‘Ready Player One’ brings back the fun Spielberg touch

Wondrous and visually captivating, this film is a blast

Advertisements

James Halladay (Mark Rylance) didn’t get out much. An analog player in a digital world, James needed a place where he felt like he belonged and could escape to, so he created the Oasis, a virtual reality where regular people could become the extraordinary and escape their troubles. The device has created a dichotomy in the world, though, making reality a long-lost place where few wish to inhabit.

It is Halladay’s death that sparks Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One, which sets up in 2045 and follows the young Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) as he prepares to race for the three keys that Halladay left behind. Once a player finds all three keys and locates the Easter egg that the creator left behind, they are entitled to ownership of the Oasis and all its stock and revenue.

Watts is far from alone. There is his resourceful ally, Aech aka H (Lena Waithe), who will crush a fellow racer with his monster truck before fixing the bike of the lovely Art3mis (Olivia Cooke). The dynamic combo of Sho (Philip Zhao) and Daito (Win Morisaki) can slice and dice their opponents with their Japanese samurai abilities. These and millions of others have battled for years to find the keys, but these days, most are just content to escape their world for a few hours. Continue reading “‘Ready Player One’ brings back the fun Spielberg touch”

‘The Post’ reminds you of the greatness and power of newspapers

Hanks, Streep, and Spielberg knock it out of the park

Newspapers used to mean something. They held politicians accountable, informed the public, and kept a lookout over the world. In short, they were a big deal in this nation’s foundation of hope, trust, and doing things the right way, but somewhere along the way, they lost their sex appeal.

Steven Spielberg’s The Post will remind you of that greatness, when freedom of the press was championed and not negotiable. When protecting the people’s right to know was more important than protecting the bottom line of a company. It’s an expertly crafted film that will make you feel good at the end, and you’ll buy a newspaper after you leave the theater because of it. Continue reading “‘The Post’ reminds you of the greatness and power of newspapers”

Bridge of Spies: The Best I’ve seen in 2015

The Hanks/Spielberg combo produced another gem in Bridge of Spies.

In 1957, the world was a gigantic playground when it came to war and power. On one side of the court stood the Americans and the other side stood the Russians. Each had nuclear weapons and the urge to use them. Each side wanted to know about the other’s weapons in order to gain an advantage. It was like a never-ending game between two equally tough teams with stubborn managers/coaches. Somewhere inside of it all, an insurance lawyer was appointed to negotiate the safe passage of an American pilot caught behind enemy lines. Steven Spielberg’s new film, Bridge of Spies, tells that story in grand detail and with a polish only he owns.

In order to do the film right, Spielberg needed his guy. That guy is Tom Hanks. A man so convincing he could play just about anything. Phil Jackson needed Michael Jordan to create a legend in the NBA with the Bulls and it’s the same case here. Two magicians going back to the streets where they carved classics like Saving Private Ryan, Band of Brothers, Catch Me If You Can and The Pacific. If there is a war involved, Hanks and Spielberg are the men for the job and everybody else in Hollywood is merely filling out applications.

James Donovan(Hanks) is a insurance lawyer in New York and a good one. He studied criminal law years ago but is just fine helping people prepare for potential hardship in their personal lives. When a case file is dropped in front of him involving the defense of a captured Russian spy, he doesn’t jump at it. After all, tensions were so high back then and what if you were the one guy appointed to defend what the general population saw as a monster? You would be #2 on the unpopular list behind the spy himself. You would be hated. Any other guy would just stand next to Rudolf Abel(Mark Rylance, a sure fire Oscar contender) and wait for the judge to slam his gavel down in a guilty fashion.

However, Donovan believed in the law, the constitution and that every man and woman(no matter their alliance) deserved an equal and fair defense. When he brought the matter to the Supreme Court and barely lost, the world couldn’t understand him. As Abel says later on, “Sometimes people don’t make the right decision. People are people.”

What complicates matters is a US soldier Powers(Austin Stowell, from Ed Burns Spielberg produced show, Public Morals) flying over Russia taking photos of their nuclear weapons sites. When he is shot down, the Russians and Americans attempt to orchestrate a swap. It’s not so easy. This isn’t like going to a Walmart parking lot and exchanging cars. This was Donovan going over into war torn East Berlin to negotiate the deal and when an American student is captured there, the ordeal gets even more complicated.

