Tag: tom hanks

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (2019)
★★★ / ★★★★

Based on the Esquire article “Can You Say… Hero?” by Tom Junod, the biographical drama “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” manages to stand out a bit from its contemporaries because it is able to capture the essence of Fred Rogers (known to many Americans as Mr. Rogers)—even though the work itself is not about him. It employs slow but purposeful pacing to fascinate, silence to give us room to consider, and irregular beats to draw us deeply into the conflict surrounding a man who cannot find it within himself to forgive his father.

Matthew Rhys plays investigative journalist Lloyd Vogel with a convincing weariness. One looks at his face even for just a few seconds and seething anger can be felt. But the anger is not menacing; rather it is the kind that eats up its host little by little, decade after decade. This anger reaches a boiling point when Lloyd’s father (Chris Cooper) is suddenly thrown back into his life. Rhys delivers a solid performance that stands strong alongside Tom Hanks’ interpretation of the legendary Mr. Rogers. When the two are engaged in a reflective exchange, for instance, they manage to hit every subtle emotion seemingly without effort. When the camera is up close and personal and emotions are exorcised, it feels like a dance.

I think it is a challenge to pull off this type of script. A jaded person crossing paths with a saintly figure and the former learning to have a more positive outlook on life by the end of the story is nothing particularly new. However, there are enough fresh ideas here to blindside the viewers from identifying the more familiar turns of the plot—like taking Mr. Rogers’ empathetic/humanistic approach of dealing with “the mad” one feels, which is targeted toward children, and applying this idea to adults. Had it been helmed by heavier hands, it could have been reduced to yet another Lifetime drama where everyone cries during the climax and all is happy by the end credits. Marielle Heller’s direction is careful and nuanced, so the journey comes across genuine.

Having seen Morgan Neville’s terrific documentary “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”, I admit I was put off by Hanks’ performance initially. The film opens with Mr. Rogers entering his home, making eye contact with the viewers, taking off the blazer, putting on the famous red cardigan… while singing the theme song. Although I did not grow up with Mr. Rogers or his television program, I felt as though Hanks is more on the side of imitation rather than simply inhabiting.

Having said that, I grew to enjoy his version of Mr. Rogers about a third of the way through—when the character is no longer shooting another episode in front of the camera. Curiously, he remains to be a saint-like figure. It is acknowledged Mr. Rogers is not perfect and does feel anger from time to time, but this is shown only once. The fact that he had challenging relationships with his sons is mentioned, but it is disappointing that it is not delved into. It would have been appropriate because the central conflict revolves around father and son. The thought of the picture being afraid of putting a stain on Rogers’ memory and legacy crossed my mind.

Despite this key shortcoming, I was emotionally engaged by the film. I wondered not necessarily whether Lloyd would choose to forgive his father but rather if he could forgive himself in allowing so many years to pass for harboring so much anger and hatred. Make no mistake that this is Lloyd’s story, not Mr. Roger’s. It does, however, make an appropriate and worthy companion piece with “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” in that both provide layers worth examining closely.

Toy Story 4

Toy Story 4 (2019)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Pixar proves yet again that they understand their audience. Sure, the computer animation is more spectacular than ever. No detail is considered as too small or insignificant even during a most exciting chase or action sequence. The score is consistently on point: carefully calibrated depending on specific emotions being conveyed at a particular moment. But when it all comes down to it, notice that the standout works from this superlative studio are those that possess the most humanity; the medium just so happens to be animation. And “Toy Story 4,” written by Stephany Folsom and Andrew Stanton, is one of Pixar’s most entertaining works, a welcome installment to an illustrious series.

The screenwriters make the intelligent choice not to tell just another adventure story that unfolds throughout a road trip. Instead, it focuses on an existential note that harkens all the way back to the original “Toy Story”: what happens when a toy is no longer needed, or wanted, by its owner? (What happens when parents recognize that their children no longer needs them?) College-bound Andy handed over Woody (voiced by the inimitable Tom Hanks) and the rest of the gang to Bonnie (Madeleine McGraw) at the end of the previous film and this next chapter proves interested in exploring—not just showing—what happens next. The masterstroke, I think, is that although the gang has found another home, not all of them feels at home. This is when the drama comes in.

Respect is given to longtime fans by not showing a strong bond between Bonnie and Woody. Although Bonnie’s name is written on the underside of Woody’s boots, we all know his heart will forever belong to Andy. This can be a complicated concept, both for young children and those who are new to the series, but I admired that the writing is sharp and patient enough to provide morsels of how important it is for every toy—not just Woody—to find a place where they feel like they are loved. And these universal examples are applied to the cowboy character’s psychology. It is clear that the writing strives to provide more than just surface entertainment. It is so refreshing given the poor caliber of animated movies aimed at children that release annually.

