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:


CALL ME BY YOUR NAME (2017)

December 21, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. Although confusing the two is understandable, there is a difference between a story of romance and a story of love. That’s not to say that the two can’t overlap; in fact, they often do. In movies, romance is the dish most often served because it’s usually more interesting. Watching the flirtatious dance and often awkward exploratory stage of what was once called the rituals of courting offers a writer, actor and director infinitely more possibilities than what we associate with the years of deep connection labeled as love. Andre Aciman’s novel is adapted by James Ivory (of Merchant-Ivory fame, and 3 times Oscar nominated for Best Director) and the script leans heavily on romance … lustful romance, to be specific.

Director Luca Guadagnino (A BIGGER SPLASH, I AM LOVE) is an expert at making movies that engage our senses. His movies delicately tease us – they slowly absorb us into the emotions and feelings of the characters. Very few filmmakers have the skill to subtly seduce the viewer, and draw us into the story so that we are no longer merely observing. It’s nuanced story-telling at the highest level.

Elio’s (Timothee Chalamet) family spends the summer at their estate in northern Italy. You’ve likely never met a more cultured family. His father (Michael Stuhlbarg) is a renowned professor, his mother (Amira Casar) a recognized translator, and Elio himself is a musical prodigy who whiles away the days by transcribing classical music and reading every book he can get his hands on. Oh, he also flirts with the local girls because he is, after all, a 17 year old boy. His intelligence and corresponding wit is of a much older person, standing in stark contrast to his innocence and childlike maturity level with all other pieces of life’s puzzle.

Elio’s world is rocked when his father’s newest research assistant, Oliver (Armie Hammer), shows up. An “Americano” who offsets his extreme politeness with an unrefined “Later” when departing any encounter, Oliver explodes on the scene like a Greek God. He and Elio have an initial passive-aggressiveness towards each other as they test the boundaries for weakness, and more importantly, interest. Things move very slowly as the passion and curiosity brews during their bike rides, walks through the apricot orchards (forbidden fruit), swimming in every watering hole, and competitive banters on intellectual topics. There is a sensuality to most every scene, though those same scenes are filled with unspoken tension.

The sunlit beauty as each summer day passes initially masks the emotions, and the stunning setting, people, colors, and music is accentuated by the camera work of cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom. Nature is on display in its full glory; not just through trees, sunlight, and water, but in that elusive and unexplained connection between two people so strongly drawn to one another.

Director Guadagnino’s film easily slides into the romantic sub-genre of such films as BLUE IS THE WARMEST COLOR, BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN, and CAROL, and the artistic approach provides a gentleness that even the peach scene can’t undo. Michael Stuhlbarg (who seems to be everywhere these days) has an extraordinary father/son scene near the end which reminds us that each one of us has a story on how life may or may not have turned out as planned. The gut-wrenching pain with sharing that story usually means it remains untold; however, the invaluable lesson is not lost on Elio. First love and first heartbreak bring both emotional ecstasy and emotional devastation, and whether you believe the film’s statement “We have less to give each new person”, you’ll likely agree that the use of Psychedelic Furs “Love My Way” is spot on.

watch the trailer:


THE SHAPE OF WATER (2017)

December 8, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. Recent release JUSTICE LEAGUE is filled with superheroes, but filmmaker-extraordinaire Guillermo del Toro finds his league of misfits and outcasts to be much more interesting – as do I. The numerous possible descriptions of this movie are all accurate, yet alone, each falls short: a fairy tale, fable, monster movie, unconventional romance, sci-fi, cold war saga, and commentary on societal misfits. What is also true is that it’s a gorgeous film with terrific performances, and it pays lovely tribute to the classics.

A government research facility in 1962 Baltimore is the setting, and “The Asset” being secured and studied is an amphibian man that was captured in South America by a sadistic Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon) and his electric cattle prod. Now the military, and a 5-star General played by Nick Searcy, is in charge. The lead scientist played by Michael Stuhlbarg certainly has a different agenda than the military, whose focus seems to be more on preventing the Russians (closer than you think) from stealing the asset than in actually seizing the rare scientific opportunity for advancement.

While all the ominous and clandestine government operations are being conducted, a member of the nighttime cleaning crew – a mute woman named Elisa (Sally Hawkins) – makes a very personal connection with the fish man through nutritious snacks, Big Band music and sign language. This is the enchanting portion of the story and is admittedly (by del Toro) inspired by the 1954 classic CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON (a personal favorite of mine). Elisa and the amphibian man experience a romantic courtship not unlike what we have seen in many other love stories … that is, if you overlook the amphibious being that makes up half of this couple. In fact, “going with” the story is crucial to one’s enjoyment. Sit back and let the magic and wonder and fantastical nature of del Toro’s imagination sweep you away – just as it has done for Elisa.

