The Front Runner


Hugh Jackman can’t believe he went from being Wolverine to being Gary Hart.

(2018) Biographical Drama (Columbia) Hugh Jackman, Vera Farmiga, J.K. Simmons, Mark O’Brien, Molly Ephraim, Chris Coy, Alex Karpovsky, Josh Brener, Steve Zissis, Tommy Dewey, Kaitlyn Dever, Oliver Cooper, Jenna Kanell, RJ Brown, Alfred Molina, Ari Graynor, John Bedford Lloyd, Steve Coulter, Kevin Pollack, Sara Paxton, Joe Chrest, Courtney Ford, Rachel Walters.  Directed by Jason Reitman

 

The story of Senator Gary Hart’s (D-Co.) 1988 Presidential campaign is either a comedy of errors, or a tragedy of monumental proportions – likely depending on your political point of view. The facts are fairly simple. Hart (Jackman) was considered the front runner for the Democratic nomination until the press – mainly in the person of Miami Herald reporter Tom Fiedler (Zissis) chased down rumor that Hart was having an extramarital affair with a model by the name of Donna Rice (Paxton). The scandal – which was all innuendo and is denied to this day by both Hart and Rice – was enough to sink Hart’s ship and wipe out his political career.

Reitman tends to lean towards the quixotic. It is clear that the Hart scandal signaled the end of a tacit understanding between the press and politicians that personal affairs were off-limits; the press smiled and looked the other way while John Kennedy had several affairs, most famously with Marilyn Monroe – so they say. Hart’s own stubborn refusal to see the coming storm and ignore the scandal that was brewing is seen as a tragic flaw in his character – he wanted to focus on the issues. In today’s political reality, that concept seems as quaint as the horse and buggy.

The movie is based on a book by journalist Mike Bai with the script co-written by Bai, Reitman and former political campaign staffer Jay Carson and thus has a ring of authenticity of it. Reitman seems to be going for a West Wing-like vibe in which idealists who want to make the world a better place are stymied by political realities, but the movie is oddly low energy, something that the West Wing could never have been accused of.

A dynamite cast including some outstanding performances by Farmiga as Hart’s long-suffering wife, Simmons as his campaign manager and Molina as Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee are a highlight. Reitman also treats Rice with much compassion, showing her as a victim and not as a golddigger which is how the contemporary press portrayed her. She was assuredly not that.

Still, I would have liked a bit more attention to period detail and maybe a less low-key performance by Jackman who would seem to be perfectly cast as Hart, but never really gets the politician’s personal charisma right. Hart was a front runner for a reason, but you wouldn’t know it by watching this film.

REASONS TO SEE: A stark reminder that we elect the leaders we deserve.
REASONS TO AVOID: A little too low-key for my taste.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity as well as sexual references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: ever and Ephraim play two of the Baxter sisters on Last Man Standing.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Movies Anywhere, Redbox, Sling TV, Starz, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/4/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 60% positive reviews; Metacritic: 61/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Primary Colors
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Sorry We Missed You

Shock and Awe


You can tell they’re journalists by their rumpled clothes.

(2017) True Life Drama (VerticalWoody Harrelson, James Marsden, Rob Reiner, Tommy Lee Jones, Jessica Biel, Milla Jovovich, Richard Schiff, Luke Tennie, Terence Rosemore, Margo Moorer, Michael Harding, Kate Butler, Luke White, Gabe White, Bowen Hoover, Caroline Fourmy, Teri Wyble, Al Sapienza, Steve Coulter, Gretchen Koerner. Directed by Rob Reiner

 

We live in a world where the press is often vilified for having an anti-American agenda – by the President. We live in a world where good journalism is often – if you’ll excuse the expression – trumped by potential profit. We also live in a world where we have been at war in Afghanistan and Iraq for nearly 20 years, the longest period we have ever been in a sustained conflict.

It seemed like a good idea at the time, though. America had just endured the horror of 9/11 and the people were eager to make someone pay. Afghanistan was a good candidate since they had given bin-Laden and Al Qaeda shelter, but then the rumors that George Bush, Dick Cheyney and Donald Rumsfeld were planning on invading Iraq as well took a lot of people by surprise. “Oh, but Weapons of Mass Destruction,” said the White House and everyone believed it, even though there was little or no evidence that they existed.

