THE POST (2017)

December 25, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. It’s the first time a movie marquee has read “Spielberg-Streep-Hanks”, so expectations are sky high – and rightly so. The result is level of cinematic preciseness we don’t often see. As an added bonus, it also features both historical and contemporary relevance – the type of relevance that forces us to consider where we stand and what type of society we prefer. So for the price of a ticket, we get Hollywood star power, a history lesson, and current societal commentary … now that’s a holiday bargain!

Meryl Streep stars as Katharine (Kay) Graham, the first female publisher of a major U.S. newspaper, and she delivers her most nuanced performance in years … that of a conflicted woman coming to grips with her immense power at a time when many men believed she lacked the capacity for making such far-reaching and weighty decisions. Tom Hanks slides into the loafers of Ben Bradlee, the hard-charging editor of Ms. Graham’s newspaper, The Washington Post. The role fits Hanks like a glove, and he even brandishes Bradlee’s trademark growling speech pattern. Bradlee is laser-focused on what he believes is the right thing to do, and steadfast in his commitment to the cause.

Of course, the dilemma faced by these two involved the Pentagon Papers scandal of 1971. The film kicks off with a quick timeline of the political maneuverings that led to, and escalated, the Vietnam War. When Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys) leaked documents from the Defense Department’s study on decision-making during the Vietnam War, and the New York Times published some of the pages, the ramifications were numerous and the fallout was ugly. The complicated web of deceit and bad decisions spanned 5 Presidential administrations (Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon). It became obvious that those in power continued a war they knew we couldn’t win. The cover-up was widespread and the string of lies were delivered by many. The government lost the people’s faith, and then tried to crush the free press that had exposed its dirty secrets.

It’s only been a couple of years since SPOTLIGHT won the Oscar for Best Picture, and now that film’s Oscar winning writer Josh Singer teams with Liz Hannah on a script that is elevated by an extraordinary cast and crew. We get the real feel of the organized chaos of a newsroom, and it’s a thing of beauty. The clacking of typewriters, exuberant phone conversations, and a cloud of cigarette smoke all blend to create the fabric of an institution designed and intended to deliver the truth. As with all things, it’s never quite so simple. We learn of the historical collusion between press and politics, as reporters and editors commingled with politicians, only to draw the line when deemed necessary. Both sides have flaws, yet as citizens, we simply can’t tolerate the government manipulating and even quashing the free press – a free press designed to protect the governed, not those that govern (per the Supreme Court decision).

Steven Spielberg has delivered a master class of ethics vs legalities vs political power, touching on not just the responsibilities of all parties, but most crucially on the conflicting objectives of a free press (making money) and the government system (getting elected) it is charged with holding accountable. Cinematographer Janusz Kaminski (two time Oscar winner, SAVING PRIVATE RYAN, SCHINDLER’S LIST) captures the authenticity of the newsroom, the intimacy of private discussions, and the fascinating look back at typesetting machines and a newspaper delivery system that silently forces us to recognize the power of today’s internet.

As you would expect, the supporting cast is remarkable and deep. Bradley Whitford, Bruce Greenwood (as Robert McNamara), Alison Brie (Kay’s daughter), Carrie Coon (reporter/editor Meg Greenfield), Sarah Paulson (as Bradlee’s wife), Jesse Plemons (attorney Roger Clark), and Michael Stuhlbarg (as NY Times publisher Abe Rosenthal) all bring realism to their roles. Two particular standouts are Tracy Letts (Ms. Coon’s real life husband) as Kay Graham’s trusted advisor Fritz Beebe, and Bob Odenkirk as The Post reporter Ben Bagdikian who meets with Ellsberg.

Gender inequality of the era is front and center for many scenes – sometimes even a bit too showy or distracting. The prime example is the scene where Ms. Graham is leaving the Supreme Court through a sea of silently admiring women – an unbelievably disproportionate crowd make-up. The gender point is made clearly through the position of Kay Graham and her actions, and no further proverbial slaps upside the head were required for the audience to “get it”. A rare Hindenburg joke is tossed in, and Bradlee is referred to as a pirate … two attempts to lighten the mood on a story that deserves serious attention. Composer John Williams’ score is never over the top, and perfectly complements the various conversations throughout. The film is quite clearly meant to impress how history repeats itself = those in power believing they are above all, while the free press tries to expose the abuses. It also makes the point that we as citizens must remain vigilant in our pursuit of the truth, as all sides have an agenda … sometimes it’s as complicated as covering up bad decisions, while other times it’s as simple as driving up the stock price. With its cliffhanger ending, Spielberg’s film could be viewed as a prequel to the fantastic 1976 film ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN, and that’s pretty lofty company.

watch the trailer:


GOLD (2017)

January 26, 2017

gold Greetings again from the darkness. What is your dream worth? Would you sell it? How much would it take? Kenny Wells is a dreamer. Sure, he is a third generation mining prospector, but he’d rather tell you the story of his grandfather and those mules than actually dig in the dirt himself. In fact, talking is what he does best (and most often). It’s the first film from director Stephen Gaghan since his 2005 Syriana, for which he received an Oscar nomination for his screenplay. This time he collaborates with writers Patrick Massett and John Zinman to deliver a blend of The Wolf of Wall Street and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, with a dash of The Big Short and American Hustle.

Matthew McConaughey is nearly over-the-top in his portrayal of Kenny Wells, a prospector with the spirit of a wildcatter. This isn’t ‘sexiest man alive’ McConaughey, but rather ghastly Matthew. Balding dome, protruding gut, and hillbilly teeth … it’s all there wrapped in a sweaty cheap suit and accessorized with booze and cigarettes. The actor seems to relish the role.

The story kicks off in 1981 Reno, showing Kenny as an eager to please son to his distinguished father played by Craig T Nelson. Flash forward to 1988 and Kenny’s struggling through the recession in an effort to keep his dad’s company alive. His loyal employees work the phones from the musty cocktail lounge where Kenny’s girlfriend Kay (Bryce Dallas Howard) waits tables.

Billed as “inspired by true events”, Kenny goes to great extremes to meet up with legendary geologist and miner Mike Acosta (played by Edgar Ramirez). These two need each other and team up to sniff out a gold mine down the river in Indonesia. What follows is despair, desperation, malaria, elation, big investment bankers, a hostile takeover attempt, political maneuverings, heartbreak, pride, and a surprising twist. It’s a wild ride and doesn’t always take you where you assume it’s headed.

The supporting cast includes Corey Stoll and Bill Camp as part of the Wall Street investment group, Stacy Keach as a supporter and investor of Wells, Toby Kebbell as an FBI agent, and Rachael Taylor as a contrast to Bryce Dallas Howard’s working class character. Also appearing is Bruce Greenwood as the king of the prospector hill and featuring an awful accent that adds to the borderline cartoon feel of some scenes.

Hope and greed could be viewed as a disease, but for Kenny Wells, we are urged to believe it’s all about the dream. What’s left if you sell off that dream? Instead, if you aren’t part of the fraud, maybe you live for that moment on stage when they present you the Golden Pick Axe award, and you finally believe your father would respect you. Iggy Pop and Danger Mouse collaborate on an included song, which somehow fit in with the string of 1980’s music that plays throughout. The rapid and numerous changes of direction will keep you entertained, though we do wonder how much truth from the Bre-X scandal was actually used, and how much was just a chance for McConaughey to go all out.

watch the trailer:

 


TRUTH (2015)

October 29, 2015

truth Greetings again from the darkness. The film is based on the book written by Mary Mapes, “Truth and Duty: The Press, the President, and the Privilege of Power”, and plays like a desperate attempt at rationalizing the actions of a TV producer, a TV news icon, their team of reporters and researchers, and the endless drive for ratings by a network news organization. Telling only your side of the story when a significant conflict is involved, does not encourage thinking people to take up your cause.

In 2004, Mary Mapes brought in her team to dig into the rumors that President George W Bush had received preferential treatment in military assignments and that his military service records were either incomplete, had been altered, or proved that he did not fulfill his service requirements. Ms. Mapes professional relationship with Dan Rather allowed her to bring him into the fold, and resulted in significant air time on CBS and “60 Minutes”. Most of us know how this saga ended … Mapes and her team were let go, and Mr. Rather’s time as the network news anchor was unceremoniously ended. While there may very well be substance to the story they were chasing, both the book and the movie act as Ms. Mapes defensive pleas of innocence.

In the film, Cate Blanchett plays Mary Mapes, and Robert Redford plays Dan Rather. Ms. Blanchett, as usual, is exceptional; and Redford is solid in capturing the essence of Rather (though the hair color variances are distracting). The other key players are: Topher Grace as reporter Mike Smith, Dennis Quaid as researcher and former Marine Lt. Colonel Roger Charles, Elisabeth Moss as Lucy Scott, Bruce Greenwood as Andrew Heyward (President of CBS News), Stacy Keach as Mapes source Lt. Colonel Bill Burkett, and Dermot Mulroney as CBS attorney Lawrence Lampher. The film is well cast, but it’s not enough to make up for the weak script and the less-than-stellar direction from first timer James Vanderbilt (who did write the screenplay for Zodiac, and is the great-grandson of Albert G Vanderbilt).