There are many elements of the film worth exploring, and it’s likely to take another viewing to capture many of them. The band of misfits is comprised of the fish man (Doug Jones), Elisa (Ms. Hawkins), Elisa’s wise and wise-cracking co-worker Zelda (Octavia Spencer), and Elisa’s neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins), a closeted gay graphics design artist. These are the nice folks/beings who make up the world that seems to be run by bullies and predators (sound familiar?). There is even a religious debate here as it’s mentioned that the creature was treated by a God in his natural environment, and a brief discussion is had over what might a God look like. All of the actors are superb, and Miss Hawkins delivers her second knockout performance of the year (the other being MAUDIE).

“The future” is a central theme of the story, though Elisa is most focused on now – how to find some happiness in a world that has been so challenging. Elisa realizes she and the creature are more similar than not, and she feels his pain each time the power-hungry Strickland (Shannon) pops him with the electric cattle prod. There is an ethereal beauty (and yes, sensuality) to the scenes with Elisa and the amphibian man, and it even leads to a terrific song (“You’ll Never Know” by Renee Fleming) and dance dream sequence. In addition, you’ll notice many nods and tributes to classics such as Mr. Ed, Dobie Gillis, Betty Grable, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson and Shirley Temple, and Carmen Miranda singing “Chica Chica Boom Chic”. It’s also no accident that the apartments of Elisa and Giles are located directly above a palatial old movie theatre that is struggling to make ends meet. All of these pieces are tied together as Mr. del Toro honors the art forms he so adores.

For those who enjoy such detail, it should be noted that the color green plays a huge role throughout the film … the water, the creature, the uniforms, the furniture, the walls – even the Jello, the pie and Strickland’s (teal) Cadillac. The use of color ties in the ever-present mythology, and the theme of meanness and power versus kindness and love.

Cinematographer Dan Laustsen adds to the magical feel with his camera work and lighting that perfectly complements the characters and tone. Oscar winning composer Alexandre Desplat delivers yet another spot on score that not only syncs with story, but also the numerous classic songs included. Guillermo del Toro is one of the most creative and inventive contemporary filmmakers, and though this one may fall a tick below his masterpiece PAN’S LABRYNTH, it is sure to dazzle and mesmerize those who give it a chance … and let’s hope there are many who do!

watch the trailer:


MISS SLOANE (2016)

December 8, 2016

miss-sloane Greetings again from the darkness. Timing can be crucial for a film attempting to capitalize on a hot social or political topic or event. One gets the feeling that the filmmakers were excited to open this film on the heels of a Hillary Clinton victory … a story about a powerful woman, laser-focused on her mission to push through gun-control legislation. With an unexpected election outcome, director John Madden (Shakespeare in Love, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel) and first time screenwriter Jonathan Perera may just luck out since their film can alternatively be interpreted as a scathing commentary on a corrupt existing system … the single biggest reason for that surprise election result.

By now we have become accustomed to stellar performances from two-time Oscar nominee Jessica Chastain (Zero Dark Thirty). Here she plays super-lobbyist Elizabeth Sloane – always impeccably dressed while spouting the voluminous dialogue and quick quips that make up this workaholic, dedicated-only-to-winning viper who rules the snake pit known as politics. When her big firm boss (Sam Waterston) tries to strong arm her into working with the NRA to quash the proposed gun-control legislation … encouraging her to ‘get women excited about guns’ … she quickly takes her competitive nature (and most of her staff) to the opposition, resulting in escalated political warfare.

Much of this plays like an Aaron Sorkin spin-off, but it’s surprising how few movies have focused on the fascinating world of lobbyists. Thank You for Smoking (2005) and Casino Jack (2010) are probably the most widely seen, but it’s Michael Clayton (2007) that seems to have the most in common tonally with this look at ethics (or lack thereof), conniving strategy, and backroom maneuverings.

Ms. Chastain owns the film and the role, and there is strong supporting work from Mark Strong (as her new boss), Gugu Mbatha-Raw (making the most of a few scenes), John Lithgow (as the Senator running the Congressional hearing), Michael Stuhlbarg (as a worthy adversary), Jake Lacy (as Sloane’s only diversion), Alison Pill (her assistant), Dylan Baker (a talk show host), and David Wilson Barnes (her attorney). It’s an impressive group that adds substance to the project.

Do the ends justify the means? Is anyone as ambitious and adept at political games as Elizabeth Sloane? Are ethics really this compromised in the world that creates our laws and policies? However you choose to answer those questions, a look at the misplaced priorities of our elected officials … and the influence of powerful lobbyists … are absolutely worthy of our attention, and undoubtedly contributed to the biggest election surprise in recent memory.

