When you cast Tom Hanks as the lead in your movie, it’s almost a shortcut to telling the audience who you’re meant to side with in a film in which his character might be in the wrong. In the nearly two years since director Clint Eastwood made American Sniper, history has proven he may have backed the wrong horse in his bid to canonize Navy S.E.A.L. sniper Chris Kyle. So in his follow-up, Sully, Eastwood has selected a candidate for “American Hero” who’s a bit more of a sure thing, US Airways pilot Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger (played by Hanks with a deft mix of professional stoicism and barely contained PTSD), who somehow maneuvered Flight 1549 on a frigid January morning in 2009 away from buildings and onto New York City’s Hudson River, with zero casualties among the 155 on board.
But in this film about the “Miracle on the Hudson,” Eastwood injects a great deal of humanity into Sullenberger by introducing us to him as he wakes up panicked from a stress dream in which an alternate version of events plays out—him crashing his plane into buildings. I’m sure pilots have dreams like this from time to time, but after an event like the one Sully survived, they were surely amplified and given fresh visuals to populate his nightmares. What is less known about Sullenberger’s ordeal is that the airline’s insurance company launched an intensive investigation into the incident, seeking to prove that the plane could have made it to more than one nearby airport, and that dropping it into the Hudson was unnecessary.
Sully dives headfirst into the inquiry and questioning of Sullenberger and co-pilot Jeff Skiles (Aaron Eckhart), flight simulations that re-create the incident with both computer and human pilots running the scenario, interviews with the crew and passengers, even looking into bird migratory patterns in the area at that time of year (the plane became disabled when a flock of birds flew into and knocked out both of the craft’s main engines). The film bounces back and forth in time between the investigation and Sully’s personal memories of the flight. The investigating officials (led by Mike O’Malley and “Breaking Bad’s” Anna Gunn) are perhaps played a little more villainously than they need to be. In addition, one of Sully’s duties for the airline was as an accident investigator and safety expert, so it’s clear early on that these folks are going after a man that knows every possible and impossible options he had as his plane drifted out of the sky.
The investigation procedural side of the film isn’t nearly as dramatic as Eastwood would like it to be but not for lack of trying or anything missing in the highly compelling performances from Hanks on down. The director mostly makes up the difference by spending a great deal of time building up to the improbable landing and rescue effort. Eastwood is so proud of his power of re-creation, we actually see the incident twice, from two slightly different perspectives. The first is a more general overview—from the time leading up to takeoff to the deplaning of passengers and crew on a sinking plane in the icy Hudson.
The second look at the incident occurs while investigators are listening to the cockpit voice recorder, so most of the visuals focus on Sully’s and Skiles’ POV. It’s actually far more terrifying that way, hearing the air traffic controller telling Sully he can make it to a runway, when the pilot can feel the plane in his hands and knows that just isn’t true. Sully knows he has a group of terrified passengers behind him, but he can’t think about them (at the same time, that’s all he can think about); all the while, he firmly believes that he can pull off this water landing. He seems more sure of it than anyone has a right to. The efforts that Eastwood and his team go to to make this near disaster look real is extraordinary, and as much as you want to focus on the human drama, the way we simply accept that what we’re seeing as real is a credit to the special effects team.
Laura Linney pops into the film every so often (usually at the other end of a phone call from Sully) as wife Lorraine. While she may seem a bit overqualified for this part, she’s a wonderful stabilizing force for both her husband and her children, who are all kept apart until the investigation is complete. I love the way that Sully’s friends and union leaders push him to do interviews about the incident (re-stagings of appearances with Katie Couric and David Letterman are nicely handled), as if the public labeling him a hero will somehow shield him from the safety hearings, which was probably a safe, smart bet.
One of my favorite moments in Sully feels practically improvised compared to the rest of the film. Looking to get out of the seclusion of his hotel room, Sully wanders the New York City streets late at night and into a nearby bar, where the bartender (Michael Rapaport, bringing a very funny energy) recognizes the new arrival and lavishes him with praise (he’s even named a drink after the pilot, which is a Grey Goose with a splash of water in a chilled glass). Sully watches his Couric interview in the bar and is somewhat mortified that he’s being called a hero by the entire city. In a film that we assume will be filled with nothing by triumph on several fronts, it’s an unexpectedly sobering moment that the film desperately needs at just that moment.