Not everyone believed; reporters for the Washington bureau of the Knight-Ridder newspaper chain (for whom I once toiled although by 2001 I had been gone for five years) Warren Strobel (Marsden) and Jonathan Landay (Harrelson) were mystified at the media’s simple acceptance of the government’s claims without even basic fact checking, and began to dive deeper into those claims. What they found was disturbing to say the least, but nobody wanted to hear it; many of the papers in the Knight-Ridder chain refused to print the articles the men wrote, preferring to accept New York Times reporter Judith Miller and her pro-government assertions, for which she and the Times would later apologize – and which effectively ended Miller’s career as a respected journalist.

Clearly the film takes its cues from All the President’s Men, certainly the high end of crusading journalist movies. Reiner, who has made his share of politically charged movies (A Few Good Men and LBJ among them) doesn’t really instill the film with a lot of passion; perhaps it’s that he had to pull double duty as an actor when Alec Baldwin pulled out of the film literally a day before shooting started (it was a scheduling thing) but the movie is curiously low-energy.

Perhaps part of the film’s problem is that despite an excellent cast and a story that deserves to be told, it didn’t end well. The war, as we all know, happened and continues to happen to this day; thousands of American lives lost, literally more than a million Iraqi citizens dead, trillions of dollars spent and, well, here we still are. I suppose Strobel and Landay have the satisfaction of having been right but they weren’t able to convince anybody as we got our first taste of politics as entertainment. The media’s failure here only added to the distrust of the Fourth Estate which of course Trump and his cronies are exploiting and which have helped America into the mess it’s in now. Yes, I’m recommending the film – it’s a cautionary tale worth listening to, and it’s well-acted for the most part – but it’s a downer. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

REASONS TO SEE: The cast is extraordinary. Has a documentary-like feel, in a good way.
REASONS TO AVOID: A little heavy on the journalistic aphorisms.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity and sexual references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the fourth time Jones and Harrelson have appeared in the same film together, most notably in Natural Born Killers.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Starz, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/27/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 29% positive reviews: Metacritic: 47/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Spotlight
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Hamlet in the Golden Vale

Annabelle Comes Home


Chucky has got NOTHING on Annabelle!

(2019) Horror (New LineMcKenna Grace, Madison Iseman, Katie Sarife, Vera Farmiga, Patrick Wilson, Michael Cimino, Samara Lee, Kenzie Caplan, Sade Katarina, Michael Patrick McGill, Brittany Hoza, Sheila McKellan, Eddie J. Fernandez, Steve Coulter, Luca Luhan, Gary-7, Paul Dean, Alison White, Oliver Dauberman, Lou Lou Safran, Anthony Wernyss, Natalia Safran. Directed by Gary Dauberman

Not every doll is a toy. Some dolls are heirlooms; others are meant for adult collectors. Then, there are a very few who are cursed or possessed by murderous spirits. There is one, however, who acts as a magnet for malevolent spirit.

Demonologists Ed (Wilson) and Lorraine Warren (Farmiga) have a roomful of cursed and possessed items they keep in a locked room. Of these, the most dangerous is Annabelle, a doll that serves as the aforementioned magnet. When she is not locked in a glass case that has been blessed by a priest, she can cause all kinds of mischief

When Ed and Lorraine have to leave on a job, they leave their young daughter Judy (Grace) under the care of sweet babysitter Mary Ellen (Iseman) whose friend Daniela (Sarife) is a bit less well-behaved. She manages to get herself into that forbidden room and in doing so unleashes hell. Suddenly the three girls are beset by all manner of malevolent entities. Surviving the night may well be impossible.

The seventh entry in the Conjuring shared movie universe is one of the strongest to date. Novice director Dauberman resists the temptation to rely on jump scares (although there are a few) and instead comes by his frights honestly. While at times, the movie does seem like a vehicle to establish future spin-offs for the franchise (I’m betting on a Ferryman and a Haunted bride film at the very least), the movie is powered largely by some strong performances by Grace, Iseman and Sarife – all of whom are given character depth and pluck. Dauberman also really sets the film in the 70s nicely; the fashions might make you cringe a little bit. Still, this is all very good fun and the kind of roller coaster ride I love in a horror movie.

REASONS TO SEE: Some very effective scares. The three female leads all do solid jobs.
REASONS TO AVOID: Feels at times like they’re just creating future spin-offs.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a goodly amount of violence and horrific images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The real Lorraine Warren passed away two months before the film was released. The closing credits include a dedication to her.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Movies Anywhere, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/27/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 64% positive reviews: Metacritic: 53/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Nun
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Parasite