But what about those who are interested in surface entertainment? (There is nothing wrong with that.) Well, the movie has that covered, too. Its type of humor will appeal to the young, old, and everyone in between. The reason is because most jokes are kid-at-heart. They are creative and often delivered with such vivacity that even when an attempt at humor is not that funny, you find yourself laughing anyway. It is a movie filled to the brim with smiles.

There is not one joke involving poop, fart, or pee but there are jokes about body parts of specific toys—how they react, for example, after seeing another toy with a similar body composition having been cut in half. We get the impression that the filmmakers had put in the time to observe each character’s physicality and find ways to make us laugh out loud—or giggle at the very least. Notice that many jokes presented here cannot be used in other generic animated movies. Conversely, jokes involving bodily functions are all the same when used in said films. It goes to show that specificity goes a long way.

“Toy Story 4,” directed by Josh Cooley, provides a most joyous and emotional experience—a wonderful summer movie when children are out of school and have all the time in the world to play with their toys, to pretend like cowboys, princesses, monsters, gooey invaders from another planet. And for those of us who are grown, well, for about a hundred minutes the picture makes us feel like we are kids again. That’s indispensable.

The Post

The Post (2017)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Impeccably acted and executed with a high level of verve common to memorable historical dramas, Steven Spielberg’s “The Post,” on the surface, is about the publication of the Pentagon Papers, top-secret documents that spans three decades with regards to the United States’ role in Vietnam, the resulting quicksand war, including the government’s lies and manipulation of the American people, but look a little more carefully and realize it is an exploration of the role The Washington Post, under the leadership of publisher Kay Graham, in continuing to inform Americans of the contents within the aforementioned classified documents after The New York Times was stopped by the Nixon administration from reporting any further about the leaks.

Meryl Streep plays the publisher who, over time, becomes willing to risk her company, fortune, and reputation for the sake of truth. Graham’s evolution from a woman who holds a title but not the respect that should come with it to a strong leader who leaves the room in silence once her decision is made is consistently intriguing. The veteran director ensures that the requisite rollercoaster ride of emotions that come with such a journey are not only present but that the viewers are thoroughly engaged with every turn of events.

The power of Spielberg’s control and Streep’s range, from behind and in front of the camera, respectively, are in perfect unison during an early scene where Graham is in a meeting with bankers and members of the company’s board—all of whom are white male. Questions demand the publisher’s input at times but these are always directed to the spectacled man next to her. For emphasis, Spielberg never places the camera from Graham’s side of the long table. As the subject struggles to speak up and realizes that her presence is merely a formality, decoration, the camera patiently inches toward Streep’s face for a detailed close-up. Although Streep’s face begins to dominate the screen, she is able to make us feel how small, how humiliated, Graham must feel at that moment.

Equally intriguing, in content and tone, is how the source of the leak (Matthew Ryhs) is tracked down by Ben Bagdikian (Bob Odenkirk), one of the journalists for the Post. Despite a high-stakes situation, the screenplay by Liz Hannah and Josh Singer establishes contrast by providing just enough room for light humor. Odenkirk does plenty with the limitations of the way the character is written. (Most of the time he is talking to someone on an office telephone or a payphone.) It helps that the performer looks like a convincing experienced journalist who is desperate to get to the contractor who acquired the highly controversial documents. I wished the character had more detail to him.

The narrative drive behind “The Post” is appealing because the story is supported by a natural ebb and flow of white-knuckle suspense and light amusement, spearheaded by leads who deliver top-notch performances. And yet not once do we forget that the themes it explores are serious and timely. It is a great reminder that we, as Americans, tend to take the First Amendment for granted.

Cloud Atlas

Cloud Atlas (2012)
★★★ / ★★★★

Though just about anyone, from the most experienced critic to a casual moviegoer, can consider it a success or a failure, what cannot be denied is that “Cloud Atlas,” directed by Tom Tykwer, Andy Wachowski, Lana Wachowski, has vision and it dares to ask us what we should expect from the movies as an art form and as a source of entertainment.

The plot does not hold much significance. And it does not need to. It is understandable that we are resistant of it, either only initially or throughout, because we are used to recognizing a template and seeing it build from the ground up. This one starts in the middle while floating on air. Right away it begins grow a trunk, all the way down until it takes root, as it simultaneously builds height and eventually bears fruit. Having a story unfold this way is frustrating, certainly. During its opening scenes I was confused. I wondered with crumpled brow when or if it was going to go anywhere worthwhile. After some time I gave up. But not on the movie. I gave up trying to make sense of it through a conventional lens.

To evaluate it in terms of plot, I think, is a misstep, a limitation in part of the perceiver. In essence, the film’s message is somewhere along the lines of a person’s action (or inaction) having a rippling effect across time and space. We track these decisions across six stories, each subsequent piece at least forty to a hundred years apart. They are interwoven to make an elegiac quilt. Actors play different characters regardless of their gender and race. Some of us might be distracted by the makeup; I was not. The focus is on the big picture: humans putting stamp on our home planet and beyond.

