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:

Advertisements

THE PROGRAM (2016)

March 18, 2016

the program Greetings again from the darkness. The fallen king. The disgraced idol. We expect there to be more to the story of Lance Armstrong, but the bottom line is really pretty simple. Lance Armstrong is a liar. Lance Armstrong is a fraud. The movie offers little in the way of excuses or explanations, and you’ll likely think even less of Armstrong after the movie … if that’s even possible.

Ben Foster turns in a nice performance and is believable as Lance the cyclist, Lance the teammate, and Lance the doper. But even Foster can’t quite capture the public façade or reach the level of deception that the real life Lance maintained for years. Chris O’Dowd is spot on as David Walsh, the sportswriter who wrote the book on which the film is based, “Seven Deadly Sins: My Pursuit of Lance Armstrong”. In fact, the movie would likely have been more interesting had it focused on Walsh’s research and pursuit, rather than re-hashing the all too familiar Armstrong deceit.

Director Stephen Frears (The Queen, High Fidelity, The Grifters) works with the screenplay from John Hodge (Trainspotting) and we see how Lance battled through testicular cancer and later sought out Dr. Ferrari (Guillaume Canet) – the Godfather of blood doping. We get many shots of the familiar yellow jersey during numerous Tour de France races, and we hear Lance pontificate on what sets him apart: desire, hunger, heart and soul, and guts. Later we hear his proclamation of innocence followed by “I’m the most tested athlete on the face of the planet”.

Jesse Plemons (“Breaking Bad”, “Fargo”) has slimmed down and plays the crucial role of Floyd Landis – a devout Mennonite, Lance teammate, and the final straw in the crumbling of an empire. It’s Landis who broke “the silence around cycling”, and forced an industry and the public to accept what most of us hoped against all hope wasn’t true.

Armstrong’s infamous “Oprah” appearance and public admission brought poignancy to his own words: “We are the authors of our life stories.” Perhaps this lesson is as valuable as all the money Livestrong raised for cancer research. Picturesque Hamilton Pool in Austin makes an appearance, as do songs from The Ramones, The Fall (“Mr. Pharmacist”) and Leonard Cohen. While the film is not at the level of Alex Gibney’s documentary The Armstrong Lie, it is a reminder that real life can be more dramatic and devastating than the movie version.

watch the trailer:

 


BRIDGE OF SPIES (2015)

October 16, 2015

bridge of spies Greetings again from the darkness. For a director, true power in the movie industry means you can obtain the financing and assemble the cast and crew you need to make the films that have meaning to you. With his 40 year career of unmatched combined box office and critical success, Steven Spielberg is the epitome of film power and the master of bringing us dramatized versions of historical characters and events. In his fourth collaboration with Tom Hanks, Spielberg tells the story of James B Donovan.

You say you aren’t familiar with Mr. Donovan? In the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, the CIA (Allen Dulles was director at the time) persuaded James Donovan to provide a bit of Cold War legal service. Mr. Donovan was by trade an Insurance attorney, but after others in his profession passed on the “opportunity”, his commitment to justice and human rights drove him to accept the challenge of defending suspected Russian spy named Rudolph Abel. In the face of an angry populace and government, Donovan took the case all the way to the Supreme Court – and his exact words are spoken in the movie by Hanks.

Not long after, Francis Powers (played by Austin Stowell) was piloting a CIA U-2 spy plane when he was shot down over Russia and taken captive. This sequence in the film is breathtaking to watch. Enter James Donovan again … this time to negotiate an exchange of prisoners: Rudolph Abel for Francis Powers. It’s these negotiations that provide the element of suspense in the story. Mr. Donovan was a family man, but he was also very confident in his ability to negotiate on the biggest stage and under the brightest spotlight (or darkest backroom).

The movie is exactly what you would expect from a master filmmaker. Spielberg slickly re-creates the era through sets, locations, and costumes. He utilizes his remarkable eye behind the camera, an interesting use of lighting, and the score from Thomas Newman. Nope, that’s not a misprint. It’s the first Spielberg movie in 30 years not scored by John Williams (who was unable to work on the project). Of course, the cast is stellar and it all starts with Tom Hanks. He just makes everything look so darn easy! Whether he is talking to his wife (Amy Ryan), his kids (including Bono’s daughter Eve Hewson), his law partner (Alan Alda), or agents from the U.S. or Russia … Hanks manages to make each scene real and believable.

It’s the scenes between Donovan and Rudolph Abel that are the most fascinating to watch. Mark Rylance plays Abel, and to see these two men grow to respect each other for “doing their job” is a true acting and screenwriting clinic. We find ourselves anxious for the next Rudolph Abel scene during an extended span where the focus is on Donovan’s negotiations. When the two finally reunite, it’s a quietly affecting moment where much is said with few words.

