‘The Polar Express’ Deserves More Respect Than Most Christmas Movies Get

The Polar Express movie poster

The Polar Express” was directed by Steven Spielberg’s protégée Robert Zemeckis, and it is based on a book by Chris Van Allsburg which Tom Hanks was a big fan of when he was kid. It involves a boy who is selected along with many other kids to take a train ride to the North Pole and visit Santa Claus and see his intricate operation of present giving. This voyage will have this boy meeting other kids on their way as well as many other characters, most of who are played by Hanks.

That’s right, Hanks plays six different parts in “The Polar Express,” and it has me wondering if this was done to save money on what must have been a very expensive production. Among the parts he plays includes a hobo who may not actually be real, Scrooge, and Santa Claus himself. But the most prominent role he plays in this movie is the Conductor of the Polar Express itself. He’s a man who is constantly running the train on what he says is a “tight schedule,” and he cannot help but be occasionally convinced one of these kids is determined to keep the train from reaching its final destination. He also has this wonderful talent for punching out your tickets to form certain words in them. I mean really! He does it so fast! How does he do it?

The big thing about “The Polar Express” is it is an animated movie by the way of motion capture. This has become a popular way of making movies in an animated fashion as actors where these suits and have these tiny white balls glued to their face and bodies. With the help of computers, which at this point we cannot live without, they can be captured on film and manipulated to look like they are in a place too expensive to build as a set. It is remarkable stuff however, and it could serve as further proof of how actors will never be replaced by technology because we need them to make the technology work effectively. I cannot begin to tell you how relieved this makes me feel.

I was surprised at how much I liked “The Polar Express.” It’s not a perfect movie, but it does have a heart and emotions which are far more genuine than other Christmas movies. It is also exciting as we see the train and its main characters struggle to stay on board as it goes through many treacherous parts in a journey to one of the coldest places on the planet. Seeing it in 3D is a major plus as well because the effects seem so real to where the kids in the audience were literally trying to grasp at the snowflakes falling from the screen. Heck, I even found myself doing this a couple of times.

This is the one thing I want to mention; the audience was full of kids there with their families, and this initially was a problem for me. I saw “Cars” at the El Capitan in Los Angeles when it was released, and it was full of parents completely incapable of keeping their kids quiet throughout the entire movie. Here I am trying to watch one of the weaker movies from the Pixar catalogue, and there’s a little boy right in front of me who cannot get himself to sit down and kept asking his mother for more candy. If you can’t shut your kids up, don’t take them to the movies! Stay at home and watch “Finding Nemo” on DVD. My niece has already seen it hundreds of times to where her parents can recite every line (not that they want to).

But at the same time, seeing these kids get totally sucked into the magic of the movie with the 3D technology was really special. Hearing them talk back to the screen, especially my niece, brought a smile to my face as they got completely caught up in the journey “The Polar Express” took them on. This is the kind of movie you want your kids to see. When it first came out, many found the technology disturbing and scary, but that’s really ridiculous. While it doesn’t look like typical animated movies they loved from their past, it does aim to continue to preserve the innocence none of us are quick to lose.

If there is anything which takes away from the experience of watching “The Polar Express,” it’s the lame ass Glen Ballard song some of the characters sing in one scene which you hear again during the end credits. I am sick and tired of crappy love songs sung and written by white guys. They reek of lameness, and this movie is not even a musical!

Don’t worry about parents telling you about how creepy it is. This one is fine for the whole family. Those who disagree have long since lost the mindset of a child, and that’s just tragic.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

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Soundtrack Review: ‘The Man with One Red Shoe’

The Man With One Red Shoe soundtrack cover

Anyone remember the action comedy “The Man with One Red Shoe” from 1985? It starred Tom Hanks as Richard Drew, a concert violinist who is picked out at random from a crowd to become the target of CIA surveillance. It also features one of my all-time favorite film scores by Thomas Newman, a composer who has given us many unforgettable scores like “Scent of a Woman,” “The Shawshank Redemption” and “Skyfall.” But like many film scores I loved from the 1980’s, this one never got a commercial release, and I was relegated to recording sections of the music from a VHS tape onto an audio cassette. While the dialogue threatened to get in the way, I was determined to enjoy this music any way I could get a hold of it.