Each segment varies in level of curiosity and emotional impact. Most beautifully executed is one that begins in 1936 Cambridge as Frobisher (Ben Whishaw) leaves his lover, Sixsmith (James D’Arcy), with hopes of being hired by a renowned musician (Jim Broadbent) as an amanuensis. Frobisher thinks that by being around a person of considerable talent, he will learn to become a great composer someday. Under the direction of Tykwer, showing the images of Frobisher writing letters to Sixsmith along a voiceover that reads its contents as the score yearns and laments, creates a period piece with magnetic pull. We do not get to know the main players inside and out, but a lot of us, I imagine, will be able to relate to former or existing feelings of being young and wanting to accomplish so much that eventually we end up sacrificing more than we should.

Also compelling, but to a lesser degree, is the the Wachowskis’ love story between a clone named Sonmi-451 (Doona Bae) and Hae-Joo (Jim Sturgess), member of a rebel group who shows her the reality of Neo Seoul 2144. What they have is forbidden. It is predictable that they are hunted by government agents and there are rapid-fire shootouts. Impressive special and visual effects are employed. But how do you know when a love story works? Here is one answer: When you know what is going to happen and yet you root for reality to turn out differently. In this case, the romance is told through flashbacks as Sonmi-451 is interviewed by an Archivist (D’Arcy) before she is put to death.

Two stories fail to take off: the 1849 voyage in the Pacific Ocean, directed by the Wachowskis, and the 1973 nuclear reactor conspiracy in San Francisco, directed by Tykwer. With the former, it is mostly composed of familiar elements of a white man (Sturgess) recognizing slavery of black people, through Autua (David Gyasi), a stowaway, for what it really is. As shown here, it is difficult buy into a character somehow overcoming racial attitudes when the story is told only superficially. With the latter, Louisa (Halle Berry), a journalist, is mostly boring. Instead of really making us understand how her deceased father is major force behind her motivations, going as far as putting her life on the line, we are simply given shots of her glancing at his picture and then looking sad.

Based on the novel by David Mitchell, “Cloud Atlas” is not short on ambition. Two of the six parts are weak compared to the others but they are not so dull that they break the film’s overall rhythm. Also, I would have liked to have the birthmark, shaped like a comet, to have been delved into. The movement across time and back is so fluid that it is almost like looking into a memory of a soul that has gone through several incarnations.

Saving Mr. Banks

Saving Mr. Banks (2013)
★★ / ★★★★

P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson), author of the book “Mary Poppins,” is advised to close a deal with Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) because she is running out of money. Though the writer realizes the difficulty of her financial situation, the story is really important to her so she cannot let go. If she does sign over her rights to Disney, it means two things: the film will be a musical and it will contain animation. She finds the idea repulsive. She believes songs and dancing penguins will take away the necessary gravity from her original work.

“Saving Mr. Banks,” written by Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith, is as light as a feather. Although Thompson and Hanks are entertaining as a pair, the picture is not an effective comedy-drama because the dramatic elements are so syrupy to the point of indigestion. The film is divided into two time points: the novelist’s visit to Los Angeles in 1961 and her childhood in 1906 when she learns her father’s addiction to alcohol (Colin Farrell). The former, the comedy, is a joy while the latter, the drama, is bereft of energy. A lopsided picture results.

Thompson finds the right tone to make an entertaining character. Though she creates a very uptight Travers, not once does she come off mean-spirited. In fact, we can understand where she is coming from because handing over what is important to us to someone else who we fear is not as passionate or invested is often difficult. Interestingly, even though she is supposed to be the main character of the movie, most of us will find ourselves on the side of Disney and his artists without realizing why. Such is the power of branding and legacy in action.

The screenplay allowing Travers to be surrounded by merry characters is a good source of comedy. Every time she criticizes a proposed direction, an accompanying reaction shot is shown at the right time. Also, it lingers just enough to showcase their frustration, shock, or embarrassment. It becomes clear quite quickly that Travers’ approach is a dictatorship rather than a partnership. And yet when the tone shifts just a little, especially during the scenes between the writer and her driver (Paul Giamatti), it feels just right. The sensitive moments are earned.

Flashbacks to Australia ’61 are a bore. The sentimentality is just too much. Put the overwhelmed mother (Ruth Wilson—miscast and the character underwritten), alcoholic father, and a daughter’s innocence (Annie Rose Buckley) being crushed into the mix, there is a lack of uplift within the time period to balance the sad moments. At one point, a character chooses to commit suicide. I was shocked—not in a good way. What if children who love Robert Stevenson’s “Mary Poppins” end up seeing this? How is that appropriate? In my opinion, if a serious subject like suicide is brought up, it should at least be acknowledged or explained later.

