The Post


“Thanks for the coffee but my Oscar is still shinier than YOUR Oscar!”

(2017) True Life Drama (DreamWorks) Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks, Sarah Paulson, Bob Odenkirk, Tracy Letts, Bradley Whitford, Bruce Greenwood, Matthew Rhys, Alison Brie, Michael Stuhlbarg, Carrie Coon, Jesse Plemmons, David Cross, Zach Woods, Pat Healey, John Rue, Rick Holmes, Philip Casnoff, Jessie Mueller, Stark Sands, Michael Cyril Creighton, Will Denton, Deidre Lovejoy. Directed by Steven Spielberg

 

In these troubled times, the veracity of the Free Press has been assaulted by the President. If that feels familiar to older readers, it’s because it was tried once before – by Richard Nixon. It is somewhat comforting to know it didn’t end well for him but before the Watergate scandal took him down there was the Pentagon Papers.

The Pentagon Papers were documents leaked to the press by Daniel Ellsberg (Rhys), a security consultant than employed by the RAND Corporation but previously an analyst for the Pentagon. At RAND he worked on the Pentagon papers, documents commissioned by then-Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara (Greenwood) about the decisions made during the war. After a crisis of conscience caused him to rethink his position as a defense analyst, he chose to surreptitiously remove the thousand pages of documents a little at a time to make copies of them at the ad agency of his then-girlfriend. Eventually he got the papers into the hands of the New York Times.

When the Times published portions of the Papers it was as if a bomb went off in the American consciousness. The Papers clearly showed that the war in Vietnam was not winnable – and moreover that Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson all knew it. The Papers also established that the government had been lying to the American public all that time. Although the Papers all concerned the tenures of those Presidents, the current President of the time, Nixon, was absolutely furious that the documents were leaked and the U.S. Government filed an injunction against the Times to suppress any further publication of the Papers. Nixon and his advisers felt that the Papers would erode American confidence in their own government which of course is what came to pass.

That’s where the Washington Post came in. Incensed at being scooped on the Papers, crusty editor Ben Bradlee (Hanks) orders his team of reporters to see if any copies of the Papers can be found. Despite the court order banning the publication of the Papers, one of the reporters – Ben Bagdikian (Odenkirk) – got in touch with Ellsberg, leading to a quandary for Bradlee and his publisher Katherine Graham (Streep) whether or not to defy the court order or do their duty to the American people.

It was a particularly quandary in that the Post was about to go public; were there to be a government action against the newspaper and the Publisher individually the badly needed infusion of cash could dry up and the Post might actually go under.

Graham was a woman of her era; in her 50s at the time that this took place, her husband had been publisher of the paper (inheriting the title from Graham’s father) she was a woman in a man’s world. When she entered the board room of her own newspaper, she was the lone woman. She was often condescended to and she herself felt more comfortable at social gatherings hanging out with the wives than with the policy makers. She did have a close personal relationship with McNamara which was a further complication.

The Post is a celebration of the free press, make no mistake about it. It also illustrates how important that a free and objective press is to the functioning of our nation. Besides that there is also a push for feminism and how the roles of women have changed as women have become more empowered. Obviously, those issues have become extremely timely in the wake of the current administration’s attacks on the press which is roundly proclaimed “fake news” if it in any way disagrees with the world view of the President, as well as the advent of the Me Too movement.

It doesn’t hurt that the movie has three of the most important names in movies over the last three decades participating. Spielberg is considered by some to be the greatest director in the history of movies and while devotees of Hitchcock, Ford, Capra and Scorsese might give that some healthy debate, none can deny that he is one of the greatest ever. Here, he’s at his very best; not a single scene is wasted and every shot not only advances the story but captures an emotional mood. There are plenty who consider Spielberg “the great manipulator” and there is some truth to that. His longtime collaborator John Williams writes a score that might be proof of that.

Hanks is not usually a name one associates with a Bradlee-like character but he has some personal connection to the former Post editor; the two were neighbors on Long Island and knew each other socially. He captures Bradlee’s accent note-perfectly as well as his dogged determination. This doesn’t compare to Jason Robards’ Oscar-winning performance as the legendary editor in All the President’s Men but it is a terrific performance nonetheless.

Streep, however, is absolutely amazing in the movie. It has garnered her yet another Oscar nomination and while she is in no way guaranteed a win, it wouldn’t be a crime if she did. Graham was a complex person who became something of an unlikely icon for the feminist movement and perhaps reluctantly so. As time went by she would become more self-confidence and assured; the events depicted here helped with that, but she was truly a woman who reinvented herself in middle age at a time when women were largely still shackled to the kitchen.

