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:

 

 

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AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY (2013)

January 12, 2014

august Greetings again from the darkness. Tracy Letts had a very nice year in 2008. He won the Pulitzer Prize and a Tony for writing the play August: Osage County. Since then, he has also written the play and screenplay for Killer Joe, and been seen as an actor in the key role of a Senator in the TV show “Homeland“. This time out, he adapts his own play for director John Wells’ (The Company Men, TV’s “ER“) screen version of August: Osage County.

With an ensemble cast matched by very few movies over the years, the screen version begins with what may be its best scene. Weston family patriarch and published poet Beverly (the always great Sam Shepard) is interviewing Johnna for a position as cook and housekeeper when they are interrupted in stunning fashion by Violet (Meryl Streep), Beverly’s acid-tongued wife who is showing the effects of chemotherapy and her prescription drug addiction. This extraordinary pre-credits scene sets the stage for the entire movie, which unfortunately only approaches this high standard a couple more times.

Despite the film’s flaws, there is no denying the “train-wreck” effect of not being able to look away from this most dysfunctional family. Most of this is due to the screen presence of a steady stream of talented actors: in addition to Streep and Shephard, we get their 3 daughters played by Julia Roberts (Barbara), Julianne Nicholson (Ivy) and Juliette Lewis (Karen); Ewan McGregor and Abigail Breslin as Roberts’ husband and daughter; Margo Martindale (Violet’s sister), her husband Chris Cooper (Charles) and their son Benedict Cumberbatch.

As with most dysfunctional family movies, there is a dinner table scene … this one occurring after a funeral. The resentment and regret and anger on display over casseroles is staggering, especially the incisive and “truth-telling” Violet comments and the defensive replies from Barbara. As time goes on, family secrets and stories unfold culminating in a whopper near the end. This is really the polar opposite of a family support system. Unlike many movies, getting to know these people doesn’t make us like them any more.

Meryl Streep’s performance is one of the most demonstrative of her career. Some may call it over the top, but I believe it’s essential to the tone of the movie and the family interactions. Her exchanges with Julia Roberts define the monster mother and daughter in her image theme. They don’t nitpick each other, it’s more like inflicting gaping wounds. Surprisingly, Roberts mostly holds her own … though that could be that the film borders on campy much of the time. Streep’s scene comes as she recalls the most horrific childhood Christmas story you could ever want to hear.

It must be noted that Margo Martindale is the real highlight here. She has two extraordinary scenes … each very different in style and substance … and she nails them both. Without her character and talent, this film could have spun off into a major mess. The same could be said for Chris Cooper, who is really the moral center of the family. While the others seem intent on hiding from their past, he seems to make the best of his situation.

The film never really captures the conflicting environments of the claustrophobic old Weston homestead and the free wide open plains of Oklahoma. The exception is a pretty cool post-funeral scene in a hayfield where Roberts tells Streep “There’s no place to go“. The main difference between the film version and stage version is the compressed time and the decision to include all explosive scenes. There is just little breathing room here. Still, it’s one of the more entertaining and wildly dysfunctional comedy-dramas that you will see on screen, and it’s quite obvious this group of fine actors thoroughly enjoyed the ensemble experience.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF:  you want to sit back and watch family members go at each other with much more verocity than anything at your own family events OR you just want to see some of the best actors working today (Streep, Martindale, Cooper, Cumberbatch)

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you can’t imagine sitting through a dysfunctional family dinner so soon after your own holiday family time.

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4VBEZrkCT8Q

 


JOBS (2013)

August 21, 2013

jobs1 Greetings again from the darkness. One of the key characteristics of Steve Jobs was that he was constantly striving for perfection. Not just good. Not just acceptable. He wanted the perfect product in the perfect package sold in the perfect store. Whether or not you are a fan of Jobs and Apple, it’s painful to watch a middling movie about the man and the company … a movie that seems to strive for very little, and certainly not perfection.