Another problem, though somewhat of a lesser degree, is that I never felt as though Disney ever liked his punctilious collaborator. His gestures to convince Travers to sign the paperwork feel hollow. I suppose deals are made in real life without people having to like each other or to meet in person, but it feels a bit off here. One gets the impression that a more realistic layer is tacked on late into script development.

Captain Phillips

Captain Phillips (2013)
★★ / ★★★★

Captain Richard Phillips (Tom Hanks) is in command of a cargo ship en route to Mombasa, Kenya. Aware of the pirates patrolling the Gulf of Aden, he insists on being vigilant of the potential dangers of the voyage. Soon enough, two boats with armed men are in pursuit of Maersk Alabama. The leader, Muse (Barkhad Abdi), is extremely determined to get aboard the ship, take hostages, and receive millions of dollars in exchange. Although the massive ship is running full speed, the boats inch closer by the second.

Half of “Captain Phillips,” directed by Paul Greengrass, is a good movie—heavily entertaining and with a solid handle on the human drama between Somali pirates and Americans who just happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. The first half is strong; the second half is fatigued. Meanwhile, Greengrass employs his usual tricks which work only some of the time.

With the exception of the first scene between Phillips and his wife (Catherine Keener), which is at best an awkward miscalculation, the first forty to fifty minutes builds tension so elegantly and so convincingly, I discovered my hands clamming up in anticipation. You know you are watching something genuinely suspenseful and thrilling when the trailer reveals certain information but that knowledge goes out the window and you feel you are caught in the middle of the conflict being portrayed on screen. In other words, the pirates will get on the ship but you root for them to fail anyway.

The two boats chasing the cargo ship is Greengrass at his best. The editing is quick and sharp but never incomprehensible. He is in complete control of the camera as emphasis is placed on the urgency of what ought to be done in order to accomplish a goal. From the Americans’ perspective: communicating with proper authorities to seek aid, gaining a whole lot of speed, getting defenses set up, and a possible Plan B. From Somali pirates’ side: maintaining speed but not to the point where their boats can be overturned by the waves.

In addition, the camera captures the many expressions of Captain Phillips, from determination, anticipation, increasing fear, and surrender. Though we get only glimpses of Hanks during the high-speed pursuit, there is enough detail in his voice, body movement, and facial expressions to communicate to us what his character might be feeling or thinking during a particular snapshot. He is an extremely efficient performer and it is a complete joy to watch him near the top of his game.

But the second half left me unimpressed. Most of it takes place in a small space which gives us a whole lot of time waiting for something significant to occur. In addition to utilizing a much slower pace, the general approach involves repetition: a cycle of physical and verbal violence then a period of waiting. Captain Phillips’ struggle verges on boredom.

Instead of being inspired to lean closer, I found the close-ups and shaking of the camera repulsive. It is as if the director wants so badly for us to be in the moment that he neglects to just leave the camera be and trust that we are already emotionally involved in the conflict. As a result, instead of being in the moment as I was during the first half, I found myself noticing the craftsmanship and, more importantly, a lack of control with regards to the elements that should, in a theory, make the drama work.

“Captain Phillips,” based on the screenplay by Billy Ray and Richard Phillips’ book, is elevated by an ace performer, but the director needs to learn new tricks or at least be willing to go back to basics in order to tell parts of his story more effectively.

Larry Crowne

Larry Crowne (2011)
★★ / ★★★★

Larry Crowne (Tom Hanks), a former chef in the Navy, has been an associate at UMart for several years. He shares a camaraderie with his co-workers, is friendly to customers, and great at his job. When he is called in by his superiors, he suspects he is to be named Employee of the Month. In actuality, his bosses inform him that he has been let go, citing the bad economy as a reason. Also, they tell Larry that even though he is good at what he does, there is no chance of him ever climbing the corporate ladder because he did not go to college. His solution: to go back to school and get a degree.

Written by Tom Hanks and Nia Vardalos, “Larry Crowne” takes serious issues involving job instability and unemployment and colors them with a lighter shade, often to an amusing effect. Some might say that this is an inappropriate avenue given that there is nothing funny about a person losing his or her job. While getting fired or let go along with the feelings it unearths is a serious matter–more than a handful have become so desperate that they committed suicide–the filmmakers intended to make a comedy. Therefore, it must be evaluated with respect to the genre and not what we believe is or is not respectful.

When Larry decides to go back to school, the picture carries a certain excitement. From the people he meets, like cute-as-a-button Talia (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) and her passion for vintage clothes, to the classes he signs up for, like Speech 217, The Art of Informal Remarks, led by Marcedes Tainot (Julia Roberts), and Economics 1, led by Dr. Ed Matsutani (George Takei), there is grace in the way subplots pile on top of one another. I enjoyed tug-o’-war between the youthfulness of the situation and Larry, no longer a young pup, trying to keep up with the groove. It is not always easy.

