Movie Review ~ The Finest Hours

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The Facts:

Synopsis: The Coast Guard makes a daring rescue attempt off the coast of Cape Cod after a pair of oil tankers are destroyed during a blizzard in 1952.

Stars: Chris Pine, Casey Affleck, Ben Foster, Holliday Grainger, John Ortiz, Eric Bana

Director: Craig Gillespie

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 117 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review: Back in the ‘50s and ‘60s, Walt Disney Studios used to crank out their live-action pictures with regularity, keeping the home fires burning while readying their latest animated release.  From shaggy dogs to absent-minded professors to a king of the wild frontier, from identical twins pulling a fast one on their divorced parents to a monkey’s uncle to babes in toyland, the studio cast a wide net of fantasy and more often than not put forth winning family entertainment that weren’t Oscar caliber but have managed to stand the test of time all the same.

In recent years, there’s been a revitalization of Disney focusing on live-action features. Favoring true stories of uphill battles instead of the more fantastical escapism that maybe was more necessary half a century ago, there’s a definite formula at work here and no one seems particularly interested in changing it up.  A few of these films have won me over like McFarland U.S.A. and Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day but on the other side of the coin you have disappointments like The Odd Life of Timothy Green and Million Dollar Arm.

The director of the overstuffed Million Dollar Arm, Craig Gillespie, returns to cinemas with The Finest Hours, a drama in real life adventure documenting the brave rescue of a crew on a sinking oil liner by a small Coast Guard boat.  The early trailers may have given most of the movie away, but to their credit they are far more exciting than the finished product.

Coast Guard Captain Bernie Webber (Chris Pine, Into the Woods) barely has time to ask his commanding officer (Eric Bana, Closed Circuit) permission to marry his girlfriend (Holliday Grainger, Cinderella, Disney’s excellent 2015 offering) before he’s sent out to rescue the crew of SS Pendleton, a T-2 oil tanker headed for Boston ripped in half during a large weather system felt up and down the New England coast.  Aboard the failing ship, engineer Ray Sybert (Casey Affleck, Interstellar) overcomes crew resistance to lead the men on a risky maneuver in hopes of buying more time as their rescue vessel draws near.

All the makings of an exciting movie…if only we could see what was actually going on.  Gillespie and cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe (Goosebumps, Blue Jasmine, the remake of Poltergeist) set so much of the film in the whiteout conditions on land or the rain heavy visages on the open sea that audiences will wind up relying on voice recognition to figure out who’s talking and what’s happening.  It doesn’t help that in dark lighting and soaking wet almost every male in the film starts to look alike, further complicating attempts to follow the action.  And did I mention it’s in 3D? And it’s the 3D that doesn’t improve the feature in the slightest, with the only noticeable dimensional change coming during the credits.

Pine makes another bid for dramatic leading man but it’s clear he’s better suited to being the captain of the Starship Enterprise in Star Trek, Star Trek: Into Darkness and the upcoming Star Trek Beyond.  With so many close-ups of his mournful (and, it must be said, slightly crossed) eyes, Pine emotes enough for the entire cast which is directly countered by Affleck’s barely awake effort.  Reacting to his sinking vessel or a fallen shipmate with the gusto of Rip Van Winkle, Affleck may have been going for laid-back but winds up flat-backed, sleepwalking through most of the film.

If there’s a reason to see the movie, it’s for Grainger as Bernie’s spitfire fiancée.  Determined not to lose the man she loves so soon after they get engaged, she’s got spirit to spare whether she’s standing up to Bernie’s boss or learning the hard realities of signing up to being the wife of a Coast Guard captain.  Alas, Grainger can’t be in two places at once so every time the film shifts back to the sea we feel her absence.  Poor Ben Foster (Lone Survivor) looks absolutely miserable as Bernie’s second in command…and not just because he spends the majority of the film sopping wet.  Foster is known to go all-in with his characters but feels restrained here and it clearly makes him uncomfortable.

Based on the novel The Finest Hours: The True Story of the U.S. Coast Guard’s Most Daring Sea Rescue by Michael J. Tougias and Casey Sherman, the script from Scott Silver, Paul Tamasy, and Eric Johnson dallies around in the first half before rushing through the climactic rescue attempt that should be the dramatic peak of the film.  In all fairness, little weight is given to anything in the film but it’s strange the scene highlighted in all of the marketing materials comes up and is over so quickly.

Those feeling nostalgic for the films made by Walt Disney back in the studio’s live-action golden days were likely looking forward to The Finest Hours.  I know because I was one of them.  So it’s a bummer to report there’s a curious lack of the adventure and magic I had hoped to find in this true life tale of a rescue against all odds on the high seas.  While there were a few beacons of light to be found, should you choose to head out to sea with Pine and the gang the hours you’ll spend in the theater won’t be the finest…they’ll be merely fine.

The Silver Bullet ~ The Finest Hours

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Synopsis: The Coast Guard makes a daring rescue attempt off the coast of Cape Cod after a pair of oil tankers are destroyed during a blizzard in 1952.

Release Date:  January 29, 2016

Thoughts: I’m happy to see that the Walt Disney Studios continues to give a fair share of their time to produce live-action films to balance out their animation division.  True, I think the time has passed for the classic entertainment of their hey-day of the ‘50s and ‘60s but they seem committed to releasing stories that resonate with audiences.  It’s also true that the efforts can be hit or miss.  I loved 2015’s McFarland U.S.A. but was fairly underwhelmed with 2014’s Million Dollar Arm…thanks to Jon Hamm’s lackluster leading man performance and story told from the wrong perspective.  The director of that film, Craig Gillespie, is on board for Disney’s 2016 film The Finest Hours and it already looks like an improvement over his previous effort.

The true life tale of the “most daring rescue attempt in Coast Guard history”, this period piece boasts a nice assemblage of character actors and Chris Pine (Into the Woods) as the leading man.  As usual, I think the trailer is too long and gives too much away for a film of this nature…but if the final product captures that old-school Disney storytelling magic all will certainly be forgiven.

The Silver Bullet ~ Deliver Us From Evil

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https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JBxTF_DxN8k

Synopsis: A NYC police officer joins forces with an unconventional priest schooled in the rituals of exorcism to combat the possessions that are terrorizing their city.

Release Date:  July 2, 2014

Thoughts: I can’t help it.  I eat these based on a true-story-demonic-horror-films up with glee.  I appreciate that it appears we’ve moved past the B-movie trash filmmaking these slick horror films have employed for years and into a more sophisticated take on the scare.  Scott Derrickson earned high praise from me for directing two of the more superior horror films in the last decade, Sinister and The Exorcism of Emily Rose, so I’m inclined to have faith that Deliver Us From Evil will follow suit.  This first teaser trailer may be longer than I’d have liked but it has a nice little payoff.

Movie Review ~ Lone Survivor

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Marcus Luttrell and his team set out on a mission to capture or kill notorious Taliban leader Ahmad Shah, in late June 2005. Marcus and his team are left to fight for their lives in one of the most valiant efforts of modern warfare.

Stars: Mark Wahlberg, Taylor Kitsch, Emile Hirsch, Ben Foster, Ali Suliman, Alexander Ludwig, Eric Bana

Director: Peter Berg

Rated: R

Running Length: 121 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (8.5/10)

Review: “Holy moly.”  That’s what I found myself instinctively saying out loud several times during Lone Survivor, a taut war film that brings its audience along for a bone crunching journey along its razor’s edge of a true life tale.

I wasn’t sure what to make of Lone Survivor when early trailers were released.  I’ve grown wary of war films after years of similarly themed cinematic excursions both fictional and documentary-like that I just couldn’t fathom that this film, directed by Battleship helmer Peter Berg and starring Mark Wahlberg, would have anything new to bring to the battlefield.  Just goes to show that you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover; or in this case judge a film by its marketing materials.

Berg opens the film with images from the limit-testing training that United States Navy SEALs undergo to take their place alongside the brave men and women serving our country.  It’s an eye-opening and pulse raising start, illustrating in no uncertain terms that only the best of the best make it through.  As the action transfers to a military base, we’re introduced to the members of the team of Operation Red Wings, tasked to track a high ranking dangerous Taliban leader.

Leading the team is Lieutenant Michael Murphy (Taylor Kitsch, John Carter, Savages), he’s joined by Danny Dietz (Emile Hirsch, Killer Joe, The Darkest Hour), Matthew “Axe” Axelson (Ben Foster, Contraband), and Marcus Luttrell (Wahlberg, Ted, Pain & Gain) who wrote the book (along with Patrick Robinson) on which Berg adapted his screenplay from.  Comrades and brothers, this recon and surveillance team is a well oiled machine venturing into no man’s land with an important mission.

It’s not long before one wrong (but I suppose morally right) decision tosses the men into the path of mortal danger…leading to a middle section that puts the audience through a white knuckle gauntlet.  So many war films make the mistake of favoring jittery camera work to establish chaos but Berg and cinematographer Tobias Schliessler play against this and let their staging of these combat scenes tell the story instead.  There are several skillfully crafted heart pounding passages as the soldiers come face to face with their enemy and their own mortality.  Having already won a SAG Award for their work, special mention must be made again to the stunt performers on the film…with two sequences involving falling down the sheer edge of a mountain you’ll be wincing with each somersault/tumble.

Though the title gives the ending away, it doesn’t lessen the impact the film or its characters have on us.  Even when the film dips into standard stylized action fare in the last act there’s an underlying message of salvation to be had by everyone involved.  Berg has cast the film so well that he doesn’t need to coax committed performances out of anyone onscreen.  All four actors could have headlined the picture but Wahlberg again shows he’s light years away from his Funky Bunch days by turning in a layered rendering of Luttrell.

I expected the film to end with a dedication to the men who lost their lives but wasn’t prepared for how much of an emotional force it would have on me.  Berg and company have approached this material with the utmost respect for the bravery of those that put their lives on the line for their country and have delivered a superior war film that doesn’t glorify, grandstand, or proselytize…  It’s a better film that I ever would have thought it would/could be – and comes highly recommended.

Movie Review ~ Closed Circuit

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A high-profile terrorism case unexpectedly binds together two ex-lovers on the defense team – testing the limits of their loyalties and placing their lives in jeopardy.

Stars: Eric Bana, Rebecca Hall, Ciarán Hinds, Riz Ahmed, Anne-Marie Duff, Kenneth Cranham, Denis Moschitto, Julia Stiles, Jim Broadbent

Director: John Crowley

Rated: R

Running Length: 92 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (4/10)

Review: I think we’ve been long overdue for a paranoid thriller with conspiracies at every corner and the threat of mortal danger with each new secret discovered so I was looking forward to the twisty feast that Closed Circuit purported to offer.  Sadly, though the appetizer of the film was filling if lacking spice the main course was a flavorless Jell-O mold of stale red-herrings.

A bombing in a populous square in London leaves many dead and is described as the worst terrorist attack on record.  A suspect is arrested and, due to issues of national security, given two lawyers for his defense.  One will try the case in open court while the other is appointed as a Special Advocate, privy to private, classified information that the other lawyer can’t hear and will present in a closed session.  It’s a strange situation and unlike any we’ve seen in most courtroom thrillers so the set-up is appealing…at the start.

Taking elements from any number of government conspiracy thrillers from the 70’s and 80’s, the film starts out sharp with a nicely tense opening sequence of the closed circuit cameras that pick up the moments leading up to the bombing.   When the original lawyer assigned to the case takes his own life (a scenario no one seems to bat an eye at in a case we’re constantly reminded is the most important in British history), the job goes to Martin Rose (Eric Bana, Star Trek, Lone Survivor) who soon finds out that the Special Advocate assigned to the case is his former mistress Claudia (Rebecca Hall, Iron Man 3, The Awakening).

Now their past relationship should mean that one of them has to recuse themselves but, no, where would that leave us?  The law states that the two are to have no contact so the audience is left to wonder two things.  The first is why Martin and Claudia ever got together in the first place.  There’s an obvious lack of chemistry between the actors and it’s tough to pinpoint who is more at fault, Bana’s cocky puffshirt of an attorney or Hall’s chilly take on her character.  The second thing is how long it will be before Martin and Claudia break the rules and start talking about the case with each other.

As the movie follows Martin and Claudia conducting their own investigations into the bombing, a whole slew of extra characters are introduced and nearly all are written in solely to give information that moves the plot along.  Julia Stiles’ (Silver Linings Playbook, Girl Most Likely) miniscule role is given such short shrift that her exit from the film might very well be missed if you look away.  Jim Broadbent (Cloud Atlas), Riz Ahmed (The Reluctant Fundamentalist), and Ciarán Hinds (The Woman in Black, John Carter) get their jobs done efficiently, even if they are merely obviously placed roadblocks to Martin and Claudia getting at the truth of it all.

If the film is worth seeing it’s for a scene that I can’t even talk about because it would give the one interesting twist the movie has up its sleeve.  I’ll just say that it involves Hall’s character cross-examining a witness that audiences won’t see coming (well, if you’ve seen the trailer you may…so take my advice and don’t watch it).  That this scene crackles is thanks to the actor playing opposite Hall and it gives way nicely to several more scenery chewing moments.

Unfortunately, this scene a little over halfway through the movie can’t snap the film back onto the promising track it started off on.  It winds up blowing totally off course as it struggles to find an ending that is suitable and winds up settling for a denouement that’s not very exciting or satisfying.  Arriving at the tail end of the summer movie season, Closed Circuit seems out of place for this time of year and with so many other strong films arriving in the last few weeks, this isn’t one I’d make a serious effort to see.  A fine rental for a rainy day but not worth the trip to the theater.

The Silver Bullet ~ Lone Survivor

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Synopsis: Based on the failed June 28, 2005 mission “Operation Red Wings.” Four members of SEAL Team 10 were tasked with the mission to capture or kill notorious Taliban leader Ahmad Shahd.

Release Date:  January 10, 2014

Thoughts: Is it OK to say that I’m really over these war films that have anything to do with Afghanistan or the Taliban?  Even if Lone Survivor has an impressive cast and is adapted from a New York Times bestseller, I just don’t know if I can bring myself to sit through another shaky camera war themed movie where the audience already knows the ending but chomps away on their popcorn waiting for people to die.  I think there’s been such an impressive line-up of fiction and non-fiction films surrounding the war in the last decade that with every new addition one has to reevaluate how many times we want to bear witness t another tragic story.  That being said, I’ll choose to focus on the diverse array of committed actors that director Peter Berg has assembled.  Mark Wahlberg (Ted, Pain & Gain, Contraband), Eric Bana (Closed Circuit, Star Trek), Taylor Kitsch (Battleship, Savages, John Carter), Ben Foster, and Emilie Hirsch all bring something different to the table so I hold out hope that Berg uses the war setting as a canvas where the focus can ultimately be on the actors.

The Silver Bullet ~ Closed Circuit

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Synopsis: Martin and Claudia are lawyers — and ex-lovers — who find themselves put at risk after they join the defense team for an international terrorist’s trial.

Release Date:  August 28, 2013

Thoughts: Though it does remind me of something moviegoers would have been treated to in the early 90’s, this UK thriller boasts a nicely low-key cast and a premise that may have some mileage in it.  I’ve never been totally won over by either Rebecca Hall (The Awakening) or Eric Bana (Star Trek) but this movie intrigues me. I love a nice courtroom thriller and this seems to fit squarely into a John Grisham-y rhythm that could be worth investigating when it goes before the late summer film fan jury.

Mid-Day Mini ~ Star Trek (2009)

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The Facts:

Synopsis: The brash James T. Kirk tries to live up to his father’s legacy with Mr. Spock keeping him in check as a vengeful, time-traveling Romulan creates black holes to destroy the Federation one planet at a time.

Stars: John Cho, Ben Cross, Bruce Greenwood, Simon Pegg, Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Winona Ryder, Zoe Saldana, Karl Urban, Anton Yelchin, Eric Bana, Leonard Nimoy

Director: J.J. Abrams

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 127 minutes

TMMM Score: (8.5/10)

Review:  When it was announced that J.J. Abrams was going to be helming a re-boot of the popular Star Trek franchise for Paramount, more than a few eyebrows were raised.  That’s no indictment on Abrams, only on the fact that the Star Trek films/television shows have a devoted following and starting from scratch seemed like it could cause a ruckus in the Trekkie-community.  Though the big screen series movies had seemed to run its course with its current Star Trek: The Next Generation crew, there continued to be interest in moving a later television cast into a feature film.  Paramount, however had a different idea.

That idea proved to be a smart one because this refreshed Star Trek from 2009 is a slam-dunk for fans of the series and newcomers alike.  Even if you’d seen every episode, read every tie-in novel, lined up for each film, there’s no denying that what Abrams and screenwriters Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman did with Gene Roddenberry’s original set-up was a gamble that paid off.  What continues to be so pleasing about the film and the way it was handled was that it didn’t wish away the other films/series nor did it negate the characters that audience have come to love.  By playing a tricky game with time-travel, what came before could still exist in the same universe as this new entry.

Abrams went back to the drawing board when casting the film, choosing some relative newcomers for the key roles of Kirk and Spock.  Chris Pine (People Like Us) has that same handsome all-American charm that William Shatner had as James T. Kirk but wisely sidesteps his predecessors famously mock-able line delivery.  With his clear blue (and slightly crossed) eyes, Pine steps into leading man territory with a lot of the confidence that the role requires, showing us a troubled man that’s haunted by the shadow of his late father (Chris Hemsworth, right on the cusp of his own stardom from Snow White and the Hunstman, Cabin in the Woods, Marvel’s The Avengers, and 2013’s upcoming Rush). 

Zachary Quinto had perhaps even bigger shoes (well, ears) to fill as Spock, the intelligent Vulcan that struggles with his half-human side taking over when emotions come into play.  It would be easy to play Spock with a straight-laced monotone but Quinto keeps him interesting even when he’s getting in the way of Kirk’s mission. 

The other crew are nicely rounded with Karl Urban’s Bones, Zoe Saldana’s Uhura, and Simon Pegg’s Scotty making the biggest impression without merely feeling like a spoof of the actors that played these parts before they stepped in.  Only Eric Bana’s villain Nero feels a bit out of place, mostly because his plot line feels underdeveloped and only created to test the crew as they battle black holes, revenge plots, and each other amid time warps into deep space.

This being a reboot, I was worried that too much time would be spent introducing characters and that this first film would serve more as an introduction rather than feel like the beginning of something new.  While the first half of the film is largely devoted to getting us up to speed with the characters, I didn’t mind it as much because Abrams keeps things moving at a rapid pace.  Before you know it, you’re catapulted into an impressive final half that’s filled with Oscar winning make-up and Oscar-nominated special effects that blow previous Star Trek films out of the water.

An auspicious start to a truly next generation of Star Treks, this is one that holds up on repeated viewings and provides the kind of entertainment that’s rarely found in blockbusters of this nature.  It’s appealing, engaging, and has always kept me on the edge of my seat though I’ve seen it half a dozen times since its initial release.