‘80s action hunk.  There’s a line near the end of News of the World that Hanks speaks, it’s an important line but not a gussied up one (nothing in the screenplay from director Paul Greengrass and Luke Davies overreaches by much), and they way he pitches it and has it land found a way right into the center of my heart.  That’s talent.  It’s also why a movie like this, which is lighter on plot than a two-hour film out to be and overly episodic, even by normal page-to-screen adaptations go, lingers in the mind long after the final credits have faded.

Based on the 2016 bestseller by Paulette Jiles, the film is set in the Old West of 1870 and opens on Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd (Hanks, Sully) who travels from town to town reading the newspapers aloud for anyone willing to pay a dime.  Choosing his articles based on the crowd and territory, he’s part showman, part newsman, but a good man in sum and total.  In his latest journey between towns, he arrives at the scene of a deplorable crime and the one young survivor (Helena Zengel) who remains.  Rescued from a Kiowa tribe after being taken from her immigrant family as a small child, she was being transported to her only living relatives when another tragedy struck.  Realizing the only guarantee of her safe return is if he takes her, Captain Kidd agrees to accompany her on the journey home.  Speaking no English, the girl longs for the tribe that she was wrenched from, making her an orphan for the second time in her short life.  Yet the two disparate travelers set off on a harrowing journey, encountering dangers in each town they enter and every new territorial line they cross.  His advanced age and her lack of communication initially prove to be a hinderance, especially early on when they are cornered by a trio of violent thugs, but eventually they use these as tools to bring them together the closer they come to being separated forever.

Reteaming with his Captain Phillips director, Hanks revives a few of those same silently reflective scenes that made that earlier performance so effective (and, amazingly, not recognized by the Academy) yet he pitches them with the knowledge of a longer life lived and an entire war behind him.  Kidd has served his country and now serves the people by traveling around and bringing them information to make the world seem less small and their daily lives less routine.  Of course, all that keeping busy is hiding a pain within himself he can’t face, not until later on in the movie, at least.  Hanks has a way with achieving an almost instant audience buy-in whenever he shows up in a movie.  You just sort of instantly buy him in the role.  While his performance as Fred Rogers was lauded in A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood last year, the movie didn’t 100% work for me but I totally bought him completely the minute he appeared onscreen.  It’s probably the confidence he exudes that brings us all under his spell…but it works every time all the same.

It was important for Greengrass and, I suppose Hanks, to find the right co-star and German-born Zengel is a real discovery.  Perfectly believable in a complicated role of a child stuck between two different worlds and three different languages, most of Zengel’s performance comes through in her expressive face and wide eyes, which cinematographer Dariusz Wolski (All the Money in the World) captures as beautifully as he does the pristine sights of expanse from the Old West long forgotten.  It would have been easy for Zengel to tip her acting slightly more one way and lose her balancing act, making the child unbearable but she has a strong scene partner with Hanks and she encourages him to be better as well.  Holding your own against such a force couldn’t have been easy but it all adds to the emotional complexity the role requires.

The supporting players are a strong mix of familiar character actors, with Elizabeth Marvel (Inheritance) being the standout among many greats as a proprietor friend of Hanks that offers some sage advice for her sometime companion.  Marvel is one of those actresses that, when she shows up, you know that however long she’s on screen it’s going to be something you’ll be interested in watching and that’s completely true here.  I suppose Thomas Francis Murphy’s (12 Years a Slave) grotesque manager of law and order in a civilian led town that Kidd and the girl have the misfortune of riding through could be dialed down a bit, if anything this is the sequence that has the most squirm factor.  Maybe it’s because it feels like it’s out of some ghastly American take on a Dickensian Western, but then again it’s another of those episodic entries the film has which is why it may seem like it could be sliced out and removed with no one being the wiser.

A handsome production on all levels, from the visuals to the unobtrusive editing from Oscar-winner William Goldenberg (Argo), News of the World has the gleam of polish to it and deserves to look so pretty.  Accompanied by another rousing score from eight-time Oscar nominee James Newtown Howard (The Nutcracker and the Four Realms) that extends through the closing credits, this is full-scale entertainment at a high level – exactly what we’re almost owed at the end of this year.  Hanks knows what I mean.  As one of the first celebrities to experience this terrible virus, he’s been through a rough patch in 2020 but should be able to rest his head easy once the reviews for News arrive.  Read all about it and see it when it arrives on Christmas Day.

