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:

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LADY BIRD (2017)

November 15, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. Joining the likes of Woody Allen, Mel Brooks and Ben Affleck, Greta Gerwig proves her significance and brilliance is most apparent behind the camera, rather than in front. Her first feature film flying solo as writer and director is without a doubt, one of the year’s best. Surely she has benefitted from having a very talented live-in muse and mentor and partner in Noah Baumbach, but this extraordinary film is clearly Ms. Gerwig’s passion project … and it’s a thing of beauty (character warts and all).

Ultra talented Saoirse Ronan plays Christine, aka “Lady Bird”. She claims it’s her given name – a name she gave herself. Entering her senior year of Catholic High School in Sacramento, she’s the typical blend of teenage insecurity, bravado and restlessness. Her never quite satisfied mom is played by Laurie Metcalf, in what is probably her career best performance, and definitely worthy of Supporting Oscar consideration. A brilliant opening scene finds mother and daughter sharing a cry, which quickly devolves into one of the endless stream of arguments that make up half of their relationship. Their scenes together are sometimes caustic, always realistic, and likely to hit home to many mothers and daughters watching.

Lady Bird is convinced she must escape 2002 Sacramento and live on the east coast, where she assumes culture thrives. This is the age where every teenager is convinced an amazing destiny awaits them … not stopping to contemplate what talent they possess that might actually contribute to society. Lady Bird is an average student who seems to dream not of greatness, but rather of some vision of life where she will be appreciated for simply being herself. So much of what happens is grounded in the reality of high school life, friendships, and family. She jumps at the chance to be friends with the “it girl” who controls the “in crowd”. Leaving her lifelong best friend Julie (Beanie Feldstein, Jonah Hill’s real life sister) in the dust, Lady Bird finagles her way into Jenna’s (Odeya Rush) inner circle of rich kids, including the cooler-than-cool Kyle (Timothee Chalamet, CALL ME BY YOUR NAME). He’s the bohemian-wannabe type we’ve all come across. Her attraction to Kyle results in confusion over her relationship with nice guy Danny (Lucas Hedges, MANCHESTER BY THE SEA).

The film touches on many familiar topics, and the script elegantly handles each piece of the puzzle and gives each character their due. Lady Bird’s middle class family is going through some financial difficulties after her dad is laid off. Tracy Letts is superb as the dad who is beaten down by a life that’s nearly passed him by, but he staves off his own depression just enough to provide the basic strength needed by his wife and spirited teenage daughter. Mr. Letts and Ms. Metcalf aren’t TV sitcom parents carefully positioned as punchlines for clever kids, like what we typically see. The emotional bond between parents and offspring is perfectly awkward and deep. Mother and daughter have their shared escapes, while father and daughter share some secrets. There is also a complex sister-brother dynamic, as well as the common issues of school days – teenage girl self-respect, class warfare, teacher crushes, and the pressures of extracurricular activities. Lois Smith has a couple of outstanding scenes as a wise and observant nun who sees Lady Bird for who she is, and provides the necessary guidance. Welcome comedy relief is combined with an editorial statement on the ongoing reductions in funding for the arts, as the football coach (Bob Stephenson) is put in charge of the drama department.

Ms. Gerwig’s excellent (quasi-autobiographical) film defies traditional categorization. It’s part teenage comedy, coming of age, family drama, and character study – yet it’s also so much more. Have you seen much of this before? Absolutely, and it’s likely at least some of this has occurred in your own life, though you may not always enjoy being reminded. What is enjoyable is watching the work of a skilled filmmaker and exciting new cinematic story teller.

watch the trailer:


CHRISTINE (2016)

November 3, 2016

christine Greetings again from the darkness. On July 15, 1974, television news reporter Christine Chubbuck read a prepared statement and then committed suicide on-air by putting a gun to her head and pulling the trigger. You may not recognize her name, but you have likely heard the story … it’s no urban legend. Director Antonio Campos and writer Craig Shilowich offer up a biopic with some insight into Ms. Chubbuck’s personal and professional life so that we might better understand what drove her to such a public and tragic end.

Rebecca Hall takes on the titular role (don’t mistake this for the 1983 John Carpenter/Stephen King film), and despite her usual stilted on screen mannerisms, she delivers what is an emotionally raw and nuanced performance that is the best of her career … and one that keeps us glued to a story of which we already know the ending. We see a woman dedicated to her vision of the profession, while being maddening to those who know her, love her, and work with her. She has an awkward intensity that compounds her lack of social skills and an ongoing struggle with depression. Somehow, Ms. Hall allows us to understand the personal and professional struggles and how things could have spiraled into hopelessness for Christine.

The commentary on the early days of tabloid journalism (“If it bleeds, it leads”) is especially interesting given how the current Presidential campaigns have been covered more than 40 years after the film is set. One might also note the parallels to the character of Howard Beale in Network (1976) … though Christine Chubbuck was less vociferous and never took to yelling “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore” while on camera (though she evidently felt that way).

Support work comes from Tracy Letts as the frustrated news director, Michael C Hall as the mixed-signals anchorman on whom Christine has a quiet crush, J. Smith-Cameron as her mother and housemate, Maria Dizzia as her friend and co-worker, and Timothy Simons as the misunderstood and ignored weatherman.

The film clearly makes the point that Christine was a misfit in her work and personal life, and though some of the timeline and known specifics are either re-worked or ignored for artistic purposes, Ms. Hall must be commended for highlighting the effects of depression. Even the best meaning friends and family can unintentionally make things worse. We see a clip of Walter Cronkite’s actual report of her death, and Christine’s own words – “The latest in blood and guts” – were actually ahead of her time.

watch the trailer:

 

 


INDIGNATION (2016)

August 4, 2016

indignation Greetings again from the darkness. Quite often, Hollywood “period pieces” feel dated and somewhat irrelevant to our world today – as if they were a snapshot from an old magazine. But the best ones transport us to a different era while also serving up themes and characters that are just as interesting and germane today as then … and that’s what we have here.

First time director James Schamus (founder of Focus Features) is an Oscar nominated producer (Brokeback Mountain) and writer (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), and he tackles the popular 2008 Philip Roth novel … one that the 83 year old novelist admits to being influenced by his own college years. Mr. Roth has been writing novels for more than 50 years and won the Pulitzer Prize for his 1997 “American Pastoral”.

Taking on the lead role of college-bound Marcus Messner is Logan Lerman … an actor who has been on screen since he was 8 years old, and seems to have the eternal youth DNA so sought after by Ponce de Leon. While his looks haven’t changed much since the “Percy Jackson” films or the excellent The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Lerman shines here as the working class Newark Jewish boy, smothered by his parents, and as naïve to the world as he is academically gifted.

It’s 1951 and too many neighborhood boys are arriving back home in pine boxes after serving in the Korean War. Marcus’ father (Danny Burstein) is a kosher butcher and is half of the hyper-cautious parental unit that is alternatively thankful and frightened that their son is avoiding serving in the military by heading off to ultra-conservative (and fictional) Winesburg College in Ohio.

Once on campus, Marcus discovers little of the hoped-for freedom. Mandatory chapel attendance, roommates assigned via religious leanings, and the expectations of joining the Jewish fraternity and hanging out with his own kind combine to be only a different kind of emotional stifling than what he had at home. A series of events serve to shake up Marcus and his beliefs. Date night with his dream girl from the library ends with him being both repulsed and enchanted by a sexually assertive Olivia (Sarah Gadon). An argument with his lughead roommates ends with his being given the worst dorm room on campus. Meeting with the College Dean (Tracy Letts) results in an exhilarating debate that will surely be treasured by all who adore wordplay and oratory sword-fighting. Finally, an emergency appendectomy brings a hospital visit from Marcus’ mother (Linda Emond), and a conversation that drastically alters the course of his life.