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MILES AHEAD (2016)

April 15, 2016

miles ahead Greetings again from the darkness. What would rate as the bigger challenge: defining jazz or describing the life of Miles Davis? In true “passion project” mode, Don Cheadle not only portrays the iconic trumpeter, but also directs, co-writes and co-produces. Cheadle’s tribute to The Prince of Darkness is as open to interpretation as the hundreds of songs from Davis’ recordings over thirty plus years.

Having stated in numerous interviews that he had no interest in the usual “cradle-to-grave” biopic, Cheadle’s odd blend of fact, fiction and hallucination are meant to capture the essence of Miles Davis, rather than the life and times of the man. Guns, drugs, music, girls, and art are all present throughout this trippy trip of a movie that plays like an impressionistic painting, and not a portrait.

The bulk of the film is spent on Miles Davis during his self-imposed six year drug-fueled hiatus in the 1970’s when he secluded himself in Howard Hughes fashion. There is an odd and ill-fitting plot involving the “secret” master tapes that Davis has recorded while waiting for his manager (Michael Stuhlbarg as Harper Hamilton) to pay him the money he is owed. Mixed in is a “Rolling Stone” writer named Dave Brill (Ewan McGregor) desperately trying to get an interview with Miles and listen to the tapes. This mad caper-ish core benefits greatly from the quick cuts to the past … especially those featuring Frances Taylor (Emayatzy Corinealdi) as Miles’ beautiful, talented and supportive wife.

Of course, we shouldn’t expect linear story-telling from a man whose life was anything but linear. After all, we are focused on the man who claimed his music was not “jazz”, but rather “Social Music” … and that “it takes a long time to play like yourself”. The car chases and gunfights might seem out of place, but do capture the essence of a man fueled by drugs and a possible (temporary) loss of his creative genius. Perhaps, as the movie suggests, Miles was remorseful for how he treated Frances. Or maybe it was simply the pressure of being Miles Davis …. The coolest of Cool Jazz.

Mr. Cheadle does a nice job in portraying Davis, and is spot on in the trademark raspy whisper which Miles was known for (the after-effects of a larynx operation in the 1950’s). Ms. Corinealdi (to appear in the new “Roots” project later this year) is outstanding as Frances Taylor, and is the one character we latch on to in hopes of maintaining our bearings throughout.

Taking its title from a 1957 Miles Davis album, the movie offers a glimpse into the mind of a musical genius who didn’t always fit into “proper” society, and would be the perfect pairing for a head-scratching trumpeter double-bill with the recent Born to be Blue, a look at Chet Baker.

watch the trailer:

 


TRUMBO (2015)

November 19, 2015

trumbo Greetings again from the darkness. For an industry that thrives on ego and self-promotion, it could be considered surprising that more movies haven’t focused on its most shameful (and drama-filled) period. The two Hollywood blacklist films that come to mind are both from 1976: Martin Ritt’s The Front (starring Woody Allen) and the documentary Hollywood on Trial. There are others that have touched on the era, but director Jay Roach and writer John McNamara (adapting Bruce Cook’s book) focus on blacklisted writer Dalton Trumbo in a film that informs a little and entertains a lot.

Director Roach combines his comedic roots from the “Austin Powers” and “Meet the Parents” franchises with his more recent politically-centered HBO projects Recount and Game Change. His subject here is the immensely talented writer Dalton Trumbo, whom Louis B Mayer signed to the most lucrative screenwriting contract of the 1940’s. It was soon after that Trumbo’s (and other’s) affiliation with the American Communist Party came under fire by the House Un-American Activities Committee headed by J Parnell Thomas. The divide in Hollywood was clear. On one side were the staunch Patriots like John Wayne (David James Elliott) and the Queen Muckracker, gossip columnist Hedda Hopper (Helen Mirren); on the other were “The Hollywood Ten” … those accused of being traitors simply because they stood up for freedom.

What’s interesting here is that despite the dark subject matter, the film has an enormous amount of humor … including multiple laugh out loud moments. This happens because most of the focus is on Trumbo the family man and Trumbo the justice fighter. Of course, as a writer, Trumbo does his best fighting with words … words whose message is “they have no right” to question the thoughts and beliefs of individual citizens. The committee’s mission was to prove treason by linking to the Russian agenda, but in reality these folks were mostly supportive of labor rights … most assuredly not a crime. The investigations, such as they were, seemed to prove the gentlemen were more Socialist than Russian – which makes an interesting contrast to modern day where we have an admitted Socialist running for President. The Hollywood Ten stood their ground, served jail time, and were either forced out of the industry or forced to go “underground” using pseudonyms. Trumbo, while unceremoniously writing under other names, won two Best Writing Oscars – one for Roman Holiday and one for The Brave One.

