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Movie Reviews & Staff Picks

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Movie Reviews & Staff Picks


3.5 out of 4 stars

by Bayard Lewis

Emergency water landings for planes have almost always ended in tragedy.  In January 2009 Captain Chesley Sullenberger saved the lives of over 100 passengers by quickly using years flight experience to disregard the directions given by air traffic control when a bird strike disabled both engines. 

Tom Hanks takes on one of his best dramatic roles in recent years as “Sully”. Just days after the incident the captain is grilled by FAA investigators who question his decision to land in the Hudson River, rather than at two nearby airports.  Even though his instincts saved the lives of every passenger aboard, the story reveals intense dreams riddled with guilt and nightmarish scenarios. 

The level of realism during the flight sequences creates an engrossing world, where the viewers fly alongside Sully and the copilot Jeff Skiles, played by Aaron Eckhart.  They make split second decisions that buck convention, and the film insinuates that Sully may have been one of the only pilots skilled enough to achieve a water landing of this magnitude. 

Hanks and Eastwood take what could have been a lackluster ‘B movie’ in the wrong hands and instead shaped it into a compelling character piece that ranks among the better films of 2016. Moments of the story are carefully repeated, but each time we learn new insights about the characters that solidify the case for heroism. Telling the story out of sequence prevented the plot from drifting into a murky medium of melodrama. The villains of the film may have an agenda driven by insurance adjustment and they nearly manage to convince us that Sully’s intuition was dead wrong. 

Sully goes up against two FAA officials who are convinced he made the wrong decision and try to prove errant judgement with computer simulations. As the story wisely shows, what good are simulations if they don't accommodate the human factor? The writing carefully walks a tightrope between introducing too much technical jargon and not giving intelligent audiences enough information about the flight to make an informed decision about the hero’s actions. 

Director Clint Eastwood leads us toward a courtroom drama of sorts, where Sullenberger and copilot Skiles must defend their actions in front of a panel capable of ending their careers as pilots. We know their vindication is coming, but Eastwood has timed the exciting plot turns just right to avoid sending our interest into a tailspin. 


Southside with You
3 out of 4 stars
by Bayard Lewis

In the western world many relationships start with a first date. It’s usually a make or break few hours that determines whether two people find a spark of attraction. “Southside with You” takes a small but important slice of life from Barack and Michelle Obama’s first date in Chicago. It's a simple premise that could have fallen prey to overt political correctness or melodrama. 

Barack was fresh out of Harvard Law School and doing a summer internship at the same law firm where Michelle was an associate. We learn that he had previously tried to meet her outside the office a few times without success.   Even on their first outing, she keeps telling him ‘this is not a date’.

The heart of the film is that it doesn't shy away from showing personal weaknesses. Obama struggled with having a father he saw as a failure and Michelle worked for a law firm that was not involved with the type of cases she felt made a difference. They both cared about social justice and that thread brought them together. 

There is just enough humor sprinkled throughout this short story.  Barack is smoking in his car just before he picks up Michelle and sprays breath freshener inside his mouth and the front of the car.  Once in the car, she is a little disturbed by a rusty hole in the floor.   He jokes about how “hazy” his memories are of high school because of overindulgence in marijuana.

Sharing intimate details of their family life begins to the deconstruct the walls they put up to avoid revealing their frailties.  The story took awhile to romance me as a viewer, but the payoff was worth the wait. Even if you are not an Obama devotee, this movie may charm you with a look at who these two people were before entering the political sphere. It’s beautifully rendered in the warm glow of a summer afternoon.

Most of the powerful moments are in the second half, so be patient and enjoy the little nuances, especially the quiet moments when they were on the verge of disconnecting entirely.  It's a short but significant story told with tenderness, a film that finds edge in vulnerability; and the magic that occurs when two people let their guard down enough to truly see one another. 


Jason Bourne

2.5 stars of 4

by Bayard Lewis

Nine years after “The Bourne Ultimatum” Matt Damon reprises his role as Jason Bourne, a superhuman ex-CIA black ops agent. The original three films were expertly made and maintained a level of interest in the character that did not diminish over time, so this addition to the series has a high benchmark to meet. 

We learn more about Bourne’s father and the secrets behind his initial family entanglement with the CIA.  Although family ties could be a strong plot hook, the story is not as well developed or intriguing as any of the first three films. Yes, there are thrilling, intense moments where Bourne is on the run from multiple assailants and is able to outwit them with lightning fast movements. He swipes a molotov cocktail in the midst of a violent protest and uses it as a barrier between himself and the agents on his tail. Despite two or three excellent action scenes, the lead up to all the fast paced mayhem is rather dull.

Tommy Lee Jones replaces other seasoned actors (Brian Cox, Joan Allen, and David Strathairn) as the ranking CIA officer.  He will stop at nothing to assassinate Bourne and protect a new covert surveillance program to amass data on every American. Jones is lukewarm in this role, because inadequate details are revealed about his motives or justification, compared to previous villains.

Alicia Vikander (of “Ex Machina” fame) as CIA operative Heather Lee is truly the best aspect of the film. Her character maintains a cloudy agenda throughout the story, as she puts pressure on her superiors to capture, rather than kill Jason Bourne. She juggles the young, unfettered charisma of a new agent and the fortitude needed to survive an agency besieged by political upheaval.

The director of the second and third Bourne films, Paul Greengrass, wrote and directed again for this film.  Although his trademark documentary style camerawork is still present and keeps sections of the story buzzing, it only achieves momentary thrills, almost never resolving to bring us deeper into Bourne’s psyche or the shadow world of the CIA.

Bourne wages a battle that teeters between self preservation and the defense of ideals. Matt Damon does everything he can within this limited script, but sadly his character does not receive any significant development in this, hopefully final film.  Overall, it’s a more mature piece of entertainment than most of the action blockbusters, but it certainly doesn’t deliver much worthy of the Bourne namesake.


Cafe Society

2.5 of 4 stars

by Bayard Lewis

Woody Allen’s latest story, “Cafe Society,” goes back in time to the posh era of 1930s Hollywood and New York City. Bobby (Jesse Eisenberg) – a young man that Allen could have played decades ago, albeit one with less angst and social anxiety – journeys to Hollywood looking for new opportunities with hope his studio-head uncle can help him land a job.

Steve Carell plays Bobby’s uncle Phil, and the two men become unwittingly entangled in a love triangle with Phil’s secretary Vonnie (Kristen Stewart). Yet “Cafe Society” almost never presents a definite sense one of the two men is more worthy to win the girl, a significant flaw that may prevent some viewers from getting pulled into the story.

While Eisenberg is without a doubt the best member of the cast, Stewart gets an unusual opportunity with a story that takes her character through a journey of conflicted love and escapes some previous typecasting in the “Twilight” series. She’s an actress I wouldn’t really picture in an Allen film, but she exudes a charm and innocence that makes us understand why Bobby falls in love with her so quickly.

Seeing 1930s Hollywood in all its lavishness took me by surprise. The extensive costume design and locations selected fulfill Allen’s goal to take the viewer to another time and place, forgetting the woes of the modern world. The golden light and broad array of colors are captured by master cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, who fills every frame with a classical lighting style echoing the Hollywood of yesteryear. Storaro was also behind the camera for “The Last Emperor” and “Apocalypse Now.”

“Cafe Society,” a love letter to the 1930s, is beautiful on the surface, but lacks the character depth we’ve come to expect in Allen’s best films. There are no edgy characters here: they don’t have the quirks to make them interesting, deeper relationship woes or existential musings to make the viewer analyze their own life. It’s almost as if someone has taken Allen’s writing fingerprint and erased too much of what makes his work endearing and authentic.