What sets this apart from a History channel rendition is the work of Spielberg and writers Mark Charman and the Coen Brothers. Together, they recreate this mad ripped apart world where people lived afraid and words meant life or death so the audience can truly be taken away from the theater. The best movies don’t just feature a great performance to rest their head on. They give off the illusion that what you are seeing is happening outside the door and something you could step into. There may not be a better marriage between direction and screenwriting this year. The script doesn’t waste a single word and the editing is flawless. This 140 minute movie doesn’t overstay its welcome or make you check your phone in anticipation of the credits.

The tension, despair and brutality in the East Berlin scenes reminded me of a mixture of Spielberg’s most well known Oscar films, Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan. The haunting streets with half blown out buildings. The fractured families. The film starts in comfy New York but when it switches to a war zone, the filmmakers pick up the pace and really transport the viewer.

The rest is an acting class in NOT overdoing a script. Hanks takes the punches from the script and slips and jabs his way through his best performance in years. He was born to play the incredibly noble Donovan and properly bring him to life. Another actor may have started chewing instead of simply unfolding the sheet and responding to the words on the page. When Hanks read the script, he called Spielberg to do it. A history buff, especially when it comes to the United States, Hanks brings an urgency and poignancy to Donovan that nobody else(not even Daniel Day Lewis) could have brought. He’s a winner.

Rylance is the real surprise here, playing the supposed spy like a regular old man who doesn’t fear anything, from either country. A speech that Abel gives, comparing Donovan to someone he knew from his childhood, is so well played and touching that it may bring you to tears or just make you smile. You will remember “The Standing Man” speech!  Rylance is as calm and cool as a cucumber and I doubt you have seen him in anything. He only has 25 films to his credit and all I remember him from is playing Jason Statham’s partner in a barely heard of cop flick called Blitz. Here, he looks like a pro trading punches with the heavyweights. He embodies Abel with an intelligence and knowledge that few actors can do with a handful of scenes. He’ll be nominated for an Oscar and should win.

Thomas Newman’s tremendous score elevates important scenes in the film, heightening a situation or lending a beautiful grace to others. The thing about background music in movies is that it can enhance an ordinary exchange of dialogue into some poetic. His work here evokes shades of his Road to Perdition and Shawshank Redemption scores.

Here is a film about war with barely any violence in it. All tension. Hanks and Spielberg capture something unique at the movies. A film that is perfectly conceived, meaningful and a powerful history lesson about one man helping two countries connect if for just one moment on a bridge.

You may not see a better movie in 2015 than Bridge of Spies. Skip the hesitation and go see this film. It isn’t just good. It demands your attention. It is easily the best film I’ve see in 2015 and a sure sign that the heavyweights are operating the controls as the make believe desk after a rather ordinary slate of films.

Have a TV and the time? Watch Ed Burns’ Public Morals

Need a TV show to binge, try Ed Burns’ cop show.

public-morals-posterA great new TV show reminds you of a great movie or show from the past while providing a fresh coat of paint to remind you what you are seeing is genuine. Edward Burns’ brilliant new show on TNT, Public Morals, wrapped up its first season Tuesday night.

It ended leaving the viewer wanting more and needing a few more hours with the characters that Burns created from the brush strokes of his father(a former cop) telling him stories from his time on the job. With Burns, you get two things. Authenticity and confidence. A seasoned storyteller, he doesn’t waste a single shot.

Season 1 opened with the streets of the Hell’s Kitchen seemingly being held in check by Terry Muldoon(Burns) and his crew from the Public Morals division. They aren’t just badges covered in suits. They are everything that exists between the hammer of a judge’s gavel to the darkness seen under the front tip of a fedora to the person who may bail you out of trouble. Some may call them corrupt but back then they were the owners of the streets that dictated where the rule breakers could do their business. As Burns explained to a new young officer in the PMD, Shea(Brian Wiles) in the penultimate episode, “There are laws and there are rules. Over time, you’ll understand the difference.” The Public Morals Division determines where the laws end and the rules begin.

All of that gets messy when Muldoon’s uncle, Mr. O(Timothy Hutton) gets killed and a street war erupts thanks to the explosive powers of Rusty Patton(silver steel eyed Neal McDonaugh, who bumped against Raylan Givens on Justified). Alliances are tested and more murders follows Mr. O’s, which puts a strain on the PMD. Thanks to Burns, the chase and pursuit of Rusty never takes center stage and every character is allowed time to get flushed out so the cardboard can’t be found in any crease, crack or corner of this show. Burns knows how to cast people who fit their roles and allow the audience to fail to see an actor and instead a convincing performance.

Burns is the anchor that guides this ship. As Muldoon, he is neither sympathetic or sinister but blunt throughout. The understated actor truly has a gift of delivering dialogue without overacting or squeezing too much juice from the lines. To say he was born to play the leader of this pack is like saying New York Mets’ hero Daniel Murphy was kind of made for the postseason spotlight. It just fits.

The rest of the cast is handpicked with style and reason. Take Michael Rapaport’s Charlie Bullman, Muldoon’s second in command and hard charging tough guy. He talks like a Hell’s Kitchen refugee, pushes Shea around and seems to be tougher than the hardest nail but he has a soft spot for a hooker he can’t resist helping. There’s the young gun, Sean O’Bannon(Austin Stowell, who you will see in theaters this week in Bridge of Spies), a man too dangerous to be a cop and too noble to be a crook. He’s also Mr. O’s son, which puts a healthy spin on things. The other guys in the division(the joker Patrick Murney and the wild man Wass Stevens) feel like they walked off a bus that time traveled from the 1960’s. Peter Gerety is a gem as Muldoon’s father, a former badge who can’t seem to let go of the job or trust that his son is doing the right thing.

Don’t forget firecrackers like Aaron Dean Eisenberg as Richie Kane, a man out for revenge, control, power and anything else he can handle. Here is a guy who doesn’t engage in a gun fight in a hallway until he puts on his fedora and leather jacket. A guy who stabs a man in a street and rolls him under a bus. There’s a scene involving Kane and a few guys in a bar that reminded me of Steven Seagal’s Out for Justice. You’ll get a lot of throwbacks here. There are hints of Goodfellas, Mean Streets, The Godfather, and other classics on display.

The ladies on the show aren’t just femme fatales worthy but strong women. Elizabeth Masucci is Muldoon’s wife, a woman desperate to get her kids out of a dangerous place. Katrina Bowden is Fortune, the girl rocking Bullman’s world in more ways than one. Lyndon Smith pretty much steals the last episode as Dee, Sean’s on/off again woman who holds a secret from him as Season 1 closes. The men may hold the firepower, but the ladies are just as dangerous in this world.

The real gem of Season 1 is Brian Dennehy as Joe Patton, Rusty’s father and kingpin of the Kitchen. Imagine an older Michael Corleone mixed with his father Don but more tired, and you have Dennehy’s Patton. He rocks an Irish accent like you never saw him in First Blood and makes you feel his bleeding heart as his choices shrink in the final hours. After being gone for a little while, Dennehy’s roars back with his work here.

Season 1 doesn’t end with all cases resolved. There isn’t a big showdown between Terry and Rusty. Richie doesn’t get his day in court. There isn’t a shootout in a train station(sorry Untouchables fans). No churches get shot up. The first season ends with a quiet scene between a man and a woman working in opposite worlds who nearly light a fire around their lives. It ends abruptly and without closure, leaving you wanting more. There’s more story to tell, folks. Hell’s Kitchen wasn’t tamed with a ten hour binge. There’s life left in these legs and you’ll want more. Trust me.

public-moralsAs you watch, you’ll know it counts. All his life, Burns wanted to make the Irish American gangster/cop saga, an equivalent to Martin Scorsese’s Italian American films. He had scripts upon scripts of nearly made stories. Dusty stacks of paper called Stoolie and No Sleep Til Brooklyn(Get the full story in Burns’ book, Independent Ed).

It wasn’t until he met Steven Spielberg on the set of Saving Private Ryan that Public Morals got its first tank of gas.  Spielberg helped the show find TNT and eventually, get its legs and find the air. Nearly two decades later, the show has arrived and if TNT is smart, they’ll set these plain clothes badges on the loose next year for Season 2.

Public Morals unleashes a wave of nostalgia over the viewer while putting a fresh spin on the hoods, badges and reckless world of the 1960’s. Pulled from his dad’s stories on the job, Edward Burns has created what could be his masterpiece if TNT allows him to finish the story. It’s classy, powerful, expertly written and authentically pieced together with stellar acting to steer the ship.