I will admit that the Linotype machines and printing presses depicted here brought me some nostalgia; as someone who worked at the San Jose Mercury News in the 80s and 90s I was familiar with the machinery and seeing them in action here did give me the warm fuzzies. So too did seeing the press at the height of its power and significance; in the years before being purchased by corporate entities who largely stifled their search for truth in favor of a search for advertising dollars. Newspapers remain relevant today (the Post continues to do excellent reporting on the Russian voting interference scandal as well as other important news stories of our day) but they have changed quite a bit. People tend not to get their news from newspapers so much but from social media sites, a dangerous practice. It is the responsibility of the citizen to be vigilant in order to keep our own government in check. When we remain firmly ensconced in echo chambers that do little more than validate our own point of view, we lose sight of what is actually happening. That’s how democracies fail.

REASONS TO GO: This is the work of one of the best directors ever at the top of his game; there’s not a single wasted scene. Streep delivers an incredible performance. The film manages to tackle both freedom of the press and the inequality of the treatment of women. Despite being set more than 40 years ago, the events are just as timely as ever
REASONS TO STAY: Those who are blind supporters of the President will see this as a slap in the face.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of profanity as well as a scene of war violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Stuhlbarg appears in three of the films nominated for a 2018 Best Picture Oscar (this, Call Me by Your Name and The Shape of Water) but was not nominated for a Best Supporting Actor for any of them.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/20/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 88% positive reviews. Metacritic: 83/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: All the President’s Men
FINAL RATING: 10/10
NEXT:
Cassidy Red

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I, Tonya


Some mother and daughter relationships aren’t exactly storybook perfect.

(2017) Biographical Dramedy (Neon) Margot Robbie, Sebastian Stan, Allison Janney, Julianne Nicholson, Paul Walter Hauser, Bobby Cannavale, Bojana Novakovic, Caitlin Carver, Maizie Smith, Mckenna Grace, Suehyla El-Attar, Jason Davis, Mea Allen, Cory Chapman, Amy Fox, Cara Mantella, Joshua Mikel, Lynne Ashe, Steve Wedan, Brandon O’Dell, Kelly O’Neal. Directed by Craig Gillespie

 

Fame is a double edged sword. It can give you the keys to the kingdom; everything in life you ever could want. It can also turn back savagely on you and make you a national laughingstock.

Those around in the mid-1990s will remember Tonya Harding (Robbie) as a gifted figure skater who had a legitimate shot at Olympic gold. The first (and to date only) woman to complete a triple axel in competition, it all came crashing down on her just prior to the 1994 Olympics in Norway.

This acid-tongued biopic shows Tonya being pushed into the rink by her overbearing mother LaVona (Janney). Single, bitter and ruthless, LaVona pushes Tonya through physical and emotional abuse, explaining it off as “she skates better angry.” A legitimate athlete, Tonya had a hard time winning judges over with her handmade costumes and her rough-around-the-edges charm.

Tonya moves from one abusive relationship to another; she meets Jeff Gillooly (Stan) at the rink. He falls head over heels for the waif who is something of a combination of Miss America and pro wrestling valet to the working class Gillooly. The two end up marrying but the relationship is tempestuous. He has a vicious temper and that temper gets physical.

She’s desperately lonely and wants to be accepted for what she is – one of the world’s best in her sport. However, her crude language and temperament get the better of her and she continues to place lower than she thinks she deserves. Then, she has that one perfect day – nailing the triple axel and winning the U.S. Figure Skating Championships, making her the odds-on favorite to medal at the Olympics. A combination of bad luck and bad decisions keep getting in her way however, and after separating, then reconciling and at last separating again with Gillooly, she switches coaches and looks to try and make a comeback. Her rivalry with Nancy Kerrigan (Carver) and a death threat that thoroughly plays with Tonya’s head and threatens to derail her chances once again leads Gillooly to conspire with his friend Shawn Eckhardt (Hauser)  to do the same to Kerrigan – except the incompetent Eckhardt decides on his own to take it a step further…

The movie is based on a series of face to face interviews with Harding and Gillooly which are often contradictory. The interviews are recreated with Robbie and Stan standing in. The actors also show the events that are being described, often stopping and turning to the camera and addressing the audience to say “I never did this,” or “She actually did this,” or make some other comment. The breaking of the fourth wall is effective and provides some of the best and most comedic moments of the film.

Several critics have groused that the film seems to be using domestic abuse (and there is a lot of it, starkly and graphically portrayed) as a punch line, but that’s quite the knee-jerk reaction in my humble opinion. Perhaps there are some folks who might find that stuff funny but there weren’t any in the screening I attended. The domestic abuse was in stark contrast to the lighter moments of sheer dumbassery displayed by Eckhardt and Gillooly, reflected by some of the more bizarre “you couldn’t make this stuff up” aspects of the actual events.

Gillespie and writer Steven Rogers make it clear their sympathies are with Harding, who was definitely dealt a difficult hand by life. She came from poverty and had to struggle for everything; to her mom’s credit (and you really can’t give her much) she found a way to outfit her with skates and skating lessons which couldn’t have been cheap. However, LaVona does some pretty awful things; she refuses to allow little Tonya a bathroom break until the poor child pees herself on the ice, which only elicits a disgusted expression from Mommy Dearest who will certainly elicit similar expressions from audience members. Class distinctions are a major theme in the film; Harding often acts like trailer trash (to use an awful expression which is to the poor the equivalent of a slur) because that’s all she knows. Still, she wills herself into success and that’s something she is almost never given credit for, mainly because she became tabloid fodder and the butt of late night comedian’s jokes.

Robbie is scary good in the movie, making Tonya hard-assed but also vulnerable. We see the pain in her face when she gives a smile for the cameras but that smile is as tight as saran wrap on her face and threatens to break at any moment. Robbie captures the attitude and vocal patterns of someone from those circumstances and makes Tonya a living, breathing person instead of a media invention.

Janney, who was so good in The West Wing returns to that kind of greatness with a much different role. There is nothing to like about LaVona and Janney gives us a character who is unapologetic and a little bit whacko. We sense that she’s been kicked in the teeth enough but there’s little context; all we see is that life has made her a ten karat bitch and someone who put Tonya on a collision course with infamy.

This is an Oscar contender on a lot of different levels and one of the best movies of the year. It’s just now hitting a limited release and should be going wide shortly. This is one you’ll want to see; even if the Tonya Harding scandal doesn’t interest you, if good filmmaking and incredible acting are more your thing, this movie covers both of those bases with room to spare.

REASONS TO GO: Robbie and Janney both give award-worthy performances. Some excellent camera work, particularly in the skating scenes. The soundtrack is near-perfect. Harding is turned from a joke into a sympathetic character.
REASONS TO STAY: The biting social commentary seems at odds with some of the humor.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity, a scene of shocking violence and some sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Janney actually trained as a figure skater through most of her youth until an accident caused a leg injury that effectively ended her career.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/12/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 89% positive reviews. Metacritic: 77/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Florence Foster Jenkins
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT:
Jigsaw

The Light Between Oceans


Alicia Vikander may look content but Michael Fassbender sees trouble on the horizon.

Alicia Vikander may look content but Michael Fassbender sees trouble on the horizon.

(2016) Drama (DreamWorks/Touchstone) Michael Fassbender, Alicia Vikander, Rachel Weisz, Florence Clery, Jack Thompson, Thomas Unger, Jane Menelaus, Garry McDonald, Anthony Hayes, Benedict Hardie, Emily Barclay, Bryan Brown, Stephen Ure, Peter McCauley, Leon Ford, Jonathan Wagstaff, Gerald Bryan, Elizabeth Hawthorne. Directed by Derek Cianfrance

 

Bad choices are part of human nature. We all make them but sometimes those choices are so monstrous, so heinous that even though we convince ourselves that we’re doing it for the right reasons, we cannot escape the fact that we’ve done something horribly wrong.

Tom Sherbourne (Fassbender) is a veteran of World War I who witnessed many horrors in the trenches. He’s returned home to Australia to find some kind of peace but the press of people – even in the Australia of 1918 – is too much for him. He applies for and receives a position as a lighthouse keeper on a remote island off the coast of Tasmania.

The opening was there because the loneliness of the post had unhinged Sherbourne’s predecessor but the harsh weather, dull routine and meticulous nature of the job appeal to Sherbourne and he isn’t bothered by the isolation. That changes when on a visit to town he meets the daughter of the local schoolmaster, Isabel Graysmark (Vikander). She’s lively, vivacious and is completely smitten by the taciturn, wounded Sherbourne. The two correspond and eventually, marry and she moves to the island with him.

As young couples will, the two try to get pregnant but this proves to be difficult. A series of miscarriages turns a happy marriage into a relationship with a terrible cloud hanging over it. Isabel is beset by depression and Tom doesn’t know what to do to help – until they spot a dinghy floating onto the beach. In it there is a dead man and a living baby.

Tom is anxious to report the incident and get the authorities involved but Isabel is desperate. She needs that baby and she figures she’s as good as anyone to raise it. She convinces Tom to keep the child and bury the body without telling a soul. As far as the mainland knew, Isabel was pregnant (she’d just had another miscarriage when the dinghy floated ashore). Nobody questioned that the baby was hers.

Four years later Lucy (Clery) (as the baby was named) Tom and Isabel are a happy family. They visit Lucy’s grandparents when Tom spies a woman putting flowers on a grave. This turns out to be Hannah Roennfeldt (Weisz), the wife of a German national who had rowed out in a dinghy along with their baby daughter and disappeared. After a search, it was presumed the dinghy sank and both her husband and daughter had drowned. Tom realizes that this woman, whose life has been utterly destroyed, is the true mother of Lucy and guilt begins to eat away at him. This leads him to do something that will bring his happiness to a standstill and change the lives of everyone involved forever.

Cianfrance has proven himself a master of creating moods and displaying emotion-wrought images. He has come up with another film that is emotionally charged and beautiful to look at. He has assembled a plum cast for this and it pays off; Fassbender and Vikander make a terrific couple and the chemistry between them is undeniable (shortly after filming completed the two announced they were a real-life couple as well). They also have some fine support from the mostly Australian cast (and Bryan Brown makes a sadly too-rare appearance as Hannah’s rich father) as well.

The story itself has a great deal of power to it as an examination of how guilt affects us and how good people can make horribly bad decisions but there are times the movie gets a bit too over-the-top sugary sweet. Some actions and decisions defy logic and realism. Granted this takes place in a very different era but even so, it seems that a few well-chosen words would have certainly made more of a difference and spared the Sherbourne family a good deal of agony.

Fassbender, Vikander and Weisz have all flirted with Oscar with both of the women having won statuettes of their own. The acting in the movie is sound. The cinematography is breathtaking. Those two elements alone make this one of the standouts of a very disappointing summer, quality-wise. Don’t expect to see a lot of love for this one come Oscar-time, but Cianfrance is likely headed in that general direction already.

REASONS TO GO: Fassbender and Vikander have plenty of chemistry and both deliver sterling performances. The cinematography is out of this world.
REASONS TO STAY: It does get treacly in places.
FAMILY VALUES:  There is a little bit of sexuality and plenty of adult thematic material.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  Both Fassbender and Vikander have played androids in high-profile films; Fassbender in Prometheus and Vikander in Ex-Machina.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/27/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 59% positive reviews. Metacritic: 60/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: To Keep the Light
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: For the Love of Spock

Twisted Justice (Nihon de ichiban warui yatsura)


Cops and guns.

Cops and guns.

(2016) True Crime Drama (Toei) Gȏ Ayano, Shidȏ Nakamura, Pierre Taki, Munetaka Aoki, Haruna Yabuki, Young Dais, Kumi Takiuchi, Katsuya, Takayuki Kinoshita, Tomoya Nakamura, Ryȗzȏ Tanaka, Ayumu Saitȏ, Takuma Otoo, Yukio Ueno, Minosuke, Ito Shiraishi. Directed by Kazuya Shiraishi

NYAFF

Certain things translate across cultural lines; that innocence can tarnished until it has rusted away solid and that power corrupts even the purest of souls. A fall from grace is a tragedy in any language.

Moroboshi (Ayano) is a jujitsu wrestler and a pretty good one and has the cauliflower ear to prove it. So good, in fact, that the Hokkaido prefecture police give him a job not because of his criminologist skills but because they hope that he will lead their jujitsu team to respectability, which he does. However, the police detectives in the precinct in the capitol of Sapporo are less enthused about his presence. He is used primarily as a gopher and a clerk.

But veteran detective Murai (Taki) sees something in the young man and takes him under his wing. Murai is at this time a fine police officer and one of the most respected in the department, but the department has this odd points system, in which certain types of busts were worth points while others were worth more points – and others less.

From Murai he learns to play the game of informants – called “Spies,” or just “S” in Japan. Moroboshi uses them to find out information that gets some of the feared Yakuza busted, which pushes up Moroboshi up the ladder at work. As the 70s wear on, Murai commits a cardinal sin and is forced to leave in disgrace, leaving Murai to pick up his informants and his status. Soon, as Japan enters a phase in which the police have become obsessed with taking illegal guns off the street, he has begun using his own Yakuza connections to import guns, then turn them in for financial gain (cops are being paid cash bonuses for each gun they turn in) as well as departmental glory.

But as Moroboshi uses his friends and mistresses, he begins to lose control of his little empire. Fueled on cocaine and high on sex, Moroboshi goes from the young and naïve wrestler and rookie patrol officer to a bitter and jaded veteran cop who sees the abyss rushing towards him. Can he avoid his fate?

The film is based on actual events that made up the biggest police scandal in Japan’s history to date. There is a Scorsese-esque feel here, especially in terms of The Departed, itself based on an Asian film. There are also elements of the Japanese yakuza film, such as the work of the great Kinji Fukasaku, very apparent here. Fans of the crime genre worldwide should sit up and take notice of this film. American audiences might also see the crime dramas of John Woo in between the frames here.

A bravura performance by Ayano has already gotten him notice as a rising star in Japan; he does some unforgettable work as both the young and puppy-like Moroboshi until he becomes the lethal and amoral cop that he eventually becomes. We watch Moroboshi slowly lose the endearing qualities that made him delightful at the beginning but by the movie’s end, the character is utterly corrupt and beyond redemption.

Shiraishi initially sets the movie in the ’70s (it covers a time span of more than three decades) and in each era that the movie checks in with Moroboshi, the film really looks like a movie from that era. For example, the 70s portion looks a lot like an American TV cop show – with boobs. And yes, there are plenty of those; prostitutes play a vital role in the movie.

There are moments of what I suppose are comedy relief that are almost surreal and absurd, but they are rather jarring next to the grim tone of the rest of the film. I think it’s more of a cultural thing that I don’t appreciate them as much; I’ve noticed that Japanese yakuza films often have those moments that are almost bizarre so I suppose that is something that Japanese audiences understand more than I do.

This has yet to acquire U.S. distribution as of this writing and quite frankly is more likely to hit the festival circuit first although someone like Magnet or Well Go USA might take a long look at this and send it out into the American market one of these days. If you see it playing anywhere near you if that occurs, don’t hesitate to go check it out – this is one of the good ones.

REASONS TO GO: The look of the film fits nicely the period it is set in. A cross between Scorsese and Woo on a budget.
REASONS TO STAY: There are moments of surreal absurdity that jar with the overall gritty tone.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of violence and profanity, along with a surfeit of smoking and some sexual content and brief nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Will make its American debut as the opening night film at the New York Asian Film Festival on June 22, 2016.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/21/16: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Departed
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Apocalypse Child

Love & Friendship


Kate Beckinsale machinates.

Kate Beckinsale machinates.

(2016) Period Romance (Roadside Attractions/Amazon) Kate Beckinsale, Morfydd Clark, Tom Bennett, Jenn Murray, Lochlann O’Mearáin, Sophie Radermacher, Chloë Sevigny, Stephen Fry, Jordan Waller, Ross Mac Mahon, Frank Prendergast, Xavier Samuel, Emma Greenwell, Justin Edwards, Kelly Campbell, Jemma Redgrave. Directed by Whit Stillman

Woman Power

The role of women has evolved over the centuries, but it still has a long way to go. One woman who has helped it evolve is the author Jane Austen, who wrote about strong female heroines in a period when women were not just second class citizens, but third or even fourth class. It is something of a shame that Austen heroines are to this day still more of an exception than a rule.

Lady Susan (Beckinsale) is a widow with scarcely a penny to her name. In the Regency era, that is a dire situation indeed. Having married into the upper class, she is used to a certain lifestyle that she can no longer afford. Having a scandalous reputation as a temptress (one that has been well-earned to be sure) hasn’t helped her cause. With few options, she goes to her sister-in-law Catherine Vernon (Greenwell) and her good-natured husband Charles (Edwards) to stay with.

Things are tense between the two women, mainly because Susan had opposed the marriage and had done her best to quash it – unsuccessfully. Now the appearance of Susan’s daughter Frederica (Clark) has complicated matters. Susan has been trying to get Frederica married to the extremely wealthy, moderately handsome, sweet-natured but utterly dim Sir James Martin (Bennett) whom she doesn’t love and has been resisting. Susan herself has been courting the charms of Catherine’s younger brother Reginald (Samuel), much to the amusement of Susan’s American friend Mrs. Johnson (Sevigny).

However all of Lady Susan’s plots and schemes may come crashing down about her head. There are people who just plain don’t like her and disapprove of her. It will take all of her wits and intelligence to stay one step ahead of everyone else and succeed in making sure both she and her daughter are able to live in comfort and privilege.

Director Whit Stillman is one of those guys who is well-respected within the film community. He has some really terrific films to his credit, including Last Days of Disco and Metropolitan, both must-sees for any film buff. He seems tailor-made for the works of Jane Austen and true to expectations he nails it with his first foray into the grand dame’s work.

And that turns out to be the case. Stillman gets the essence of the language, making it flow without making it too incomprehensible to modern ears, which is often the case with Regency-era adaptations. He also knows how to bring the best in Beckinsale, who starred for him in Last Days of Disco. She is absolutely superb here, self-confident, manipulative, venal and absolutely seductive. This is the kind of performance that serves notice that you’re not just a B-movie actress, as she has already shown in several other indie films.

There are a couple of other great performances here as well, including Sevigny’s acerbic turn as Mrs. Johnson. Sevigny is an actress who is criminally underused by both Hollywood and the independent film scene. Her appearances are always much anticipated and appreciated by this critic, and she gives one of her best performances here in years. Bennett is also tip-top as the incredibly dense Sir James. He is delightfully funny and provides a fine counterpoint to the very intelligent Susan.

The only quibble I have is that so many of the other roles are played in an almost stilted fashion. That does make Beckinsale’s work stand out but I think it detracts from the rest of the film. I would have liked to have seen a little more personality in some of the other actors.

This is also a lush-looking film, with beautiful locations and sumptuous costumes and wigs. The period is recalled evocatively but in many ways you don’t feel you’re looking at the actual era so much as an idealized version of it. As is often the case in Austen’s work we rarely see beyond the walls of the upper classes – the savage poverty that was also a hallmark of the era. It exists only as a big bad boogieman to terrify those of the upper class who are teetering on the edge of it.

Jane Austen isn’t for everybody. Most audiences find her dull and slow, but there is a lyricism about her work – even the filmed versions of it – that I have found oddly moving and appealing throughout my life, from reading her actual words to the adaptations of those words. I think that she continues to teach us about the reality of who women are – or can be. She has created dozens of role models who can STILL be role models nearly 200 years after the fact. If there is anything more impressive than that, I can’t think of it.

REASONS TO GO: Beckinsale gives a marvelous performance and Bennett is inspired comic relief. Gorgeous costumes and settings. A fine adaptation of a lesser-known Austen work.
REASONS TO STAY: May be too mannered for some. A few of the supporting performances are too colorless to stand up.
FAMILY VALUES: Some of the thematic elements are a bit on the adult side.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Sienna Miller was originally cast as Lady Susan, but had to drop out and Beckinsale was cast in her place.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/6/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 99% positive reviews. Metacritic: 87/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Sense and Sensibility
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Dark

Hail, Caesar!


Friends, Romans, Communists...

Friends, Romans, Communists…

(2016) Comedy (Universal) Josh Brolin, George Clooney, Alden Ehrenreich, Channing Tatum, Scarlett Johansson, Tilda Swinton, Ralph Fiennes, Frances McDormand, Jonah Hill, Veronica Osorio, Heather Goldenhersh, Alison Pill, Max Baker, Fisher Stevens, David Krumholtz, Clancy Brown, Alex Karpovsky, Robert Picardo, Christopher Lambert, Ming Zhao. Directed by Ethan and Joel Coen

Hollywood is often portrayed as a dream factory and during its golden age, it was just that. Massive studios cranked out classic films (and, to be fair, a lot of crap too) and created lasting images of a time that never really existed. We look back at that era fondly because in many ways it was a lie.

Eddie Mannix (Brolin) is the studio chief at Capital Pictures. He fixes things when they go wrong, be they a ditzy starlet posing for risqué pictures or a family musical star (Johansson) ho has gotten herself knocked up and needs a husband pronto. Hobie Doyle (Ehrenreich), a cowboy star, has been unaccountably put into a drawing room comedy lensed by the immortal British director Laurence Laurentz (Fiennes). And the studio’s big budget production of Hail, Caesar! – A Tale of the Christ – looks to be a huge hit.

