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Review: ‘A Man Called Otto,’ Lovable Grouch

Tom Hanks stars as a grumpy old man in a remake of the Swedish original, directed by Marc Forster.

A funny thing happened on the way to committing suicide. 

The film opens in Dallas movie theaters Friday, January 6, via Sony Pictures.

Tom Hanks has a Tom Hanks problem, darn it. 

By this point in his long and distinguished career, in which he has played (almost) entirely heroic roles, it’s difficult to take him seriously as a grumpy old man. Indeed, he must do his level best not to be entirely charming; it feels disingenuous for him to play a disagreeable so-and-so who, even before he attends his retirement party, is already making arrangements for his own suicide. 

Truthfully, though, that’s one of truly tragic things about suicide: people who are clinically depressed, to the point that what they want most is to end the pain, whether it be physical or emotional in nature, do not always present as soneone you could point out in a crowd as suicidal. Often, the pain comes from deep inside, and the individual is either unwilling or, more frequently, unable to deal with the pain on their own and, especially, seek someone else’s help. 

Remaking Hannes Holm’s “shamelessly sentimental” — quoting myself — 2016 Swedish-language adaptation of Fredrik Backman’s popular novel En man som heter Ove, script writer David Magee (Finding Neverland, 2004) carries over the original’s kind-hearted character construction, moving the action to a mid-sized town in Ohio or Pennsylvania (where it was filmed) and changing the new neighbors from Middle Eastern to Mexican. The film spends less time in the past, reducing Otto’s memories to fond and/or bittersweet nostalgic highlights that inform his present, and allowing Tom Hanks to carry the primary emotional baggage to dramatize how Otto moves beyond his decision to end it all. 

Director Marc Forster keeps the shamelessly sentimental tone, however, and how could he not? Tom Hanks is a treasure, and even though the first half of the film requires a minimal investment in The Exceedingly Obvious, the latter half allows the elder Hanks to show, by the merest dampness in his eyes, a stiffening resolve in his face, or an adjustment in his body language, that he is, indeed, a very fine dramatic actor who also wrings every last laugh possible out of his familiar comic persona. 

Truman Hanks does his best to play Otto as a younger man who meets and marries Sonja, who is played by the wonderful Rachel Keller. As she has shown in her other roles, especially on the small screen in recent years (Legion, Fargo, Tokyo Vice), Keller is a vibrant performer who is capable of extreme fire and fury. Here, the role doesn’t call for that; consequently, it’s a much quieter performance that she modulates, probably to match more easily with Truman Hanks’ limited experience as an actor. It’s the relatively rare case in which an actor is called upon to play his real-life father as a younger man, and yes, the resemblance is uncanny. (His mother, Rita Wilson, also serves as one of the producers.)

Mariana Trevino has the rather thankless role of Marisol, pregnant mother of two darling girls and a mother of sorts to her own husband, Tommy (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo), who’s a bit of a lovable fool, but a loving father and a support to Marisol, to the extent that he can be. Marisol carries all the emotional burdens of her family, as well as Otto, which is a big load, but she has a big heart, so it’s all good. 

By reducing the dramatic load on Truman Hanks, the film loses out on creating an Otto who is entirely believable; lost in translation is his brilliance as an engineer and how that impacted his life and his relationship with Sonja. In its place, we have Tom Hanks, which is not a terrible thing to have, even if the film in which he stars ends up being a little bit less than it could have been, and lesser than the original adaptation.  

Review: Go ‘Greyhound’ With Tom Hanks

Tom Hanks is the only reason to see Greyhound, but that’s a very good reason, indeed

Putting aside his debut in an a supporting role in horror flick He Knows You’re Alone (1980), the actor’s timeless, instantly likeable charm served him well early in his career, first on television (Bosom Buddies) and then on the big screen (Splash, The Money Pit), before cementing his popular comic reputation in Big and The ‘Burbs

He endeavored to widen his range in dramatic misfires (Every Time We Say Goodbye, Punchline, The Bonfire of the Vanities), but it wasn’t until his anguished performance in Philadelphia, followed by Forrest Gump and, especially, Apollo 13 that he appeared to be bullet-proof. 

Though he remains primarily known as an actor, he began flexing his other creative muscles, writing and directing That Thing You Do! (1996) and becoming even more involved as a producer. Hanks misfired rather severely as a writer and director on Larry Crowne, but he has found his groove as a writer again with Greyhound, which is adapted very smartly from C.S. Forrester’s novel The Good Shepherd, first published in 1955. 