But now, 33 years later, La La Land Records has now made Newman’s score to “The Man with One Red Shoe” available as a limited-edition CD. I have been waiting for this soundtrack with extreme patience, and it proved to be well worth the wait as this classic 1980’s score has never sounded better. Seeing the iconic image of the red shoe with a lit fuse on the cover made me want to buy this soundtrack yesterday. The back-cover features Hanks being hugged by the gorgeous Lori Singer while on a bicycle, and it makes me just as envious of him as when this movie first came out. And when you take the disc out, you will see a picture of the late Carrie Fisher who co-starred as Paula. Carrie, you are still missed.

Ever since I first watched the trailer for “The Man with One Red Shoe” on television, I quickly fell in love with its main title. It’s a classic 1980’s theme, and it sounded ever so cool. Listening to this theme, it made me want to walk around town like I was a spy. Granted, I was ten years old when this movie was released, so my imagination was unfettered by the harsh reality of the real world.

While I have long been led to believe Newman’s score was completely electronic, there’s actually a good deal of instrumentation involved in it as well. You can hear this in a number of the tracks throughout. Listening to this soundtrack reminded me of just how much I dug what Newman came up with, and in retrospect it proved to the world what a unique film composer he could be.

La La Land Records has included liner notes written by Jeff Bond entitled “How Thomas Newman Got His Groove On.” A portion of the notes deal with this movie’s making and of how it was released in a time when Hanks was best known as the star of the sitcom “Bosom Buddies,” long before he became the prestigious Oscar winning actor we all know him to be these days. In regards to Newman’s score, Bond described it best in this paragraph:

“Sonically, ‘The Man with One Red Shoe’ not only evokes the jazz fusion/pop electronica vibe of 1980’s popular music, but also presents the distinctive musical voice of composer Thomas Newman at a pivotal point in his development as an up-and-coming talent.”

The liner notes do not go into how the movie was ill-received upon its release with both critics and audiences, or that Hanks himself admitted this is not one of his films he would be quick to put into a time capsule. Nevertheless, I cannot recommend this limited-edition release of “The Man with One Red Shoe” soundtrack highly enough. As far as I am concerned, it was well worth the wait, and having it in my soundtrack collection makes it feel more complete than it already is.

Now, if someone could put out limited edition of Newman’s “Gung Ho” score, all will be right in the world.

Click here to find out how you can order a copy of “The Man with One Red Shoe Soundtrack.”

 

 

The Best Movies of 1998

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Now it’s time to go to take a look back at the movies of 1998, the same year when California started the ban on smoking in bars and restaurants. What else happened that year? John Glenn became the oldest astronaut to go into space, and it gave us a reason to watch the space shuttle launch on television for the first time in years. The Denver Broncos became the first AFC team in 14 years to win the Super Bowl when they beat the Green Bay Packers (I’m so glad I didn’t bet on that game). The whole controversy of President Bill Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky exploded, which the President’s enemies seized upon like teenagers going through their dads’ Playboy magazine issues while he is out of town. And, most ironically, a court in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan ruled Osama Bin Laden was “a man without a sin” in regard to the 1998 U.S. embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania. Well, we knew better.

As for myself, I was in my second year at UC Irvine and my fourth year in college. I still had a dorm room all to myself, and I was busy with school work and appearing in plays like “Enrico IV,” “The Scarlet Letter” and “Twelfth Night.” Of course, I tried to get out to the movies as much as humanly possible. Many of the movies on this list were ones I actually didn’t get around to seeing until years later, so it’s probably best I am giving you this list now.