Bryan Cranston delivers a “big” performance as Dalton Trumbo. Everything is big – the glasses, the cigarette holders, the mustache, and definitely the personality. He does his best writing in the bathtub, and is never without a quick-witted comeback … whether sparring with The Duke or the committee. Unfortunately, Hedda Hopper does her most effective work in undermining the rights of Trumbo and his cohorts, including Arlen Hird (Louis CK) and Ian McClellan Hunter (Alan Tudyk). We also see how Edward G Robinson (Michael Stuhlbarg) quietly supports the cause, while also trying to salvage his fading career.

Trumbo is by no means presented as a saintly rebel with a cause. Instead, we see him as a loving yet flawed father, husband and friend. Once released from prison, he is so focused on writing and clawing his way back, that his relationships suffer – especially with his eldest daughter Nikola (Elle Fanning) and loyal wife (Diane Lane). It’s the King Brothers Production Company led by Frank (John Goodman) and Hymie (Stephen Root) who give Trumbo an outlet for writing and earning a living. Most were schlock movies, but there were also a few gems mixed in (Gun Crazy). However, it’s Kirk Douglas’ (Dean O’Gorman with an uncanny resemblance) courageous stand for his (and Stanley Kubrick’s) movie Spartacus, and director Otto Preminger (Christian Berkel) and his film Exodus, that put Trumbo’s name back on the screen, effectively ending Ms. Hopper’s crusade.

The ending credits feature clips of the real Dalton Trumbo being interviewed, and it brings clarity to Cranston’s performance, while more importantly relaying some incredibly poignant and personal words directly from the man … maybe they really should be “carved into a rock”. It’s an era of which Hollywood should not be proud, and it’s finally time it was faced head-on … and it’s quite OK that they bring along a few good laughs.

watch the trailer:

 


STEVE JOBS (2015)

November 5, 2015

steve jobs Greetings again from the darkness. Does it take the smartest guy in the room to write about the smartest guy in the room? Probably not, but as Aaron Sorkin shows in writing about Steve Jobs, it can’t hurt. It’s an impressive filmmaking team that, in addition to Sorkin, includes director Danny Boyle, and a cast of Michael Fassbender, Kate Winslet, Jeff Daniels, Michael Stuhlbarg, Katherine Waterston, Seth Rogen, John Ortiz and Perla Haney-Jardine … that’s a lot of talent, prestige, and award-winners.

The film is based on the terrific authorized biography written by Walter Isaacson (which I recommend). Rather than tackle the entirety of the book or Jobs’ life, a theatrical approach is taken with three distinct acts covering 16 years centered on product roll-outs: Macintosh, 1984; NeXT, 1988; and iMac, 1998. You might notice that two of those products are considered major flops, but the focus is on the persona of Jobs, not the performance of the products. Director Boyle makes his presence felt by filming appropriately in each of the segments: 16mm for 1984, 35mm for 1988, and digital for 1998. He also brings a sweeping beauty to the visuals … whether it’s Jobs storming through a hallway, or the maze of activity backstage at each roll-out.

In today’s world, it’s humorous to witness the cult-like atmosphere that develops around Apple products, and it’s equally comical to see the small-minded types who refuse to credit Jobs or Apple for catapulting consumer technology ahead by decades, and for achieving levels of financial success never before reached. Although it’s difficult to separate Jobs from Apple, Sorkin and Boyle are very clear in their focus on the man. In fact, the movie could be viewed as a kind of dysfunctional family – both genetic family and work family.

Rogen plays Steve Wozniak and Stuhlbarg plays Andy Hertzfeld, both part of the original Apple team with Jobs. There are some pointed exchanges between these three characters, with the most eye-raising being when Woz asks Jobs, “What do you do?” It’s the best display of what makes Jobs different than others, and his answer is one of the most disheartening compliments ever heard. There are multiple extended sequences with Jobs and his quasi-father figure John Sculley (Jeff Daniels). These two rip through Sorkin dialogue the way Michael Jordan once sliced through defenses. Most cruel are the exchanges between Jobs and Chrisann Brennan (Ms. Waterston) – the mother of his daughter Lisa (though he refused to acknowledge being her father).

For those familiar with the role of Joanna Hoffman in Jobs’ career, you will be duly impressed with the performance of Kate Winslet … playing the only one who could consistently stand up to the relentless pressure and lofty expectations.

There are soft references to (future) iPods and iPads, and Jobs’ break-up with Apple is dramatized, but it’s the individual scenes of interaction with others that makes this entertaining and challenging to watch. There is nothing likable about Steve Jobs the man, but Fassbender’s fine performance does allow glimpses of humanity beneath the God-like aura Jobs presented. Was Jobs a genius? Was he an extreme social misfit?  Was he a cruel family man due to his botched adoption as a kid? Regardless of where you place him in the realm of technology development, it’s difficult to argue with Woz’s proclamation that one can be “decent AND gifted”. It’s not binary.

watch the trailer: