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It took a while, but the bloom is now completely off the Kennedy rose. When I was watching the second season of The Netflix series The Crown, an episode was devoted to a visit from JFK and Jackie to a young queen Elizabeth. In it, the Kennedys were portrayed as backbiting amphetamine addicts. Quite a distance from Camelot and Copland and the rest.

With Chappaquiddick, we receive a sober and accurate docudrama that puts us in all the rooms as Teddy Kennedy attempts to extricate himself from scandal. It is 1969, the sting of Bobby’s assassination is still fresh, and Teddy has taken the weekend off to compete in the Edgartown regatta and party with a gaggle of RFK’s former staffers. After a fair amount of drinking, and perhaps sex (the film is agnostic on this point), Teddy drives a young staffer off of a bridge, resulting in her death. His first words to his friends/advisers are, “I am not going to be president.“ They are a fitting encapsulation of Ted Kennedy‘s curse. Throughout the film, he is shown as an uneasy and insecure carrier of the Kennedy torch, and as he wavers in leading the family, he hesitates in determining what kind of man he wants to be.

On the one hand, he strives to be a true profile in courage by heeding the advice of his close cousin Joe Gargan (Ed Helms), who persistently urges Teddy to do the right thing. Despite Gargan’s advice, Kennedy allows himself to be guided by all of the other forces that control his life. He is surrounded by a plethora of advisors who effectuate all of the fixes on his behalf, including updating his drivers license and getting poor Mary Joe Kopecnhe’s body off the island (the latter a necessity because an autopsy might reveal she may have had sex or worse, may have suffocated to death rather than drowned, suggesting an even more horrific death and, given Kennedy’s delay in reporting the accident, an unnecessary one).

The lure of the expedient and self preserving is all the more powerful given the unwavering fealty many characters exhibit to the Kennedy clan. There is no shortage of acolytes. He is the next man up and thus, the chosen one, and they will do anything on his behalf.

Finally, there is Teddy’s father (Bruce Dern), crippled by a stroke, yet still capable of blurting or writing words most hurtful. His one word to Teddy the night of the accident, when his desperate son calls for advice and comfort, is a garbled “Alibi.”

Look, as is historically appropriate, despite his facilitators, Teddy is the villain in this piece. But as played by Jason Clarke, he is not a demon. Clarke is uncanny in his resemblance, but it is not an impression, and he exudes the charm, the cleverness, the soft self regard (at one point, Gargan rips the neck brace Teddy has chosen to wear for the Kopechne funeral, screaming “ you are not the victim!” and Teddy storms off to give his Daddy a look), and most acutely, the desire for a destiny wholly different than one he has been given. It is a delicate, nuanced performance.

The film also gives a long overdue rendition of Kopechne. The winner of perhaps the worst first line of any journalistic story goes to Charles Pierce of The Boston Globe. In 2004, in a sentence that managed to be sycophantic, cruel and ghoulish, he wrote, “If she had lived, Mary Jo Kopechne would be 62 years old. Through his tireless work as a legislator, Edward Kennedy would have brought comfort to her in her old age.”

I didn’t make that up.

As played by Kate Mara, Kopechne is not a mere device. Her equivocation in joining Teddy’s staff is buttressed by a soon-to-be verified discomfort with his weakness.

This is a solid, gripping film. My only two nits are some discordant comic bits as Teddy’s brain trust advises him through the nightmare and the fact I saw it in the theater. There is no need to see it there. It is picturesque but the big screen is a luxury lessened by—

a) the exorbitant cost (3 tickets, M&Ms, Icee = $62)

b) the fuckhead kid who kept playing with his electric chair

c) the smelly dude to the right

d) the chatterboxes behind us

 

 

 

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Mini-Mask, this is the perfect storm of sentimentality and sweetness. The set up alone is enough to make you reach for the nearest Kleenex: a boy with a facial deformity moves from being home schooled by his mother (Julia Roberts) to the unprotected world of prep school, where he navigates the treacherous waters of casual kid cruelty.  And his sister has her own issues because she feels left out given the attention given the boy.  And the dog, the ‘effin dog!  What is it with Owen Wilson movies and their casual approach to the lives of dogs (see The Royal Tenenbaums and Marley & Me)?  It all becomes too much at the end, and you feel a little pummeled, but it is still worth the watch.  Last thought:  a sweet kid says “when it is between being right and being kind, be kind.”  And on its surface, that seems like the right call.   It certainly is heartwarming.  Until you realize the insidious reach of the phrase, which essentially equates to the Fall of Western Civilization.

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Charles Dickens (Dan Stevens) has had three flops and his “A Christmas Carol” is a must-win.  We spend the film watching Dickens cobble his daily observances into the book, and soon, he is followed by all of its characters, who inspire him to write more, or mock his writer’s block (most of the mocking is by way of Scrooge, played with a sly bite by Christopher Plummer).  The end of the book tortures Dickens, but much like Scrooge himself, addressing his personal demons brings the author to resolution and redemption.  This is great fun, very well-done and will take a post on my ten “must see” list of Christmas films next December.  Here are the other nine:

A Christmas Carol (George C. Scott version)

About a Boy

Die Hard

It’s a Wonderful Life

Arthur Christmas

A Christmas Story

Elf

Bad Santa

The Nightmare Before Christmas

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Robert De Niro‘s second film as director is methodical, atmospheric, and very well acted. It is also a long, hard slog. Ostensibly about the origins of the CIA through the eyes of altruistic Yale Skull and Bonesman Matt Damon, we watch as his sensitive poetry student becomes a soulless spy master, bringing dread and calamity to all he loves while doing the dirty work of the agency.

I like Matt Damon. He is perpetually ignored or overshadowed in films where he delivers. He was the engine of The Talented Mr. Ripley, yet all of the good notices went to Jude Law. He was the most interesting character in The Departed, but the buzz went to DiCaprio, Nicholson and Marky Mark. He was the best thing about The Martian by far, so good that when you left him on the lonely planet to check in with all of the smart, hip, “every day is casual Friday” types at NASA, you quickly became bored.  Here, he is again very good, even though you sense he is shadowing Michael Corleone, becoming more brittle, more shallow, and more sinister as each scene progresses. Yet, even at his most unconscionable, Damon gives you a glimpse into his tender and sensitive side.  His scenes with his son, both as a child and as an adult (Eddie Redmayne) are touching.  It is a very strong performance.

The story itself is also intriguing. The theme of the lure of patriotism and secrecy to the yearning and vulnerable Damon is well-developed, for a time. Unfortunately, the film is over long and eventually, repetitive. Characters tell Damon on at least half a dozen occasions “trust no one” or something to that effect, a sentiment that hardly needs to be verbalized when every single scene in the film communicates that you really shouldn’t trust anyone.

Still, this is a pretty decent flick.

 

 

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I just caught this in its entirety, and I had been thinking about the film in a political sense as well.  For those who might be unfamiliar, this is an Aaron Sorkin adaptation of his stage play, where a callow, dispirited and cynical JAG lawyer (Tom Cruise) is redeemed in his defense of two Marines on trial for the murder of a third after a hazing incident known as a “Code Red.”  The incident was ordered by Colonel Jessup (Jack Nicholson), a rough and ready, cigar chomping patriot, who is content to let the Marines be convicted as collateral damage to a higher purpose (or so he would have us believe).

This a Hollywood vehicle of yore, with big names (Demi Moore was at her zenith here) and bigger speeches, and some of Nicholson’s lines have become ingrained in everyday talk (“You can’t handle the truth!”)

There can be no dispute – Jessup is a villain.  He lets his men hang.  Early on, he ostracizes Moore with a sexual putdown.  He loathes Cruise and his “faggoty white unform” and “Harvard mouth.”  He is even, in a very clunky line at the end, quasi-revealed as an anti-Semite (“Son, we live in a world that has walls, and those walls have to be guarded by men with guns. Who’s gonna do it? You? You, Lt. Weinberg?” — Weinberg had been sitting at counsel’s table minding his own business)  Jessup is a vain liar, and encases his ambition in the veneer of higher goals.  When you walked out of that film in 1992, you enjoyed Colonel Jessup, but you likely did not endorse him.

Twenty five years later, I got to thinking about Jessup and President Trump.  I have become convinced that a modern audience would walk out of the theater much more kindly disposed to Jessup, even after having had his monumental faults exposed by Cruise.  There would be greater sympathy for his swagger, and his vulgarity and cruelty would be more easily tossed off.  After all, he’s a doer, not some snide lawyer with a “Harvard mouth.”  Indeed, both Jessup and Trump are fixated on a wall (“because deep down in places you don’t talk about at parties, you want me on that wall”).  Ask folks today, “Who is the hero?” and even though Jessup appears to be headed toward disgrace and a court-martial at the end of the film, I’m confident you’d have a near even split.

As the excesses of Trump pile on, seemingly without a dent in 40 to 45% of those who are periodically asked to provide a thumbs up or a thumbs down, I’ve heard any number of explanations, but the most widely disseminated is confirmation of the deplorability of his supporters, reducing a campaign flub to a gaffe (aptly defined by Michael Kinsley as “when a politician tells the truth – some obvious truth he isn’t supposed to say”).  If I am right about A Few Good Men, that conclusion walks hand-in-hand with the Rise of Jessup.  The same mouth breathers who would conclude that Jack Nicholson is the hero opted for Trump over Hillary.  The same folks who support a raving narcissist who can say or tweet most anything would stand by a raging Jessup, as he screams, “I’m gonna’ rip the eyes out of your head and puke into your dead skull “  I doubt it is that easy, but I can see the appeal of assuming the dummies and the dark heart of America have finally combined to bring about Nero.

I think, however, that easy conclusion misses a few things.

First, Cruise would probably be respected by the Jessupites, even if loathed.  He bested their champion in the courtroom, and even though he’s a puling fancypants in his dress whites, you gotta’ give him his due.  With regard to Trump, however, I think the deplorables don’t have the same feelings about the forces – Clinton, the media, the punditry – who they feel were and are arrayed against him.  Because they conclude that those forces are every bit as corrupt as Jessup, their fealty remains strong.  As a graduate of the Harvard of the Shenandoah, I get where they are coming from.

Also, Trump, like Jessup, presents himself as not only a doer, but a bulwark against the corrosive forces of the establishment and their collective Harvard mouths.  I mean, three lawyers against a man who stands on the wall?  Come on.  Not even close.  There is a moment in Cruise’s cross-examination that emphasizes the distinction:  “Yeah, but it wasn’t a real order, was it? After all, it’s peace time. He wasn’t being asked to secure a hill or advance on a beachhead.”  That, of course, is the massage of the smart set.  There are orders and then, there are “real orders”, and invariably, the more the order disadvantages the snoots at their cocktail parties, the more it is coincidentally less real.

Perhaps most importantly, Jessup is just simply a helluva lot more entertaining than Cruise.  He has all the best lines, and in an age where entertainment and politics have seamlessly melded, that’s a quality that should not be underestimated.  Jessup and Trump are stars and they positively bask in the freedom to engage in the crudity that leads lessers to the podium,  spouse and dogs at their side, to ask forgiveness.  That hubris laid Jessup low.  But that was a quarter century ago.

As for the film, it holds up okay.  The Sorkin patter is snappy and smart but hadn’t yet been reduced to the gibberish of The West Wing, and Cruise and Nicholson define star power, both giving their all.

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For the life of me, I can’t understand why Kenneth Branagh re-made this film, at least in the way he chose to do so.  As Hercule Poirot, he is excellent.  Quirky, brilliant, and droll.  But this picturesque, stagey fluff needs an entire carload of scene chewers, not just the one, and though Michele Pfeiffer tries gamely, everyone else appears, like the victim, to have been dosed with barbital.  Johnny Depp plays it low and gravelly, Penelope Cruz low and gravely.  Willem Dafoe is dour and Derek Jacobi restrained.

And I don’t know anyone else on the train, save for Josh Gad:

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And he has no business being on this train.

Compare and contrast with the 1974 film: Albert Finney, Lauren Bacall, Martin Balsam, Ingrid Bergman, Jaqueline Bisset, Sean Connery, John Gielgud, Anthony Perkins, Vanessa Redgrave, Richard Widmark and Michael York!

I mean, Josh Gadzooks!