It has the same kind of Tommy Gun rapid fire dialogue from his early works like Brothers McMullen and She’s The One, but it’s infused with a hyper kinetic tribute to the tough guys of the 60’s who backed up their talk with action. If you are a Burns’ fan, this will go down like a perfectly cooked steak. If you don’t, it may convince you what you have been missing.

Towards the end of the season finale, the baddest gun on the show who goes by the name Monk(the larger than life Ray Wiederhold), tells a guy before he takes away the rest of his life and buries his memories, “As long as I have a thought and a soul”. That’s how I sell this show. If you have a TV and the time, take a trip to the opposite side of town that Mad Men took place on, the hardened bloody streets of Hell’s Kitchen. Where the good guys carried an extra shade of grey, the women took advantage of that anger and power, and the bad guys scrambled to stay in the game.

If you haven’t watched,  I suggest you grab a blanket, some strong coffee and go catch up. Like now. It’s got class, patience, precise action and a wise guy spirit.

imageThank you for this, Ed.

Edward Burns’ “Public Morals” is a kick

Edward Burns’ latest dose is a wonderful homage to the cops of the 1960’s and to his father.

38664Edward Burns has been trying to make this story for years. A long time. The writer/director/star of TNT’s Public Morals told the tale in his book, Independent Ed. He’d been wanting(needing is more like it) to make this cop show that he could dedicate to his dad, a law enforcer when Ed was a kid. The Irish American cop/gangster film that the audiences hadn’t gotten a taste of yet. He tried with three different scripts. Stoolie, On the Job, and No Sleep Til Brooklyn. The money and studio never came around and the creative control didn’t arrive until Steven Spielberg met Burns and they became friends. TNT came calling and gave Burns full control. Here’s your canvas and brushes, go ahead and paint your dream show. Burns took the tools and ran. The result didn’t disappoint.

Public Morals is an old school kick in the head. An ode to hard drinking wise guys, cops and the women of the late 1960’s who tried to make them slow down on a night here and there. Burns is Terry Muldoon, the leader of a group of cops that act “as landlord” to keep the local hoods, rackets, gaming, and all low level activity on an even keel. They are the ones who bend but don’t break when it comes to their own moral code. The group includes seasoned actors like Michael Rapaport(back where he belongs after that Justified debacle), Austin Stowell, Wass Stevens(who looks cut directly from that era), and Patrick Murney’s Petey Mac. Their territory and jobs are threatened when Rusty Patton(Neal McDonough) comes back onto the scene, murders a gangster and sets off a turf war.

That’s all you need to know about the plot. Bullets are fired. Punches are thrown. Tons of threats are made and a ridiculous amount of booze is consumed. The Public Morals cast make Mad Men look like early evening hustlers when it comes to whiskey, beer and every other fluid that can be set on fire. Come for the dialogue, which hops out of this actor’s mouth like a jazz number and always lands smooth.

Authenticity is what Burns gets right with Morals. Everything is done right. The cars, bow hats, suits, walks, talks, weapons, and the overall swagger. Nothing is phony or done halfway. With a period piece to work in these modern superhero powered entertainment times, the little shows like Public Morals have to either transport us, thrill us or present some once in a lifetime acting. While the acting is solid and the story is familiar yet ripe for the senses, the authenticity of the dialogue and the look of the show elevate the proceedings.

You can tell Burns has been wanting to make this show for a long time. The tale came right from the man’s bones. It’s apparent from the first shot that this is no cash and grab job. Burns has never done that in his career so why start with his own show. He works when he feels there is a story to tell and because the man loves to direct movies. Morals feels like a small screen film being diced up into ten chapters and dealt out weekly.

It never hurts to have seasoned performers like Brian Dennehy, Robert Knepper, and Timothy Hutton sharing a piece of this gritty cake. Public Morals also employs a great selection of tunes to either lighten the mood or grind it to a halt when the action takes over. Burns doesn’t waste a single minute of his weekly dose of 51 minutes of crime here. Every moment feels thought out and invested. Take a look for yourself.

When you are caught up with all four episodes on demand, check out Burns’ book where he breaks down the backstory and buildup to Public Morals. It’s a special read from a special brand of storyteller. Burns is a renegade and always has been. Public Morals is his baby and it always leave me wanting a bigger taste of the action.