Spielberg utilized many of the locations where the actual events took place, and this includes Berlin and the Glienicke Bridge where the real exchange took place in 1962. While missing the labyrinth of twists and turns of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, it’s knowing that these are real people in real situations that make this historic drama so thrilling and riveting to watch.  Film lovers will also get a kick out of the fact that the script was co-written by the Coen Brothers, and history lovers will enjoy seeing some of the details provided by the written words of those involved, as well as their surviving family members. It’s an era that seems so long ago, yet the topics are so pertinent to what’s happening in the world today.  Beyond all of that, it’s a story of a man standing up for what’s right at a time when that was not the easy or popular way.

watch the trailer:

 


BLACK MASS (2015)

September 19, 2015

black mass Greetings again from the darkness. Movie goers tend to fall into one of two groups when it comes to Johnny Depp – big fans or denigrators. Whichever side of the line you fall, there are few actors who can claim such a diverse career of on screen characters ranging from Edward Scissorhands to Gilbert Grape; from Donnie Brasco to Captain Jack Sparrow; from Willy Wonka to Sweeney Todd; and from John Dillinger to Tonto. Depp now turns his talents towards one of the most unsympathetic real life characters imaginable … South Boston’s infamous crime lord James “Whitey” Bulger.

Director Scott Cooper (Crazy Heart, Out of the Furnace) proves yet again that he is an actor’s director, rather than a visual technician or story addict. In this adaptation of the book from “Boston Globe” reporters Dick Lehr and Gerard O’Neill, Cooper has Depp and Joel Edgerton as his two leads, and an incredibly deep supporting cast that provide the look and feel for this period piece dramatizing the crime and corruption during Bulger’s reign.

When one thinks of the memorable kingpins of crime/gangster movies, those that come to mind include Michael Corleone (The Godfather movies), Tony Montana (Scarface), Jimmy Conway (Goodfellas), and Frank Costello (The Departed). The Costello character was supposedly partially inspired by Bulger. What made each of these characters fascinating to watch was the insight we were given into the psychological make-up of each and the inner-workings of their organization.  And that’s the disappointment of Cooper’s film.

For the Whitey Bulger story, there are two distinct directions to explore: the building of Bulger’s criminal empire, or the motivation of the FBI Agent John Connolly (Edgerton) as he juggled his job and relationship with Bulger. Unfortunately, the approach here is to show a hand full of cold-blooded murders to prove Bulger’s management style, and a few FBI meetings that show the obvious uncertainty within the agency. Rather than a muddled mash-up, a more interesting movie would have chosen a path and dug in deeply.

Despite the story issues, it is fun to watch how Depp and Edgerton tackle their roles. Under heavy make-up (wrinkles, receding hairline, hillbilly teeth, and crazy contact lenses), Depp becomes the intimidating force of Whitey Bulger. Just as impressive is Edgerton as Agent Connolly, as we witness the Southie neighborhood boys all grown up, but still playing cops and robbers … and it remains difficult to tell who the good guys from the bad. Edgerton’s cockiness and strutting capture the ego and ambition necessary for a federal agent to bend so many rules. In fact, despite the vastly different approaches, it’s not entirely clear which of these two fellows possesses the greatest ambition.

Benedict Cumberbatch plays Billy Bulger, Whitey’s younger brother who became a State Senator. We get very few scenes featuring the brothers, and in fact, Cumberbath’s best scenes are instead shared with Edgerton. It’s difficult not to chuckle at their first meeting in a restaurant as we watch a Brit and Aussie talk it out with south Boston accents. Kevin Bacon, David Harbour and Adam Scott play Edgerton’s fellow FBI agents, while Jesse Plemons, Rory Cochrane (especially good) and W Earl Brown make terrific Bulger crew members. Peter Sarsgaard leaves quite the impression as a doped-up associate, while Julianne Nicholson, Dakota Johnson and Juno Temple provide the film’s minimal female presence. Corey Stoll storms onto the screen as a Federal Prosecutor who is not amused by the relationship between Connolly and Bulger, but this movie belongs to Depp and Edgerton.

The concern is that any viewer not already familiar with the Whitey Bulger story may find the story not overly interesting, despite the terrific performances. Fortunately, this viewer was mesmerized by last year’s exceptional documentary entitled Whitey: United States of America v James J Bulger … a must see for anyone who wants full details into the Bulger reign of crime and terror, as well as his 20 years on the lam.

watch the trailer:

 


THE HOMESMAN (2014)

December 1, 2014

homesman Greetings again from the darkness. We have come to expect our Westerns to be filled with stoic heroes and nasty villains, but this film delivers a pious, yappy leading lady paired with a selfish, no frills drifter. Based on the 1988 novel from Glendon Swarthout, it’s also the second directorial outing from Tommy Lee Jones (The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, 2005).

Hilary Swank plays Mary Bee Cuddy, a name repeated so many times that it will surely stick with you … even if the movie doesn’t. Thirty-one years old and unmarried, Ms. Cuddy is not without talent. She works the plough horses, cooks up fried chicken, and plays a mean fake piano. As is pointed out to her a couple of times, she is also “bossy” and “plain” looking … neither trait especially appealing to men in the wild west.