10) There’s Something About Mary

Theres Something About Mary poster

Bobby and Peter Farrelly gave us one of the most gut bustlingly hilarious movies ever made with “There’s Something About Mary.” I was dying with laughter while watching this, and I wasn’t expecting to. In retrospect, I should have though since this came from the same directors who gave us “Dumb and Dumber” as well as “Kingpin.” On top of having so many funny moments, the movie also has a lot of heart in the way it portrays the two main characters played by Ben Stiller and Cameron Diaz. Those of you who think Diaz can’t act need to revisit this one because she is so good at playing a teenager who we later see as a well-meaning adult with a few too many stalkers.

9) American History X

American History X poster

So much has been said about the making of “American History X” and the bitter disagreements between director Danny Kaye and actor Edward Norton. Regardless of whoever deserves the majority of the credit, there is no denying this is a powerful and unforgettable motion picture. Norton gave one of his very best performances as white supremacist Derek Vineyard, and the look he gives the camera after killing two people is a very chilling moment which is not easily erased from the conscious mind. Norton also gets great support from Edward Furlong who plays Danny, Derek’s brother, who threatens to tread down the same hateful path Derek has. Kaye, even if he didn’t get final cut, gives the movie an amazing look in black and white which captures the escalating tension of Derek’s journey from a world of hate to a place of compassion.

8) Dark City

Dark City movie poster

Alex Proyas followed up his brilliant adaptation of “The Crow” with this visionary sci-fi epic about a man who wakes up not knowing who he is, and of those who seek to capture him for their own twisted experiments. Like many great sci-fi movies “Dark City” was a box office flop upon its release, but it has since found an audience to where there’s no denying it is a cult classic. You’re along for the ride with Rufus Sewell as he tries to understand his place in a world ruled over by the Strangers. This movie remains suspenseful to the very end, and the look of the movie feels like no other I have ever seen. Jennifer Connelly also stars in the film and looks beautiful as always, and it is interesting to watch Kiefer Sutherland play a complete wimp after watching him for so long on “24.”

7) Out Of Sight

Out of Sight movie poster

Here’s the film which brought Steven Soderbergh and George Clooney together, and it also serves as one of the very best adaptations of an Elmore Leonard novel. With “Out of Sight,” Clooney proved without a doubt there was going to be life for him after “ER” with his performance as Jack Foley, the most successful bank robber in America. When Jack escapes from jail, he ends up sharing some trunk space with Federal Marshall Karen Sisco (Jennifer Lopez). “Out of Sight” also marked the beginning of a career resurgence for Soderbergh, and he got to work from a truly great screenplay written by Scott Frank. Also starring is the fantastic Catherine Keener, Ving Rhames, Steve Zahn, Dennis Farina, Isaiah Washington, and the always reliable Don Cheadle. This movie was a lot of fun, and Clooney and Lopez had such great chemistry together.

6) Rushmore

Rushmore movie poster

This was my introduction to the highly creative world of Wes Anderson. “Rushmore” is an instant comedy classic with more depth to it than many others of its genre at the time. Max Fischer is an original eccentric character; a young man involved in just about ever extra-curricular activity at school, all at the expense of his report card. Jason Schwartzman is great fun to watch as Max, and Bill Murray gives a performance which damn well should have earned him an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor. With Anderson, his comedy is fueled by the sadness and isolation of his characters, and of the things they desperately want in life. “Rushmore” is filled with as much meaning as it does laughter as both Schwartzman and Murray battle over the same woman played by Olivia Williams. It also owes a lot to the late Mike Nichols’ enduring classic “The Graduate.”

5) Happiness

Happiness movie poster

Todd Solondz’s follow up to “Welcome To The Dollhouse” may very well be the most ironically titled film in cinema history. Controversy followed “Happiness” all the way to its release, and the MPAA of course just had to give it an NC-17 (it ended up being released unrated). One of the blackest of black comedies ever, it follows the lives of three sisters and the various people who are a part of their fragile lives. The late Philip Seymour Hoffman gives a frighteningly memorable performance as an obscene phone caller, and it was one of the first real examples of the brilliant character actor we came to see him as. But the bravest performance comes from Dylan Baker who plays Bill Maplewood, a psychiatrist, husband and loving father who, unbeknownst to his family, is a pedophile. Baker ends up making you empathize, but not sympathize, with a man who we would instantly despise once we discovered his terrible secret. As unappealing as these characters may seem, Solondz makes us see ourselves in them and to where we cannot see we are not all that different.

4) The Big Lebowski

The Big Lebowski movie poster

I didn’t get to see this when it first came out in theaters, but my parents did eventually strap me down in a chair to watch it, and this should give you an idea of how much they love it. The Coen brothers follow up to “Fargo” did not get the same reception when originally released, but it has since built up an amazing cult following. Much of this is thanks to Jeff Bridges’ brilliant performance as Jeffrey Lebowski, aka “The Dude.” What could have been a performance built on stereotypes of the slackers we know in life turns out to be perhaps the most memorable character in Bridges’ long and underappreciated career. It’s an ingenious comedy with not so much a plot as a connected series of events which start with the theft of Lebowski’s carpet which he says “tied the whole room together.”

3) The Truman Show

The Truman Show movie poster

It still seems criminal how Peter Weir’s film was surprisingly, and infuriatingly, snubbed for a Best Picture nomination. Jim Carrey gives a truly astonishing and powerful performance as Truman Burbank, a man who slowly becomes aware he is the star of a reality show about his life. Yes, he should have been nominated for an Oscar alongside his co-star Ed Harris, but there will always be the unforgivable snubs. “The Truman Show” has become a prophetic movie of sorts as reality shows are the norm in today’s culture, and this obsession we have over them remains very strong to this day. Andrew Niccol’s screenplay was a brilliant examination of how we might view our own life if we found out it was based on a lie, and that everything we know is actually wrong. This stands as one of Weir’s best American movies in a long and justly acclaimed career.

2) Shakespeare In Love

Shakespeare in Love movie poster

While it may have gotten overwhelmed by Miramax’s Oscar campaign, there’s no denying “Shakespeare In Love” is a brilliant and highly entertaining romantic comedy. The film tells the story of how Shakespeare goes about writing “Romeo & Ethel The Pirate’s Daughter” which eventually evolves into “Romeo & Juliet.” Gwyneth Paltrow gives a most entrancing performance, and I loved watching her every second she appeared onscreen. Joseph Fiennes is perfectly cast as Shakespeare himself, a passionate writer who is hopelessly enamored with Paltrow’s Viola. I also got a huge kick out of Geoffrey Rush’s performance as theater manager Philip Henslowe, a brilliant comic creation who steals every scene he is in. “Shakespeare In Love” serves as not just a great story of how Shakespeare may have written one of the most immortal plays ever, but also as a great satire of the film industry and how it deviously profits from unsuspecting participants.

And now, drum roll please…

1) Saving Private Ryan

Saving Private Ryan movie poster

It would be so easy to put this as my top choice thanks to some of the greatest and most vividly realistic depictions of war ever put on film. Steven Spielberg’s depiction of the landing on D-Day is nothing short of amazing, and it was one of the reasons why I saw this film five times before it came out on DVD. But moreover, it is a deeply respectful salute to those war veterans who served in the armed forces during World War II. “Saving Private Ryan” is filled with great performances from a great cast of actors including Edward Burns, Jeremy Davies, Giovanni Ribisi, Tom Sizemore, Adam Goldberg, Vin Diesel, Matt Damon, and Barry Pepper among others. But it also has one of Tom Hanks’ best performances ever as Captain John Miller, a military man who leads his men to find Private Ryan and bring him back home to his grieving mother. Just when you thought Spielberg had peaked with “Schindler’s List,” he gives us yet another astonishing piece of filmmaking which shows him at the height of his powers.

Honorable Mentions:

Primary Colors – Great Mike Nichols movie based on the book by Joe Klein. It features great performances from John Travolta, Emma Thompson, Kathy Bates as well as an extraordinary cameo from Mykelti Williamson.

Bullworth – Warren Beatty’s scathing political satire may be a bit too broad, but it is a very effective indictment of how the Democratic Party let the American people down.