Except that Baird Whitlock (Clooney), the film’s star, has turned up missing. And not just missing, kidnapped by a group that calls itself The Future. This could be an absolute public relations disaster. Not only does Eddie have to get the ransom paid and his mercurial star back on the set in time to film the climactic speech, he also has to make sure it stays out of the gossip columns particularly via twin sisters Thessaly and Thora Thacker (Swinton). However in the meantime he’ll have to oversee a Sailor’s musical starring an athletic dancer (Tatum), a Busby Berkeley-like mermaid spectacular, a singing cowboy Western as well as the aforementioned films.

This is equal part tribute to old Hollywood and spoof of it. Clearly the Coens have a good deal of affection and reverence for the old movies. They also have a sense of whimsy that has influenced people like Wes Anderson and Charlie Kaufman. That’s present here too, more than in recent Coen Brothers films and more subversive in a lot of ways.

The production designer does a wonderful job of capturing the 50s look and the big studio vibe. Bright colors, as you’d see in a Technicolor production of the time, dominate here. The costume design is also flawless. One of the things that is typical to Coen Brother period films is the attention to detail is generally very serious even if the films themselves are more comedic.

As with many Coen Brother pictures, the cast is impressive. Clooney plays the empty-headed star to the hilt, while Brolin gives Mannix – who as a real person on the MGM lot by the way although he is fictionalized here – the harried demeanor that you’d expect from a studio executive. While Brolin’s Mannix is a bit more quirky than the real one was (the real Mannix was rumored to have had mob ties), his Catholic need for regular confession and ability to juggle a number of different balls in the air give him more personality than other writer-directors might have given a character like his. Ehrenreich projects a good deal of likability which bodes well for his future career.

Some of the supporting roles are little more than cameos but the ones that caught my attention were Swinton as the imperious gossip columnist twins whose rivalry is as abiding as their twin noses for a story. Hill is low-key as a notary public, and Johansson has moxie as the knocked up mermaid. As is usual for the Coen Brothers, the absurdity of the characters and their situation is played deadpan which only heightens the absurdity.

The problem I have here is that there are certain scenes that drag a little bit and fall a little flat. The scenes where Whitlock is having philosophical discussions with his captors is a bit silly and a lot more uninteresting. I know Da Queen complained that she was bored with the movie and I’ve heard similar complaints from other friends, some of whom are Coen Brothers fans. I can’t say that I was bored but I can see why they were.

I get that the Coen Brothers are not for everybody. People who didn’t like The Grand Hotel Budapest, for example, are not likely to enjoy this either. There is a quirkiness to their work that is I grant you an acquired taste. From a personal standpoint, it’s a taste I’ve acquired but I recognize that isn’t necessarily the same for you – and that’s not a bad thing. Your taste is your taste.

Any Coen Brothers movie is worth seeing. In my book, they’ve yet to make a movie that had no redeeming qualities. And to be fair, this isn’t going to be considered one of their best I’m quite sure – I’d rank it right about the middle of their pack. But the middle of the Coen pack is better than the entire work of plenty of other directors out there.

REASONS TO GO: Typical Coen Brothers vibe. Captures the era and location nicely. Love the whimsy!
REASONS TO STAY: Drags a little bit.
FAMILY VALUES: For the most part, pretty harmless although there’s some content that’s slightly racy.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The fictional Capitol Pictures Studios also appears in the previous period Coen Brothers film Barton Fink.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/16/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 80% positive reviews. Metacritic: 72/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Player
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Where to Invade Next?

Primeval


Orlando Jones and Brooke Langton were hoping this would be a lot more like Chariots of Fire than it turned out to be.

Orlando Jones and Brooke Langton were hoping this would be a lot more like Chariots of Fire than it turned out to be.

(2007) Horror (Hollywood) Dominic Purcell, Orlando Jones, Brooke Langton, Jurgen Prochnow, Gideon Emery, Gabriel Malema, Dumisani Mbebe, Ernest Ndhlovu, Erica Wessels, Patrick Lyster, Eddy Bekombo, Vivian Moodley, Lika Van Den Bergh, Linda Mpondo, Lehiohonolo Makoko, Chris April, Andrew Whaley, Jacqui Pickering. Directed by Michael Katleman

Man is capable of committing absolute horrors to his fellow man. However, man is also part of a larger natural order of things – survival of the fittest where the strong prey on the weak. And upon occasion, Man isn’t necessarily at the top of the food chain.