Ms. Cuddy volunteers to take three local women to Iowa. The three women (Grace Gummer, Miranda Otto, Sonja Richter) have each gone insane, and somehow Iowa is the most civilized place within a wagon ride’s distance. Cuddy teams up with a low-life drifter played by Tommy Lee Jones, after they strike a deal that allows him to escape certain death. The verbal clash of cultures and personality between the two main characters provides most of the action on screen, as the three women being escorted are mostly muted and either locked in the back of the wagon or tied to a wagon wheel during riding breaks.

The film is at its best when focusing on the harsh realities of frontier life. Cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto (Brokeback Mountain) does a nice job of capturing the wide expanse and stark vastness of the landscape, while also tossing in some artsy silhouettes and proof of abruptness of this life. Director Jones utilizes some haphazardly timed flashbacks to help us better understand the plight of the three women, but this could have been done much more effectively. Courage, inner-strength, and morality all play a role here, and the contrast between frontier and civilization was most distinct.

Much of the film plays like an oddball buddy picture – think Nolte and Murphy in 48 Hours, or Bogart and Hepburn in The African Queen. If you find the interaction between Swank and Jones to be realistic, then you will probably buy into the whole film. If not, the lack of flow and choppiness of scenes will jump out. There seems to be a never ending stream of little more than cameos from a tremendous line-up of actors: Barry Corbin, William Fichtner, Jesse Plemons, David Dencik, Evan Jones, John Lithgow, Tim Blake Nelson, James Spader, and Hailee Steinfeld. There are even a couple of scenes near the end featuring Meryl Streep (her daughter Grace Gummer plays one of the 3 insane women). The slew of familiar faces actually detracted from the story for me, because the Swank and Jones characters just couldn’t hold my attention.

The ending seems quite odd and a bit out of place for what we have just watched, and I’m still confused by the line of dialogue addressing the difficult “winter” they must have had on the wagon trip … it’s clearly stated that the trip began in May and would take a few weeks. Even in Nebraska, May and June can’t be considered winter. If you enjoy Hilary Swank on a soapbox or Tommy Lee Jones dancing a jig, then perhaps the pieces will fit better for you than they did for me.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are intrigued by a long, mostly uneventful wagon trip where 3 of the 5 people don’t speak and one rarely shuts up.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: Tommy Lee Jones dancing a jig (twice) or Hilary Swank playing air piano just aren’t enough to pull you away from holiday shopping.

watch the trailer:

 

 


THE MASTER (2012)

September 24, 2012

 Greetings again from the darkness. Critics seem to love it, while movie goers seem to be left grasping for meaning. This is director Paul Thomas Anderson‘s sixth film, and could be either his best or worst, depending on your tastes. What is clear, however, is that all the hoopla over this being an expose’ of Scientology was for nothing. In fact, the cult/religion in the film plays second fiddle to a mentally unstable drifter who you will find no real interest in following (yet unable to take your eyes off).

On the plus side, there are three terrific performances in the film. Joaquin Phoenix delivers a frightening, off beat character named Freddie Quell. Freddie suffers from PTSD after WWII and is some kind of freaky genius when it comes to moonshine and hooch. We see him utilize missile fuel, paint thinner, photographic chemicals, coconuts and Lysol. Never accept a drink from Freddie. Philip Seymour Hoffman is pure charisma and power as Lancaster Dodd, the character supposedly modeled on L Ron Hubbard, the writer and (some would say) con man who developed Scientology through his Dianetics theories. Hoffman is fascinating to watch and totally believable as a guy who draws in the suckers. His staunchest follower is his ice queen wife played with quiet intensity by Amy Adams. This is quite a different role for her and she really delivers the goods.

 Joaquin Phoenix deserves a few words. His physicality here approaches deformity and his sexual perversion is clear early on thanks to a beach scene. Phoenix looks emaciated, and somehow inverts his shoulders and wears a constant grimace that would make Michael Shannon proud. Much of his performance reminded me of a young Marlon Brando … high praise indeed. Many of director Anderson’s films deal with the surrogate father/son relationship, and Phoenix is at his best when desperately seeking acceptance from his would-be father figure, Lancaster Dodd.

 Though Scientology is never mentioned, the “processing” demonstrated certainly fits right in with the early methods. Still, the weakness of the movie stems from the story. Following Freddie leaves a gaping hole in substance. There’s just not much to this broken man. On the other hand, we constantly want to know more about The Master, Lancaster Dodd.

Technically, it’s a stunning and beautiful movie with moments of cinematic greatness. From an entertainment perspective, some might find the second half downright boring and uninteresting. If not for the Oscar worthy performances and the stellar camera work and interesting camera angles, even more people probably would have walked out during the film. Jonny Greenwood is back (There Will Be Blood) with Anderson, and again delivers the perfect accompaniment. With some script work, this could have been a truly great film. Instead, we get just-missed greatness from a true auteur.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you want to see 3 Oscar worthy performances OR unusual filmmaking and story telling is worth a couple hours of your time … especially when presented by an auteur like Paul Thomas Anderson

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: oddball characters and expert technical filmmaking are not enough to maintain your interest

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fJ1O1vb9AUU