Elizabeth – Definitely worth mentioning for the brilliant breakthrough performance of Cate Blanchett as Queen Elizabeth.

Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas – Terry Gilliam’s adaptation of Hunter S. Thompson’s crazy novel is a true acid trip nightmare with Johnny Depp channeling the reporter all the way to what he was famous for wearing and smoking.

God Said, Ha! – Wonderful concert film of Julia Sweeney’s one-woman show which deals with the time her brother got cancer, and of how she later got cancer herself.

Hurlyburly – Film adaptation of David Rabe’s play dealing with Hollywood players and their dysfunctional relationships with one another. Features a great cast which includes Sean Penn, Chazz Palminteri and Anna Paquin among others.

Affliction – Another emotionally bruising movie from Paul Schrader which is based on the novel by Russell Banks. Features career high performances from Nick Nolte and the late James Coburn who deservedly won an Oscar for his work.

Next Stop Wonderland – An eccentrically unusual kind of romantic comedy which helped introduce actress Hope Davis to a wider audience.

Ronin – One of the last films from the late John Frankenheimer which stars Robert De Niro, Jean Reno, and Jonathan Pryce among others. It also features some of the very best car chases of the 1990’s.

Run Lola Run – Kinetic German thriller with Franka Potente that views her attempts to save her boyfriend’s life in three different ways. This was a great teaser for what would come in 1999, when movies of different kinds proceeded to change the rules of where a story could go.

The Thin Red Line – Terrence Malick’s first movie in over 20 years threatened to be more meandering than anything else, but it is filled with such powerful imagery and to where many considered it more anti-war than “Saving Private Ryan” was.

John Carpenter’s Vampires – It was advertised as a horror movie, but it is really a more of a western and the closest John Carpenter has ever come to making one. James Woods’ performance alone is worth the price of admission as he plays the most badass of vampire hunters, Jack Crow.

Star Trek: Insurrection – Much better than its reputation may suggest, being an odd numbered Star Trek movie and all.

 

 

Sully

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Tom Hanks has been the go to guy for playing American heroes and for good reason; he never plays characters as people gunning to become heroes at any given opportunity. Whether it is Captain Miller in “Saving Private Ryan,” Jim Lovell in “Apollo 13,” Andrew Beckett in “Philadelphia,” Forrest Gump or even Jimmy Dugan in “A League of Their Own,” Hanks has long been the master of playing ordinary Americans who are just trying to get by in the rough and tumble real world the best way they know how. None of these characters set out for the adulation of others, but for a sense of purpose and justice in a world which at times seems devoid of it.

Now we can add Chesley Sullenberger to Hanks’ list of noble American characters with his excellent performance in “Sully,” Clint Eastwood’s dramatization of the airline pilot’s dramatic landing of US Airways Flight 1549 in the Hudson River. We all know this story of how the flight suffered dual engine failure shortly after takeoff due to a flock of Canadian geese flying straight at them, but Eastwood and Hanks dig deeper into what went on as Sullenberger and his First Officer Jeffery Skiles (Aaron Eckhart) are soon drilled by the National Transportation Safety Board as tests imply the left engine on the plane did not fail, meaning they still could have landed at LaGuardia Airport or one in New Jersey instead of on the water.

Sullenberger was quickly hailed a national hero for successfully landing the plane and saving all the lives aboard it, but this movie shows him more troubled by what he did than proud. He becomes plagued with nightmares and PTSD over how the flight could have ended in a catastrophic way. Also, with him and Skiles being thrown into instant stardom for their actions, Sullenberger ends up feeling isolated from everyone around him as people are eager to hug him or shake his hand in congratulating him for what he accomplished.

What I especially liked about “Sully” is how it shows the damaging effect sudden fame can have on an individual. While some might be super excited about appearing on “Late Night with David Letterman” or being interviewed by Katie Couric (who plays herself in this movie), Sullenberger finds him retreating from all the media attention as he never asked for it. While he constantly reaches out to his wife Lorraine (Laura Linney), they are separated by thousands of miles as she resides on the other side of the country. Even as they talk on the phone, the space between them feels quite profound and loneliness soon becomes his best friend.

Hanks’ performance as Sullenberger reminds us of why we look to him to play those people we see as American heroes; they are people not quick to jump into the spotlight and appear unsure as to what to do once they are thrust into it. Hanks never sets out to impersonate Sullenberger, but instead seeks to capture his state of mind following this unforgettable incident. The Oscar winning actor does excellent work in showing how Sullenberger is beset by tremendous self-doubt as he is forced to wonder if he made the right decision in light of all the computer generated evidence presented to him.

Hanks is also supported by a strong supporting cast of actors whom can never be expected to let him or Eastwood down at any second. Eckhart is the definition of strong support as his character of First Officer Jeff Skiles stands by Sullenberger every step of the way. There’s also Laura Linney who plays Sully’s wife, Lorraine, who does her best to support her husband over the phone any chance she gets. While in some ways Linney has a thankless role to play here, she justifies Lorraine’s presence in the film as the character is the support Sully needs through the most trying of times.

One of the key things Eastwood gets across here as a director is how the human element has to take precedence of the technological one as not everything can be solved or reasoned out completely by computers. This is especially interesting as Eastwood is best known for directing movies which deal heavily in human nature and its ever-growing complexity, but this time he has some nifty tools to work with. Eastwood got to shoot much of “Sully” with IMAX cameras, and seeing this movie on the nearest IMAX screen is a must.

The plane crash sequence is masterfully directed as we see pilots and flight attendants at their most professional during a moment of crisis. While we all know how things will turn out here, it is still a pulse pounding scene as we are with everyone on this plane from when they take off to when they land on the Hudson. The sound of the engines dying down and of silence in midair is unnerving, and it’s not every day you see a commercial jet land in the water.

Eastwood also makes us remember how the human element plays as big part in movies as do visual effects. He has not set out to give us a biopic on Sullenberger, and that’s even though there are moments sprinkled throughout which show his beginnings as a pilot and other significant experiences which molded him into the pilot he became. Instead, he is far more interested in the impact this one miraculous moment can have on a person’s life and of the obstacles it places in front of them.

Thank goodness Eastwood did not put the term “based on a true story” at the beginning of “Sully.” We all know this happened. Does Eastwood and screenwriter Todd Komarnicki play loose with the facts? Sure, but most movies like this do. The NTSB has objected to the way they have been portrayed here, and they do come across as overly villainous at times. But in terms of the story’s dramatic arc, it makes sense why they were portrayed as such here. To his credit, Sullenberger requested that the names of the real-life NTSB investigators, which were featured in the original draft, be changed as he felt it would be unfair to associate them with the changes in the story. Whatever the case, “Sully” is still a very compelling and gripping motion picture to sit through.

Some still question whether Chesley Sullenberger deserves to be called a hero as they believe he still could have landed at an airport. Others I know personally have accused him of using his pulpit to trash professional pilots for no good reason. But neither Eastwood or Hanks made this movie to deify Sullenberger as to do so would seriously cheapen the story for no good reason. They simply show us an ordinary man who was forced to make a quick decision in order to save the lives of many, and he was not out to call himself more heroic than others for his actions.

But also, “Sully” shows how an entire life can too often be boiled down, often unfairly so, to a single moment which renders all other accomplishments moot. In today’s media and technology saturated culture, people are never defined too broadly anymore but instead by specific actions more than anything else. The Buddha once said the merit of a whole life can be undone in a single moment. This could have been the fate Sullenberger would have been forced to accept, but he rose to the occasion and saved many lives in the process. As this movie shows, he was never out to be a hero. He was simply a human being doing his job.

And if nothing else, the movie shows Americans, especially those in New York, rising to the occasion and helping the passengers get to the shore safely. However which way you want to look at the story of US Airways Flight 1549, it did provide us with a happy ending we desperately wanted to have.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

Copyright Ben Kenber 2016.