Rather than provide any proof that the story was properly documented and confirmed, Mapes and Rather decry the loss of reporters who ask the “tough” questions. Their defense seems to be that they were brave enough to chase the story and ask questions. A sequence is included that positions these two as the last bastions for true news reporting, and that these days news organizations are more concerned with profits and ratings, than breaking a story. This argument conveniently omits the fact that information flows much more freely today than in “the good old days”. The actions of politicians and industry leaders are constantly being questioned and scrutinized by the endless stream of bloggers and reporters – both amateurs and professionals. There is no shortage of questions being asked, and the ease with which accusations are leveled actually fits right in with the Mapes approach.

The frustrating part of the movie is that it’s a missed opportunity to detail how “legitimate” news organizations go to extremes to document and verify their information and sources, and this is where Ms. Mapes’ team fell short. Without intending to, the film plays more similar to Shattered Glass (2003) than All the President’s Men (1976) … getting a story being more important than proving a story. We are left with the feeling that Ms. Mapes believes asking a question is more important than proving the facts. The cringe-inducing shot of Dan Rather’s final broadcast leaves the viewers with the impression that the objective of the film was to place Mapes and Rather on a pedestal of righteousness. The only thing actually confirmed here is that heads rolling at CBS was the right (and only reasonable) call.

watch the trailer:

 

 


GOOD KILL (2015)

May 22, 2015

good kill Greetings again from the darkness. It sounds like a screenwriter’s workshop: write a story centered on a joystick, a computer monitor, a speaker phone and a shipping container. Most would surrender their Pulitzer dream and head back to the day job. Andrew Niccol, on the other hand, is a talented writer/director known for such projects as Gattaca, Lord of War, and The Truman Show. His story is set in 2010 and is “based on actual events” of drone warfare.

It could seem a bit dated to explore a topic that most have known about for years, but Niccol manages to wring out a story that keeps us engaged and more importantly, encourages discussion about the concept of “video game warfare”.

Ethan Hawke plays a fighter pilot who has been reassigned as a drone pilot after serving 6 tours in Afghanistan. Each day he reports to duty on a Las Vegas base and spends 12 hours locked away in a cramped shipping container staring at a video monitor while delicately manipulating a joystick that can kill people 7000 miles away within 10 seconds. These killer drones have transformed warfare, and as far as I know, this is the first film version dedicated to the daily lives of the men and women serving this duty.

Given what we know about fighter pilots, it’s not surprising that Hawke’s character is crumbling emotionally … missing the danger that comes with a real cockpit. His marriage to January Jones is void of any intimacy or communication (partially due to his alcoholism), though surprisingly, Ms. Jones delivers something other than her typical cardboard cutout performance. Watching the suburban lifestyle of these two – grilling, backyard parties, math homework with the kids – brings nothing new to the screen, but tension is palpable as Hawke and his co-drone-pilot Zoe Kravitz are locked away and forced to follow morally-questionable orders from Langley (voiced by the great Peter Coyote). Put yourself on that joystick and imagine what you would do.

The story pushes us to discuss the dehumanization of war, and the idea that the Air Force is now best described as the “Chair Force”. Especially interesting is the official verbiage used by the CIA and military in an effort to avoid “killing” and “innocent bystanders”. Think about the fact that 3 decades have passed since we got caught up in the thrill of Tom Cruise and Val Kilmer as Top Gun pilots, and now some of the most deadly decisions are made based on a visual feed from a done hovering at 10,000 feet.

Mr. Niccol delivers a thought-provoking movie, which alone sets it above many. The drone’s eye view follows not just the movements of the enemy, but also those of Hawke at home and in his car. Hawke’s commanding officer is played by Bruce Greenwood, who delivers the film’s best line: as Hawke is looking at Greenwood’s fighter pilot photos, he says, you are probably thinking “I must have been a pilot before Pontius”. It’s a great line and one that reinforces how warfare has changed … from boots on the ground to recruits based on their video game savvy.  Surgical strikes are the preferred manner of warfare, so watch this and ask yourself … what would you do?

watch the trailer:

 

 


STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS (2013)

May 31, 2013

star trek1 Greetings again from the darkness. There is always a bit of uncertainty when discussing or reviewing anything Star Trek related. So many rabid fans are more knowledgeable and keyed in to all the details. I am not. While I enjoyed the Gene Rodenberry TV series, and the subsequent movie versions, obsession never hit me. Because of this, my views will vary from those Trekkies and sci-fi experts.