The African nation of Burundi is caught up in a terrible civil war that has been ongoing for twelve years. When a mass grave is located in the Northern portion of the country, a United Nations team is sent to investigate the find, led by one of the foremost forensic pathologists (Wessels) in the world. In a shocking turn of events, the woman is attacked and dragged into the waters of the river by a gigantic crocodile known to the locals as “Gustave.”

Tim Manfrey (Purcell), a television news network producer, is riding out a scandal in which he apparently ran a story without adequately checking the facts. The network chief (Lyster) wants to send him to Burundi not only to get the story of the gigantic crocodile, more than 20 feet long, but to capture the beast. He’ll be sent with wildlife reporter Aviva Masters (Langton), Manfrey’s regular cameraman Steven Johnson (Jones) and naturalist Matthew Collins (Emery), who is confident that he has built a contraption capable of capturing the massive reptile.

They are met in Burundi by a political functionary known as Harry (Mbebe) who warns them about a warlord in the bush known as “Little Gustave.” He introduces them to Jakob Krieg (Prochnow), their local guide and an expert on the crocodile whom he has been hunting for years. Krieg wants to kill the creature whereas Collins wants to capture it alive, which leads to some tension between the two.

Once in the village nearest the most recent attack, the news crew is struck by the friendliness of the people as well as by the horrible poverty of the village. They are required to receive a blessing by the local shaman (Ndhlovu) who predicts that they will find what they seek but they will also find death. Meanwhile, Johnson captures on film the brutal execution of a family from the village by a murderous lieutenant (Bekombo) of Little Gustave. Now they are being chased by the warlord’s men and being stalked by the croc. Great, you can end of being dinner or part of a mass grave for some other UN forensic pathologist to examine.

Purcell (TV’s Prison Break) is the lead here and he does a credible albeit colorless job. Unfortunately, his character is written without much for Purcell to work with, leaving him to cling to action hero clichés in order to move things along. Jones provides adequate comic relief in a role in which he is sadly underused, and Prochnow (who deserves better fare than this) handles the Robert Shaw role with as much dignity as he can muster.

The giant croc looks fairly realistic as CGI creations go. Some of the scenes in which the croc is seen below the surface of the water look hastily slapped together by someone with a Commodore VIC-20, but otherwise the monster was scary enough. The cinematographer utilizes the African vistas nicely.

This is based on true events – a naturalist in Burundi did attempt to capture Gustave (who is an actual beast that has been credited with killing more than 300 people along the Ruzizi River and also along the northern shore of Lake Tanganyika. They raise some good points about the situation in Africa; it takes the death of a white UN official to bring an American news crew to Burundi to cover a crocodile who has killed more than 300 Africans. The writing is taut and crisp, and they don’t waste too much time getting to the meat of the story – the stalking of the news crew by Gustave.

The film slyly alludes to Jaws which is a bit of a mistake; there are a lot of similarities to that film, and the comparison isn’t particularly flattering. Too many clichés clog up the writing, and the subplot about the Little Gustave warlord is unnecessary. Had they decided to focus on the hunt for the crocodile, they would have had a much better movie…but then again, it would have been Lake Placid.

The filmmakers were going for a cross between Lake Placid and Hotel Rwanda and instead got a four-legged Jaws. This isn’t a total waste of time – Jones is entertaining and the African vistas are worth seeing. However, it’s probably a bit too graphic for those who would be drawn in by the civil war story, and a bit too preachy for those who are more interested in the horror element. Yet another instance of a movie that can’t decide what it wants to be and so it ends up being nothing.

WHY RENT THIS: Gorgeous African vistas. Jones provides much-needed comic relief.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Lackluster acting. Cliches abound. Some of the CGI is laughable.
FAMILY MATTERS: Kids and dogs are eaten, and people are stalked by a terrifying crocodile. There are also some graphic executions and a boatload of corpses, some half-eaten and others murdered by the two-legged monsters in the movie, as well as some foul language if that bothers you at this point.
TRIVIAL PURSUITS: A similar team in reality attempted to capture Gustave, using much the same methods but were unsuccessful due to equipment failure, inclement weather and deteriorating political conditions which eventually forced them to leave the country.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: The “Crocumentary” featurette focuses on the actual Gustave who inspired the film.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $15.3M on an unknown production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD Rental only), Amazon, iTunes, Vudu
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Rogue
FINAL RATING: 4/10
NEXT: Robot Overlords