Serious situations are not simply swept under the rug. The scenes of Larry having to make difficult decisions since he can no longer afford the mortgage for his house ring some truths. His interactions with his neighbors (Cedric the Entertainer, Taraji P. Henson), holding a year-round garage sale, offers some humor but it has enough small, personal moments that serve as a reminder that they, too, have had their share of pecuniary instability. In a way, Larry sees the happy couple as possible life he can have if he can manage to get his life back on track somehow.

It is not just Larry who has to struggle. Mercedes is extremely frustrated with her husband (Bryan Cranston), a writer who claims he gets work done at home when, in reality, he spends a lot of his time looking at pornography. On top of her problems at home, she no longer feels passionate about teaching. So, she turns to alcohol to drown the thoughts and feelings that she does not want to deal with. I enjoyed that this message is communicated clearly: hangovers disappear but problems do not.

My problem with the movie is neither its intentions nor its small scope. It is in the many conveniences of the script that do not feel completely believable. While Larry and Mercedes are supposed to be yin and yang, their scenes wonderful to watch when life’s silly coincidences converge with their effusive charms, some strands left me wanting more.

For instance, Larry eventually joins a bike gang after being invited by Talia. There is chemistry between the two even though they are about thirty years apart in age. I felt that the material shies away from their electricity, relying on the bike gang distraction as a sort of quirk, an excuse for them to not deal with their feelings. Talia is an adult, smart and plucky, and there should have been no shame in a possible romance between them. Instead, the script conveniently paints her as “the nice girl,” a plot device designed to build a romantic bridge between Larry and Mercedes.

“Larry Crowne,” directed by Tom Hanks, is about people trying to make it through one day at a time but it needs more highs that feel more complete–highs that are not restricted to Mercedes binge drinking after a long day of work.

Cast Away

Cast Away (2000)
★★★ / ★★★★

Chuck Noland (Tom Hanks) was very dedicated to his job. As a FedEx engineer, time was very important to him. In fact, we met him while delivering a speech to his workers in Russia. Everything had to be carefully planned because he was on high demand. Even his pager was busy during Christmas, a short amount of time that was supposed to be reserved for his girlfriend, Kelly Frears (Helen Hunt), and her family. But when Chuck’s plane plunged into the ocean, he not only learned what it meant to survive sans technology in an undiscovered island, but how it was like to be enslaved by time, the uncontrollable element that he thought he had control over. “Cast Away,” directed by Robert Zemeckis, was a meditative film because the majority of its running time was dedicated to Chuck attempting to adapt to his new environment. His situation was scary, but there was something amusing with the way he sloppily tried to catch fish, broke coconuts by bashing them against a rock, and foolishly made his way toward a light source with nothing but a paddle and a yellow floatie. Admittedly, by watching him struggle, I had a laugh to myself because I knew I probably wouldn’t survive in an uninhabited island even for a week, let alone four years. What made the film’s core fascinating was Hanks’ layered performance. My favorite scene wasn’t Chuck having conversations with Wilson, his volleyball companion, or the moment he successfully made fire. It was when he learned how to obtain water using a leaf. During that shot, the camera was focused on the plant. But Hanks’ expression was priceless. There was utter joy drawn all over his face, not just in his smile, but down to the wrinkles on his forehead and the excitement contained in his body language. It was like watching a child figuring out how a specific tool worked for the first time. The decision to jump four years into the future was risky but necessary. It was necessary because the subsequent scenes provided a stark contrast between how he was like a few days upon his arrival on the island and how he became an effective hunter, someone who used his hands, not solely his commanding voice and busy pager, to survive. It was risky because Hanks had to look different. I loved that the filmmakers didn’t rely on just Hanks’ hair to convince us that there was a significant passing of time. In the beginning, Chuck looked a bit pudgy. His obvious weight loss after the “Four Years Later” message was surprising. Written by William Broyles Jr., “Cast Away” was not just a story of a man who was stuck in an island. It was moving because of the lessons he learned involving how to live a more meaningful life. Jobs, even careers, come and go. Being laid off or getting fired, we learn to get over such things. But the feeling of losing the people we love is an entirely different matter. The pain, though we learn of ways to hide them, is deeper and permanent.

That Thing You Do!

That Thing You Do! (1996)
★★★ / ★★★★

Guy (Tom Everett Scott) spent his days helping out his family to keep their appliance store business afloat. After he’d close up, he’d go down to the basement and play the drums before heading home. One day, his friends came up to him with a last-minute offer to play with their band at a local talent show because the drummer (Giovanni Ribisi) broke his arm. If they won, they’d evenly split a hundred dollars, a good amount of money in 1964 Erie, Pennsylvania. Their band, The Oneders, pronounced “The Wonders” but often mispronounced as “The O-need-ers,” won the competition and their song, “That Thing You Do!” was an instant hit. People in the music industry took notice, from the likes of a local-based manager, Horace (Chris Ellis), to the big deal Mr. White (Tom Hanks). Written and directed by Tom Hanks, “That Thing You Do!” was like a really catchy and inescapable pop song. Despite its occasional lack of logic and cohesion, I couldn’t help but welcome whatever it had to offer and see if it could surprise me in some way. Once in a while it did. One of the most exciting scenes was when the band, along with the lead singer’s girlfriend, luminescent Faye (Liv Tyler), heard their song on the radio for the very first time. They ran all over the street and into the appliance store, their energy so infectious, I wanted to join and celebrate with them. That scene drew a really big smile on my face. I could just imagine how much fun the actors had while shooting that sequence. Furthermore, I liked that we got a chance to feel each of the band member’s personality. Guy was the smart one with the puppy dog eyes, Jimmy (Johnathan Schaech) was the serious-minded lead singer, lead guitarist Lenny (Steve Zahn) had the great one-liners that bordered silliness and foolishness, and the unnamed bass player (Ethan Embry) was the reticent thinker. I found their lack of depth, at least initially, appropriate because that’s how I come to recognize the members of the bands I enjoy listening to. I may not know their names at first but I’m instantly familiar with their quirks to the point where I could look at the attitude–or lack thereof–in their shadows and match it with a face. It’s about presence and I was convinced that the picture understood that idea. However, some of the strands of the film left a lot to be desired. I didn’t see how Guy’s girlfriend, Tina (Charlize Theron), was at all necessary. Yes, she had a fling with her hunky dentist, but she was gone from the movie for such large chunks of time, I just stopped caring. I suspected the movie had forgotten about her because it didn’t offer closure between she and Guy. Another romantic angle that didn’t quite work was between Guy and Faye. I wanted to see them get together because the actors were attractive, but I’m afraid there wasn’t much meat in their potentially awkward relationship. Why didn’t they have funnier scenes? The little flirtations they shared were nice and sweet but they failed to match, or offer a different, the level of energy relative to the performances or when the band would just hang out backstage. Whenever the camera turned to romance, the quieter moments, the thinness of the plot and characterization were blinding. It made me consider that, without The Oneders’ zestful performances, it might have been a torturous experience. However, I had fun watching “That Thing You Do!” because it showcased the kind of pop music and time period that I’m a sucker for. It must’ve asked myself ten times why I didn’t grow up in the 60s.

Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close

Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close (2011)
★★ / ★★★★

Thomas (Tom Hanks) and Oskar (Thomas Horn) of Schell & Son Jewelers had always been close. Both were intellectually curious about their surroundings and they nurtured this passion by throwing a Reconnaissance Expedition, a game where Oskar’s father would leave clues all over New York City and Oskar would follow them until he reached the final nugget of knowledge in his journey. When Thomas died in the September 11 attacks, Oskar found himself on a permanent state of grief. A year later, while reaching for his father’s camera, he accidentally broke a blue vase which contained an envelope with the name Black written on it. Inside the envelope was a key and Oskar made a personal promise that he would find whatever the key opened. Based on the novel by Jonathan Safran Foer, “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close” tried so hard to be moving, I found myself focusing on its techniques in order to amplify the drama, like the perfectly timed melancholy score and facial close-ups right when someone was about to be reduced to tears, instead of being really immersed in the story. I was interested in what was going on, especially during the parts where Oskar met with various New Yorkers whose last names ended with Black. Unfortunately, such scenes that promised multiculturalism and possible unique perspectives in terms of interpreting and dealing with life and death weren’t given enough screen time to reach emotional honesty. Instead, the picture relied on shallow quirks through images. While I remembered Abby Black (Viola Davis) and her husband (Jeffrey Wright) because of the high-profile actors who played them, I couldn’t remember much about the woman with the five noisy kids, the man who gave hugs every other second, or the elderly people who lived by themselves or in care homes. I began to wonder whether I would’ve remembered Abby and her husband if they were played by actors who were not as recognizable. The filmmakers quickly flew over the potentially interesting supporting characters yet they were brazen enough to summon flashbacks later on to get an emotional response from the audience. On that level, I did find it somewhat emotionally manipulative which I wouldn’t have felt otherwise if we were allowed to spend more time with them and get to know their stories. After all, one of the lessons that the film attempted to impart was the universality of grief and although we may deal with the emotion differently, we could all relate to one another because we’ve all lost someone. Instead, the majority of the running time was dedicated to cementing Oskar’s inability to relate to others like spending copious amount of time in his room and specifying his fears. He mentioned that he was tested for Aspergers syndrome, a form of autism, but the tests weren’t definitive. It explained why only a very select few, one of them his father, truly understood him. Those he didn’t feel close to, like his mother (Sandra Bullock), were pushed to the side. Although some of the images summoned when Oskar felt trapped were quite impressive, the pacing slowed down considerably due to repetitiveness. It tested my patience; it was and it felt like over two hours long. Based on the screenplay by Eric Roth and directed by Stephen Daldry, “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close” was a lesson in the importance of prioritizing. While I understood Oskar’s detachment and why he might come across as irksome because of his autism, it couldn’t be denied that Horn’s acting at times was a bit green. It was another reason why the filmmakers should have dedicated more time on Oskar’s encounters with the people he hoped to hold an answer.

Apollo 13

Apollo 13 (1995)
★★★ / ★★★★

Jim Lovell (Tom Hanks), Fred Haise (Bill Paxton), and Ken Mattingly (Gary Sinise) were supposed to make a trip to the moon. But when Mattingly’s blood work came back, it turned out that his blood had signs of the measles. Mattingly was replaced by Jack Swigert (Kevin Bacon) despite Lovell’s insistence to NASA executives that his team, who trained in the simulator together, should not be broken up. But that was the least of their problems. Prior to landing on the moon, due to bad wiring, an explosion affected the crew’s oxygen storage and other critical elements required for their survival. Without much power to spare, would the trio be able to make it back on Earth safely? Based on a true story and directed by Ron Howard, “Apollo 13” was an exciting adventure about success stemming from failure. From the moment Lovell, Haise and Swigert left Earth, I couldn’t look away from the screen. I enjoyed the fact that it may have been a film set in outer space but it was no science fiction. Howard was careful in showing us just enough special and visual effects to suspend us in awe. It was magical and I couldn’t help but wonder how amazing it would be if one day, all of us could easily take a trip to the moon. I do have to say that there were scenes that I wish could have ran longer. For instance, when Lovell’s wife (Kathleen Quinlan) confessed to her husband that she didn’t want to see his launch because it wasn’t his first time going into space anyway, the director cut the scene right before it captured her husband’s reaction. There was a split second when Hanks had tears in his eyes but he held himself back from saying something that could potentially cause anger between them. If the scene had an extra ten to fifteen seconds to assess the situation, it would have made a grand statement about the relationship between the astronaut and his wife. A similar awkward cut was made when the Lovell’s wife had to explain to her young son that his father had been in an accident in space. Howard should have spent more time with the child’s reaction. In doing so, the film would have had the opportunity to communicate with the child within each of us. Instead, much of the reactions were focused on the adults. I wouldn’t have minded as much if most of their reactions weren’t such hyperboles. As the astronauts became increasingly desperate, there was an increasing number of one- or two-second shots of the wives looking miserable. They distracted us from the astronauts’ plight. It didn’t need to try so hard to tell us that the situation was dire when we could see it for ourselves. Nevertheless, “Apollo 13” had a smörgåsbord of thrills and drama. When we catch ourselves holding our breath, that’s an indication the movie is doing something right.

The Polar Express

The Polar Express (2004)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Billy (Hayden McFarland) was convinced that the whole concept of Santa Claus was just a myth. In order to have proof whether or not Santa existed, he tried to stay up until Christmas Eve to see who would put presents under the Christmas tree. When a mysterious train full of kids arrived and the conductor (Tom Hanks) told Billy they were heading to the North Pole to see Santa Claus and his elves, Billy chose to get on board. Based on the children’s book of the same name by Chris Van Allsburg, I consider Robert Zemeckis’ “The Polar Express” to be a modern classic. I remember watching the film for the first time when it came out and I was surprised to have been deeply moved by Billy’s journey toward his own version of truth. Yes, we all know that the portly man in red who rides reindeers doesn’t exist, but it was easy to connect with the movie because I onced believed in Santa Claus and remembered the magic and joy I felt after willing myself to wake up past midnight and found presents under the Christmas tree. Furthermore, the picture’s animation was a breakthough despite criticisms of the unmoving characters’ facial expressions above the eyes (when we express emotions, we wrinkle our foreheads, move our eyebrows, et cetera). Some critics cited that the characters looked creepy because of the hybrid between real actors and animation. However, every time I watch this movie, I fail to notice such flaws. I was preoccupied with the characters’ intense experiences with the train’s technical difficulties. The train going off-track because the railroad had frozen over was incredibly suspenseful and the very elusive golden ticket would make everyone’s eyes dance across the screen. Nitpicking flaws in the animaton was farthest from my mind. The best scene in the film was its climax. Before Santa Claus appeared, the other kids from the train (Nona Gaye, Peter Scolari, Eddie Deezen) enthusiastically talked about the bells they heard and the beautiful sounds they made. But Billy couldn’t hear the bells because he didn’t believe. And since we saw the movie from Billy’s perspective, we, too, couldn’t hear the bells (perhaps because we no longer believe). That scene was a defining moment which made me think of powerful metaphors from other classic films like the dying plant in Steven Spielberg’s “E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial” and the black monolith in Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey.” “The Polar Express” is a triumph because it went beyond being a typical Christmas movie with a happy but ultimately empty ending. It took risks by forming a synergy between visuals and story while adding just the right amount of danger, humor, sadness, and wonder in the protagonist’s journey toward self-discovery.

Toy Story 2

Toy Story 2 (1999)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Andy (voice of John Morris) was about to leave for cowboy summer camp with plans of taking Woody (Tom Hanks) with him, but after Woody’s arm had a small rip, Andy decided not to take his favorite toy and was shelved–a place where unwanted toys were placed. After Woody rescued a fellow unwanted toy from a garage sale, Woody himself ended up on the sale where a toy collector (Wayne Knight) spotted Woody and realized how valuable he was. Despite Andy’s mom making it clear to the toy collector that Woody was not for sale, the toy collector stole Woody and sold him to someone residing in Japan. We then get to learn who Woody really was such as his relationship with the cowgirl Jessie (Joan Cusack), Bullseye, and Stinky Pete (Kelsey Grammer). “Toy Story 2,” directed by John Lasseter, promised to be bigger than the original with its epic opening sequence in outer space in which Buzz finally faced the evil Zorg. And, in some ways, “Toy Story 2” is arguably bigger and better than the original. I thought the jokes were far more creative and funnier (the happy meal joke was spot-on and I never saw it coming), the supporting characters had more defined roles and it served as a complement to the first installment in which Woody was the one needing to be rescued this time around. Furthermore, it felt that much more personal. We learned more about Woody and the picture began to ask deeper questions about his relationship with Andy; it even hinted at several moving elements that were tackled head-on in “Toy Story 3” such as Andy moving on without his toys and the toys having to accept that reality and they, too, had to move on from Andy being their owner. In a nutshell, “Toy Story 2” had more mature content than its predecessor but the energy was as childlike–one of the main reasons why we fell in love with the franchise in the first place. I was very moved by the scene that showed us Jessie’s relationship with her former owner–how the owner grew up over the years but Jessie remained the same. It made her sad and angry and we came understand why she was so bitter about Woody desperately wanting to return to Andy. As emotional as those scenes were, Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen), Mr. Potato Head (Don Rickles), Slinky Dog (Jim Varney), Rex (Wallace Shawn), and Hamm’s (John Ratzenberger) big adventures in the streets and a toy store provided an excellent balance of laugh-out-loud humor and imagination. “Toy Story 2” was a transitory phase which delivered the fun and heart we expected but multiplied by ten.

Toy Story

Toy Story (1995)
★★★★ / ★★★★

A cowboy toy named Woody (voiced by Tom Hanks) felt like he was going to be replaced as Andy’s favorite toy when Andy (John Morris) received a spaceman toy named Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen) for his birthday. Out of jealousy, Woody tried to get rid of Buzz and the two, after a series of adventures, ended up right next door–where another boy named Sid (Erik von Detten) lived and had a penchant for ordering explosives and blowing up his toys to smithereens. Buzz and Woody then had to work together in order to escape and return to Andy’s care before his family finished packing to move to another house. It is no stranger that Pixar’s first animated film was an international success because it was able to deliver state-of-the-art animation without sacrificing Indiana Jones-like adventure and witty sense of humor. It also had a real sense of danger denoted in scenes where Woody and Buzz had to face the neighbor’s toys after Sid performed cruel surgeries on them. At the same time, there were lessons in scary and dangerous scenes, especially for kids, such as not judging something solely based on its appearance and how creativity and imagination can triumph over the most seemingly insurmountable challenges. There were even lessons about empathy and taking care of the things we own. The picture really was multidimensional in terms of story and the meanings we could extract from the visuals and the script. Even though the characters’ faces looked more wooden and had sharper angles compared to its sequels, “Toy Story,” directed by John Lasseter, is something special because each character had a memorable characteristic and was able to contribute something crucial to the project. Some stand-out scenes include Woody and Buzz meeting green aliens who believed that if they were chosen by The Claw, they would go to a better place, when post-surgery toys acted like zombies in order to teach Sid a lesson, and when Woody and Buzz had to chase Andy’s car in which failure meant losing their friend forever. Based on the screenplay by Joss Whedon, Andrew Stanton, Joel Cohen and Alec Sokolow, “Toy Story” proved that animation was not just for children as long as the story had an element of uniqueness that the audiences could invest in. And just like classic films, animated movies could also be timeless not just in terms of visuals but the universal emotions we couldn’t help but feel every time we would watch them.