Forrester’s novel details the inner turmoil experienced by Commander Krause, finally promoted to captain and the leader of a strike force intended to protect a large convoy of supply ships crossing the Atlantic Ocean during World War II in early 1942, largely without the benefit of air cover. Krause suffers many self-doubts about his fitness and qualifications for the task at hand, but he is steadily determined to fulfill his command and keep the force as safe as possible. 

Under constant attack by a pack of German submarines, the ships race through rough seas, and Commander Krause’s continual flurry of decisions are made under extreme  duress. Having in mind that Hanks wrote the screenplay, he knew he would be required, as an actor, to spit out lengthy, detailed orders, commands, and requests ad infinitum, all while retaining a show of dignity and moral courage. No easy task, that, but Hanks lives up the challenge, crafting a script that is quickly absorbing, despite all the military jargon that is crisply barked out by the Commander and his men. 

It’s very tempting to think that Hanks functioned as a one-man show with Greyhound, since he also serves as a producer and, well, he is Tom Hanks. However … 

Director Aaron Schneider made an impressive feature debut in 2009 with the quiet and gentle Get Low, which might make him sound like an odd choice for a military action flick, awash in special effects to portray much of the military maneuvers. Yet Schneider’s hand as a director is steady; Get Low featured beautiful, well-modulated performances by veteran actors such as Robert Duvall, Bill Murray, Sissy Spacek, and Gerald McRaney. 

Thus, I think the logical conclusion is that Aaron Schneider collaborated with Tom Hanks on his performance, in which Hanks conveys, largely through his physical bearing and the movement of his eyes, the great weight that the fictional Commander Krause takes upon himself as he endeavors to deliver as many lives and supplies as possible to the promised land that was Europe during the Second World War. 

Surely, it’s a performance among the finest in his career, but the time for ranking such things is later. For now, it’s enough to watch and enjoy a fine actor in a fine role, even on a small screen. 

The film is available to watch, exclusively on AppleTV+, as of Friday, July 10, 2020. 

Review: ‘Captain Phillips,’ Tom Hanks in a Gritty, Exhausting, and Rewarding Thriller

Tom Hanks in 'Captain Phillips' (Sony)
Tom Hanks in ‘Captain Phillips’ (Sony)

A rock-solid thriller that rests comfortably on a first-rate Tom Hanks, Captain Phillips is a no-frills drama from director Paul Greengrass and writer Billy Ray.

Drawing from the book A Captain’s Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALS, and Dangerous Days at Sea by Richard Phillips and Stephen Talty, the film version is very much a traditional real-life suspense piece, revolving almost entirely around the titular character, with cutaways to other scenes only as necessary to drive forward the plot. It’s not a spoiler to say that the outcome of the tale, based on true events, is never in doubt — or else why hire the heroic All-American Tom Hanks? — but to the credit of all involved, that does not take away measurably from the mood and tension that develops in an authentic fashion.

After an entirely unnecessary and prosaic prologue, the story proper begins in April 2009 with Captain Phillips’ arrival in a friendly port city in Oman, where he boards his cargo ship and listens to his first mate describe the path they will be taking around the horn of Africa to Mombasa, Kenya. All 20 crew members — including key supporting players Michael Chernus and Chris Mulkey — know the potential dangers of such a trip; though it’s not stated explicity in the film, attacks by pirates seeking to seize ships for the purpose of demanding ransom were still on the uptick in 2009, with more than 90 incidents the previous year.

Parallel to the shipboard set-up, Muse (Barkhad Abdi), also disrespectfully called Skinny, assembles his crew of pirates on a beach in Somalia. He will captain one of two skiffs that will attempt to board their target, which is any ship that looks in the least bit vulnerable. A mothership / fishing boat will trail behind the skiffs, but it’s entirely up to the captains of the small, more nimble vessels to complete their nervy mission with a handful of men armed with machine guns. Muse takes on the excitable, easily-provoked yet strong Najee (Faysal Ahmed) and the young, inexperienced Bilal (Barkhad Abdirahman), among others.

Phillips and his crew follow the book, doing everything in their power to evade capture, but the huge, lumbering ship is limited in its defenses: the crew is not armed, and they are hundreds of miles away — and many, many hours at sea — from any friendly assistance. With the piracy reported to the U.S. authorities (the ship flies under an American flag), the men must wait and wait and wait, and try not to get killed by desperate men who are compelled to maximize the ransom they demand.

The inevitability of their path is thrown off-course when Captain Phillips agrees to a selfless concession in behalf of his men in order to guarantee their safety. That leads to an extended stand-off that exhausts everyone involved and eventually ups the ante.