Director JJ Abrams re-invented the franchise in 2009 with stunning results. That “new” Enterprise crew returns here: Chris Pine as Kirk, Zachary Quinto as Spock, Karl Urban as Bones, Zoe Saldana as Uhura, John Cho as Sulu, Anton Yelchin as Chekov and Simon Pegg as Scotty. The new addition is Alice Eve as Carol, daughter of Admiral Marcus (played by RoboCop Peter Weller). Abrams is wise enough to know that this story needed a great star trek2villain so he revisits Khan and casts a spectacular Benedict Cumberbatch (the sleazy dude from Atonement).

This movie works because of the crew’s chemistry. We believe they like and respect each other … even while breaking orders. The film works even better thanks to a villain that establishes a believable threat. Cumberbatch plays a super-human force with a mixture of Shakespeare and Hannibal Lecter. He delivers lines in a way that you have no cause to doubt his intent. This is a nice contrast to the warm fuzzies coming from the crew members.

star trek3 It can’t go without mention that there is a shocking display of crystal blue eyes on display. Chris Pine, Peter Weller, Benedict Cumberbatch and Alice Eve all flash baby blues that jump off the screen in 3D. The only reason the sea blue peepers weren’t more distracting is because of what I refer to as FXOD … a special effects overdose. It seems as though each summer blockbuster feels the obligation to go bigger on the visual effects to get noticed. As often happens, the effects are just too much. Luckily, the characters and story are strong enough that it stayed on track.

If you are a casual Star Trek fan, this is one that will entertain you. If you are a Trekkie, you have no doubt already seen it twice and have blogged about all the errors. Next up: 2016 for the third entry in the Abrams franchise.

**NOTE: It’s a pleasure to see the great Leonard Nimoy make another appearance as Spock, but it’s a shame that Abrams and William Shatner haven’t been able to come to terms.

**NOTE: While gratuitous sex in movies often draws much attention, it should be noted that a gratuitous shot of Alice Eve in her skivvies seems to be the main reason her character exists.

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QAEkuVgt6Aw

 


FLIGHT (2012)

November 4, 2012

 Greetings again from the darkness. What is a hero? There have certainly been no shortage of super hero movies these past few years, but those are mostly comic book characters brought to life through the magic of Hollywood. Can a heroic act turn a flawed man into a hero? Should his flaws change how we treat him after the heroic act? All these are questions raised by the script from John Gatins. The easiest answer of all? If you are a movie producer looking to cast a flawed hero … the obvious choice is Denzel Washington.

Director Robert Zemeckis returns to live-action after more than a decade of experimenting with animation. Of course, Zemekis is firmly entrenched in Hollywood lore thanks to his Back to the Future trilogy, as well as Forrest Gump (for which he won an Oscar). This is quite dark material for Zemeckis and he handles it very well. The trailer tells us what we need to know about the premise. Denzel plays a pilot who, under extreme circumstances, “inverts” the commercial jet he is flying so it can be crash-landed in an open field. Yes, invert means to fly the plane upside down. If you are queasy about flying, this is one to avoid. And don’t count on this being the in-flight movie on your next business trip.

The first 30 minutes of this movie are as strong as any seen on screen this year. We quickly get a sense of Whip Whitaker the flawed man, and then we see the remarkable Captain Whip Whitaker and his actions during an incredibly well filmed crash sequence. Unfortunately, I found the second half of the film played like a heavy-handed advertisement for AA (not American Airlines). Whitaker is exposed for his absurdly high blood alcohol level and existence of cocaine … so clearly presented in the film’s opening. Over the years, many films have tackled addiction: Leaving Las Vegas, Clean and Sober, When a Man Loves a Woman. Rarely have we seen the expert talent of deception and lying that Capt Whitaker displays.

There is little doubt that Denzel’s performance will warrant Oscar consideration … and it should. The film depends on an actor skilled enough to reach the depths necessary for us to believe this guy, despite his cocky pilot strut and unmatched flying skills, is little more than a mentally weak addict.  This is no Sully.  In fact, Denzel’s chubby, bloated Whitaker is impossible to like or respect as a man.