Ashton Kutcher delivers an impersonation of Jobs complete with beady eyes, slumped shoulders and awkward gait. This is not one of those biopics where the performer disappears into the famous character. We never forget that we are watching Kutcher’s attempt to act and sound like Jobs. But Kutcher is far from the worst part of the movie … in fact, he is fine, given what he has to work with.

jobs2 The real issue with the movie is that it just offers no real insight into the man or the company. Instead we see only the headlines: Jobs drops out, Jobs goes barefooted, Jobs is a jerk, Jobs takes advantage of Woz, Jobs does drugs, Jobs eats fruit, Jobs is a jerk, Jobs is booted out, Jobs comes back, Jobs is a jerk.  The challenge to telling the story of Steve Jobs and Apple stems from finding the genius within the jerk.  Walter Isaacson’s book “Steve Jobs” does exceptional work on that front, and I believe there is a movie project in the works based on his source material.

The supporting cast is impressive: Dermot Mulroney (Mike Makkula), Lukas Haas (Daniel Kottke, Matthew Modine ( John Sculley), JK Simmons, Lesley Ann Warren, John Getz, Ron Eldard (Rod Holt), Kevin Dunn and James Woods. Especially effective, and maybe the only reason to see the movie, is Josh Gad as Steve Wozniak.  Woz is known to be the technical jobs3genius behind the founding of Apple and Gad perfectly captures the spirit of Wozniak as we in the public have come to know him over the years.

Directed by Joshua Michael Stern (Swing Vote), the film is written by first time screenwriter Matt Whiteley. This seems inexplicable to me. A writer with no credits is charged with coming up with a script on one of the most enigmatic and complex and successful people of our times. In fact, the result is what one would expect … a made-for-TV type glossy presentation that doesn’t dig too deep or offer any insight. In short, the kind of movie that Steve Jobs would have despised.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you want the “Cliff’s Notes” version of Steve Jobs and Apple OR you want to see Josh Gad’s best performance to date

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you want insight and substance behind the story of Jobs and Apple … instead, read Walter Isaacson’s book

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LR6yMl2FZSQ

 


THE GREY

January 29, 2012

 Greetings again from the darkness. This is certainly not the typical lame, formulaic action movie that we have come to expect most every January. Director Joe Carnahan teamed with Ian MacKenzie Jeffers to write a strong script based on Jeffers’ original short story. With a touch of spirituality mixed with an excruciatingly intense story of survival, this film is more of an emotional experience than one might expect based on the trailer.  It’s not just Man vs Nature.  It’s also Man vs. Himself.

The film opens as Ottway (Liam Neeson) is composing a letter (and narrating) to his beloved wife (Anne Openshaw). At first we aren’t sure of their story, only that this was a painful loss for him and he is washing away his sins with an apparent final letter. We later learn more through flashbacks as she is the “happy place” into which he retreats in moments of stress … and there is certainly no shortage of those! We also learn that Ottway is a hired sharpshooter to protect the roughnecks on assignment in the Alaska oilfields. We see him in action as he quickly and precisely nails a charging wolf.

 After the first spiritual interruption at a key moment for Ottway, we next see him and a group of the workers boarding a plane to escape the storm. The plane crashes, killing most onboard and stranding the small group of survivors in a barren, frozen wasteland of Alaskan wilderness. If only that were their biggest problem. As if no food or water, and sub-freezing temperatures during a blizzard weren’t quite challenging enough, they are being systematically hunted by a pack of ferocious wolves. Ottway’s experience and personality lead him to the position of group leader as they look for a way out.

There have been many fine survival movies including The Edge (Alec Baldwin, Anthony Hopkins), Deliverance, and The Thing. We even get a wise-crack about the movie Alive, where the plane crash survivors stooped to cannibalism. While I am a fan of all of those movies, none are as full of tension and intensity as this one is, from beginning to end. What really sets this one apart from many is not the action scenes, but the character development. We actually see the character of these men evolve as their plight worsens. Watch for the similarities between man and beast as Diaz (Frank Grillo) challenges Ottway.  Also observe Ottway’s transformation as he goes all out to fight for life.

 The other supporting cast members include Dallas Roberts and Dermot Mulroney, but the strength of this movie stems from the script and the casting of Liam Neeson. Supposedly Bradley Cooper was originally cast, and later replaced by Mr. Neeson. It’s probably safe to say that my comments would not be as favorable if that change had not occurred. Kudos to director Carnahan who gave us another very intense film called Narc. Since then, he has only delivered shallow works like The A-Team and Smokin’ Aces. Here he pays so much attention to detail … like a wolf paw print in the snow as it slowly fills with blood. Don’t be scared away thinking this is just another macho action film. It is much more and, at times, even a very quiet and deep piece of filmmaking … that will leave you exhausted!