From one perspective, the entire movie is about the meaning of captaincy. Captain Phillips is tough but fair, enforcing high standards of conduct on board ship. He has a wife and children, and feels responsible to guide and protect them even when he is far away from home. He follows those same principles with the men under his charge, guiding and protecting them even when is not in their presence. Muse captains his tiny crew with absolute authority; he is not without compassion or sympathy, but he is forced to rule with an iron fist (aka his machine gun). When Muse and his men capture the ship, he informs Captain Phillips that he is now the captain, and should be addressed as such; “Captain” Muse begins addressing Phillips as “Irish” to reinforce his loss of authority.

How Phillips and Muse conduct themselves and exercise their captaincy, in adverse conditions and under extreme pressure, forms the spine of the story. One can only wonder if the outcome would have been any different if the two men been switched at birth. The resolution of Captain Phillips provides the emotional climax that is needed for this gritty and grueling thriller.

The film opens wide throughout the Metroplex tonight (Thursday, October 10).

Review: ‘Cloud Atlas’ Aims to Be Profound, But Falls Gloriously Short

Doona Bae in 'Cloud Atlas' (Warner Bros.)
Doona Bae in ‘Cloud Atlas’ (Warner Bros.)
Wildly ambitious, visually sumptuous, and head-achingly confounding, Cloud Atlas is an experience that aims to be profoundly moving. The film, an adaptation of a novel by David Mitchell, paints on a huge canvas spanning six different time periods and hundreds of years, all featuring a relatively small cast, led by Tom Hanks and Halle Berry, with multiple key roles played by Doona Bae (above), Jim Sturgess, Jim Broadbent, Hugo Weaving, Hugh Grant, and Ben Whishaw.

The film begins on a ship crossing the Pacific Ocean in 1849, moves forward to England in 1936, shifts to San Francisco in 1973, jumps to London in 2012, leaps to Neo-Seoul in 2144, and ends up on a primitive planet 150 years “after the Fall.” The individual stories are linked by the actors who appear in them, each time assuming a different character with a different perspective on life; sometimes their characters are heroic, sometimes villainous; sometimes they are leading players in the story, sometimes they are bit players.

The basic idea seems to be that every living being is connected in some way, whether within the same time period or in one life after another. Using the same actors in different time periods reinforces this idea, but it edges too close to parody to be effective, especially because some of the actors are not up to the requirements of their multiple roles. Sad to say, this may be the worst performance I’ve seen by Tom Hanks; his attempts at accents are better-suited to comedy sketches on Saturday Night Live. And applying “Korean” makeup to Caucasian or African-American actors, or, conversely, applying “white-face” makeup to an Asian actor, is patently ridiculous and borderline offensive.

The project is a collaboration between Tom Tykwer and Wachowski siblings Andy and Lana, with the trio sharing credit for the screenplay. The Wachowskis directed the segments set in 1849, 2144, and “after the Fall,” while Tykwer handles the episodes in 1936, 1973, and 2012. The entire film shares a similar aesthetic, with an emphasis on the individual visual splendor of each time period, but a disregard for innovation or clarity in the action sequences that pop up.

Beyond the simple-hearted “message” that the filmmakers clearly yearn to impart, the stories themselves are far too familiar and rely too heavily upon stereotypical narrative beats to compel interest on their own merits. Once the time periods are established chronologically, the filmmakers begin jumping around between them, hoping to establish those spiritual, spatial connections that the characters occasionally mention explicitly.

It’s been suggested by other critics that multiple viewings will bring greater insight into the film as a whole. That may be, but after a single viewing, my biggest complaint wasn’t with the complexity of following a narrative fractured into six different time periods, or with performances that were often embarrassing in their nearly-amateur nature, or even with the simplicity of the film’s message. No, my biggest complaint is that the film doesn’t add up to much more than a very pretty, elaborately-constructed puzzle box — without much of a puzzle to solve.

Still, it’s a wonder to behold, and is best seen in the theatrical environment.

Cloud Atlas opens across the Metroplex on Friday, October 26. Check local listings for theaters and showtimes.

Review: Toy Story 3

Toy Story 3
Toy Story 3

Like most sequels, Toy Story 3 follows in the formulaic footsteps of its predecessors.

Unlike the blueprints for most sequels, however, Pixar’s formula is good. As a result, Toy Story 3 is a warm, very funny, character-based adventure that is filled with inventive turns. Broken down to its essence, it’s still “toys get separated, must get home,” but the film finds new ways to explore old dilemmas. Rather than simply amp up one element at the expense of another — more explosions! more villains! — everything remains well-balanced. New characters are introduced, yet they don’t steal the spotlight away from the core cast.

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