The conservative social mores of the 1950’s are on full display, as is the restlessness of the young who would change society forever. Fear would be replaced with daring, and the film does a terrific job of highlighting how revolution often comes at a high price. Bookended by war scenes that dramatize the fine line between civilized society and the brutality of war, it all comes together … bringing more power and poignancy to the two best scenes: as previously mentioned, Letts and Lerman go mano y mano in arguing the brilliance of Bertrand Russell, and their word battle highlights the age-old idealist vs. real world struggles; a mother-son scene towards the end is as heart-breaking as any we’re likely to see on screen this year. Mr. Letts, Ms. Emond and Ms. Gadon all work well with Logan Lerman in order to provide an excellent presentation of Roth’s novel and Schamus’ first film.

 watch the trailer:

 

 


ELVIS & NIXON (2016)

April 20, 2016

elvis and nixon Greetings again from the darkness. The tagline nails the tone of the film: “On August 21, 1970 two of America’s greatest recording artists met for the first time.” Director Liza Johnson proceeds to tell the story of worlds colliding – an Oval Office meeting with President Richard Nixon and Elvis Presley. Of course, this is a fictionalized and satirical accounting, since Nixon didn’t kickoff his recording passion until the following year.

It would be pretty easy to bash the film as heavy on cheese and light on historical accuracy, but that would be missing the point. These two public figures couldn’t have been much different from each other, but the script (Joey and Hanala Sagal, and Cary Elwes) finds a way to have these two icons hold a conversation … bonding over their mutual hatred of The Beatles.

The terrific opening credit sequence perfectly captures the time period and is a work of art unto itself. We first see Elvis shooting out the picture tubes in the TV room at Graceland. He’s disgusted with the news reports of Woodstock and drug use among America’s youth. Constructing a loose plot to meet with President Nixon and offer his service as a Federal Agent-at-large, Elvis is mostly interested in adding a federal badge to his collection.

Michael Shannon plays Elvis and Kevin Spacey takes on the Nixon role. Rather than a finely tuned impersonation, Shannon goes after more of an impression or re-imagining of The King. It’s a perfect fit for this setting, and there is nothing like watching Shannon give an impromptu karate demonstration for the leader of the free world in the most famous room in America. Spacey, on the other hand, is spot on in capturing the posture, mannerisms, sound and essence of a man who carried much personal baggage with his political power.

The chain of events leading up to the meeting plays a bit like a farcical comedy. Nixon’s staff of Bud Krough (Colin Hanks), Dwight Chapin (Evan Peters) and HR Haldeman (Tate Donovan) is equal parts incredulous and opportunistic. We get two members of Elvis’ “Memphis Maphia” with Alex Pettyfer playing Jerry Schilling and Johnny Knoxville adding even more humor as Sonny West. There is a nice blend of “little” comedy moments and outright laughers – Elvis impersonators confronting him in an airport, the Secret Service reaction to Elvis’ gift to Nixon of collectible WWII pistols, and Elvis meeting with a DEA official played by Tracy Letts.

I found myself smiling throughout, with full understanding that this satirical look at a meeting between two famous men with little common ground has no real historical importance … other than resulting in the all-time most requested photograph from the National Archives. But for 86 minutes of smiling, I say to the filmmakers and actors … Thank you. Thank you very much.

watch the trailer:

 


THE BIG SHORT (2015)

December 24, 2015

big short Greetings again from the darkness. Since there are so few subjects more hilarious than the 2008 financial crisis, let’s get the writer/director of Anchorman and Step Brothers to adapt the Michael Lewis best-selling book. OK, so it’s improbable that was the thought process, but kudos to whomever was responsible for bringing Adam McKay to the project. Before you go assuming it’s a poor fit, it should be noted that McKay is also one of the creative minds behind “Funny or Die”, a site filled with political and social satire. It’s that satirical approach that makes this explanation of what went wrong so accessible to the masses. Make no mistake … this is entertaining and educational and thought-provoking and nauseating and infuriating and funny and disheartening.

If the film were described as a tutorial on MBS (Mortgage-backed Securities), CDO (Collateralized Debt Obligations), Credit Default Swaps, Tranches, Bond Ratings, and Sub-Prime ARMs, most people’s eyes would glaze over and they would keep skimming for showtimes of other new movie releases. In truth, it is those things – and so much more. This is the story of how the housing market collapsed leading the government to the massive bailout that saved some of our largest financial institutions … and how a small group of people recognized what was happening and literally bet against the U.S. economy. It follows the bread crumbs to re-assemble the slow process of spotting the fault in the analysis that lead to massive corruption that finally crossed over into systematic fraud … and does so by using creative presentation approaches like a Bond Rating game of Jenga, and celebrity snippets for definitions and examples.

Ryan Gosling stars as Jared Vennett (based on Greg Lippmann), a slick Deutsche Bank trader who acts as our guide through the muck of shorting securitized mortgages, while simultaneously working the system for his personal benefit. He works with Mark Baum (a character based on Steve Eisman, played by Steve Carell) who manages FrontPoint Partners, and Baum’s team played by Rafe Spall, Hamish Linklater and Jeremy Strong (whom you might remember as Lee Harvey Oswald in Parkland). While this is going on, there are two other similar story lines we are following. The first is Christian Bale playing hedge fund manager and savant analyst Dr. Michael Burry at Scion Hedge Fund. Burry is often cited as the first to recognize the impending collapse and invest against the market. Finally, we have the “garage band” investment company based on Cornwall Capital run by (names changed) Jamie Shipley (Finn Wittrock) and Charlie Gellar (John Magaro) with a big boost from former trader Ben Rickert (played by Brad Pitt in a role based on Ben Hockett). The stellar cast is rounded out by Marisa Tomei as Baum’s concerned wife, Tracy Letts as the head of Scion, Max Greenfield and Billy Magnussen who play cocky and clueless subprime mortgage brokers, and Melissa Leo who plays a Standard & Poor’s employee.

It’s difficult to tell this story without casting blame, and few escape the wrath of Lewis, McKay and co-writer Charles Randolph. Those absorbing shots to the bow include: the Federal Reserve, the SEC, Rating Agencies, big Banks and Investment firms, Fund Managers, Traders, Realtors, and Mortgage Brokers. Companies specifically named include JP Morgan Chase, Bank of America, Deutsche Bank, Barclays, Merrill Lynch, Goldman Sachs, WAMU, Option One, Lehman Brothers, Bear Stearns, and The Wall Street Journal. The point made is that the problem goes/went beyond greed, and is/was truly system-wide, with each segment protecting themselves and their turf. Somehow the name Barney Frank is not mentioned, and FNMA and FHLMC escape mostly unscathed, while CRA lending requirements are not discussed.  It’s not politically correct (and not mentioned here) to question why so many borrowers who couldn’t pay their rent regularly accepted loans that they knowingly couldn’t afford to repay. But that’s a topic for another time.

With full disclosure, I will admit to having been in the mortgage business for 18 years. Though I was never involved with subprime loans, I will always disagree with the stance that the industry and institutions were not aware of the risk and impending collapse. It was common knowledge that “no doc” loans were absurd, and the adjustable rate schedules and prepayment penalties for subprime (and some conventional) loans were beyond impractical and more like homicidal (from a lending perspective). In the film, Baum interviews an exotic dancer who owns multiple homes … all loans made with minimal documentation due to the cash basis of her business. The terms of the loans set her, and other similar borrowers, up for financial ruin … right along with the housing sector and economy. The subprime mortgage brokers portrayed by Max Greenfield and Billy Magnussen may seem cartoonish, but Baum’s confusion with their “confession” versus “bragging” is spot on. There were many just like these two clowns who considered themselves “rock stars”, when in fact, there were really “bartenders who now own a boat”.  These weren’t the type to question whether the loans made sense … only how many could they close to pad their 5 and 6 figure per month income levels.  Of course, in defense of these morons, it was the banks and lenders who designed the loan programs to “feed the machine” with more and by necessity, higher risk loans … to the point where it was no longer possible to spread the risk wide enough for protection. Hence, the collapse.

By the end of the movie, you should expect to have a headache and feel quite cynical towards the system. Despite the humor interjected by quick-hit segments from Margot Robbie, Selena Gomez and Anthony Bourdoin, the seriousness of the topics is more than bubble baths, blackjack and fish stew. The film leaves us angry and nauseous from what happened in 2008, but more importantly questioning … Has anything changed? Have we learned anything? These answers are likely to cause a more sickening reaction than looking back seven years.

A recommended Economic Movie Marathon would include: Inside Job (2010 documentary from Charles Ferguson), Margin Call (2011, JC Chandor), The Big Short (2015, Adam McKay), and 99 Homes (2015, Ramin Bahrani)

watch the trailer:

 


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