If Sully falters in one particular area, it’s the hearing sequence, which I’m sure was far more complicated and contentious in real life. Eastwood’s version feels truncated, with last-minute evidence introductions and Hanks in full-on righteous mode as Sully talks about how the human element has been left out of their computer modeling of the events. Still, I’m guessing these moments will play like gangbusters for an audience, and Hanks was built for impassioned monologues like the ones he gives here. Sully is exactly the movie I expected, which is almost as rare as getting a movie full of twists that actually surprise you.
There are no unexpected moments here, and because the history on display is so newly written, you’ll likely know the outcome of every dramatic moment. So Eastwood’s challenge is to make a gripping, engaging version of the story, which he absolutely succeeds at doing with the help of some terrific acting. The film is flawed (as most are), but it’s a welcome first step into awards season, and it’s tough to complain about getting still further proof that Hanks isn’t coasting after years of being the Good Guy.
Films about what makes up a person’s “identity” often walk a tricky ledge that offers thought-provoking substance if the filmmaker is sure footed (see Certified Copy), or can result in plummeting several dozen stories into pretension and self-examination that takes us nowhere and leaves us very little to contemplate once we’ve exited the theater. I first caught director and co-writer Joshua Marston’s latest, Complete Unknown, at the Sundance Film Festival back in January. The screening took place on my final full day at the festival, and to say I was running on fumes at that point doesn’t even begin to cover it. What I remember from that screening was being captivated by two of my absolute favorite actors on screen, Michael Shannon and Rachel Weisz, but the rest was something of a blur, so I opted not to review it because I didn’t trust my judgment.
So cut to a couple of weeks ago, re-watching the movie with a far clearer head, and I was still so impressed with these versatile performers, playing a pair of old lovers reunited 15 years later under quite unusual circumstances. Even playing someone as normal as Tom, a man who writes agricultural proposals that may get turned into the law of the farming land, Shannon remains an oddball mystery. He’s married to the stunning Ramina (Azita Ghanizada), a jewelry designer who has just been accepted into a California arts program to learn to make her own pieces. The couple seems to be struggling, and while Ramina seems committed to making the trip from their home in Brooklyn, Tom isn’t sure he’s going with her. He seems frustrated with every aspect of his life, and this underlying dissatisfaction feels like a part of his DNA, but perhaps it’s due in no small part to his past relationship with a woman named Jenny.
In a deliberately confusing opening sequence, we see Weisz assuming many roles—a magician’s assistant in China comes to mind—before we settle in on her present job as an insect researcher in New Jersey, where she goes by the name Alice (which might be a little too on the nose, but we’ll forgive writers Marston and Julian Sheppard). Eventually, we spy her stalking Tom’s co-worker Clyde (Michael Chernus), and before long, the two begin seeing each other platonically, but seriously enough that he invites her to Tom’s birthday dinner party. Tom is noticeably rattled by her presence but says nothing at first. What unfolds over the rest of the film is essentially a two-person conversation between a pair of the finest actors of our day about what it means to become another person, or more specifically a new person.
Beginning right after her time with Tom, Jenny/Alice simply dropped out, changed her identity, moved far away, and became another person. Complete Unknown isn’t about going off the grid; it’s about moving to another grid because the old one hurts too much or is boring or is getting too comfortable. Alice isn’t running from anyone other than the stale person she is currently occupying. Her chosen existence makes some quite uneasy, and they accuse her of being a compulsive liar, but when they ask her questions about her many lives, she’s happy to answer honestly.
Although director Marston (Maria Full of Grace, The Forgiveness of Blood) is American born, Complete Unknown is his first English-language work, so it seems only fitting that he’s telling a story that many of us simply won’t be able to identify with, which is fine since I rarely go to the movies to see people like me on the screen. What the film forces us to do is consider the possibility (and potential method) of moving on to another life. Alice makes it look easy to simply disengage. Some may envy this ability; others might assume something is so broken inside her that she’s become a sociopath. But the film also makes us consider how many times in a day or week or lifetime we are forced to become someone else for the purposes of a job interview, for instance, or in a social interaction, or a first date. Some people take to the slight personality alterations, although Alice doesn’t really shift in that way. She just movies, changes her name, and gets a job in a field she’s largely unfamiliar with.
Just in the last year, Weisz has given us such varied and vibrant performances in film like Youth, The Lobster and The Light Between Oceans (and she’ll be seen once more before year’s end in Mick Jackson’s Denial), but there’s something other worldly about her portrayal of Alice. She seems so open and honest that unraveling her mystery doesn’t seem all that ominous, perhaps to the detriment of the film’s dramatic core. It’s easy to see why people would be so eager to embrace her into their world, no matter her identity; she’s interesting, has great stories, and is just flirtatious enough to be captivating to men and women.
Shannon’s brooding Tom is equally interesting but for different reasons. Something is missing from his life, but he hasn’t been able to put his finger on it until this night. As they are walking and talking, Tom and Alice come into contact with an older couple (Kathy Bates and Danny Glover), and Tom is guided by Alice into pretending he’s a doctor to help Bates with foot and back problems. He’s hesitant at first, but it comes to him readily and it gives him a rush like he’s never had before. Alice’s invitation to join her on her adventure is tempting to say the least. Complete Unknown is all about that temptation, which is there every day whether there is an Alice in our lives or not—to abandon the stress of our day-to-day living and start anew. And as a glimpse into the alternate version of our lives, the film succeeds quite nicely. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.
Although it features some genuinely strong, heartfelt performances from the likes of Jesse Plemons and Molly Shannon, the feature debut from writer-director Chris Kelly (an Upright Citizens Brigade alum and former writer on “Saturday Night Live” and “Broad City”) is a ferocious mess of a film that misses many of its emotional beats in an effort to tell a story of a mother and son coping with her inevitable death from cancer.
Plemons plays David, a struggling comedy writer, UCB alum, and obvious stand-in for the filmmaker. David also happens to be gay, a fact that his father (Bradley Whitford) can barely contemplate, let alone say the words or acknowledge that David has a long-term boyfriend, Paul (“Silicon Valley’s” Zach Woods). David lives in New York but essentially moves back home to Sacramento to help take care of his mom, Joanne (Shannon), with the help of his two sisters (played by Maude Apatow and Madisen Beaty).
You can’t help but feel bad that this story is likely inspired by true events, but it doesn’t attempt to dig deeper into the day-to-day issues of coping with a sick loved one—certainly not in the devastating way that last year’s James White did. But Other People leaves too many of its most interesting characters unexplored, in particular David’s sisters, who even give him crap about being so wrapped up in his own drama to bother to ask about their lives or how they are coping with their mother’s imminent death. David is certainly not drawn as a perfect person or son, but any depth in the character comes out of Plemons’ hard work as an actor and not from the paint-by-number screenplay.
Some of the film’s finest moments have nothing to do with the mom’s cancer at all; it comes in a sequence back in New York when David takes his family to see him perform improv with his UCB troupe and go back to his apartment to meet Paul. Even thought the couple has broken up, Paul loves this family and agrees to pretend they are still dating, only so Joanne believes he’ll be in good hands after she dies. There’s something about the way David and Paul communicate and work so well together that is highly engaging and a great portrayal of fully rounded gay characters. I wish more of the film had been about this relationship than the largely inconsequential way David’s family is presented here.
I’m sure if you’ve ever dealt with a situation like the one presented in Other People, your emotions will likely surrender to the wonderful performance Shannon gives of a slowly dying but still strong woman. But the way David is feeling is sometimes distracting. In addition, Kelly attempts to lighten the mood of the overall film by including wacky relatives (played by the likes of Kerri Kenney, June Squibb and Paul Dooley) or characters like young Justin (J.J. Totah of “Glee”), who will likely be an audience favorite, but might be a bit too stereotypical for his own good. To make matters worse, the actual improv sequence goes on forever and is in no way funny.
Produced by Adam Scott and Naomi Scott, Other People is the first work from their production company that doesn’t feature Adam in the cast (like last year’s The Overnight did). There are so many actors I like in this that to not root for some aspect of the film seems cruel. It does get better as it goes on. All that said, the film still feels like an endless, sometimes unfeeling entity, which seems to care more about jerking tears from your eyes than earning them with deeply written characters and, frankly, better improv comedy. Aside from a few key performances, nothing quite clicks as it should, and there’s no way I could recommend seeing it unless you’re just curious to see a truly interesting actor in Plemons, attempting a type of character I’ve never seen him play. The film opens today for a weeklong run at Facets Cinémathèque.
NEITHER HEAVEN NOR EARTH
In a work that manages to find the micro-thin intersection between war and faith (and I don’t mean the “There are no atheists in foxholes” type of faith), the debut feature from director Clément Cogitore is a bizarre but highly engaging blend of authentic military behavior and tactics used to address something approaching supernatural phenomenon. Set in Afghanistan in 2014, Neither Heaven Nor Earth follows a small French NATO patrol in its final days before leaving a base on the border with Pakistan. Relations with a nearby peaceful village that they are meant to protect are strained, and the threat of the Taliban is constant and quite real.
The primary peace of land being protected is an expansive valley, over which the troops keep 24-hour watch from two guard posts. Then without warning or reason, the two guards occupying one of the posts vanish, triggering a massive search and rescue mission by the entire group, led by the baffled but level-headed Capt. Bonassieu (Jérémie Renier), who already knows that it’s only a matter of days before the valley falls out of their control as Taliban forces close in. They assume the disappearance is a kidnapping. Soon after, another man vanishes into thin air, seemingly in his sleep. Things get so desperate, the French soldiers have a cease fire with the Taliban, who, it turns out, have also lost men in the night, assuming the French took them, and a strange alliance is formed when it becomes clear that an outside force is at work.
Director Cogitore’s frequent use of the soldier’s high-tech gear, most especially night-vision goggles, adds a great deal to the film’s real-life aura, which in turn compounds the mounting creepiness of the whole affair. We assume a plausible explanation will come to light eventually, but when a young boy from the village offers up a far more ominous possibility, the soldiers sink deeper into paranoia and genuine fear, unable to allow reality and this level of the unknown to exist in the same space.
Be warned: the filmmaker doesn’t feel compelled to solve all of the mysteries that are brought up during the course of this nerve-wracking piece. In fact, that’s essentially the point of Neither Heaven Nor Earth—it’s about the fear of the unknown. In war, such fear can drive you insane, so to have to deal with something this baffling is more than some of the characters can take. The ending is far from what I was expecting, if only because it seems so practical, but far from neat and tidy. Count me as curious what this very capable filmmaker has next for us. The film opens today for a weeklong run at Facets Cinémathèque.
MY LOVE, DON’T CROSS THAT RIVER
Well, I was not expecting this one. From an isolated location somewhere in South Korea comes My Love, Don’t Cross That River, a commentary-free documentary chronicling the final months of the 76-year marriage of 98-year-old husband Jo Byeong-man and his 89-year-old wife Kang Gye-yeol. The film doesn’t attempt to explain the deeper meaning of love or romance or the components of a life, but that doesn’t mean those elements aren’t a huge part of this deeply emotional and strangely hypnotic portrait of this playfully sweet couple.
Giving us only the smallest bits of information about their decades together, and leaving the audience with so many questions that will never be answered about their life together, My Love is all the better for what is missing. We learn how they met and how they suffered great tragedy when half of their 12 children died from disease many lifetimes ago. We meet their grown children who come to visit the couple infrequently and end up squabbling about who takes better care of their parents. Again, there is clearly a long history of family bickering, but the specifics really don’t matter; the fact that these near-violent fights upset the parents a great deal is all we need to know.
Director Jin Mo-young composes each shot beautifully and with a great deal of elegance, beginning with a static shot of Kang in the middle of a barren, snow-covered field on her knees sobbing. So it’s no surprise, when the film jumps back a bit from that moment, to find out that Jo has a terrible cough, about which doctors have already told him there was nothing they could do. My Love recently became South Korea’s biggest-grossing independent film of all time, and with the culture’s reverence for older generations, it’s not surprising that a work that shows us the depths and beauty of a long-lasting love that seems to only grow stronger as death approaches gained that standing. This is a delicate, almost fragile film that is as full of joy as it is heartbreak, and it’s with a doubt unlike anything else you’ll experience this year. The film opens today for a weeklong run at the Gene Siskel Film Center.