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are up for an intense story of survival that shows how hard some will fight to keep on living.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are a member of one of the protesting groups who believe the film portrays wolves in an unfair manner.  If that’s you, I recommend Never Cry Wolf instead (very good movie that shows wolves in a more positive light)

watch the trailer:


J. EDGAR

November 14, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. The best place to start with this one is by saying what it isn’t. It is not a documentary. It is not a very detailed history lesson. It is not the best biography of the man. It is not a behind-the-scenes of the FBI. What it is … another piece of quality filmmaking from Clint Eastwood. It’s an overview of J. Edgar Hoover and his nearly 50 years of civil service under 8 U.S. Presidents.

The screenplay is from Dustin Lance Black, who also wrote the script for Milk, based on the story of Harvey Milk (played by Sean Penn). Clearly, Eastwood and Black had no interest in setting forth an historical drama that couldn’t possibly be told within a two hour film structure. No, this is more of a fat-free character study that hits only a few of the highlights from an enigmatic man’s fascinating career. With so few available details about Hoover’s personal life, some speculation is required … but Eastwood walks a tightrope so as to make neither a statement nor mockery.

 Therein lies the only problem with the film. While hypnotic to watch, we are left with an empty feeling when it’s over. How can that be? This man built the foundation of the FBI. He instigated the fingerprint system. He armed the secret police. His agency tracked down notorious gangsters. He led an anti-communist movement. He was in the middle of the investigation for the Charles Lindbergh baby kidnapping. He supposedly kept secret files on most politicians and celebrities. He viewed the security of Americans as his responsibility. He was smack dab in the middle of almost 50 years of American history … all while being a power-hungry, paranoid mama’s boy who may have been, in her words, a daffodil.

An elderly Hoover’s own words tell his story as he dictates his memoirs. We are told that his memories of these stories are blurred and he takes a few liberties to say the least. He longed to be the comic book hero like his own G-Men. He longed to be recognized for his contributions, even to the point of desiring a level of celebrity. In his mind, he was the face of national security and the hero cuffing many outlaws. In reality, he was also the black-mailing schemer who so frightened Presidents with his secret files, that all 8 of them backed off firing him. He could be viewed as the ultimate survivor in a town where few careers last so long and cross party lines.

 The film picks up in 1919 when Hoover is a youngster making a name for himself as an all-work, no play type. That reputation stuck with him until the end. When he was first promoted, he hired Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts)to be his secretary. In one of the most remarkable hires of all time, she sticks with him until his death in 1972. Staunchly loyal to Hoover and totally dedicated to her job, Ms. Gandy helped Hoover with decisions and processes throughout. The other member of his inner circle was Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer). Tolson was Hoover’s right-hand man at the bureau, his trusted adviser, his daily lunch partner, and speculation never ceased on their personal ties.

 Judi Dench plays Annie Hoover, J Edgar’s controlling mother, whom he lived with until her death. She was also his adviser, supporter and probably a factor in his stunted social skills. We also get glimpses of how he dealt with Robert Kennedy (Jeffrey Donovan) and his overall lack of respect for John Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Richard Nixon. The Lindbergh case plays a key role because Hoover used it to gain more power for his bureau and increase funding for weapons, forensic labs and resources.

 As for Leonardo DiCaprio, it’s difficult to explain just how outstanding his lead performance is. It could have been a caricature, but instead he affords Hoover the respect his place in history demands. The 50 years of aging through make-up can be startling, especially since the time lines are mixed up throughout. His speech pattern mimics Hoover’s, as does the growing waist line. There are some Citizen Kane elements at work in how the story is told and how it’s filmed, but Eastwood wouldn’t shy away from such comparisons.

If you want real details on Hoover, there are some very in-depth biographies out there. The number of documentaries and history books for this era are limitless. What Eastwood delivers here is an introduction to J Edgar Hoover. It is interesting enough to watch, and Leonardo’s performance is a must-see, but the film lacks the depth warranted by the full story.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you want a primer to the life and career of Hoover OR you want to see DiCaprio’s performance, which will almost certainly receive an Oscar nom.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are looking for a detailed history on the FBI or the life of Hoover

watch the trailer: