THE POST (2017)
For the growing number of Americans who consider the First Amendment as a bothersome roadblock to efficient government and whatever agenda they want pushed through, this film will piss you off.
For those of us who believe that most of what holds our democracy together lands on your front step every morning or on your laptop during your first coffee, “The Post” arrives as a balm to the sorry reputation and disastrous financial situation the industry finds itself in today.
No doubt, someday, they’ll make a movie about the Washington Post’s current coverage of the Russian investigation, but for now we need to go back 46 years ago when the hottest story in journalism was a massive government report, commonly called the Pentagon Papers. First leaked to and printed by the New York Times, the Post, led by new editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks), desperately seeks a copy of the report for itself.
The report, written under the direction of 1960s Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, chronicles the truth about U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War, previously kept secret from the public in favor of a positive spin during both the Kennedy and Johnson presidencies.
The courts offer an opening for the paper, by agreeing to temporarily halting the New York Times series after a request from the Nixon administration. Bradley and his reporters go into full-court press to get the story before the Times can publish again.
But the real story of this film revolves around publisher Katherine Graham, portrayed by Meryl Streep, who adds another great performance to her overflowing resume. Graham took the reins of the paper in 1963, eight years before the events of the film, when her husband and longtime publisher Philip Graham committed suicide. Though her father had previous run the paper he brought in 1933, she was more involved in society life of D.C., hosting parties for the most powerful people in government.
The film shows Graham being treated as a figure head by the newspaper’s board (all men, of course), who are more interested in plans to take the company public (and the money that will raise) rather than any journalistic crusade. But this middle-aged woman, from an era when women were always in the background, musters the strength to make difficult, crucial decisions to publish the Pentagon Papers, establishing the paper as one of the country’s best.
Her newfound support of journalism in the face of hostile government will pay off again a few months later in the paper’s landmark coverage of Watergate. The dialogue-heavy script by Liz Hannah and Josh Singer (who also worked on “Spotlight”) and Streep’s nuanced performance make Graham’s evolving sense of duty completely believable and, frankly, inspirational.
Oh, and by the way, “The Post” is directed by Steven Spielberg, again, delivering perfectly paced storytelling; the veteran filmmaker is unafraid to depict the deliberate manner of research and reporting while eliciting superb performances up and down the cast.
Along with Streep’s great work and Hanks solid Bradlee (nearly as good as Jason Robards, who won an Oscar for the same role in “All the President’s Men”), Bob Odenkirk (TV’s “Better Call Saul”) is perfect as the paper’s political reporter Ben Bagdikian as is Bruce Greenwood as McNamara, whose friendship with Graham puts her in an awkward position.
While I enjoyed every second of the picture, I’m not that sure that those who didn’t spend most of their life working in a newspaper office will be as enamored of “The Post”—just seeing the old linotype machines cranking out lead type and old-style presses was a trip down memory lane.
I don’t think the film is going to win over the media-bashers who see “an agenda” in every story that doesn’t fit their narrative, but for those who tend to take the free flow of information for granted, “The Post” serves as a powerful reminder that it often takes fearless vigilance of dedicated journalists to simply report the truth.
CALL ME BY YOUR NAME (2017)
Every critic in the country seems to agree that this breezy European romance is among the year’s best films. Instead, I saw an inconsequential, by-the-numbers flirtation between the son of an erudite linguist professor (vacationing in Italy) and the father’s summer intern.
Oh my god: they’re gay! Is that what makes this an award-worthy film compared to all the other fluffy vacation romances that have come and gone over the past 20 years?
Here’s what I kept thinking as I watched “Call Me by Your Name,” just weeks after the uproar over Senate candidate Roy Moore’s history of dating much younger girls was revealed: What if the 17-year-old son of Prof. Perlman was instead his daughter and his late 20s assistant was seducing her? Would that make for a worthy best picture nominee in the year of #metoo?
Don’t worry, I’m the last person to get all moralistic, but I would like to see a little consistency in society’s crusade against what is and isn’t inappropriate behavior.
Armie Hammer, in a robotic, mannered performance, is the very clever, good looking as the intern to Perlman (the omnipresent Michael Stuhlbarg, superb as always) who barely acknowledges the mopey son (Timothée Chalamet) for weeks, playing the oldest game in the book.
Their hookup is inevitable and takes way too long. But without the pointless sidetracks and sexual circling, there’d be no movie at all.
Chalamet captures the languid, confused, easily manipulated youngster who falls hard for the older man even knowing there’s no future in the relationship.
Italian director Luca Guadagnino (“I Am Love”), working from a script by veteran filmmaker James Ivory (“A Room with a View,” “Howards End”), seems to be striving for a pastiche of the French romantic films of the 1960s and ‘70s in which young love and romantic disappointment were elevated to intellectual examination.
“Call Me by Your Name” won’t ever be confused with an Eric Rohmer or Francois Truffaut film; despite its critical acclaim, the film has all the depth of the kind of teen sex romp they used to show at drive-in theaters.
THE SHAPE OF WATER (2017)
I really don’t know what to make of Guillermo del Toro’s latest other-worldly creation.
While I understand the positive reviews and even his Golden Globe for direction as he once again crafts an astonishingly surreal world (as he did in “Hell Boy” and “Pan’s Labyrinth”) that straddles the line of real and magical. It’s not the sci-fi aspects of the film that bothered me, but the manner in which he portrays the real folks who should be persuading me of the story’s believability.
Sally Hawkins, who has previously shined in dozens of British productions but scored her best reviews in Mike Leigh’s “Happy-Go-Lucky” (2008) and in Woody Allen’s “Blue Jasmine” (2013), plays Elisa, a mute cleaning woman working in a subterranean research facility who takes an interest in a new arrival. A freakish half fish, half human species is being held under water in a room occasionally cleaned by Elisa and her partner Zelda (the always pitch-perfect Octavia Spencer).
The love-starved Elisa takes a liking to the gill-man, feeding him and making some headway in communicating while his government keeper, played by Michael Shannon, treat him as if he’s a dangerous terrorist.
Shannon’s character never rises above a cartoonish, foaming-at-the-mouth villain, angry at everything that comes before him. For some reason, del Toro thinks it was important to also show that he’s something of a sexual abuser. Every scene he’s in comes off as ridiculous, often senseless.
If that wasn’t enough, Elisa and Zelda, with the help of a sympathetic scientist (Michael Stuhlbarg; he’s in virtually every December picture) sneak him out of the facility and into Elisa’s apartment—as insane as that sounds, it gets crazier.
Just in case viewers didn’t get the point of del Toro and Vanessa Taylor’s script, Elisa’s neighbor (Richard Jenkins) is a gay, antisocial freelance advertising artist: being an outsider in the early 1960s, or anytime, is no fun. The premise and the characters just never lured me into this world.
And if that wasn’t enough, the creature (Doug Jones under all the fishy scales) looks too much like those 1950s B-movie rubber-suited monsters to take very seriously (see “Revenge of the Creature”). I kept waiting for him to unzip his outfit and emerge as Prince Charming; that would have been more believable.
DARKEST HOUR (2017)
Winston Churchill has been portrayed on screen and TV more than 60 times, but never has the frank-speaking British PM been supported by such a compelling script; strong, no-nonsense performances; and sure-handed direction.
Nearly every second of this film, opening with the 1940 resignation of disgraced Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, made a fool of by Hitler, and ending with Churchill’s rousing speech to Parliament as the Dunkirk rescue takes place, had me on the edge of my seat as two crucial months of World War II unfold.
The 66-year-old veteran of many a political fight, played brilliantly by Gary Oldman, takes over as leader of the United Kingdom as a compromise candidate, who is opposed by a coalition led by Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup), and backed by King George (Ben Mendelsohn) over his refusal to negotiate with Germany despite Britain’s untenable position. Some critics of the film have assailed the movie’s portrait of Churchill because he’s shown as experiencing uncertainty and self questioning while the fate of the nation rides on his shoulders. To me, he wouldn’t be human if he didn’t have doubts.
Joe Wright (“Pride and Prejudice,” “Atonement,” “The Soloist”) and screenwriter Anthony McCarten (“The Theory of Everything”) bring urgency to the story that other WWII films covering the same period have rarely matched. And while the rescue at Dunkirk is a key element of this film, it offers a very different view of the war than Christopher Nolan’s summer picture, “Dunkirk.”
For my money, “Darkest Hour” is a much superior film, capturing the desperation the island nation was facing as the Nazi Army swept across the continent.
Oldman makes this nearly mythic leader into a real person, who drinks and smokes way too much and rarely suffers fools, but also recognizes that his decisions could cost his country dearly.
It’s been 30 years since Oldman emerged as one of the best young actors in Britain, making his name in the Mike Leigh TV movie “Meantime” (1984), followed by rip-roaring performances as punk legend Sid Vicious in “Sid and Nancy” (1986) and rule-breaking playwright Joe Orton in “Prick Up Your Ears” (1986). Both performances, and pictures, were among the best of the 1980s.
Yet despite some high-profile roles—as Oswald in Oliver Stone’s “JFK” (1991) and Dracula in Francis Coppola’s “Bram Stoker’s Dracula” (1992)—he has spent most of the last 25 years as a supporting player, most notable as Chief Gordon in the “Batman” reboot and as Sirius Black in four “Harry Potter” films. In 2011, Oldman finally scored an Oscar nomination for his turn as John le Carré’s introspective spy George Smiley in “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.”
That was a good performance; his Churchill is a great one that will be the defining work of his fine career and should earn him a best actor Oscar.
Also worth a mention is Lily James (Lady Rose of “Downton Abbey” and 2015’s “Cinderella”) who turns a cliché role—the timid, newly hired secretary to the great man—into a character who adds another human element to the film that never stops reminding us what ordinary people can do in extraordinary circumstances.
THE DISASTER ARTIST (2017)
As I’ve said (and written) many times, the effort to create even a terrible movie is monumental, requiring the effort of many talented people. From all evidence presented in this biting, yet loving chronicle of the making of Tony Wiseau’s “The Room,” this barely released 2003 drama is both one of the worst acted and directed movies ever and an effort that included dozens of the industry’s top professional.
Clearly they failed, but this resulting homage turns out to be one of 2017’s best films, maybe the ultimate cinematic irony.
James Franco, actor-writer-director and a dozen other things in his down time (which may be the demise of his career—that has yet to be determined) gives an hilarious performance as Tommy, a wannabe movie actor of unknown age and ethnicity (he speaks with a thick, often incomprehensible European accent) who is as talentless as anyone who has ever tried to make it in Hollywood. Scenes of his acting class and during auditions show Tommy as clueless as to the subtleties of acting while being as determined as anyone who ever did a reading. But they also reveal acting skills of Franco I didn’t think he possessed.
Tommy, frustrated by his inability to land a role, decides to make his own movie, with the help of another struggling actor, his roommate Greg Sestero (well played by Franco’s brother Dave).
Turns out, Tommy has a very deep bank account and spends like he’s J. Paul Getty on the movie. Yet all the money in the world can’t make up for his laughable acting, ridiculous directing choices and unchecked ego that makes true tales of self-obsessed filmmakers pale in comparison.
“The Disaster Artist” plays like a parody of the idiocy that marks many a Hollywood production, except that this one actually happened.
At some point in the film, I started to feel bad about laughing over and over again at Tommy; he’s trying so hard but failing so majestically. Yet Franco turns the story on its head near the end, transforming what could be seen as a humiliation (and probably was in real life) into a face-saving moment for Tommy.
Though it relieved my guilty, I hated the ending. It felt like Franco’s guilty conscious at work, rather than the ending the film deserved. And it didn’t change my opinion of Tommy as an arrogant fool.
The script, by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber (based on Sestero’s book), isn’t kind to Tommy, but there he was, happy to take the stage at the Golden Globes as Franco accepted a best acting award. In the pursuit of fame, shame is a minor concern.
LADY BIRD (2017)
I’m not sure how this thoughtful, well-acted, but very typical coming-of-age story was elevated to viable contender for Oscars in the top categories. I suspect that if this film had been written and directed by Joe Smith or even Susan Smith, instead of indie actress favorite Greta Gerwig, it would be just another in the growing genre of high school-angst pictures.
“Lady Bird” falls somewhere amongst these movies from the past 10 years: “The Edge of Seventeen,” “Brick,” “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” “The Spectacular Now” and “Easy A,” none of which were ever seen as possible Oscar nominees.
But even if it is overrated, the movie tells an achingly truthful story. Christine, a Sacramento, Calif., high school senior who has rebelliously renamed herself Lady Bird navigates her bumpy senior year at Catholic school. Nothing much happens that you haven’t seen before in any of the above mentioned films; what Gerwig’s script does best is dig deep into the complex relationship between mother and daughter.
With red streaked hair and an eclectic wardrobe (symbolizing her superiority to the other teen characters), Lady Bird despises pretty much everyone, especially her mother who is determined to make her daughter into someone very conventional. While Lady Bird sees herself as a budding artist bound for an East Coast school, her mother wants her to stay close to home at the more sensible UC Davis.
Saoirse Ronan, nominated for best actress for 2015’s “Brooklyn,” gives a believable performance as the high schooler desperate for independence, but the film’s standout work is done by veteran stage and screen actress Laurie Metcalf as her argumentative mother. Both refuse to compromise or even acknowledge each other’s points and the actresses are convincing real.
As happens in nearly all of these films, the main character gets a taste of hanging with the popular crowd and dumps her nerdy but loyal old friend; makes poor decisions about boys, here played by Lucas Hedges (“Manchester by the Sea”) and Timothée Chalamet (“Call Me By Your Name”); and puts up with an irritating older brother and out-of-touch parents.
Gerwig, who previously wrote the script for two films she starred in, “Frances Ha” and “Mistress America,” shows a good ear for dialogue and, as most actors turned directors, gives her actors plenty of space to create fully formed characters. I just wish she could have told Lady Bird’s story without resorting to repeating plot points from every coming-of-age movie of the past two decades.
MOLLY’S GAME (2017)
Movie narration that isn’t longer than a few minutes, or used at the beginning of the picture to offer some necessary background can kill a film. It turns a visual medium into an audio track that tells rather than shows. It’s an easy device to reveal the thoughts, motivations, development of a character as if you are reading a novel, but rarely works on screen.
Acclaimed scripter Alan Sorkin (“West Wing” on TV, “The Social Network” and “Steve Jobs”) is in love with his words. In his new film, and first as a director, he keeps characters talking long after the audience gets it, over-explaining everything from how to play Texas Hold’em to the main character’s wardrobe.
Without someone to put the brakes on his talky script, Sorkin manages to render tedious this fascinating story of a highly driven former National-ranked downhill skier who ends up running high-stakes poker games in both Los Angeles and New York.
The incessant narration, theatrical discussions between her and her lawyer (an excellent Idris Elba) and reiteration of similar situations (not unlike the writer’s “Steve Jobs”), especially the melodramatic flashbacks to her skiing days under thumb of a dictatorial father (Kevin Costner), leave little room for Chastain, one of Hollywood’s most consistently excellent actors, to create a character.
Chastain has moments, but through most of the movie she seems to be in a race to recite the script. The acting can’t be invisible if the script never slows down, never stops shouting
Sorkin desperately needed a strong director or producer who knew how to wield a red pen. “Molly’s Game” is a missed opportunity; it had the potential for greatness.
ALL THE MONEY IN THE WORLD (2017)
In retrospect, the kidnapping of a rich man’s grandson doesn’t seem very important, but at the time it was huge news, primarily because oil billionaire J. Paul Getty kept refusing to pay the ransom.
Forty-five years later, the tale still resonates, with its unsympathetic spoiled heir, the miserly grandfather and the demise of 20th Century old money, as told leisurely and immaculately by one of the most reliable filmmakers working, Ridley Scott (“Alien,” “Gladiator,” “Black Hawk Down”).
This is a solid, well-acted, entertaining picture yet I think Scott mistakenly plays it as a procedural, offering too many details of the back-and-forth negations and investigation, following the innumerable twist and turns of the case, when the film should really be about the money. Not surprisingly, the most compelling scenes of the film are those featuring old man Getty, holding forth in his Italian mansion, offering audiences to his lawyer and his daughter-in-law (the boy’s mother) as if he’s the Roman Caesar he longs to be.
But those scenes were wrought with controversy before the movie even opened, as Scott recast the role of J. Paul Getty just months before the film’s release after sexual misconduct accusations were leveled against the original actor, Kevin Spacey. I must admit, I am a bit uncomfortable with the erasure of Spacey so late in the process, especially as he has yet to be convicted of anything. Clearly, Scott and the producers feared box office backlash, but the entire idea of exiling performers (or anyone) before their day in court strikes me as an over-reaction, a bit of modern McCarthyism.
That said, the esteemed veteran Christopher Plummer is superb as Getty, capturing his hubris without letting him come off as a monster. He is more age appropriate (at 88) for the role than Spacey, except when the makeup department has to work overtime to make him look 50ish in a 1940s flashback.
Less successful are the laborious negotiations between the frustrated mother (an unfocused Michelle Williams) and the kidnappers, with a slick lawyer and one-time Israeli spy (played by Mark Wahlberg) serving as the conduit to Getty. The film feels padded out, trying to turn a rather uneventful event into something more.
There is no sustained energy to the movie; even as the young man’s life hangs in the balance, the story never captures the urgency of the situation.
Like most Scott films, “All the Money” looks first-rate and has its fair share of memorable scenes, but it falls well short of being as interesting as the original story actually was.