 There are a couple of outstanding supporting performances here: John Goodman as Harling Mays, a colorful and energetic, free-wheeling dealer who works miracles with Whitaker when he appears too gone to function; and Kelly Reilly (Mary Watson from the “Sherlock Holmes” movies) as fellow addict Nicole, who connects with Whip and tries to help him. We also get solid work from Don Cheedle, Brian Geraghty, Tamara Tunie, Peter Geraty and Melissa Leo. There is also an odd scene featuring James Badge Dale as a cancer patient/philosopher.

The Alan Silvestri score is effective, as is the soundtrack featuring the somewhat obvious songs from Joe Cocker, The Rolling Stones and Cowboy Junkies. The issues with the script are minor, though the inconsistencies with Whitaker’s “limp” were bothersome.  This is one to recommend in spite of the Bruce Greenwood factor. Every frequent movie goer has their acting nemesis and Greenwood’s presence usually indicates a disappointing movie for me … not the case here.

**Note: couldn’t help but chuckle at one of the VHS tapes stacked by Whitaker’s TV … Top Gun

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you can handle a ferociously realistic plane crash sequence OR you want to see one of Denzel Washington’s best ever performances

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: 2 hours of severe alcoholism is not the kind of entertainment you desire OR your fear of flying needs no ammunition

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lhUrWRV1cxs


BARNEY’S VERSION

February 26, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. Ordinarily, a film with Rosamund Pike and Bruce Greenwood in key roles would be sufficient for me to stay home and watch The Weather Channel. However, Paul Giamatti and Dustin Hoffman, as son and father, in a story based on Mordecai Richler’s novel was motivation enough for me to buck up and give this one a shot. And what a pleasant surprise this film is.

Giamatti has mastered the role of cynical, self-absorbed, frumpy schlub and his Barney is every bit that. The story is told through extended flashbacks after we learn a detective has written a book accusing Barney of killing his best friend (Scott Speedman). No charges were brought and it’s not until the end, in an extremely creative reveal, that we understand what really happened that day at the lake. Unfortunately, we aren’t sure if Barney ever understands, but that’s a whole different topic.

Barney’s first marriage comes about because his girlfriend gets pregnant. This one ends in tragedy and betrayal and drives Barney to spend much of his life on the path of cynicism, alcoholism and cigar-chain-smoking. He is no pretty sight – from inside or out. He stumbles into his second marriage, this one to Minnie Driver. Ms. Driver is wonderful as the Jewish princess with a Master’s Degree. How do we know? She continually reminds us of both facts. Ever known anyone that just constantly reminds you of how smart they are? How this marriage ends leads to the whole suspicion of murder and loss of best friend for Barney.

The real key to the story occurs at his wedding. Instead of worshiping his new bride, Barney watches hockey, does shots with his Dad (Dustin Hoffman) and experiences love at first sight … not with his bride, but with a guest played by Rosamund Pike. This encounter puts Barney on a singular mission of winning over Ms. Pike, despite his marriage to Driver. Can’t really give anything away here other than the story is very clever in how it handles the pursuit, failed marriage and subsequent true love story.

 The only thing is, Barney never really “gets” what true love is. Pike has a wonderful scene where she explains that life and love are in “the seconds, the minutes, the routines”. Barney nods but is clearly in over his head in so many ways. Part of the genius in the script is that we somehow find ourselves pulling for Barney, despite his long list of faults and none-too-impressive quirks.

The other thing I really appreciate about this story is how there are so many relationships that seem to spring from reality … people we know in situations we’ve been in. The title, of course, refers to Barney’s version of reality. How he sees things. We could each replace his name with ours for a movie on our life. Do we see reality, or is reality how we interpret these seconds, minutes, routines? The answer seems pretty clear.

 The film is directed by Richard J. Lewis (not the comedian) but is really a product of the amazing story and talented cast led by the extraordinary performance of Giamatti. Dustin Hoffman’s scenes are all excellent, and his real life son Jake, plays his grandson in the film. Don’t miss the quick scenes featuring standout directors Atom Egoyan, David Cronenberg and Ted Kotcheff. It’s also character actor extraordinare Maury Chaykin‘s final film. And I certainly can’t omit mention of the fabulous, spot on soundtrack featuring T-Rex, JJ Cale, Donovan and others. Leonard Cohen‘s “I’m Your Man” plays over the closing credits so don’t leave early!

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you thrill to well told stories that are extremely well acted OR you just want to admire Giamatti’s god-awful posture.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you need a “good guy” lead character OR you are concerned that the sight of Paul Giamatti in boxers could lead to nightmares.