Movie Review ~ Hyde Park on Hudson

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The Facts:

Synopsis: The story of the love affair between FDR and his distant cousin Margaret Stuckley, centered around the weekend in 1939 when the King and Queen of the United Kingdom visited upstate New York

Stars: Bill Murray, Laura Linney, Olivia Colman, Samuel West, Elizabeth Marvel, Elizabeth Wilson, Eleanor Bron, Olivia Williams

Director: Roger Michell

Rated: R

Running Length: 94 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review:  When I was young, I used to take weekend visits to my grandparents in Preston MN and more often than not we would take what is known as a Sunday Drive.  This involved piling into some big Cadillac/Oldsmobile and just heading off in any given direction to see where the roads would take us.  A pleasant and quiet time with conversations that were soft and familiar, it wouldn’t be out of the question if you nodded off a bit.  Just as often you would perk up if something of interest flew by, your curiosity piqued.  Though you always knew the destination would lead you back to where you started, you ended up not minding that you took the time for the trip.

Hyde Park on Hudson is like those Sunday Drives of my youth.  It’s one of the thinnest slice of life tales you’re likely to come by this year, harmless and almost gone from your memory by the time you’ve reached your car.  Charting an affair between FDR (Murray) and his cousin, Daisy (Linney) around the time that the King and Queen of England made their first visit to the US, the film mostly sticks to its pre-destined path and offers little variance from its formulaic (if realistic) set-up.

The light-hearted, breezy trailer for the film belies its true dramatic thrust and I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t happy that the film wasn’t played all for laughs.  Though the adulterous doings of the President and a family member (however distant) may cause you to wince a bit, director Michell (Notting Hill, Changing Lanes) and screenwriter Richard Nelson wisely steer clear of making that the true focus of the film.

The movie is most interesting in showing the relationships between FDR and the women in his life – Daisy, his mother (Wilson), his wife (Williams), and secretary Missy (Marvel).   These scenes work so well because Murray shows a totally different side to his acting as FDR.  I’ve long found Murray to be an aloof grump, thanks in no part to roles that only reinforce that feeling (though he was excellent in Moonrise Kingdom).  His FDR is a real career highlight and had the acting field not been so strong this year, he could have found himself with an Oscar nomination for his work.

The casting of Linney was a bit problematic – mostly because we’ve seen her do this work before in better films.  I’ve grown to like Linney less and less as the years go by, a talent that was once razor sharp feels a bit dull now and her Daisy is perhaps a bit too naïve, too forgiving for the thick skinned Linney to play convincingly.  Actually, I couldn’t get Laura Dern out of my mind when I was watching the film…she may have been a better choice.

Williams, Wilson, and especially Marvel do nice work in their supporting roles but its West and Colman as the visiting royalty that walk away with the movie.  Though they are playing characters familiar to movie goers (Colin Firth and Helena Bonham Carter recently played them in The Kings Speech), they make their own mark on the Royals who are visiting the US in a thinly veiled plea for help with the impending war.

West and Murray share one of the best scenes of 2012 as they talk about the impairments both suffer (a stutter for the King and polio for the President) and how it affects the way the public and their wives see them.  It’s a dynamic scene that both actors play pitch perfectly with Murray delivering my favorite two lines spoken in a movie this year: “What stutter?”

I only wish there were more scenes like that in the movie.  Even at a relatively short 94 minutes, I felt the film dragged on in its own reverie a bit too much.  Cinematographer Lol Crawley does excellent work in filming what Production Designer Simon Bowles has cooked up in his period settings.  Also nice was a unique score by Jeremy Sams that captured the feel of the time and also the mood of the scenes.

Inexplicably rated R for an implied sex scene, Hyde Park on Hudson isn’t destined for the history books nor should it be.  It’s a nicely formed small bite of a film that gets its job done and nothing more.  I’d recommend it as a choice for a leisurely Sunday diversion.